(First published in Electronic Sound magazine #73, January 2021)
UNDER THE INFLUENCE
Deep dark woods, LEGO and The War of the Worlds. Modular synth maestro Stephen James Buckley – aka Polypores – reveals just a few of the influences that make him tick
Interview: Bob Fischer
GREAT CORBY WOODS
“Great Corby is a little village in Cumbria, and I lived there until I was eight. Our house backed onto these old, dark woods with weird, spooky caves, and I was fascinated by them. That was where I developed my interest in fungus, which is where the name Polypores comes from. Fungus is like the underdog, isn’t it? And I was always interested in the baddies, never the heroes. I liked Gollum, and fungus is the Gollum of the plant world.
“The woods allowed my imagination to grow, and a lot of my music is inspired by a kind of fantastical reading of nature. When I was that age, the trees seemed huge. Which influenced my album, Flora… they were embedded in my consciousness. I used to dream about those woods all the time, they were both terrifying and beautiful.”
“LEGO was something that I preferred to play with rather then spending time with my friends. I loved getting the kits, but then I made my own things. I inherited lots of LEGO from a distant relative in Canada too, so I had weird Canadian stuff that no-one else had. And that was the first creative thing I did – I spent all my time making things. Space stations featured heavily… I had LEGO Moon Boards with craters.
“It really sparked something in me. And that’s pretty much what I do now with modular synthesizers. They’re like LEGO, you can take them apart and put them back together in a different way – you can say ‘I’m a bit bored with this, I’ll just rearrange it into something else.’ Getting into LEGO at a young age gave me a love for that kind of creativity.”
ACROSS THE GULF OF SPACE…
“When I was seven or eight years old, I was obsessed with Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version Of The War Of The Worlds. It was the first long-form piece of music that I loved, and that idea of music telling a story led me to a real passion for albums that have a narrative. I used to stare at the record sleeve, and my dad taped it for me. And every car journey, I insisted on it being played.
“There are some pretty weird sounds on there… like the sound of the Martian cylinder’s lid coming off! I think that was a jam jar inside a toilet, mic-ed up really close. It all planted a serious seed in my imagination. As a child who was an avid reader, with a vivid imagination and a tendency towards obsessive thinking, I just fixated on it. And the scariest bit for me was the very end, where you think it’s all over, but then the astronauts start seeing the green mist, and you hear that… “Wee-oo, bee-oo…”!”
“I got into Marilyn Manson when Antichrist Superstar came out… 1996, so I was 15. And his music led me to so many other things – like David Bowie, he used lots of lyrical and visual references to other artists. Antichrist Superstar, Mechanical Animals and Holy Wood were three concept albums that had all sorts of cool artwork, weird symbols and esoteric meanings.
“They got me into listening to music that wasn’t rock music. His records had electronics, which led me to Nine Inch Nails – essentially, one person making music on his own, with synthesizers. That was the germ that made me want to do that. But he also got me into Portishead, Radiohead, DJ Shadow, Aphex Twin… all sorts of things that I wouldn’t have otherwise listened to. It was like having an older, Goth brother that was saying ‘Check out this film, check out this book, check out this record…’”
(NB This interview was conducted and first published before recent allegations against Marilyn Manson came to light. Stephen would like to make it clear that he does not condone the kind of behaviour alleged to have taken place, and has long since ceased to be a fan of the music)
A PERSONAL VOYAGE
“In 1980, Carl Sagan presented a TV show called Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, where he talked about the creation of the Earth and the planets, and lots of things to do with the wider universe. I only got into it a few years ago, but it really inspired something in me. I think I’ve read all his books now. I love how he encourages curiosity, and puts great value on the importance of exploration.
“Cosmos is almost like a Bible for me. The way he lays down his beliefs about morality and the environment… that awakened something in me that had been dormant for long time. A child-like wonder. When you become a teenager and listen to Marilyn Manson, you lose a bit of that! Again, I think that feeling has influenced me musically, and made me want to explore more. Carl Sagan led to me taking more joy from things, too… early Polypores records were quite sinister, but now they’ve got lighter. More blissful and joyous. So he helped me see some of the beauty in the world. This feels a lot like talking to a therapist, you realise that?”
“This is a self-help book really, but it’s not a cheesy self-help book. It’s by Dan Harris: he was a newsreader who had a panic attack live on air. I’m quite an anxious person, and it was suggested that I try meditation. Which I dismissed as a load of bollocks, really! But then I came across this book, where he approaches it from a sceptical, scientific point of view.
“Reading it led me to actually give meditation a go, and I found it really improved my life. And it changed my music as well. I started making music that was slower, where things happened over a longer period of time. Meditation gives you a way of analysing your own mind… it hasn’t taken my edge away, but it has helped me slow things down in my brain. Which has made me more productive. I’m far from perfect, but I can feel that my brain has changed. And I don’t think that would have happened if I hadn’t read this book.”
Further interviews with Stephen James Buckley: