#3: David Christian

For a year or so I lived in the same city as David Christian. The city was Bordeaux, the years 2005-2006. We never crossed paths yet our lives nearly touched. At the time I was attending a weekly class on Free Cinema and British New Wave at the University (the other day I found a battered, homemade photocopied booklet of the texts we read then – Lindsay Anderson, Penelope Houston, Peter Wollen, etc). After the lectures Anne-Laure (who also attended the classes) and I sometimes took the tramway back into the city together; one day she gravely mentioned that her boyfriend had watched all the kitchen sink dramas we were studying. The information, imparted with such an air of seriousness, deeply impressed my twenty-old year self. Because Bordeaux felt vaguely doomed, I absorbed as many of those precious movies as I could borrow or find. There was music, too – but Anne-Laure and I never spoke about records. We knew very little of one another. When one day she wrote down her landline number on a piece of paper, I carefully kept it yet did not dare to call; I left Bordeaux shortly afterwards.

It is only a few years later, when Plan B published a picture of Comet Gain on its front cover, that I realised Anne-Laure was part of the band and that her cinephile boyfriend and David Christian (aka David Feck aka Charlie Damage) were the same person. It oddly made sense – a striking, meaningful coincidence. All of a sudden, second-hand memories of the elusive David Christian resurfaced. There was something absurd and wonderfully appropriate, I thought, about us never meeting. And while D. Christian seemed to me the shadow of a shadow, or perhaps a gentle, genial ghost, Comet Gain always felt urgently real and immediate. For many years their songs followed me; in my twenties I played them (Réalistes especially) almost every day across unheated rented rooms in the North East of England, Scotland, and Germany. Their beautiful, radical energy – their freedom – inspired me (and many others) to keep dreaming and making things. For Comet Gain never stopped: they were defiantly, sweetly brilliant – all the time.

At the end of November the Berlin-based label Tapete Record will be releasing David Christian’s first solo album – For Those We Met On The Way – recorded in the French countryside with the Pinecone Orchestra.

David answered some of my questions via email – the interview (reproduced below) happened through the label’s promoter, so I didn’t get to say thank you directly: it might still happen, one day – when the time and the place are right.

Thank you, David Christian / David Feck / Charlie Damage – and Anne-Laure.   

You have changed names a few times – when did you first become David Feck? Did you enjoy inventing new identities as a child? 

Well,in real life my name changed a couple times which was family stuff and I guess as a confused weirdo it was nice to hide behind whatever alias you wanted-the ‘feck’ secret identity thing was from Pete momtchillof(Talulah gosh/would be goods/all round rock n roll guitar animal)-I briefly lived with him and Amelia fletcher in Oxford to escape the rampant evils of London and kept getting into dumb situations which would exasperate Pete so the feck is short for feckless-as he believed I was truly worthy of that word-since then depending on situation, mindset etc I have also inhabited Charlie damage,dr Meinhof,david du lac etc in so much as I’m not sure who I am anymore which is probably the point

Do you recall when your passion for language and writing started? 

 Well like most shy youths I read a lot when I was younger and I remember certain books or writers-all the usual ones when your young like Burroughs,kerouac,salinger,orwell,thompson,60S+70s marvel comics(the weirder the better)etc plus one lesson at school where I actually paid attention was English literature where the romantic poets etc made me excited-i just loved the way words could be twisted or bent or abstracted to have meaning that was vague but fertile in personal ways-direct simple language wasn’t particularly interesting to me-i would get very ill and have high temperatures where I would hallucinate and reality would get jumbled so bizarre language kind of suited my head-i remember being fascinated by sad Barrett  words pretty early on in my ‘getting into records’ phase of youth -they made sense more to me and I found that comforting-at school I would write these insanely long story essays and used to love watching the words join up as I would write them down-i guess even now even if I have s simple direct thought I try to make it more interesting or deformed if I write it down-partly for my own enjoyment 

When did you first realise you wanted to make music and write your own songs? And was there another band before Comet Gain?

Like I’ve said I was a shy, odd kid and found it hard to sleep-one of the mechanisms I used to stop thinking about the void or awful things at night was to invent personas and albums so I would be’singing my head a whole lp in different styles-i was a huge bowie fan from a pretty young age and the fact that he utilised so many different styles and personas probably informed that massively-some of them were genius and wish I had a way to psychically regurgitate them-i remember a hot streak one Christmas when I was ill and spent a lot of time in bed just conjuring up gem after gem-sadly when I actually started making real music the magic was gone and I was just another twig in the bonfire-when me and my friends where bonded by all this hot new guitar music in the mid 80S I was more into doing fanzines but was briefly in a group called the paintermen with 2 friends and a guy who wanted to be Julian cope-it was supposed to be like television meets the Byrds with obviously some cope attack but it never went anywhere-i did a group with a friend Chris who did this fanzine far out and fishy called floral teacup-he would come down from Oxford to where I lived in Tufnell Park and we would do kinks and abba songs -I still have the tape if light in the atticare interested -then slowly all these imaginary bands accidentally became a real moving shambolic monster-comet gain started almost by mistake and before we knew it we had a record out and were playing with my favourite bands like the tv personalities -it was one of those moments in London where you could kind of get away with having a pretend illusionary group that was also real and (slightly)functioning-we got signed after drunkenly playing a horrific excuse for a show where probably nobody had a clue what we were doing and yet in those days that made us endearing and appealing-i doubt you’d get that now, sadly he sighs .it was also easy to do one off groups that usually came out of drunken eurakas like Zorro where we played a gig with masking tape all over our faces then realised  its fucking hot and tou cant see what your doing or the other inept musiciians are doing-or you could just turn up at a gig by-prolapse-or someone you knew and say’can me and insert-sottish-drummer-name-here just play Who songs badly before you come on?and it would be no problem-everything seems way too planned out and CORRECTLY DONE now but as an old grumpy guy who doesnt go to gigs anymore i’m just saying that because-y’know OBVIOUSLY it was MUCH BETTER in my days-and pints were only 35pence and you’d get a free fishfinger with every pint.

