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A Quietus Interview

Interiority Complex: Exploring Manchester’s Hinterlands With Lonelady
John Doran , February 5th, 2015 09:09

Wandering star Julie Campbell takes John Doran for a walk around the canal towpaths, vacant lots, Victorian mills and red light districts of Greater Manchester in order to explain the genesis of her new album, Hinterland

All photographs by Sam Huddleston

Julie walks because that’s what she does.

She descends the tower block where she’s been besieged for months by echoing pneumatic drills and heads north under the Mancunian Way. The elevated section of the giant Salford Manchester ring road carries roaring traffic well above street level where it is never seen but always heard. Almost directly above, just before the junction for the A34 there is a turn off that terminates in thin air - the top of an exit ramp, leading to a sliproad that never got built. The evidence that the Mancunian Way is in fact the road to nowhere, is hidden from view by a large billboard. The only thing standing between suicidal drivers stuck in rush hour gridlock and a desperate bid for freedom is a huge, house-sized photograph of George Clooney enjoying an espresso.

Walking under the flyover, imposed over what she sees before her is a vision of an outdoor concert taking place at some point in the future with bands playing next to the giant concrete stilts. The noise of the gig has to compete with the tumultuous engine throb overhead; it is perfumed with exhaust and arclights cast huge shadows up onto the underside of the motorway. Back out from under the shadows, her perambulation takes her up toward Piccadilly but only as far as Manchester Mayfield. This ghost station was opened in 1910 to deal with an overspill of passengers pouring in to the city from the south but has stood empty and overgrown since 1986. It has rebuffed all attempts to redevelop it into a coach station, a nightclub complex, local government offices, a hellishly giant pub… It seems that schemes to repurpose this proud palace of transit are going nowhere.

Sandwiched between the ghost station and the all-too-real Piccadilly is the obstinate Star And Garter. “Still hanging on”, thinks Julie, who loves this back street gig venue. She pauses momentarily at a notional crossroads. This gloriously intransigent carbuncle of a building, which will not bow down to modern ideas of what the regenerated city should look like, stands at the Eastern Axis of Manchester. It is an outpost placed at a threshold, the start of a corridor leading all the way to Audenshaw where she was born. She isn’t simply looking West down Fairfield Street. She’s looking directly at her childhood.

Then it’s under the railway lines and back out into the red light district of Adair Street; there are young women and girls here, as there are at all hours of the day, ready to trade down ruined backstreets. Crossing onto the Ashton Canal Tow Path she passes by a new residential development called Islington Wharf, built by the appropriately named ISIS Waterside Regeneration. But New Islington quickly gives way to Old Manchester as she journeys further up the canal. It can be rough up here and she keeps keys clenched into a fist, just in case… And then she arrives at her destination: Brunswick Mill, on the border of Miles Platting and Ancoats. The former cotton spinning mill is implacable with bricked in windows and is still imposing, cast seven storeys tall against the sky. It is a battle-scarred but fully functioning keep inside a citadel of semi-ruined industrial buildings, chainlink fences, razor wire, rusting iron gates and red brick decay.

There is no one about and nothing is making a sound but she can sense them behind thick brick walls, musicians playing, artists sculpting and painting, blokes working on cars. Craft, trade, art, cultural production, all fully engaged in buildings that the casual observer might presume as dead as the industrial revolution that gave birth to them.

Swaddled impressively in layers of black against the bitter January chill, Julie says you can call it what you want but walking is what she does every day and it’s what she’s always done: “It’s what I’ve been doing all along… wandering, wandering, wandering. I go round places and think, ‘Why am I drawn to these specific zones in Manchester?’

“And I’ve gradually become aware of the literature surrounding it. And I learned it has a name, psychogeography or urb-exing, or urban exploring, or dérive or deep topography. There are so many names for it. And I do love a lot of the literature around it but I’m trying to develop my own language for what I’m doing; my own language to describe what it means. I don’t want to get too caught up in other people’s ideas of psychogeography as much as what they write fascinates me.”

