Darkness falls fast in the woods. Unhampered by street lighting, car headlights and the pale hubbub of everyday urban life, twilight descends with the bare minimum of warning, and many a late woodland walk – begun in the syrupy sunlight of evening – has unexpectedly ended amid the sinister crackle of night-time.
In this inky blindness, the imagination moves faster than the feet. Leaves hiss, bracken rustles and every minor twig snap becomes a gunshot. The resulting thoughts are inevitable. Am I alone here? Or is there someone – or something – hiding in the trees?
Such thoughts are evoked with sinister precision on The Gone Away, the new album from Ghost Box Records co-founder Jim Jupp, recording – as ever – in his guise as Belbury Poly. The album was inspired by traditional tales of fairy beings lurking in the British woodland: not the floaty elemental spirits of J.M. Barrie and co, but the malevolent goblins of medieval folklore. It has a promotional video too, in which film-maker Sean Reynard assumes the guise of his 1970s daytime TV refugee Quentin Smirhes to explore these feelings of woodland paranoia with a somewhat hallucinogenic bent:
I was delighted to catch up with Jim Jupp for a long conversation about the album’s genesis:
Bob: Was there an initial spark of inspiration behind making an album about fairies?
Jim: I don’t think so… it was an element in the bag of spooky references that I’ve always had in my mind, with regard to Belbury Poly. And something that’s always intrigued me. I’d also got interested in recording music that was more electronic again, and accidentally ended up in the place where I’d started… it was how I worked on the first album I recorded for Ghost Box, The Willows. It was a return to some of those ideas and those styles.
You dipped into Simon Young’s Fairy Census to research this album, didn’t you? It’s great – just full of quite disturbing and very contemporary reports of encounters with strange things lurking in the countryside.
Yes, the Fairy Census was great to dip into at random. With a lot of the 20th century experiences that people had, there’s a whole strand of these “true believers” accounts… and you can tell that people want to believe in these nature elementals, these benign spirits and sweet little creatures. And they do see them. But the other strand, the more contemporary reports can be very weird. There’s one that sticks in my mind from the Fairy Census, where a family are walking along a path and are suddenly buzzed by a small, flying cube. And they run away, terrified.
It doesn’t seem to make any sense at all, but there are a lot of experiences like that. They people that describe them aren’t attempting to say “It was this, and it means this…” It seems to be a subject that comes more from the realms of madness, or from dreams.
I think we’ve all found ourselves stuck in the woods or in the countryside when the twilight has caught us unawares, and you suddenly find yourself feeling your surroundings are a little bit creepy. Have you had similar experiences, and did they find their way into the album?
Yes. You can be in the countryside, in a gorgeous place, and you suddenly get this odd mood of disconnected isolation. A sudden burst of fear. It doesn’t build up, it just hits you. I think it’s what they used to call “panic terror” in old, weird fiction stories…
Doesn’t it literally derive from the god Pan, and a feeling that he’s present, and watching you?
I think so, yeah. And there’s just something uncanny about natural landscapes sometimes. They can be overwhelming, particularly if you’re on your own.
But more specifically, there are a few things that stand out. Just… memories, and I don’t give any real credence to them. But I must have been about six or seven, and I woke up one morning and went downstairs into the family kitchen. And there was a tiny footprint on the table, about an inch long. That made a huge impression on me… “Right, these things they’ve been telling me about, fairies and the tooth fairy… they’re real! There it is!”
And later on, I thought… well, it was just a smudge on the table. But I still had this impression in my mind of this tiny, isolated footprint. And those odd memories, even though you rationalise them later, stay with you and haunt you.
I used to have a little man that came into my room when I was about three. He used to stick his around the bedroom door, and call my name in a really sinister, sing-song voice. He was like a puppet, and I knew he was called Fred. I was terrified of him, and used to run screaming into my parents’ bedroom. It happened on a couple of occasions. It haunted me for a long time, and I remember trying to explain to my Mum, a year or two later, that I was still scared of Fred coming back.
