Interview: Belbury Poly

By , Feb 4 2009

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Cosmic concepts, disco soundtracks and model railways all form part of the strange mix on Belbury Poly‘s newly released third LP, From An Ancient Star.

Like its predecessors, The Willows (2004) and The Owl’s Map (2006), it is an invocation of the British near-past rendered mostly in analogue synthesizers. In common with everything released by Ghost Box, the label that Belbury Poly’s Jim Jupp co-founded with Julian House, the version of the past triggered by From An Ancient Star resembles something between memory and dream. Belbury Poly’s radiophonic folk music is by turns jaunty and awestruck, sinister and seductive. K-punk talked to Jupp about the ideas and influences at work on the new record.

Was there anything different about how you approached this record by comparison with the other ones?

“This album was a bit more ambitious for me, because this time I spent more time weaving in repeated musical motifs across all the tracks. Also it was technically more complicated as I was aiming for a soundscape that could have just about existed at the end of the 1970s. Jon Brooks, of The Advisory Circle, was a great help, and gave me lots of production advice along the way. He had a perfect understanding of what I was trying to achieve. Also, one of the important inspirations behind the album was is the kind of clunky British disco soundtracks by composers like Denton & Cook, especially their Tomorrow’s World and The Great Egg Race themes.”

Concepts are obviously highly important to how you work. But what comes first, the ideas or the music?

“What usually happens is I start to discuss concepts with Julian when I’ve got a handful of tracks in an embryonic state. They will often suggest a particular set of ideas and images to us which will feedback in as I work on completing them and composing other tracks.”

From An Ancient Star references the idea – from Lovecraft and Von Daniken – that earth was visited by aliens deep in human prehistory. What is it about that concept that fascinated you?

“This concept crept into the album after I had recorded an early version of the track now called ‘From an Ancient Star’. For me it had the feel of both the soundtrack to a ‘mysterious world’-type documentary programme of the 1970s and also reminded me a bit of cosmic disco from the same period – like the track ‘Supernature’ by Cerrone. After reading round a bit for some reference material for the album cover it occurred to me that this stuff was perfectly echoed in Lovecraft’s mythology which we’ve often referred to in the past.”

Time in general is obviously a preoccupation on the record. Do you want to comment on that?

“Another one of the themes that crept into the record, and is something that has obsessed me personally for a long time, is the idea of eternalism and non-existence of time. It’s the notion that everything that has happened and will happen and all parallel world outcomes are superimposed in one block time.”

“Also we’ve always imagined that the Ghost Box world is a kind of an ‘all at once’ place where all of the popular culture from 1958 to 1978 is somehow happening all at the same time. I think this is one of the reasons why each release we put out looks like it comes from a particular moment in this period and yet can reference much earlier and later events at the same time.”

Scale is also an important theme on the LP – the idea of miniaturisation seems to be a thread in a number of tracks. Where did that come from? And does it connect in any way with the ‘Old Ones visiting earth millennia ago’ theme?

“In the first instance it’s a simple reference to more innocent times when young people had hobbies like model-making and railway layouts and programmes like Model World were a summer holiday favourite. But yes, we were also trying to hint at a more sinister aspect of this as if occult forces were manipulating reality with miniature models.”

There is a striking vocal sample on ‘A Year And Day’ – where did you get that from, and what did you do to it?

“The vocal sample is from a 1960s recording of an old lady singing a traditional song and I chopped a few lines of the recording up into constituent syllables and notes and rearranged them more or less at random against a rhythmic background and then repeated the process over and over deliberately selecting sections that made musical sense or sounded vaguely like words. A heavy layer of effects obscures the fact that it’s not real language at all.”

You and Julian have been accused of being nostalgic. I’ve seen you respond to that charge in interviews by saying, ‘What’s wrong with nostalgia’? What is it that motivates your nostalgia, though? Is it more about an attraction to the past or dissatisfaction with the present?

“There is an element of nostalgia and attraction to the past but for us it really is the idea of trying to convey the feeling of things half-remembered from a fictional past or a parallel world.”

Is there anything current – in music, films, TV – which inspires you?

“Currently I can’t get enough of the new Animal Collective album and before that the Panda Bear solo album. They really nail that spine-tingly ecstatic feeling of things half-remembered, like perfect musical rose-tinted spectacles. Generally current films and TV wouldn’t really inform much that happens in he Ghost Box world but it does occur to me that there have been two or three years of great musical and cultural documentaries on BBC4, I’m thinking of the biogs of great British writers and composers and the Britannia music series and even things like the documentary series on British motorways. Given the current treatment of the BBC this stuff could disappear overnight and we’d probably look back on it as a miniature golden age and always be on the look out for repeats.”

Would Ghost Box ever perform live?

“We all love the idea and talk about it but we just don’t have the resources or time to make it a reality. What we hope to start doing is occasional events with film, Ding and maybe art. The first one we’ve got planned is in the Shunt Vaults on the 11th March.”

K-Punk

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