Plone, Puzzlewood and Ghost Box Records

In trying times, a little optimism can go a long way. And a fun, upbeat and nostalgic slice of music can be delightfully transportative: especially when it comes from a band who, for long periods of the last two decades, seemed like they might never work together again.

Plone‘s 1999’s debut album For Beginner Piano was among the first wave of deliriously retro-futurist electronica to herald the dawning of a new and fascinating movement, and their friendship with fellow Birmingham-based pioneers Broadcast and Pram placed them at the centre of what felt like a very West Midlands-centric scene. But a mooted (and at least partially-recorded) 2001 follow-up never saw the light of day, and then everything went disappointingly quiet. Mike Johnston worked with the ZX Spectrum Orchestra and the Modified Toy Orchestra; Billy Bainbridge was a co-founder of the rather wonderful Seeland. And, according to Wikipedia, third member Mark Cancellara is now working as a “DJ and magician’s assistant”.

However, in 2020, Ghost Box Records casually announced that Johnston and Bainbridge were returning with a surprise, but utterly welcome, third instalment of the Plone saga. Or is it, officially, the second? It doesn’t really matter. What’s important is that the new album, Puzzlewood, is glorious. An utterly life-affirming collection of grin-inducing instrumentals that evoke delicious memories of vintage library music, of Test Card F on rainy Tuesday afternoons, of long-forgotten Childrens’ Film Foundation flicks and grainy teatime dramas about bird sanctuaries. I defy anyone to listen to the whole giddy confection without imagining exploding chemistry sets and pokey, street-corner sweetshops alike. It’s wonderful, and it comes – appropriately enough – in the kind of luridly colourful packaging only previously associated with Lolly Gobble Choc Bombs or Bazooka Joe’s Bubble Gum.

In late March 2020, I spoke with Mike and Billy live on my BBC Radio Tees show. It was a Wednesday night, and the plan had been to link up with them both live from their regular midweek meeting, but – two days into Coronavirus lockdown – that clearly wasn’t possible. Nevertheless, they were charming company and great fun. Here’s how the conversation went…

Bob: I thought it was really sweet that you said normally get together on a Wednesday night. But obviously you can’t right now! Is it a while since you’ve seen each other?

Mike: A couple of weeks now, I think?

Billy: Yeah, Mike was due to come round this evening, but we thought it was best if he stayed away…

The album is lovely. And I know you couldn’t have planned it this way, but it’s a very heartwarming, fun and upbeat album – just what we need at the moment. Was it always your plan to make such a positive-sounding album?

Mike: Yeah, it was. I think that’s at the heart of the Plone sound really, that optimism. And you know, circumstances have come around to a point where optimism can be quite useful!

It’s been twenty years since the last official Plone album. Had you always intended to reconvene at some point, or has this come slightly out of the blue?

Mike:  I think the release feels like it’s come out of the blue, but we’ve been working on the album for quite a while. There was a patch after the second album when we didn’t work together for a while – for quite a while – and then we started working on this one in about 2011, something like that. Maybe even a bit earlier. And then we kind of slowed down… but then, a few years ago, we started up again, and started meeting up regularly on our Wednesday nights.

Billy: I think the Wednesday nights were a success really, weren’t they?

Mike: Yeah, we found the right day of the week, that’s what it was! The midweek hump is what we needed.

It breaks the week up, I guess! So some of these tracks do actually go back to 2011, then?

Mike: I think so, yeah. Actually, there are a couple from earlier that were left over at the end of the second album, from around 2001. A couple of tracks hanging around from then that we picked up again, and started working on.

You mentioned that second album, which has become something of a great “lost” album. So it was 1999 that your debut album For Beginner Piano came out..?

(Pause…)

Mike: Yeah…

Billy: Yeah, 1999. I remember… (laughs)

It’s nice that you had to think about that for a while!

Billy: It’s a long time ago! In the last century…

Then there were rumours of that second album, but it’s never actually had an official release. Do you want to tell us the story in your own words of what happened?

Mike: (Laughs) Do we have to? Go on, Billy…

Billy: It was around 2001 that we delivered the album, and it kind of got rejected by Warp Records. And that was kind of when the band split up. So we didn’t really want to look at it, or listen to it, for some time, I think. It is a bit of a tragic story in that respect. But I think enough time has elapsed for us to feel that we could maybe put it out there.

I think the odd bootleg has emerged here and there, but really? There is now a possibility that it might get an official release?

Billy: We’ve remixed it and remastered it. There’s still a bit of work to do to pick the right mixes, that sort of stuff, but there is a general intention to do something with it.

You weren’t tempted to carry any of it over onto Puzzlewood at all?

Billy: Mmmm… no.

Mike: No! (Laughs). No, it was good working on something relatively new, I think. And not being in the shadow of an album that had been unreleased for so long. Which we kind of think of as an artifact rather than an album, because – when we handed it in – it wasn’t really finished. We just had to hand something in at the time. So what was actually going to go on the album hadn’t really been finalised. There were more tracks than were going to be released. So, as Billy says, we’ve spent a bit of time remastering it, bringing it all up to speed. And obviously technology has moved on a bit, and it’s possible to rework it into something that’s more like what we wanted at the time.

Honestly, I’d be intrigued and thrilled to hear it. As for Puzzlewood itself… I was going to ask about the the title, which is a famous area of woodland in Gloucestershire. Was it a location that particularly spoke to the pair of you?  

Mike: I don’t think I’ve ever actually been to it! Not that I can remember. 

Billy: As the name of a wood, it’s brilliant…

Mike: Yeah, but I’ve never been there. So it’s got an air of mystery…

I’ve never been there either, but I’m a huge Doctor Who fan, and I know it’s been used as a location!

Billy: Yeah, we didn’t find out about all this until after we’d come up with the title… (laughs)

So was it just a place name that you knew and thought was particularly appropriate for the album?

Mike: Yeah, it was more like that, really. I mean, we’d gone through a list of interesting place names that either one of us had been to. Also, we were just looking at… kind of rambling names. Interesting woods, or obscure bits of the countryside.

Can tell us what else was on the shortlist?

Mike: (Laughs) No!

Billy: Go on, Mike…

Mike: I can’t remember off the top of my head, but I’ve still got the list somewhere!

A list with a load of names crossed out, apart from – presumably – Puzzlewood at the bottom?

Mike: You can probably find out the list of names that I came up with by looking at a map of the West Midlands, and trying to find the most ridiculous or most interesting names. They’ll be on the list!

I’m always intrigued by track titles on instrumental albums, and I usually think there’s a story behind them. So there’s ‘Watson’s Telescope’ on Puzzlewood, and I’ve spent my afternoon googling around this! Watson & Sons were indeed British telescope manufacturers from the mid-19th century until the 1940s. Is that track a tip of the hat to them?

Mike: It’d be good to say yes at this point, wouldn’t it?

Billy: (Laughs) Yes! Just say yes!

Aw… I had this glorious mental image of one you both owning old Watson & Sons telescopes when you were kids. So is that just a random title again?

Mike: Yeah. But I’ll go with your story, Bob.

Billy: Yeah, we’ll start using that… (laughs)

Can I ask a little bit about the early days of Plone? You came out of Birmingham in the 1990s, and it was a time when other Midlands artists like Broadcast and Pram were experimenting with similarly retro-sounding electronica. Did it feel like you were part of a scene at the time?

Mike: I think we felt like we were amongst friends, which was kind of great. There were lots of gigs happening, and some good venues where local bands could play. So yeah, it did feel like a bit of a scene, and you know…  Birmingham isn’t a huge place, so it’s kind of easy enough to bump into other bands.

Did you all know each other from the start, or did you start making this kind of music independently before realising that other artists at least had similar inspirations?  

Mike: I would say that we started making music straight after moving to Birmingham, and then – through the music – met other people, at gigs and also at DJ nights. And gradually we met the other bands. I think, very quickly, we met Pram, and then Broadcast a bit later.

It felt like a really exciting time. I keep talking about this, but I remember the first time that I heard Boards of Canada – a track on called ‘Roygbiv’ on a free CD sellotaped to the front of the NME. About 1999. And it was a real watershed moment for me: “My God, other people have these feelings about my childhood! Those feelings of watching Programmes for Schools and Colleges on a rainy Tuesday afternoon with a slight temperature. It was revelatory moment to realise that other people were not just remembering these feelings, but actually taking inspiration from them…

Mike: Yeah, I’ve always had that rosy nostalgia for that kind of Schools Programming. I remember at school when the teacher would wheel out the television, or maybe even the VHS, and show us some programme or other, and I’d think: “Oh, thank God! We don’t have to listen to the teacher any more. We can watch telly, we’re good at that!

For bonus points, a television in a wooden cabinet…

Mike: Yes, exactly – probably locked.

Did all of that come with a love of library music as well, then? That really comes over in your work. I could never understand as a kid why the music that we heard on TV, with the test card for example, didn’t seem to be thought of as “proper” music…

Mike: Yeah, it was really good! It was kind of there without us thinking about it, or finding out about it… it was being put into our brains. But there was some pretty good stuff, and I suppose the Radiophonic Workshop kind of epitomises that sort of sound. But, as you say, there were also all those library records as well.

The Radiophonic Workshop weren’t even credited as individual musicians for a while! It must have made them all the more intriguing.

Mike: Yeah, it made it sound like the music was being made in a laboratory. Very mysterious.

Was it easy to get hold of the gear when you started out, then? All those analogue synths are worth a fortune now, but were people actually chucking them away in the mid-1990s?

Mike: Well, we used to go down to the music shops in Birmingham, and they would have all the latest 1990s gear set out. But in the corner of the room  – or in a separate smaller room, shoved in the corner – were the analogue synths. Probably not the classic ones, but analogue nevertheless. And they were reasonably priced at the time. They hadn’t become cult items or anything like that. But of course… a lot of these synths didn’t have MIDI, which was the big watershed, really. It made them seem like they were useless, but they were far from that. They were very beautiful-sounding instruments.

Is there something really inspiring about working from a limited musical palette like that? You’ve been part of the ZX Spectrum Orchestra and the Modified Toy Orchestra, both making music using very simple computer chips and bits of old toys. Is there something about those limitations that can inspire a bit of creativity?

Mike: Yeah, definitely. I was more heavily involved with the ZX Spectrum Orchestra… with the Modified Toy Orchestra I was just playing live, really. But the ZX Spectrum Orchestra… that was a kind of deliberate attempt to eke as much as possible out of a very limited palette, yeah. I agreed to work on that project because I’d always really wanted to learn Machine Code programming! I have strange ambitions, and that was one of them…

There’s nothing wrong with a bit of Z80 Assembly Code. Let’s not be embarrassed about these things.

Mike: It’s on my CV… and has no real world application at all!

And how did the link with Ghost Box Records come about? It feels like a natural fit for you. Were Jim Jupp and Julian House people that you’d known for a long time?

Billy: I didn’t really know Jim until I sent the tracks off, really. But I was aware of the label, and a fan of the label, so I always thought they would be ideal if we were to release anything again. So we sent quite a few tracks off to them, and it was fairly straightforward, really. They loved the stuff.

The album has beautiful artwork by Julian House, too. 

Billy: That’s right, he’s done a fantastic job with that.

I believe it’s based on the Jonny Trunk’s book Wrappers Delight, I think he took that as a bit of inspiration!

Mike: I love the colours on it…

And with that, we drifted into a conversation about the potential unavailability of the Puzzlewood vinyl during an ongoing lockdown situation, but – a month on – it’s a relief to report that the album is now available in physical and digital formats from:

https://ghostbox.greedbag.com/buy/puzzlewood-black-vinyl/

And thanks to both Mike and Billy for a fun conversation, and – indeed – indulging my crackpot theories about the origins of their track titles. And I felt a little guilty about not getting around to discussing Seeland with Billy, so let me offer up this wonderful 2009 single as belated recompense:

The Heartwood Institute, Panamint Manse and Parapsychedelia

The paranormal was taken far more seriously in the 1970s. Mainstream news programmes like Nationwide would frequently include UFO sightings and poltergeist infestations alongside analysis of the latest economic forecasts and industrial action; and their 1976 report on the Hexham Heads – the buried stone carvings that unleashed both a werewolf and a rather curious half man/half sheep creature on this sleepy Northumberland town – has become the stuff of legend. In newsagents, the books of Erich Von Daniken nestled happily alongside the latest Jilly Coopers, and – by the turn of the 1980s – Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World was a fixture on primetime ITV. It was, as one dedicated Loch Ness Monster-hunter* once said to me, “a very credulous era.”

*Yes, I’ve met a few.

Into this mix was thrown the fascination with a paranormal phenomenon that perhaps came closest to arousing genuine scientific interest: that of Extra Sensory Perception. The idea of a “sixth sense”, an innate psychic ability ready to be unleashed in all of us, was a mainstay of 1970s weirdness: it was an era when Uri Geller became an enigmatic international celebrity, and when there was even talk of the CIA employing military-grade psychic readers to gain an advantage in a still-simmering Cold War.

This delicious combination of nebulous strangeness and academic respectability is evoked perfectly on Parapsychedelia, a new collaborative album by The Heartwood Institute and Panamint Manse. The transatlantic duo (essentially Jonathan Sharp, from Cumbria, and Wayne P. Ulmer, from California… god knows, if they ever visit each other, they’re in for a hell of culture shock, climate-wise) have created a melodic, dreamy collection; where the authoritarian voices of beardy-weirdy 1970s researchers emerge chillingly from beautiful, eerie soundscapes, redolent of both the authentic vintage library music of the era, and the first giddy wave of Ghost Box-led Noughties hauntology.

The album is released on the Castles In Space label this week, and I asked Jonathan and Wayne about the background to it all:

Bob: The album is great fun! Between the pair of you, whose idea was it to make an album about ESP research?

Jonathan: Thanks! When we initially started planning this, Wayne suggested the ESP theme, and he passed me a mood board of images and text. It sort of grew out of that. It was a bit of a lucky chance, as I’d just been reading a book on remote viewing, so it all kind of clicked. A lot of Wayne’s initial images were so evocative, and dovetailed with what I’d just been reading.

Wayne: That’s right, I had been wandering the stacks in a local library a few years ago and came across a book on parapsychology.  Flipping to the index, I was greeted with a list of peculiarly resonant words, and wrote them down for future use.  Later, in communication with Jonathan, these resonances would prove to be a fertile aesthetic from which to draw inspiration.

What are your memories of the paranormal from being a kid? Did you watch Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World, and similar programmes?

Jonathan: Oh absolutely, I think I was at exactly the right age for that to be a big influence and spark my interest in the broader subject. There seemed to be quite a widespread interest at the time in UFOs, parapsychology and ESP… all that stuff. As well as those Usborne books, there was just so much available: everything from Chariots Of The Gods to The Highgate Vampire. And lots of it was targeted at children as well as adults.

Wayne, was there a US equivalent of, say, Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World? I know Leonard Nimoy presented a similar show… was there other stuff as well?

Wayne:  Ah, you’re thinking In Search Of, but that was a bit before my time.  As a child in the late 1980s, it was Unsolved Mysteries after dinner, and Time Life’s Mysteries of the Unknown books in the school library. There was definitely something in the air, and anything paranormal got my attention. Beyond the cultural reference points, I’ve always felt a natural predisposition to magical thinking, and wonder.

Did this stuff scare you both as children? The ‘Monsters of the Deep’ episode of Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World gave me nightmares for months… 

Jonathan: Honestly, it was a bit like watching a real life version of Doctor Who… there were things that were certainly scary! But I watched it religiously. The one that has stuck in my mind after all these years is the Tunguska episode.

Wayne:  I’ve always been terrified of lots of things!  Close Encounters was my favorite movie growing up and – though not scary in the traditional sense – it sure scared the living hell out of me. I’d watch our VHS copy over and over. So when my family moved to the Mojave Desert in 1986, I would camp out and search for UFOs in the night. Often paralyzed with fear, but it felt wonderful. That tipping point of otherness, just beyond perception.

Oh, I have to ask… did you ever see one?

Wayne: There was one lone instance. Spherical lights, maybe four or five on the horizon to the east, fading in and out of visibility in a sequence, from right to left. Pulsing like an inchworm across the night sky, slowly. As one light dimmed on the right, another would fade in on the left. It lasted only long enough to baffle me, and leave me transfixed.

Do you think it was an age when ESP and other paranormal fields of interest were taken more seriously – both by the mainstream media and by academia?

Jonathan: Oh totally, I mean this was the time of Uri Geller being a huge TV star. It did seem like certainly the mainstream media took it all more seriously, or certainly gave it screentime without attempting to debunk it with a knowing wink. Likewise, academia was a bit more open, too. I have some great T C Lethbridge books from the period, plus things like The Occult, by Colin Wilson. I think it really was the tail end of the “Age of Aquarius”.

Wayne:  For sure, Jonathan. But I understand why that openness has gone away. With the advent of smartphones and related tech, there should be more documentations of unexplained phenomena, but instead we have fewer. The hard sciences are universally lauded – and rightfully so – but the ability to not-know can be equally important in a moment. I think we worked on Parapsychedelia from a space which embraced our classically shared touchstones of the unexplained, but I can’t help but feel it all points to something much closer.

Are you a believer in any of this stuff yourselves, then? Have you ever tried experimenting with Zenner Cards, for example?

Jonathan: I have a set of Zenner cards that came with a copy of The Unexplained magazine. I’ve never had much luck with them though! Let’s say I’ve an open and enquiring mind on this and a lot of similar esoteric subjects.

