(Originally published in Issue 69 of Electronic Sound magazine, September 2020)
Jim Jupp is Belbury Poly. And the co-founder of Ghost Box Records, the home of bespoke, haunted, retro-futurist electronica since 2004. With his first album in four years, Jupp has returned to the label’s supernatural roots. And this time, it’s all about fairies…
Words: Bob Fischer
“If I’d said the album was about ghosts, people would have said ‘OK, that’s interesting’,” smiles Jim Jupp, co-founder of Ghost Box Records and the genial rector of the music world’s spookiest academic institution, Belbury Poly. “But with fairies, you get this look of… ‘What?!'”
He laughs, as he does often. “They just exist in a childish world. But I’m interested in them from a folkloric point of view, because there’s a rich tradition of these stories in England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland. And they don’t stop – people still see odd things, or perceive odd things, especially in rural environments. In the wild, and in the countryside, people have odd experiences…”
Has he had one himself?
He pauses. “About ten years ago, my wife and I were driving along the M25 on a brilliant, sunny day, and I glanced out of the window to the fields flashing past. And, in the middle of a field, I saw a giant hare. About five feet tall. Now, we were travelling at speed, and it was probably a deer, or a pile of sticks. But I saw it as a hare. It was huge, the size of a person. Which I couldn’t have seen. But I did.”
“It was a misperception, and I find that interesting… these things that we see out of the corner of our eye. Or things we misremember as having seen. And that kind of mood was what I really wanted to capture with this record.”
His new album, The Gone Away, is the perfect distillation of Ghost Box’s ethos. The first Belbury Poly album since 2016’s New Ways Out, it eschews its predecessor’s leaning towards Chicory Tip-era glam and returns to the label’s darkly electronic roots. Exploring the idea of Britain’s remote woodland playing host to malevolent, pre-Tinker Bell fairy folk, it is an album of sinister but melodic rustic oddness, filtered through the fuzzy memories of a half-forgotten 1970s childhood. Was it a deliberate back-to-basics album for the label?
“Absolutely,” agrees Jupp. “It really was that. I went back to my very first recordings, and to stuff that had always interested me. I’ve also gone back to some of my old working methods… there are no other musicians on the album. I played everything on this, and it’s a bit darker than some of the things I’ve done recently.”
Nevertheless, the label’s roster of collaborators continues to gently expand, and an hallucinogenic promotional video for the album has been provided by film-maker Sean Reynard, whose character Quentin Smirhes – a bearded remnant from some shadowy 1970s TV hinterland – has proved a Youtube sensation. Sporting unsettling black underpants and a vile, mustard-coloured jumper, Quentin is frequently seen puffing into bizarre, elaborate medieval instruments, and the feel of pastoral Early music has clearly seeped into The Gone Away, too.
“There’s baroque and medieval music in Sean’s films, which I connected to straight away,” nods Jim. “I sometimes think of synthesizers as extensions of these strange, medieval instruments. The BBC Radiophonic Workshop, especially under David Cain and Paddy Kingsland, would play elements of medieval music with electronic instruments.”
“I suppose, like folk music, it taps into something older and more mysterious. And – this being the world of Ghost Box – it’s medieval music as received through film and TV. You’d watch The Avengers, and in very quiet moments there’d be a solo bassoon or a crumhorn, as Steed was creeping through the forest. And the Radiophonic Workshop created similar atmospheres in Doctor Who… if there was an old castle, the music would suggest something ancient and spooky.”
Jupp and Ghost Box co-founder Julian House were school friends in South Wales, enjoying a childhood whose every aspect seems to have fed directly into the label’s ethos – and, indeed, into The Gone Away. Jupp grew up in the semi-rural Newport suburb of Caerleon-upon-Usk, the 19th century birthplace of horror writer Arthur Machen (himself a firm believer in the fairy folk) and a town steeped in Arthurian legend, its Roman amphitheatre reputedly an inspiration for King Arthur’s Round Table. House lived in nearby Caldicot. Teenage years were spent poring over H.P. Lovecraft‘s lurid 1920s horror stories, at a time when – crucially – electronic music was beginning to dominate the charts.
“I was in a band at school in the early 1980s,” smiles Jupp. “There was a boy in my class called Kingsley Sage, a very eccentric kid with a couple of synthesizers. And I’d never even been close to one! He’d build bits of electronic equipment too, he would take apart synthesizers and guitars and tinker with things. I thought ‘Wow… this is just incredible’. It was a real epiphany for me, and I ended up getting my own synthesizer. In retrospect I owe Kingsley a debt of gratitude for my entire musical career.”
What was the band called?
“State of the Art,” he laughs. “Awful, isn’t it? It was the era when Depeche Mode were riding high. We had three monosynths, a little Soundmaster drum machine and a couple of organ and string machines. It was the era when you had to be really inventive, and we’d multitrack on a stereo reel-to-reel, stretching everything to its limit”. Still in their early teens, they even attracted the attention of a Soho Square A&R bigwig, who summoned them to an unlikely meeting in the capital. “It might have been Beggars Banquet or Polydor…” muses Jupp, with modest vagueness. “It was two minutes, really for him to say ‘Keep at it, and come back in five years when you’ve grown up…'”
(State of the Art in 1983. L-R: Kingsley Sage, Martyn Day, Jim Jupp)
Meanwhile, Jupp and House weren’t the only hauntological pioneers plotting in the Newport suburbs. Also spending his teenage years in Caerleon-upon-Usk was James Cargill, future mainstay of Broadcast. “One summer holiday, the three of us even spent a couple of days recording a thrown-together comedy space opera soundtrack in my bedroom,” remembers Jupp. “But the tape has long since vanished. Probably just as well. We were teenagers, it was the 1980s… well, you can imagine…”
As his teenage years progressed, Jupp felt the pull of Acid House, especially once he’d enrolled as a computer science student at Portsmouth Polytechnic. “I got together with a pal there,” he continues. “Jez Stevens, who still records a lot of electronic music. We had a two-man rave outfit in the Orbital mode, called Angeltech. But we didn’t get many gigs. We did it in a couple of pubs, believe it or not…” he stops himself. “I can’t believe I’m telling this to the press!” He laughs again, and leaves a mental image of Angeltech in neon headsets, pounding away in the corner of some deserted Dog and Duck while the nonplussed regulars watch the racing on Channel 4.
(Angeltech in 1990. L-R Jim Jupp, Jez Stevens)
“And then, in the 1990s, I joined a band in Portsmouth called Annie Hates Cordial…”
He’s on a roll, and it’s fascinating to hear Jupp opening up in this way, as Ghost Box is a label that often thrives on anonymity. Its mysterious missives arrive fully-formed from some alternate late 20th century dimension, where Jon Pertwee is Doctor Who in perpetuity and unspeakable Pagan rites are conducted in secret Cold War bunkers. For years, there were no publicity shots or artist biographies, just beautifully atmospheric music swathed in House’s evocative artwork. And yet the label’s enigmatic approach is never reflected personally by the label’s warmly amiable founders, and Jupp – in the days following our conversation – gleefully sends over photographs of his formative bands.
Annie Hates Cordial, helmed by the magnificently-named Tom Rex and Tom Dangerous (“they were like Mick and Keith”), are pictured in front of a mid-1990s Berlin Wall, with keyboard player Jupp resplendent in shades, mod crop and polo neck. He looks like he’s stepped straight from the line-up of Corduroy or the James Taylor Quartet. Diligent internet research reveals a 1993 single – ‘Pamela Anderson’ – and a support slot with Blur at Portsmouth’s Gaiety Showbar. Which Jupp, on a temporary hiatus from the band, missed. He was, however, present and correct when the band opened for Madchester stalwarts Paris Angels.
