Pagan Explorations: Children Of Alice Interviewed
, March 7th, 2017 15:53
Children Of Alice, a new trio consisting of Broadcast's James Cargill and Roj Stevens along with The Focus Group's Julian House, speak to Patrick Clarke about the paganism, surrealism and musique concrète that inspired their self-titled debut album.
When the career of Broadcast was cut short in 2011, with the sudden passing of Trish Keenan, it was at a point at which the band had begun to break truly extraordinary ground. Always sternly individual, their last two projects, Broadcast and The Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age and 2013's semi-soundtrack Berberian Sound Studio, saw the group at their most brilliantly explorative. There was always the warm, familiar yet somehow mysterious undertone lent by the heady aesthetics of library music and found sound, but towards the close of their career the band felt like they were entering a period of outstanding progression.
Children Of Alice now take up the mantle. A trio consisting of James Cargill and Roj Stevens, Broadcast's remaining leader and keyboardist respectively, as well as long term collaborator Julian House, co-owner of Ghost Box records, graphic designer and musician with The Focus Group, they're named in tribute to the late Keenan, for whom Alice In Wonderland, and particularly Jonathan Miller's 1966 adaptation, was of particular inspiration.
It was a natural collaboration, says Stevens. "We've been friends for more than half of our lives. Collaborations between us have moved from implicit to explicit at various points during this time. Julian was around when Broadcast started and fed into shaping the band - and of course there was [Broadcast and The Focus Group's 2009 collaborative album] Witch Cults"
There's a sense of continuity to the group, of seizing the baton, though also one of rebirth and new beginnings, lent extra credence by naturalistic themes of spring and regrowth. Their self-titled debut album, released earlier this month, collects their work since 2013's first forays for Folklore Tapes, a research project and record label who, as they put it "traverse the myths, mysteries, magic and strange phenomena of the old counties via abstracted musical reinterpretation and experimental visuals."
"Children Of Alice seemed logical to us as a collaboration, although working on The Folklore Tapes has been a useful catalyst," Stevens continues, for which the band were first asked to take on the exploration of folklore and pagan ritual that make up the album's four tracks. Says Cargill, "The album is a compilation of the four tracks we made for Folklore Tapes between 2013 and 2016, each track being a response to a folkloric theme given to us by David [Chatton Barker], the man behind the Folklore label. 'The Harbinger Of Spring' is loosely based on [John Wyndham's 1957 science fiction novel] The Midwich Cuckoos, a mind invasion story."
The moniker is also shared, House points out, by an exhibition of English surrealists that also provides inspiration. "Andre Breton had said that the English didn't need Surrealism because they had Lewis Caroll. That ties in to the idea of English Modernism, a quietly radical, fractured sensibility. To which you could add Paul Nash, The Goons, Bruce Lacey the Radiophonic Workshop, The Prisoner; or the architect of Portmeirion, Clough Williams-Ellis."
'The Harbinger Of Spring' opens the record, a sublime, drifting nineteen minutes lavished in transporting texture courtesy of manipulated found sound and field recordings, redolent of the paganistic themes that Folklore Tapes had them work under, its landscape twisting and transforming as it glides through a series of suites.
"The three other tracks are all based on pagan celebrations," continues Cargill. "So 'Rite Of The Maypole' is Mayday themed, 'Invocation Of A Midsummer Reverie' is Midsummer and 'The Liminal Space' is Samhain, or Halloween as it's sometimes called. We didn't really 'decide' to explore pagan themes, it was decided for us, it's inherent to the Folklore Tapes' aesthetic. As a contributor to the label you get designated a folkloric theme specific to the time of the release, but the idea is that we're filtering the pagan theme through pop culture and TV memories… biker gangs on the rampage or experimental theatre groups for example. I doubt we'll make another record based on these themes, like Roj said it was more of a catalyst for us to do something together."
There's such depth to Children Of Alice's output, so much intrigue to be gradually unraveled, that it's difficult to find the words to pin it down descriptively. "I don't think we can really categorise it, because we didn't set out to make a defined type or genre of music," expands Julian House. "The things that influence us include some of the more 'pop art' pieces of musique concrète - Francois Bayle Solitioude, Parmegiani Pop Eclectique, and soundtracks - Miller's Alice, [Czech composer] Zdeněk Liška, the freeform sound of late 60s underground film. In all these cases theres a sense of being drawn from one scene or space into another.
"But we don't think of it as imaginary soundtracks, or musique concrète which is much more rigorous and academic. If it fits with anything it's probably the long tradition of 'Head' music but in our case less drifty, more cut up and spliced…which is how dreams are… Maybe Head Music isn't the right term, but LPs that were psychedelic adventures that didn't fit the phased guitar template of the time. LPs like White Noise's An Electric Storm. Also, the way the Limelight label repackaged Pierre Henry and Tom Dissevelt. to appeal to the counter culture audience. The film 2001 wasn't a hit until it was resold as the ultimate trip."
Even that, though, doesn't quite do it justice. "We've always liked stuff that sits in a strange zone between avant garde and psych exploitation. Also things like the Faust Tapes. When we were at college there were things like Spacemen 3's Evening of Contemporary Sitar Music, the Ciccone Youth LP and later still the KLF's Chill Out LP. That still holds up today as a sound adventure."
The music is crafted remotely between the three, with each working on pieces to a theme individually and 'sticking them together to see what works'. "Any collage process needs to strike a balance between cuts and fractures and a more seamless continuation. Much like film editing, and dreams," says House.
"The Children Of Alice approach is the three of us trying to patch our ideas together, more like how you might make a collage" adds Collins. "Whereas Broadcast always had Trish and her songs at its heart, although the approach in Broadcast did change pretty dramatically over the years. Witch Cults is probably where these two projects come closest."
When it comes to smoothing the cracks, House expands, "sometimes when the pattern emerges, or a piece becomes central to the track, we share open arrangements which we can pull apart, recombine and add to. The process starts with a jump-cut narrative form but gradually we work it into something with themes and sounds that flow through it, keep the listener following and engaged. The interesting thing about sharing files this way is that it keeps each of us guessing and opens up new ways of looking at our own compositions."
The result is a project that simultaneously takes up the mantle of Broadcast's thrillingly explorative streak, and takes it to somewhere else entirely to break wholly new ground. That the themes was chosen for them this time around has been a boon, an opportunity for the trio to make good on their investigative instincts.