Perhaps typically a lot of psychogeography concentrates on Greater London, from the M25, looking inwards but Manchester offers so much potential to the flaneur, the rambler, the rover and the wayfarer. For Julie it’s a choice she doesn’t need to worry about: “I’ve never lived anywhere else so it’s part of my DNA. It’s good to write about what you know and this is what I know. Manchester is always right in front of me. This obsession has become a lot more intense on this record, this wandering round the outskirts and trying to make something out of what are really just bits of waste ground and patches of rubble. It’s about trying to make something out of what I’ve got because I don’t have any other landscape really. This is my landscape. It’s about trying to redesignate the idea of what’s beautiful. And over the years I’ve transformed a functional landscape and forced it to become something beautiful and magical and something that i can write about. I’ve lived in the same tower block next to the Mancunian way for ten years and at first the things that initially just made it functional eventually became beautiful.”

The tower block where Julie Campbell - aka Lonelady - lives and starts her daily walks from is also where she recorded her excellent new album Hinterland. She hasn’t been idle since her debut LP Nerve Up came out on WARP in 2009. For starters, she’s spent some of the time making Concrete Retreat - her home studio.

It’s no Rockfield though; no Electrical Audio; no Abbey Road, as she’s quick to point out: “I think some people would look at it and laugh that I would even call it a studio. Really it’s just an assembly of odds and scraps that I built up over the years. But really that’s what I make the music with.

“During the writing phase I thought I was just building up information to take to a studio when it was ready but the more I worked on the songs the more I realised they had an atmosphere that came from the tower block. The studio is in the same place as my bed. I get up and it’s there. Everything’s very compact. And that’s how it went for days, weeks, months. I will work at something again and again and again until it’s perfect. I won’t think anything of singing a line thirty times just to get the exactly right little inflection I want there. You can’t do that in a studio really. You don’t have the money and other people don’t have the patience. Working alone like that, I just gradually built up these songs, finessing them more and more and more until it was apparent that they were actually finished.”

When I mention the fact that her tower block overlooks a busy motorway flyover, that leads to nowhere, Julie anticipates what I’m going to say and replies: “J.G. Ballard? It’s a bit too Ballardian because over the road is also a centre for disease research as well. So I think I’m doing pretty well on the J.G.Ballard scale.”

It seems almost redundant to ask her if architecture influences what she does. Looking around the landscape she inhabits, it’s hard to see how it couldn’t. She adds: “Architecture has become a really huge part of what I do. While I was writing in the tower block I started reading Bunker Archeology by the cultural theorist Paul Virilio - a guide to abandoned German command posts, fortifications and pill boxes from World War II. I really related to it because even though the text was about military installations, it felt like he could have been talking about my tower block. One quote said, ‘Here bespeaks incredible pressures’, referring to the thickness of the concrete in the structures. But it could easily have been about a high rise building.

“I can feel all of these cubes replicated above me and all around me and I can feel all of these other people and presences pressing in on me and I think over the years the tower block has unfortunately become an oppressive space. But I’ve tried to work with that and use it to do something creative.”

With typical German etymological efficiency, the word Hinterland means simply the land behind. It has come to mean, territory slightly inland from the coast, the rural area surrounding a town or a port, a remote or undeveloped region, while also figuratively referring to anything that is ill-defined or not fully explored. Used as a title here it also suggests the quest to find a different landscape under the one that’s visible; an attempt to scratch away at the palimpsest of Manchester, to uncover a different truth, just hidden from view.

Julie says: “I love the word hinterland because it seems to encapsulate so many things. To me, Miles Platting, Ancoats and all of these outskirt places that I’m just drawn to day after day are the hinterlands. The city centre doesn’t offer anything to me - it’s corporate and shiny. I’m still drawn to these places that offer free rein to your imagination, the ruined buildings which you can reimagine and repurpose.

“Hinterland is also the landscape of your mind, your inner landscape. When I was writing this album, I was going through very long periods of being very withdrawn actually to a very extreme degree. And it’s very interesting what happens during those periods to be honest when you retreat inside a landscape of your own imaginings. There are at least two songs on the album that deal directly with withdrawing into this interior landscape.”

'Bunker Pop' by Lonelady remixed by Wrangler

The first of the two songs she is referring to is ‘Bunker Pop’ a twitching adrenalized post punk pop song, that unfolds in intricate pointilist detail and contrasts lyrical concerns of withdrawal and solitude with polished melodic hooks and a tough, almost danceable beat. It reimagines the human body itself as a concrete fortress with metal shutters that can be pulled down to block out external stimulus, leaving only the interior landscape in view.

But if ‘Bunker Pop’ concerns the retreat into the interior, then the second, ‘Flee!’, is completely internalised. It is a deeply affecting ballad cast adrift on a bed of monotone cello drones which phase against one another, like the distant sound of multiple air raid sirens jammed on one note, struggling to free themselves. And out of the echoing dubbed out industrial clangour comes Lonelady’s voice: “Flee to the outskirts, the ground is crumbling, the sky is falling... How did I become so pared, typing SOS in an empty square. ‘Where to go?’ I asked, but neither man nor beast could answer me… I’m running to a place that doesn’t exist, demon animals look from the terrace.”

Among the nerve jangling funk and uptempo post punk pop, the track forms a massive pressure drop on the album and casts the listener deep into a different headspace. Speaking about this track Julie says: “With ‘Flee!’ I’d been wanting to use multiple string sounds without any vibrato for some time. I really love Nico’s Desertshore and Marble Index as well as Scott Walker’s post 80s albums. And for me this was my attempt to channel something of that kind of atmosphere onto one of my tracks.

“I really saw that landscape. I was really inhabiting that landscape. I really wanted to make that desolate, broken landscape in music. Most of the vocals were scratch vocals really but when we tried to redo them and do them ‘better’ we just couldn’t do it. It’s a pretty exposing song really; having to put it all out there really and feeling so bleak. I did get to that point just through being so isolated, but then, I was constructing that, forcing that and making that happen to myself just to get something creative out of the experience. I wasn’t just wallowing in it.”

These two tracks exemplify how Hinterland is an album of stark contrasts. The darkness is deeper and the light is brighter, the pop, R&B and definitely the funk elements are much more to the fore but at the same time, it is certainly more melancholy, trading at other times in a weird form of modern post industrial folk.

Speaking about the funk element Julie says: “I just love 70s funk and given that, quite clearly, I’m not Tina Turner and I’m not Chakka Khan, that style of music gets refracted through me. It’s funk through a cement coloured lense and it’s still in a post punk framework.

“While I was writing the album I went through a phase of listening to 70s funk. Parliament, Funkadelic, Rufus, I particularly like. Betty Davis. Unbelievably, the console that I used to reamp some of the music through when the album was mixed in Michigan had been used by Betty Davis to record her [debut] album on. And it had also been used by Sly Stone. I fancifully like to think, ‘Oh my God, these amazing motes of DNA have stuck themselves onto my music.’ But I just delight in that music. And the playing is so economical and tough and I’m always trying to get to that in my own playing.”

Over the course of the day I spend with her, Julie mentions Michael Jackson more times than any other topic of conversation, with German World War 2 fortifications coming a close second.

After the songs were finished, she realised that she needed someone to mix them for her, to bring out the depth and remove any of the flatness that can often result from home recordings. She settled on working with Bill Skibbe, an ex-motorcycle mechanic from Detroit, who helped Steve Albini build Electrical Audio in Chicago before building his own studio, Keyclub Recording Co. in Michigan. Bill is a collector of analog equipment and was sympathetic Julie’s desire to not work with ‘clean’ recordings but the tapes she had built up slowly at home. During the process she got to add live drums to the tracks as well as several deep layers of synths and other analog instrumentation.

