Jon Brooks Of The Advisory Circle Talks Ghosts, Humour And Public Information

Hauntological institution Ghost Box make their vinyl debut with a revamped version of Mind How You Go. Joe Stannard talks to Jon Brooks about the spectral vision of The Advisory Circle

"Town or Countryside. Work or Play. Ordinary people like you and I need help. We need help to make the right decisions." – The Advisory Circle

Once upon a time, it seemed you couldn’t switch on the TV without being reminded of the danger lurking in every cupboard. Prefiguring the central conceit of 2000 horror movie Final Destination, the Public Information Films commissioned by the Central Office Of Information informed us, in grim detail, that Death could come a’calling in any form and when least expected: "Polish a floor, put a rug on it, and you might as well set a mantrap." Meanwhile, that perennial kids’ favourite Doctor Who was at its most devilishly effective when undermining the familiarity of the everyday. It intimated that childhood fears regarding showroom dummies, dolls and authority figures were in fact justified, while the shadow of impending apocalypse loomed large in dramas such as 1985’s merciless Threads.

It’d be a mistake to assume that all retrospective thought is filtered through rose-tinted spectacles. It’d be equally remiss to think of the act of remembering as an uncreative function. Some might contend that Ghost Box, an electronic music label actively engaged in a dialogue with days gone by, is merely an exercise in retro chic. But embedded in the heart of every retro aesthetic is the belief that yesterday is demonstrably better than today, and Ghost Box artists can hardly be said to offer a cosy refuge from modernity. For example, Belbury Poly’s The Willows and Eric Zann’s Ouroborindra – inspired by weird fiction writers Algernon Blackwood and HP Lovecraft respectively – are as unsettling as anything by Coil circa Musick To Play In The Dark and assembled using studio techniques comparable to those employed by Madlib or The Gaslamp Killer.

The debut release from The Advisory Circle, 2005’s Mind How You Go, offered a schematic of this uneasy relationship with the past which reflected the preoccupations of musician and producer Jon Brooks. Issued on 3" CD and clad in a typically gorgeous sleeve design by label co-founder Julian House, the EP stirred the emotions with a miasmic force seldom found outside the work of WARP recording artists Boards Of Canada. In among the wistful melodies and burbling synths, spectral voices offered politely deranged advice: "In the summer… well, it’s usually cold and sometimes it snows…" Brooks locates the point at which the voice of authority becomes the voice of confusion. Common sense breaks down. Humour mixes with sadness, fear mingles with optimism, technology dances with magic, the dead converse with the living. Worlds and otherworlds in perpetual collision. Time out of joint.

Five years later, and Mind How You Go has been chosen as Ghost Box’s vinyl debut, with a new CD version due next month. This revised and expanded release features all eight pieces from the out-of-print original along with Brooks’s glorious elaboration of the title track, an interpretation of ‘Osprey’ by ex-Broadcast/Plone sorts Seeland and a rejig (‘jig’ being the operative term) of ‘And The Cuckoo Comes’ by Ghost Box co-founder Jim Jupp’s alter ego, Belbury Poly. In addition to his invaluable work on behalf of The Advisory Circle, Brooks also contributes to the greater good via the new fangled technology of the blogosphere. His terrific Cafe Kaput blog is currently host to a series of collectible podcasts featuring a wealth of obscure psychedelia, library music, French pop and other delights. Ever the gentleman, Brooks took some time out of his busy schedule for some words on music, safety and the supernatural.

Can you tell me a little about the foundation of The Advisory Circle?

Jon Brooks: I’m pretty sure I founded the project in Winter 2004. A mutual friend had given me a link to the Ghost Box website, which hadn’t gone ‘live’ at that point. Jim and Julian were still experimenting with it, but it was due to be launched early in 2005. My reaction to seeing the visuals and hearing some early Belbury and Focus Group material was pretty intense, to say the least. I fell in love immediately. I felt an extremely strong connection with between what they were doing and the music I had waited all my life to hear and to create. What I saw and heard was not pastiche or a simplistic nostalgic parody of what had gone before, rather it was a representation of futures which never materialised. I got in touch with Jim and he invited me to contribute to Ghost Box. I joined the family straight away.

The name ‘The Advisory Circle’ came about by discussing ideas with my partner. We were thinking along the lines of governmental, institutional bodies and wanted to create an essence of that, really. I had been fascinated with organisations like the British Potato Council and Flour Advisory Bureau. They all seemed to belong to the same canon as Public Information Films and weird british TV programmes, school music rooms and so forth. ‘The Advisory Circle’ seemed like quite a powerful name, considering it contained only three quite ordinary words; more than the sum of its parts, perhaps. On a personal level, I saw it as an opportunity to create something a lot more crystallised than anything I’d done before. My entire background and upbringing, as well as my present, is infused and laced in The Advisory Circle.

What triggered the decision to reissue the marvellous Mind How You Go on vinyl?

JB: Ghost Box had been getting requests from the record-buying public, for vinyl. I think Jim and Julian had always wanted to release vinyl editions, since the label’s inception. It fits the Ghost Box aesthetic perfectly. I think they were wise to wait until the label had accrued a considerable following; the timing was right. I can’t quite remember why Mind How You Go was chosen, but obviously I was very happy with that decision! Seeing Julian’s Ghost Box artwork on vinyl for the first time was a personal and career highlight for me. I must have stared at it for an hour when I first saw it.

Having said all this, I would have been nearly as pleased if BelburyPoly’s Farmer’s Angle or Sketches & Spells by The Focus Group had been the first vinyl release.

Why the extra material? And why this extra material?

JB: There were a few reasons why we chose to include some extra material. It was always a given that Ghost Box would not, under any circumstance, ‘re-package’ any of their releases with pointless ‘fashionable’ remixes or similar. That’s something we all feel very strongly about. So, any extra material had to serve some kind of ‘useful purpose’, in expanding on what was already there. That’s quite a tricky feat to accomplish. I also wanted to keep the re-workings amongst friends, who I instinctively knew would bring something a little magical to the table.

I had already recorded ‘Mind How You Go Now!’ as an experiment. I loved the idea of keeping the strong melody of the original, but taking it into a new area. Jim was very pleased with the result and from there, suggested doing a similar experiment with elements from ‘And The Cuckoo Comes’, which was originally all about atmospherics and textures. Being touched by the hand of Belbury was perfect, as it transported it into a different, more melodic world. Jim’s extremely skilled at coming up with these beautifully lumpen, loping, medieval-sounding melodies and his re-working of ‘Cuckoo’ is one of the strongest refrains he’s written.

Tim Felton from Seeland is a friend of mine, who really appreciates texture, feeling and aesthetic. We’d had many interesting discussions about romanticism, orchestration and arrangement. Following from there, it was already in my head to ask Seeland to contribute to The Advisory Circle in some way, as they are very much kindred spirits. When ‘Osprey’ was chosen as a reference point, I asked Tim how the track made him feel, the imagery it brought to mind. We were more interested in gathering a kind of companion track to ‘Osprey’, rather than a remix. I wanted the original to be a seed, from which Seeland would nurture a whole new piece. Suggesting re-workings of this nature is not an approach that I’ve really come across before in this way, so from that point of view it was a very worthwhile and fruitful experiment.

One quite funny coincidental anecdote from all this relates to the Belbury re-working. I’d had a particularly surreal conversation with Tim Felton on the phone about Crumhorns and Sackbuts, just a couple of days before Jim played me the Belbury ‘Cuckoo’ and it was full of this type of instrumentation! It could only happen in the Ghost Box world.

What is it about British Public Information Films that you find appealing?

