Jez Butler, Polly Hulse and The Twelve Hour Foundation

In the vague, fuzzy wilderness of my childhood memories, that feeling always arrived on Tuesday afternoons. Rainy Tuesday afternoons, with freezing drizzle from a slate-grey Teesside sky pattering against the front room window, and our overheating TV set burbling with the Radiophonic jingles of the BBC’s Programmes For Schools and Colleges. As Jez Butler succinctly puts it: “It’s that ‘off school’ feeling.”

Jez and his partner Polly Hulse comprise The Twelve Hour Foundation, a Bristol-based musical outfit whose evocation of these memories – and, indeed, said Radiophonic jingles – is so overpoweringly accurate that it may even stimulate psychosomatic chickenpox itches and a gentle, hallucinatory whiff of chamomile lotion. Their excellent new album Six Twenty Negative is their second for the Castles In Space label; the follow-up to 2018’s tree little milk egg book… and other non-sequiturs. Their music is frequently upbeat and joyously melodic, but sometimes also infused with a sense of gentle wistfulness: a vague longing for the austere stillness of Open University modules on BBC2 and the crackle of orange cellophone around a dimpled bottle of Lucozade.

Over a crackly Skype connection that owed more than a little debt to the mercurial analogue technology of the 1970s, I spoke to Jez and Polly about the album, and discussed their various musical adventures over the decades. It was a Thursday rather than a Tuesday afternoon, but it was definitely raining at my end. Here’s how the conversation went:

Bob: Can you talk us through the album a little bit? Was there a specific starting point, or a spark of inspiration? 

Jez: The initial inspiration came from my memories of the mid-1970s, and journeys on old-fashioned diesel trains. It was such a magical thing to do as a kid. Before the Humber Bridge opened, you had to take the train to a place called New Holland – which was basically a dead end in a field – then you’d get on a paddle steamer that took you over to Hull. With a massive plume of smoke from a huge British Rail funnel! You’d have just enough time to have a sausage roll in the buffet.

I actually found some 1970s cine footage of part of the journey on Youtube recently. It has some excellent views of the boat…

So that was the starting point for a few of these tracks. ‘Lincoln Castle Engine Room’ and ‘New Holland Pier’ both come from those memories. And ‘The Chalk Factory’, too. That was a place we used to pass on the train, and it had turned the whole countryside white with this kind of… strange powder. I don’t know what it actually was, but it wasn’t chalk. When you’re a kid you don’t question these things.

So it all came quite randomly, and we built it up organically. I suppose we have this signature sound now – there are certain textures and chord sequences. Haunted chords, and their associated sounds! And they bring back these childhood emotions. It’s that “off school” feeling.

And how do you go about actually building the tracks? What’s the physical process?

Jez: The starting point for us tends to be the bass sound and the cymbal sound. About ten years ago, we were listening to The John Baker Tapes, and there was an interview with him on Woman’s Hour, trying to explain his sound! So we just set up in the flat and tried to replicate it. For the bass… we’ve got an Ikea settee with a piece of plastic tubing that’s supposed to hold the cover in place. And Polly said: “What about hitting that with a drumstick?” And that’s appeared on 99% of our tracks ever since, as the bass sound! It sounds like a muted 1960s bass, but it’s 100% domestic [Laughs]. And our cymbal sound is actually the Ikea draining rack in the kitchen.

And ditto: John Baker used the sound of pulling a cork from a bottle. You can edit that sound… you shave off the initial ‘click’ so you get the body of the sound, then add a bit of reverb and echo. And when we did the Bunch of Fives EP, we had someone say, “Oh, that’s a sample from the Radiophonic Workshop”. I was flattered, but had to say “Well, actually…”

One thing I will say – it’s been very difficult for us not to be seen as a novelty act, because a lot of the stuff we do is quite upbeat. But we think it’s just as haunted by the spirit of the era as anything else out there.

Well, yes! I love the playfulness and humour of your work. And I totally get the fact that dark and sinister electronica can be very redolent of the 1970s childhood, but you know… when we sat in front of the Test Card on a rainy afternoon, it wasn’t accompanied by that stuff! It had nice, upbeat music. Do you think that approach has almost held you back, then?

Jez: Yeah, it’s kind of backfired in a way. Things like ‘Macaroni Cheese’… it’s playful, but it’s also almost Brutalist pop. It’s just two three-note sequences repeated, again and again. Anyone could play it. It’s form following function! With a funny embellishment in the middle, like a Brutalist building with a little carving above the door.

But it’s fine! When we play live, we get people of a certain age – mainly men in their fifties [laughs] – who say “I don’t quite know what it is, but your music has really brought something back to me…”

This album has got one track that’s a Paddy Kingsland-inspired thing, actually – it’s called ‘Unseen Depths of Ha Ha’. And the ‘Ha Ha’ was a reference to the novelty aspect that some people have brought up. We were at a National Trust property, and there was a sign that said “BEWARE: UNSEEN DEPTHS OF HA HA”. I had no idea what it meant, but Polly said it was a kind of ditch…

Is it a wall, sunk into a ditch?

