Alchemical Allusions: The Academy Of Sun Interviewed

Brighton-based songsmith Nick Hudson's Ganymede In A State Of War, the last instalment in a five-album cycle and recorded with a cast of international collaborators, owes as much to Jhonn Balance as it does to Beyoncé and features a "triptych of hate" dedicated to David Cameron. Ben Graham meets him to investigate. Photographs courtesy of Cara Courage

"When I came back from Barbados with my pet lemur, Monty, having founded my own rum company and got into basket-weaving using snakes…" In Brighton’s redoubtable Hand In Hand hostelry, Academy Of Sun leader Nick Hudson is giving us an alternative history of where the money went. Actually, having recorded his magnificently lush new album Ganymede In A State Of War for roughly £200, Hudson is metaphorically gambling it all on a major launch show at Hove’s 500-capacity Old Market theatre this Thursday, where the band – potentially numbering over a dozen players – are going to be interpreting the album in a spectacular semi-theatrical presentation. I suggest that it seems an insanely ambitious venture for a band that still only has a small local following.

"Well, yeah, that’s how I roll!" Nick laughs. "We’re also getting it professionally filmed by a guy from the BBC, and we’re having live painting on stage by Rémy Noë. Carisa Bianca Mellado who sings on the album is coming over from LA to do some of her music, and we’ve also got Tom White’s new band The Fiction Aisle playing with us. We’re getting set designs and visual projections, so it’s going to be a very interesting and dynamic show whatever."

Aged 33, Nick Hudson is a devil for the grand gesture. His last record, 2013’s Letters To The Dead, was a multimedia production that combined an astonishing self-produced, self-released LP with an hour-long movie (Nick is also a film-maker) that premiered at Brighton’s Duke Of York’s cinema, while the songs were showcased live in a gothic mini-opera at St Mary’s church in the city. Ganymede In A State Of War is also self-produced, self-financed (with a little help from the Arts Council) and independently recorded, and is the conclusion of a five-album cycle (collectively known as the Phoenix Archaeologies) that began with 2010’s TERRitORies Of disSENT (described by Julian Cope as "Bill Nelson singing Scott’s ‘Angels Of Ashes’… highly fucking beautiful in a gazing together into Biba mirrors with smeared lippy kind of manner"). The first incarnation of The Academy Of Sun came together later that year for the album My Antique Son, which featured a foreword by Current 93’s David Tibet, before Hudson went solo again for A Day Without Comfort in 2012 and the aforementioned Letters To The Dead.

"Letters To The Dead has about 15 different people performing on it, very few of whom are based in the UK," Nick says. "So I convened a scratch ensemble with which to premiere that, which was really fun and I still work with some of those people, but it was very exhausting in many ways and I didn’t want to perform for a couple of years after that, because it also coincided with a fairly turbulent break-up. So I was quite reclusive, and then I finished this record and thought, I’m quite ready to do a band again."

The new Academy Of Sun actually came together after the album was finished to play live in late 2014. Drawn largely from the Brighton improvised/experimental music scene they include a full string section alongside guitars, bass, drums and keyboard, and live the songs duck, swoon and spit more vividly than their relatively controlled incarnations on record, where electronic programming corrals the lush piano, layered vocals and the muted growl of the guitars into modernist architectural shapes that sometimes verge on contemporary R&B (‘The Day We Broke In’ for instance sounds like These New Puritans meeting D’Angelo). Along with Hudson’s charismatic onstage presence, archly gothic wordplay and Morrissey/Brett Anderson croon, the full-band Academy swagger firmly on a fruitful fault line of ambiguously visceral singer-songwriters, art school glam, apocalyptic camp and non-orthodox punk: Bowie, the John Cale Velvet Underground, Richard Strange’s Doctors Of Madness, Marc Almond’s early solo work, The Birthday Party and on to early Bad Seeds, Crime & The City Solution, etc. It’s little wonder then that the album had its genesis in Berlin, as Nick explains.

