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Belbury Poly on ploughman’s lunches, prog rock and avoiding “Clarkson/Wakeman territory”

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  • published
    1 Feb 2012
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Your guests’ instrumental contributions really expand and enrich the Poly palette, but they don’t dominate or overwhelm it. Can you tell me more about the arranging and mixing process?

“The production and mixing process for this album took a long long time, and most of the tracks went through at least ten versions over the last two and half years. Partly because I was searching for the right sound for each but more likely because this was a huge technical leap forward for me – particularly working with the other chaps. Jon Brooks (of The Advisory Circle) is however my production mentor and technical advisor and I’ve learned an enormous amount from him along the way.

“In terms of composition I’m primarily a keyboard player, so it’s often these parts and sounds that lead – but I’ve always loved love a deeply unfashionable kind of maximalist, detailed ensemble sound with lots going on – so great care goes into arrangement and production so that different parts can be subtly foregrounded then merged back comfortably with everything else.

“Having said all this, I don’t claim to have produced a particularly highly engineered hi-fi record; I still try to capture sounds of recordings I love on each track where appropriate and the result is often deliberately lo-fi. Production techniques vary greatly from track to track - for example, on ‘The Geography’ I sampled a snatch from an old National Trust public info film and tried to merge the beautifully saturated and muffled sounds with my own recorded additions, and a constant hiss of TV static adds to the feel of music heard on a 70s tube TV. Alternatively the track ‘Goat Foot’ is inspired by the sounds of Turkish psych – so a heavily compressed backline and tape distortion are the order of the day. Again, Jon Brooks was invaluable and during the mastering process he sticks firmly to warm analog processing, to enhance these effects. Hopefully this is one of those albums that sounds better on vinyl.

Rob Young contributes a piece of short fiction, ‘The Journeyman’s Tale’, to the liner notes. How did this come about?

“Well I approached Rob because he did us the great honour of including Ghost Box in his book, Electric Eden. And it struck me then, as at other times when he’s reviewed our releases, that he has exactly the right sense of what the label and all its artists are about.

“I’ve always loved love a deeply unfashionable kind of maximalist, detailed ensemble sound with lots going on.”

“As our albums come together I usually get into deep discussions with my label colleague and our designer, Julian House. I often feed copy, titles and mood boards of images and photos to Julian and he digests those and generates artwork ideas – it’s usually at this stage that overall themes start to emerge for us and we pin down the concepts that inform the record.

“When I asked Rob to do the note all I had was a weird list of words and ideas that included: ploughman’s lunches, the Canterbury scene, pubs, cod-medievalism, pilgrimages, modular synthesizers, churches and British science fiction. He got it and suggested a piece of fiction rather than traditional liner notes, giving us ‘The Journeyman’s Tale’. I don’t really understand how, but it captures the feel and intent of the album perfectly.”

Were there any particular items – musical, literary, visual – that especially impacted on the creation of The Belbury Tales?

“As odd as it sounds, this idea of the ploughman’s lunch was kicking round at the back of my head for most of the time. Not cool or rock-and-roll, and dangerously in Clarkson/Wakeman territory perhaps, but it occurred to me that it perfectly captures the very British relationship with the past: at once fascination, fantasy and reinvention. Reading round the subject, it’s not entirely clear to anyone whether in fact the ploughman’s lunch was a 60s invention, a rediscovery or a genuine tradition – its was certainly marketed and put together in its now familiar form in the 60s, but there seems to be more to it than that, as the quotes in the album’s sleevenotes suggest.

“I like the way that this overlaps with a sense of reinventing the past, false memories and fictional histories – the very thing that Ghost Box is all about. It also carries a whiff of British pubs and pub-rock and folk, possibly the breeding ground for much of the music that influenced the album.”

“There’s a sense of reinventing the past, false memories and fictional histories – the very thing that Ghost Box is all about.”

Belbury Poly hasn’t ever made the transition from studio to stage. Do you see that changing in time?

“I’d love to one day, but running the label and our own distribution network is a full time job, not to mention family responsibilities. It’s something I’d like to do properly with a full band of talented musicians – I wouldn’t be prepared to do a one man and his mixing desk sort of performance, I don’t think that would do justice to the music. So maybe when I have more time on my hands and the financial freedom for rehearsing and recruiting, yes.”

The revived Hammer have filmed The Woman In Black; Berberian Sound Studio is on the way… do you think there’s a bit of a resurgence of interest in the uncanny in TV, film and the culture at large?

“I know what you mean – there’s a lot of stuff around in music and film that directly nods to the world of Panther Horror anthologies, British ‘folk’ horror movies, and more generally nudey witch sort of stuff. All of which is marvellous – but for me that is only one small strand of the ‘culture’ that informs Belbury Poly and Ghost Box more generally. I hope that we’ve created a world which is as much to do with the weirdness of Britain in general, especially during our imagined all-at-once time frame of roughly 1958 to 1978. I often get asked about ghosts and the occult in interviews but the ghost in Ghost Box is more to do with faulty memory and TV screen after-images.”

“I’m keen not to lose touch with some of the more amateurish charm of the early stuff, when I had less idea of what I was doing or what it was about.”

The Belbury Tales feels like the most complete and satisfying Belbury Poly album to date. Where is there to go next? Do you find that the better you get at articulating and realising your vision, the more uncertain you become about your next move?

“I just get more terrified each time! But as soon as I start on a piece of work, themes, concepts, influences and the music just seem to emerge spontaneously. Still, I hope I’ve raised the bar a little each time – although in moving from an amateur to a professional over the last eight years I’m keen not to throw out the baby with the bathwater and lose touch with some of the more amateurish charm of the early stuff, when I had less idea of what I was doing or what it was about.”

Tim Purdom




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