Wayne:  Traditional parapsychology? Not particularly. But I believe the reality of our situation to be several magnitudes weirder than any of that!

The idea of a collaboration between a Cumbrian artist and a Californian artist is an intriguing one! How did it come about?

Jonathan: I’d been familiar with Wayne’s Panamint Manse releases, and we started chatting back and forth. I really liked his last album a lot and he said “Well… how about we do some kind of collaboration and see what happens?”

I don’t think either of us had any initial expectations of it turning into a full album, but he sent me some initial ideas to play with, and it quickly became apparent that we clicked musically and had something pretty cool. The whole thing took shape over a few months as ideas bounced back and forwards, and suddenly we had an album’s worth of stuff.

Wayne: Yeah, I had admired Jonathan’s work from afar before we began corresponding.  After devouring all I could of the more popular stuff, I’d search Bandcamp for music tagged with “Hauntology” – I know it’s uncool, thanks – and The Heartwood Institute stood out for me.  I remember hearing Calder Hall in 2016, around the same time I put my first music on the platform.  I think Bandcamp can be a great tool for fostering communities and building connections. But it was Jonathan’s willingness to work with a bit of an outsider that allowed Parapsychedelia to develop.

Have you ever met each other in person, or even spoken in real time?

Jonathan: No, we’ve not met in person at this point, but yes – we’ve talked at length in actual, real time. And probably sent several thousand words of e-mails and messages!

Wayne, how have you found it working “remotely” in this way?

Wayne:  We have similar setups so it wasn’t insurmountable, but I love being forced to commit and bounce down audio, because I can be so indecisive in my own work. Sending audio and MIDI, and text and pictures to friends are great frequencies for me.

What do you think each other brings to the collaboration? How do you complement each other’s work?

Jonathan: Well, I’ve been jokingly saying that Wayne brings the tunes and melodies, and I bring the noises. Which is probably a bit flippant, but I think we each have different strengths, and when they come together it makes for something that neither of us would do by ourselves.

Wayne:  Haha, yes. It’s not all so black and white obviously, but there is a mixture of dark and light going on.  I tend toward sentimentalism in my own work, and so it’s pleasant to explore murkier zones with Jonathan and just let go a bit. Not every song needs a chorus, Wayne!

Can I ask where some of the track titles come from? I’m intrigued by ‘Black Ant, White Magic’…

Jonathan: ‘Black Ant, White Magic’ and most of the other titles are Wayne’s – he’s great at mashing existing words to make new ones that sound like they ought to actually be a thing. I loved what he came up with, it’s kind of a woozy melange of psychedelia and parapsychology.

Wayne: ‘Black Ant, White Magic’… mostly, I just liked the sound of it. I wanted to retain some of the desert connections, and huge black ants are everywhere here in summer. ‘White Magic’ is just an attempt to be gentle, and not overly morose about the project. But I guess it’s been awarded some context after the fact… Jonathan is the black ant, and I bring the white magic.

Ooof, that’s lame.

And the rest? ‘Mesmercuria’? And ‘Amaranthracine’? Neither of these appear to be actual words… did you have fun inventing new words for this album?

Wayne:  OK, nerding out here, but for the titles you mentioned I’d start with a word thematically related to our aesthetic, like “mesmerism”, and then bring up the default dictionary on OSX.  You type three letters into the dictionary, it begins to auto-populate on the left, and you can scroll for something you like.  Then you can just keep twisting away by repeating the process. So for the above example I used “mercurial”, but just dropped the “l” from the end, for added mystique. But perhaps “mesmeridian” could have worked, or “mesmercyanemiasma”? It’s like a directed cut-up or something. ‘Clairvoyeurism’ works in that way, as does Parapsychedelia.  Overall, we tried to find a good mix of simple and graphic.

Can you tell us where some of the samples on the album came from? They’re very evocative.

Jonathan: I went down a massive Youtube rabbit hole of 1970s American science-fiction, and weird documentaries. A big resource was that Leonard Nimoy In Search Of…. programme. Which is very similar to Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World, so there was much to be had from that. Also, there are some bits pieces lifted from Phase IV. I think if this whole project referenced one movie: stylistically, visually and content-wise, it would be Phase IV.

Wayne, are they any samples on the album that you’re particularly fond of, or find especially evocative?

Wayne:  Definitely what Jonathan said about Phase IV… I love the dialogue at the end of ‘Amaranthracine’. ‘Onyx Oracle’ uses non-repeating. one second snippets from various VHS tapes. And the percussion sounds from Within The Woods on ‘Precognition’ were an absolute pain!

Will you both work together again, do you think?

Jonathan: Oh yes! We have plans for another joint album, and we’ll be digging further into the shadowy world of the Mobius Group.

Wayne: We will go much, much deeper during future investigations… it’s inevitable.

I meant to ask about the Mobius Group. The vinyl album comes with a couple of curious documents that allude to the existence of this mysterious organisation. What more can you tell us about them?

Jonathan: The Mobius Group… is standing by. Who they are, and what they do, is the subject for the next album. They are a shadowy group of people with extraordinary powers…

Thanks to Jonathan and Wayne for forging a psychic connection and transmitting the results remotely to the Haunted Generation… Parapsychedelia, by The Heartwood Institute and Panamint Manse, can be ordered here:

https://theheartwoodinstituteandpanamintmanse.bandcamp.com/

Alex Cargill, Treedom and the Central Office of Information

There seems to be a burgeoning love affair between contemporary electronica and the soothing – if sometimes otherworldly – qualities of the British countryside. Recent albums by Pulselovers, The Relations, Polypores and Jon Brooks have all celebrated a distinct emotional connection to nature, with moods that range from the wistfully nostalgic to the powerfully invigorating.

Treedom, the new album from The Central Office of Information, takes the passion for flora deeper underground. Quite literally. It celebrates, with a very organic form of electronic experimentation, the secret connections between plant and tree that lay beneath the soil… the so-called “Wood Wide Web“.

The Central Office of Information is the project of Kent-based Alex Cargill, and a self-titled debut album was released by Castles In Space in 2019, very much exploring the light and shade of childhood nostalgia. This follow-up, released on the Woodford Halse cassette label established by Pulselovers’ Mat Handley, is both melodic and atmospheric; a combination of sounds and textures as intricately tangled as the underground network of roots and radicals that it celebrates.

I asked Alex about both albums…

Bob: Congratulations on Treedom! It’s great – you must be very proud of it?

Alex: Thank you Bob, that’s very kind! I owe a great deal to Mat Handley of Woodford Halse for how nicely the finished product has turned out.

So can you tell us a bit about the “Wood Wide Web”? What’s your understanding of how it works?

I’ll try my best. The Wood Wide Web is a subterranean social network which is almost 500 million years old. It exists beneath forests and woods and is essentially a complex network of roots, fungi and bacteria which connect trees to one another. The fungi form connections with the roots, and consume some of the sugar that trees produce through photosynthesis. In return the fungi provide the trees with nitrogen, phosphorous and other nutrients from the soil. Through this vast network, trees are able to share water and nutrients and to communicate using chemical, hormonal and electrical signals: for example, warning each other of attack from insects, disease and drought. Larger, older trees have been shown to support young saplings which may be struggling for sunlight by pumping sugar into their roots through the network. Dying trees have been shown to release their nutrients to their neighbouring kin.

Recent evidence suggests that some plants can even emit sounds, in particular a crackly noise in the roots at a 220 hertz frequency, inaudible to humans.

Are you an enthusiastic woodland walker yourself, then?

I’ve always enjoyed the visual beauty of trees and woodland, but I was never especially interested in trees per se until fairly recently. In the summer of 2017 I attended my first yoga and meditation retreat just outside of Totnes in Devon. For a few days I was sharing a Grade-1 listed Palladian villa and the vast surrounding estate on the banks of the river Dart with about a dozen other like-minded souls. It was pure bliss – I’ve been back since and will be returning again as often as I can. A lot of the time was spent in silence, so during “personal time” I would relax in the library, browsing through books and playing an acoustic guitar which resides in the corner… I actually wrote ‘The Fleeting Freedom Of A Seedling’, from Treedom, on that very guitar.

I stumbled upon a book called The Secret Life Of Trees by Colin Tudge, which shocked me with its revelations about trees communicating with each other beneath the soil. My mind was blown and my interest well and truly piqued. When I returned from the retreat I started reading articles and watching YouTube videos and Ted Talks about the Wood Wide Web and generally becoming fascinated by it all. I was inspired to start a musical project where I could explore the subject in my own unique way. The title Treedom came directly from Colin’s book.

Any local woods that you particularly enjoy walking around?

I’ll be honest – I’m a fairweather walker. I love to explore fields, meadows and woodland but you’ll probably only catch me out there in the spring and summer, possibly the early autumn too if the weather is dry. I’m not a winter person at all. If I could, I would love to just hunker down and hibernate for those three months of the year.

But my current favourite place to walk is Scadbury Park which is on the outskirts of Sidcup, the town in Kent where I’ve lived for the last nine years. It’s a vast expanse of woodland and wild meadow, absolutely beautiful, and the perfect antidote to the hectic pace of modern life. My parents live just outside the town of Devizes in Wiltshire – where I originally hail from. When I visit them, I love to walk along the footpaths which cross the perfectly flat farmland of their village, or to explore the nearby Roundway Hills which provide a stunning backdrop. And the Sharpham Estate in Devon is another favourite place of mine to explore when I’m down that way. The peaceful isolation and the scenery is heavenly.

How does it make your feel when you walk in these places?

I love the innate feeling of connection to the land and the wildlife that I get when I spend time alone in nature. I think that if you look hard enough, you can see a spark of divinity in everything. Even wasps.

I like to meditate every day and one of my favourite things is to meditate outdoors. Usually this will just be in my garden, but occasionally I go further afield. Last summer I spent a morning exploring the woods and meadows of Scadbury Park. I sat in the middle of a wild meadow to meditate (meadowtate?) and it was such a beautiful and life-affirming experience – surrounded by long grass, with the sound of birds, bees and insects all around. During deep meditation, I really do get a sense of the Earth as one large living organism with all of us connected, interdependent and playing our own very small part in the big picture.

When I eventually opened my eyes there was a caterpillar lazily crawling across my leg. It’s funny how when you sit perfectly still, the local wildlife will actually come and investigate you, rather than reacting with the usual flight response. I notice this in my own garden too – if I keep very still and quiet then the birds, squirrels and even random cats will come very close. I wholeheartedly recommend meditation to absolutely everyone. It really does work wonders for your mind, body and soul in this crazy, fast-paced Western world that we live in. Also, a lot of my musical and creative ideas tend to come to me when I’m meditating, so I’d recommend it even more so for creative types. I’ve even heard the absolute legend that is Mr C of The Shamen confirming this too, so that’s quite an endorsement!

Are these places where some of the field recordings came from, then?

I do like to make my own field recordings occasionally but – at the risk of being shunned by the entire hauntological fraternity – the natural ambiences used on the Treedom album were all ‘pre-rolled’. They were taken from my enormous, bloated sample library. I’ve been collecting sounds for about 20 years now and they tend to come from any number of sources – old sound effects albums, online resources, TV and film, as well as my own personal recordings. It’s become almost de-rigueur these days to gather your own field recordings for a musical project and I actually quite like that trend. So I took some field recordings at Scadbury Park last summer specifically with this album in mind, but they didn’t come out quite as well as I’d hoped and therefore didn’t make the final cut. Most of the ambiences on this particular album came from old sound effects CDs. I often tinker with them in order to make them a bit more ‘haunty’ (copyright Bob Fischer 2018) though. For example you might notice a bit of reverse-reverb on the crows, which gives them that slightly otherworldly, psychedelic quality.

This is a much more “organic” sounding album than your debut, too. There are guitars! And other acoustic instruments! Was that deliberate, given the subject matter?

Yes, the use of guitars and other acoustic instruments on Treedom was deliberate. I wanted to go for a more organic and pastoral vibe which would reflect the subject matter, while still keeping the core COI vibe intact. I think I just about managed it – certainly the initial reaction to Treedom has been very kind.

On my Castles In Space debut album, a lot of those tracks had been kicking around for many years – ‘Homemade Jams And Chutneys’, for example dates, back to early 2010. So I think there was a certain feel to the album as a whole and the tracks that Colin Morrison and I agreed on for the final cut all seemed to fit together rather nicely. Colin has a natural flair for that sort of thing. A couple of guitar-based tracks had been submitted for consideration, but we didn’t include them and I think that this was the right decision. Colin had a very strong vision for the album and I think that he delivered it perfectly.

With Treedom I felt a bit more relaxed. I had received such positive feedback from people who’d bought the first album and it had received a lot of airplay from yourself and many other DJs. So I felt confident enough to take a risk and broaden the sonic palette, throwing in acoustic guitar, electric guitar, theremin and even melodica on the title track. The melodica is a really fun instrument and is dirt cheap too. Melodica lessons should be compulsory for primary school kids. Whack a bit of delay or reverb on it and you’re basically King Tubby. There could be classrooms up and down the country full of budding young Lee ‘Scratch’ Perrys, imagine that!

Can I ask about your background as a musician? And, indeed as a music fan? Who did you listen to as a kid?

I’ve been obsessed with music for as long as I can remember. My early idols included Adam And The Ants and Shakin’ Stevens. As a kid I was into all the great pop music of the time, but I became especially fascinated with electro and hip-hop. I used to make rap tapes with friends… no doubt these recordings would’ve been laughable. We used to beatbox, scratch on our Dads’ record players – sorry Dad! – and breakdance in our living rooms.

Leading on from this, I got a Casio PT-80 keyboard for my 10th birthday in 1985. I never had any formal training, but I picked up a few choice melodies of the time from friends – ‘Axel F’, ‘Fourth Rendez-Vous’, ‘Chariots Of Fire’, ‘Inspector Gadget’ and so on.

When I was 14, I got into hard rock, heavy metal, thrash and punk. Inspired by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Guns N’ Roses, The Sex Pistols and Metallica, I took up electric guitar in 1990. I had lessons for about eight months and this enabled me to become a competent player and also to understand a bit about how music works in general. I don’t think I’d be making electronic music today had I not had those guitar lessons. Whilst I was never really in what you could call a proper band, I used to jam a lot with another guitarist, a drummer and a vocalist… of sorts. We often talked about forming a proper band and doing gigs, but we were we young, we lacked discipline and just wanted to party every weekend.

I was also really into the house music and acid house that was crossing over into the charts in the later part of the 1980s. I was only 13 years old when I first heard ‘Stakker Humanoid’ in 1988, but it completely blew my mind. I remember it vividly. It was the first proper acid track I’d heard, and back then it sounded like music from another planet. I’ll never tire of that squelchy, slippery acid sound and it often finds its way into my COI stuff. From 1991 to 1993, when the hardcore rave scene exploded in the UK, I was completely hooked. That short period was the most exciting time that I can personally remember in UK music. It was such a creative peak and it felt like new sounds were coming out almost every week. I loved the DIY attitude…young bedroom producers were fusing hip-hop, house, techno, dub and ragga to create this very British sound which seemed to suddenly appear from out of nowhere. It had everything – funky breakbeats, heavy basslines, euphoric piano and soaring vocals – but it also had that dark, hypnotic techno groove. I couldn’t get enough of it.

At the same time there was also home-grown techno from the likes of 808 State, Orbital and The Shamen, amazing techno coming in from America and Europe, as well as the beginnings of ambient house. So it was just a really vibrant period that I will always be really fond of. I happened to hear some current house music very recently and they are still churning out the same old samples nearly 30 years later. So whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing, the legacy of that era is still being felt by the kids of today.

When I went to university in 1993 my flatmates had turntables, and I soon learned to DJ. At this point, I was becoming immersed in hard trance, acid, electronica (I refuse to call it IDM or worse still, EDM), jungle and ambient music. A few years later when I was sharing a flat with friends we had a drumkit set up in the kitchen – as you do – and a flatmate, the drummer from my school days, taught me the basics, which has helped me to this day. I then started making electronic music in 1999, initially on a Playstation. This early material was produced under the oh-so-1990s pseudonyms of Sonik Science and Phatcamp and was very much dancefloor-orientated, covering genres such as techno, house, breakbeat, acid, drum n’ bass, electronica, glitch, trip hop and eventually dubstep, as well as some forays into ambient and dub. In 2005 and 2006 I received some airplay on BBC Radio One. Between 2005 and 2007 I also made DJ appearances at DiscoWhip events in Wiltshire, warming up the turntables for legendary house DJ Brandon Block on several occasions.

So when did you discover the whole “haunted” aesthetic – was it Ghost Box Records? I’m always intrigued to know when and how people drifted into this strange world…

Around 2005 or 2006 I started to become fascinated with the woozy, nostalgic sounds of Boards Of Canada and it soon began to influence my own music. I discovered Ghost Box Records and Moon Wiring Club in early 2010, purely because Amazon started recommending their albums to me based on my previous purchases.

How did you feel when you discovered all this? It was almost a sense of relief for me, that I’d found people who clearly remembered their childhoods in the same weird way…

When I first heard Boards Of Canada it resonated with me on a really deep level. It was like someone flicked a switch inside my mind. It brought up feelings of warm, fuzzy nostalgia. It felt as if long-forgotten, half-remembered childhood memories were being unearthed, and it was powerful stuff. The music was ‘warm’ and woozy, but it also had melancholic or eerie undertones which really reflected my own memories of childhood in the late 1970s and early 80s – the fear and paranoia as well as the happy times. Musically, it was a breath of fresh air – despite the obvious retro feel – and it really inspired me creatively.

When did you start making music as The Central Office Of Information?

I made a few Boards of Canada-inspired tracks under my Phatcamp pseudonym in the late noughties. Then, in 2010 after discovering Ghost Box and specifically the Other Channels album by The Advisory Circle, I decided to begin The Central Office Of Information as a separate project devoted solely to this kind of sound.

‘Homemade Jams And Chutneys’ was the first ever COI track and was inspired directly by The Advisory Circle’s ‘Civil Defence Is Common Sense’. I remember sitting on my bed listening to the CD for the first time and I’m pretty sure I smiled or possibly even chuckled when I heard that track. Like Boards of Canada, it resonated on a really deep level and I was instantly transported in my mind back to primary schools days, being sat in a classroom of kids huddled around a massive old telly watching Programmes For Schools And Colleges. I hadn’t heard music like that for years and I was amazed that somebody was even making that type of music in the 21st century. Whereas Boards of Canada induced woozy, hazy memories using production techniques to deliberately muddy the sound, this was a much more direct link to the TV music of my early childhood. It was uncannily accurate, I thought.

Given the name that you record under, I’m guessing Public Information Films were a big influence on you… can you remember which ones particularly got to you as a kid? 

Again, I had completely forgotten about Public Information Films until listening to Other Channels, which contains the Frozen Ponds PIF. Of course the memories came flooding back instantly. That was a particularly nasty one, and the sound of the ice cracking is truly chilling. As a child, the other PIFs that really disturbed me were Play Safe – Frisbee and Apaches. The latter was utterly horrific, and to this day I cannot believe that the government deemed it suitable for kids. It was basically a short horror movie. However, it certainly had the desired effect and I never did decide to go and mess about with farm machinery. I would feel uneasy even watching it now in my forties – that scene with the kid drowning in silage is beyond disturbing!

I genuinely found your music by chance, when I was presenting the BBC Introducing show on BBC Tees, and I used to put random words into the BBC staff portal, and see which artists came up. And in May 2018 I tried the word “office” and found you! And a track called ‘Pools Of Witchlight’. Was it a surprise? I got the impression you hadn’t made any music for a little while…

It was certainly a lovely surprise. I’ve never actually stopped making electronic music since I started in 1999 – I’m constantly churning it out – but I had definitely reached a stage where I was resigned to music being just a hobby for my own benefit as opposed to something that would be of interest to others. I think the tracks that I’d submitted to BBC Introducing had been sat there for quite some time, maybe even as long as two years. I’d honestly forgotten all about it. So, yes it was a very pleasant surprise indeed.

How did that lead to Castles in Space putting out your debut album?

After the first two airplays on your BBC Introducing show, I felt so reinvigorated! At the time, I hadn’t sent out any demos to labels for about a year. You recommended the music of Concretism – who had also featured on your show – and I subsequently bought For Concrete And Country directly from Castles In Space, a label with which I was unfamiliar at that point. Of course, I loved the album and it occurred to me that CiS might even be interested in my own music. So I e-mailed Colin [Morrison, label boss], who was really supportive. He basically walked me through the whole process, bringing in Jez Butler of The Twelve Hour Foundation on mastering duties, and Nick Taylor of Spectral Studio for the artwork and the logo.

That debut is a lovely mix of rather homely sounding tracks, and others that are much more sinister! It’s ‘Home-Made Jams and Chutneys’ vs ‘Chemtrails!’ Were you keen explore both sides of nostalgia, both light and dark?

Absolutely, I was keen to explore both sides of the haunted coin. I love really euphoric and uplifting music – disco, house, rave etc – but there is a part of me that has always been drawn towards the dark side too, and I seem to have an unusual knack of coming up with dark, eerie tracks. I guess it stems from the thrash metal influence, the short-lived ‘darkcore’ rave era of 1993, drum n’ bass, and listening to artists such as Aphex Twin, The Future Sound Of London and Moon Wiring Club. I personally enjoy albums which have a nice mix of darkness and light – The Orb’s Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld would be a good example of this.

The track ‘Chemtrails’ came about after watching an interview that Prince gave on American TV in which he spoke emphatically about his own belief in the chemtrails conspiracy theory. This was all new to me, but I was intrigued and immediately started reading articles and watching YouTube videos on the subject. The title ‘Homemade Jams And Chutneys’ came from a hand-written sign that I spotted on the bar in a village pub in Wiltshire. I actually bought one of those chutneys and it was superb, but I can’t remember exactly what was in it.

What about jams? What’s the best jam you’ve ever tasted?  

My all-time favourite jam would have to be the plum jam that my Granny used to make when I was a kid, bless her.

The packaging on that album was sumptuous – what was your favourite bit of it? I was particularly intrigued by the postcards of Ilston Church and the Norman Staircase in Canterbury. And the Welsh Publishing Company that one of them is addressed to…

Yes, the packaging on the CiS album was next-level! We may well have set a new world record for the greatest number of inserts within an album. The A4 sheets with Nick’s artwork and the COI badge were my personal favourite bits of ephemera, but the Telephone Exchange and Telegraph Linesmen postcards were also nice. I wish I could explain all of the mysterious inserts, but you would really need to ask Colin as he was the mastermind behind it all. I had some degree of input, but really Colin and Nick have to take the credit for the overall aesthetic – both are excellent at what they do and were really nice to work with. Jez was also lovely to work with and my fairly limited understanding of the mastering process has improved as a result. Let’s just say that he had fewer “woolly frequencies” to contend with when he mastered my second album!

So what’s next for you?

My next release will actually be the first official Phatcamp album, titled Transport For London. I’ve been working on it since 2017 and am just applying the final touches now. I’m aiming for a 1st June release. It will be a digital download only, sold through Bandcamp. I describe it as follows: “an electronic soundtrack for London’s hectic and often overloaded transport network. The familiar soundscape of the London Underground forms an ambient backdrop which occasionally adds its own mechanical rhythms to the techno, acid and breakbeats that roll across it”.

The release details will be confirmed nearer the time by me on Twitter and by Kat (Mrs COI) on Instagram.

I’ve produced an exclusive COI track for the next Scarred For Life compilation album, due out later this year. I’ve also done a track for a compilation called Electrophon – A Journey Through Radiophonica which is being released on a label called Wormhole World in around May. This compilation celebrates the work of Delia Derbyshire and other early pioneers of electronic music.

I have some ideas and at least a couple of tracks ready for the next COI album, but I don’t expect to release anything now until 2021. I’m super busy right now working on a COI podcast, a COI live show and I’m also attempting to write a book on electronic music production. It’s for people who have always wanted to have a go at making electronic music but have never quite taken the plunge, and also for those with some previous experience who might want to take it a little bit further or simply to brush up on their existing skills.

Thanks to Alex for his time, and for a lovely natter. The self-titled Central Office of Information debut album is available here…

https://coi-cis.bandcamp.com/album/the-central-office-of-information

And Treedom is here…

https://woodfordhalse.bandcamp.com/album/treedom

Gilroy Mere, Oliver Cherer and Over The Tracks

“The past in fading layers, visible from the present…” A phrase that Oliver Cherer used early in our conversation, perhaps perfectly summing up my own relationship with nostalgia, too. It’s the erosion of the past that truly moves and affects me. The forgotten people, places and objects that are in danger of being permanently lost from the 21st century collective consciousness: moving farther away in time; slipping inexorably backwards towards the boundaries of living memory.

And what also interests and delights me are the often-hidden areas where those elements of the past still protrude, sometimes unnoticed, into the present day. There is something both sad and reassuring about the remnants and traces of abandoned places and practices that still somehow intrude into the modern everyday. Feelings perfectly evoked by Oliver – recording as Gilroy Mere – on his new collection of recordings for Clay Pipe Music.

Both the current flexi-disc EP – Over The Tracks – and the forthcoming album – Adlestrop – take their inspiration from the overgrown remains of rural railway stations, all closed in the wake of the 1963 Beeching Report. Under these sweeping cost-cutting reforms, 2,363 stations were recommended for closure; but the remnants of many – all rotting sleepers and overgrown platforms – linger on. Many have been subsumed and reclaimed by the natural world, others replaced almost completely by the march of modernity; but their presence is – just about – tangible to the more diligent of modern-day visitors.

I asked Oliver about the background to both EP and album:

Bob: First of all, congratulations on Over The Tracks… the EP is lovely, and has been specifically inspired by St Leonard’s West Marina railway station, in Sussex. Can you tell us a little bit about the station? What was its history, and when did it close?

Oliver: Thankyou. St Leonard’s West Marina Station was the first station in the Hastings area, and it marked the arrival of the railway. But there was a certain amount of rivalry between competing rail companies, and it lost out to a different line. And, after a slow decline, it fell to the Beeching axe in 1967.

And I’m guessing it’s a station that has particular significance for you?

Well I live in St Leonards, and I pass through the place where the station stood on my way to my record shop at the De La Warr Pavilion, in Bexhill.

So what’s left of it now… does anything remain?

All that’s left is a buddleia-covered platform, opposite TK Maxx and a carpet warehouse. “Swallows” from the EP is an attempt to evoke the stillness of that platform between trains in the summer, when the buddleia is a-buzz with birds, butterflies and bees. I always have to look out for the platform as I pass, knowing that it goes almost completely unnoticed by everyone else.

Is there a sadness to passing through the remains of such a historic spot, then?

It’s not particularly sad, but it is perhaps a little poignant. The gradual erosion of the past by the present-day probably always is.

The other tracks on the EP are more obviously train-related, as I’ve tried to use the clickety-clack rhythms you got from the old railway tracks, before they made them smooth and continuous. All of the tracks have field recordings in them somewhere.

The forthcoming album, Adlestrop, is also beautiful… and is inspired by other stations closed by the Beeching cuts of the 1960s. Is there something about vintage rail travel that appeals to you… or is it more the “lost” nature of the stations themselves?

Thank you. Actually, I don’t much like the idea that I may be something of a nostalgist. I’m not in a very strong position to deny it with my track record, but really I’m interested in the history of these places and any signs of a previous existence or incarnation. I got into a discussion recently where I might have used the phrase “palimpsest of ghostly resonances” to describe what steers me towards the hauntological.

That’s really what’s at the base of this album. It’s the past in fading layers, visible from the present.

That’s a beautiful phrase, and I think describes perfectly my relationship with nostalgia. And Adlestrop station itself, in Gloucestershire, was previously immortalised in poetry form by Edward Thomas. Is it a poem you’re particularly fond of? It’s very evocative…

It started with Adlestrop. The album, I mean. I’ve always loved that poem. It seems to mark, on a summers day in Gloucestershire, a moment of stillness, shortly before the Great War changed everything. Thomas couldn’t have known that, of course. But the war re-contextualises his poem and, like many of these stations, it becomes a scar on the present. I visited Adlestrop village, and all that’s left is a station sign in a bus shelter, nowhere near the original location.

‘Adlestrop’ by Edward Thomas (published 1917)

Yes. I remember Adlestrop—
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop—only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

I wondered how many of the stations referenced on the album you’d actually visited… any other stories you can share?

Visiting Adlestrop spurred me to get hold of a copy of the Beeching Report. Which, in Appendix 2, lists all the services and stations recommended for closure in the 1960s. There are 2,000 wonderful names, like Black Dog Halt and Star Crossing – irresistible to the seasoned hauntologist! I kept it with me wherever I went, and made field recordings in as many locations as I could, using them as the starting point for each track. This worked in different ways for different pieces, but they all have something of the real place within them.

Some places have no evidence of their previous life as a station and some are still there, though maybe now converted into a house or cafe. It didn’t matter to me. My “brief” was simply to record what was there, and use that. “Just a River” is simply that – just a river and a road, and the fields in which the station once stood.

How did you try to capture the spirit of these stations in musical form? For example, “Bethesda“, a musical evocation of a station named after a religious chapel, has a very hymnal quality to it… I’m assuming that was deliberate?

Sometimes I’m reacting to the place as it is in the present, and sometimes to what was there once upon a time, especially if this is in some way obvious. Bethesda is a good example. The line from Bangor is now pretty much a footpath all the way. I joined it at Tregarth, and it cuts though rock and woods and over roads and raging white water rivers, all before winding up at Bethesda, where the chapel still stands in a wet and green valley.

It seemed weathered by a mossy , churchy stillness, and the melody came instantly, the moment I sat down at the piano with the recordings. This is probably true of a few of the tracks on the record, and I think two or three more have a “churchy” feel to them. They mostly started with these kind of improvised sessions, and some really didn’t have much more done to them.

These places are often in quiet, remote locations which is what, ultimately, closed most of them. So the feel tends to veer towards the still or sombre. Though I was probably going for “elegiac”!

I can’t resist asking about “Ravenscar” too, which is a location that’s pretty close to me, on the North Yorkshire coastline! A place with a fascinating history: in the late Victorian era, work was begun to turn the village into a huge resort town, intended to rival Scarborough. It was really ambitious! Plans were finalised, work was begun, roads were even laid down… but ultimately the finance ran out, and the actual houses were never built. What made you choose Ravenscar as a source of inspiration?

Ah, Ravenscar. I’ve known Ravenscar for years, and the moment I’d decided to make this record I knew I’d need to include it. My partner’s father spent a chunk of his youth there, as his rich uncle owned the Ravenscar Hotel and he went to live with him there for a spell. So I’d been there, and I knew its history. It’s the strangest kind of ghost town because it’s the ghost of a town that never was. All they built were the roads and the station, before the development went belly-up.

The station is still there, and the roads are still visible, though nature is gradually reclaiming them. It truly is a fading scar on the bald cliff top. Very atmospheric. A strange thing happened after I’d finished the record. Jenny’s dad Jo died, and we were sorting through his house and possessions, and I found a video and an old railway magazine covering the history of Ravenscar station, together in a pouch. I ran the video and played the newly-finished album with it, and it was just a perfect match.

Your previous album for Clay Pipe, The Green Line, was based on the bus journeys that it was once possible to take from London to the surrounding countryside. Is there something about the public transport of decades gone by that you find particularly evocative?

Well, I was talking to Frances, who runs Clay Pipe, and I said “I’m going to have to do something different next time, as I don’t want to be the ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’ guy!”

I do love old things, though. Trains, synths, guitars, houses, cheese. I’ve always thought I was a modernist, so maybe it’s my age that’s causing the nostalgia. I am increasingly interested in the past, and there’s nothing more fascinating than local history. All history is local somewhere, right? I’m not one of those people that thinks everything was better in the old days, though. After all, I was only able to make this record because of the luxury afforded to me by digital devices. And I love all the old gear, but I really don’t want to make records that sound like they were recorded forty years ago. Although again, occasionally guilty!

I’ve seen you talk about your home studio a few times, and your addiction to filling it with vintage gear from junk shops! Can you describe it a bit? What’s the stand-out piece of kit in your collection?

Anything that makes an interesting noise is a useful tool, I think. I’ve got some lovely bits and pieces, mostly bought cheaply in junk shops and boot sales. Some choice guitars and vintage synths, of course. I found two classical guitars in different charity shops that I love. One was made by a world renowned luthier in Japan in 1967, and the other was made by a man called Robert Kaye Kneller, in Worthing, in 1974. They’re both stunning, and I paid £27 for the pair. Those things don’t happen that often, but they make me joyous when they do!

Both guitars feature on the album and flexi-disc. I’ve also just acquired some amazing Spendor speakers that are going to transform my home studio, physically as much as sonically. Weirdly though, the thing that’s been on more records than anything else, at least in the last five years, is a car boot zither that I customised with a bit of wood cut from the back of a chest of drawers. I made a curved bridge so I could play it with a bow, and it has a unique sound. I christened it the “Partch Harp” as I tend to use it in a kind of Harry Partch microtonal way. It’s on everything.

The other thing that’s also always intrigued me about you… I think you might have worked under the most pseudonyms of anyone I’ve interviewed to date! Do they all have individual personas or musical styles that you feel suit different projects?

I guess the pseudonyms are used to demarcate musical territory, yes. Dollboy was a nickname coined by an old friend, and got used for a long time. I couldn’t have even considered using my real name back then – my ego wasn’t fully developed! I used a few different names on various releases on Deep Distance and Polytechnic Youth and it seemed like a game, really. It was fun.

I’ve never made any realistic effort to obscure my identity, though. I know there are people who only like the output of certain pseudonyms. My Oliver Cherer stuff doesn’t necessarily chime with fans of Australian Testing Labs, and that’s OK. It has been pointed out to me that I’d be better off if I made an effort to look less like a dilettante, but I honestly don’t care.


So where does “Gilroy Mere” come from?

“Gilroy Mere” was Frances’ idea, I think. Partly, anyway. Something English and pastoral, I think it was. It backfired on me when I was playing guitar with Pete Astor on a Marc Riley session. Pete thought it’d be a good wheeze to introduce me as Gilroy Mere, assuming Marc would know the Green Line record and make the connection, but he just scoffed at the posh berk on guitar and said “Oh aye, where d’yo get him from?”.

And what’s your next project?

The next project is a weird one. It’s the remixed soundtrack to Andrew Kötting’s next film, The Whalebone Box. If you’re into the hauntological, you’ll love it. It’s a strange tale of a sealed whalebone box, apparently washed up on a Scottish island and passed from one person to another, then finally returned to where it was found. It is about ghostly resonances and the spirits that occupy things and places, and it’s very beautiful and very strange.

