A quick and very late update this week, typed in haste while sat on the floor in Amsterdam airport, returning from a digging trip to Slovenia and the Netherlands with some rather groovy ‘Ex-Yugo’ electronica LPs under my arm and a slight headache. But that’s not important right now. I must just very quickly draw your attention to the latest episode of Resonance FM’s crate-digging showcase spectacular Near Mint, which this week features a thumb through the stash of the Ljubljana-based turntablist and producer DJ Woo D. And what a stash it is….
Knocked together in a single take from recent acquisitions, lounge oddities and the kind of fabulously obscure funk that you and I don’t stand a cat-in-hell’s chance of ever finding for ourselves, it’s a heady brew that I’ve had on loop for the past week. And certainly a damn sight better than the Toni Braxton and Chris DeBurgh currently emanating from the airport toilets. Bad taste knows no borders….
Absolutely delighted to present the brand new Howlround LP Tales From The Black Tangle, available to pre-order NOW from my special boutique imprint The Fog Signals. The vinyl has finally arrived and is looking absolutely fantastic, shrink-wrapped with a full colour sleeve in a tasteful matt-finish, with artwork by myself and a beautiful rear photograph by the talented Victoria ‘Ringmaster’ Hastings. We’re very proud and excited, even more so when I tell you that in less than twenty-four hours a THIRD of the stock has been snapped up! It’s selling fast, so if you want to get your hands on a copy, might I suggest moving swiftly?
And now the obligatory press statement: Following a busy summer that has seen the duo touring with “Disintegration Loops” legend William Basinski, profiled on BBC 6 Music’s The Freakier Zone, creating sound installations inside venues as varied as a Portuguese funeral parlour and a reservoir beneath Copenhagen; tape loop wranglers Robin The Fog and Chris Weaver are delighted to announce the launch of their fourth LP as Howlround – Tales From The Black Tangle
The pair create their music following a strict rule – all digital effects and artificial reverb is strictly forbidden. As with previous albums, Tales From The Black Tangle was created entirely by manipulating natural recordings on a trio of vintage reel-to-reel tape machines. Their increasingly spectacular live performances are no exception to their analogue-only rule, and see the pair leaving venues strewn with miles of tangled magnetic tape. Distant trains, industrial sirens, foghorns, ship to shore distress signals, and even a BBC microphone stand in need of some oil, are all are folded into the duo’s darkest and most eerily compelling work yet. A recent vinyl reissue of last year’s Torridon Gate album sold out in a single afternoon, so anticipation for this latest release is high.
You might remember that a small part of the sessions for this album were captured in this rather super Vine video Chris took over the summer, so it’s great to finally be able to present the finished results in a format longer than six seconds:
Right, I’d better get off down that post office. Thanks so much for all of your custom so far and for the very positive initial feedback I’ve been receiving. I haven’t even had time to do press yet, so there’s no official reviews to speak of, but you can rest assured that if they’re positive they’ll be trumpeted from the roof of Broadcasting House…
…And to think until today I’d never heard a recording of my thumb amplified through the public address system of major exhibition venue!
— Robin The Fog (@RobinTheFog) August 20, 2015
It’s been a busy old week at Fog Towers since my return from Copenhagen, culminating in a morning spent wandering around the famous Kensington Olympia with some contact microphones looking for some hidden sounds to record. Currently in-between exhibitions and deserted save for a small army of cleaning and maintenance staff, I was lucky enough to be given full access to this enormous exhibition centre, including its surprisingly loud PA system. The reason for all this will be unveiled next month when I’m planning to return to the building to present the results of my audio adventures. For the moment I’ll just let it be known that playing the sounds of doors creaking, glass being rubbed and the ascension of a scissor-lift back into the cavernous main hall at high volume while staff continue their work undaunted was about the most fun it’s possible to have before lunchtime. Like being given the keys to an enormous empty toyshop…
In other news, here’s what the next Howlround album sounds like:
Following a flying visit to Veneration Music‘s studio in deepest, darkest Kent, I’m very excited to be able to reveal this first glimpse of our next LP – quite literally. It has a title, cover artwork and, thanks to the nurturing hands of genius mastering engineer James Edward Barker, is now primped, polished and ready to go. As with our previous album, the services of this most talented musician/producer/polymath was largely paid for in Butterscotch flavour Angel Delight – a very reasonable price for a chap who’s just been working with Bruce Willis. We’re very excited about it all, but for the moment this enigmatic glimpse of the audio files is all you’re getting! Hoping for a November release, but you know how these things have a tendency to get held up…
On the same subject, you might remember me harping on about Howlround’s first ever music video few weeks back. Why not watch it again? It’s very good but I need to get the play-count up:
I mention it here again because the charity compilation album XPYLON from which this track (a collaboration with Ray Carmen’s abandoned playground) was taken is finally out and available in all it’s 16-exclusive-track glory. As well as benefiting a good cause, it’s also a tribute to Jonny Mugwump’s erstwhile Exotic Pylon record label and radio show, and the stellar line-up below is the perfect testament to his legacy. All original and exclusive material and it’s a ‘name your price‘ release, which means you simply pay what you think it’s worth – but as 100% of all proceeds are being donated to mental health charity ‘MIND‘, a generous donation is always appreciated.