NH: I was in Berlin and I ended up writing a play – also called Ganymede In A State Of War – that alluded to a lot of dead beautiful handsome poets and such. I started writing songs and it just happened that it transmuted into a kind of break-up record; it’s like Blood On The Tracks, if anything. And also in tandem with that there are a lot of agitprop currents running through it; it’s a quite politically aggressive record as well. So I wanted to have those two currents running side by side, but I also wanted to have a more present electronica component in the musical texture of it. So I started teaching myself how to programme beats and basslines and things like that. I wanted to have a combination of live drums and electronica as well; I’ve never had live drums on a record of mine before. I suddenly realised there’s been a huge dearth of rhythmic propulsion on my records. So this one I wanted to sound more like a band, and there are some amazing people on it, like members of Kayo Dot from New York and people like that. And so I started recording most of it at home in my studio, and then did all of the acoustic piano and live drums in a studio with an engineer, because I had no idea how to mic up drums. And then I spent about six months mixing it and editing it; it was a really long process actually, it was about 18 months in total. The songs took a year to write, even.

Is there still a relationship between the play and the album?

NH: Yeah, tentatively. The general premise of both is this sense of innocence, and also this agent of innocence, this angel of light sort of bulldozing through an apocalyptic wasteland, trying to get through in the hope that things will be okay again, because they have to believe that – which is no commentary on me emerging from the break-up of a relationship at all! And also on the title track all the lyrics are derived from certain soliloquies in the play, and also there are quotes from the Polish composer Karol Szymanowski, who did a quartet of poems for his adolescent boy lover, Boris Kochno, and I’ve been setting those to music over the course of the five-album cycle. And so the last one, which is called ‘Ganymede’ actually, I adapted stanzas from that into Ganymede In A State Of War.

There are various occult themes of transformation running through it as well.

NH: Yeah, there is some of that. There’s always been an alchemical element, or alchemical allusions in a lot of my stuff, yeah. That’s no surprise; I’ve been fairly scholarly in certain aspects of gnostic material and the occult for a while I guess, and it just sort of creeps in there now and again. But I think it’s also just from loving artists like Blake, you know.

One song is dedicated to, or at least refers to, Jhonn Balance of Coil.

NH: Oh, ‘Ballad In Jhonn D’, which is obviously a riff on Dylan’s ‘Ballad In Plain D’ as well. I was accused of not having written anything about myself, personally, directly about my life, for ages. So being the reactionary bastard I am I thought I’m going to write very directly about my childhood, and how a lot of it was spent at Hatfield Park estate, where my dad was head forester, employed by Lord and Lady Salisbury and everything. And my grandmother used to come down to visit and walk me around the forest and the estate and along the rise, and we were hunting for wolves and hunting for snakes and things, and it was a really beautiful fantasy world that we shared. But also I learnt when I was there that the old palace that’s adjacent to Hatfield House itself is where Queen Elizabeth I grew up. And of course John Dee, the Elizabethan magus and political strategist and everything, he would have spent quite a significant amount of time there as well. And so I’d been thinking about him recently as well, there are a few references to him on the record actually. And Balance is kind of in that lineage of the classic English magi. But it’s a song about my grandmother essentially, and all of the imagery and symbolism that she introduced into my life. And then she actually never got to hear it, because she died about a month after I finished the song.

A lot of your early stuff was very much in the tradition of Coil and Current 93, but this is extremely melodic and accessible in comparison.

NH: It’s my Beyoncé record! No it is. Letters To The Dead was so abstract and uncommercial and sorrowful that the last thing I wanted to do was to make something as lugubrious and hopeless as that record. Even though this one technically is the break-up record, I still wanted to create something really melodic and song oriented. ‘I’m Not Looking For Love’ is actually a full-on pop song, because I was challenged by somebody to write a pop song, and I thought okay, fine. So yes, I’m quite happy with that. It’s a lot more colourful as well, and a lot more concise. The track ‘Ganymede In A State Of War’ itself; I was desperate to do a sort of skewed attempt at a TLC-type R&B song. Obviously it falls short of the mark in terms of populist appeal in that sense, but I had a really good time making it, and all the beats are basically not sampled but appropriated in some form from ‘Waterfalls’ and stuff like that, and the string arrangement and everything. I think the next one will get even more poppy actually, at least in the sense of melody, although the lyrics are getting angrier and angrier.

‘I’m Not Looking for Love’ has a slightly Bowie-ish feel; it’s a soaring pop song, but it’s quite tense and unsettling as well. The jazz touches and piano remind me of Mike Garson’s playing on Aladdin Sane.

