We invited you for the Eastern Daze festival which highlights the parallels between ethnic transcendental music and avant-garde, noise and psychedelic underground music. I wondered if you were influenced by ethnic music yourself?
I have to admit to being influenced by all music, including music I don't like much. Which brings us to the problem of defining "ethnic music". We had singing, playing and dancing to traditional British/Irish music at my school when I was a child, and that's probably pretty ethnic and exotic to non-Europeans. There’s people making traditional music in the Scottish Isles that you'd swear is from, say, India if you didn't know the details.
I'm more interested in the process of becoming exotic and/or ethnic than in taking ideas from ethnic music.
Although we do that as well. If you hear something and like it, it is hard not to take a little something away. It’s also an obvious thing for someone who grew up in the Western musical tradition and wishes to expand their musical horizons to look to the East, even if only as far as Hull.
I don't really study musicology and I'm not a good enough musician to copy anybody — which rightly brings in a load of issues to do with appropriation, privilege and power, as the academics will quickly remind us. What I am interested in is making something which sounds close, but distant. Much like my own response to experiencing music or art that I didn't fully understand. But if the question is "do you own a lot of records on the Ocora label" the answer is: yes, I got some.
I grew up in a household where Irish songs were always sung. From an early age I have always had an uneasy feeling of being 'other' than truly English, although I didn't realise what this feeling was until I grew up. So I suppose in a way my family background could be classed as exotic to some in England. We are a nation of immigrants. The music and cultures of all these different groups have always mixed in our cities, be that Irish, Polish, Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi, West Indian, or whatever. It's impossible not to be slightly influenced by this.
How do you see the UK noise scene, which Ashtray Navigation seems to have kicked off in the 90ties?
I don't really know, and I always feel a bit dissassociated from these questions about the Northern England Sound as I am still a midlander at heart — Ashtray started in Stoke On Trent which is a place nobody asks about much. I'm a bit out of the loop with the UK noise scene these days but I'd say it incorporates a lot of different approaches (you wouldn't call Smell & Quim transcendental, much) and I definitely get a transcendental vibe from, say, Hijokaidan and C.C.C.C., two old favourites from back in the day. But if you're talking Bower, Campbell, Vibracathedral et al, we were all pals and influenced each other I'd say.
Why is it that North England has such a vibrant scene of improvisational music, with its own distinct sound and approach?
Yorkshire has a long and rich history of unpretentious and unacademic avant garde-ism – Jeff Nuttall, Termite Club etc – and its hard not to be influenced by that also. Making experimental music and being from a northern (or midland) working class background, well it isn't something that is meant to happen, is it? The media only really pays attention to genre music (rock, dance or whatever) and it helps to be from London or at least Manchester. And the media's music coverage is so fashion orientated. If you're doing experimental or unpopular music of any sort it helps to have a private income, preferably a millionare at least. There are no rewards except for the joy of making something. To do what we do, you have to be pretty determined and bloody-minded, or you'll give up after six months. Most people do, and thats fine, but I'm in this for the long haul.
Do you see a direct lineage from early psychedelic British music over a band like Spacemen 3 to what you and by example Vibracathedral Orchestra are doing?
I saw then 3 play at Keele University as a youngster and they were unlike anything else going on at that time and were a huge influence. I don't like their records though, they are nothing compared to the impact of the live show, especially at that time in the early 90s. But they were hardly original, I get the feeling they were just trying to revive and/or reinterpret, say, what they'd heard about Pink Floyd at the UFO club in '66 or whatever. There's a linkage between what we do and that too I think. I don't think its a direct line though, more of a jagged and hall-of-mirrors style link as it is mediated by time and place and subsequent re-interpretation. I'm perfectly happy to think that the members of Pink Floyd, Spacemen 3, etc would hate what we do if they heard it. I do what I do without thinking "what would such and such have done". Ashtray, Vibracathedral. Spacemen 3 and, say, Hapsash & The Coloured Coat are very different from each other but its likely that a human could love all four. I am that human!
There is definitely a lineage, just not in music but in a whole countercultural continuum. It makes me rather sad when I hear old sixties figures on TV putting down the youth of today, saying they're all boring, talking as if raves, drug orgies, happenings, travelling, free festivals and squatting are things from the past. I just think 'it's still going on, it never went away!'. The Freak Empire never ended! To the majority of people in Leeds the strange noise happenings of Smell and Quim or the Bongoleeros were seen as little pockets of eccentricity. Actually they're part of a deep seated tradition of avant garde art and performance that has existed in Leeds since at least 1900. From the activities of The Leeds Art Club to the transformative activities of groups like Welfare State and John Bull's Puncture Repair Kit and onto the Termite Club, I think there is a definite line. Even if all these people were working in cells, not aware of each other, I think they all picked up on the same mood and carried it forward.