Andrew asked me and Riz Maslen – aka Neotropic – for music that he could cut up and repurpose for his movie, and we duly obliged. He then gave us the finished soundtrack, half each and asked us to remix it. I did the first half of the movie and Riz did the second half. It’s going out on a double vinyl set, but it’s not official yet so I can’t tell you the label! Beyond that I’m beginning work on an album of songs with an actual band for the first time in years. I just fancied recording things with more of a live feel for a change. I think Adlestrop will be out in midsummer, and hopefully there will be some shows.

Thanks to Oliver for his time, and thoughtful responses. Find our more about Over The Tracks here…

https://claypipemusic.greedbag.com/buy/over-the-tracks/

The Black Meadow, Chris Lambert and The Soulless Party

A disclaimer: I am in love with the North York Moors. This vast sweep of bleakly beautiful countryside, occupying a remote corner of North-Eastern England, was virtually my childhood playground. Sunday afternoons were made for family yomps around the heather-coated hillsides of Carlton Bank and Roseberry Topping, while school trips and Outward Bound courses began to introduce tantalising hints of sometimes-invented folklore. Did I ever get to the bottom of the ‘Black Heart of Whorlton Castle’, a terrifying, medieval ghost story set amidst the crumbling remains of this overgrown, 12th Century ruin? Yes, 25 years later, when I tracked down my former teacher, Mr Hirst, and he all but admitted that he’d made the whole thing up.

But that was part of the appeal: landscape attracts stories. Both ancient and modern. And now, when I tramp around the same desolate hillsides and ancient ruins as a middle-aged, weekend dog-walker, I take as much pleasure and inspiration from the folklore attached to the landscape as I do from those spectacular surroundings themselves.

Clearly Chris Lambert and Kev Oyston feel the same. Around five years ago, I became aware of their musical collaboration as The Soulless Party, and the folk-influenced electronica that claimed to take its inspiration from the sinister stories attached to The Black Meadow, an area of the North York Moors centred around the famous RAF Fylingdales. I knew, of course, the story of this mysterious military base; its legendary “golf ball” radomes had comprised arguably the most recognisable Cold War missile warning system in the world. Though these infamous spheres were demolished in the mid-1990s, and replaced by a sleek, concrete pyramid, the base remains an iconic local landmark.

I was, however, utterly unaware of the wealth of local folklore that Lambert and Oyston seemed to have unearthed. The Black Meadow was a name unfamiliar to me, as were its accompanying tales of a village that appears only “when the mist is high”: a darkly mystical community existing in a supernatural netherworld of pre-industrialised folk ritual and superstition. Just who was the “Rag and Bone Man”? Did the mysterious “Brightwater Archive” really attempt to document these stories in the 1930s, before being inexplicably shut down? And did Roger Mullins, a visiting professor at York University, genuinely vanish in the area while attempting further investigations in 1972?

Lambert and Oyston presented books, music, photographs, websites, blogs, lectures and even a “lost” 1977 Radio 4 documentary to reinforce the veracity of these stories, expertly blurring the lines between genuine folklore and invented fiction. I’ve since come to know them both well. I’ve interviewed them many times for BBC Radio Tees, and I’ve even collaborated with them on certain projects. Sometimes they admit to wild invention, other times they’re tantalisingly vague. It’s all part of the fun. And the project has been expanded further with the release of two new instalments: a wonderfully atmospheric album – largely by Oyston – and Lambert’s accompanying book, where tales of the “Ticking Policeman”, the “March of the Meadow Hags” and the “Village Under The Lake” further explore the legend.

Both book and album are entitled The Black Meadow Archive Volume 1, and both are available now.

I spoke to Chris Lambert about the whole Black Meadow phenomenon…

Bob: For those unaware, tell us a little bit about the Black Meadow in your own words… as far as you’re concerned, where exactly is it?

Chris: The Black Meadow is an area of land on the Whiteway Heads Road, between Sleights and Pickering on the North York Moors. RAF Fylingdales, once of the iconic “golf balls” missile warning system, is located on the Black Meadow. For centuries, the Meadow has been a hotbed of strange phenomena, mysterious creatures and bizarre happenings. The most famous of these, as everybody knows, is the village that appears when the mist is high. I first found out about it when a colleague of mine, Kev Oyston, was investigating a lost Radio 4 documentary, Curse of the Black Meadow, and asked me to assist him in his research. After that I was hooked.

Do you find that area of the North York Moors especially fascinating? It provides a direct link between ancient landscape – with its associated folk stories – and Cold War paranoia, in the shape of the aforementioned RAF Fylingdales. Is that a combination that you find particularly irresistable? 

It’s completely fascinating. It’s the incongruity of that vast landscape and the stark, strange pyramid that now sits atop it. The golf balls too were an eerie sight… even more eerie in the memory, and in faded photographs, now that they are gone. I grew up at the tail end of the Cold War… though excitingly it is threatening a comeback, which will be a real boon for us Threads fans. But I remember living with a slight sense of dread constantly in the back of my mind. I think that’s why I’m drawn to these places, and to these types of stories.

Just down the road from where I live, in Berkshire, is RAF Greenham Common, the now-decommissioned American missile base. That also holds a real fascination for me. And the silos were used as a location for Star Wars – The Force Awakens! I also love the pillboxes that are dotted along our local canal, to defend us against attacks on our waterways. Any site where there is a strange, seemingly anachronistic incongruity attracts me. That juxtaposition of the natural against the artificial, particularly in places where nature has actually won. That shows that these terrors are fleeting, and that the life of our planet is beautiful.

I think this might also be because I read a lot of John Christopher as a child, and loved the images of the decayed modern cities in The White Mountains, from the Tripods trilogy, and Beyond the Burning Lands, from the Prince in Waiting trilogy. Or the desolation in Empty World. More recently I read his adult novels The Death of Grass and Wrinkle in the Skin. They also scratched this itch, with their exploration of a vastly altered landscape.

What’s your own connection to the North-East? Were your parents from Teesside?  

My mum grew up in York, and her parents were from that area. My Dad was the vicar of the parish church in Saltburn in the 1960s and early 1970s, before I was born. He then moved the family down to Shaftesbury in Dorset, which is where I appeared! Interestingly, Shaftesbury is the home of Gold Hill, where the famous Yorkshire-set Hovis advert, directed by Ridley Scott, was filmed. So, quite aptly, I lived in an imagined Yorkshire, in the south of England. Interestingly my Mum told me just at the weekend that she never wanted to move south. She absolutely loves the north of England, and I suppose that enthusiasm has rubbed off. 

I know you had a strict religious upbringing, and I’m guessing traditional folklore wasn’t a big part of that. Is there an element of researching and writing about supernatural folk stories makes them almost “forbidden fruit” for you? 

Oh, my goodness. All of it! I think I appear to be very overexcited about things when I discover them. I don’t have the same cultural references as Kev Oyston or your good self, because I wasn’t allowed to watch, listen to or read quite a lot of things when I was little. My Dad would put the TV in the loft or in the cupboard during the week, and I would sneak an extension lead up there if they were out, and watch Alas Smith and Jones. It was a real pain when Doctor Who moved from Saturdays to Tuesdays and Thursdays.

I did a talk about burning my Fighting Fantasy gamebooks when I was a young fundamentalist – I was led to believe that they would do me spiritual harm. So any folklore was off limits. Anything occult-tinged was a no-no. I remember my mum warning me about the dangers of Dennis Wheatley… who I had never heard of, but she made him sound very exotic and interesting. I still haven’t got around to him, as I don’t believe he could live up to the hype! I was brought up on the aggressive anti-gay/catholic/muslim/occult tracts by Jack Chick, and the only comics I read were Archie and the (now that I have revisited them) utterly appalling and deeply offensive Crusaders comics. With the exception of Archie, these comics introduced me to imagery of hell, torture, possession and demons that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Lucio Fulci or Armando de Ossario film. So oddly, it was these terribly written but evocatively illustrated works, intended to lure me away from Satan and all his works, that stuck in my head. I wouldn’t have known about these things if I hadn’t read them. Such a strange bubble to live in! 

So sometimes there is a little wicked part of myself that thinks – would this get burned? Is this a bit naughty? If it is, I’m more likely to research it or write it. This sounds a bit like rebellion but it doesn’t feel like it, I just write what comes into my head. But I can’t deny the influences of my childhood.

You’ve lived in Berkshire for many years – was there ever a temptation to write about Berkshire folklore, or is there something specifically about the North-East, and the North York Moors, that you find lends itself to strangeness?

I am very interested in Berkshire, and have written a kid’s play called Deadman’s Lane which, like The Black Meadow, is about a world hidden inside another. A re-imagined geography. Deadman’s Lane bisects the school grounds where I work. I’m also working on something based in my own immediate locality, which I plan to start if the Black Meadow ever frees me from its misty embrace. That said, the North York Moors do attract me hugely… partly because they’re physically distant, and so they give me the opportunity to imagine myself there. It’s the desolation of the moors that I love, that vast sweep of heather, interrupted by that strange pyramid and the floating mist. They’re a favourite place to holiday, too.

How did you first start writing about the Black Meadow? And what were your ambitions for it at the start of all this? It’s become quite a sprawling, multi-media project… 

The project began when Kev and I worked on the radio documentary, The Curse of the Black Meadow. Kev had created/discovered the theme tune for Tales from the Black Meadow and it was already growing into a larger project in his head, so he invited me to help write the documentary for which this would be the theme. As I was creating that, I decided that one of the key players, “Philip Hull”, would mention, off the cuff, several folk tales… such as “The Shining Apples” and “The Devil and the Yoked Man”. I then realised that these tales needed to actually exist to add weight to the documentary. So I began to create/discover them. Firstly for the documentary, but then as we went on, more were unearthed/written.

And I had no real ambition at first! We just sort of went in the direction the meandering paths took us, having fun. After that it evolved into the book and album, but I certainly didn’t envisage at the time that that little documentary would end up leading us here…

Can we talk about Kev Oyston himself? How did you meet, and what’s the division of labour like between you and Kev? 

It’s really interesting for me to pull this apart! We met online, of course. It started because a friend of mine, Dave Yates – aka Dolly Dolly – had done a track for Kev on his Electronic Encounters album, and sent me the link. I loved the album, and was fiddling about one day and decided to make my own Close Encounters-influenced track, Follow the Toys… which I then took a punt on, and sent to Kev. He was kind enough to pop it on his Electronic Encounters Special Edition. We then bandied tracks back and forth, and he sent me a couple of instrumentals that I added lyrics to… like a latter-day Vince Clark and Andy Bell. And then Black Meadow happened. He made an evocative video to accompany his track, and invited me to do the documentary.

The division of labour for the first album was, with the exception of one track, that he wrote the tunes and I wrote the stories. As the project progressed, the process became more knotty. Kev would write a track and send it – and the title – to me. From the title and the mood of the track, I would then write a story. However at the same time I would be writing another story which he would read, and then use the title for another track. I’m now not entirely sure who started which stories! I think he definitely wrote The Black Dog, from which I wrote the story… and I wrote The Shining Apples first, because Philip Hull mentioned that in his interview.

For this second album we used a similar method. I would immerse myself in the music and extrapolate a story from that and the title, or Kev would come up with a tune, from the story and title I’d provided. I have fond memories of listing to The Maiden of the Mist on repeat, while I worked on that story. I have the album on repeat when I’m writing, editing and typesetting, just to stay in that world. The second album has been a much longer process because Kev kept writing more music, and I kept coming up with more stories. It got so thorny that I had to make a spreadsheet just to keep track. Which Kev ignored on several occasions! Hence the thickness of the book.

What kind of reaction does the Black Meadow evoke in people? Do people generally believe it all?

We tread a fine line. When I do a talk I introduce myself as “a teacher, a writer and a liar”. I often have the word “LIES” on a screen behind me. But even though I say that, people still ask me if it’s all real. I had one person ask me if they should contact their MP about the disappearances on the moors… I actually didn’t give a her a definite “no”, as I was quite tempted to see what would happen.

I had a very strange conversation with one chap. I remember starting a sentence with “I made all this up…” and he asked me in the next sentence if what I was saying was true. I then told him “No, I made it up…” and carried on to another bit of folklore which I also preceded with a disclaimer. He then asked me about again about the truth of it all. This went on for the entire conversation… which I enjoyed immensely.

I think the issue is that people want to believe. There are also so many weird blimming things going on that they think it is all inspired by real occurrences. It’s a very interesting time to be doing a project like this, with all the talk of “fake news” and “alternative facts”. I never set out for this to be some sort of critique of that. But when you use real places, add dates, and use phrases such as “everybody knows” or “it has often been said” before telling a story, people seem to accept it as the truth. Even if you explicitly tell them it’s a lie.

Have you met sceptical souls?

I have met sceptical souls, but they tend to enjoy the wink and the nudge of it all. I often say that if you do even the tiniest bit of research this will all unravel, but most people can’t be bothered and would rather enjoy the fun.

Is blurring the boundaries between reality and fiction part of the appeal for you? How far will you go to achieve that?

I am very much into the idea of mythogeography, projecting a story onto a landscape and exploring that landscape through a different lens. We all do it to a certain extent… for example, we get a little frisson of excitement when we visit a film location. Gloucester Cathedral cloisters are the location of the Hogwarts corridors in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. So if you visit, you can picture the martyrdom of Bishop Bonner alongside the petrification of Colin Creevey. And when I visited Cheddar Gorge in Somerset the guide on the bus tour talked of how the two tall columns of stone influenced J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers. I don’t know if that was true at all, but even if it wasn’t, I could still picture Orcs peeking out from behind the stones.

It’s the urban myths told around camp fires: “It was just half a mile from here that his body was found, and it is said that….” So yes, it’s a huge part of the appeal. I think some of that comes from playing as a child in my garden. I was lucky enough to have a big, vicarage garden and would spend hours on my own imagining myself in epic fantasy adventures. I would make tunnels in bracken and bramble, and fashion maps where corridors and cave-like openings would have grandiose names.

The strange thing is, I visited the Black Meadow over a year after I had written the first tale and I was struck by how very real the stories seemed to be, and how they fitted with the landscape. It was very strange. I’m delighted that every time I’ve been there, it’s been shrouded in mist.

How far would you take the illusion? There is actually a little plaque on the moors, isn’t there… where – ahem – did that come from?

How far would I go? I think there’s a mischievous side to me, but I would be utterly appalled if we hurt anyone’s feelings or upset anyone. So Kev and I both err on the side of caution. We aren’t planning to do an Area 51 style storming of RAF Fylingdales, for example. That said, the plaque commemorating the disappearance of Roger Mullins, which you can indeed find on the North York Moors, was put there by the Brightwater Archive and Roger’s family. It has nothing to with me or Kev, so I don’t know what you’re talking about there.

Back in 2017, you brought a party of drama students up from your Berkshire school, and performed a Black Meadow stage play at Caedmon College in Whitby, a stones throw from the meadow itself! I was there, and it was amazing. How on Earth did you persuade your head teacher to give the green light to all this?  

My school is great. I’ve worked there for over fifteen years, and have always been given the space to innovate. Before I was a teacher, I worked as a playwright, but I moved into teaching when I began to starve to death. From the start, I was getting the students to perform at local venues and trying out strange and wacky ideas. From medieval mystery plays around the whole school site, to a Deadman’s Lane radio play and a Zombie Walk!

Before we got to Tales from the Black Meadow – The Play, I had been working on a series of productions to try and get more boys into Drama. We went down the horror route and that did seem to work. I worked on a three-year “Trilogy of Terror” (without Karen Black or crazed African wood carvings) which started with an adaptation of The Midwich Cuckoos – right up your misty alley – followed by the aforementioned Deadman’s Lane, and then topped off with Night of the Living Dead for Kids. To promote the final play of the trilogy we did that Zombie Walk for charity and then, erm… I somehow persuaded the Parish Council to let the cast shamble after the runners when the Olympic Torch was passed through our village, in the lead-up to the 2012 Olympics.

So taking the cast of Tales From the Black Meadow to Whitby? It wasn’t really a surprise. The head teacher just rolled her eyes and gave us her blessing. I think the parents thought we were mad, though… and they were probably right, the students still talk about it. My only regret is that they didn’t get to see Whitby, because we had to leave at 5am, get off the bus at 12pm, get into the school and set up, perform at 2pm, then get back on the bus… we did however drive through the Black Meadow to get there, and the mist was up.

How do you think the performance went down? Do modern kids understand that 1970s “haunted” feeling that we still seem to feel so profoundly?

It’s always interesting performing a play to complete strangers. Caedmon College were so kind to accommodate us, and gave us lovely feedback. We could have done without our smoke machine setting off their fire alarm in the first ten minutes, though! The students really got the play, but it’s hard to say whether they get our haunted feeling. I’m just an old man to them, and they aren’t bothered by our past experiences. In the same way that weren’t bothered by our own parents’ stories when we were kids. They live in strange times though, so maybe they’ll look back on this era in a similar way, with that nostalgia for dread. We had the Three Day Week, the Cold War and Public Information Films. They have Brexit, Trump and internet memes… something weird is going to be born from that, I’m sure.

Any future plans for the Black Meadow project?  

We plan to produce the next volume of the Black Meadow Archive soon, but there are rumblings from Whitehall that we won’t be given access to their files, so there could be something of a delay whilst we sort that out. The amount of back and forth we had, trying to get the latest publication past those censorious civil servants, beggars belief. We’d love to make a film or a radio documentary, too. I guess whatever the government allows, will happen.