How I rationalise this is… well, it would be entirely in keeping with my Dad’s character, if he’d found a little puppet or doll somewhere, to stick its head around the door and try to spook me. But he totally denies it… and let’s face it, if he’d done it once, and I’d reacted with that kind of terror, he wouldn’t have done it a second time. He’s not a complete sadist! So to this day, I don’t know what Fred actually was. And my parents have no recollection of any of this.
[Laughs] Well I think the other thing with those kinds of experiences… there’s that stage between sleeping and waking. You’re half asleep, and you hear a noise, and sit up thinking somebody has just said something. I get that even now… I usually hear the front door opening or a window smashing. But of course it’s not happened. I think, as you wake up, your body goes into an “alert” mode, where you imagine – or even see – things. Maybe that’s where some of these entities creep in.
I hope so! We’ve talked about Arthur Machen before. Not only was he from the same town as you – Caerleon-upon-Usk, in South Wales – but he was also a believer in the fairy folk, wasn’t he?
I think so, and I think for Machen – and others writing in his era – there were two strands to fairy mythology. There was a big Celtic revival in the Victorian era, with Lady Wilde writing about Celtic mythology, and people like Yeats discovering their own Irish roots and writing poetry about that. But Machen, who was interested in history and archeology, believed in Euhemerism… and the idea that mythology could be explained by the survival of prehistoric people. So ancient, Neolithic people were here, in the British Isles… they’d been pushed to the fringes by Celtic incomers in the Iron Ages, but somehow they’d survived. Machen’s “little people” stories are about the idea that an ancient race survives underground and in the ruins. And literally inside the hills. You never really see the people in his stories, but they can squeeze through tiny gaps in walls and are somehow not quite human… just because they’re so ancient.
So he almost rationalised fairy tales, in a scientific way?
I think so. I mean, he took it further because, in his stories, they’re also supernatural beings. But I think, in the Victorian era, there had been a rationalisation of fairy mythology, and claims that these stories were actually about this ancient race. Similarly, there’s an idea that a lot of these stories are actually about outsiders, foreigners, maybe travellers. People that are mistrusted: there are stories about fairies abducting people, stealing things, and moving away.
So fairy folk tales could be an allegory for something more xenophobic?
How deeply did you delve into traditional folk tales?
A little bit. Where I live in Sussex, there’s a lot of fairy folklore. The fairies here are called “fairieses”, which is a very Sussex plural… ghosts also became “ghostses” and wasps are “waspses”! And that became mixed up with “Pharisees”, from the Bible. There’s a track on the album with that title, mis-spelt.
But the element of fairy folklore that interested me – and also partly influenced the titles – is that the stories also go: “My grandmother remembers that there used to be a boggart in that tree.” Right back to the Middle Ages, the stories are often that the fairies have left England, they’ve gone away. Hence the album title. And there’s a place in Sussex, on the Downs, not far from Brighton and Worthing – Harrow Hill. In the 1920s, there was a lot of archaeology on the hill forts around there, and local tradition said that this was the last place in England where fairies lived. And that they left when the archaeologists turned up. Which is a nice story about the passing of folklore, with science arriving to rationalise everything.
The publicity pictures for the album obviously emulate the lovely Cottingley Fairies photographs, from 1917. Where do you stand on those? They seem to have one foot in the tradition of dark folklore, and that idea of strange beings in the woods, but obviously – physically – they’ve got the look of J.M. Barrie‘s Tinker Bell. Where do they fit into the whole fairy aesthetic for you?
I think that’s an interesting period for fairy folklore. The early 20th century is when fairies morphed from being slightly malevolent goblin-like entities to being benign nature spirits. And, in literature, it’s often remarked that fairies have shrunk! In the olden days, the fairies were human-sized… they could carry you off – literally – or a man could marry a fairy princess. But these small nature spirits are, as far as I know, partly a result of children’s illustrations. At the turn of the 20th century, illustrations of the stories of the French author, Charles Perrault, were the first depiction of fairies as small, winged creatures. And that caught on with the theosophists, who saw fairies as nature elementals. And by the 1920s, theosophy was a big deal… actually, there’s a story about Walt Disney becoming a member of the Fairy Investigation Society, which was very theosophically inclined! And, from that point, when his name appeared in their membership roll, his animations were stuffed full of fairies. And they’re very much in that spirit of those nature elementals, perched on flowers and granting wishes.
