Deviant Logic Unfolding: English Heretic Interviewed
, January 8th, 2014 05:42
English Heretic blends fact and fiction to explore a world of troubled souls, hidden landscapes and secret histories. With his recent album "Anti-Heroes" a firm fixture in the Quietus' current listening, we dispatched Russell Cuzner to meet him in the field and report back on horror flicks, paranoia, and the occult in J.G. Ballard's writing
The resplendent psychedelic dawn of 'The Dangerous Gift' - the glorious opening track from "Anti-Heroes", English Heretic's tenth release - deftly combines the eerie feel of The Wicker Man's seductive folk songs with a heady, dark-side-of-the-60s acid rock vibe, suggesting a hypnotic procession through lush countryside. It serves as a meditative entry point to the album's convoluted constellation of 'black plaques' (a subversion of English Heritage's blue plaque scheme) that English Heretic meticulously researched and defined to commemorate a cast of troubled souls that may be haunting the suburbs west of London.
English Heretic's releases are far more than mere concept albums, though. As Andy Sharp, chief executive of English Heretic, reveals, they're conceived through an extraordinary and elaborate creative process, forming multimedia mash-ups to "fecundate the imagination". His methodology takes in magick, psychogeography and horror film geekdom, along with firm roots in Britain's industrial music culture of the early 1980s, to form potent, novel topographies of an otherwise unconnected world of occultists and psychopaths.
Suitably enough, we hold our conversation initially near St James' Church in the village of Bix in Oxfordshire, where Blood On Satan's Claw was filmed. This horror flick from 1970, about the emergence of a witches' coven in an otherwise god-fearing hamlet, is a key ingredient to "Anti-Heroes"; the film's central character - the possessed young murderess Angel Blake - is chillingly compared to Mary Bell, who was convicted at the age of eleven of the manslaughter of two boys around the time the film was being made. This disorienting and occasionally diabolical blending of fiction and fact is central to English Heretic's myth-making praxis.
Like a lot of your work, "Anti-Heroes" is concerned with a defined area in which you signpost a specially selected cast of characters to reveal intriguing connections. What comes first, the characters or the place?
Andy Sharp: The original idea was completely a Ballard thing. I wanted to do a black plaque for an imaginary psychopath rather than a real psychopath, as I didn't want to get into that whole area of celebrating criminal psychopathology. So I thought Vaughan out of Crash [the former TV-scientist with a fetish for automobile collisions in JG Ballard's controversial 1973 novel] would be the archetypal one. [Ballard's] my favourite author, and Crash is a great book, but it's also like a modern horror story, or lots of different threads of a story, but set in a very defined location.
It started off about a person, but the only way I could think of doing it was to map it to real locations and then, looking at other characters, other black plaque people I'd like to make homage to. The other [main] one was this guy called Robert Cochrane, who was a 60s witch who had himself sacrificed at mid-summer, and was actually from Slough, which was total Ballard territory as well. So, these characters started mapping themselves around it … proliferating around this area, demanding their inclusion in the project.
So, having revealed a starting point for yourself, how do you find these other characters?
AS: Basically, reading around, something will catch your attention, and then I treat it in a magical context: taking the view that restless spirits or troubled souls inhabit the environment. These characters start to obsess or possess me and want their stories told in a sense; none of it was contrived, I didn't suddenly think "well, I need to find characters in this location". It was a sort of constellation of intrusions - when I read back on the original premise it was completely different from where we ended up, but the way I rationalised it was the whole thing about Crash being Ballard's 'Waste Land'. His wife had died in 1964 and by all accounts he suffered a massive psychological trauma and started writing all this really forensic literature like The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash - I think to a certain degree this was his post-nervous breakdown playground, this whole Northolt area. I was trying to introduce this theory [of] what characters might exist in Ballard's 'Waste Land'. But also I was trying to play on the whole idea of Marvel characters, you know, "Anti-Heroes" are like these fucked-up, damaged Marvel characters, so it's very much a comic book kind of thing, and obviously people like Alan Moore are tapping into that also.
You didn't start your childhood in England until you were about five or six in 1973, having lived in Kenya until that time. Do you think you have a parallel to Ballard, who first arrived in England after the war in 1945?
AS: Only in a very little way, because he was a lot older [when he arrived in England]. I started getting obsessed with 1973 'cause that was a year that meant a lot to me: coming to England for the first time, going to school for the first time, when Crash, The Wicker Man and Don't Look Now came out. A very interesting year culturally.
So at what point did Angel Blake and Blood On Satan's Claw come into it?
AS: Well, I'd done the work for Blood On Satan's Claw before and hadn't really thought about it. But then I suddenly realised it was in this area, so it was retrospectively put in. I hadn't really thought about the locations being so close together so, again, you can look at it [as] something subconscious and tying it in. And the other important point about Crash is that I relate it to Robert Graves' notion of the love chase and the wyrd in poetry, which is essentially the poet, the muse, and his shadow, or his wyrd, who is like the love rival for the muse. I knew Ballard liked Robert Graves, he was a big fan of The White Goddess, and Graves was a big influence on Robert Cochrane as well, who was completely obsessed with this idea of the muse. So I thought I desperately need to bring in Blood On Satan's Claw, because the scene you see here is basically very similar to a chapter in The White Goddess, about the Triple Goddess and the may tree cults, so it was just again poeticising all these aspects.
There's one surviving member out of all the black plaques on "Anti-Heroes" which is Ian Ball, who was convicted of attempting to kidnap and murder Princess Anne in 1974. How did you encounter that story?
AS: It was on telly about six years ago, a documentary on Channel 4. I was over at [writer and cultural theorist] Mark Fisher's house and we were reading this website. Ian Ball had purportedly set it up from Broadmoor, detailing that the whole thing was a hoax kidnap. To me, it read like Philip K Dick, or Dostoevsky, this complete descent into rationalised madness, and I thought it was a very poignant and interesting story.
Years ago, I'd been in a charity shop and come across this record called The Music For The Wedding Of Princess Anne & Captain Mark Philips, it was about 10p and had a really horrible 1973 cover, and I said to Mark "I wish I'd bought that album", because we could have sampled bits of that and read his dialogue and made an album. So I said, if I ever find it again then we'll have to do it. And then we'd gone to Straw Bear Festival in Whittlesey, a really interesting sort of neo-pagan, wicker man type music festival, and wandering around in the break we went into this charity shop and found a copy of this album and thought, 'Right, we've got to do it now!'
So, it's this kind of serendipitous thing again. The weird thing was that when I went back to my old record collection, I found that I had actually bought the original album a few years ago and I'd forgotten about the whole thing, so I've got two copies of it now. The idea was to take an element from that and then read the narrative, but as we got more into it we found the original [news] report with Reggie Bosanquet [anchor man for News At Ten in the 70s] on the net, and this really, really unctuous interview with Princess Anne and Mark Philips on Parkinson which was mid- or late-70s. But what I found was how incredibly inarticulate they were, mumbling, so as we started cutting up the mumbling, quite a horrific story became more and more absurd as you cut-up the narrative.
I loved the fact that the very eerie ritualistic vocals in the background throughout 'Mall Timeslip' [the track on "Anti-Heroes" concerning the failed kidnap] are from the music to their wedding.
AS: Yeah, 'Psalm 23' I think it was. I try to work the song structures from a meaningful sample, you know, just riff on top, so it's a symbolic source.
You've divided the album into three sections, the first 'occult', the second 'psychopathology', and the third blends the two. Are these cornerstones of the type of research you like to do?
AS: Yeah, as I said, the early idea of "Anti-Heroes" is a kind of heretical notion of 'occult-icising' Ballard's work, looking at it from an occult perspective but also pulling in Kenneth Grant [English ceremonial magician and Aleister Crowley's heir apparent] who is the other main influence on the project; so mashing up these two things to create like a forensic occultism. The other aspect is that I've got background in medical – I did my degree and MSc in neuroscience, so I've got these kind of rational views, but I'm also interested in magic, so it's sort of harmonising two aspects of interest: occult psychopathology.
Ballard's one of my favourite British writers. While I'd always appreciated the fact that he wasn't one of those hard-nosed SF writers, I hadn't anticipated an occult angle to his work.
AS: The really interesting thing about Ballard is that you don't have to believe in magic to be a magician, and to me he's a very magical writer. The thing that comes out of Ballard's work - "ah, why's he so prophetic"?" - a lot of people picked on that. But when questioned about it Ballard goes "oh, I don't believe in the occult at all", because he's a Freudian essentially, he holds no truck with the paranormality, but it doesn't stop you from being prophetic! So I think it's a very good lesson, if you're interested in magic, to look at his work and find out why it's magical and why he has managed to detect these currents and be prophetic. My argument is that it comes back to landscape, he uses landscape and positions reality very close to fictional reality. He writes stories in such a way that they could be real – forensic reports – he uses the language of a scientific report so he tries to recreate reality. My assumption is if you do that then you're actually working at a quite a close principle to magic. It isn't like unicorns and castles – it's like a precise version of the astral plane.
Much of English Heretic's work has occult connections. Are you an active practitioner, a student of the occult or is it more of an academic interest?
AS: I am definitely a practitioner, but influenced by certain occultists - particularly Kenneth Grant and some freeform strains derived from chaos magick - Jan Fries' Visual Magick for example. As a youngster I did perform magick for the common goals of getting a girlfriend, getting a job etc, but it felt that the pathworkings of traditional magic appeared relatively unimaginative compared to the imagery of visionary fiction. It felt that I was in some ways restraining the imagination through a conventional approach to magic. Conversely, when writing fiction I felt I was tapping into a malleable reality more akin to magic. So really the concept of creative occultism derives from the dalliance between fiction and conventional ritual - we are always involved in ritual when carrying out creative activity.
With "Anti-Heroes", like most of your releases, the CD of music is an accompanied by a booklet with a lot of context in it. Arguably you could separate the two - so what, for you, brings the music in?
AS: Well, partly it's enjoyment. The other aspect is the conceit of the project was like those 'parts magazines' in the 70, you know, like Man, Myth & Magic [a weekly magazine that built into an encyclopaedia of the supernatural], and you got a book and a flexi disc or something like that. I think one of the difficulties is that it does overcodify things to a certain degree, and maybe there's an argument that I could separate the two. But, partly it's the cultural market, and also influences from people like Psychic TV, who were doing books and records and tying in pop culture elements in the discourse. It makes projects a lot longer and essentially quite dense.
You mentioned Psychic TV - I had wondered whether it was coming from that kind of direction – on my first listen I could hear a sort of dark-side-of-the-60s psych folk vibe coming through, but then there were also post-punk flavours that I associate with Throbbing Gristle's legacy (Psychic TV but also Coil and Current 93). Is that all meaningful to you?
AS: Yeah, absolutely. A lot of it comes from the kind of education that you got through industrial culture, that there were books [such as] Re/Search. This is pre-internet, you used to devour the Re/Search volumes – the Ballard one and Industrial Culture and Pranks and Throbbing Gristle – because there wasn't that information readily at hand. I first heard about Grant by looking at the book references in the Industrial Culture book, on their reading lists there'd be these Kenneth Grant books, so it's honouring that autodidactic process of how I learnt about countercultural things.
And going back further than Psychic TV, Joy Division were doing that sort thing, I first heard about The Atrocity Exhibition because I'd bought Closer and it had [a track named after] the title on it. Then my brother was popping into town and said "Do you want to get a book?" and I said "Yeah, just get us something", and he came back with The Atrocity Exhibition and I knew nothing about, he knew nothing about it, and it turned out to be the most meaningful book that I've ever read really. So I think you honour that process and hope it propagates to your audience that that's a really enjoyable process of learning.
So, do you have a compositional approach? I wondered if you start with a concept and then you use it as a very loose score perhaps?
AS: The approach is slightly different on everything, but on "Anti-Heroes" the four of us involved were trying to do a few gigs as a band, so I was writing stuff in the context that it could be performed. But a lot of the ideas come from conceits, like 'Two Hundred & Forty Hours' was tying in Cochrane with Ian Curtis, so you start off with a Joy Division riff – I actually used 'The Eternal' instead of '24 Hours' [from Joy Division's 1980 album Closer] because I think it's a more processional riff, and the song was developed from that. I'm very interested in using the idea of a song based on a pop cultural reference, so it's like a synaesthetical cultural reference going on here. The first track from "Anti-Heroes" was based on a riff from Blood On Satan's Claw; 'Goetia AD 72' was based on a death march from [Handel's] Saul which was used in the funeral for Paul Whitehead [member of the infamous 18th century Hellfire Club and another of "Anti-Heroes"' black plaques]. When I was reading a great article in an old Buckinghamshire Gazette about the funeral for Paul Whitehead where they have this procession, and I thought 'that sounds like a song to me' - again the synaesthetic element. So there'll be a grain of something you read about or hear a musical entry point.
For the last ten or so years the words psychogeography and hauntology have cropped up in music [indeed, EH were mentioned in an article in The Wire several years ago that attempted to position such concepts as forming a scene focusing on Broadcast and the Ghost Box label in the main] – do you there's a scene of sorts that's built up around these concepts?
AS: Yeah, there definitely is. The thing is I didn't know anything about hauntology when I started; I was definitely coming from a more magical, occult background. My interests were industrial culture and ritual occultism, but I was definitely interested in psychogeography and Mount Vernon Arts Lab's Séance At Hobs Lane, which was released on Ghost Box, was a great piece - I really liked that project.
And also Situationism - as a teenager I was very interested in Situationism and a lot of [my] early pieces were quite Situationist in the sense that I was creating this conceit about the way we can use reality and reappropriating history for an imaginative end - I thought [this] had a Situationist context in terms of the way we consume history in English Heritage, and I wanted to subvert that - so it links with psychogeography from the Situationists as well.
The latest album, Mondo Paranoia, is set in the early 60s and about the anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, but on most of your other projects the late 60s and 70s are more predominant. If we were 30-40 years in the future and you were casting back to the current day here, what or who do you think you'd be picking up on?
AS: Well, the future's picked up from what I'm doing now – this fecundation of the imagination, you've created this area that your past will become the furniture of your imagination in the future, so I'm hoping I'm still alive. But, what I do think is that we'll start to unravel the mysteries and myths of the internet and we'll see the internet and social media and this hyper-connectivity as a mythic event and I'm kind of touching on this with Mondo Paranoia - the way that we're mediatised by Kennedy [and] we were all bought into this celebrity culture by The Beatles and I think we're doing that on a personal level with the internet and social media. I'd like to think that in 30–40 years we'll understand why we did all this, whether it's an evolutionary process or a catastrophic process or whatever, we'll have some indication. I do think those are important myths, but the really important point about myth is we don't know we're living in it at the time.
And I don't suppose we can know.
AS: No. But I think the importance of a science fiction writer and people like that is to try and step out of that. I think people like Burroughs were doing [that], they were trying to deconstruct it in real time like agents in this world where they're trying to unravel the meaning of media and things like that. So we'll understand the myth and magic behind it.
What's next for English Heretic?
My partner's work with 'Exploring The Extraordinary', an interdisciplinary academic set of conferences, will hopefully get out to the States next year to do talks [including] an English Heretic talk, bringing in things like the alliance between the occult imagination of Machen, Lovecraft and Grant, so trying to extend it with a view to America. And the second part of Mondo Paranoia will be to do with the end of the 60s, looking particularly at Polanski's 'apartment trilogy' of films and their direct manifestation of paranoia and things like that. So I'm going to America in my imagination in a lot of ways, and that's the thing about English Heretic, it's an exoticism, trying to bring in the exotic as well, that you can't just be English - there's America and, of course, the massive influence of it. So that's the ultimate heresy - that English Heretic isn't just about England! [laughs]
English Heretic Presents "Anti-Heroes" is out now