The Black Meadow Archive Volume 1, by Chris Lambert, is available here…

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Black-Meadow-Archive-1/dp/1688953167

And the accompanying album, by The Soulless Party, is releases on Castles In Space, and is available here…

https://thesoullessparty-cis.bandcamp.com/album/the-black-meadow-archive-volume-1

Paul Weller, Ghost Box Records and Jim Jupp

As a child, I was oddly fascinated by the idea of portals. I half-believed that they might be real, and that my wanderings through the grimy outskirts and overgrown fields of my rural home town would inevitably lead to the discovery of some incongruous gateway to another realm. It seemed entirely plausible that the moss-covered ruins of wartime pillboxes would, one day, echo to the ghostly sound of ‘We’ll Meet Again’, bleeding through from a shimmering timeslip. Or that a battered wooden door, abandoned in a skip or half-hidden by weeds on some frozen, tangled waste ground, would open to reveal the teeming strangeness of some magical netherworld beyond.

I thought of all this when I first heard In Another Room, Paul Weller’s new collaboration with Ghost Box Records; and a glimpse of the EP artwork delightfully reinforced these fuzzy, forty-year-old memories. The music is distant, fractured, melancholy; seeming indeed to be drifting fleetingly into our world from another plane of existence, one that might just be accessed through an out-of-place doorway in a remote, windswept field on the fringes of town…

The EP is officially released on 31st January, but a limited run of 1,000 vinyl copies sold out as soon as pre-orders were announced. Nevertheless, digital downloads are to follow, and Ghost Box’s Jim Jupp – interviewed on my BBC Tees show about the release – offered hope for those still seeking a physical version:

Bob: Congratulations on the EP! I’m guessing it’s been a busy time at Ghost Box over the last few weeks?  

Jim: Yes, there was a lot of frantic activity, and it sold out in 45 minutes, which took us by surprise. We’re not used to that, being quite a small indie label. It was a pleasant surprise!

Are there any spare copies out there anywhere?

We’re going to keep about 100-200 copies back, depending on the stores that have ordered them. And we’ll put those up for the sale on the actual release day, 31st January. But it’ll be first come first served again, I’m afraid.

So the best advice is to head to the Ghost Box website on the day itself?

That’s right, they’ll go online at midnight on the Thursday night/Friday morning.

This is like phoning the doctors’ surgery at one minute past eight!

Yes, and like getting a festival ticket…

It’s such an interesting collaboration. Did this essentially come from Paul Weller, in a magazine interview, saying that he liked Ghost Box? 

That’s exactly right, he did an interview for Shindig magazine, and mentioned that he was into Ghost Box, and Broadcast, and related acts. The editor said to him “I can put you in touch,” but nothing came of it. And then, about 18 months ago, I got a call and had a long chat about what we might do together.

A call from Paul Weller himself?

Yeah…

Wow! So had you seen the interview when it was originally published, and wondered if something might happen?

I’d heard about it, and put out the feelers and said that we’d be open to something, but again nothing came of it. And then I actually got an e-mail saying “Here’s Paul’s number…” and thought wow, that’s a hell of a call to make. So I texted him! (Laughs)… and he actually called me back.

Ha! That’s always my tactic, too…

It’s the brave way out!

Phone conversations are scary, Jim…

Ah, but he’s a lovely feller. So it was no problem at all, he was good to talk to.

Was it a surreal moment for you? Were you a fan of The Jam and The Style Council when you were growing up?  

Yeah, certainly when I was growing up.  It’s probably fair to say that in recent years I’d maybe fallen out of touch with what he was up to, but then a few years ago Saturn’s Pattern came out, and somebody said to me that I should listen to it, because there was a lot of electronica on there. And then the last few albums I have followed, because I think he’s woven his love of folk music and electronica together with his soulful side and his songwriting. Which you’ve got to admire. So I kind of reconnected with it… it was a good time. And I think Julian [House, of Ghost Box] has always been a colossal fan, because Julian was something of a mod when we were schoolkids.

I can see Julian in a fishtail parka! So where did it go from there? Did Paul have ideas already, or did you make to suggestions to him?

I think he had some ideas. When I spoke to him, he’d not long since done a soundtrack for the movie Jawbone, and some of that was a bit more “out-there”… a bit ambient, and he had ideas that he’d worked on, but that didn’t make it into the film. And I think that was his starting point. He also talked to Julian on the phone a few times as well, just about what he was into at the time, and he’d been listening to things like the Third Ear Band and Trevor Wishart. A lot of avant-garde British stuff from the 1960s. Quite out-there tape music, and experimental stuff.

So we thought we would take that direction, and I suggested maybe an EP would be a good format. I knew this wouldn’t be an album, but with a bit of room to manoeuver and to explore something, an EP felt like the right length. And that’s what he went for.

It could have just been an EP of experimental sound collage, but there are hints of his other musical side on there as well. Tracks like ‘Rejoice’ obviously have experimental elements, but are also very much about Paul Weller on the piano…

Yeah, definitely. I don’t think the EP as a whole is as challenging as you might think, and I wouldn’t want to put people off. It’s certainly out-there and avant-garde, but there are a lot of melodic passages, a lot of instrumentation, and a few session musicians involved. It does create an atmosphere, and I think anyone can appreciate and enjoy it.

You can see the lineage as well… Ghost Box is about taking inspiration from the past, and being playful with nostalgia, and making something new from that. And you can make a case for Paul Weller having done that a lot throughout his career – even when you look at The Jam when he was a teenager, taking elements of 1960s mod culture. And then the Style Council took inspiration from 1960s film soundtracks and even the Swingle Singers… he’s got previous form!

Yeah, I think that’s why it makes such sense for us. It’s a surprise to some, but we were honoured. He’s always had that relationship with music from the past, and where you can take it in the present moment. Which is kind of what our artists do on Ghost Box.

Have you had Ghost Box fans surprised that you were working with Paul Weller, and vice versa – Paul Weller fans surprised that he was working with Ghost Box?

I couldn’t answer the second… but probably! There were probably Paul Weller fans surprised, and probably mystified as to who we were! But the reactions have been positive, and I think people have understood that it makes sense. People know that Paul Weller’s tastes are eclectic, and he’s done all sorts of things over the years. And he’s interested in current bands and labels… he’s always got his ear to the ground. And we were lucky that we were on his radar at the time.

Where did the title, In Another Room, come from – was that Paul’s?

It was Paul’s title. I think he had a few ideas, and we were certainly happy with that. I guess it partly refers to it being another compartment to his career, off on one side to what he does. But it also struck us as a very Ghost Box title. And the sound of the record… to me, it’s like things happening just out of view in other rooms, and sounds drifting in from other spaces. It fits with our Ghost Box world, I think.

As always, it comes swathed in Julian’s beautiful artwork, and he’s very much taken the title as his starting point…

Yes, that was obviously the thing: to capture that idea of rooms, and doorways, and moving through into other spaces. But what he’s also done… he had a few conversations with Paul, and he looked at some graphic scores, which used to be part of the avant-garde, where the musical score was a piece of artwork itself. So you’d often start with a conventional musical stave, but there’d be dynamic paint splatters or shapes on the sheet of music. So on the gatefold of the single, he’s taken that idea and overlayed a collage onto a musical stave.

(NB I had no idea about graphic scores, but the above illustration is a section from Cathy Berberian‘s score for her experimental 1966 piece, Stripsody. Cathy’s name inspired the title of Peter Strickland’s wonderful 2012 film Berberian Sound Studio, the titles of which were also provided by Julian House. We’re travelling through portals again…)

Will you work with Paul again, do you think?

There are no firm plans. We spoke just the other day when I told him that sales were going briskly, and he mentioned maybe a Volume 2 at some point… so the door is always open as far as we’re concerned.

I do like the ways in which you’re keen to expand the boundaries of where Ghost Box can go, and I guess working with Paul is part of that. Have you other ideas of where you’d like to take the label, and indeed other collaborators that you’d like to work with?

Oooh! I don’t know… we’re always approaching people and asking people, it’s something we do want to develop. What we want to get away from, I think, is a slightly parochial, English white male thing. Which is how we started, and what we were, but we’re keen to expand it outwards. And in the last few years we’ve worked with people from different countries, from Germany and Portugal. And there are other voices on there: the Chanctonbury Rings album we released last year had the voice of Justin Hopper, who’s American. So it’s nice to get these other voices in, and open out the world a bit. But it’s still based on these ideas of a misremembered past, and a slightly off-kilter version of the 1960s and 70s that we grew up with. 

I had fallen into the trap of thinking that the “Haunted 1970s” feeling was a very British thing, limited to that era, but a lot of the stuff you’ve done recently has proved that I’m wrong. Like you say, Beautify Junkyards are Portuguese, and ToiToToi is German, and they quite clearly share those feelings, too. Has that been a nice surprise for you?

It has, and it’s slowly developed for us, too. I think we were in the same place, thinking that this is a uniquely British experience, those odd children’s TV things from the 1970s and the library music we were into… that general strangeness from the late 1960s and 70s. But I think every country had its own version of that. I think it was more something of the era than a uniquely British thing.  

I was once chatting with an American writer called Michael Grasso, on Twitter. He’s into all this, and I asked him if there was an American equivalent. And he mentioned Sesame Street…  

Sesame Street definitely, case in point!  And if you think back to what Boards of Canada were doing – even in the name – that was a North American take on the stuff that’s generally called hauntology. It’s not just a British thing.

I was going to ask about Chanctonbury Rings, the album you did with Justin Hopper and Sharron Kraus… you must have been delighted with the reaction it received, were you?

Yes, we really were. It’s an unusual one, and Justin and I spent a long time talking about what it might be, and what shape it would take. But I knew, when I’d seen their live show, that it would make an album. And it was going to be a poetry album, which is always a difficult sell. But it made sense to us to approach it in a way similar to the old BBC records, like The Seasons. Or BBC Schools Records… they did the Study Series, which a lot of people would remember from the schoolroom. The music teacher would put it on and have you doing strange activities: interpretations of poems, and that sort of thing. So we approached it in that way, and presented it in that kind of format. So yeah – I was very pleased with the reaction, and it’s done very well.

What’s next for Ghost Box in 2020?

Right now, we’re lining up the new album by Plone, called Puzzlewood, and that’s out in March, all being well.

And beyond that?

Beyond that there’s a new Belbury Poly album – my own work – out in the summer. 

Oh, how’s that sounding? Your last album, New Ways Out, sounded very glam-rock in places…  

Yeah, that was where my head was at that time. I was listening to a lot of Chicory Tip! So it was quite upbeat, that sort of vibe. I think the newer material is probably a bit darker, more electronic… back to where the Belbury project started.

Thanks to Jim for his time, as ever. In Another Room, by Paul Weller, is released by Ghost Box Records on 31st January.

The Scarfolk Annual, Richard Littler… and Merry Christmas!

Christmas morning! Without exception, the most exciting morning of the year. A head-spinning rush of excitable sleeplessness (In 1981, I stayed awake constantly from Christmas Eve morning until the early hours of Boxing Day – with a table football from Romer Parrish’s toyshop in the offing, sleep was impossible), giddy anticipation at the delights to come, and a wild, morning sugar rush on the only day of the year when it becomes socially acceptable to eat a Toblerone before 9am.

When I raced downstairs at six or (if my parents were lucky) seven o’clock, I would be greeted with a pile of brightly-wrapped presents stacked carefully below the branches of our silver Woolworths tree, its fragile plastic twigs groaning wearily beneath the weight of the entire Teesside tinsel reserve. After a few delaying tactic formalities (pot of tea, coal fire lit, curtains open to reveal drizzly twilight, local radio switched on because TV programmes didn’t start for another hour and a half), I would be allowed to “sort out” the presents into piles; individual stacks of oddly-shaped gifts for my Mum, my Dad, my Gran, my Uncle Trevor and Auntie Rose… and then a dizzily exciting mound of goodies for me, inevitably the largest of the lot. I was lucky, and I was spoiled, and with the benefit of forty years’ hindsight, I can’t thank my parents enough for that. God knows, they must have worked themselves into the ground for our Christmases.

During this giddy sifting, it was – of course – essential to attempt to guess the nature of each present before the wrapping came off. And the easiest to identify by far were the annuals. A4, hardbacked, reassuringly solid… there’s something about the very distinct weight of them that still transports me back to childhood Christmases, whenever I lift one from the self in 2019. There would be Whizzer and Chips and Whoopee annuals, of course, but – as I grew older – also Doctor Who and Blue Peter, publications that combined the “Cor!” rush of fun comic strips with worthy, educational features and stories, and often rather disconcerting illustrations. They never could get Tom Baker quite right.

These publications have all provided the inspiration for the new Scarfolk annual, a devastatingly dark and unerringly accurate pastiche of the genre. Writer and artist Richard Littler, the genial self-proclaimed mayor of this fictional, dystopian, 1970s North-Western town, joined me to share some memories of his favourite childhood annuals, and to discuss the influences on his own rather wonderful book…

Bob: Congratulations on the Scarfolk annual… has it been a long time in the planning? When did you start thinking about this, and compiling material?

Richard: Thank you! I had the idea shortly after the release of the last book, but it took a while to collate the ideas for content because I was working on other projects. I was also still regularly creating Scarfolk blog posts, but an annual requires different content, so I decided to take a break from the blog in order to focus on this new Scarfolk direction. Throw a move to another country – and a few other issues – into the mix and suddenly a couple of years have zipped by.

It’s a brilliant homage to the annuals of our youth, always seemingly published by the mysterious World Distributors. Can you recall particular 1970s annuals that left a distinct impression on you as a kid? Any particular features, stories or comic strips you’d like to share?

When I was very small, I was fond of Playhour and Disney annuals. I suffered from night terrors, and I’d leave the light on so that I could see the happy cover of my Disney annual as I tried to sleep. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen from countless horror films, juxtaposing something creepy with something innocently childlike tends to somehow make matters worse. When I was a little older, my favourites were the 1968 TV Tornado annual, which contained strips of The Saint, Tarzan, The Man from UNCLE, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and others. Print technology changed a lot in the early 1970s, so it felt ancient with its rough paper and gaudy colours when I bought it from a school jumble sale, circa 1977. Another oft-thumbed annual was Ghost Special No. 2, which is where, as a six-year-old, I first encountered Borley Rectory, in a factual feature alongside Shiver & Shake and Monster Fun-style cartoons. There weren’t any ghostly photos – just pictures of rubble and remains – but it still unsettled me.

I remember finding a certain ‘wrongness’ to 1970s annuals, too… the Doctor Who annuals, for examples, often had illustrations that bore little resemblance to the actors  in the series, and there would be educational articles too, unconnected to the show. Was that feeling something you remember, and kept in mind when working on the Scarfolk annual?

Yes, I recall that well. Buffering the true, series-based content, there were many pages in annuals only vaguely connected by theme, especially factual or puzzle content. The 1976 Doctor Who Annual, for example, contains a feature about the signs of the zodiac, and the 1978 annual has an educational piece about the Apollo mission crew emblems. They were quite lazy, really: anything to do with time or space went in. “Doctor Who is about time, and they called him grandfather, so let’s do a chapter about workmen who clean grandfather clocks”. I parodied the loose space theme in the Scarfolk Annual, as well as other nebulous fact pages… such as the page about the origin of “things”.

The strip artists also frequently used existing source material in their work. In the 1976 Doctor Who annual strip called “Neuronic Nightmare”, the character Skizos is actually a sight rejigging of Vincent Price from the film Madhouse (1974). In the story “The Mission”, the character called Tamrik is a reworked image of Charlton Heston. In honour of that kind of thing, there’s an illustration in the Scarfolk Annual that I based on an image from the 1922 Scandinavian horror film Häxan.

The annual itself is bitingly political in places – which I know has always been a part of Scarfolk, but have recent political events made Scarfolk seem closer to 21st century reality than it’s ever been? “Foreigner Identification Badges” actually seem terrifyingly plausible, as do government statements dissuading people from protesting…

I think it might be the other way around to some extent: the 21st century is getting closer to Scarfolk – or any number of dystopias – than it has been for a while. If real-world events start echoing motifs from dystopias, many of which are cautionary tales, it’s time to make sure that totalitarian and socially-extreme ideas don’t start to become normalised. That said, Scarfolk isn’t a fixed artefact like a novel. Because it’s a blog, there is some leeway and it can more easily “interact” with the latest political and cultural developments as they occur.

Has that come as a sad surprise to you over the last few years? You launched Scarfolk in 2013, which now seems like a relatively stable era in hindsight… did you have any inkling back then, that Scarfolk would become so relevant to modern life?

I didn’t at all expect that it would become so relevant to modern life. Looking back, it was an almost an innocent time. Back in comparatively utopian 2013, Scarfolk’s dystopian aspects were quaintly surreal. Since 2016 particularly, real-world developments have become absurd and tribal, Trump being a perfect personification of this. A real step back. Every time I see or hear Trump I can almost feel the human race regressing.

I loved the comic strip “Waugh in the War”, with the insane, titular “hero” determined to kill everyone… including his own soldiers. I actually remember being a little unsure as a very small kid was to whether World War 2 was still being fought in the 1970s, because it still just seemed to be everywhere. Were we still fighting it in our heads, do you think?

The 1970s were only 30 years from the war, very much within living memory of two, maybe even three generations, so it was bound to feature prominently in culture as we tried, as a society, to define what it all meant. Children’s books were full of simple tales of war-time heroism and “beating the Jerries”… as featured in comics such as Commando, Warlord and Battle, not to mention the innumerable films. Sadly, I think a lot of people still hold onto this idea of the war, which almost defines “Britishness” for them. We even hear it in mainstream political discourse. It’s facile.