Do you seen a profound impact of the internet on the underground scene?
Yes, it has changed things totally and music is everywhere, like air. Even the most obscure things imaginable can be easily found. The problem is ‘what to choose from the banquet’. Its a double edged sword and sometimes I miss things about the old days — making music and trading tapes with friends without the feeling that you're being watched all the time, or you have the potential to be watched all the time. On reflection though, I'm happier to be here now than back there then.
It makes it harder to be an 'outsider'. Before you got a sense that a lot of musicians outside the metropolises worked quite hermetically, or in small groups of friends. It was hard to find other people into weird music. That meant that music was more individualised. Now I think it is easier for people to adopt a 'house style' quicker, genres move in faster and faster waves. Most musicians seem happier to conform to something that everyone else is doing, whereas in the 80s and 90s everything seemed to be a reaction against what was happening.
The internet takes a lot away from actual music making time. Everyone always seems to be shouting about what they're doing or checking up on what everyone else is doing, instead of getting down to stuff. If the underground is overground should it make a sound?
Is the DIY-approach important for you?
An Do It Yourself approach is important if nobody else will Do It For You. When I started playing music in Stoke in the early 90s the idea that anyone would offer me a recording contract or anything was so utterly preposterous and unlikely that I never considered anything other than DIY as an option. I never saw the need to start bragging about being DIY like punk and indie bands did or maybe still do. It wasn't a lifestyle choice for me — which would be overturned when a big record company comes a-callin' —, but the only way of getting my music out.
Are the massive amount of releases meant to document everything that happens in Ashtray Navigations?
There are so many Ashtray records because I'm addicted to the joy of making things, rather than an attempt to document everything. Envisioning an eventual release gives me something to work towards and keeps the wheels moving. In order for my music to develop, I always see the need to put a "finished product" of some kind in front of a (miniscule) audience. I don't want to sit around at home playing a load of unfinished backing tracks to myself and thinking "this sounds OK I should finish it some day".
How do you feel about the interaction of being a musician and releasing stuff of other people on your own label(s)?
I don't tend to release stuff by other people any more. There have been a few exceptions but I'm trying to give it up totally. I don't feel I can do other peoples work enough justice. My label has no distribution and no profile and there's many other labels who can do a better job. Running a label properly is a full time job in itself with few financial rewards, and I already got one of those making my own music.
What does the upcoming CD-box mean to you?
I like dealing with the present and the future rather than the past so I deliberately had as little possible to do with it. Also, who cares what my own favourites are — I can't be expected to have any proper perspective on two decades of musical output. I asked four people who had a lot of Ashtray recordings to compile it. Then we put the package together, find all the tracks and do the artwork which is taking an age. I just want the fucking thing to be done then we can deal with the next 21 years instead of the last.
It all sounds great though. When I got the contributors track lists back I gulped and thought "i wouldn't have picked any of this stuff as my best”. When I listened through, I’d have to admit that it had a coherence and has made me love many dusty back corners of the catalogue. Everyone did a really fine job.
Post-script – the box will be out in late November, all being well.
I’m very intruiged about the idea of failure, which a lot of your musical friends point out when speaking about you’re approach to making music.
Failure is more interesting than success because flaws, if properly handled, can point to other directions that the music could have taken. They hint at another corner that we could have turned and are a welcome bit of sand in the gears of a dull machine. Nothing is more boring than a perfect masterpiece with no room for manoeuver or misinterpretation. When I started doing music I had hardly any expertise or equipment and flaws were inevitable. Things are obviously better now but I still keep this aesthetic in mind, a taste for rawness and the feeling that anything could happen. Plus it’s hard not to revel in the idea of being a failure if you work very hard on music that the world ignores!
I'm not so much of a Neil Young obsessive, to be honest. I like the overall vibe of his great 70s records more than the actual solos, but I have to say the playing on the long tracks on "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere" is pretty great (with the other guitarist as well, the guy who died, Danny Whitten was it?). He never really let fly as much as that subsequently, did he?
I would have to agree that Everyone Knows...probably has the best guitar solos. Probably Like a Hurricane is most memorable for me though. And On The Beach is my favourite Neil Young album, I think it's fantastic from beginning to end. Can't really remember the solos though.
I can certainly remember, maybe even sing most of the solo on the title song. That one's a beauty! On second thoughts I'll pick that.