“I WANT TO BE AN ASTRONAUT”
Sometime in 1978, aged six, I was tasked by the patient, softly-spoken Mrs Bloor with producing a piece of art that expressed my burgeoning career ambitions. Fired by an all-consuming obsession with Star Wars and the ongoing cultural resonance of the moon landings, I drew myself as a floating spaceman drifting silently through inky nothingness, my eager face beaming at a lop-sided Earth and a cluster of oversized, five-pointed stars. The legend above was scrawled boldly underneath, an ambitious statement of intent from a boy so scared of heights he was frequently reluctant to climb the open riser stairs in Richard Moxham’s house.
Memories Of Earth, the second album produced by multi-instrumentalist David “D” Rothon for Frances Castle’s superlative Clay Pipe label, explores our childhood memories of the 20th century space race and infuses them with a distinct sense of melancholy. The follow-up to 2019’s crepuscular Nightscapes album, it touchingly evokes the solitude of space travel, a feeling that has slowly superseded David’s childhood wonder at the ceaseless derring-do of the Apollo missions. It’s an utterly beguiling collection, with his trademark pedal steel guitar to the fore, and I was delighted to join him over Zoom for a gentle exploration of the album’s inspirations. Here’s how the conversation panned out:
Bob: This album seems to have been sparked by your visit to the Moving To Mars exhibition at the Design Museum in 2019. Was that the catalyst?
David: Kind of. I’d started the album beforehand and I had a few tracks on the go, but I was really struggling to find a coherent theme. But I just pressed on – I’m a great believer in following your instincts, and I always have faith that the meaning will reveal itself. But going to that exhibition revived a lot of early memories of being obsessed with space, and some of the formative things I was taken to see as a child. So those feelings came back, but with a difference – because it was quite a realistic depiction of the practicalities of setting up a base on Mars. And the thought was quite eerie…
Well, it’s a one-way journey, isn’t it?
I think it is. If you signed up to it, you wouldn’t be coming home. So it was the idea of how humans would cope with that separation. Although I’m sure some of them would jump at the chance! But I quickly reassessed my early desire to be an astronaut… [laughs]
Was that a genuine ambition when you were small? It absolutely was for me. Despite the fact that I was terrified of heights.
Yeah, but only in the sense that I wanted to go into space. It wasn’t something I seriously thought about. That whole idea was very much in the air: “It’s the space age, and we’re all going into space!” But it didn’t quite work out like that.
Can you remember the first moon landing, then? How old were you in July 1969?
I was seven. I remember it, but we didn’t have a TV at the time. Our next-door neighbours invited us to watch the moon landing with them as it happened, and my parents declined for some reason! I’ve never quite forgiven them for that…
But, before that, I was taken at the age of six to see 2001: A Space Odyssey, when it came out. I think we went to the ABC in Beckenham. We got the bus there because we didn’t have a car, and I remember the experience – and the effect it had – very vividly. It was kind of mindblowing for someone of such a tender age. I remember coming out of the cinema and having lots of questions…
That’s quite a complex and – indeed – a very long film for a six-year-old. Were you not baffled by it all?
I guess a lot of it is just visual. There’s not much dialogue, so you respond to it on all sorts of levels. It was the final scenes – when they’re in the 18th century room – that stuck in my mind more than anything. It was all just so mysterious.
Obviously, I’ve seen it again over the years. Although I try not to watch it too often because I don’t want to dull the memory of that initial experience. I watch it every ten years or so.
You went to something called the Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition as well, which lends its name to a track on the album. Was that around the same time?
Yes, I think that was 1968 as well. That was at the ICA. I have vague memories of going there, and it was a cacophony of noise and flashing lights. I was kind of unnerved by it! For the previous couple of years, my Dad had taken me and my sister to something called the Mechanical Handling Exhibition at Earl’s Court which basically consisted of machines and early computers, and we’d wander around being given free stuff. So I assumed the Cybernetic Serendipity show was something similar, but it wasn’t at all – it was computer art. I think Bruce Lacey had some stuff there. Have you seen Smashing Time? Rita Tushingham and Lynn Redgrave? It’s a satire on Swinging London, and some of Bruce Lacey’s robots are in that. They go crazy.
I don’t think I’ve seen it, but it sounds very up my street…
I don’t know why I love it so much, because it’s got these crazy, over-long slapstick scenes. But it’s just fantastic. Written by George Melly! It’s great.
Anyway, I digress… the Cybernetic Serendipity Show was this scary bombardment of the senses that I didn’t know how to process. I went back to my parents’ house the other week and I was hoping they might still have the programme from it, but they had nothing. And there’s not much online either – it’s just a lot of sketchy impressions. Although Frances did some research into Nicolas Schöffer, who created some of the exhibits, and the cover is based on one of his kinetic sculptures.
There was the London Planetarium as well, in the days when the great John Ebdon was commentating. He was actually one of the Planetarium directors. Because I grew up without a television, most of my cultural input came from radio, so I was obsessed by radio voices. And he used to do these whimsical 15-minute shows after the Today programme in the mornings. So I loved him, alongside people like Jonny Morris and Kenneth Williams. Anyone who did voices. Sorry, that’s a complete tangent! But yes, the Planetarium was magical.
Did your love of space translate into a love of science fiction as well? That definitely happened for me.
Kind of, yeah. My Dad was really into it. He’s got piles and piles of 1950s sci-fi magazines that I used to dip into. I was never hugely into sci-fi, but funnily enough I’ve just picked up a three-paperback set of Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions series, and I’ve been getting stuck into those. I went though a phase of reading that kind of stuff in my twenties, and I’ve been revisiting it all.
I didn’t know if you’d have grown up watching things like Doctor Who…
Up to a point, although we didn’t have a TV until I was 13, so I missed a lot of formative influences. A lot of these signifiers for people of my generation are a bit of a blank for me. I didn’t grow up watching Bagpuss! Which feels like the title of a memoir…
And I never got into Star Wars. After 2001: A Space Odyssey, nothing else does it! I went to see Gravity a couple of years ago when that came out, and I just thought “Hmmm…” [laughs]. I just didn’t get it.
What about any of Andrei Tarkovsky‘s films? Solaris or Stalker?
Oh yeah, Stalker is amazing. And I remember seeing Solaris on TV when I was 13 or 14, and again – I was blown away by it without really understanding it. It’s probably one that I need to see again.
Listening to Memories of Earth, it seems to be an album that changes tone as it progresses. It starts off filled with the pioneer spirit of early space exploration, but then it slowly becomes more melancholy. Does that reflect how your own perception of the space race has changed over the decades?
Yeah, it does. I’m really glad you picked up on that, because I didn’t know how many people would – and I didn’t want to make it too obvious. That’s great. The intention was to have that progression, without making it too much of an A to B. Although some things are slightly out of order, as sonically I thought it was important for the tracks to flow together as best they could. But yeah, absolutely. And then hopefully, at the end, it reaches some sort of conclusion.
When I think of space now, I do think more of loneliness. The space probes that we spent out in the 1960s and 70s that have now left the solar system… I almost feel sorry for them now. It’s quite a romantic idea – the fact that these time capsules of 1970s life, with period drawings and music, are now further away from Earth than anything else ever made by humans.
Absolutely, and it’ll be a long time before they reach anywhere meaningful.
So where do you stand on the space race now? Do you still find it exciting? I’ll be honest, my heart sinks a little bit when I heard about us heading to other planets. We’ll just exploit them and make a mess of them…
Well, already there’s endless junk surrounding the Earth. The space race just feels very prosaic now. The mystery has gone… until we get contacted by whoever is out there! I just feel disengaged from it, really.
When I look at pictures of the moon landings now, it kind of looks… ordinary. Which feels good to me, it makes it all seem more real! But the spacesuits look endearingly clunky, and the landscapes – even though they’re beautiful – are just grey rocks and hillsides. Like you say, it’s prosaic and the mystery has gone. But I actually quite like that. It’s relatable.
Have you read Moon Dust by Andrew Smith? He went to track down all the remaining astronauts who walked on the moon. And some of them had been really changed. The experience definitely altered their perspective on humanity, the world and the universe. But others hadn’t had that experience at all. I guess, really, they were military men just doing a job. They were there to press the buttons at the right time, not to be an ambassador from Earth to the moon. It’s worth tracking down.
Did you try capture any of the almost hippie mysticism that accompanied ideas of 1970s space exploration? There’s a track called ‘Aquarius Rising’ on the album that made me wonder…
Yeah, although I hasten to point out I have no truck with astrology! The Aquarius thing… there’s a whole late 1960s and early 1970s Age of Aquarius school of art and design that I just wanted to allude to. But it doesn’t really relate to space so much. It relates in my head to something almost Byzantine, something ancient and European – connected more to Greece and its islands. I was thinking about bands like Aphrodite’s Child, and also a lot of the European film soundtracks from that era, the exploitation films… I was trying to capture that kind of feeling. That’s why I wanted a female vocal on that track, too.
I don’t know how you’ll take this, but it reminded me very slightly of the theme from Star Trek.
Oh, that’s good. That’s a great piece of music. I love abstract female vocals, I’m a big fan of 1950s exotica. It’s Johanna Warren on that track – she’s an American musician and singer-songwriter now based in Wales, she came over last year to be with her partner. I got to know her online at first, but then volunteered to drive her around on her first solo UK tour a couple of years ago. She offered to some vocals on the album, so I took her up on it. She’s great – an amazing guitarist, too. Better than I could ever hope to be.
Claudia Barton performs the closing title track, too – which is pretty much a love letter to the beauty of the planet Earth. What can you tell me about her?
She used to be in a band called Gamine, who I went to see on a regular basis. We ended up working on a musical project together called Cloudier Skies, which got a very limited release. Musically, it was almost a pre-curser to the last two albums I did, but she did some singing and spoken word stuff on it. She’s an actor as well as a singer, and is one of those people who’s just fearless and up for anything. So for this track, I sent her the title and just said “Write something…!” What she did was a lot longer than I expected, and probably with more of an ecological message, but it’s great. I was absolutely delighted with what she came up with.
And I can’t believe this took a few listens for the penny to drop with me, but ‘Eight Million Miles High’ is a little nod to The Byrds… complete with a tiny musical quotation from ‘Eight Miles High‘!
Yes! Good spot. That was just a bit of fun, really… it’s nice to stick in a little Easter Egg, as it were.
And ‘The Stars Below’ sounds like a Kraftwerk homage.
It’s funny – that wasn’t the intention, but I listened back to it afterwards and thought “Yeah, that’s quite Kraftwerky!”. It was one of those tracks that just came from dicking around with software synth sounds on my keyboard. I think it was probably the first track I did for the album. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing or where it was going to go, so I rode back from the electronics after that as I’m more at home with keyboards and guitars.
There’s some beautiful Chet Baker-style trumpet on the album, too.
That’s a guy called Antony Stevens. I’ve never met him, but my brother-in-law is a musician in Wales, and had played with him a couple of times. Initially I sent him the last track, ‘Memories of Earth’. I’d mapped out a synthy trumpet part on it, but for some sections I just said “Take it wherever you want to take it…” and he completely got it and came up with something amazing. I didn’t need to tell him what I wanted, he just twigged what I was after. And the other tracks – again, I’d mapped out part of it but then used sections of his improv take. He’s great. I don’t even understand how brass instruments work, so it’s really nice to get someone who knows what they’re doing. And to have faith that they’ll be on the same wavelength.
It’s intriguing that you say you didn’t really know what you were doing when you started recording – do you just like to experiment and let the album almost find its own way?
Absolutely. After the last one, it was quite a long gap before I started doing anything, and it just started gradually cohering. But yeah, there’s no particular plan. I do one track, then keep on doing stuff until I have an album’s worth! Then say “Yeah, that’ll do…” [Laughs]. I’m quite good at letting go and knowing when something is finished. Probably too good, actually… sometimes I’ll listen back and think “That should have had a little bit more to it…”
Nah, tinkering is a curse. You’ll end up never finishing anything.
Yeah, I try not to spend hours getting the right sound. Although the guitar part on ‘Eight Million Miles High’ – I must have done that hundreds of times before I got something I was happy with. I was trying to do the whole thing as one take, and eventually it was “Fuck it… this is not going to happen”. And I just cut it into four-bar sections and spliced them together. You can’t see the join…
I guess I’m still wedded to the idea of giving a performance, but that’s not what recording needs to be. It just needs to sound right. Who cares how it was done?
Did it feel like a different experience to making Nightscapes in any way?
Not massively… the approach was similar, it’s just tinkering around and finding a new sound on the keyboard or something. Or hearing an interesting chord progression on a Basil Kirchin track or something, and thinking “Oooh, I’m going to steal that…” [laughs] And then I try to make it into something that’s not too blatantly similar! Pretty much the same approach on both albums. I’m just obsessed with unusual chord changes that have an emotive effect. It’s an intangible thing.
I’m fascinated by that, and I’ve asked so many musicians about exactly that process. It actually applies to a lot of Clay Pipe’s releases: I can totally appreciate how Jon Brooks’ How To Get To Spring completely captures the feeling of that first warm day in March, or how Nightscapes is the perfect evocation of walking through deserted city streets in the early hours. But I just have no idea know that works. How those feelings translate into instrumental music. How do you as a musician begin that process? Is it a mystery to you as well?
It is. Once I’ve finished something, if I look back at most of the tracks then I’ll struggle to remember how they came into being. It’s just starting off with one idea, and usually – apart maybe trying to capture a chord progression that I’ve heard, and then taking that somewhere else – things tend to grow organically. It’s a gradual process. I don’t think in terms of: “I want to make a record that sounds like this thing”. It would end up being terrible. Again, it’s following my instincts. Then giving it a title – the title is often the last thing, and it usually changes multiple times before it feels right.
And this is your second album for Clay Pipe – will you make it a hat-trick? Is there another in the offing?
You’ll have to ask Frances! She knows what she likes, so it’s up to me to do something that’s good enough. Which is good, it gives you a focus! Actually, having really struggled to find a theme for this album, I do now have a couple of ideas for what’s coming next.
Can you tell me, or are they top secret?
I’m going to keep them secret because, as with this album, they might turn into something completely different!
Memories Of Earth is available to pre-order here.