I laughed a lot at the feature about “IFOs” as well – “Identified Flying Objects” – which gives supernatural significance to ducks and aeroplanes. And the “Seance Poodle”, too! Do you remember the 1970s as an era when the paranormal became an unlikely element of mainstream society? Not just in the media, with reports of ghosts on Nationwide and the like, but also everyday life… universities were still conducting “psychic research”, and I suspect belief in things like the Loch Ness Monster would have been pretty widespread. It was a pretty credulous era.

The supernatural was very much presented as scientific, rather than pseudoscientific, in the 1970s. As you say, university departments had psychic laboratories and parapsychology departments. It was all taken very seriously; it wasn’t joked about, and TV presenters didn’t make light of it at all. In fact, the same broadcasters also presented the news and other factual programmes. Books about UFOs, ghosts, Nessie, spontaneous human combustion and ESP were always in the non-fiction section rather than being in the “religion, spirituality, and new age” type category, which is where I tend to see them now.

Also, I don’t know what it was like anywhere else in Britain, but in the north where I’m from, people still went to spiritualist churches and visited mediums. Maybe they still do, I don’t know. Despite the modernist and brutalist architecture springing up around them, and the dreams of utopian, technological futures, interest in the supernatural was very much present – in fact, it accelerated. Perhaps, to some extent, it was a reaction to the concrete, glass and steel (and increasingly godless) progress that alienated some people.

Is that credulity part of what makes the era so ripe for satire? An era when people believed information provided by the mainstream media, and the government, in a way that they maybe don’t in 2019…

A few years ago, I would have said yes, the 1970s was a ripe era for satire – and it was – but seeing what has occurred in the past handful of years, I would say that gullibility is still a huge concern. Many people have been deftly manipulated into believing untrue, flagrant absurdities. Arguably, it’s worse now: At least in the past, people had the excuse of “innocent” ignorance, in that there was less access to information and knowledge. Nowadays, information is at everyone’s fingertips and, arguably, it doesn’t take too long to discern whether or not a piece of information is factual, manipulated or fabricated. More than ever we can see confirmation bias at work and this is frequently exploited by controlling agencies such as governments, corporations and media sources (and often so-called ‘alternative’ media sources).

On a lighter note, with “Scar School” in mind… which of the Play School toys did you find the most unsettling, and why?

It has to be Hamble. She’s a cursed toy. She’s supposed to be baby but she looks about 80 years old. She’s like a witch or the dwarf in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. She’s to be avoided at all costs.

I also love your ear for little phrases that remind me of feeling scared at school. Reading the annual was the first time in 35 years that I’d come across the phrase “Middle C of the piano”. I had no idea what it meant at the time, but I felt like I was supposed to know, and that scared me. Any other phrases like that that haunt you?

There are so many, and I try wherever possible to include words and phrases that aren’t in use as much as they once were. Even something simple like “Hallo” or “hullo”, instead of “hello”, which I remember from reading Enid Blyton books as a kid. The phrase that unsettled me the most – “for more information…” – I adapted into Scarfolk’s slogan: “For More Information Please Re-read”. I panicked whenever I read official documents, whether at school or elsewhere. And if you reached that kind of phrase at the end of forms, and still didn’t understand, you were in trouble. Too frightened to ask for fear of looking stupid, or risk a clip round the earhole from a proudly abusive teacher, you’d just smile and pretend that you got it.

This is complete nosey parkery on my part, but a recurring theme in Scarfolk is the breakdown of trust (or the attempt to drive a wedge) between children and their parents.  The annual even has a feature called “Are You Parents Hurting You?”! Dare I ask… what’s your relationship with your own parents like, are you exorcising anything here?

Ha! My relationship with my parents is fine. Honestly (honestly!). Writing from the point-of-view of Scarfolk Council is really only like an actor playing an unsavoury character. “Method” blogging, if you will.

One central concept of the annual is about indoctrinating children – or anyone, I suppose – so I studied the brainwashing and coercive techniques of cults. One method is to break down the trust between a prospective cult member/victim and their closest family members and friends with the ultimate goal of pressuring the victim into cutting all ties so that they are under the full control of the cult. Once a cult has broken down the victim’s connection to the outside world, it starts eroding their concept of themselves as individuals. So, you know, I thought that would be a good idea for the basis of a children’s book. As you do.

Any future plans for Scarfolk that you could share with us? Could the annual become an, erm, annual occurrence?

It could only be an “annual annual” if I involved other artists and contributors, because of publisher and printer deadlines. The turnaround would be too tight for me on my own. Involving others was originally the plan for this book, but when I realised how much it might cost to commission so many contributors, I took on the onerous task of doing everything myself. I’m so cheap. I ended up having to teach myself to draw in the varied style of the old annuals. Thankfully, and very fortunately for me, the art in some of them is quite crude, but I still I had to improve myself enormously just to reach the dizzying heights of crudity!

Thanks so much to Richard for his time, and typically thoughtful and fascinating conversation. The Scarfolk Annual is available here…

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Scarfolk-Annual-Richard-Littler/dp/0008307016

And thanks, from me, to everyone who has been part of this blog throughout 2019! It’s been a joy to put together, and I’m so grateful to everyone who has contributed and commented, or simply read and enjoyed these articles. Particular thanks go to David Sutton and all at the Fortean Times. Lots more to come in 2020, in the meantime… wishing you all a merry – and hopefully not too haunted – Christmas.


Bob x

Hattie Cooke, The Sleepers and Spun Out of Control

The 1970s felt like a very “ill” decade. Those of us who were children at the time were well aware of the impact of commonplace maladies, and we all share fond memories of gazing woozily at BBC Schools programmes while attempting to shake off the unpleasant effects of mumps, measles or chickenpox. Or, indeed, incorporating unspecified abdabs into our childhood games… it was an era when simple playground pursuits like “Tag” were rebranded as “Bugs”, or even “Fleas”, the sole object being to contaminate as many of our closest friends as possible with the lethal, imaginary infection of our choosing.

Then, of course, we could wallow in the welter of TV and film favourites that took a myriad of plagues and maladies as their starting point. There was Survivors, of course, but even Hollywood blockbusters had their moments: 1978’s Coma, directed by Michael Crichton, depicts a spate of unexplained brain-deaths in a Boston Hospital; and the lesser-known Patrick – from the same year – sees a troubled Susan Penhaligon despatched to care for a comatose young man who nevertheless seems to exhibit worrying telekinetic powers.

Good grief, there was even Only When I Laugh, an illness-based sitcom, with James Bolam, Peter Bowles and Christopher Strauli seemingly stranded indefinitely in a grim hospital ward with three non-specific, long-term lurgies.

All of these memories sprang to mind when I first listened to Hattie Cooke‘s excellent new album, The Sleepers. Released by the cassette-friendly Spun Out Of Control, it forms the soundtrack to an strikingly original narrative, an approach that has become the label’s intriguing trademark. The story is that of a worldwide sleeping sickness that baffles the scientific community, and the young woman – Maude – whose son becomes affected. When he is kidnapped by a violent sect who are determined to sacrifice the snoozing victims to achieve misguided absolution, she decides, in desperation, to infiltrate the cult’s membership. But unexpectedly finds herself falling for a fellow member…

It’s an album of beautiful, cinematic electronica, and I asked Hattie about its inspirations and evolution.

Bob: Your previous work has been as a more traditional singer-songwriter, although you’ve incorporated a few synths here and there. Had it always been in your mind to make a full-length instrumental album?

Hattie: I’ve always loved soundtracks, and classical music especially. When I was about 12 or 13 I started asking for soundtracks as Christmas and birthday presents. I was really into Amelie, and the Yann Tiersen soundtrack in particular, and I pretty much played it on repeat. I think it was around that time that I starting thinking “One day I want to compose music for films…” So I guess you could say I’ve always had the inclination to do it. But realistically I had no idea what that meant in principle or how it would sound, just that I wanted to be like all of the composers I admired. That feeling has never gone away, especially as I’ve gotten more into film as I’ve grown older.

The ideas behind The Sleepers are quite specific, and it has a set narrative… did you always intend it to be a musical work, or did it ever cross your mind to write it as a novel, a short story, or even a film?

The Sleepers actually started out as something else entirely. Technically it started out as a dance record about four years ago, but I scrapped it. And then last year I came back to the files and realised that there was some good stuff that I could develop into something new. At the same time, my friend Nick [as Nicholas Langley and Dark Half] was about to release a concept album called Rebel Convoy, on Spun Out Of Control, and he inspired me to try something cinematic myself. The music kept reminding me of a post-apocalypse, dystopian movie, and so I started to imagine a film in my mind, and began to re-write the music as a soundtrack.

Initially I was thinking along the ‘nuclear apocalypse’ line but, somewhere along the way, the music began to take on a life of its own. When the album was half-written, it had a much more dream-like quality. So I spent a few days coming up with a new plot. I came up with some pretty terrible ones but eventually I landed on the idea of the The Sleepers, which was partly inspired by the Oliver Sacks book, Awakenings. It was on my bedside table at the time.

I had wanted to release a short story along with the music, but ran out of time. In my wildest dreams somebody would turn it into a film and let me write the screenplay.

The idea of a worldwide sleeping sickness is so delightfully reminiscent of those blockbuster 1970s “disaster” books and films, and I guess the obvious comparison is something like Coma. Did you have that kind of thing in mind when you started thinking about The Sleepers? Is there a secret Michael Crichton fan in us all?

Gosh, I could talk for hours about 1970s films; Marathon Man, Network, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Annie Hall, Two-Lane Blacktop, All the Presidents Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Deliverance, Papillon… the list goes on and on. But when I was making the album I kept thinking about 1970s science fiction, and dystopian films like Logan’s Run, Westworld (Hello, Michael Crichton) and THX 1138.

The scene in THX 1138 where Robert Duvall is climbing up that ladder trying to escape to the outside world, as those terrifying robot men call after him, kept playing around and around in my head. That’s why I titled one of the tracks ‘Ladders’, as a private nod to that film. 

How did you approach the album – did you have the whole story planned out, and then compose music for each plot point accordingly?

Sort of, but not quite. I definitely didn’t approach it as logically, or as constrained as that. It was a bit all over the place to begin with, but once the album was half done and I knew what the plot was going to be, I began to refine the whole thing. It became clear that I had a specific sound that I was trying to capture. I was going for a dream-like calmness that also had a sense of tension about it, like something ominous or dangerous was about to happen. I have no idea if I pulled it off!

Certainly, at points I’d think, “I have too many dreamy tracks, I need to write one that’s more upbeat, with more tension and energy” and so I would sit down and write until something good came out. But mostly I just tried to put myself into the various emotional states of the characters. I’d picture something happening to them in the film, and then write the musical version of their thoughts and feelings. It’s an abstract process that’s hard for me to get my own head around.

Can you talk us through any characters that you had in mind for The Sleepers? Tell us about Maude! And the cult member she falls for…

Maude! She’s so determined to get vengeance for the death of her son. She’s heartbroken. But the pain drives her. She becomes obsessed by the need to “do something”. She thinks that if she can join the cult, and rise up the ranks, that she might be able to take it down from the inside, so to speak. And then she meets this guy at one of the cult meetings, I never gave him a name, but we can call him Bob after you…

I’m honoured…

And so Bob is part of the cult too, but unlike the other members, there’s something familiar about him, something in him that she recognises but that she can’t put her finger on. And there’s this tension between them, sexual or emotional maybe, it’s hard to say. But Maude is beating herself up, because she’s really only wanting to focus on her plan. And more to the point, she doesn’t understand why she’s falling for this sociopath who seemingly thinks it’s acceptable to steal children from their beds and sacrifice them.

Eventually they discover that they’re both fake members. and Bob has his own vendetta against the cult. So they connect over their mutual hate and desire for revenge. It’s all very odd and backwards, romantically speaking, but then again I was going through a break-up when I wrote the album, so that might have something to do with it!

As a maker of electronic music, who are your inspirations and influences? I think I picked out hints of John Carpenter and even Mark Snow’s music for The X-Files, but I’m happy to be told that I’m wrong!

It’s funny, so many people – after they hear the music – say to me that I must like John Carpenter. Truth be told, I had no idea who he was at the time. Turns out I’ve seen a ton of his films, but I definitely wouldn’t be able to sing you one of his themes. I’ve always been into classical musical, especially minimalism and chamber music. I spent most of 2017 and 2018 listening to Arvo Part, Henryk Górecki, Erik Satie, Philip Glass, John Tavener… that sort of thing. I think that feeds into what I do.

Obviously I don’t have an entire orchestra to hand, and actually I can’t even read music. I just have an old iPad with GarageBand on it, so I take my influences and impose the dodgy built-in synth sounds on them, and it comes out sounding like John Carpenter or New Order or whatever. It’s a total accident. The music I make is really just a product of my own various limitations. I’d probably be writing for a 72 piece orchestra, or a string quartet, if I could. 

How did you link up with Spun Out Of Control? Did you approach them, or did they approach you?

I wrote the album specifically with them in mind. After Nick showed me a preview of Rebel Convoy, I was really keen to release a concept album too. The artwork, the sound, the concept… it was all so exciting to me. And Spun Out of Control are a very cool label. So I spent a few months working on a demo version of the album and then I contacted Gavin [Stoker, label boss] via Twitter… pretty much just asking him to take a listen and let me know if he might be interested in releasing something with me.

I suppose it’s quite a lot of work to put in without any guarantees, but I think it helped knowing that Spun Out Of Control were supportive of my first album… plus Nick at Third Kind Records said he’d release it if nobody else wanted to, ha! But Gavin has been great, very helpful and very encouraging. This was my first attempt at a concept album/soundtrack so it was a great feeling to have him on board with it. He’s a man who knows his stuff! It’s also very exciting to be the first female artist on the label.

They’re on a sensational run of form with their covers… what was your first reaction when you saw the sleeve for The Sleepers?

The artwork, by Eric Adrian Lee, is always mind-blowing. It’s genuinely half the reason that I wanted to work with Spun Out Of Control, because he does the majority of the covers for them. It’s funny though, because I gave him very different suggestions for the artwork when we initially spoke, and then he got behind on another project… so it took a few months. The anticipation was ramping up. And then when I saw what he’d come up with, it was a bit of a shock. Not a bad shock, just not at all what I was expecting. He said he found the album very relaxing and wanted to convey that.

I thought that was very funny. I guess it’s impossible to know what other people are going to think of when they hear your music. The artwork looks fantastic though, very striking and iconic, the sort of thing that belongs on a full-size film poster. I’m a little concerned that the artwork is better than the music!

The revival of the cassette is an interesting phenomenon, too. Do they hold a lot of sentimental value for you?

The fact that I’ve released two albums on cassette is sort of an accident, to be honest… it turns out that the labels who like my music are the sort of people who also like to release stuff on cassettes. I’m OK with that, although I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t desperate to release something on vinyl. I don’t even own a cassette player… I did when I was a little kid, but I only used it because it had an FM/AM radio, and I liked tuning into AM and listening to strange French music.

It took me two and a half years to listen to my first album on its physical format. I was drunk on whiskey and wine, and when we tried to play the B-side the tape went all weird and warped. We wound it back using a pencil but it happened again so we stopped trying. I still haven’t listened to The Sleepers cassette yet. I have one by my beside and I’ve very proud of it, but I’ve always found it surreal and a little uncomfortable listening back to my own music.

Has it whetted your appetite for more scores, and instrumental albums? What will the next album be?

I’ve had another solo album in the pipeline for two years, but I haven’t had the guts to record it properly. It’s wrapped up in a lot of emotions and I guess I’ve been putting off “going there”. But certainly I’d like to write more scores, and I’d love to score for a real-life film, not just one that I’ve made up in my head!

Partly I was hoping somebody would hear The Sleepers and ask me to score a film for them. But since it came out I’ve been asked by Alex White from Electric Soft Parade and Brakes to collaborate with him on a new album. He’s a wonderful songwriter, so hopefully that will happen at some point in the not too distant future. It would be nice to work with somebody else. I’m kind of a hermit when it comes to my work, but I think maybe it’s time to come out of my shell a little bit.

Thanks for Hattie for a fascinating chat, and The Sleepers is available here…

https://spunoutofcontrol.bandcamp.com/album/the-sleepers

Scarred For Life, Kev Oyston and Memories of 1970s TV

All hail Stephen Brotherstone and Dave Lawrence… the square-eyed Liverpudlian duo who, staggered that nobody had yet written a book about the welter of disturbing TV shows, films and – ahem – ice lollies that traumatised our collective 1970s childhoods, set out to fill the gap. The resulting doorstep-sized tome, Scarred For Life, has become a sales sensation, and a follow-up volume, detailing the Cold War-infused minutiae of their 1980s adolescence, is due in 2020.

And the book has now inspired a compilation album of original music, all influenced by those lingering memories of childhood disquiet. It includes new tracks by the likes of Vic Mars, The Home Current, Pulselovers, The Heartwood Institute and Polypores, and has been compiled by musician Kev Oyston, who – in his guise as The Soulless Party – also contributes the title track. It’s the start of a busy period for Kev, whose multi-media Black Meadow collaboration with writer Chris Lambert, detailing the dark folk stories of the North York Moors, also sparks back into life in early 2020.

But the Scarred For Life album, released this week by Castles In Space, comes first, with all proceeds heading to Cancer Research UK. It’s a beautiful collection of evocative music, and I asked Kev about the inspiration behind it…

Bob: Where did the idea for the Scarred For Life album come from? I assume you bought the book, and enjoyed it?