JB: There are so many appealing aspects to Public Information Films. Obviously, there is the overall authoritative aura they create. There’s a cosy, safe ‘don’t worry, we’ll look out for you’ thing going on in a lot of them, but always a more disturbing undercurrent running in parallel. I also like the optimism which is omnipresent in some form, amongst even the darkest subject matter. On one hand they will say ‘you’ll probably die if you skate on that pond’ and on the other they will say ‘stay close to the edges and you’ll probably be fine’.

The way Public Information Films were shot is very appealing. Quite a lot of them were shot through a child’s eyes and, to me, represent the way I viewed my environment back then. My Gran’s garden, for example, was very large by any standard, and it’s where I spent a lot of my childhood; looking at the sun poking through the trees, feeling warm and secure. There were also nettles around the edges, bits of broken glass amongst the rockery and the ponds – two large ones – were deep and definitely potential hazards.

Then there is the soundtrack, usually sourced from the library records of KPM or DeWolfe. The same composers usually wrote theme tunes to schools TV programmes, sitcoms, documentaries, so there was no escaping people like Ron Geesin or Brian Bennett, even if they were not known to you by name. I became fascinated by the idea of who was behind all this stuff at an unusually early age, so began to notice names like ‘BBC Radiophonic Workshop’ and ‘Alan Hawkshaw’ as they scrolled up the TV screen, at the end of a programme.

Perhaps not quite so obviously, I also love the way the voiceovers are recorded and presented. They managed to get talented artists like Robert Powell, Michael Jayston and Joss Ackland involved, all voices of authority. They were then recorded through amazingly warm-sounding microphones and preamps, usually just on the edge of distortion, so there’s a little break-up in the sound. It’s beautifully done and subliminally adds so much to the sinister feel.

The PIFs I’m most fond of would probably be the sinister ‘Lonely Water’, featuring the distinctive vocal talents of Donald Pleasance, and the electrifying ‘Play Safe: Kites & Planes’ with a special mention for the alarmingly bleak Protect & Survive series. Do you have a particular favourite?

JB: Listen to the ‘Lonely Water’ voiceover you’ve just mentioned and you’ll hear exactly what I was just talking about. I agree with your choices, but I will add the short ‘Look after your purse… before someone else does’ with Joss Ackland. Again, listen to the way his voice sounds on that one, the edge of overdrive present in the recording. I’m particularly fond of the ‘Rabies’ series, especially the one where the sad-looking friendly dog is roaming the streets and eventually picked up by a patrol van. I’m also very fond of some of the longer public information films, many of which have yet to see a release on DVD. There is one called ‘After Dark’, featuring the wonderful actor and writer Colin Welland. He cruises around the city in his car, pointing out various hazards of driving in an urban environment; quite often with witty asides along the way. I love the fact that it’s not completely dry. You can tell it’s probably his own car and he’s wearing his own jacket. There’s a personal touch to it and I say that without any irony whatsoever.

As someone who has struggled with obsessive-compulsive disorder, I appreciate the dark vein of ‘health & safety’ related humour in Mind How You Go and Other Channels. Would you describe yourself as an especially careful individual?

JB: I am very much the archetypal free spirit with an artistic temperament to match, rather than careful, although some of the concepts from the public information films have definitely sunk in. Usually when I’m crossing roads or carefully extinguishing the last candles before retiring for the evening. I haven’t tried skating on a frozen pond recently, though.

I think my own tendency towards anxiety may have been partly due to living through the latter stages of the Cold War and being endlessly subjected to documentaries about total annihilation. Did the threat of nuclear holocaust have any effect on your youth?

JB: Certainly. Being of a similar age to yourself, I grew up amongst television programmes such as Threads and documentaries about nuclear war, or at least the threat thereof. Another very chilling extension to this was finding Protect And Survive leaflets in public libraries, amongst all the other COI information for things like Child Benefit and Rent Allowance. Finding and reading those leaflets in such suitably ‘cold’, subdued and institutional surroundings was a particularly formative touchstone for The Advisory Circle.