But don’t just take my word as to its quality, a rather flattering review courtesy of Jim Haynes has surfaced in this month’s Wire magazine:
Now that the album has been released, I’m suddenly reminded that I actually feature on the album twice, firstly in my capacity representing Howlround and secondly as one third of new super-group The Trunchbulls, alongside Band Of Holy Joy lynchpin Johny Brown (who wrote the tremendously eerie accompanying text) and Exotic Pylon legend Dolly Dolly (who spoke it and did the eerily tremendous job one might expect after listening to his 2013 album Antimacassar). Anyway, put it down to a busy work-load, to concentrating over-hard on finishing off the aforementioned Howlround long-player or just encroaching senility, but somehow the memory of working alongside these two excellent fellows and the resulting ‘polyglot of Derbyshire-esque Radiophonics’ (thanks Jim!) slipped to the bottom of my mental pile. I’d better post it up here before it slips my mind again:
One thing I haven’t forgotten is Jez Butler‘s superb A Lighter Side Of Concrete from a year or so ago. Heavily influenced by the work of twang-a-ruler-and-make-a-bassline-out-of-it Radiophonic Workshop legend John Baker, it’s an album of decidedly chirpy concrete-pop that I still feel has been rather unfairly slept on. Well, his latest release as part of the Twelve Hour Foundation with partner Polly Hulse is out now on a limited edition three-track 7″ and it’s really quite marvellous. Continuing the legacy of his solo album, it’s a ridiculously catchy affair that sounds like the theme tune to an early 1980s BBC Schools programme about robots or the periodic table – like something Paddy Kingsland might have cooked up for the greatest-ever episode of Zig-Zag, on a spring morning while enjoying a bourbon. Look, I’m running out of analogies, OK? Just give it a listen already!
And speaking of John Baker, I’m ridiculously over-excited at the imminent release of The Vendetta Tapes on Alan Gubby’sBuried Treasure imprint. Alan worked extensively on the Trunk compilation The Baker Tapes several years ago and I believe these tracks represent a further trove of ultra-rare obscurities from one of the Workshop’s true pioneers: incidental music, theme tunes, jingles and special effects culminating in a delicate balance of sleazy jazz, musique concrete and subtle electronics. I was excited then and I’m excited now, especially as I had confidently assumed that after the Trunk release the trail would have gone cold. After all, the BBC does have a deservedly awful reputation when it comes to preserving it’s own archive – though the recent BFI box set of Out Of The Unknown was most welcome, it served as much to highlight the fact that more than half of the episodes of that series have been lost forever, including stories by Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asmiov and Nigel Kneale – a travesty, quite frankly. Thank heavens for enthusiasts like Alan who manage to get past the bureaucracy and red tape and finally give these treasures an airing! Limited edition and selling fast, don’t sleep on this one:
Well, that’s probably enough to be getting on with. Next week I’m off to York to record the sound of vintage Grandfather Clocks. Busy old summer…
To celebrate my heroic non-inclusion in this year’s Record Store Day, due in no small part to failing to get my affairs in order, I was planning to use this week to spring something exciting onto a grateful world: namely a surprise vinyl reissue of Howlround’s third album Torridon Gate, in an edition of 100 only, complete with gorgeous screen-print of the sleeve by Hannah Brown of Modern Day Magpie and a natty translucent inner. However, thanks to the noble efforts of the good folk on my mailing list, I’m unable to do so…
The fact is, I sent my subscribers an email last week giving them first dibs on the new record and they literally bit my hand off – the entire edition sold out in less than twelve hours!