You are now living in France again – is this a temporary move or would you potentially see this as a more permanent shift? Was London the place where you grew up? Does it still exist in the way you first knew it? What sort of impact (if any) does being away from the UK have on the way you are making music? 

The way things are this is currently under the ‘lets stay the fuck here’banner-i have a young son and this is the life he deserves rather than the less certain and less healthy one we would have if still in London which is becoming a mid 70s depressed husk now half the interesting people have fled back to their home countries and taken the nice food with them-its a nice feeling knowing that its not worth being maudlin or sentimental or whatever about living somewhere so different from what you know(we are in a forest pretty much not far from the ocean )because your doing it for somebody you love so they live a good life-also an upheaval is a good thing-its been a year and I dont misss much-seeing friends being the only one.

Yes I grew up in north London and obviously its a different world to what I knew but thats the nature of the big city to evolve and coalesce and ebb and flow so by its nature you slowly lose everything you knew -I worked in soho for about 15 years and it would always be shape shifting with certain stanchions remaining the same as memorials to all-times like the old pubs but on my last day in London I walked through soho to have a goodbye beer with a friend and everything had melted away-including a lot of the pubs-it was eerie as it was the height of the pandemic so it was silent and empty and raining and I felt no kinship with it anymore-the parks I love like the heath remain the same but -mainly due to incessant greed and bad ideas-there wasn’t much of ‘my’london left to hold onto -it had all dissipated into cracks and nooks of sentimental images-messages from friends about ‘do you remember this place?’ Its just the names that are the same-camden market is still called Camden market but nothings left of the Camden market I lived through so what’s the point of going there -and the kids who go there now and are enraptured or frightened by it will feel the same in 30 years-if everything dissipates into memory theres no need to lurk around hoping it will re-coalesce because it won’t.

As for making music here-its harder obviously-i was used to being in bands-and bands are just a good excuse to be hanging out with friends-also its a co-operative thing so I dont have that anymore or simple things like rehearsal rooms, studios to record in, guitar shops when you need guitar strings-the nearest one is 55 kilometres away or something and I had to go halfway across the country to record my record-however,on the other hand I have been making these ‘solo’ ‘albums’ for bandcamp at home and its quite fun to do everything and have no need to teach songs,reharse etc -you do have to worry about pissing off the warthogs with your whinging and wailing though.

Could you tell me more about how The Pinecone Orchestra came to be, and about the day-to-day recording of For Those We Met On The Way? When did you start thinking about doing a solo album? What were the moments you treasured most during the recording process? 

Well-i had the songs and a list of people I wanted to ask to help me make them sound less terrible-the main thing was having a drummer live as the rest could be done ‘remotely’o for instance Elton John could add some boogie boogie piano in a cave in Tunisia if he needed to such is modern recording -I recorded it in a barn in a farm in the middle of Aveyron in rural France and asked my old friend cosmic Neman who was in this group herman dune and is one half of the great zombie/zombie to come down from paris which he did and then i felt good as he’s a wonderful drummer and person to be around-i also wanted/needed a friend to make the experience more fun-the owner of said barn and producer of the record was mike Targett and his wife Allison who I had never met but knew friends of mine-they lived here for about 15 years and have a group called heist -we stayed in a gite across from the barn/farmhouse -it was about as far away from my usual experiences of concrete bunkers in Walthamstow or whatever -everyday we would eat food in the main house and just go through the songs-it was such an easy laidback experience I was convinced everything would go horribly wrong at any point-and the best bit of all was in the back room there was a bar, a darts board and table football so I kept pretending I needed to go in there to write more lyrics then play myself at darts and drink beer-it was only 3 days but we managed 15 songs in various forms of finished and then play rare record top trumps at night -one of the nicest things after so long was to talk to a friend  and to have something of purpose to do after a year of covid fear and stress-the pinecone orchestra is basically a pretend group of those that helped me-it feels naked just having your own name on that sleeve and the things everyone else did added so much anyway -I wrote to some friends and sent them songs and everyone did lovely things that made me like my own record -which is rare.

I think the idea of a solo record was just A-i needed something to do-to distract me from the end of the world B-comet gain were resting or behind masks or in jail whatever so it made sense C-i’m a 52 year old man whose been making band records for nearly 30 years so why the fuck not

Your songs are alive with allusions and references – both to some of your older songs and to the cultural past in general. Yet nothing about them seem to be borrowed or frozen – and there is immense humour, tenderness and understanding (rather than harsh irony) in the way you relate to the past. It feels very close and alive. Do you deliberately set out to write songs as if they were time capsules or fragile monuments – or is it something which happens of its own accord? A theme which often returns in your songs is that of haunting – are you sometimes afraid of ghosts?  

Sometimes I do make them these little memorials-i like the idea of preserving something even if its small-trapping it in a song-i believe in certain forms of magic and think that I’m creating spells or aural sgylls sometimes by writing songs -often there will be a small line that has no real connection to the overall song-about a place or person or thing and by embedding it into this living breathing thing called a song that will live on after me even if its just in a rubbish dump behind a closed record shop-then I’m giving it power, purpose, some intangible psychic presence-i’m sure this all sounds stupidly pretentious but I believe it-i also like the idea of leaving things behind by writing about them and dropping their emotional baggage -one of the main things the solo record is was a deliberate exorcism – I thought as my life was changing hugely by leaving London,plus I noticed a surge in nostalgic thought due to lockdown and apocalypse fever -and my own inner war that not only if I am doing an actual solo record it should be personal but by doing that fill it with sketches and memorials and ghosts and moments and places, friends etc and exorcise them-so the LP is like a memory book I can skim through in my old age if I’ve forgotten everything and end that warm wash of ah-yeah-i-remember-theres a song ‘goodbye teenage blue ‘ which could’ve been 2 hours long of me just rattling off things to banish them while preserving them-and another song ‘lockets, dropouts and dragnets’ was for those people or moments you DID totally forget and were perhaps VERY IMPORTANT to you for a brief moment then gone completely only to suddenly be recalled 35 years later-its like that idea of a friend you spent every day with when your 18 or a girl/boy you were madly in love with but now you can’t remember what they looked like and you just want-for just a second-to see a photo or something-to go “ah YEAH!’ and have that proustian rush then throw them back into the wind-sometimes you don’t mean to-your writing a different song and the words that are pouring out-thats kind of how I write-i let them pour out then I just edit and sometimes I see I’m writing about something else entirely and that the buried psychic ghost half of my brain has taken over-like in that song I started to write about this friend I had who used to come round to my flat in Tufnell Park and he was a sweet guy but a bit -dull-i know it sounds awful -he’d juts mumble ramble forever so sometimes I would pretend not to be home and on one occasion I did that then walked to the station and there was this guy who’d been knocked over by a car opposite the boston arms and it was him-i ran over and he was lying there and instead of blood coming out of his head it was what looked like water and he was in shock and saying to me “I came round to the flat but you weren’t there’ he luckily didn’t die but was never the same-he kind of became a shell I think-i lost touch but that still haunts me deeply except for about 10 years I’d forgot it completely and now I’ve forgotten his name or anything else-just that horrible incident -so I felt he deserved to be put in a song-that song is full of the forgotten ones I feel bad about.And of course there all ghosts-you don’t have to be dead to be a ghost.

As for actual spirits I grew up around them or at least I think I did-i had a few encounters and would lie awake at night kind of wanting to see one so I knew it wasn’t bullshit and terrified if I did-i would hear voices calling my name at sightsee shoes walking up walls, all kinds of things and later until probably my late 30s had that thing where you become paralysed and think something is sitting on you or in the room-a terrified feeling-but you can’t scream or look or move-theres a name for it but I forgot-i once saw an illuminated white horse walk through a light at one end of my room into another vortex at the oather end-so that was all a lot of fun and giggles.

Books and records and films seem to be your friends – living deep within the folds of your songs. Are there times however when you feel overwhelmed by their weight? Do you still collect artefacts from the past, and how do you make room for the present? 

Well we all need all the friends we can get in this life.Moving to another country means getting rid of lost of stuff and I have anyway over the years and after awhile its easy-you don’t miss much-nowadays I can LOOK at pictures of things on the internet and you get that brief moment then your satisfied and have saved yourself the hassle of getting them and finding somewhere to put it so even though I have still a lot of records and books its because still enjoy them and they have a USE whilst also serving as diary as your memory fails -you know-ah I bought this electric prunes record in rthymn records and it says it came out in 1987 and I was working at-blah blah and you retrace your steps because of a record sleeve-otherwise I don’t bother and I’m very much in the present and as my current present is-to me-all totally new and different with no psychogeographical resonance its very easy to just be here and now and be fine with that.

Your visual aesthetics are very distinctive – how did you start composing images? Could you tell me more about your involvement with fanzines – and the ones you most enjoyed reading besides Hungry Beat? 

Well art was my first thing loved and I truly believed thats how I would be but music took over so I was happy to still be involved aesthetically by doing all the sleeves etc and I always wanted comet gain to be not just the music but ideas and a certain look and I guess the look was probably heavily influenced by fanzines -that whole ripped/torn thing as I had made a few and read a million-also some pop art/dada things that appealed to me way more than ‘classic’ art-as well as the actual physical process of letraset,glue,photocopies-i still usually make sleeves in the same way as I enjoy doing it like that although occasionally records like ‘paperback ghosts’ and the new album benefit from a more professional wizadry-it suits the sound more.

Around the time of the great indie pop punk explosion we all communicated through the fanzine-no gig was without its line of grouchy or trembling-with-fear-of-other-humans guys and girls mumbling “50p for a fanzine-its got the pastels in it” usually full of excited frothing about the GENIUS of the sea urchins or how jasmine minks was REAL POP MUSIC! All very exciting and full of pictures of 60s films and pop stars and girls with bob haircuts-it was also a great way to start writing and befriending people-you thought, well if I do a zine I can make some friends- I did one where I wrote to spacemen 3 and they replied on cool spacemen 3 paper (probably soaked in blotter acid) and the thought of your favourite popstars actually writing to you at YOUR HOME was mind-blowing -I did a couple around then-magic christian and beautiful despair both very typical-lots of kitchen sink film iconography, tv eprsoanalties,60s psych and pop-then the the London riot grrrll (how many Rs is it?) scene burst into flame a lot of us that where from the indie scene started again but in a more punk vein -inspired by the communiques from the u.s like germs of youth/jigsaw/nation of Ulysses sleeve notes etc-i did a couple called troublegum until some awful wiiija band called there record the same thing and a mini one with our first single-a few years ago I did a comet gain based fanzine who everyone in the group wrote for but a second issue never came out-i still intend to do another-i still love a good zine-my favourite current magazine is Ugly Things which has been going for over 30 years so I still got my feet in 

Have you ever been drawn to writing short stories or even a novel – or would you miss the music too much?

I have every now and then started something but never had the discipline to finish-songs are easy-they only last a few minutes and although -like in interviews-i tend to gibber on and on-its still a limited set of words/chords but stories takes work-i did buy a nice writing pad and its sat there waiting for whatever-short stories, memoirs, whatever so maybe one day I will-before the next pandemic hopefully-or during

How have you managed, on a practical level, to keep making your art for so long without becoming helplessly crushed by the system and its heartless imperatives? It is a miracle you didn’t lose your imagination, your freedom or your courage. What were the most difficult moments? 

Maybe the secret is not being part of the contest-or caring about ‘success’ or being so obscure that it just doesn’t matter-if nobody notices you you can get away with anything-i’m guessing the most difficult time is now-i have a record I think is at least okay but its not under the protective cuddle of the group I’m in plus who buys records by old guys moaning about the past with guitars and pianos now?plus I actually have to engage in social media and all these things way out of my depth in order to justify the luxury of being lucky enough to have someone release my gibberish into a further rottening world where the only music that seems to survive is banal and streamlined and made by banal buffoons and narcissists while the planet bursts into flame around us-but I would say that;

How do you feel about the future?

I’m letting it do what it wants.fuck it. The present is alright so I’m fine with that-as long as theres ok weather and good people and cool things-maybe some cocktails…

What is the most precious thing you’ve heard, seen or read recently?  

I really don’t want to sound like a hippy but the lake near us as the sun goes down is precious-you didn’t get that in Wood Green(the ‘woodland ‘green’s Wood Green is VERY misleading-should be changed to ‘Wetherspoons kebab vomit green’)-musically I love this LP Ben Phillipson (comet gain/18th day of may/trimdon grange explosion ) has made and the ‘feel flows’ beach boys box set that recently came out suits the place I live especially the beautiful Dennis Wilson songs-i love the willy vlautin books and there is a new one im waiting to read but I know it’ll be sweetly sad and perhaps brutal-otherwise I don’t get around much culturally enough to know what’s good -I wish I did

Do you think you might be playing gigs in the months to come? 

I certainly hope so-i have new shit jokes to piss everyone off with.and some songs too I guess though I’d rather not do them if I can help it-just the jokes and some moaning -that’ll be good


Links

https://comet-gain.bandcamp.com/

https://www.tapeterecords.de/artists/david-christian/

Comet Gain discography (albums)

Casino Classics (1995)

Magnetic Poetry (1997)

Tigertown Pictures (1998)

Réalistes (2002)

City Fallen Leaves (2005)

Howl of the Lonely Crowd (2011)

Paperback Ghosts (2014!)

Fireraisers Forever! (2019)


Published online on the 26th of October 2021.

#2 : Ian Helliwell

Building a Hellibot – January 2021

There are many ways of describing Ian Helliwell, yet I feel none of them would be completely adequate. I could say that for about thirty years now he has made experimental films in a flat in Brighton. That this flat is proverbially packed with found objects, raw materials, bits of circuitry, and countless Hellimachines – indefatigably developed and perfected over time. I could ponder his homemade electronic music and the compelling logic of ‘intuitive electronics’, and speak about the unnervingly hypnotic sound of Hellisizers. Or perhaps I could mention his keen archival research into early British electronic music composers – as encapsulated in the 2016 compendium Tape Leaders (to be reissued by Velocity Press in the autumn). Finally it would be impossible not to evoke Ian’s distinctive presence and energy; his inspiring perseverance and gentle stubbornness; his secretly central position within the British underground experimental scene.

I could write all these things and more, and yet would never come close to portraying everything he does. In early June, Ian generously answered some of my questions, helpfully beginning to fill in the gaps…

Do you remember making and building things as a child? Can you tell me about some of your earliest DIY projects? What inspired you then?

Yes Lego was hugely important when I was little. It was pretty simple back then, and mainly just the basic bricks with a few extra bits such as wheels and railway track. I was always trying to make industrial landscapes, and this also involved Hornby railways which really appealed for their miniaturized realism. Both my granddads worked in heavy industry – steel and shipbuilding – and my dad had worked in shipyards in Barrow and Newcastle. Our holidays to Barrow to visit my grandparents were always a thrill to see the giant shipyard cranes in a fantastic industrial setting. This was a very strong influence and on reflection, from my earliest memories, I was always drawn to machines and industrial landscapes, that most people would find ugly or unappealing. To me they represented an amazing visual world that I only saw on those trips from our house in Durham across the country to Barrow.

The difficulty when I was a boy was that there was no encouragement to make anything. I had a mini-toolkit but couldn’t imagine what I might like to build, aside from bits to go with my train set. There was no understanding or appreciation of art in my family, and there was no motivation to succeed in anything. Art was basically painting as far as they were concerned, and I can’t really draw or paint in the normal way, and I didn’t take art as an option at school for O level. It wasn’t until the 1990s that I finally realised that I could build my own sound machines, and that I was capable of doing various other creative things, and that perhaps I was actually an artist.

The bridge between childhood in the 1970s and living in Brighton in the 1990s, was forming a group when I was at school in Weymouth in the early 80s, and this was the first step into a mature creative phase, though I was 14 when the band started. Punk and DIY alternative music were a great catalyst, and set me on a new path which kept me going through many years of unemployment, and still feed into what I do today.

I did save the Lego dockyard crane that I made when I was a boy in the mid-1970s, and a few years ago I improved the design and made another one to go with it from the remaining bits of Lego that I had left. These are on my writing desk along with a little bit of model railway.

For readers who may be discovering your vast body of work, would you be able to compile a small list of five or six moments (or artworks) which feel especially close to you, and could represent good entry-points into your work?

Probably the best way to provide pointers is via these internet links:

This collection includes some of my first work with direct animation on super 8.

The Spy Box is an example of a multi-media work which brings together a number of my continuing interests – electronic music; collage; sound and light activation; dioramas; history; and construction. There are some things in the box which I set out to find while I was building it, and also some bits I saved from childhood – an Action Man attache case and communications box plus a couple of hand grenades; a little 110 camera; and a model railway cable drum. It was good to give these elements a new lease of life in a creative context, after having kept them for about the last 45 years!

Practical Electronica is the most ambitious film I’ve worked on, and the first time I’d attempted a serious documentary. It tied in perfectly with my interests in making and listening to electronic music, as well as history and archiving; animation; sound visualisation; and experimenting within a narrative/documentary format. It took about two years to make, and as it went on I wanted it to develop as far away as possible from the formulaic talking head style – cutting between a series of pontificating interviewees – and more like a continuous journey through a particular era of electronic music-making, with FC Judd as the foundation.

Growing up I’d never even heard of World’s Fairs, but in the 1990s I became aware of the rich history and how much they intersected with some of the interests I’d been pursuing. Finding out about them is fascinating – particularly the 1950s-70s period when the kind of experimentation that appeals to me the most was at its zenith.

These are some of the electronic sound generating machines I’ve built – a selection of Hellitrons, plus the Percussimate and Helliwah.

This is the family of Hellisizers – mutli-circuit synths which are a little more advanced than the Hellitrons in their construction and circuitry.

What drew you to the film medium, and to experimental cinema? How were you able to assemble your equipment and your technical knowledge of film over years? What were the biggest challenges?

The initial draw was partly through the equipment; I liked the operation and look of slide and cine projectors especially, and wanted to experiment with them. My mate Adrian Shephard and I had formed a group, The Giant Clams, in 1988, and we were full of ideas and enthusiasm for music as well as projections for our gigs, and interested in expanding into other related areas. For me this included light shows and also animation and filmmaking, which I was very keen to explore as I had no experience in those areas at all. At that time video was expensive and completely out of reach, so it was through simple 35mm slide projectors and then cine film – which was widely available and relatively affordable – that meant it was possible to assemble old domestic equipment and play around with it. I’ve always been happy working away on my own on things – experimenting and tinkering to find a means to develop my own methodologies. More often than not a little bit of knowledge goes a very long way, so it’s not necessary to do lots of studying – it’s far better to do lots of playing!

The problem back then was almost the opposite to what it is now in terms of image making equipment. Video, aside from simple VHS, was inaccessible and way too expensive; while super 8 film was very costly per foot of footage, yet the projectors, cameras, splicers and editors could all be picked up far cheaper than any video gear, and there was also the great potential of cameraless film and found footage. Discovering other people’s home movies to edit and reimagine, continues to be a source for new film ideas.

Jumble sales had long been around to find second hand devices, and then when car boot sales started to appear, there was much greater scope for coming across all sorts of intriguing pieces of gadgetry. Some things were unclear how they worked, but cheap enough to buy to experiment with and find out if they might be adapted and used in some way – perhaps quite different from the way they were intended. (The Megatherm is a good example of this – an old piece of hospital equipment reimagined as a light sensitive sound machine activated by a special super 8 film which is projected directly onto it.)

The great advantage of cine film was that it quickly became apparent that you didn’t need a camera to make a proper film. That was liberating right from the outset, as a short abstract film made without shooting or processing or indeed any budget, could conceivably be as good as an equivalent made with higher end, semi-pro equipment and professional film processing. The big problem was the final projection. For a direct animation film covered in ink or bleach on a narrow 8mm gauge, with the soundtrack on a separate format, it’s not at all feasible to have that projected. Therefore I’ve always done my own telecines and mixed film with video. For some purists that I’ve encountered this has been anathema – as if it’s an outrage or sacrilege to be working on film, and then have the sheer impertinence to mix it with video. To me it’s all about being pragmatic – what’s possible to achieve without a budget or support. I’ve always tried to make things that work creatively, and can be presented to an audience to a standard I’m happy with.

Although I did make some short narrative films early on which were great fun and a useful learning experience, they would always betray their lack of production values and were dogged by simplistic plotting, acting and characterisation. This confirmed my natural predilection for an experimental form of filmmaking, in which the lack of a budget is of no real consequence, actors are unnecessary, and the images and sounds can fuse together and transcend the highly limited production values. I’d started making experimental electronic music around the same time as getting into filmmaking, and it was evident that here was a perfect match. Trying to use dialogue and narrative seemed pointless when the electronic music could provide a sound domain totally different from regular films, offering a truly audiovisual experience for the viewer. Ditching storylines to focus on colour, movement and electronic sounds, made filmmaking feel like it was opened up to so many unexplored possibilities. Abstract film and collage offered a world beyond trying to explain in literal terms what something ‘means’. That realisation was definitely liberating and a crucial early revelation.

When I first saw your films at the Cambridge Super 8 Film Festival in 2010, I was very moved by them but also by the humble, gently empowering introductory speech you gave. It was electrifying and inspiring to hear you say we shouldn’t wait around to do things, or hope for elusive funding to materialise. Could you tell me more about this? How have you managed to remain (or become) so free and independent – to liberate yourself from the expectations, limited horizons and consensual dullness of the system we live in?

It’s very important I believe to follow your own instincts, and not be led by what other people are doing and what they want, and what they expect you to do. It can be extremely difficult to forge you own path, as people without privilege are up against so many obstacles, one of the main ones being financial. However, if you can reconcile to working with cheap materials without relying on funding, it frees up all sorts of other pathways, and there is a route forward. A fundamental part of this is to find your artistic medium. This could in fact be one or several different media to work in, but the important factor is to find areas which you feel intuitively drawn towards and can express yourself in.

There is no set formula for achieving independence – some of it happens by accident in that you don’t fit into regular conventions or organisations, and by default are left outside. This can be an isolating feeling, but on the other hand there is a liberation through being unconstrained and not having to work to someone else’s rules and deadlines. For me, creativity represents a way of living and being in the world. It’s not driven by commercial concerns and so rarely makes any money, and frankly the audiences are tiny, but it feels productive, pleasurable and worthwhile, and propels me to look forward to thinking up ideas and working on each new project. 

There is a price to pay for not following the accepted path of applying for funding, ticking the right boxes, befriending the right people and toeing the line. The film establishment doesn’t want outsiders who fund themselves – I know this from personal experience – and this realisation is hard to swallow. Nobody wants to be sidelined and ignored, but putting that to one side, there is a much deeper connection to your own individual creative wellspring when following your own instincts. This is ultimately far more significant and enriching than getting bogged down by the petty hierarchies that have been created by the film establishment. For me it means that working away at home on whatever stimulates my interests and passions is sustainable on a permanent basis, and won’t be deflected by the vagaries of other people’s tastes, priorities and budget allocations.      

Each of your projects seems to be teaching you new skills – you are constantly learning, researching, experimenting with new materials, fields and ideas. Could you tell me more about your ‘intuitive electronics’ approach? What led you to build your own Helli-machines?

As mentioned above I always had an interest in building things, but hadn’t found a way to get started with anything in particular. Wanting to make electronic music, and enthused with the idea of having unique tone generating machines to make the sounds, meant I had the reason and motivation to get building that I lacked as a youngster. Constructing or adapting circuits naturally led to them needing to be housed in some sort of container or cabinet. I started to seek out interesting old boxes that I could modify, and then began to make new control panels to make them look distinctive and as well made as possible. After a while, labelling and naming became more important, and I remembered the childhood Dymo label printer that I used to use with Lego, and the Helli prefix that could give an individual identity to each new machine.

At the start I had no idea about electronics and quickly realised I was never going to learn the subject properly. Nevertheless, I knew I wanted to explore electronic sounds, and I really enjoyed soldering and putting things together. A friend showed me a very simple multivibrator circuit that could be repeated over and over and then interconnected. The sounds were terrific and unlike anything I’d heard from a manufactured synthesizer. I realised that I could touch wires on this 9v circuit board and the sounds would change, and could be made even more interesting. New interconnections, controls and components could be added, and the sound capabilities of the circuit were completely transformed. That new awareness was something of an epiphany, and I thought of it as ‘creative soldering’. Instead of trying to study what seemed an arcane subject, I could use ‘intuitive electronics’ to play around with battery powered circuits to my heart’s content, and this tremendous field of electronic possibilities opened up. With that simple knowledge at the start of the 1990s, ever since then I’ve looked out for hobbyist electronics kits to build and adapt, and sound generating toys to creatively solder.

A new Helli-machine is essentially a project in two halves – the circuit building and creative soldering, and then the cabinet construction; fitting everything inside and designing a control panel and a mode of operation. Over the years this has developed with different interfaces to activate sounds: photocells and special light effects; adapted metal detector circuits; sound and light machines; and more recently electronic sound making robots.  

Do you have favourite materials and techniques to work with? (I noticed how for instance you keep returning to collages, across all media…)

Ah yes, soldering is fundamental to so much of what I’ve built in the last 30 years. It’s endlessly rewarding to play around with circuits and try and discover new sounds or images. Running concurrently with my work in film, has been experimenting with video and televisions – adapting circuits; modifying TVs; and playing with video feedback.

The most difficult challenge for creative soldering I’ve encountered is to adapt old TV games circuits to create abstract patterns activated by sound. This is something I’ve returned to over and over, as reaching truly satisfying results is extremely difficult and requires a vast amount of patience. After lots of only partially successful outcomes, I made the Hellivisor 2 in 2019, and this is wired into my CD player and television, and creates orange patterns on a lime green background that dance to the sounds from a CD. Sound visualisation has been a theme in my work throughout, and I’m always on the lookout for ways I can achieve it.

That’s right about collage too. It’s one of those beautifully accessible mediums where a lot is possible with quite limited means. I do like the way that it can migrate across, and be applicable in various different forms – sound collage; film and video collage; paper cut-out collage. Even in machine building there is a very strong aspect of bringing together disparate elements and making them somehow belong and work together. Over the years I’ve dismantled so many things to tinker with and reimagine, that I have lots of spare parts – miscellaneous bits and pieces that might be useable and could come together to make something new. Collecting and serendipity is a large part of this collaging process, which means being alert and keeping on the lookout, and having an eye for a bargain!

More recently, you’ve started to build your own ‘Hellibots’. How do you feel about robots and the automatisation of everyday life?

As with most things invented by humans, the issue is how they might be used rather than an inherent problem or danger with the technology itself. (I hasten to add things such as nuclear weapons are unequivocally dangerous.) In a world organised by capitalism and enforced by heavy policing and the military, with authoritarian and populist governments in various countries, the problems created from the use and misuse of digital technology are more manifest than ever.

Having lived half my life without computers, the current ubiquity of laptops, tablets and phones, plus all the information technology that goes with them, is startling and disturbing. The way the internet has changed just in the past few years; social media has exploded into all areas; privacy is no longer quite the same to most people; life has changed and become so much more dominated by technology. These are all worrying developments and I can’t see things ending very well.

However, I love the idea of robots, and my Hellibot and its Mark 2 follow up currently under construction, are completely benign and friendly, and designed to make electronic sounds and somehow present a positive outlook.   

What kind of machines do you use most in your day to day life?

There’s no escaping computers and I have to say that the benefits they have brought have been immensely useful – for creative work, research and communication. To me, using technology is about finding a balance between different types, and I definitely try not to be stuck looking at a screen all day long. I don’t have a smartphone and don’t carry around a mobile everywhere I go, and I feel that is a much freer way to live. I like to mix and match and use old and new technology as and when I feel like it. For my film and video making I have a laptop using the same software and operating system installed 11 years ago. Without it being connected to the internet it runs perfectly well, and I don’t need to follow the commercial imperative of constantly updating to the next version.

You’ve collaborated with many people over the years, and of course you are also patiently documenting the works and lives of others (with the Tone Generation audio series and the book Tape Leaders for instance). Yet there is also a definite individuality and obstinate originality to everything you make. Who are the people who have inspired and nourished you in the course of years?

That’s the most challenging question you have asked! I hope it doesn’t sound arrogant or solipsistic to say that there’s nobody in particular that has given that kind of inspiration or nourishment. There are many people that I greatly admire or like very much, but I don’t see them as inspirations as such. I can’t view my life in those terms, as I’ve simply carried on regardless over these past 30 years trying to plough my own furrow, and explore the things that excite and fascinate me personally. Of course there have been long term friends and some occasional supporters who have been a great help at times, but it’s difficult to really single people out.

Your work is palpably informed by enthusiasm, love, and profound respect for the legacies of amateur recordists and filmmakers. How did you first realise their lives had to be researched and recovered?

Ah this is much easier to answer as it was essentially through researching the work of Fred Judd for my Practical Electronica film, that opened up a whole area of amateur activity that has either been ignored or generally sidelined as being unworthy of investigation. Part of Fred’s important contribution to electronic music was through his proselytising and encouragement for hobbyists and amateurs to become involved. This brings me back to the point about abstract film – amateur experimental work can easily be the match of that made by professionals with access to much more sophisticated equipment. Who is to say what is better and gives a more satisfying result to watch or listen to? A false hierarchy has been created to maintain the position of certain artists or composers approved of by the establishment, and that automatically means those outside of this artifical canon are therefore deemed to be of much lesser quality or importance.

