Friday, 3 April 2009

Ghost Box

Britain still has its surprises, its secrets. On a recent visit to Broadstairs in Kent, this writer stumbled across a book entitled Ghost Stations in a dusty old second-hand booksellers. The book comprises barely-credible 'true' stories of haunted British airfields written in a stilted, untutored style. Yet it's still a compellingly eerie read, the fact that it was discovered in a town which seems decidedly more Pagan than Christian, its charity shops full to bursting with occult tomes, only reinforcing its weird energy.
It is precisely this energy that Jim Jupp and Julian House, founders of Ghost Box, have been tapping into for the last five years. The pair cite "library music, folklore, programmes for school and colleges, British horror movies, lost soundtracks, haunted landscapes, defunct educational establishments and weird supernatural stories" as key influences, while the label's design aesthetic (credited to House, an in-demand graphic designer) adds a further dimension of authenticity to the project, evoking Op Art, 60s-style abstraction and the celebrated house style of Penguin Books.
The music itself often relies on a similar collage-based aesthetic. By turns the work of Belbury Poly, The Focus Group, The Advisory Circle and Eric Zann recalls the library cues of the KPM company, the pioneering experimentation of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, the electro-nostalgia of Boards Of Canada and the sinister, site-specific ambience of Brian Eno's On Land... although the label's latest release, From An Ancient Star by Belbury Poly, incorporates elements of disco and dub, illustrating that the Ghost Box aesthetic is malleable, adaptable.
"Through each release we like to expand on the Ghost Box world and rediscovered films, TV, records and books constantly feed into this process," enthuses Jupp. "A book that Julian and I have both recently read which seems almost to have come from the Ghost Box world is Kingsley Amis' The Green Man, and personally I've been enjoying the soundtrack music of Richard Denton and Martin Cook [composers of the theme tune to cancelled BBC pop-science show Tomorrow's World] which has influenced the latest Belbury Poly release."
Jupp and House aren't simply indulging in nostalgia, however; their fascination for the hidden, lost and forgotten sheds a mysterious glow on Britain's past, present and future.
"Part of what we try to do with every Ghost Box release," explains Jupp, "is to recreate the feeling of stumbling across an intriguing and mysterious old book or record in a junk shop, giving that sense that these mysterious artifacts could somehow be windows into a whole hidden world."
Given Ghost Box's fascination for the hidden, haunted Britain (metaphorically and otherwise) have Jim or Julian ever been haunted, spooked, bedeviled, bewitched or otherwise supernaturally affected?
"Unfortunately not that I can remember," replies Jupp, "although if you ask any of the other Ghost Box artists I think they'll all agree that by working on the label and each release we're often surprised by bizarre coincidences and connections. I think my own interest in the supernatural goes right back to experiences of sleep paralysis, out of body experiences and waking as a child. All that strange stuff that happens between sleeping and waking has always made me suspect there is more to reality than ordinarily appears to us."

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Giant Sand

"Interesting timing," says Howe Gelb.

Two words and an Arizona burr; it's a recipe for intrigue. I ask Howe to elaborate. He kindly obliges.

"Well," he begins, drawing me closer to the phone, "it must have been embedded in my subconscious. However, I completely forgot about the advent of this scenario and happened to be sitting here completely still and almost ready for anything. I'd poured a stiff glass of my favourite scotch that I keep stashed at my favourite restaurant that I can't afford, and just like some old guy weathering on a splintered chair, waiting for my demise, the telephone rings… and it's my heart attack friend, that I've never met."

A little bit of background: this interview was due to occur exactly 24 hours earlier, but had to be postponed due to a little personal trauma, a health scare, that had taken place three days previously. Sitting at my desk following a cigarette that represented all the bad ideas I had ever had or ever would have, I noticed a tightening, dead centre in my chest. The tightening quickly solidified into a solid fist of pure discomfort. I tried flipping it off, but it wouldn't go away. At this point I started to sweat. My breath became laboured. I checked my face in the bathroom mirror and it was a sickly shade of grey.

I picked up the phone.

Roughly ten minutes later, I was in an ambulance. Thirty, and I was at the hospital with electrodes attached to my chest, and out of view (my choice) an orderly sucking out my blood through a needle in my arm. Ten hours or so, and I was on the street in Whitechapel with my intended, wearing a green hospital shirt, safe in the knowledge that I had not experienced a heart attack, but an artful imitator known as an oesophageal spasm. It could, the doctors told me, have been brought on by stress. I knew exactly which rat bastard – thanks Hunter – to blame for that, but that's another story for another day, comrades.

Oh, I say to Howe, you heard about that?

"Man, it's all over Denmark [Howe's current location and his wife's country of birth]. What happened exactly, you had an anxiety attack?"

No, I've had those before. This was different.

"Did you have the left arm go?"

No, just a chest pain. I started sweating, I turned grey…

"Your hair or your skin?"

Just my skin, my face. The hair would have been more distinguished. When your skin turns grey it's more like…


It might seem a tall order, but if the Angel Of Death is coming for me, I hope he's warm and funny and avuncular like Howe Gelb. It'd make things a whole lot easier.

For those who don't have access to the one-sheet, Arizona's most enigmatic sons, Giant Sand, have shimmered back into being and their new album is called Provisions. If 2004's Is All Over The Map was a dog-eared scrapbook of freakshow postcards, Provisions is more like a night drive on the way to a clandestine burial. Giant Sand always travel, smoothly or otherwise. This one's on the smooth side, but then 'smooth' is just a surface texture; there's no guarantee that what lies beneath won't draw blood. Ever since 1985's Valley Of Rain, Giant Sand have maintained a personable veneer while concealing a finely-tuned taste for chaos, using parched, countrified rock as a vessel for the exploration of inner and outer space rather than a refuge from the ravages of modernism. The only real constants have been Howe's voice and obvious enthusiasm for language, fusing to create a formidable cerebral superweapon, and his sensualist's attitude to musical texture.

"My work is totally scattered," confides Howe, who always sounds like he's confiding, no matter what he's actually saying. "At some point I bundle it all up and call it a specific thing, and the thing right now is this new Giant Sand record, I guess…"

How do you know when it's time for Giant Sand to re-emerge, as opposed to something that flies by any other name?

"It's in between something seasonal and something rotational, like a comet. It just kind of comes in and out of the atmosphere for a spell. It's like an atom, that little electron zipping around, and it's Giant Sand time in the nucleus when it gets close. Then this other electron zips around and it's 'Sno Angel [Howe's gospel-influenced 2006 project] time, then this other electron zips around and it's Gypsy Flamenco time.

Does Giant Sand dictate the style of song you write, or vice versa?

"No, it's not the songs. That's why we've changed songs every night… in the early days, for the first two thirds of this run, my run, I would change songs around every night, just because they were fucking asking for it. So I would mess with them, we'd make 4/4 songs into waltzes and see if that would fit, just to excite ourselves, we were playing to make this game out of it. By doing that, you bring this element of excitement into it, because you don't really know what's happening and everybody's in it to make it happen and see how far we can make it happen and to go to that place that makes it a little bit dizzy with it as opposed to making it tried and true and stale. It's not the songs, I don't think; I think it's more the flavour of the camaraderie. When you have a certain camaraderie it lends itself to a certain sound. That's what Giant Sand has always been."

Howe speaks of Giant Sand in a manner which reminds me of '60s and '70s counter-culture science fiction. It's entirely fitting, too; one can easily imagine the loose protagonists of Philip K Dick's A Scanner Darkly gulping back handfuls of Substance D to 2000's Chore Of Enchantment, or shoving a tape of 2001's Cover Magazine in the car stereo on the way to a pick up. This is something that separates Giant Sand from their lesser peers in Americana, perhaps attributable to Howe Gelb's considerable speed-of-mind; they disorientate. They knock time out of joint. They're everywhere and nowhere (baby).

"I think every artist – I use the term loosely… let's call 'em plumbers – every plumber has a sensitivity antenna that allows them to pick up signals at least 12 minutes into the future. So he just smells the smoke of the fire coming, and that's usually his smoulder, y'know, that's the sound he's making. So sometimes you come up with a record that'll need 20 years for people to find acceptable, sometimes it's only 20 minutes."

There's a sudden disturbance at Howe's end of the phone line; I hear an lightly accented voice. While the words are unclear, the meaning is unmistakable.

"Ah, they're closing! So I'll just sit out there with this? No, I'll sit on the wooden part… all right. The restaurant's closing up."

Oh, right, I say. I ask Howe what time it is in Aarhus. Ever polite, he conducts two conversations simultaneously, one with me, the other with the staff of the restaurant he's being asked to vacate.

"It's like 10:30 or 11:00… this is? You did? It's a nice bag. I love this little place. No, I'm good, it's good. Keep me young. You know, Friday night in Aarhus… yeah! I look a little weird here? Can you sit on these boxes? No, someone will take the chair, won't they, they'll throw it through the window. No, don't worry about it. Don't… I'll just sit right here and I'll be good [laughs] I don't need a chair!"

The thought of a concerned Danish restaurant worker attempting to force a chair on the reluctant-yet-well-mannered American makes me smile. I picture Howe sitting outside the restaurant, a single wall-mounted, wire-meshed exterior light cocooning him in its glow. Holding the night at bay.