Sorry to disappoint those of you who missed out, but that really is your lot! The ‘name your price’ digital download is still available, but the number of regretful, peevish or outright inconsolable missives I’ve received in the last few days tells me it’s proving little consolation. However, the fact is that in my original email I promised it would be first-come, first-served, with no second edition and no re-reissue. And I intend to keep that promise until such future times as when it will prove especially financially lucrative to go back on my word and let everyone down – a major career retrospective, perhaps, a deluxe vinyl box set in mahogany, a nomination for the Mercury prize, that sort of thing. Frankly, such worries are quite a way off yet – not much point having a major career retrospective without having a major career first. But I digress…
I do plan to spring other surprises in this manner in the future as it’s quite an enjoyable (if not particularly lucrative) way of running my affairs and keeping my followers on their toes. If you’re not yet on my mailing list and gaining such preferential treatment yourself, why not send an email with the subject line ‘Yes! I wish to be kept on my toes re. this kind of thing in the future’ to robinthefog at gmail dot com? I will take care of the necessary and first dibs on my next vinyl surprise will be yours for the taking!
To Radiophrenia news now, and congratulations to Mark Vernon and his team for the culmination of a successful week of broadcasting to Glasgow and the surrounding areas on 87.9FM (while streaming worldwide online), with a wide and varied programme of original radiophonic works, lectures and performances, including a couple of new works by myself (along with the writer Leila Peacock, of course).
I’m extremely proud to report that one of them, ‘Mount Shock – Music For Microphone Cradle’ was chosen as the work to mark the final broadcast, signing-off and closure of the station at roughly ten minutes to midnight on Sunday 19th. Quite an accolade with over seven hundred pieces to choose from!
Penultimately, the Howlround tape-loop quartet finally came out of dry-dock last week when I performed a solo set (Chris still being on his arts residency in Dubai) for the music technology students of Havering College in Essex. It was good to be back behind the spools and the students responded well to my demonstration of what it’s possible to achieve without resorting to plug-ins, fx pedals and other bits of digital technology. In fact it went so well that for a moment I almost felt ‘cool’ and ‘relevant’, but thankfully those feelings passed before I attempted to get too far ‘down with the kids’. Could have been seriously embarrassing for a chap of my vintage.
And lastly, I’ve moved house too. 80+ boxes of vinyl, tape spools CDs, books and other assorted ephemera (not to mention my army of tape machines) have been successfully transferred to my new abode in Penge, thanks to the efforts of some very strong friends (both literally and metaphorically). This photo was taken at about the halfway point, when there was still some floor-space in which to stand swinging a camera. No such luxuries now. I haven’t seen the carpet since:
There are those who claim that moving house, performing a Essex-based solo tape-loop set and releasing a new record in the space of less than forty-eight hours is sheer, unadulterated lunacy. And you know what? I wouldn’t dream of arguing with such people. The upshot of all of this is that I’m currently sans-internet at the newly-appointed Fog Towers, which is why I’m writing this while day-drinking in Crystal Palace, next to two men engaged in a fascinating discussion about why it’s never a good idea to take cocaine at a funeral. If you’re thinking that sounds rather like stating the bleedin’ obvious, I should inform you that some poor misguided chump once offered me viagra at the send-off of a much-loved elderly relative, so perhaps such activities are more common than you or I might imagine. But all that’s for another time…
Anyway, for these reasons, and all of the above, it’s an exciting time. More soon, my friends, and don’t forget to subscribe if the mood takes you!
As today marks the release of two classic Radiophonic Workshop LPs that have received the heavyweight vinyl treatment thanks to deluxe reissue label Music On Vinyl, it seems only right and proper that I should finish off publishing the transcripts of my interviews with the various luminaries of the reformed and touring quintet of original workshop members, recorded at the University of Chichester for my BBC World Service report back in April. Our final subject is Mark Ayres, who joined the workshop late in it’s career and worked as a composer for Doctor Who during the ‘controversial’ Sylvester McCoy era. But it’s the extensive and exacting archiving, documenting and remastering of the Workshop’s historical recordings for which he is best known, particularly important within a broadcasting corporation that hasn’t always taken the greatest care of preserving it’s own legacy. Mark is also the brains and the galvanising force behind the workshop’s latest incarnation, which is touring the festival circuit this summer. Down-playing his contribution as ‘the archivist and general hanger-on’, he nonetheless remains the person most responsible for preserving the Workshop’s past and ensuring it’s future – a composer, an expert and a fan rolled into one. I started by asking him what he thought the Workshop’s greatest legacy was?