Kev: Yeah, I bought the book. It appealed massively to me straight away. Although I was born in 1975, a lot of the early to mid 1970s Public Information Films, schools programmes and children’s programmes were still being re-shown throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, so a lot of the content of the book rang a big bell with me. I’ve always been fascinated with the dark, weird and ambiguous output of 1970s TV.

Which TV programmes or films from the era really scared you?

My earliest memories are basically from Doctor Who and those Public Information films. Being rather mesmerised by Tom Baker, who himself was pretty scary. I actually remember the reveal of Scaroth at the end of the first episode of City of Death – that absolutely terrified me. I was four! The other Doctor Who cliffhanger that traumatised me was the end of the first episode of Logopolis, where the Master shrunk Aunt Vanessa and the policeman, and left them like lifeless dolls in the car.

The Public information Films that got to me were the ones with the drivers’ faces being smashed through the car windscreen in very weird slow motion. There was also one with a mother and her little boy, where he runs out into the road and she drops her eggs as he gets run over. I used the think the eggs were the contents of the boy’s head!

And the infamous Apaches, which warned of the dangers of playing on a farm, absolutely gave me nightmares… especially the shot of the boy sinking and drowning in the slurry pit. It was just so lifelike! But that was the idea wasn’t it? To scare you away from doing daft and silly things on roads, or swanning around near farming equipment.

Did other things get to you as well? I found it hilarious that the book’s writers, Stephen and Dave, were scared by “Dracula” ice lollies and “Horror Bags” crisps… 

I can remember this quite vividly, and it still gives me chills now… my parents used to threaten me with the rag and bone man, saying he was going to take me away if I didn’t behave. Honestly, that worked a treat because every time I heard him at the bottom of our street shouting, “RAGBONE!!” I’d be off like a shot! In fact I’d hide under my bed!

I think it was his voice, the way he shouted. It was quite snarly and bellowing. I really do still shudder thinking about it.

When, and how, did it strike you to make an accompanying album?

I hit it off with Stephen a long time ago, over our love of the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and we talked on and off for a while about different things. It wasn’t until we actually met, at their first Scarred For Life show in Eaglescliffe about a year ago, that we talked quite excitedly about the idea of doing a compilation album. I found the subject of the book to be really evocative, and thought it would carry the weight of a concept album quite well.   

At first we toyed with the idea of doing covers of old 1970s and 80s TV themes, fitting in with the Scarred For Life ethos. But after much pondering and research, I discovered that it would end up being a huge copyright headache, so we parked the idea for a bit. 

It wasn’t until I heard that the lads were working on a sequel to the original Scarred for Life book, this time covering the 1980s, that my interest in doing something was piqued again. So I spoke with Stephen and asked what he thought about a compilation album of music “inspired” by the TV and film output of the Scarred for Life era. He loved the idea, so I went away and rallied some artists.

Did you draw up a hit list of you wanted to approach? Are a lot of these artists people that you’ve known for a long time?

It all seems a bit of a blur now, but I think it was quite organic. The first person I approached, more for advice, was Colin Morrison from the Castles in Space label. I already had something on the boil with him, and thought it would be good to run this idea past him too. Before we knew it, he’d signed up to the whole thing, lock stock and barrel, and wanted to promote and push it all! I was absolutely bowled over.

A lot of the artists I approached, I’d known forever… Vic Mars, Monroeville Music Center, Pete Hackett – aka Cult of Wedge – Keith Seatman and Swimming Lesson. They all jumped at the chance to be on the album. I’d always admired the other acts too… The Twelve Hour Foundation, the achingly lovely Jonathan Sharp from The Heartwood Institute, Listening Centre, Rob from Handspan… in fact I admire everyone we have on there!

It was nice, because I proposed the idea to each of these artists, and immediately there was a mutual understanding of the premise, and the important cause that the album was for. Not only that, each individual who took part was just massively likeable, and easy to get along with. I had everyone in a Scarred for Life private group and we all just clicked. Honestly, it was really lovely. Most of the artists were already aware of Stephen and Dave’s wonderful book and were really keen to take part.

What was the remit you gave them all as a starting point for their tracks?

Because the Scarred For Life books are about to hit the 1980s, I gave them the remit of creating music that reminded them of that kind of “off kilter”, not quite right, TV shows or movies that they’d watched as kids in the 1970s and 80s. But not just the TV shows… other things besides.

Can you give us a little rundown the tracks themelves, and the inspirations behind them?

Well, I thought I’d let the artists speak for themselves! I managed to coax this out of them all the other day… here’s what some of them have to say on each of their pieces:

Vic Mars: The Time Menders

Vic Mars: The Time Menders was an early title for Sapphire and Steel, and I was aiming for a psychic paranormal investigator theme.

The Heartwood Institute: Women Against The Wire

Jonathan Sharp: The Heartwood Institute track is a direct reference to the women’s peace camp at Greenham Common, and that’s also where the sample is from:  “We are women, we are strong…”

The Twelve Hour Foundation: Belmont

Jez Butler: Our track is named after the TV transmitter near my old home town in Linconshire. Rather than being based on a specific theme tune, it’s a more generic radiophonic-inspired thing, with the focus on the sudden start – in the style of a scary 70s kids’ drama intro – and the the cliff-hanger at the end. If that makes sense!

Keith Seatman: Words From The Wireless

Keith Seatman: Words From The Wireless was inspired by the 1972 series Escape Into Night, and the book that inspired it, Marianne Dreams.  “Not the light!” 

Swimming Lesson: Superhighways

Darryl Wakelin: Mine was inspired by the excitement and dread – in equal measure – of what computing in the future would be like. A mix of Tomorrow’s World, and the machines that would destroy us, control us or be used for war. Think 2001: A Space Odyssey, Demon Seed, UFO, Space 1999, etc…  

The Home Current: Summer In Marstrand

Martin Jensen: Summer in Marstrand is inspired by growing up with the Moomins on Danish TV. I was part fascinated, and part scared senseless, every time an episode aired. Some of my childhood summer holidays were spent on the Swedish island of Marstrand, and apart from it being where I saw my very fist White-Tailed Eagle, I also remember thinking the Moomins could easily have come from there.

Handspan: Fear Follows Shortly

Rob Colling: Mine came mainly from the fact that I’d been listening to Clannad’s Legend, the soundtrack album from Robin of Sherwood, quite a lot in the weeks running up to this project. That’s why so many of the modular synth noises sound a bit like Celtic harps. It actually ended up in more of a Look And Read kind of place, somewhere between Dark Towers and The Boy From Space, hence the track title, but my initial idea was much more about forests and mist and standing stones. And terrifying early digital video effects.

Cult of Wedge: The Gamma Children

Pete Hackett: Originally I’d written an actual song, words and all, but I couldn’t sing it due to the stupid key, and time was running out, and everyone else’s tracks were instrumental… so I recorded a theme tune! It’s pretty much on a theme of The Tomorrow People, but has time travel / indigo / psychic children ideas going on. Hence the kid at the start seeing dead people…

Pulselovers: Nice View From Up Here

Mat Handley: Nice View From Up Here is my take on the theme tune for a sitcom starring Joe and Petunia from the Public Information Film series made between 1968 and 1973. I imagined a particularly un-PC studio comedy in the style of George and Mildred, but with a theme more inspired by the brilliant Ronnie Corbett vehicle, Sorry!

Monroeville Music Center: Hack and Slash

Craig Storm: I sat down trying to make an homage to Knightmare, and instead ended up with what seems like the end credit music to an educational programme’s Halloween episode, if it had spliced in eight-bit voice actor samples from a third-rate medieval adventure game. It’s no Knightmare, but it’s a show I’d like to watch.

The Central Office of Information: Puzzled

Alex Cargill: Puzzled is loosely based on the 1970s and 1980s BBC kids TV show Jigsaw, which featured the infamous character of Noseybonk. Genuinely disturbing for a young child. I tried to imitate the generally upbeat feel of the original, along with the childish sound effects. The laughter snippet is actually a sample of my late Grandad – it seemed to fit nicely and I thought it’d be nice to have him immortalised on a CD. It’s what he would’ve wanted. However, as is often the case, I couldn’t help myself from adding a little bit of acid squelch to the proceedings.

Quimper: The Runner

Johnny Vertigan: I think I was gleefully ripping off the slightly sinister library themes that would sometimes find their way onto Pages from CEEFAX. Or the kind of thing that would be used for either a forgotten, warped 1970s BBC drama, or perhaps a schools’ programme about maths. Same difference back then, I suppose.

Listening Center: Nowhere, Nowhere, We Should Have Known

David Mason: My offering is inspired by the multiple layers of uncanny-ness and the fractured parallel realities reflected in Sapphire and Steel. The title is borrowed from the final episode of the series, where (Spoiler Alert!) Sapphire and Steel find themselves trapped in a cafe, in the void, for eternity. 

Panamint Manse: Leadfield Intoxicants
 
WP Ulmer: I was channelling Harry Forbes watching The Finishing Line

The Bentley Emerald Learning Resource: Programmes For Sick Days

Benjamin Green: Programmes for Sick Days takes inspiration from “Programmes for Schools”, generally the only television available to watch for children who were too poorly to go to school that day. Quite dry programmes that perhaps seemed dead boring in a classroom would become extraordinarily fascinating and eerie in the cosy setting of the living room. My track tries to evoke the images and sounds of a morning of school programming, through the woozy haze of feeling unwell. Dosed up on children’s medicine, and safely bundled up within blankets and quilts to make a bed on the settee.

To temper the cosiness, I will add that while experiencing a proper bout of influenza for the first time as a child, I had a morbid thought during an episode of Zig Zag that I might end my days on the sofa, and these would be the last visuals and sounds I’d ever experience. And I’ve since often wondered if, for some poor souls, that may have been the case….

Polypores: Memorabilia

Stephen J Buckley: My track, as with most of my music, wasn’t really planned or thought out as such. It’s not really up to me what I write on any given day. I simply made myself available, open to suggestion, and coaxed it from the strange ether from which music comes. Basically, I was led down a Scarred for Life ether vortex, and the track just came out!

And Kev, your own theme music, the opening track to the album?

Yes, it was the main Scarred for Life theme that I tasked myself with, and I just wanted to encompass sounds and layers that echoed the likes of Denton and Cooke, and Peter Howell… with a cheeky nod to John Carpenter, too.

What’s your own background as a musician? Can you give us a little potted history, please?

I was massively into music from a very young age. I used to spend a lot of time round at my cousins’ house, and they were quite big into electronica, post-punk and ska. I was basically a sponge, and I loved everything they listened to. They had a loft conversion with lots of old synths in it, and wrote their own material as well as doing cover versions for a college band they were in. Again, I was hooked. By the age of 12 I had my first synthesizer, a Korg Poly 800. I also had a four-track tape recorder to lay down any ideas I had. I got a few more synths in my twenties, and chucked out a few demos of instrumental tracks to various people. One of whom told me that I’d be good for TV adverts or soundtrack work… however, being very young, idealistic and quite naive, I was quite put out by this! I went off to form a synth-pop band with my cousin, Rob.

I wrote all the tracks and did some of the vocals and we set out round London gigging on the – then – underground electronic music circuit for a few years. We had a nice little following, and released an album… which maybe ten people might have in their collection.

As the years progressed, I started getting into Ghost Box Records. Their output totally blew my mind and took me back to my childhood in very strange ways… to the classroom, or to a cornfield or a forest on a warm, hazy day. I just loved what I was hearing. That inspired me to go down a similar instrumental route, trying to come up with something that reminded people of the past. New music that sounded like vintage music. I think I achieved that with the Black Meadow project.

I was going to ask about the Black Meadow project. Can you tell us a little bit about this?

While I was trying to find that sound of the past, I wrote a track which I just randomly called Beyond the Moor. It ended up on the Tales from the Black Meadow album, but at the time I wrote it, I had no idea what it could be for… why did I call it Beyond the Moor? But the more tracks I wrote with a similar vibe, the more it organically fell into place. The concept came to me.

As a child, we used to drive regularly over the North York Moors to Pickering, to see relatives. We’d always pass the three huge, golf ball-like radomes that belonged to RAF Fylingdales, and – being a kid with his head in the clouds – I always imagined strange alien craft being housed there. Or something akin to Quatermass, that kind of thing. My imagination ran wild. I recalled all that as I wrote the music for the first Black Meadow album and it just gave me the impetus to keep going. I had an idea of a story, or of strange folklore, attached to this place called The Black Meadow, which was slap bang right next to RAF Fylingdales. It was to be a place of mysterious fog, creatures and a Brigadoon-type village that appeared only under certain atmospheric conditions. The village is full of weird monsters and people, and is just downright creepy.

My old partner in crime Chris Lambert took an interest in this project and my ideas, and basically wanted to put them all into proper folklore-style stories, and have them published along with the album. I got carried away with the idea, and pushed for something else to go alongside the music and the book, and that was… why don’t we “dig up” an old BBC Radio 4 documentary from 1978, all about the Black Meadow, and add it to the album? So we did.

The original Tales from the Black Meadow CD – with the music and the documentary – was released in 2013, along with the book. The book still sells well today, and sometimes I  re-release the album and it always seems to do OK. 

And there’s some new material coming in January 2020?

It’s taken a long time, but we’ve just completed the second Black Meadow project, The Black Meadow Archive: Vol 1. Again, it’s an album of music, this time on vinyl, again on the lovely Castles in Space label. And there’s also a new, jam-packed book too. We’re quite excited to release it to the world. We just hope everyone likes it! 

In the meantime, Scarred For Life is out this week, and all proceeds are going to Cancer Research UK… is it a cause that’s dear to your heart?

Absolutely. Sadly, someone very close to me was diagnosed with cancer in May and it’s been a very tough few months. Happily things are looking positive, as the treatment has done the job, and we’re hoping everything will be clear come the New Year.

Its funny how you can appreciate, yet still take for granted, some of the work these charities do. It’s not really until something affects you close to home that you start to really appreciate their work. Cancer Research UK are a hugely proactive concern… they’re a positive power for good in the search for a cure to cancer, and they provide fantastic support to those who may be suffering. They were the first charity I thought of when we were putting this album together, and it’s been brilliant to see people buying the album also getting behind the charity too.

Thanks to Kev for his time, and thoughtful replies… and to everyone else on the album for contributing, too. The Scarred For Life album is available here…

https://scarredforlife.bandcamp.com

…and it concludes on a poignant note; the closing track, Be Like A Child by Carl Matthews, is a genuine piece of beautifully melancholy 1984 electronica from an artist whose own life was cut tragically short by cancer. It’s a fitting conclusion to a wonderful collection of music.


I asked Jonathan Sharp, of The Heartwood Institute, about his memories of Carl. He replied…

“Carl is one of the great lost voices of UK synth. He started releasing cassettes from 1980 via the Mirage label – all very DIY – and continued up to 1991. You can find a big list of his output on Discogs. He was incredibly well-respected, but largely unknown. I got to know Carl around 2001 when he started making music again, and we became good friends. I encouraged him into making library, music at which he became very successful. More recently, there’d been a real interest in his old music, and he’d had Call For World Saviours released on CD and vinyl, and had appeared on several high-profile compilations too. He’d also started releasing new music via bandcamp. Sadly he died a few months ago, just as the Scarred For Life compilation was coming together. As soon as I knew it was raising money for Cancer Research UK, it seemed natural to have a track of his on the album. His family agreed, and it’s so lovely to have that track on there.”

A Year In The Country, Stephen Prince and Echoes & Reverberations

Since 2014, Stephen Prince’s impressively comprehensive multi-media project A Year In The Country has exploring and documenting some of the lesser-trodden pathways between pastoral folk music and radiophonic electronica, as well as actively contributing to these genres with a succession of hugely enjoyable musical releases. The 2018 book Wandering Spectral Fields has hewn considerable dents in many a bank balance (including mine) with lovingly-written essays unravelling the tangled connections that bind an underappreciated welter of late 1960s/early 1970s acid-folk with the 21st century hauntology movement; via Kate Bush, Bagpuss, the films of Peter Strickland, Sapphire and Steel and the work of the Telegraph Pole Appreciation Society. Eighteen months on, my Amazon Wishlist is still groaning under the weight of a myriad of Stephen’s heartfelt recommendations.

With a new book – Straying From The Pathways – in the offing, and a new album – Echoes and Reverberations – freshly released, it seemed like an apposite moment to speak with Stephen, and discuss the lifestyle changes that led to A Year In The Country‘s inception, the childhood memories that have fuelled his explorations, and some of the music, TV and film that he has found to be especially affecting and inspiring…

Bob: Can you tell me how you started the whole Year In The Country project, and what inspired you to do so?

Stephen: For a long time I’d been working in often very city-based, left-of-centre pop culture and also living in quite central urban areas. Without consciously realising it, after finishing a particularly big creative project, I found myself being drawn to more rural areas. Perhaps I found myself wanting a quieter pace of life, a sense of space and so on.

I listened to a friend’s copy of the compilation album Gather in the Mushrooms: The British Acid Folk Underground 1968-1974, compiled by Bob Stanley of Saint Etienne. I was wandering through a dimly-lit, post-industrial part of an inner city when I first heard Trader Horne’s “Morning Way” on the album, a song which begins with “Dreaming strands of nightmare are sticking to my feet” and I thought… this isn’t like any form of folk that I’ve heard before. I think it opened up something in my mind, and is part of what led me to start A Year In The Country in 2014, and its explorations of the flipsides of folk and pastoral culture.

