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A Quietus Interview

Magical Unrealism: Julian House Of Focus Group Interviewed
Robin Turner , July 25th, 2013 08:26

"We’ve always thought of the music we release as being like soundtracks to fun, surreal dreams", Julian House tells Robin Turner

There can’t be many record labels as aesthetically pleasing as Ghost Box. Each new record – and there are refreshingly few – unfolds like a tourist map to the unknown; music and imagery symbiotically fusing to create fully immersive new environments. Since the label’s first release in 2004, Ghost Box - the brainchild of trusted tour guides and émigré Welshmen Julian House and Jim Jupp – has never really seemed like it's being run as a commercial venture. Originally selling CDRs burnt off and handpackaged in House’s stunning artwork (his design work has adorned record sleeves for – among many others - Broadcast, Primal Scream, Stereolab and Oasis), the label was an early beneficiary of the pre-MP3 internet world – it existed without marketing spend but with a lot of word of mouth meaning records invariably felt like discoveries.

Musically, Ghost Box is like a TARDIS rattling its way through through previously unexplored parallels, leaking out transmissions from bands and artists who may or may not actually exist in the real world. Those odd ensembles – which include House’s own Focus Group and Jupp’s Belbury Poly – make sounds that are less timeless and more out of time. You know they fit somewhere, it’s just impossible to put a finger on exactly where.

Julian House’s latest Focus Group album, Elektrik Karousel, is Ghost Box’s most playful release to date. Harmonic and strange, it manages the impressive feat of being both hummably catchy and deeply, deeply weird. Echoes of Martin Denny-esque tiki sounds fuse with baroque pop and woozy analogue samples to create a kind of ever-fragmenting kaleidoscopic music. The astonishing sleeve artwork is worth the purchase money on its own.

Sat in a Farringdon pub that’s packed with office workers who get progressively louder with each drink, Julian remains thoughtful and reassuringly mellow whilst talking about the label, Elektrik Karousel, growing up in Wales and the psychedelia that seeped into a generation through 70s kids TV.

Ghost Box traditionally gets over-intellectualized by writers. Elektrik Karousel is a much more ‘fun’ record than preconceptions would have you believe.

Julian House: I think as much as Jim (Jupp, Belbury Poly) and myself have always liked the idea of hauntology, fundamentally we’ve always thought of the music we release being more like soundtracks to fun, surreal dreams.

So less the reverberations of a haunted dancehall and more something weird and wonderful looming in from the subconscious?

JH: Yes. For Jim particularly, the Belbury Poly has a real element of fun to it. We each grew up in the late 60s and early 70s and consequently were exposed to a lot of weird TV. There was a weird residue of acid folk and psychedelia seeping into things kids watched on television. So with the label, while there were always strange, haunted elements, it was definitely always meant to be fun.

I’m sure people of a certain age must project memories of things glimpsed during their own childhoods onto what you’re doing – public information films, late night movies and the like.

JH: With regards lots of the half-remembered things, YouTube has obviously broken things wide-open there. Old films and TV shows are all accessible now. Prior to that, if you hadn’t caught them when they were broadcast, they were gone. Jim and I grew up in the pre-VHS era; there certainly wasn’t any Sky Plus back then. I do think that now that everybody has access to everything at all times, it means nothing is unique or quite as affecting. When you base things – music, imagery, whatever - on vague memory, it invariably makes it slightly wrong. If you go back and study the actual thing before creating a piece of art, it’s always going to be a pastiche. I think what we do is about trying to get a vague sense of what the memory of that thing was rather than copying things. I think it’s one of the problems with music now. Simon Reynolds wrote something that hit the nail on the head saying that a post-punk band back in that period would have gone to someone’s house and they’d hear – say – a Can album. They wouldn’t own that album but they’d go off with the memory of that Can album and make something that they thought was like the record from memory. That music would be completely off somewhere else based on that memory. Now people can watch and see everything, they can see footage that shows them what microphones were being used and what amp settings they had. You’re going to get it right but you’re not going to get it right. That half-remembered version is a key part of the evolution of music. We always think of it less as a half memory and more as a parallel reality, a sort of, ‘What if?’ world. I always thought of the whole picture as one of those chaos theory/butterfly effect type things where someone goes back in time, changes one thing and the whole of the future alters because of that change. It plays into that quantum physics idea that every possible outcome happens, there are billions of parallels happening concurrently. Ghost Box is a glance through a window seeing something running alongside our version of reality. Like, what if Paul McCartney had made records with the Radiophonic Workshop?

So when you started making music and conceptualizing the label; what were your inspirations?

JH: We grew up in a world where we heard the Radiophonic Workshop as much as we ever heard the Beatles. Jim and I were both obsessed with library music. Lots of the stuff we’d pick up had been used on TV shows that we were familiar with. Those library records provided a little doorway back into this alternative universe of music that we’d grown up with. Library records were intriguing because there was nothing at the core – there wasn’t really a label or an identity, there was just this weird music. They had a huge amount of artists revolving around that middle but at the core but essentially it’s just this odd machine for matching music to films and adverts. Aside from the music, there were other elements that helped form the original Ghost Box aesthetic. Books by H.P. Lovecraft, M.R. James. Lots of slightly cosmic, spooky prose. Somehow all those things lodged together in the memory and the music and the oddness ended up merging into one.

So if Ghost Box releases are based on surreal dreams and folk memory, what’s the inspiration behind Elektrik Karousel?

