(Originally published in Issue 73 of Electronic Sound magazine, January 2021)
REVOLUTION IN THE HEAD
With their second album for Ghost Box, Beautify Junkyards continue to bring a Portuguese perspective to the label’s retro-futurist aesthetic. Their influences? It’s complicated. The country’s 1974 military revolt, disturbing spectral voice recordings and a life-changing appreciation of British acid-folk all play a part. Frontman João Branco Kyron gently explores the band’s roots
Words: Bob Fischer
“It was Victorian entertainment, where people would go to see magnified images of exotic landscapes or far-away monuments. We were talking about that, and we started to make connections with some of the songs…”
João Branco Kyron, founder of Portuguese psychedelic troubadours Beautify Junkyards, is patiently explaining the concept of the Cosmoramas, the immersive 19th century exhibitions of panoramic paintings that lend their name to the band’s new album. Over the course of an hour, across a crackling Skype connection from his native Lisbon, he acts as tour guide on a fascinating meander through the art, revolutionary politics and alarming paranormal experiences that have led to this wonderful, multi-faceted beast of a record. And, seemingly, helped to define his entire approach to everyday life.
“We came up with the idea of ‘our’ Cosmorama,” he continues. “Some of the songs work as portals to other worlds, or the worlds of artists we like. It’s a kind of journey of discovery.”
These “other worlds” include the work of Hélio Oiticica, the Brazilian artist whose Parangolés series dressed its participants in coloured capes and encouraged them to run and dance. Then there’s the Zodiak Free Arts Lab, the short-lived 1960s Berlin venue where Conrad Schnitzler and Klaus Schulze experimented with the earliest rumblings of kosmische. Both movements have directly influenced songs on Cosmorama. João also talks devotedly about film-maker Derek Jarman, a passion that provides me with the delightfully incongruous experience of hearing a man from Lisbon waxing lyrical about the allure of Jarman’s seaside home: Dungeoness.
“It’s a place we like to visit,” he nods. “And we like to share our visits with people that like our music.” He’s talking of metaphorical visits rather than literal daytrips to the Kent coastline, but João is a man who clearly finds the power of art almost physically transportative.
Following 2018’s The Invisible World Of Beautify Junkyards, Cosmorama is the band’s second album for Ghost Box, a label forged from a fascination with the unsettling pop culture of the 1970s British childhood. Yet sleepless nights about Doctor Who pale into insignificance compared to the experiences of Portuguese children. Born under the rule of the authoritarian Estado Novo regime, their lives were transformed by the Carnation Revolution of 1974, a military uprising that completely reshaped the country. The secret signal to take to the streets, surreally, was the performance of Paulo de Carvalho’s ballad ‘E Depois Do Adeos’ in that year’s Eurovision Song Contest. “We are a crazy people,” laughs João, when I bring this up.
“I was around six or seven. And it was crazy in a political sense, too. On one side, we had the communists starting to gain more influence in the media. And then extremists from the far right trying to launch a counter revolution. There were terrorist acts, and people were exiled abroad. Or ran away to Brazil because they were afraid of retaliation. There had been a political police called PIDE, and they were really cruel – they used torture. They started to be persecuted after the revolution, but we reached a point where all the people that we didn’t like… well, they must have been from PIDE. The old guy from our building that doesn’t say hello to anyone? He must be from PIDE!”
And yet with this turmoil came an influx of art that, prior to the uprising, had been outlawed by the oppressive regime. It was a cultural revolution that ignited the creative curiosity that is still a compelling, driving factor for João and his band.
“Previously, a lot of musicians had been exiled. But after the revolution, they returned. And all those movies that were forbidden, like Last Tango In Paris… we had queues around the corner to watch them! My brothers would hold parties at home when my mother and father were out, with all these hippies smoking joints and listening to Uriah Heep and Pink Floyd. That was amazing for a kid. It was like… ‘What the fuck?’”
He laughs heartily at the memory, and shrugs at the suggestion that the revolution – despite its liberating effect – must have been frightening for such a young child.
“It was more a period of curiosity,” he explains. “We were celebrating, it had been almost 40 years of isolation. And I was discovering a lot of stuff that I didn’t know existed. There was a band called Quarteto 1111, they took a lot of influences from British folk and psychedelia. They were the first to buy Moog synths. And they had a record from 1970 [their self-titled debut] that explored how Portugal was dealing with the colonies. But it had been censored. All their records had been forbidden.”
In recent years, Ghost Box has laudably expanded its musical palette with the recruitment of international artists, and Beautify Junkyards have joined German experimentalist ToiToiToi and American writer Justin Hopper on the roster. The ease with which these artists have adopted the label’s aesthetic suggests an obsession with the spooky TV of the 1970s is not a uniquely British phenomenon.
“Television in the 1970s had an element of magic,” says João. “And to keep these memories, and use them in a creative way… I think that’s global. In Portugal we had things like Space 1999. All the children were collecting the stickers, and we had the Eagle spaceship to build! And there was a psychedelic cartoon called Professor Balthazar… after the revolution, we had a lot of Eastern European animation. Our television was black and white, but the patterns were like magic was happening. We carried those influences all of our lives, and now it’s a question of revisiting them. We were projecting the future at that time… a better future, full of possibilities. And not this grey, bleak landscape.”
And his musical background?