NH: Well, I was listening to shedloads of Bowie at the time because it was around the time of the retrospective at the V&A and his new album, and so I put a towel over my head and just inhaled Bowie for three months, you know, his entire discography. In fact Low was a big influence on this album texturally. But that really strange syncopated piano on ‘I’m Not Looking for Love’ is played by Patrick O’Brien, who is a really well-established pianist and for a while he was quite close with Mike Garson, and he was let into a few technical tricks that Garson uses to create that signature sound. So that’s probably why; obviously it sounds like Patrick playing, but there is a Garson quality to it.

How did you choose who you wanted to work with?

NH: Even if I don’t know structurally or formally what shape an album is going to take, I’ve usually got a good idea of the sonic texture or colour of it. So I know what sort of instruments I’d like and in what combination, usually, and I know what sort of characters I’d like to deploy those instruments. I cast it like a theatre piece a lot of the time. So for this one I knew I wanted a really strong female singer to do some ethereal treble counterpoint to my generally quite low tenor register. So I got Carisa Bianca Mellado, who I’ve known for about ten years but still haven’t met. She’s an amazing singer and producer and songwriter, and she’s based over in LA and we’ve wanted to collaborate for ages, and it felt like this was the point at which to ask her. So she improvised these vocal parts and emailed them over. The track ‘Wake On Fire’, which is the third part of my David Cameron triptych on the record, because there’s a little triptych of hate on there, initially I was singing the lead part and she was going to harmonise. And then she sent this trio of harmonies for the chorus, and I was like, hang on, this is going to sound so much better if she sings the entire thing. So I asked her if she’d record the entire vocal. I think it needs it at that point in the record; it’s about six or seven tracks in and it’s just nice to have a completely different shift in tone and a different character present. And Greg Massi is a founding member of Kayo Dot from New York and he’s one of the most amazing lead guitarists I’ve ever heard. He does a lot of the slightly Mick Ronson-esque lead stuff on tracks like ‘A Convoluted Man’ and the end of the first track as well; he does that insanely soaring, panoramic guitar solo. He’s great.

Matthew Seligman is probably the name most people are likely to have heard of.

NH: Yeah, of course; Matthew, who’s predominantly known for his work with the Soft Boys and everything [also Bowie, Thomas Dolby, Thompson Twins, Morrissey and more], offered to do some basslines on it. That all arose because, as part of the broader picture, I’m one of three co-directors in this arts house called Theme, which is a sort of multimedia arts organisation that I direct with my very good friends Mark Headley and Laurence Johns. Mark as well has been working on a record for a while that is now in the can and it’s really beautiful; he’s in a band with Matthew Seligman and their singer Lucy Pullin called Magical Creatures. We’re going to put that record out via Theme as well as Ganymede In A State Of War. And I think the third release we’re doing simultaneously is a publishing release, because we’re a literature outlet as well as a musical one, so we’re putting out a rare manuscript of Teleny by Oscar Wilde, which Laurence has secured the rights to. That’s coming out as a tripartite release with Ganymede In A State Of War and the Magical Creatures record. It’s really exciting. And I just said tripartite in an interview, that’s wicked!

The other name collaborators who are of interest are the Opera Arcana people.

NH: I’m a big fan of Bruce LaBruce, the queercore film-maker, and a very good friend of mine is Scott Treleaven, who’s a Toronto-based fine artist and film-maker. And via chats with him I came to learn that Bruce LaBruce had founded a queercore zine called J.D.s with G.B. Jones in Toronto in the late eighties, early nineties, and it was hugely influential. It was a big influence on Scott Treleaven’s own zine, which was called This Is The Salivation Army, that was a sort of queer pagan anarchist zine that ran for a few editions, and Genesis P-Orridge was involved in that and everything. And I mailed G.B. Jones a while back because I’d heard about her film The Lollipop Generation, that was very interesting and had Scott Treleaven in it and further people who I’m acquainted with through the queer international scene basically, such as one of Dennis Cooper’s ex-boyfriends, a guy called Mark Ewert, who I’ve been corresponding with as well. So I mailed G.B. and we got on really well. And she was also in a band called Fifth Column with Caroline Azar, and they were really amazing, sort of proto-riot grrrl stuff, really interesting, really aggressive and cool; they had a Melody Maker single of the week in the early nineties. But I wasn’t aware that she was still making music in any capacity, and so we got chatting, and I said I’d send her some of my music, and we had big political diatribes back and forth via Facebook and stuff as I was working on the record, and then I was like, well, do you want to contribute to the record? And it transpires that she’s been working with a bunch of other people on this really awesome music. So when it came to doing ‘Cut Piece’ on the record, which is one of the more aggressive and concise David Cameron hate songs, they did a three-line vocal harmony which was absolutely perfect, and I thought that was a great way to open the record as well, so you’ve got "pump me full of oblivion drugs and float me out to sea". And that was a really nice collaboration with her and her crew, so they’re going to contribute a lot to the next record as well I think. And it’s going to lead to another collaboration which is just us two. So there’s a really diverse and international set of people present.

The string section is a big part of it live. It reminds me of Marc and the Mambas, when Marc Almond had his chamber orchestra but it was still quite chaotic and punky.

NH: Oh yes; that stuff is really interesting actually. Somebody described us as rhythm ‘n’ drone, or a gnostic punk orchestra.

And as well as that punk element there’s a sort of, I’m reluctant to use the phrase glam rock because that could be misleading, I don’t mean glitter and platform boots, but that sort of period of Bowie, and that sort of period of Marc Bolan, and Roxy Music and early Kate Bush sort of fits into that as well, that sort of dramatic, swooning seventies art pop.

NH: Yeah, and I think Talking Heads as well actually. I never ever suspected this would occur, but there’s a weird sort of funk element creeping in. I never ever thought that would be present in my music whatsoever; I’m not complaining, they’re such good players, it’s a proper bloody privilege, you know. But yeah, the groove-based stuff just takes off and we end up jamming – oh, please edit that out, I hate that word jamming – we end up, ah, ‘exploring this groove quite substantially over the course of a number of minutes’.

I know what you mean, I hate that word jamming, and yet the connection with a lot of the people in the band is the improv scene.

NH: Yeah, but I’d never call that jamming. To me it’s a very serious endeavour that has nothing at all to do with conserves.

So they’re completely different things, improvising and jamming. I guess it’s not all on blues changes is it?

NH: That’s what I mean; when I think of jamming I think of really stodgy, plodding 12-bar crap, with some dickhead soloing mindlessly over the top for twenty minutes. Maybe that’s my new direction.

Yeah, that’s the next album sorted.

NH: But it’s interesting you mention that, because, yes, a lot of them are drawn from the Brighton improv scene which is really rich and fruitful and diverse and exciting. And a lot of people I drew from Platform On The Ocean, which is this sound art project I conceived whilst walking around the undercliff passage in Brighton. I had this idea kind of in reaction to some of the really gnarly, aggressive, nihilistic, discordant public improv that occurs. I wanted to do something that was really sonorous and light-filled. So I thought how about doing this as a unison major chord over an extended duration with only acoustic instruments and voices, in architecturally resonant public spaces where anybody can join in, and people can walk through the mass of people. So we’ve done five or six of those now and it’s actually going really well. But yeah it was interesting because Maria Marzaioli, the violinist, was the first player to arrive at the agreed performance space for the first Platform On The Ocean event, and I didn’t know her before then, but I was there with my viola strung over my shoulder and was like, hello, are you here for Platform On The Ocean? Why, yes I am. And then we actually connected really well, and I said well I’m actually forming a new incarnation of Academy Of Sun, would you be interested in participating? And she’s an integral player now. I like casting a band based on energies and specific presence of character. They’re all shit hot musicians, but that wasn’t the primary casting prerogative, you know.

So it’s basically a band of experimental musicians playing pop songs.

NH: Yeah I know; it’s hilarious. It’s absolutely hilarious.

And a recording of the first Platform On The Ocean session underlies the last track on the album.

NH: Yes, it finishes the record, as a sort of symbolic launch pad and suggestion as to where things might go afterwards, basically. I wanted the album to end in the now.

The Academy Of Sun play The Old Market in Hove this Thursday, February 19; head here for full details and tickets

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