Sorry, your question was about the Cottingley Fairies! [Laughs]. Yes, that’s where they come from… that was how fairies “looked” in that period, no question. Small, female beings with wings and floaty dresses. And these little girls were obviously obsessed with that. And I suppose it’s also a result of wanting to manipulate the media… it’s a very Ghost Box thing, of using collage to make things seem not what they are! And they took that a surprisingly long way. I think one of the girls stuck by the story and said “OK, some of these photos are fake… but not all of them…” [Laughs]
I always think the Cottingley Fairies feel like an oddly 1970s thing, too. They would regularly be featured as a story on programmes like Nationwide, and it was only in the early 1980s that the girls finally admitted at least some of the photos were faked.
Yeah, they were a standard feature in those bumper books of the supernatural. Along with the big, cowled ghost stood by the altar! The really spooky photo… I couldn’t look at that picture. It’s about nine feet tall, isn’t it?
The Newby Monk. I’ve never actually found the full story behind that photo! I mean, let’s hope it’s a fake…
I think that was one of the photos that they analysed on Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World, and obviously there was some rational explanation… [Laughs]
Actually, while we’re on the subject of all this, can we talk about Erwin Saunders? It was you that tipped me off about these lovely Youtube videos, where a rather bumbling amateur investigator appears to discover tribes of pixies living in the woods. They’re wonderful, and I assume you discovered them in the course of researching the album?
Yeah, I asked Sean Reynard if he’d like to make the promo video for the album, and in having a few conversations with him about my view of the album, and how that could overlap with his weird little film world, I was digging around for “footage” – in air quotes – of fairies.
And I didn’t actually find much… there are photos that probably crop up in the Fortean Times, of blurred faces in trees, but they’re often just cases of pareidolia – seeing faces in nature.
But I wondered if there was a film equivalent, and in looking for fairy sightings I found Erwin Saunders. And the first one I watched, where he spends the first five minutes talking about his hair… I thought that was genuine! The films stand together as one huge piece of work, and if you watch them chronologically, you’ll be hooked. They almost work as a mini-series, they’re great.
How did you team up with Sean?
I’d seen the Quentin videos, and always loved them. I just got in touch with him, and asked if he was aware of Ghost Box, and if he wanted to work with us. We had our first chat on the phone about six months ago, and hit it off straight away. We had loads in common, and from our first conversation I thought – this is going to work. He really gets what we’re doing. So I asked him if he’d do a promo for the album.
The thing with Sean, and why it seemed to work for me with Belbury Poly… his videos are unsettling and disturbing, but they’re funny. And I like that approach. I think that’s part of the world of Belbury Poly. The music is unsettling at times, and a bit odd and creepy, but hopefully there’s a touch of humour there. I hope it doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Do you think the humour of Ghost Box gets overlooked sometimes?
We don’t really labour the humorous elements… I mean it’s there, and there are sometimes a few gags in the titles. When Julian [House, Ghost Box co-founder] and I talking about our high-level concept stuff, it’s often done tongue-in-cheek. It depends on the project and the album. Sometimes it’s suitable for it all to be done in earnest, but even then it’s supposed to be fun. We’re not writing horror stories or generation some deliberately spooky world. Well… [laughs] perhaps we are. But there’s a light touch, I think.
No, I haven’t! I can’t remember how I stumbled upon it, I think I just saw a Youtube clip and thought – “That’s that thing! That’s an ocarina! I’ll get one and learn…” I mean I can’t really pick it up and play, but my approach to all instruments is that I’ll learn the part that I need to play for a particular track. I learn that, play that for a few weeks, record it, and then completely forget it. So the next time I pick up an ocarina, I probably won’t be able to play it at all. Same with the recorder…
I was going to ask about the recorder on the album! Did you play one at school?
No! This album is the first time I’ve played one! I spent a few months coming up with a few simple melodies, and thought… “Yeah, I can use this.” But I haven’t touched it for four or five months now, so I’ve probably completely forgotten all the scales I learned.
