Rob St John feels like an avatar of an older tradition. The 'folk' tag has become somewhat hollowed out, a dead signifier; but vestiges of the tradition remain, and remain oddly powerful in their ability to both evoke the particulars of place and lever open channels to the past. St John, across a variety of projects - musical and otherwise - has revealed a keen eye for specificity and an alchemical descriptive capability; he also appears to be adept in listening to the clamour and babble erupting from that open channel and focusing it into some semblance of a coherent narrative. Weald, which came out late last year on Song, by Toad, was a record of what you might call, in a non pejorative sense, 'hollowed-out' folk music - the tracks were as much resonating caverns as actual songs. But there was also a smeary, vague quality to it: on a molecular level syllables colaseced, meanings blurred; on a broader sonic level, instruments followed this pattern and cross-fertilised. The result was an enigmatic thing, a gothic puzzle to which the ear slowly attuned. St John has been busy since, curating here and travelling there. We talked about Weald and the various projects St John is involved with - now and in the coming months.
Where are you know - what's happening? And where have you been in the last month or so?
I'm currently in Lancashire, where I grew up, watching the rain fall outside. I've been travelling around the Western and Northern Isles of Scotland with my partner, for the last few months: walking, writing, fishing, attempting to keep reluctant peat fires going.
You recently wrote a soundtrack for the Jeremy Deller's documentary about Bruce Lacey - could you tell us a bit about how you became involved and how you came up with a soundtrack?
Jeremy Deller and Nick Abrahams got in touch to say that they'd heard my record and whether I could contribute some new music to the 'Bruce Lacey Experience' documentary they were putting together: specifically something to soundtrack Lacey's free festival days. I'd been planning to move away a little from the dense, droney and dark thing we did with the last record. Whilst it was probably appropriate and cathartic at the time, it's not a reflection of where I am now - both personally and musically. So the recording was an opportunity to tie together some of the music that has been recently exciting me lately and experiment with some new sounds. It was good to play some soft, rolling folk guitar again, underpinned by whirring synth and flitting flute, fiddle and saw, all recorded live. We recorded about 15 minutes of new music. The film showed at Camden Arts Centre until September and will be released on DVD through the BFI later in the year, I think. It's fantastic to be involved with a project related to Lacey, he's a national treasure, an eccentric mischief (and myth) maker. Maybe we'll sort something out with the rest of the recordings for a small release, but it's likely that the ideas and textures will turn up on the next record.
Would you categorise Lacey's stuff as whimisical? What do you make of whimsy? And the notion of Lacey as some kind of shamanic figure?
In some ways, I suppose, but then again whimsy is a very subjective idea, isn't it? In the documentary, he describes himself as a 'professional piss taker', I think. There's a tradition there in parallel to the Goon Show and similar - seemingly light, silly entertainment that serves to skewer and satirise its subjects on a very subtle level. I'm a fan of his later works: as you say his shamanic, free festival Earth Rituals in the 70s, and his proto-play work, installing great climbing frames for inner-city kids. There's a curiosity and wonder that runs through his work, a freewheeling optimism, confidence and willingness to experiment and invent. I think the idea of curiosity and 'I wonder' underpins many important discoveries - whether in the arts or sciences - but is something that is being increasingly lost by many people creating ever smaller frames of reference through the way they interact with and curate the technology around them, a safety net that it's scary to move beyond.
To come back to whimsy, I guess I've no radical opinion. I suppose Weald was the opposite of a whimsical album, wasn't it? It was very dense and layered, and I wanted it to reward repeated listenings, to retain an element of obscurity to allow the listener to attach their own thoughts, experiences, whatever, to. But as I say, whimsy can be a vehicle through which to approach and express darker, more complicated subjects sometimes. Look at the Syd Barrett solo albums: he was clearly suffering with mental health problems, and the records are laden with whimsy, with terrapins, octopuses and effervescing elephants. There's an immediate surface of whimsy over a darker undercurrent.
I've not been to the area, but there are some descriptive passages of the landscape in Robert Neill's book Mist Over Pendle that are genuinely unsettling and imply a kind of menace in the landscape itself. Is there a case for arguing that certain areas/places can have a negative effect?
How do you mean 'negative' - On your own self, whilst you potter through the landscape?
