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Low Culture Podcast: What The Chuff? With John & Luke

The Low Culture Podcast has been given a steam clean for ‘23, and the Quietus Editors have first class tickets about El Tren Fantasma

Finally. It had to happen. Quietus Editors John Doran and Luke Turner have found a cultural artefact they’re in equal agreement about. When tQ’s mission is finally over – hopefully many years from now – and the top 100, all time favourite albums this site has covered is tallied, there is one album that both agree will be somewhere near the top of the list: Chris Watson’s El Tren Fantasma.

Watson, a gregarious south Yorkshireman with the unlikely CV of having done essential work for both Cabaret Voltaire and Sir David Attenborough, is a sound recordist of some great repute, and this album is one of his finest moments. The sound was recorded in 1999, for a Rick Stein-fronted episode of the BBC’s Great Railway Journeys during a five week trip from the Pacific to the Atlantic, from Los Mochis to Veracruz, across the FNM – Mexico’s state railway – just weeks before the line was closed down for good. But Watson spent a long time thinking about the trip – over a decade in fact – before setting to work on the DATS.

Out of the incredible amounts of audio – clattering rails, reverberant tunnels, squealing brakes, hissing pistons, plus all of the wildlife surrounding the tracks and the phantasmic voice of the station announcer at either end – Watson mixed an album for the ages. El Tren Fantasma is a joy to listen to. It may present itself as musique concrete, but at different times it sounds like techno, industrial and ambient; it may comfortably be filed as a field recording, but at times you could swear you were listening to the audiobook of a novel.

From this fine springboard, the pair enjoy a long ranging chat about the radical transformative power of steam railways, train travel as psychedelic metaphor, songs about trains, songs that sound like trains, music to listen to while on trains and how W H Auden invented rap music in 1936… possibly. And the pair also reminisce about The Lady Conductor and one psychedelic afternoon spent on a steam train in Somerset many moons ago listening to racy poetry about her train driver husband. What joy it was &c.

Thanks to our producer Alannah Chance, to Lisa Cradduck for the illustration and thanks to you, dear reader, for helping us do what we do.

To listen, you’ll need to subscribe to be a Quietus Low Culture or Sound & Vision subscriber via the Steady checkout below. This podcast is just one of a host of perks including monthly playlists of all the music we’re covering on the site, a bonus long-form Low Culture essay and the Organic Intelligence newsletter deep dive into genres you’ve barely heard of, from Scandinavian Balearic to the Swiss 80s underground. Sound & Vision subscribers also get an exclusive music release every month, commissioned by us.

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