Also, although again I’m not sure how conscious it was, I began to want to find some kind of catharsis for the shadows of Cold War dread that I’d been carrying around since childhood, something which for myself – because I was living in the countryside when I learnt more fully about the potential realities of the Cold War – was curiously linked with rural areas and ways of living.

Beyond Gather in the Mushrooms, I didn’t really know about what has come to be known as hauntology, and the undercurrents of folk/pastoral culture, when I started thinking about and planning A Year In The Country. Maybe there was something in the air, as looking back it was a time when, unbeknownst to me, that culture seemed to start flourishing and finding an audience. Part of A Year In The Country  has been about myself exploring, documenting and discovering this loosely interconnected culture, and the people who work in it.

Somehow or other, I wandered from Gather in the Mushrooms to the underground/left field folk band The Owl Service; hauntology, Ghost Box Records and in particular, initially, the Broadcast and The Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age album and the time-out-of-joint of The Advisory Circle’s track “And The Cuckoo Comes“; Trunk Records and The Wicker Man soundtrack; the cosmic aquatic folklore of Jane Weaver Septième Soeur’s The Fallen By Watch Bird, which was in part inspired by the modern-day fairy tales of the Czech New Wave, which I also began to explore; and Rob Young’s Electric Eden book, which takes a wide-reaching look at the sometimes hidden landscapes of folk and pastoral music and culture. Some of those things I knew about already, but without realising that was what I was doing, I began to link these, at times, loosely connected things together… to form lines in the cultural landscape, as it were.

In some ways I wanted to create a website or project that I would want to visit. One that explored all of the above and hopefully could help to draw lines of connection between them.

Did you always foresee it as the multi-media experience that it has become, or – at the outset – did you simply intend to do a bit of gentle blogging?

Ah, a bit of gentle blogging may have been a bit easier!

From week one of A Year In The Country, I began releasing prints, badge sets and so on, and I always planned and hoped that I would put out music. Which I began to do in the first year.

Along with the more directly cultural sides of work, I’m very much interested in the practicalities of releasing things into the world. It’s all part and parcel of the same thing to me. For me, all the different areas of A Year In The Country – the website, the books, the music, the prints, the artwork, the making of the physical releases, the practical distribution aspects, the theoretical sides of things and so on – intertwine.

In terms of releasing books, I was particularly intrigued by the last chapter of Rob Young’s book Electric Eden, called “Toward the Unknown Region”. That chapter discusses the likes of Ghost Box Records and the outer fringes of pastoral/folk culture and, in part, seems to capture a particular spectral/hauntological atmosphere, the sense of parallel world creation that often occurs in hauntological and related folk work. It also linked together (or at least showed that they can sit side-by-side) certain aspects of hauntology and the fringes of folk culture, alongside discussing how some of folk/pastoral culture has changed and wandered off down new and sometimes surprising pathways.

I think I thought to myself, about that chapter, “I want some more of that!” and I hoped, although again maybe not all that consciously, that at some point I would put together a book that continued exploring the pathways that “Toward the Unknown Region” had begun to walk down, as well as bringing together some of the other cultural reference points that I’d found myself wandering amongst.

Again, basically, at heart I wanted to put work out into the world that I would enjoy myself, and that I found myself looking for.

Did the founding of A Year In The Country begin with a genuine lifestyle change… you actually moved into the countryside, didn’t you? How did you find this affected your state of mind?

Yes, I had moved to the countryside before the founding of A Year In The Country, and that’s when planning for it began in earnest.

Although things have changed in terms of rural access to culture – due to internet connections, expanded mail order, and so on – there is possibly still a sense that there’s more space for your mind to wander, with fewer cultural distractions. Even something as simple as there being fewer flyposters or advertising hoardings makes a difference. There’s also just a different pace of life, a slower, potentially more contemplative one. Although at this point, I think it would be good to point out that I’m not trying to say that either the countryside or cities are good or bad, there are positives and negatives with both.

I think looking back, I had a sense that pop culture, even in its more leftfield and alternative aspects, had become a very busy, crowded and heavily-harvested area of culture.

In contrast, and accompanying that literal sense of space, there also seemed to be more space within the undercurrents of folk/pastoral culture and where they meet and intertwine with hauntology. At that point they hadn’t been all that intensively explored. They seemed to be at a remove from the spotlights of attention that pop culture is routinely subject to, and that accompanying sense of business or cultural hurly burly.

So, essentially, the countryside gave me and my mind space to rest and wander. The different character, rhythms and so on of folk and pastoral culture began to make more sense once I lived in the countryside, and I would often find myself reflecting on the differences between it and more urban culture as I was wandering across the fields.

Is the desire to revert to a simpler, more bucolic lifestyle growing, do you think? A lot of people (including me) seem to find 21st century life rather daunting and anxious…

There’s a sense that it may be growing, although that’s based more on anecdotal observation than in-depth study.

Perhaps the way that people are drawn to it is an expression of wanting to find some respite from the modern world. If you look back to the 1970s, a time when some people were also drawn to bucolic and folk culture, that was a time when society in the UK was going through a period of uncertainty and turbulence, and bucolic ways of life may have offered an escape from that. Parallels could be drawn between then and now.

Although curiously and conversely, within hauntology and folk culture, being drawn to the bucolic often seems to be accompanied by exploring an unsettled flipside to it. Possibly due to a related and interconnected wish to, consciously or not, find a way of expressing and making sense of contemporary turbulent times and the connected sense of anxiety.

Connected to this, some of the reasons for the current interest in wyrd folk, otherly pastoralism and hauntology could be, as I mentioned above, that they give people the space to create imagined parallel worlds or planes of existence, ones which variously allow for a break from the contemporary anxieties, worries and day-to-day life. It could also be because humans as a species seem to be fascinated by and have a need to tell stories, spin yarns and create waking dreamscapes.

Related to 21st century life being daunting and anxious, the level of input and output of culture today can be potentially overwhelming. If I take myself as an example, I grew up in a time when there was a scarcity of, and restricted access to, more leftfield culture and some popular culture. You very much had to seek it out – which is almost the polar opposite to today.

Back then, there were only three – then four – television channels in the UK, one main weekly pop music television show, three or so weekly alternative music magazines, and – until the 1980s and the more widespread use of home video recorders – you couldn’t easily watch a broad range of films at home. And the numbers and types of books and albums you could read or listen to were quite limited by your personal budget, and what could be found in the local library, or in book and record shops.

Now there is an almost unlimited, constantly changing deluge of culture, available digitally and in other forms and often – particularly in the case of music – inexpensive via streaming services. I wonder if my brain, and those of others of my generation, is in some way still physically wired to times of cultural scarcity, and whether the way things are now can induce a sense of “not keeping up” – of there just literally, potentially, being too much input.

Also, growing up in a time of cultural scarcity can make you feel you have to pay attention to all and any culture when it does pop up. In my younger years, if I saw a rare and interesting single in a charity shop, I’d think that I would have to buy it and listen to it, as I might never see it again. That’s no longer the case, but perhaps some of that mentality lingers on in modern times. If that’s how you grew up, the ubiquity of access to nearly all culture can lead to a potential sense of being overwhelmed.

Accompanying which, there can be a daunting pace of change; there are theories that suggest that the development of human ideas, science, technology and creativity only really took off once there was a certain critical mass of people who weren’t living in small isolated groups anymore, meaning ideas could be more easily exchanged, passed around, developed and so on. To a degree, modern communication methods, travel, and information storage and retrieval may be supercharging that process, in a way that outpaces the human brain’s ability to process it. And so it can seem like the ground is constantly shifting under your feet, which doesn’t necessarily lend itself to not being anxious.

There is also economic and unemployment uncertainty, and the potentially related fast pace of change; that idea of a trade for life, and knowing that how you make a living now will be the same in a few years, let alone decades, has – to a large degree – disappeared. That applies in wider life and also within creative work, where traditional funding methods and routes have been largely swept away, and we live and work in a constantly changing cultural and economic environment.

Of course, at the same time I’m wary of just being “Bah, humbug, in my day it was all green fields, just three TV channels and an easier way of life.” The world changes and moves on and, to state the obvious, there are often pros and cons to all such changes.

Does the music, art and literature involved with the movement give you a connection to your childhood memories? Rather nebulous memories of being very young in the 1970s seem to be a huge part of all this…

I think it maybe did more so in the earlier days of A Year In The Country, which had the shadows and memories of Cold War dread as something of an underlying theme. As hauntological work often draws from such things, and a sense of unsettledness in 1970s culture, that provided a connection to my childhood.

There were science fiction television series that I only saw glimpses of in the 1970s, dystopian science fiction and horror novels and films that I was drawn to, but which I was maybe too young to fully understand… or that I just saw covers of, and created my own stories around them. All of that became a kind of personal dreamscape from which A Year In The Country partly draws – it’s not always the actual culture, but more a half-remembered or misremembered, sometimes never fully-known version of it from my childhood.

That feeling of a childhood tainted by the terror of nuclear war (or even just the general unease/melancholy of 1970s culture and society) has become such a potent one. Do you think there was something unique about that period that produced those feelings, and inspired the wave of artists and musicians that have mined it for inspiration?

That period has a number of characteristics which may have made it such an inspiration for hauntological work: although this is a broad generalisation, the late 1960s, tipping over into the 1970s, can be characterised as a point in UK/Western society when post-war and hippie optimism began to crumble, and – throughout the 1970s and early 1980s – society entered a period of economic and societal disturbance and uncertainty. There is a sense that the late 1960s to late 1970s was “a time before the fall”, and that – consciously or not – it represents a time when post-war progressive intentions and futures were fought for and lost. That, and the culture produced around that time, has become a source for, and come to represent, a sense of hauntological melancholia.

At the same time, in the 1970s, there seemed to be areas of freedom within, for example, large-scale mainstream cultural institutions such as the BBC, which allowed for the creation of at times very exploratory and left-of-centre culture. Penda’s Fen, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and so on. To a degree that continued into the 1980s, although looking back, by that point, they seemed more like flashes of rearguard resistance.

Given that we were so uneasy during our childhoods, why do you think we now often find comfort in those memories?

That’s an interesting question. Perhaps if you pull the monsters out from under the bed and shine a light on them, it helps to – if not neuter them – then at least to weaken their power.

Although that sense of unsettledness doesn’t just draw from the Cold War, that particular conflict was a strange thing to live through: a form of politics and foreign policy based on the complete destruction of global civilisation, and the creation of weapons to do that. It could be seen as a kind of collective madness in a way. To a degree, within mainstream society, the reality of living through it and the potentially harmful psychological effects aren’t really acknowledged, and that whole period has been sort of swept under the carpet of history and become just another story from past decades. Rather than something that directly affected people who are still alive.

So perhaps the hauntological exploring of those uneasy childhood memories acts as form of balm, a way of easing that unsettledness by creating a space where they can be examined.

I’m intrigued by the new A Year In The Country musical release – Echoes and Reverberations. These are recordings inspired by film and TV locations, both real and imaginary. I actually went to two 1970s Doctor Who locations recently… Aldbourne, which doubled as “Devil’s End” in The Daemons, and East Hagbourne, transformed into “Devesham” for The Android Invasion.  And I couldn’t look around either village without thinking of the terrible events that occurred there… but, of course, they didn’t. And the pub in Aldbourne has blurred reality further by placing a “Cloven Hoof” sign outside the front door… when, in actuality, it’s called The Blue Boar. Do TV and film locations almost almost become two places, one real and one fictional?

It sounds like you’ve been doing some interesting wandering…

You could consider such places to have two realities; a surface and an imaginary one, or a literal one and one which exists in the mind.

That sense of places having an alternate reality is one of the main themes of the Echoes And Reverberations album; it’s an exploration of the way that places become layered with the stories and atmosphere of the films and television programmes which were recorded there – with each track being by a different contributor and focusing on a particular location and film or television programme.

Sometimes that layering may be expressed overtly, if an area has become well-known as being a particular film or TV location and a related tourist industry has built up around it, or it may be more of a personal, private thing.

I wanted the album to explore how these places can become sources of personal and cultural inspiration, and also locations for a form of modern-day cultural pilgrimage. Partly as a marker of such pilgrimages, each track contains field recordings from such journeys.

The layering of different realities and stories in a place is very much an abstract and, as I just said, often a very personal thing. And so, as I wrote in the album’s accompanying text, the tracks, their themes and the field recordings are a “seeking of the spectral will-o’-the-wisps of locations imagined or often hidden flipsides.”

It is, in part, also an exploration of the themes from these real and imaginary film and television programmes, from “apocalyptic tales to never-were documentaries and phantasmagorical government-commissioned instructional films via stories of conflicting mystical forces of the past and present, scientific experiments gone wrong and unleashed on the world, the discovery of buried ancient objects and the reawakening of their malignant alien influence, progressive struggles in a world of hidebound rural tradition and the once optimism of post-war new town modernism.”

More specifically, that takes in such hauntological and otherly-pastoral touchstones as Penda’s Fen and Quatermass, via Survivors, and onto the likes of 1991 science fiction series Chimera, and period drama Flambards.

On the album there are 10 tracks and accompanying text by Grey Frequency, Pulselovers, Dom Cooper, Listening Center, Howlround, A Year In The Country, Sproatly Smith, Field Lines Cartographer, Depatterning and The Heartwood Institute. Musically, as with the majority of the themed A Year In The Country compilation albums, it takes in quite a wide range of musical styles, from radiophonic electronica to its more contemporary counterparts, shades of acid/psych folk, tape machine manipulation and so on… which could be seen as an example of the interweaving of the undercurrents of folk and hauntological work.

And as you say, some of the tracks are inspired by imaginary film and television locations. For some people, places have become imbued with alternate realities and atmospheres related to stories that only exist in their own imaginations. In this sense the album also loosely interconnects with other work in hauntological areas/the undercurrents of folk, which also creates soundtracks to imaginary films and television, such as The Book of the Lost, Tales from the Black Meadow and The Equestrian Vortex, or the A Year In The Country-released The Shildam Hall Tapes and The Corn Mother.

Have you gone on similar quests to find TV and film locations? How did they make you feel?

Sometimes I have more gone on personal quests related to my own past experiences, rather than specifically to a particular filming location.

For example, during the first year that I moved to the countryside I went out photographing a lot, taking the images I would use in the artwork, prints and albums in the first year of A Year In The Country. At the end of that year, to the day, I set off on a journey to take photographs in the small country village where, as a child, I first discovered and experienced Cold War dread, and dystopian science fiction, and saw glimpses of the children’s television drama series Noah’s Castle, which showed society collapsing due to hyperinflation. All of which fed into A Year In The Country.

Prior to that year, I hadn’t visited for a number of decades and it was a curious thing to wander amongst and revisit my own past via this literal landscape, one which had informed the mental landscape that created some of the roots that became A Year In The Country. As you suggested earlier, at such times it is almost as though places have more than one reality, and their different layers and realities intertwine.

Completely coincidentally, on the train route back, an arthouse cinema was showing Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape and an episode of Beasts. Not something you expect to see every day or even once a year at the cinema, and so I stopped off on the way home to watch them, which felt like something of a cinematic/cathode ray rounding of the circle of that first behind-the-scenes year of A Year In The Country.

More directly related to filming locations, the first time I visited Portmeirion, which as you probably know was the location where much of The Prisoner was shot, I could tell that the younger, subconscious me who first saw The Prisoner was thrilled to be there. It was strange seeing the place in full colour, and in such real-world high-definition… I had first seen The Prisoner on a black and white television, and I think that memory of it had lingered with me. I think I had expected it to be more like a film-set facade, but the buildings were functional and very three-dimensional.

However, it was not so much the actual village of Portmeirion that seemed to capture a sense of The Prisoner for me, but rather a deserted beach area next to it that I came upon by accident, and which summoned up endless visions of No. 6 trying to escape before being recaptured by the Rover.

Perhaps the beach and its more abstract connection to The Prisoner allowed my mind and imagination to wander more. Whereas the buildings and giant chessboard in Portmeirion village were great to see, they didn’t allow for that mental space so much, as they were a more literal representation of the series and my memories of it.

All of this feeds into the new A Year In The Country book, too…

Yes, A Year in the Country: Straying from the Pathways, which is released on 8th October 2019.

As with A Year In The Country: Wandering Through Spectral Fields, Straying from the Pathways explores the undercurrents of folk/pastoral culture and where it meets and intertwines with the lost futures and parallel worlds of hauntology, including a fair few of the themes we’ve discussed above.

It includes writing about some of the core culture from such things while, as I say in the introduction, I also wanted to push back the boundaries and look elsewhere for where hauntological-esque spectres, lost futures and re-imagined echoes of the past might be found.

To semi-quote from the cover, it wanders amongst eerie landscapes, folk horror, the dysfunctional utopian visions of Brutalist architects and hazily misremembered cultural memories, taking in the likes of the faded modernity and “future ruins” of British road travel, apocalyptic “empty city” films, dark fairy tales, the political undercurrents of the 1980s and idyllic villages gone rogue.

So, in Straying from the Pathways you’ll find writing on film, television and books including John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness, Halloween III, The Company of Wolves, Penda’s Fen, the Texte und Töne-published book The Twilight Language of Nigel Kneale, The Prisoner, GB84, Edge of Darkness, along with music that draws from and interconnects with hauntological spectres and re-imaginings of the past including synthwave, hypnagogic pop, The Ghost in the MP3, Howlround, Grey Frequency and Ghost Box Records… amongst others.

Thanks so much to Stephen for such a thoughtful and fascinating interview. And for all your Year In The Country requirements:

https://ayearinthecountry.co.uk