“My mother used to sing Fado, our traditional Portugese music,” he remembers. “It’s played with acoustic guitars, and most of the time it’s really melancholic. It’s about missing the sailors that went away and never came back. It was played in local clubs, and my mother used to sing it on the radio.
“Then in the 1980s we went to live in Rio, because my father moved to a company in Brazil. And I met a band whose singer was in rehab, but they had concerts booked. And I told them – ‘Oh, I can sing!’ Which wasn’t true. But I started to practice at home, because I had this musical background. The name of the band in English? Last Resort… a post-punk band. A bit like Echo and the Bunnymen, a bit like The Smiths.”
João is a compelling conversationalist. His all-consuming interest in art is not dry and academic, more an integral part of a personality that is both enigmatic and quietly passionate. And, as encapsulated on Cosmorama, his favourite artists provide portals to realms far beyond the everyday. He talks with awe of occult-obsessed painter Austin Osman Spare, and his “sense of connection to the mystical.”
“Automatic Painting,” he expands. “Austin would draw with his eyes closed. That’s really fascinating. That connection between the paranormal and the artistic process.”
And is João a believer?
“Since I was a child, I’ve been very connected to the paranormal,” he confirms. “My father was Vice President of the Parapsychology Society in Brazil. So he was always bringing home cases that he was studying. People and recordings. On another level, I think it’s a way to extend our abilities. We live in a very closed crystal dome, and sometimes we have to break that. It can make our artistic language richer.”
He still owns the tapes his father made. “Recordings of voices that weren’t present in the room,” he confirms. “I was there, and I listened to the tapes afterwards. We were living in Brazil, but the voice had a Portuguese accent. It was someone who was going with their father to the beach, but was afraid of the water. It was a really weird experience! We were in the room recording. There was no-one there.”
When I suggest that incorporating these recordings into a song might make for the ultimate link between the paranormal and the artistic process, he laughs. “I’ve thought about that, but it’s a little bit frightening! Although nowadays, I think I find it more normal than I did earlier in my life. When you’re deeply connected to nature and the countryside, you feel it. It’s just a question of embracing it.”
Returning to Lisbon in the 1990s after completing his studies, João formed his own band, Hipnótica.
“We released five albums, and experimented a lot. Each was, aesthetically, very different to the others. One was electronic, one was jazz, one was indie-rock. But we were reaching saturation in our musical language. So we retreated to the country, to the house of the bass player, Sergue…”
This mass 2010 decamping was an epiphany for the band, and the moment that Hipnótica were transformed into the nascent Beautify Junkyards. The name, intriguingly, was taken from a sign attached to a Toronto refuse dump, spotted in 1967 by writer Marshall McLuhan: “Help beautify junkyards: Throw something lovely away today”. Secluding themselves amid the olive-growing plains of rural Alentejo, the band’s interest in the artistic, the otherworldly and the lingering spectres of the revolution coalesced. Alongside – indeed – an increased appreciation of the healing properties of the countryside.
“That connection comes from my childhood,” says João. “My grandparents lived in a small country village and I would pass my summer vacations at their place. Most of the other guys in the band have similar roots…”
And the catalyst for the band’s new direction was the discovery of a book that acted almost as blueprint for forging that “better future” from the shadows of the past.
“We read Electric Eden, and it was life-changing!” he says. Freshly published in 2010, Rob Young’s superlative book charts the evolution of British folk music, from the 1960s revivalists to the retro-futurists of Ghost Box.
“We were inspired a lot by acid-folk artists, and started to play things by Nick Drake and Vashti Bunyan. And the way we could develop our music from there… it was amazing. The book explores that – from those roots, to the paths you can take into the future. That’s what attracts us to those landscapes. They can be used as a base to build bridges to possible futures. And we discovered a lot of Portuguese musicians from the same period, like Zeca Afonso and Banda do Casaco, had also been exploring folk tales and pastoral landscapes. We saw it as a new rebirth.”
The band’s self-titled 2013 debut, recorded al fresco in the surrounding fields, included covers of songs by Drake, Bunyan and Roy Harper, alongside a bucolic take on Kraftwerk’s ‘Radioactivity’. 2015’s follow-up, The Beast Shouted Love, was the album João speculatively sent to Ghost Box, after learning about the label’s work both from Electric Eden and the writings of early champions Simon Reynolds and Mark Fisher.
“After reading that they wouldn’t accept any demos, I sent an e-mail with a demo!” he laughs. “They were also exploring the links between folk music, mystical places and childhood memories. It had a deep connection to us, even living in Lisbon. When you find that kind of connection, it has no borders.”
The Beautify Junkyards approach to collaboration is similarly cosmopolitan. Cosmorama features mellifluous guest vocals from British/Brazilian singer Nina Miranda (“A magical being”), whose 1990s stint with trip-hoppers Smoke City earned her a Top 5 hit with ‘Underwater Love’. Allison Brice – of New York dream-poppers Lake Ruth – also contributes, as does harpist Eduardo Raon. And further portals continue to open: Starlit Remembrance, João’s solo collection of electronica, was released in August under the name Kyron, and there’s his experimental spoken word project O Maquinista, too.
“When you explore your memories and your roots, you always discover new things,” he says. “Sometimes you can even use the music to repair the wounds you have from the past.” He pauses. “It can serve as a kind of exorcism.” And, with that, the enigmatic João Branco Kyron vanishes through the virtual portal and leaves us in the company of an album whose psychedelic majesty belongs to both troubled past and brighter future.
Cosmorama is available here: