Sometimes, we all just need a break.
Amid the trauma of the global pandemic, collectively hemmed into an ongoing international lockdown, it’s become increasingly important to find distraction, relief and respite. So kudos to Ghost Box Records, who – seemingly out of nowhere – have conjured the appropriately-titled Intermission, a timely and soothing compilation of original material. Comprising brand new tracks from pretty much the entirety of the label’s current roster, and the unexpected but sensational return of one old favourite, it appeared without fanfare on Friday 8th May; not referencing the current crisis as such, but – to paraphrase label co-founder Jim Jupp – “responding” to it.
From Jim’s own Belbury Poly to co-founder Julian House’s Focus Group; from new recruits Plone to steely trouper Jon Brooks and his trusty Advisory Circle, the mood evoked by all is one of calm reassurance. The gentle beats of Pye Corner Audio are present and correct, as are exotic transmissions from the continent: Germany’s ToiToiToi and Portugal’s Beautify Junkyards. Clay Pipe founder Frances Castle offers analogue solidarity in her guise as The Hardy Tree, chanteuse Sharron Kraus brings a wistful folk sensibility, and her regular collaborator Justin Hopper unifies this blissful musical panacea with thoughtful and touching narration.
And then, yes… there’s the return of that old favourite. We’ll come back to him.
Digital copies of the album ordered through the Ghost Box website have temptingly different artwork to the regular edition, and also benefit Médecins Sans Frontières, the international humanitarian and medical organisation. The ever-genial Jim Jupp joined me to discuss Intermission, and other recent Ghost Box releases – as well as offering a few tantalising glimpses into the label’s future.
Bob: The last time we spoke properly was back in January when Paul Weller’s EP, In Another Room, was just about to be released on Ghost Box. Was that rather a frantic time?
Jim: It was, and we had a few technical hitches – I think even you had tweets about it, from people asking where they could get it! But I think we got there. We covered the audience as best as we could, and we did an extra batch that went to Japan only, because we’ve got a sub-distributor in Japan, and they were desperate. Fans of anything in Japan are Super Fans, they really wanted it! So we did an extra batch for them, approved by Paul’s people. But it’s still there on digital, rolling away, and we’re very happy with it.
And Paul’s forthcoming album features a song called ‘Earth Beat’… which is reworking of your song ‘The Willows’. That’s quite an honour…
It is! While we were talking about the EP, and while he was putting down the first ideas for that in the studio, he was listening to more of our back catalogue. And he texted me and said “I’ve been listening to a tune of yours and singing along to it, and I think I can work it up into a song – would that be alright?”
And I said (Laughs – and in a squeaky, schoolboy voice) “Yes! Course it would!”
So he did a rough demo, pretty much over the original recording, and it worked. It fitted straight away. Luckily, I still had the separate elements of the recording, the stems. With a lot of projects from that long ago, I wasn’t so organised and I didn’t keep them… I didn’t know what I was doing so much. But for some reason – thank God – I had all the parts for that tune, so I was able to get them to his studio, and they were able to rework them into a new tune.
So is that a Weller/Jupp composition, then?
It is, I get an album credit! It’s split between me, Paul and the guy who sings backing vocals, Col3trane – he wrote a middle eight for it.
And then a couple of weeks ago you released Plone’s album, Puzzlewood, which seems to be an album that everybody really loves. And it’s their first official album since 1999! Had you been aware that they were making new stuff? When I spoke to them, I think they said that it was them that approached Ghost Box, rather than the other way around…
They did. I was aware that they were up to stuff, but I think they’d got to a stage with Plone material where they thought: “Oh, nobody’s interested any more.” Then about two years ago, Billy had some side projects that he was working on – with somebody else, not Mike – and he said “Would Ghost Box be interested in these?” And I said “Yeah… it might be something we could look at for a single or something.” He said “OK, leave it with me and we’ll bat it about…”
But then, a few mails later, I mentioned that – years ago, early 2000s – somebody had sent me a CD bootleg of the “missing” Plone album. And I said: “Are you still doing Plone material? What happened to that album?” And he said “Yeah, we’ve got absolutely loads of stuff.” And he sent me links to, actually, about three albums’ worth. Some of which you can hear on Puzzlewood, and some of which dated from just after the missing album.
I said “There’s loads of great stuff here, Billy… can I cherry pick, work them into an album and sequence it, and you can polish those tracks up?” He said “Yeah, absolutely.” They’re very humble fellows. I think… I didn’t appreciate, and they didn’t appreciate, the amount of love in the room for Plone. They generate this sort of warm, fuzzy feeling, and there were a lot of fans that were really pleased and excited.
It’s nice… Boards of Canada were my first inroad into “this” stuff, in around 1999, but I was aware of Plone around that time as well – I probably heard them on John Peel’s show. This kind of music really seems to make a profound impact on people, but the artists themselves can be completely unaware that they’re held in much regard at all.
Yes, Boards of Canada, and Plone as well, were almost the first wave of that hauntological thing: “Oh yeah, the kind of music that I heard on the telly when I was ill! Other people know about this!”. They were the first people to connect with that, really. And Broadcast, of course.
Was the beginning of lockdown a worrying time for Ghost Box? It looked for a little while as though you might not be able to give Puzzlewood a physical release.
Yeah, the first few weeks of lockdown were scary. For everyone, of course, but in terms of the business and the label it was a worrying time. The Plone record was due; it was being manufactured and it was all paid for, and it was one of the biggest projects that we’d done in terms of outlay and capital. We did a lot of units, we did the special coloured vinyl… we knew it would be popular. And a lot of our money was tied up in it! We didn’t even know if it would arrive… and then our distributor, The State 51 Conspiracy, closed their doors. But luckily we were able to co-ordinate with them, and they’re kind of up and running again with a skeleton crew. Just part-time, so they’re struggling with the backlog of orders for retail, and for our shop and for the other labels they handle. So it’s not ideal, but they’re heroically forging ahead.
It’s been difficult, because they’re in a fairly central London location, and people have to get into work. That’s one of their biggest problems, aside from social distancing in the warehouse.
So was your vinyl essentially trapped in the warehouse where that amazing Midsummer Night’s Happening was held last June?
That’s their office and venue space, but the warehouse is just down the road from there. And yes, it was trapped there! It was a hairy few weeks, because we didn’t know what would happen. But we decided to stick to the release date, and if there’d been no physical product, we’d have taken pre-orders and done what we could when we could.
Mainly because, when I talked to the guys, we decided it was a timely record. It’s a cheerful, feelgood record, simple as that. And, as it’s turned out, I think that’s been quite timely, and people have loved it because of that. And things just came together at the last minute, so we could get physical product out there to the shops.
Which is important, as I think the physical object is a huge part of the Ghost Box aesthetic. I remember you saying to me at the time that you were having to be a digital-only label for a while, and you didn’t sound hugely enthusiastic…
Absolutely. But yeah, that was the prognosis at the time!
Let’s talk about Intermission… was the idea of a compilation of new material from your roster of artists something you’d been thinking about anyway? Or did it suddenly strike you that said artists might suddenly have a bit more time on their hands?
It was partly that… and no, I hadn’t previously considered it. It wasn’t on our release schedule, or in our plans at all, until lockdown began. And it was during the period that I’ve just been talking about when I thought: “We could be out of pocket, we could have serious problems, we have to do whatever we can on the digital side to keep the label rolling, and to keep a trickle of income coming for the artists.” It was something. So I got in touch with everybody, and said “How quickly can you give me a track, or a couple of tracks?” And everybody was up for it.
So the first impulse was survival, and a bit of income. But… as State 51 came back online, and we got a bit of physical product back online, and the Plone release went ahead successfully – against all odds! – I thought “We’ll keep doing this, but we probably ought to give something back as well.” So we did the charity version, too. You can choose just to buy it the normal way, and it’s a few quid for the artists and musicians, or you can give all the money to charity by buying it from our own shop.
And did you walk a fine line with your approach to it? Ghost Box kind of operates in its own unique, parallel world, and I wondered if you made a conscious decision as to how much of the “real” world you wanted to intrude? Justin Hopper’s narration on the album, while not specifically mentioning the Coronavirus, certainly alludes to recent events.
The brief that I gave to everyone was that it was a response to the situation, perhaps, but in no way was it about the situation. So, you know… what are you feeling, creatively? Where’s your head at? Just do that. And I spoke to Justin about how we might frame it, because we had the idea straight away that he would almost be the presenter or narrator of this thing, tying it together. And it was his idea to do a kind of Twilight Zone Intro and Outro…
Yes! That’s exactly what it is!
He’s a big fan of old Twilight Zone, as am I, and Rod Serling lived in Justin’s home town, Binghamton. And there are a couple of old Twilight Zone episodes where Justin knows the exact location… there’s one [the episode ‘Walking Distance’] that he talks about, where a guy goes back to his old picket-fence home town, and his mother and father are still alive, and he sees himself playing with the kids in the street. And Justin grew up round there, and knows those roads and streets really well.
So it was something that had been knocking around in his head. And the impulse at the moment… well, everybody seems to be scurrying to nostalgia, and their safe place, and perhaps their childhood memories. The impulse is to watch lots of old TV and listen to old music, and do the hobbies that made you happy when you were younger.
So I had the title “Intermission” – which is a very broadcast-y, TV, cinematic take on things, very much the Ghost Box world. It’s a break in normal services. Normal services will resume shortly! “Intermission” sounds aloof and high-handed, but kind of reassuring. So Justin took that word and thought of the idea of memory being a safe place; the little pauses and quiet times of the past that you remember. So his Intro and Outro allude to that, in this Rod Serling kind of way. And his longer piece in the middle, ‘Recreation Park’, about a park near his house that he remembered from being a kid, is a similar thing. Harking back to a particular childhood memory, simple as that.
And generally, the message I put out to everyone was sort of… tread a middle ground. Which I think they did anyway, I didn’t need to ask. I said we didn’t want any dark, dystopian drones here, and neither did we want relentlessly upbeat happy stuff. As it happens, we’ve got both on there, a bit! (Laughs) But generally, I think it all hangs together. There’s a theme of calm, of waiting, of “What’s going to happen next? It’ll be nice when this is over…”
It’s a very soothing album. And I like how Justin, who is a fairly recent recruit to the Ghost Box world, has quickly become such an integral part of it. Is it nice to have a “voice” that you can use on recordings – literally, a spokesperson?
It is! It’s entirely accidental, but he’s perfect for us. For a few reasons. He’s kind of become the “anchorman” of Ghost Box. Conceptually, it’s a bit like an old TV channel, and he’s the voice of the broadcasts. And it was good for us the way it played out… the obvious route would be to have a plummy English voice, but the fact that Justin – because he’s American – is a slight outsider to this world kind of makes a weird sense. He’s got a great performing and reading voice and a way with words, and he gets what we’re trying to do with Ghost Box. He understood straight away what this compilation was, and what the mood should be. And when he suggested the Rod Serling thing, he said “I won’t make it too much like that…”
I said “No, no! That’s brilliant, do Rod Serling! Make it sound like you’re standing in front of a weird backdrop smoking a cigarette!” And that’s what he did, and it was perfect.
Just looking through the album here… after Justin’s introduction, you’re straight into a new Advisory Circle track. Jon Brooks is on a rich run of form at the moment, isn’t he?
He really is at the moment, he’s doing really well.
And blimey – Roj is on it as well! The first new recordings for eleven years, since his Transactional Dharma of Roj album? That was a lovely surprise!
That is the surprise! And it was a surprise to us all. I included him in the request, as I always do when we’re saying “What’s next? What’s everybody doing?” and Roj said “Ah yeah, I’ll get on that…”
And bless him, he’s absolutely brilliant, his work is always good, but he’s so particular about his sound. Strangely, this track has a sort of Joe Meek vibe to it, it’s slightly in that world, and I think he has the slight mania about his work that Joe Meek had. He’s never quite there, and he’s never happy! He’s almost delivered two completed albums to me in the last six to eight years, but it’s never quite been right. He says “Give me a few more months…” and then he starts again. [Laughs]. But for this, I said “Come on Roj, just do it…” and he put this together. I don’t know if it was something he was already working on, but I know he’s got loads and loads of great material, so we’re hoping this kind of inspires him to get cracking on the album.
Anything other tracks that you’d like to pick out yourself?
Oh, it’s very difficult for me to do that! I mean, mine is obviously the best track… [laughs]. No, it’s very interesting – some of the tracks came together during lockdown, but mine was already in the can, because that’s a track taken from my album – which will hopefully be out in a couple of months. We’re working on the artwork now. The Beautify Junkyards track was what they’d managed to do in the studio, because they’re working on their album… but, sadly, because that’s very much a studio album with lots of people involved, that’s had to stop. They don’t record at home.
Sharron Kraus’ track… that was interesting. I mixed that one, because she’s got a good recording set-up, but her stuff is very often finished in a studio environment. So I said “Record as best you can, get contributions from other musicians as best you can, and I’ll produce it at home.” So we managed to turn that around quite quickly, and do it remotely like that. But yeah, everybody did really well. As you can imagine, getting musicians to do something for a deadline is… [laughs] never easy! But everybody did wonderfully, and turned in tracks on time. I moved the deadline a couple of times, because I wasn’t ready…
But everybody delivered really good work. The other part of the brief was: even though we’re in lockdown, and we’re doing this quickly, keep up to your usual standards. They’re all very talented people. And they all did, they all did something that they’d be pleased to put on one of their own albums. It was great.
Good to see Frances Castle on there, recording as The Hardy Tree. I always think there’s a nice symbiotic relationship between Ghost Box and Clay Pipe.
Absolutely, and yes – that’s a lovely piece of music. I’d been talking to Frances just generally, about logistics and how she was coping during lockdown, and it’s just nice to exchange ideas with other labels and like-minded people. So yeah, it was lovely to have her on board for this.
And you’re literally dropping the album from nowhere, on Friday 8th May?
We are. We’re not having the usual pre-orders and promotions period. I’ve told people like yourself, and other radio people and journalists, but I’m not making any official announcements. We’ll do it live on the day. It’s just a different way of doing things, and we thought – “Why not?” Let’s get it together, get it ready, and get it out there with no fanfare. And see how it goes. Making it easy for ourselves, really.
Can you see it transferring to a physical format at some point, when all this madness is over?
Definitely. And if the madness drags on, we’ll try and do it anyway. We’ve got the Belbury Poly album next, but because the Beautify Junkyards album might take a little longer than anticipated, we might get onto a physical version of Intermission after that. Late summer, autumn sort of time.
And how’s the Belbury Poly album sounding?
I’m very happy with it. Jon Brooks has just mastered it, so it’s good to go. All finished. The hardest thing for me was… I’d finished the recordings, and gone back to the mixes a thousand times and got them ready, but I always have problems titling everything. Because there’s this conceptual baggage that Ghost Box records tend to have, and I wanted to get that right! The mood, and the feel of it. But I think I have, and I’m just starting to talk to Julian about artwork, and get the first rough ideas of what it might look like.
And I always do this to you… give me a track title.
Erm… let me think of one that captures the mood… [long pause, with the occasional sound of tormented anguish]. Well the album title is The Gone Away.
That’s a bit John Wyndham!
There’s a track called ‘The Gone Away’ as well. Given the circumstances, I had a bit of a wobble about that, but then I thought; “No, it’s nothing to do with it…”
It would never have struck me as having a connection to the current situation.
No… and some of the material is slightly dark for Belbury Poly, but I thought “No… I’m going to stick to my ideas and concepts.” There’s another track called ‘Magpie Lane’, which is very much inspired by the Advisory Circle track ‘Escape Lane’, and it steals a bit of Jon’s melody and builds it into a sort of… semi-acoustic folk thing.
Long before the lockdown, didn’t the album have a working title of The Parson’s Illness, or something similar?
The Parson’s Malady! That was the working title. And I don’t mean to be flippant about things, but you’ve got to laugh sometimes – that’s the only way to survive. So when the lockdown started and the situation was ongoing, that was generally how I was coping – by referring to it all as “The Parson’s Malady”…
Thanks so much to Jim for his time, and splendid company, as ever. Intermission is available now, and can be bought here: