Interview: Phono Ghosts (Exclusive Album Premiere)

Ahead of his Photons in Fashion album release, electronica artist Phono Ghosts has a chat with The Waveform Transmitter‘s Alasdair McAlley about myriad subjects, and offers up an exclusive, full length album stream.

If your formative years were during the 1980s, you might remember the impact of So. It was released in 1986, a distinctly poor year for quality pop music with the Stock Aitken and Waterman machine ready for domination alongside stadium rock of Europe and Bon Jovi. Like the lead single, So hammered it’s way to the top of the single and album charts across the world, aided by it’s striking imagery (Sledgehammer went onto win best video and won another 9 categories at the 1987 MTV video music awards) and cemented Peter Gabriel’s rebirth from the prog-rock of Genesis and proto-doom pop (Games Without Frontiers) to, and to quote from Sledgehammer, “(this is) the new stuff”.

Scratch the surface of So and underneath the quintessential 1980s gloss there’s a distinct undertone of a fatalistic sense of loss. The unmistakable duet with Kate Bush is as obvious as it gets but listen again to Red Rain and images of those haunting Public Information Films warning of a nuclear fall-out or climbing pylons to rescue Frisbees come flooding back.

Memories and feelings become part of our hardwiring and as a child of that era, its little surprise that So was the first album Neil Scrivin (Phono Ghosts, Meatbingo and runner of Fonolith) purchased. With the release of Phono Ghosts’ latest album Photons in Fashion, Neil took time out to talk to The Waveform Transmitters Alasdair McAlley about the origins of Phono Ghosts, what it’s like to run your own label and how he turns his ideas into songs.

Waveform (WF): Let’s start at the beginning. What’s your earliest memory of music?

Neil Scrivin (NS): It’s hard to pin down a single memory, but things like Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds; The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy TV music; and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series (music by Vangelis etc.) are a few that come to mind.

WF: How did you get into music?

NS: Growing up, my parents had a Casio MT-100 keyboard, and a bit later on I acquired a Casio SK-1 sampling keyboard, which was great fun, but not used in any real musical way to begin with. As I got a bit older I started playing the guitar, primarily because my parents wouldn’t let me have a drum kit! But my first serious forays into music making were with a Commodore Amiga.

I eventually got a Master Sound sampling cartridge and discovered the MED tracker software on a magazine cover-mounted 3.5” floppy disk. That’s what originally got me started in computer music, and I still have a lot of fondness for that environment. Even though the tools and techniques I use may be more sophisticated now, the basic approach is still pretty similar.

WF: The Amiga and Atari ST: the work-horses of electronic music in the early 90s. What attracts you to electronic music and using electronic devices over more traditional instruments?

NS: I think a lot of it stems from exposure to synthetic sounds at a young age. Invariably, electronic sounds were indicative of ‘The Future’, and I was a child, like many of my age, obsessed with space and sci-fi and technology. So my ears were immediately drawn to those kinds of sounds. I still love guitars and acoustic drums and more traditional instrumentation. But I like the transformative effect of electronics. Even recording an acoustic guitar via a microphone onto tape is ‘electronic’. So I suppose what attracts me about using these methods is the ability to manipulate sound.

WF: Speaking of sound, how would you describe Phono Ghosts to a first time listener?

NS: Everyone has their own set of reference points and filters through which they perceive things, and so it’s always interesting to hear how other people interpret my sound. Personally, I find it difficult to describe my music in terms of genre or style. Not that I’m saying that it can’t be, just that I’m not particularly au-fait with the complexities and minutiae of all the genres and sub-genres that exist nowadays! I think it’s important to a lot of people, to be able to compartmentalise things. There’s a need to ‘tag’ things. But I’m not sure exactly how helpful this ever-increasing granularity of definition is.

WF: Amen to that. When was Phono Ghosts born?

NS: I started picking up cheap cassette tapes in the early ‘00s, and soon had the idea of doing something based around samples from them. By 2010 I had completed an early version of Chrome Position (Phono Ghosts debut album) and I needed a name for playing at one of Skam’s Fresh Mess nights that year. So I came up with Phono Ghosts to describe the old, long-forgotten sound material I was using. It seemed to evoke the way these voices from the past would be reanimated and brought alive by my repurposing them into new music

WF: And Phono Ghosts isn’t your only guise. What’s it like juggling multiple musical personalities?

NS: Originally, I didn’t really distinguish between the varying styles I’d make. At the time, I wasn’t seriously thinking about releasing stuff, so it was all just ‘my music’. Having aliases helps to differentiate between projects for an audience, and from a creative viewpoint too, it helps to focus the mind towards a particular direction. Meatbingo, for instance, is a very specific state of mind. I don’t tend to inhabit that persona very often, but after a few years it resurfaces and demands attention!

I’ve also been doing some things that don’t really fit into the established aliases, so there’ll probably be one or two new guises appearing in the future.

WF: Sounds intriguing! Going back a moment, you were signed to Skam which some might see as Mecca for electronic music. How did that come about?

NS: Andy Maddocks from Skam originally approached me around 2010 asking to hear some stuff due to my association with Adrian Blacow (VHS Head). That eventually led to the two Skassette releases in 2013. At that time, I was already working on Solar Dream Reel (the follow-up to Chrome Position), and it was basically ready to be released the following year. However, the gears of the Skam machine can be slow to turn, and I became frustrated with the glacial release schedule. In the end, I just wanted to get the album released in order to go forward, so I decided to move on.

I’ll always remain grateful to Skam though, for giving me a chance when it felt like no-one else was interested.

WF: So as result you created your own label, Fonolith Records.

NS: Initially, I resisted starting my own label. It wasn’t something that I had any particular desire to do. But the idea of having the freedom to release my music however and whenever I wanted to was too attractive to dismiss. Bleep were very supportive right from the outset, which really made a difference. Being awarded their ‘Album of the Week’ with my first Fonolith release was a fantastic boost and helped to cement my confidence in the decision I’d made to go it alone.

At this point I suggest you search for and better yet purchase When We Were Fifteen, the stand-out track from Chrome Position. As you press play and continuing reading, with that infectious piano riff flowing in your mind, I asked Neil, “what does it take to get to that creative spot, to conjure up an idea and grow it into a song?”

NS: Over the years I have built up a huge folder of cassette tape samples, and the genesis of every Phono Ghosts track begins there, usually by creating a few banks of manipulated sounds and playing with ideas until something works. Everything is MIDI sequenced. I don’t use audio on the timeline at all. Each sample is edited and trimmed by hand. I don’t use automated slicers because they never quite get the cuts right, and the audio pieces I want to use might not be next to one another, or parts of a totally different file.

The initial ideas will often emerge quickly, but the task of developing, arranging and finalising them can take anywhere between months and years. For instance, many of the tracks on Chrome Position started life as ideas going back as far as 2005, and much of Solar Dream Reel goes back to 2011. It’s a similar story with Photons in Fashion as well. The tracks take time to evolve and grow. Sometimes they just sit on my drive for a few years before I finally revisit them and work out how to complete them.

WF: With that in mind how do you plan your day and how do you manage self-discipline with drive?

NS: I’m not as well organised as I’d like to be. I spend a lot of time in the studio, but it’s not always as productive or creative as I’d like. There’s a lot of work that surrounds a release which isn’t creative at all; just the practicalities of running the label.

Creatively speaking, it goes in cycles. For example, a lot of the material on Solar Dream Reel originated during a period when I set myself the task of creating a new idea every day. I ended up with about 50 rough tracks which I eventually refined and condensed into the album. I’ll have creative bursts like that periodically, and then the in-between time is spent developing those ideas.

WF: What does the Phono Ghosts set-up look like today?

NS: The main hub is centred around a PC running Ableton Live. Nothing particularly exotic or fancy about it. Some Genelec monitors which I like a lot, and some well-worn Yamaha NS-10Ms. A basic Sony cassette deck for sampling. I have a small MIDI keyboard, but it rarely gets used. I either draw the notes into the sequencer or play them from the QWERTY keyboard. It’s pretty straightforward really.

The other side of the room is where the hardware stuff lives, like various synths, keyboards, modules, effects, recorders, etc. I also have a few guitars and a small Roland MIDI drum kit.

I’m really drawn towards the sort of tech that’s not at all cutting edge; stuff that’s a bit limited or lo-fi and forces you to work within constrained parameters. I like the directness of old Casio/Yamaha home keyboards, and the ubiquity of something like the MicroKORG. I’m not a gear snob or analogue fetishist. I don’t really care much how a sound is produced. It all ends up reaching your ears in the same way.

WF: So what made you come back to Phono Ghosts after a 2 year break?

NS: I was originally hoping to release Photons In Fashion in 2017, but various other projects took precedence, such as the Meatbingo LP The Error Of My Wavs and the collaboration with Sferro (Alive In The Timeless Void), plus the various archive releases which all needed remastering and new artwork. So it wasn’t an intentionally long break. I just got distracted!