And what is the instrument on the track “Copse”? My God, it sounds like a crumhorn or something…
It’s a Mellotron! It’s the bassoon, played on a Mellotron. The idea for that track, which is the very darkest moment on the album, was to explore that idea of panic or terror, that sense of being watched or followed in the woods. But musically, it takes its cue from the Paddy Kingsland era of Doctor Who, and that whole period of the Radiophonic Workshop. The sounds are very dry and in your face, they didn’t use reverb and echo. There’s a lot of Early Music mixed with synth, too. So using the Mellotron Bassoon in a very dry, up front way seemed like an odd thing to do – but it’s what they would have done, and it captures a certain mood.
The album certainly has a very “medieval” feel to it at times… which, bizarrely, always seems to work well in an electronic context. It feels like a paradoxically natural combination! How does that work?
I suppose electronic music is often modal, in the same way that medieval music was, so there’s a single drone that runs throughout. So you can modulate that one chord, and weave melodies in and out… it’s the same with folk music. So I guess that connects with how a lot of electronic musicians work.
Did you have a storyline in mind when you sequenced the tracks? Is there a narrative to the album?
There’s always a narrative feel, but no particular story. The final track, ‘They Left On A Morning Like This’, was written and recorded as an ending to something. And the opening track, ‘Root and Branch’ is like a title sequence… in fact, it’s very much like the title sequence to Robin of Sherwood!
Ha, yes! The opening couple of notes are very Robin!
I’ve got an old Prophet synth, which they would have used in those days, and I just stumbled upon that little fanfare at the beginning and thought… “Good Lord”! [Laughs]. Mine is a very different piece of music, but I thought I would use the little palette of sounds that they would have used when they were recording that. And I like the way Robin of Sherwood was linked to folklore and nature… in a very Ghost Box way. Our folk influences, and the musical influence of the pastoral English tradition, are influences as received from old television and old records. They’re not quite from the source. So there’s a kind of inauthenticity about them, but hopefully they capture something, and tie in with the memories of those of us who didn’t grow up in the countryside, or steeped in the folk tradition. Which is most of us!
They both went hand in hand for me, really. I grew up quite a rural area, but Robin of Sherwood really struck a chord with me, and when I went to my usual woods I suddenly began to expect Herne the Hunter to appear from a cloud of dry ice. It was really quite a profound change in my attitude to the local countryside.
The other one with a similar atmosphere, from slightly earlier, is Excalibur. The John Boorman film. That era of myth coming to the screen is quite interesting… there are a lot of early VHS fantasy films, like Hawk the Slayer. That was something else on my mind, with a couple of tracks on the album. At that age, I was quite into fantasy stuff, and the Fighting Fantasy books…
Yes, the Fighting Fantasy books are inextricably linked to Robin of Sherwood for me. They seemed to cover similar ground, and I was obsessed with them both at the same time.
Yes, and me. Absolutely. For people our age, that was our folklore and our myth. It came through Role-Playing Games, video games and TV. It wasn’t told to us by our grandparents. But it was nonetheless exciting, and it’s stayed with us. So with my recordings, if I refer to “folklore”, I can only use the language I grew up with – and that might be a TV theme.
What was your favourite Fighting Fantasy book?
The Forest of Doom.
Yes, me too! It’s woodland again. I was obsessed with woodland.
I finished that one! The map all joined up and everything.
Yes! You know what, I spent the entire summer of 1984 mapping my Fighting Fantasy collection, and one of the most disappointing moments of my childhood was discovering that the map for Citadel of Chaos didn’t seem to fit together properly…
Is the world ready to hear this? [Laughs] That stuff’s popular again now, I guess because of Stranger Things… it’s quite hip now. The kids that we would have known, playing those games, aren’t the kids that are playing them now! But to me, when I see that stuff, I can hear this Berlin-school electronic music. It doesn’t have that heavy metal soundtrack that it had for many… it definitely has an electronic soundtrack. Have you heard of this Dungeon Synth stuff?