Could you tell readers more about the forthcoming revised edition of Tape Leaders with Velocity Press?

This is an exciting development as I’ve been hoping for an improved second edition for the last couple of years, and this is now finally going ahead with the new publisher. There’ll be a new appendix featuring a dozen extra composers not featured in the first edition, plus some new images and various updates and corrections. The launch in the autumn will be accompanied by some events in different parts of the country, which are currently being organised.

You are extremely industrious and appear to be disciplined and unfailingly motivated. Do you have a strict daily routine?

No! I get up when I wake up and go to bed roughly when I’m tired around midnight usually. Having several projects on the go at once always means there’s something to get on with, and only very occasionally will there be strict deadlines, though at times things do have to be prioritised. I can take as long as I want with most projects, and because I love doing what I do, that’s a built-in motivation. I enjoy constructing things and want to see them made properly, and get them finished off to the best standard that I can manage.

Are there projects which sometimes don’t come to fruition, or which are left aside for months or years before reaching completion?

Yes, sometimes there’s a practical hold up; I don’t have the materials I want so that can mean a lot of searching around trying to collect the right bits, and this can occasionally take months, even years. Other times I just haven’t found the right solution for making something work, and I need to ponder it further to try and find a way forward. That can often mean it stays on the ‘workbench’ so that it remains in my thoughts; while other times I realise I have to pack it away and make space, so that I can get on with other things and return another time.

Is it okay to leave things open and unfinished?

I always like to finish projects off because the results are so satisfying, and my flat is full of things I’ve made, which gives me a lot of pleasure. There are inevitably things that I try out – especially circuits where intuitive electronics relies on chance and serendipity – and they can go awry and not work out as hoped. So rather than leave something unfinished and never to be returned to, I either scrap it off completely and salvage anything useful, or plan to return another time with fresh eyes on whatever the stumbling block happened to be.

My one example of something unfinished is the deliberate intention behind the film ‘Holes’. When I started collecting one second sequences of hole punched standard 8mm film in the early 1990s, I had the idea that I would go on collecting and assembling the film for the rest of my life, and it would gradually grow and evolve and only be finished when I could no longer add to it – either through injury or death!

Could you speak a little bit about your particular involvement with Brighton? When did you first move there?

I moved here as a teenager in 1985 after having left school and needing to leave home and Weymouth. I had no job, no prospects and no money!

Has your relationship to the city and its spaces changed over the years (if so, in which ways)? How does it feel now?

Inevitably things change and move on. People and venues come and go and favourite buildings are knocked down or spaces are changed and no longer in use. Brighton is quite a lot different from how it was in the 1980s, and that is reflected across the country – everything is much more commercialised and there’s so much focus on consumerism and sport. There are cafes, restaurants and empty office spaces all over Brighton, and many of the characterful old buildings I liked have been demolished.

Opportunities come and go and there’s no real sense of continuity or community. I’ve lived in this rented flat for 30 years so that has given continuity on a personal level, while everything changes around me! I was involved with a DIY cinema, Brighton Cinematheque, and that was great for doing all sorts of screenings and events and run by a small team of enthusiasts. It finished in 2004, and aside from one-offs with the Cinecity film festival and Colour Out of Space festival, there’s been very little for me to get involved in for a long while. It’s a shame when the creative energy and any alternative counter-culture evaporates, or is so hard to find you don’t even know it’s there.

The truth is that I have no role here in Brighton.

How do you store and archive all your work? Have you compiled a thorough ‘Helli-catalogue’?

I try and display as much of it as possible around my flat, so over time the rooms have become a sort of art gallery. In the 1990s I was not thinking about cataloguing and dating, so unfortunately things like 35mm slides that I made back then are impossible to accurately date. However, in the past 15-20 years everything I’ve made has the date of production, and I have an old box of index cards for all my electronic music compositions. Ideally a thorough Helli-catalogue would be made to accompany a thorough Helliwell retrospective exhibition! There’s no prospect of that happening anytime soon, so I’ll have to make more space at Helliwell Hq!

Links

http://www.ianhelliwell.co.uk/

www.mixcloud.com/ianhelliwell/

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCR58L_AR-TNa_1iOqTyaXrQ


— Published online on the 15th of June 2021.

# 1 : Anne Bacheley

Anne Bacheley – Self-portrait

Anne Bacheley lives in Poitiers, France. For over twenty years, she has been writing songs, drawing, dreaming – discovering secret patterns in the fabric of days. In the early 2000s, she produced a tiny A6 perzine which she called – with characteristic, self-deflating humility – ‘Un fanzine à la taille de mes ambitions’ (‘A fanzine the size of my ambitions’). The small pages were alive with real and made-up characters – scenes observed or intuited. At some point she drew a series of posters for 1960s bands which never existed. There is something almost fictional about her homemade music, too. It always seemed to me her songs were addressing a crowd of imaginary friends, unknown yet mysteriously close confidantes, benevolent strangers. At any rate, I certainly felt involved – strangely attuned to them. She is an approximate, self-taught musician, yet a tenacious one, and there is an unmistakably focused vitality to her music. She knows what she is doing, and is visibly doing it the way she wants. When a friend introduced me to the home-recordings of US songwriter Linda Smith, made on the East Coast in the 1980s and 1990s, I was reminded of Anne’s songs. There was something similarly stubborn and fragile about their voices, a kind of courage and openness: the sparse songs were suggestive of something much bigger. Over the years Anne has recorded albums and EPs – some of which were self-released, others on small DIY labels (Mimikaki, I Wish I Was Unpopular). More recently, she has also started a bedroom electronic project – anneemall.

In an interview conducted in late April 2021, she answered a few questions.

Merci, Anne!

I first came across – and treasured – your wonderful perzines in the early 2000s. Do you remember your first steps into the French underground scene(s)? Did making music stem from your engagement with drawing and zines?

It was the music that came first, and then the zines.

Drawing by Anne Bacheley

How and when did you begin playing the guitar? Do you have any idea where the courage to write and sing your own songs came from in the first place?

I first grabbed a half-broken guitar as a teenager when I discovered The Beatles and tried to play their songs. That’s how I learnt some chords, but some of them were a bit tricky and I thought it was easier to write my own songs with chords I could manage – so much for courage!

A lot of your art seems to be about reaching out, and making meaningful connections with others. You have also recorded a few duos over the years, and played with other musicians. Many of your songs directly address other people, characters, or perhaps communicate with a fictional or younger self. Could you tell us about particularly memorable or heart-warming encounters/connections which happened through making music and fanzines?

Many encounters – mostly virtual – came with swapping things, like tapes, zines or CDs.

When I played at a small festival I met the band Buggy which I loved. Renaud Sachet, the leader, invited me on stage for a song. When I was writing my Headquarters album and felt the song Energy sounded a little too plain, I thought of asking Renaud to sing it with me.

When you collaborate with others there is always an element of surprise. Things don’t turn out exactly how you imagined them. For instance, on that song, I thought Renaud would sing the other part, and I didn’t expect his friend to add an effect on the guitar solo. The idea is not to be in control of everything but to open up to what the other brings.

What was the music you grew up listening to?

Not much during childhood, but with the discovery of The Beatles I dug 60s music like The Who, The Beach Boys, The Byrds. At that time, Nirvana was huge and I started listening to contemporary bands.

‘Service Station’ strikes me as an ode to DIY – an urgent invitation to act, without delay. It is also the first song you have released in over a decade. Could you tell me more about it? Did you suddenly get up one day, with the urge to record again? Was this related to lockdown at all?

One day I was going through files on my computer and came across a rough demo of a song I had left from 10 years ago. It sounded fine to me and I picked up where I had left it, then wrote more new songs including Service Station. I imagined that one played on piano, but as I don’t play piano I asked one of my workmates who recorded the part from his home.

Beyond an ode to DIY, the lyrics are about life in general, an invitation to empowerment, to be an actor in the world instead of complaining and waiting for happiness to come to you from outside, an invitation to try things and have fun.

On that matter, lockdown is what got me to start the anneemall (electronic) project, having time to experiment and play around with software. I have a very child-like approach to it, and apparently it shows!

Drawing by Anne Bacheley

Has your relationship to DIY changed since you first begun making zines, or do you feel that ‘DIY’ has become a slightly different thing in the age of Bandcamp? Apart from music and drawings, what do you most enjoy making?

My idea of DIY is to be able to do things with humble means without feeling limited. I like that aesthetic but it’s alright to use more equipment or skills when you have them.

Nowadays it seems more people share what they create – it can be overwhelming for listeners. You can stick to labels you trust or be more adventurous.

Apart from music, I sometimes draw with my son. I enjoy reading, watching films and useful YouTube videos, hiking.  I also love my job (I work as a librarian).

Are you planning on releasing a new EP or album in the coming months?

I would have enough songs for an album but I don’t know whether I am going to record them.

How did you start experimenting with electronics? Do you see the ‘anneemall’ and ‘Anne Bacheley’ projects merging at some point, or do you prefer to keep them separate?  

My only foray into electronics before last year’s lockdown was the track ESTP that I made 20 years ago. I included it onthe first anneemall EP, Hello!.  It’s a really different approach from the ‘Anne Bacheley’ songs and I don’t imagine the latter with electronics.

Could you tell us about your ‘recording corner’ at home? Do you have a small home studio, or is there a specific room where you tend to record all your music? Do you enjoy recording, and what kind of equipment do you tend to use? Are you a disciplined home-recordist or do you let things happen, experimenting with what is at hand? And when do you tend to write/record music?

The recording is the convenient thing with the electronic music: I only need my computer. At the time of Headquarters I had a room I could leave my equipment in but it’s not the case now.  I have an acoustic guitar, an electric guitar (Squier Jagmaster), a small amp and a mic, and I record on my computer too.  For the collaborations I send files and the others send them back with their parts.

The  ‘Anne Bacheley’ songs are all written before being recorded – the complete opposite of the ‘anneemall’ tracks which I build a bit like a construction game with no particular idea in mind.

Drawing by Anne Bacheley

How do you archive your drawings and songs?

The files are on my computer, but I keep drawings in a box and I still burn CDs.

Could you tell us more about living in Poitiers? Does it feel like a good city to make music? Do you feel part of a community there, or does it sometimes get a bit lonely? On this note, would you have advice for home-recordists who may feel isolated, or slightly lost and confused in the digital DIY ocean?

Poitiers is a pleasant city to live in, of moderate size but with many students. I don’t feel some places are better than others to make music. A while ago I tried finding people to form a band. I met a couple of very talented people but unfortunately they left town shortly after – I hope this wasn’t cause to effect!

My advice to home-recordists would be to do it for the sake of it, because you feel like it, and not in order to be noticed. Make music you enjoy listening to, that’s a good start!

Finally, what music have you enjoyed listening to most recently? How do you find out about music these days? What book are you reading at the moment?

Some albums I have really been into lately:

  • Beautify Junkyard – ‘The Invisible World of Beautify Junkyard’ (a psychedelic blend of folk, electronics and tropicalia),
  • ‘Fuubutsushi’ by Chris Jussell, Chaz Prymek, Matthew Sage and Patrick Shiroishi (ambient jazz)
  • ‘AM’ by Arctic Monkeys

I find out about music through several sources: reviews, random finds because I’m attracted to the artwork, bands from the past I have overlooked.

I am reading books about countries I have never been to because I’m curious about them, for instance Egypt through Naguib Mahfouz, Israël and Palestine through Joseph Kessel, Barcelona through a crime novel by Aro Sainz de la Maza.


Links:

https://annebacheley.bandcamp.com

https://soundcloud.com/annebacheley

https://anneemall.bandcamp.com/

https://soundcloud.com/anneemall


— Published online on the 4th of May 2021.