WF: Not much of a break then! Your tracks titles intrigue me (two examples: Mystery Lingers As A Branch Of Heaven and Suntan Spies). Are they clues to the source samples or influences?

NS: Rarely are they a clue to any samples used. They are usually an oblique reference to a feeling or imagery that the track seems to describe to me. Sometimes they are derived from dreams I’ve had, or from hypnagogic auditory hallucinations that often take the form of voices intoning oblique and yet oddly profound phrases, such as “hear me read my genetic chirpy chip”. For years, I kept a notepad by my bed and made notes of these, but have fallen out of the habit lately.

WF: Your artwork  is really distinctive. How important are visuals to your overall aesthetic?

NS: It is equally as important to me as the music. I was drawing long before I started doing music, and it was my main childhood interest, before I got kind of waylaid by music as a teenager. I wanted to be a comic artist or book jacket illustrator when I was younger. But when I got into making music, the visual art took a backseat for a long time. I only seriously got back into it again about ten years ago when I got a Wacom tablet and started learning how to use Photoshop properly.

I have started doing a few cover designs for other people, particularly Sferro , and this is something I’d like to do more of in the future.

Released at the start of 2018, Alive In The Timeless Void is a fascinating EP from the Phono Ghosts/Sferro collaboration. Even before you listen to it, the alluring title conjures up images and thoughts; the sounds of the past broadcast across the universe, a grainy picture of the Voyager spacecraft leaving our galaxy…

WF: How did the collaboration with Sferro come about?

NS: We first started chatting to each other on SoundCloud several years ago, probably around the time Chrome Position came out. So we’d kind of known each other for a while. Just after Solar Dream Reel came out, Eric (Sferro) suggested we work on something together, and that became The Court Of The Twelve Trees on his All Things Converge album. We had talked about doing a full EP around that time, but it didn’t quite come off because I had too much other stuff going on. Later, we revisited the idea and the timing was right. That was how Alive In The Timeless Void came about.

WF: And what about Odd Nosdam; his remix of Mystic Lagoon is really special.

NS: Eric approached him about that. It was one of the driving forces of the collaboration and really helped to solidify the project.

WF: How do you typically collaborate on projects? Is it totally virtual? What makes a great collaboration for you?

NS: The collaboration with Sferro was essentially a two-stage process. All of the tracks began as Eric’s original pieces, which I then processed and added my parts to. I think this is one of the reasons it worked so well. We weren’t getting in one another’s way, and our respective sounds worked together nicely.

WF: The videos created by AVD78 are exceptional and add a whole other layer. Will we see more in the future?

NS: David Hayes (AVD78) got in touch with the idea of doing a video for my track Anti Comet Tails. That was before Chrome Position came out. I’d seen the videos he’d done for others, and really liked his style. I feel like he really ‘gets’ the Phono Ghosts aesthetic as well.

He’s created a wonderfully spooky and evocative video for Obelisk Phantasm from the new LP, which I think is one of his best yet.

WF: I agree; it’s a tremendous piece of art. So what’s next for Phono Ghosts? Another hiatus?

NS: Hopefully not! I’m already forming plans for another release next year. Probably another long EP/mini LP like Photons in Fashion. Phono Ghosts is pretty much the priority at the moment, and there is quite a lot of material waiting in the wings.

WF: That’s great to hear. Is there a master plan for Phono Ghosts? If so, what’s the next objective? Or do you play it by ear and go with the flow?

NS: There is a very roughly planned out route map for the future of Phono Ghosts. I have another two or three releases sketched out, and I’d like to put out something new each year for a while, if I can. But nothing is set in stone, and I’m happy to allow myself to be distracted if something else comes along which interests me.

In addition, there are several more Neil Scrivin archive releases being prepared for next year. There are probably 20 or 30 albums from the 2002-2011 period. I don’t know how many of those will see the light of day, but I’d guess maybe half of them have the potential to be released in some form.

As we wrap-up Neil reveals that the first single he purchased was Prince Charming by Adam And The Ants. With its anthemic chorus and iconic video, I wonder just how much influence it’s had on his creative output. I recall the eerie feeling I felt as a child, as the party guests freeze and disappear like a spooky set of mannequins at the Cinderella ball, as Adam, hands aloft and arms crossed rises up towards a full-length mirror, only to smash it revealing iconic characters, each played by himself.

The memory and sense of connecting art and music with a past just out of reach is the essence of Phono GhostsPhotons in Fashion is available to order on Bandcamp and Bleep, now. In the meantime, you can stream the album, in full, below.

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