It was this attention to detail in the mix that has rendered it such excellent headphones music. She says: “Listening via headphones is one of my favourite ways to listen to music. Preferably on a train. I just love that interiority of it. The intimacy that it creates. Hopefully there are a lot of motifs hidden in there that you don’t hear the first time around. What would Bill say? He’d say: ‘There are so many treats in this song…’”

Once back in the UK, she hired a rehearsal room in the Brunswick Mill, the terminus of her daily walk. She explains that it was part of a rehabilitative process, bringing her slowly out of the extended period of isolation she’d been in: “When it came time to start figuring out how to play this stuff live I went to Brunswick Mill and rented a room on a semi-permanent basis and at first it was just me playing guitar with a drum machine. Playing at volume again because you can’t play loud in the flat.

“It was just me at first. I was playing in there one day and suddenly there was a shape in the corner of my eye which darted along the bottom of the wall really fast. And it was rats. It was really nightmarish and horrible. But then I got used to it. And then I grew to really like it. Sometimes a rat would appear during a certain song I was playing and I would think, ‘Does that mean you like the song or you don’t like the song?’ And I started toying with the idea of having a set list dictated by rats, depending on whether they would appear or not.”

The Brunswick Mill is a hive of underground musical activity. Not only was Nerve Up recorded there but it currently provides rehearsal space to local psych bands Ten Mouth Electron, Altar Flowers and Mountain Song as well as punk outfit Ill. Not too far away is Islington Mill, another renovated industrial space that houses GNOD and Vanishing among many others.

Talking about the significance of these repurposed post industrial structures, she says: “I think there are a lot of bands who just couldn’t exist if it wasn’t for these places really. It’s important because you can’t just have middle class people making music. There has to be space for this kind of independent spirit. The Brunswick Mill is the lifesblood for a lot of bands. And the other mills as well. There’s a smaller mill near here called Wellington House that I did some of my first recordings in. I think eventually they’re going to get taken over by the regeneration that’s happening and I don’t know what will happen to the musicians then. I think it’s vital really to have this grassroots level music making.

“I don’t want to name names but the more high end rehearsal spaces… they’re too comfortable. They’re too expensive. I like these places on the outskirts because there’s a bit of freedom to do things outside of the norm; you’re free to weave a bit of magic for yourself. They host the kind of underground events now that you’ve read about from years gone by - the kind that fire your imagination.”

Once she had worked out roughly what the bare bones of the new Lonelady live set was going to sound like, it was time to swap the rat infested room in a Victorian mill for something much, much bleaker.

The Bunker Room, is a squat, small industrial factory space, about the size of a modest two bedroom flat (albeit with interior stud walls not completed), tucked away behind some waste ground near Strangeways Prison. When we arrive it is bitterly cold but a handful of young men stand around in heavily insulated rainwear waiting to ply their trade. Cars pull up, exchanges are made, cars depart again. (Earlier in the day, talking to a taxi driver, I try and explain the location I’m trying to find: “Why would you want to go there?” he asks.)

Directly opposite the door to the Bunker Room, standing behind a half broken chainlink fence, an entire mill building has been knocked down and the rubble levelled flat into a piece of land the size of a football field bar one giant stairwell which points up at the sky like an accusatory finger. Six storey’s worth of doors slam open and shut in the heavy wind, with hinges groaning in unison, making a musical instrument of sorts out of the fraction of the building that remains standing. Julie tells me, it’s because the stairwell is listed, so they had to leave that bit alone. Other mills in the close proximity have been luckier and now house small business which are mainly small garages offering MOTs. A large clothing factory advertised by a giant sign: “TNT Textiles & Hosiery by Wicked Nights Ltd” is visible over a concrete fence topped with rolls of razor wire. One or two units on a nearby street are open for trade and while it’s not clear what they’re selling, there are bouncers standing outside the door at one in the afternoon. Julie refers to this area as being across the threshold: “A different place… a city within a city.”

For some reason, it seems to be even colder inside the Bunker Room than it is on the outside and the open space in the centre of the room has amps and drum kit set-up for rehearsals involving her band: Gareth Smith (Stranger Son, Vanishing), popular local musician Andrew Cheetham and Tom Long (Easter). Julie has as much of her gear, Linn drums, ancient samplers and synths, crowded into one corner as she can which seems like a valiant but unsatisfactory strategy to keep her warm. A nearby desk contains two portable heaters standing on wobbly piles of books - novels by WG Sebald and coffee table photography tomes on abandoned fascist buildings in Italy - which seem to cast more of a homely orange light on that corner of the room, than providing actual warmth. Blu-tacked along the wall just behind her are large A3 schematics of how songs are going to work live and hellish looking illustrations torn from books.

When asked what the winter has been like she says: “Just kind of perverse really. Over the last ten years of my life I feel like I’ve spent so much of that time in cold mill spaces. That’s where I live now. That’s how I live. It’s just what I do. The idea of a space that was heated and proper seems alien to me. I can’t function in places like that to be honest. I feel more at home in these run down, raw, industrial places.”

She laughs when she recalls her original plan, which was for her to move full time into the Bunker Room, after the renovations started on the tower block: “It became a real hell hole, there were these industrial drilling noises every morning. I was desperate really so I bought a camp bed and stayed over here one night. I knew I was safe because it’s a really secure building and it’s not like I’m scared of ghosts or anything like that but it was so cold... I could hear cars passing every twenty minutes because at night this whole area transforms into a red light district. The next day, the floor outside was littered with condoms. It was a bit of a low point really. I didn’t have a home any more and I was trying to stay at this place. But it was too bleak even for me really.”

Probably more out of consideration for me than herself, Julie asks if I fancy going to the boozer where it will be warmer, so we lock up and head off for the Kings Arms, a really nice, pub shaped pub with a great jukebox. Salford has changed quite a lot since I used to drink round here regularly two decades ago. As I stand at the bar ordering a pint of wheat bear for Julie and a cup of mint tea for myself - I still haven’t got my head round the fact that I can actually buy these two items in this postcode without raising a single eyebrow when a gruff voice rings out: “Oi mate - where did you get your handbag from?”

I have a moment of violent dissociation as if I’ve just had a sharp bump of ketamine and am looking at the room from above. There’s a gruff, silver-haired, daytime drinker, the wrong side of 17 stone, gripping a pint and staring with boggling eyes at the effete ponce wrapped in a bright crimson scarf standing at the bar ordering a cup of mint tea while holding on to a tote bag… emblazoned with David Bowie lyrics.

I turn slowly and spread my palms out toward him before saying, in the most conciliatory tones possible: “Look mate…”

But he jumps in: “I think I saw you in an ice cream parlour, drinking milkshakes cold and long: David Bowie, Five Years, 1972. Brilliant! Just brilliant! Where did you get it? I want to buy one.” Julie chuckles and we join him for a brief chat about the relative merits of Low versus The Next Day versus Station To Station.

After a couple more cups of char the warmth is seeping back into my fingers but the light outside is fading just as fast and it’s started to hail heavily, so I phone for a cab to take me back to Piccadilly.

In the cab Julie tells me about meeting and working with post punk heroes from Wire to Jah Wobble and Keith Levene. She says she’d really like to work with Steven Morris of New Order. “Maybe I should just kidnap him”, she deadpans.

When we get stuck in traffic halfway to the station she opens up the door and gets out saying: “I’ll walk from here.”

And she strides off into the gloom on her own until she disappears; because that’s what she does.

Hinterland is released via WARP on March 23