MA: It’s very difficult for me to say what the legacy of the Radiophonic Workshop is, I think that’s more for other people to express and [have an] opinion on. I know from my experience it’s something that I grew up with its very much part of my consciousness. I can see its influence in the world around me musically, aesthetically, artistically, in television and film, and I know what it has done to influence me. I wouldn’t be sitting here if it wasn’t for the Radiophonic Workshop. I went into music and sound largely because of being influence by the Workshop when I was a kid in the sixties. I was at primary school and we had programmes like ‘Music and Movement’ which was a kid’s programme where [they] were encouraged to do mimes and acting and movement and dance and whatever and all the sound was Radiophonic. So we were exposed to it every day at school and then we went home and watched Blue Peter and there it was on there with ‘Bleep and Booster’. And weekends we would watch Doctor Who. So it’s very much part of our consciousness, really. It’s what we grew up with, it’s part of the DNA of many people of my generation and I think part of the DNA of British culture.
RTF: How does the Radiophonic Workshop assert itself in the modern age, where electronic music has now become such a part of everyday culture and can be easily made on someone’s smartphone, for instance?
I don’t think the Radiophonic Workshop really needs to assert itself these days, the workshop is and the history and the back-catalogue is there. People can listen it, people can hear it, and people can be influenced by it. The fact that we are doing concerts now and people are coming along proves that people are interested in it and in seeing what the surviving members can still do. What I was very keen on was ….these guys are my friends and my mentors for many years I was very keen to give them a platform. To show that they’re still creative and that they’ve still got something to say. And I certainly think they have and certainly the audiences that are coming to see us now, the response is amazing.
How would you describe Radiophonics to the uninitiated?
Well, the Radiophonic Workshop came about when in the 1950s BBC Radio 3 in particular was starting to do a lot of very experimental drama and couldn’t find the appropriate sound and music in the library or in the sound effects archives to illustrate this. And a lot of producers became very aware, with what was happening on the continent in French and German radio in particular. Where they set up electronic music studios to explore [for example] in Paris, musique concrete – that‘s found sound. Here, I’ve got a drinks glass [picks it up, taps on it] I’m just flicking that with my finger, and that makes a sound. If I record that and vary the pitch of the tape I can make it ‘sing’. So that was what musique concrete was. Not just wine glasses, any found object, even the table or my glasses; anything can make a sound and you can make music out of that sound. In Cologne they were more interested in computers and in what sounds came out of electronic circuits. This was being watched at the BBC and they thought ‘we can use these techniques to illustrate our dramas’. So, they weren’t making ‘art music’ the way they were doing on the continent, they wanted it as a very practical contribution to making high-brow drama. But of course they didn’t put any money into it, so we had two people in particular Desmond Briscoe and Daphne Oram who started doing this work after hours when everyone else had gone home, they’d go down to the studios, nick all the gear, wheel it down the corridors put it all together, do the work and then try and put all the studios back together for the next morning. And eventually after that it was realised that they had to set up a department to do it.
So, what is Radiophonics? Well, Radiophonics is new sound, unknown sound. In its purest form it is using sound to illustrate the unknowable, I suppose. In the early days it was all plays about people having nervous breakdowns or someone sitting in his bath or something like ‘The Dreams’ which was one of four inventions o radio created by Barry Bermange. He did vox-pops, interviewing people about their dreams and later on about their views of God or the afterlife and he cut these comments together in a sort-of poetic fashion, rhythmic fashion, using a lot of repetition and making sure that the voices had a rhythm to them. He would make a script of what he’d recorded, cut these together and then give it to Delia Derbyshire who would then create background [music] to illustrate these.
And again [the question] was ‘how do you illustrate a dream state in a way that is purely subjective?’ You could cover it with Sibelius and Debussy if you want, it will probably work very well’ but it will immediately have its own associations. We don’t want to do that, we want the audience to make their own associations. So you have to give them something fairly neutral. And that’s where the Radiophonic Workshop [comes in], and of course in doing so it creates its own beauty, its own ethos, its own place in the world. And particularly The Dreams [became] this out of body experience if you listen to it, close your eyes and just let it wash over you, it is very dream-like in its own way. It’s a dream-like programme about people’s dreams. So that was a very early sort-of ‘pure’ radiophonic programme. And of course later on it became obvious that, say, if you were making ‘Quatermass and the Pit’, electronic sound was a very nice way without having to use the same kinds of sounds as everybody has heard before to illustrate the ‘Id Monster’ coming alive […] or the Martian consciousness re-awakening in the pit. So that was where it really excelled. Later on the Workshop became much more of a music factory, as television particularly just wanted more cheap theme tunes. As radio budgets decreased there was no longer the budget to allow the Workshop six weeks to experiment and see if they could come up with something. Which is what the BBC was about in the 1960s, [but] it certainly by the 80’s was not about that at all – it as about ‘we have a budget, you will make a programme, can we have it by Tuesday week’. So it became much more of a music factory. That eventually led to its demise, because it couldn’t compete with freelancers from outside who by that time had very similar equipment and could do a very similar job. Again, what we’re trying to do now is to allow ourselves to be purely experimental. A lot of our music is still very visual, we’re still using a lot of video, it’s still applied music and it is still music which is trying to evoke a mood or tell a story. But we’re now allowed, as in the 1960s, we’ve got the time to produce what we want and to experiment in the way we want and to combine all the techniques that were developed over the last fifty years to do something hopefully new.