I think that's what I mean, yes - I think anyone who spends enough time out and about eventually has an inexplicable experience where an area/place/time just feels wrong somehow. I tend to be fairly sceptical about stuff like that and yet... Chris Watson said something in an interview in The Wire that's always stuck with me (extract taken from issue 318)
I hadn't seen that interview, nor had I heard of TC Lethbridge. It's interesting. David Toop says something in Sinister Resonance about the role of sound in darkness as a conduit for haunting. About how ghosts prosper in the dislocation of the dark, as sound is an ephemeral, fragile, unreliable, perhaps even unfamiliar, means of understanding your surroundings. You hear differently when you record in the field. With your focus on sound, your concentration picks up on what you may otherwise miss in a more multi-sensory landscape (and soundscape). On Weald, we used a set of field recordings by ace sound artist Patrick Farmer. One recording, of tree roots rubbing underwater in a stream, stood out and serendipitously mirrored the rise and fall of the bellows of my harmonium grumbling and groaning at the start of 'Stainforth Force'. I guess, when you dislocate sounds from their landscape, they lose their certainty of origin, and can be reinterpreted, in whatever way you choose. The drones in Richard Skelton's recordings - recorded outside, a melding of the sound of the landscape and the instruments - are beautiful and very affecting for this reason. But as in the Chris Watson thing, this dislocated stream of sound can be really disorientating and troubling.
So, to return to the question, no, I don't think that some landscapes are necessarily more menacing or 'evil' than others, it depends entirely on what sets of thoughts, ideas, preconceptions and experiences we bring to them. Some are more inherently dangerous, sure, some more bleak in landscape and weather. But never any inherent malevolent force. Going back to the idea of sound as a carrier of hauntings, I suppose it is in these dark, northerly landscapes- from Scotland, Scandinavia - that a rich set of mythology and folklore has sprung from.
But I think that your experience of a landscape is determined largely by what you bring to it, by the thoughts and knowledge you have in your head. It's like the 'peradam' mountain in that novel Mount Analogue by Rene Daumal, some things are only found by those who - however unconsciously - go looking for them. I've no real love for the idea of 'wilderness', of a landscape where you can purge yourself of problems, get back to some simpler, Edenic nature. Every patch of the earth has been trampled, gridded and girdled by maps, development, history. Most people assemble different histories of a place, that go with what they're comfortable with, what they have been told.
The set of writing about the Pendle Witches, by Robert Neill, William Harrison Ainsworth, even back to Thomas Potts' original document of the trials might set a precedent for how a visitor might feel when walking on Pendle. But is Pendle more mysterious or spooky than another Pennine hill? No, but you're guided by the preconceptions you bring. The narratives of the trials in the local area really are so mixed up. They veer from the misguided and disrespectful (I've a walking book by Ciccerone on the area, that punctuates walks with descriptions of the accused witches as 'repulsive old hags' and ' decrepit, sightless, old crones') to the banal and cartoon-like (cuddly toy witches, mass walks up Pendle dressed in capes and pointy hats). People tend to forget that these were real people, caught up in a web of persecution, superstition and fear.
The 'Pendle 1612' release that I've part-curated is a response to this. The box in which the release is housed will contain a series of ephemera and information, including a map of the area, and the witches route to trial from Pendle to Lancaster. We've spent a lot of time populating this map with photographs, grids, information that we think is relevant to the trials, which has been an interesting process that I guess ties together a lot of what I've talked about here, especially when trying to highlight the role of the persecutors in the trials. What to you include, prioritise and draw links between, when trying to construct a visual history?
In the middle of this process, I went to the Patrick Keiller Robinson exhibition at Tate Britain in London. I like Keiller a lot, especially his Robinson stuff. It seems a rich, almost playful approach to these knotty problems - the way he assembles such a constellation of - at times seemingly ephemeral - information, and traces a line made by walking through it all. To me, his work is encouragement to delve into the history of places and landscapes important to you, that through putting all this information that others have perhaps disregarded together, the most important thing is that you become connected to these places and landscapes in your own individual way. In a way, that's what Weald was. I have no historical connection with Lancashire other than I was born here - my family are from Ireland and Derbyshire. It was a way of finding meaning.
Read the full interview at The Liminal.