Jez: Yeah! I’d never heard of it. It’s like a moat without water. Also, there’s a track called ‘Elastic Limit’ and that was a nod to Adrian, who writes for Concrete Islands. Again, that track’s got that plastic tubing from our settee on it, and it’s a sound he once described as “rubbery”…

So yeah, they all just came quite randomly, really. So long as the chords and the textures have that emotional quality, they’ll work. The melody is just the icing on the cake, and is relatively easy to do! The trick is trying to find a new chord sequence.

Sorry, am I dominating here? [Laughs]

Ha, I’ll ask Polly! How does the collaborative process work, Polly?

Polly: [Laughs]: Well, I think it’s fair to say that Jez is the main composer, and he lays down the bulk of the tracks. Then I’ll add bits of melody, but I’m probably more involved in the field recordings. I recorded birdsong and a few cats and dogs for the previous album, and for this one I stood underneath the second Severn Bridge and recorded the traffic overhead – and the clanging of a steel kissing gate nearby. I’ve got some steam engines for use in a future project, too.

And I’m pleased to say that the cover art has a couple of my photos! Taken at Bristol University’s School of Chemistry.

I’ve had some input into the song titles, as well – mainly based on things I learnt in my Science O-Levels! ‘Radicle Emerging’ is one of those, as is ‘Elastic Limit’! I think that’s from my old Physics lessons…

And ‘Through Violet Perspex’ as well, I’m guessing?

Polly: No, that’s one of Jez’s!

Jez: I don’t know if you ever found this, Bob… but that’s based on my memories of objects we had as kids. Things that were made from coloured plastic, but were also transparent. There’s just something about looking through different coloured objects: like a blue water pistol, for example.

And I remember the Christmas Tree lights we had in 1975. I got a copy of Tubular Bells for Christmas – from the cat – and listening to the Farfisa organ on that album while looking through those lights just somehow really struck a chord.

And the final track, ‘Creosote’, kind of tries to evoke the feeling of a suburban summer. It’s a passing nod to Alan Parker’s track ‘The Free Life’, which was the theme to the ITV schools programme, My World. That track is a massive influence on us, and brings back some pleasantly abstract emotions.

And where does the album title, Six Twenty Negative, come from?

Jez: It’s actually a reference to the 620 film used in old box cameras – you’d get these big, individual negatives. They were still freely available in the 1970s. They produced these slightly woolly, dream-like photographs.

Polly, do you share this really intense connection to your childhood memories? Is it something you can identify with?

Polly: Well I’m slightly younger than Jez, so my memories are a little different! My childhood nightmares were based around nuclear war and vivisection – things like that. My mum had a lot of friends who were involved with CND and anti-vivisection campaigns, so I have a lot of early childhood memories connected to both the terror of the mushroom cloud on the horizon, and those awful images of animals in laboratories. Those are my horrors!

There’s some overlap with Jez’s memories as well, and all the Schools and Colleges programmes, but I guess – being that little bit younger – I have a slightly different take.

Jez: There’s the rabies thing as well, isn’t here?

Polly: Yes, when I was about eight I was in a band with my brothers, who were a bit older than me. They were eleven or twelve. We were a punk band, called The Hippies. And we wrote songs about rabies and nuclear war. And homework and teachers!

I’ve been reading about this, hasn’t your brother Matt made a film about the band?

Polly: Yes, it’s just been shown at the London Film Festival. It’s called Sound For the Future, if anyone wants to check it out.

We played to our mum and some of our friends, and there’s one cassette with about half a dozen songs on it. We basically did it during the school holidays. My parents were divorced, so we lived with my dad and step-mum, and we saw my mum in Cambridge during the holidays. And it was something we did when we were spending time with her. It was quite sporadic.

Jez, what were your formative music experiences? Weren’t you making electronic music by the early 1980s?

Jez: Yeah, it’s weird – things have come full circle for me. I was doing this stuff the first time around, and it had an aura about it even then! It was a bedroom project, really. I had a Pro-1 synth and a little drum machine, and I just used to write bits and bobs here and there. I wrote a track called ‘Pylon’ in 1983 that sounded like a mix between Kraftwerk’s ‘Electricity’ and OMD’s ‘Radioactivity’! It had that xylophone sound that they both used.

But I lost interest when things moved away from the analogue, really. The last thing I thought was worth listening to was the stuff that Vince Clarke was doing in the 1980s, because he stuck to his analogue roots. Once the DX-7 came in, with a completely different way of synthesizing, that was it. And I ended up playing with an indie-punk band for years.

But then I came back to it!

When did you first become interested in electronic music?

Jez: It was actually when I saw the TV show Mandog, in 1972. It scared the living daylights out of me, but I thought the music was great. So on one hand, I had something that was frightening me, but on the other hand it had this really nice soundtrack. It was that mix that was interesting.

Mum used to have Radio 4 on as well, and I’d hear the ‘Computers In Business’ track. That was one of the biggest influences on me. And then, when I was 11, I was obsessed with the music from The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. Not the theme music, but the incidental music – I always wanted to actually perform it. And when I got the CD, I discovered that the bass sound they used is almost identical to ours… but not only that, we’d just done ‘Macaroni Cheese’, and I realised that our melody had totally ripped off one of the tracks from that show! I’ve kept that quiet for a few years… [Laughs]

Polly, what sparked your interest in electronica?

Polly: Well, funny you should say “sparked”… my favourite-ever song is by Sparks. I know they’re not strictly electronic, but ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us’ is the first song I remember liking as a little ‘un, and it’s still my favourite song in the world… ever! I fancy myself as a bit of a Ron Mael, to be honest. [Laughs]

I interviewed Ron about six months ago for the radio, and I was terrified. He really, really disturbed me as a child. It’s that sideways look to camera… I never hid behind the sofa from Doctor Who, but I did hide from Sparks! I had to phone him in LA, and I managed to get my times mixed up, and somehow called him five minutes early. I went to hang up before he answered, but he was straight on the line, and I blethered an apology for getting the time wrong. But he was such a gentleman. He’s the nicest, sweetest man you could ever speak to.

Actually, he said a similar thing to you – Sparks have had to really fight over the years not to be seen as a novelty band. Just because they put a bit of humour into their music.

Polly: Yeah, we saw them live a few years ago – I’ve had tinnitus ever since, but it was worth it! They were fabulous.

Jez: Polly treated me, because I was skint at the time. My finances had completely dried up! So we went, and we were sat next to one of the speakers – it was so loud. But they were stunning. Just stunning. We’d seen them before as a two-piece, but this was with a full band, and they were mindblowing. They played every song just note-for-note perfect. ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us’ even had that weird little bit at the end! Ron was 72 at the time, and Russell was 69, and was still hitting the high notes. And jumping around like a 30-year-old.

Can I ask about your own live performances? The first time I met you both was at the Kelvedon Hatch nuclear bunker in Essex in 2017, when you were playing at that incredible Delaware Road event. In hindsight, does that feel like a bit of a milestone performance? Wasn’t that the first time that Colin Morrison from Castles in Space was aware of your work?

Polly: Colin certainly came up to us at the end of our set and introduced himself, but I don’t know if he’d heard our stuff before then.

Jez: No, he hadn’t! He just walked up and said “I run a boutique label, would you be interested in working with us?”. And when he said it was Castles in Space, I thought “Oh – Concretism!” Because Chris is another person with a signature sound, and it really works. So that’s how we met Colin.

That gig was unlike anything else we’d ever done. It was just… bonkers! And the one last year at New Zealand farm… honestly, what a nice bunch of people. Bearing in mind it’s such a bleak place, it was one of the most friendly, pleasant events I’ve ever been to.

I remember at Kelvedon Hatch, walking into the bunker for the first time, and I got chatting to you both on the way in. But I didn’t realise who were, despite the fact that I’d bought The Lighter Side Of Concrete from you a couple of years earlier! And we walked all the way into the bunker, and up the stairs to the bar – not really knowing where we were going, because it’s quite a complex down there. And I became aware that there was somebody behind us, and turned around and did the classic “I wouldn’t follow us mate, we’ve no idea where we’re going either” routine. And it was Steve Davis, the snooker player! I did the most incredible double take.

Jez: Yes, I remember it well! That was such a stunning place, and we all played simultaneously – we did a three hour set. It was remarkable.

Polly, as someone who shared my phobia of nuclear war in the 1980s, how did you find being in, basically, the government’s nuclear fall-out shelter from that era? I found it quite cathartic…

Polly: Yeah, I guess it was similar for me. I certainly haven’t had any of those dreams since we played at Kelvedon Hatch, so maybe it’s released the demons [Laughs]. It was fascinating seeing all the old technology, and the scale of the building too, with the sick bay and all those ancillary rooms. And to imagine everyone holed up in there in the event of a nuclear war…

Did you have the classic mushroom cloud dreams as a kid, then?

Polly: Yes – I often had dreams that would end with a mushroom cloud on the horizon, and a sense of impending doom. Tidal waves were another one for me.

Jez: I’ve definitely had the tidal wave dream too, at least on one occasion…

Coming towards Cleethorpes?

Jez: [Laughs] Probably!

Can I ask about The Twelve Hour Foundation itself? Jez, I know in recent years you’ve made music under your own name – the version of The Lighter Side of Concrete that I own is definitely a Jez Butler solo album. What prompted the change?

Jez: Well, for years I’d been in bands, but always under other people’s auspices. I’d be the drummer in somebody else’s band. And I thought “You know… I’ve been playing music for so long, but I’ve never done a solo project.”

But oddly enough, I’d worked on a library music-inspired project just before I met Polly in the early 1990s, under the name Vision On. It was an EP called Who’s Afraid Of De Wolfe, a reference to the great library music publisher. And heavily influenced by Mary, Mungo and Midge! It was just three tracks, badly played on my part, but a weird thing happened with it. I’d been really inspired by a band called Marden Hill, who were on él Records. It was a label run by a bloke called Mike Alway, who’d been involved with Cherry Red, and it was based on this very ironic idea of Englishness – his stuff only sold in Japan!

So our friend’s label pressed 500 copies of the EP and 200 of them were bought by Cornelius, the Japanese artist! He took them back to Japan, and the next thing I knew his manager was in touch, telling me I should work with Mike Alway. And then Mike rang me, and said “Marden Hill have left my label – will you replace them?” So I ended up being the replacement for the band that had influenced me! It was just surreal.

I did loads of library and film-inspired music for Mike, but it was always under different names, with John Austin from Beatnik Filmstars at the desk and on guitar. We recorded for Mike as Tomorrow’s World and Wallpaper, amongst other names… including Death By Chocolate, with our mate Angie. Matty Green from Boyracer, Matt Hulse, Simon Fisher Turner and Ian Svenonius from The Make-Up also featured on albums.

So when I left my job at Bristol University, I thought: “I’m going to do a solo album”. Just as a cathartic thing, really. So I drew on the sounds that we’d come up with in the flat, and did The Lighter Side of Concrete. At the time, Polly wasn’t that interested. Although she played some nice flute on one of the tracks – we put it through a flanger, and it sounded like Kraftwerk!

But then someone asked if I’d play live, and I thought – how? I said to Polly, “I daren’t do this… will you do it with me?” And I thought she’d tell me to get knotted… but she said yes. So we bought a Yamaha CS-10, and that’s how it happened. We played at a friend’s birthday party and it went down really well. And then, one night, we were just about to go to bed. Polly was asleep on the settee, I was dozing off next to her, and my phone went. And it was the Exchange in Bristol asking if we’d support Bernard Butler on his tour.

So we had to quickly find a name! And that was Polly’s suggestion…

Polly: Yes, this is primarily a ladies’ thing! [Laughs]. There’s a long-lasting variety of make-up called ‘Twelve Hour Foundation’, and I thought: “Well, if we put ‘The’ in front of it, then it immediately sounds like a band name”!

And it stuck…

Wasn’t it intended to be a side project at one point?

Jez: It was. I did a music technology course, and we were just listening to French pop at that time. France Gall and Serge Gainsbourg, all that stuff. And we just used to muck about – Polly was having singing lessons, and we used to record our versions of French pop songs in the bedroom, just for a laugh. And to test the equipment, really. That was when she came up with ‘The Twelve Hour Foundation’… but, when we formed this band, she suggested we just use the same name.

And the one thing that I don’t think I’ve ever asked you – where did you first meet?

Polly: Classy as ever, we met in a nightclub! We were both part of a larger circle of friends, but we’d never actually met. Until one night in a Bristol nightclub, and the rest is history.

Jez: That was in 1993… 27 years ago! As we were leaving the club, there was a queue to get out. And I know that I’d never spoken to Polly before then, because her voice was totally different to how I’d imagined….

How had you imagined it?

Jez: More of a Cockney accent! [Laughs] I don’t know why…

Polly, did you have any preconceptions of how Jez might sound?

Polly: Well, I guess I didn’t appreciate that he was from Cleethorpes. [Laughs] He’s still got a modicum of an accent left, I think…

Six Twenty Negative is available here:

UPDATE: Thanks to reader Jez Conolly for pointing out that “The Chalk Factory” was almost certainly Singleton Birch Quarry in North Lincolnshire – “the UK’s leading independent lime supplier”, according to its website. “The white dust was everywhere. It was like something out of a Pertwee Doctor Who episode”, remembers Jez. Conolly, that is. Not Butler. 1970s Cleethorpes was clearly the UK’s leading independent Jez supplier.

Photo credits:
Robert Powell for ‘Under M4, Second Severn Crossing‘, used under Creative Commons licence
Andy Collins for Delaware Road, New Zealand Farm live photo
Bob Fischer for Delaware Road, Kelvedon Hatch live photo
Matt Hulse for 2014 Twelve Hour Foundation publicity photo
All other Twelve Hour Foundation photos courtesy Jez Butler and Polly Hulse