This is the new album you’re referring to?
Well, this is the new album and what we’re doing on stage now. It’s taking all these techniques and learning from them and combining them and building on them. I can’t tell you that much about the new album because we’re still very much in the stage of throwing things up in the air and seeing what happens. We do have a working title which is Electricity and we’ve all been writing tracks which explore the theme of electricity. So Peter’s got a track which is called ‘Electricity’ which maybe the title track, I’ve got a track called ‘Galvani’, we’ve got one called ‘Wireless’ which Paddy Kingsland has written; another Peter Howell track ‘Til the lights go out’. So it’s all explorations on the theme of electricity and what it means to us in our lives. It’s almost like a ‘Horizon’ programme in the way we’ve approached it, in terms of finding a subject to illustrate; but we have the total free time to go and explore that theme individually and then all bring ideas back to the group and put it together. That’s what’s fascinating about this whole process. We’ve all been individual composes working in our own studios and now we do that as a starting point, but then we take it to the band and we see what everybody else can contribute to it. And there’s an ideology, a definite theme and content to what we’re doing.
The way electronic music is made now, you could literally press play and a computer could make a nice pretty tune for you, but I think sometimes modern electronic music loses that sense of having to say something, of having an idea to communicate.
Electronic music, certainly from the 1980s onwards – and this is part of what killed the workshop, it suffered from ‘pre-set-itis’. Because digital synthesisers came out which all came with fantastic pre-sets and pop music did those pre-sets to death! Also, when you were doing television music and you had literally 24 hours to put a theme tune together, it was very easy to use a pre-set. And it’s no good saying to the client ‘I want to do something really original, it’ll take me a week’, they’ll say ‘well, somebody else can do it by the morning’. [You could argue that that somebody else is] just going to use all the pre-sets, [but] nobody cares. So there was a slightly let-go attitude for a while. I know people who will buy a new synth and completely wipe memories before they even listen to the pre-sets. I won’t go that far, but I do make, as much as possible, all my own sounds. Because to me that’s what the fun of electronic music is about.
The aspect of digging to find the new sounds inside the machine, I suppose?
If I want to write for a combo, I can write for a rock band or I can write for an orchestra. The whole fascinating thing about electronic music for me is creating the orchestra and then writing for it! So everything should be new, it’s new combinations of sound, new combinations of techniques. Trying to surprise yourself, really. Exploring the happy accidents and allowing yourself the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them and have accidents which actually will lead you down a new pathway. You have to take the mistakes seriously.
Could you tell us a little about taking classics Radiophonic works and transferring them into the live arena? How did you go about it?
Doing this live is interesting because again by its nature, we’d slave away in the studio for many long hours putting piece of music together and by its very nature it is not performable live and yet here we are performing it live! So there is an element of ‘we prepared this earlier’, but also in every track we’re trying to find something which we can do live, that we can do differently that will surprise the audiences, which makes it interesting for us. We’re doing ‘Greenwich Chorus’, for instance, which is one of Peters’ famous pieces. There’s a couple of surprising elements in that which we’re doing live which makes it different, because it’s got to be different, it is presented live. And something like Dr Who, again, just to go on, it took Delia Derbyshire six weeks to do the original theme, it took Peter Howell six weeks to do his revised theme in 1980. We can’t expect the audience to sit there for three months while we do that, so we’ve got to find a short-cut. So we’ve found a way of de-constructing it, pulling to bits, building it back up again and then doing something entirely new with it, which we can present live. So that’s the fun for us [when] doing the concerts – finding ways of tearing this stuff apart and rebuilding it so that it retains its essence but is also a live experience as well.
Many thanks to Mark for being such informative and entertaining company, and the equally-stimulating interviews with his ‘friends and mentors’ Dick Mills, Roger Limb and Paddy Kingsland are all still available for your perusal; as is the original report which can be found here. The 180g vinyl reissues of Peter Howell’s Through A Glass Darkly and Paddy Kingsland’s The Fourth Dimension are both out today and available from musiconvinyl.com. The reformed Radiophonic Workshop band are touring the festival circuit throughout the summer. And they rock. Trust me on this.