JH: Elektrik Karousel definitely rings with more current obsessions of mine. Primarily Brit psych and weird Czech animations. I think the record has the same sense of psychedelia that used to flow through kids’ television when I was growing up. The title is a spin on the Magic Roundabout really; that programme’s theme feels like a classic British psyche record. When we were writing the sleevenotes for the album, we thought that the Elektrik Karousel could just have easily been a kid’s programme or a legendary club that rivalled the U.F.O. and Gandalf’s Garden. Each of those embodies an idea of ‘getting on board’ or ‘turning on’. The children’s elements blur into this kind of hippyish idealistic thing.

Is the sleeve actually a board game?

JH: It was inspired by Barney Bubbles and Oz; the sort of thing you might get in the International Times, a switched on game…

So Ghost Box via the fringes of the hippy press…

JH: Yeah, the head press intersecting kids TV. You only have to look at something like Sesame Street to see how different things were back then. Look at something like '1-20 Raga' which featured on there. It’s pure psychedelia. Those things had to leave marks on impressionable minds.

The last proper Focus Group album - We Are All Pan’s People - sounded like a psychotic episode in the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the one before – Hey Let Loose Your Love - like a major brown acid drop at the Cecil Sharpe House. This record definitely sounds lighter.

JH: I think it’s lost some of the outright darkness, some of the more obviously horror/ occult inspired weirdness and I don’t know whether I miss that a bit. This record became a lot more fun sounding and a lot more musical. The older Focus Group records are all like one long scene from a 60s film where someone is going slowly off the rails with a soundtrack of three things running at once and nothing really fits. I don’t know whether maybe I miss that a bit! I think Elektrik Karousel is spooked in the way that Scooby Doo was spooked. I remember someone saying that with one of the other LPs their five-year-old daughter thought it sounded like ‘ghost music’. She loved it. That’s the best audience reaction – utterly pure and uncynical.

Kids are definitely more susceptible to weird ideas that adults.

JH: I think kids are in quite a dark place anyway. Everything is new, scary and strange. Something really weird really doesn’t freak them out as much as being told what to do. All the filters that you build up in the process of becoming an adult block out that craziness. That wide-open sense of the world coming flooding in that you have as a child… I think its things like that that link childhood memory to LSD and psychedelia, the whole Alice In Wonderland thing. This record touches the edge of that madness, in an "I want to get off" kind of way, like the giddiness that kids feel when they spin round and round until they feel sick before starting it all over again.

Do you think growing up in Wales had an affect on both you and Jim that ended up feeding into Ghost Box?

JH: South Wales definitely inspired me and Jim whether we knew it or not. Jim and I met in school in Newport and when we were old enough we’d go drinking in Caerleon which is a village suburb of the town. However downgraded Newport felt, Caerleon always had a very ‘other’, odd feeling. There was a mental hospital right in the heart of it, Roman remains all over the place and more pubs per head of population than anywhere else in Wales. Around that time, Jim discovered Arthur Machen - a supernatural writer born in Caerleon who predated H.P. Lovecraft by a couple of decades. I think I was always aware of an underlying bizarreness in that area, lots of weird connections subconsciously came from there. Places like Caerleon and Caldicot which is where I grew up somehow fitted into the bizarre dramas like Children Of The Stones that were on television back then; they had that same off-kilter sensibility. I genuinely think that We grew up in an age where everything was terrifying and the simple fact that we were watching those things in Wales would make them Welsh. Things in the landscape really had the power to unsettle too. My family used to go for walks from Caldicot up to the top of Gray Hill on the outskirts of the town where there’s standing stones and a sacrificial stone. I remember being really spooked by the place as a kid. Later on I found out that that hill featured as the central point in the 'Black Seal', one of Machen’s stories.

It strikes me that it’s only in the last couple of years that the label has seemed to exist in the ‘real world’ – you can see the records in shops, buy them on iTunes. When did you realise that you were actually running a proper record label?

JH: Originally the label was a purely functional thing. We started trying to make music together and realised that we were doing stuff that overlapped thematically yet we were approaching in a different way – I’m more sample based, Jim’s more studio/synthesizer based. Jim had had the idea of a label and the name Ghost Box was floating around. Because we could make releases to order, we could hit the ground running and exist as something without actually really being there. It was a really interesting time. The Internet allowed us to set up a label; we could do CDrs individually, disseminate information and distribute music globally. This was before everything sat online in huge digital archives and before downloads and MP3s were everywhere. The Internet was opening up possibilities but there were still lots of dark corners to do interesting things in. Back then it was almost an illusion of being an actual label. We had a website called Ghost Box and it became a label without any of the trappings of a label – release schedules, budgets, whatever. It was a label as an identity, in the way that a label like Factory had the same. The label Factory is as much a character in each of its releases as any of the acts that were on that label. When we actually started approaching it as a proper label, we took a very bibliophile approach. When we’d pick up Lovecraft or Machen books, we’d get consumed by the footnotes and the detail. You’d collect Penguin paperbacks or library records and you’d want to collect others in the same series even if they just had the same cover in a different colour. We felt that we were inside this universe; this world… and all these seemingly disparate elements were connecting into this much bigger story. That idea was something that was very important to us to get across as a label. I think the one thing that I wanted to go into Ghost Box – and this has always chimed into artwork I’ve created for Broadcast or for Stereolab – is that I never want things to just be ‘retro’. There’s no point in going back and openly quoting something – it was always about translating or interpreting vague memories of an educational film, a book glanced at in a second hand shop… colours and shapes that lodge in the mind. These things might take you back but you couldn’t expressly say what the influence was. They’re best left as something tugging away at the back of your mind.