(Annie Hates Cordial in Berlin, 1994. L-R: Tom “Dangerous” Day, Simon Gray, Douglas E. Powell, Tom Rex, Jim Jupp)
“We were very much an indie band, but with punk and ska elements,” he smiles. “Sounds awful, doesn’t it? We played a bit in Europe, and a lot of gigs around Portsmouth and the south coast. For a while, it was a lot of fun, but it became all-consuming and I kind of fell out of love with the grinding poverty, and not being involved in songwriting. It was very rock and roll, and there were a lot of arguments. So that petered out until I moved to London and hooked up again with Julian, and we started making music from there.”
Ghost Box, the label that spearheaded the vanguard of mid-2000s hauntology, was formed in 2004, its stated mission to explore “the misremembered musical history of a parallel world”. The disquieting iconography of the duo’s shared childhood flowed joyously into the label’s early aesthetic: Brutalist architecture, Public Information Films and unsettlingly supernatural children’s TV. Said parallel world was even given a name: Belbury, the name of a village in C.S. Lewis’ 1945 novel That Hideous Strength, which plays host – appropriately – to a scientific institute beset by paranormal forces.
“The idea Julian and I had was to create a fictional world as a setting for the music,” explains Jupp. “We always thought we’d be fairly anonymous, and the idea was to have the artwork and the concept almost standing in for the personality of the artist. If you record for Ghost Box, you have to sort of understand that the world of Ghost Box is just as important.”
And did elements of Jupp’s own education find their way into his mental image of this fictional world’s primary academic institution? Is Belbury Poly essentially Portsmouth Polytechnic?
“I hadn’t really thought of that before!” he exclaims. “Belbury Poly is an academic institution, but maybe not in a city, like Portsmouth. But certainly I was used to being educated in very utilitarian 1960s buildings, and the Student Union was in an old army NAAFI hut. The atmosphere of a place like that probably inspired the idea of Belbury Poly. Although it was possibly more from an era that I can’t actually remember, the 1950s and 1960s, when institutions like that were actually built. That’s what informed the world of Belbury and Ghost Box.”
“It was that post-war period, where we had a socialist government, and the Welfare State was new, and all those bold new building projects were happening. A brief period when utopian ideas were at the forefront. But then that goes hand-in-hand with maybe an authoritarian, paternalistic government as well, so it’s an uneasy mix.”
Formed as an outlet for Jupp’s electronica and House’s affecting Focus Group sound collages, the label has slowly accumulated a sympathetic roster. Multi-instrumentalist Jon Brooks – aka The Advisory Circle – was an early recruit, and cold-wave connoisseur Martin Jenkins, recording as Pye Corner Audio, has brought contemporary beats to Belbury’s parish hall. How has the label evolved over the years?
“It’s become more bloody work!” laughs Jupp, now based in rural Sussex on the fringes of the South Downs. “Which is good, because it’s now my full-time job. The roster has grown, and we’ve tried to work with people from other backgrounds and cultures, so we’ve got Beautify Junkyards from Portugal, ToiToiToi from Germany, and with Pye Corner Audio we’ve brought in Martin’s love of dance music and explored how that intersects with the Ghost Box world. So stylistically, the label moves on… but very slowly! We’re quite happy to gradually develop these ideas and just bring in these outside influences whenever we can.”
Meanwhile, The Gone Away acts as a delightfully chilling evocation of both the label’s roots and Jupp’s own deliciously haunted childhood, swapping ghost stories with House in the rustling woodland of Gwent. An album where tooting ocarinas and austere school recorders battle an advance guard of folk-infused Mellotrons, while disembodied, guttural voices mutter from the twilight. “I’m not a ‘true believer’ in the supernatural,” concludes Jupp. “But I think people have unusual experiences, and we have no explanations for them. And that’s enough for me.”
The Gone Away is available here:
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