Why do you think your music and that of other Ghost Box artists plus Mordant Music, Moon Wiring Club, The Caretaker, Broadcast, et al, is proving so compelling at present?

JB: What we’re doing collectively at Ghost Box is appealing directly to those who grew up with all the reference points, but more interestingly, it’s appealing to people overseas. We seem to have quite a few fans in the US; people coming in from quite a different set of values and cultures. I think it works like this because there are so many layers in the music and aesthetic; it’s not as simplistic as saying: ‘Well, we like public information films and dodgy old TV programmes.’ As in the ‘Lonely Water’ PIF, there are hidden depths. People like that. Outside of Ghost Box, Ian Hodgson aka Moon Wiring Club works quite closely with the label through his live appearances. He’s ploughing a similar path, but it’s actually very different musically to anything on Ghost Box, although it’s wonderful. Broadcast are long-time friends of the label. I like what The Caretaker is up to as well. I’ve heard quite a lot of music which supposedly sounds like it could be associated with Ghost Box, but in reality, doesn’t at all. Even if it did, it’s one thing to get the sounds right, but quite another to infuse the whole thing with the aesthetic. There’s a certain magic in Ghost Box, an aura, which comes directly from the interaction of all of us involved. I don’t know of any other record label which works in such a way… on this level.

Can you outline what you think is missing from the current discussion around ‘hauntology’ etc? Three aspects in particular that seem to be lacking from the discourse are humour, emotion and magic. Is that a fair observation, do you think?

JB: I’ve not been party to or part of any discussions relating to ‘hauntology’. I don’t have any problem with it, but it’s not something I’ve thought a great deal about. In terms of what The Advisory Circle are doing, exactly those three things you’ve mentioned are the most important and central elements to the music I’m creating; by a long way.

Whatever we call the music, how do you account for everyone involved being so humble and generous? No other area of music I’ve come across has seemed so full of genuinely decent people.

JB: Perhaps I should start some false rumours making Jim and Julian out to be tyrants, in that case. Perhaps the emphasis is placed on the fact that we all seem to have a lot of good ideas and are more concerned with getting those to bear fruit than trying to create any kind of arrogant front, which, let’s face it, gets old really quickly. Through the sometimes sinister aspects of our craft at Ghost Box, there is a massive amount of positive energy running throughout and I think this comes across when people bump into Jim and Julian at the Belbury Youth Club nights, as well as on the records.

Have you ever come into contact with anything that might be termed ‘supernatural phenomena’?

JB: Throughout my life I have had various experiences. As a child, there were family members who lived in haunted houses, for one example. I would stay with them and experience all kinds of little things. I’ve always been quite comfortable with it all, even if it’s felt quite unsettling sometimes. It happens on a daily basis, in small ways. I’m a worshipper of nature; I view nature and supernature as one and the same entity. I’m a very perceptive person and very sensitive to certain phenomena. Without that element in my life, there would be no Advisory Circle. I view my own compositional process as a form of channeling. I don’t concern myself with details when composing music, I literally let the melody flow from me without thinking. To me, that’s a supernatural phenomenon. You can’t really explain it; which is why, three years down the line, I can listen to a piece of music I made and not remember very much about how I composed it.

Do you have plans for further broadcasts from The Advisory Circle? Any idea what form they may take?

JB: Absolutely. I have around 20 or so new pieces of music to curate a new album with. I’m still writing little bits and pieces, so we’ll see how that goes, but I am quite pleased so far. Also, there are some collaborative works in progress. I already have enough ideas for another Advisory Circle album on top of all this, so it’s just a matter of realisation. 2010 is proving to be a very creative year; I certainly feel blessed that the creative juices are flowing.

To conclude, perhaps you’d like to pass on some helpful advice to readers of The Quietus?

JB: Never wear sensible shoes.

The vinyl version of Mind How You Go: Revised Edition is out now on Ghost Box. A CD follows early May

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