It’s a genre that I didn’t know about until a few weeks ago, when Stuart Maconie’s Freakzone did a feature on it. It’s a scene from the late 1980s or early 1990s, with homespun, hand-drawn, Xerox-ed tape covers that looked like DIY heavy metal album. All fantasy subject matter – wizards and dark towers. It was kind of New Age music, but much darker in tone. With bits of faux-medieval noodling. If you dig around on Youtube, there’s some quite interesting stuff… although a lot of it’s awful, as you can imagine! [Laughs]. I guess some of it began, or ended up, as video game music… it’s partly in that world. And I guess how that connects to what I’ve done with this album is just that idea of music as escapism. It references folklore, but it’s a fantasy. And hopefully – along with Julian’s graphics – we’ve created a self-contained world.
So The Gone Away is out on the 28th August, what have you got lined up after that? Will the new Beautify Junkyards album be the next Ghost Box release?
Yes, I think they recorded most of the album before lockdown began, then it’s been finished off and mixed remotely. And, in the last few weeks, João has been able to go into the studio with the engineer and finalise everything. So Julian is starting work on artwork, and it should be out in October or November.
Can you tell us anything about it? How’s it sounding?
It sounds lovely! The title is Cosmorama. I think, in the Victorian era, they had displays that were wraparound, 360-degree paintings, and people would pay to visit them. It would be the Battle of Trafalgar or the Palace of Versaille, and as close as you could get in those days to an immersive experience. And they were called Cosmorama.
But subject-wise, and lyrically, I think it’s more of a filmic album. There are hints of Italian giallo soundtracks. It sounds very nice, it’s a lovely album, and they’re so talented. Compared to most of us on the roster, they are proper musicians! [Laughs]. They know their craft.
We’re now heading towards the 20th anniversary of Ghost Box – do your earliest recordings almost have a sense of double nostalgia… nostalgia not only for the original 1970s experiences that they reference, but also the early 2000s, when they were released?
Maybe… I’m not so sure! I think, as you get older, your nostalgic buttons remain further back in the past. And “twenty years ago” is no longer as distant as it once was. For young people, “back in the day” can mean two years ago! I think what has changed for us, sometimes at least, are the references we dig into. Part of our DNA is library music, the Radiophonic Workshop, TV soundtracks… but hopefully we’ve broadened that out a bit. But I think the records still go after this mood of the misremembered past.
Is there a certain Ghost Box-ness that you can hear in things? And if so, what is it?
I wish I knew! I think Julian and I tend to agree, and we know straight away… I’ll sometimes get a demo and pass it onto him, and he’ll say “Yeah, I think that works too”. Or, if I’m in doubt, we’ll have similar doubts. It’s very hard to define. It’s to do with mood and atmosphere as much as it’s to do with musical styles, genres or production. And that can range from surreal humorous elements, to weird nostalgia, or even “Oh yes, this sounds like that old stuff…”. If we get where the artist is coming from, and we get their references, then it fits.
What wouldn’t you do?
I don’t know… I like to think there are elements from any genre that might work if they’re taken the right way. A lot of the things I listen to, I think “Oh, I’d love to have this on the label… but we don’t have artists like this.” You know, whether that’s rock music or soul music or more dance music, or something more contemporary that you wouldn’t necessarily associate with the label. Some things would fit, and there are some artists where I think “Oh God, yeah… they create this mood”.
And I guess some artists who can create that mood aren’t necessarily renowned for it. Paul Weller being the obvious example – I loved the EP he made for Ghost Box earlier this year. Are there other artists that aren’t obviously Ghost Box artists, but you think they possibly could be?
There are artists that I love personally… Panda Bear springs to mind, who I absolutely love. I’m a huge fan. His work, and the rest of the Animal Collective to a lesser extent, creates the same spark in my imagination that Julian and I are on the lookout for, for Ghost Box. There’s something about that deep nostalgia for a past that didn’t exist, and a yearning melancholy in his music that I love.
Would you approach him?
Definitely! If I had an “in”… maybe I’ll get a call now…
Thanks to Jim, as ever, for his time and company. The Gone Away is available to pre-order here…
And a further chat with Jim Jupp, about the album and also his youthful musical adventures, will be published in Issue 69 of Electronic Sound magazine, available in September: