Fortean Times

Much of your earlier more pop-oriented musical work evokes Ballardian themes of desolation – crumbling cities, dystopian suburbias – but where did you draw inspiration for your more ambient work, albums like DNA and Cathedral Oceans?

JF: ‘I guess everything really came from The Quiet Man book. The DNA work is a loose set of music for imaginary movies also generated from the same source.’

Your photographic work also reflects the two sides of your musical personality – the images of verdant, overgrown man-made structures reclaimed by nature that accompany Cathedral Oceans, versus the surreal film-noir meets science-fiction imagery of, for instance, My Lost City. Where do these two seemingly opposite visual directions stem from? And what photographers or artists have inspired these two paths?

JF: ‘I think they stem from a childhood that coincided with the dissolution of the factories in the north of England.
There was a series of other major shifts at that time, from the devastation of Second World War bombing in Liverpool and Manchester, right down to the decline of cinemas and the incoming construction of the motorway network in the early 1960s. Everything was change – decline, ruins, overgrowth, then regrowth.
Cinema also played a great part in connecting and condensing all this.

Every time I saw a science-fiction film, I imagined it to be located somewhere in the local landscape. This really came into focus with Quatermass, which was set in urban and industrial Britain.

I suppose the artists who inspired some of these things would be the Surrealists – Max Ernst’s collages, Rene Magritte’s paintings and ideas, and Un Chien Andalou – that marvelous film by Bunuel and Dali.

Then there’s Marcel Duchamp, (who I think is the most important figure in contemporary art. Everyone else seems busy reconfiguring aspects of what he laid out over seventy years ago).

Empty city and surreal movies, such as The World The Flesh and The Devil, and especially Last Year in Marienbad.
Various film stills, such as the one from The H Man, which always stimulate the imagination.
Powerful and beautiful images such as Piranesi’s ‘Carceri’ series and his marvelous etchings of Rome in ruins. Turner’s sunsets are in there too.

Also, some marvelous Czech animators such as Walerian Borowczyk, Jan Lenica – and the Brothers Quay, who are British of course.

I also saw a painting in the early 1970’s by an artist whose name I can’t remember. It appeared to be an aerial perspective of a jungle or forest. Gradually, you came to see that it was an overgrown London, viewed from Centrepoint.’

Have there been any places in the world which have left a strong mark on you and influenced your photographic or musical work?

JF: ‘Perhaps the most powerful was Rome. Through visiting that city, I realized that everything is connected, and much of what we know and see is, by evolution and reformation, through the civilization embodied in that city. Even the mill buildings of Lancashire are a version of monumental Roman patterns, for instance.

New York was built at about the same time as Manchester and Liverpool, and they all share the same materials and evolution of architectural style, as if they are all a single city.
I feel as though I spend my life walking between them, and at points they all dissolve into each other. Add Paris, Berlin and London as suburbs of that city, as well.
Seeing Piranesi’s etchings also connected Rome with the massive overgrown mill buildings we played in as children.

Then of course I came to London and the east end was almost as overgrown and beautifully desolate. Our building in Holywell Lane had birch trees growing out of the top window.’

Does your fascination with architecture and cities extend to an interest in, on the one hand, sacred geometry or, on the other, the kind of psychogeographical investigations you find in the work of Iain Sinclair and other writers and film-makers?

JF: ‘There are several connections here. I know from experience that places can colour and even direct behaviour, in subtle and often unconscious ways. Proportion, scale, shadow and light, and all their attendant rhythms can produce powerful physical and internal effects.
Hidden architectural intentions and demonstrations of the effects of large scale symmetries and imposed geometries have certainly been inserted into cities at various points in history. Accidental and unintentional effects are also mixed in with these. Little of any of this has really been properly accounted or understood yet.
Meanwhile, it is all taking effect on massive populations daily – since we all have to move through it constantly.
There may be many other unexpected effects –particularly from close proximity with millions of other people.

The way you can detect a distinct relief from surrounding mental static when everyone is asleep, for instance, around two to five in the morning. What is this?
Women who live in the same apartment will find their menstruation cycles eventually synchronise. What does this imply more generally, in the area of consensus or thought processes?
We all know there are several concurrent languages occurring simultaneously and developing continuously – the languages of physical movement, clothing, words, etiquettes, media of various kinds, pictures, architecture, etc. These all have both an immediate and a cumulative effect. The cumulative is the hardest to understand, but the most profound, rather like a fish attempting to view water objectively.

And we now all live in these cages of pulsing electromagnetic energy, simply through the electrical wiring passing around every wall.
This has only been operating for fifty years or so. Seems like a small thing, but the long-term effects may yet unfold in unexpected ways.
Aside from damage, it may even provide new means of communication – perhaps it already does.

We all give our lives to the city in much the same way a bee gives its life to the hive, and we are equally unconscious of this dependency. Paradoxically we consider ourselves to be independent, autonomous individuals, while being too busy to properly observe and comprehend what is actually happening.

Cities are now big enough to create their own weather – the grey clouds over London are the rising exhalations from millions of people, condensing as they meet cooler air above. We receive our own drizzle.

Modern cities are now the biggest population areas on the planet. I would guess that the totality of their psychic and physical ecologies will manifest some fascinating new opportunist forms of life very soon.
It’s a new ecology. The grey ecology. Future David Attenborough programmes will investigate.

At least as interesting as all this is the unconscious investment we all make by using the city as a sort of self-programming repository of memory.

Goes something like this – when we first arrive, most cities will seem bleak and inhuman. Over time, each experience softens that rawness by an inevitable slow accumulation of associations with places, until every street carries some memory or connection. All these come into play each time we move through them. Layer upon layer of associations accumulate every moment, until the city literally becomes your memory. Then of course, you find you’re right at home.

I really find, of all the modern writers, that Iain Sinclair has it about right. He was the first to describe contemporary London, especially the Shoreditch area, in its true context – Its fascinating and dark history and its architecture, the geometries and structures of which hint at some very strange connections and continuing effects.
Peter Ackroyd then carried this into a new sort of fiction in Hawksmoor and English Music – in fact a whole new genre of a darkly mythologised London was made possible through Sinclair’s primary observations in Lud Heat and Suicide Bridge.’

Your Tiny Colour Movies CD accompanies a series of found films. Can you explain how this project came into being… And tell us more about a few of the films, some of which touch on very Fortean topics: spontaneous human combustion, cover-ups and conspiracies, psychic transference and birdsong.

JF: ‘Well, all these are fascinating and I’ve always enjoyed devising experiments designed to investigate those sorts of things, and all the stories you get around them.

One of my favourite books is An Experiment with Time by J.W. Dunne. He was a sort of correct military Edwardian, a precise pragmatist who also possessed great curiosity and an open-minded investigative bent.
Very much the sort of character who might be cast as a Wellsian hero, like the scientist who created the time machine. He really epitomizes a sort of thinking I’ve been trying to recapture in a modern context.

With Tiny Colour Movies I wanted to present some of that sort of activity – the possibility of making major breakthroughs via kitchen table experiments, as all the major Victorian and Edwardian discoveries did. Easy to forget that they made modern life possible – everything from steam to the harnessing of electricity, then radio and television.

Lately though, we seem to have forgotten these possibilities of domestic discovery, and allowed scientists to monopolise the possibility of scientific breakthrough.

I recently find I’m spending lots of time devising experiments and areas of investigation and attempting to find people who have investigated similar areas in the past. Often you find they were ignored or ridiculed – but mostly overlooked.

In Tiny Colour Movies, the psychiatrist working with the phenomenon of projection is currently my favourite. It’s a film of a series of startling transfigurations brought about through literally projecting other entities onto a subject – sort of visual illustration of the rather more subtle psychiatric phenomenon, but I think it demonstrates the principle beautifully.

The birdsong section is something I came across some years ago – the idea that massed birdsong contains the voices of the dead, we all disperse into it eventually.
This seems to be a poetic and true example of that interface between science, spirituality and the physical world, that I really enjoy.
And it all seems to bear up from every angle – the birds we hear at any point were themselves earth and leaves just a couple of years before, and will be again in another two years.
Their bodies – and ours – are made up of material that originated in distant stars, and over several million years this material has certainly been incorporated in various other forms, from dinosaurs to forests to birds.
Therefore, at any given moment we incorporate molecules that may once have belonged to, say, Leonardo Da Vinci – or a blowfly.
It’s all in constant flux, and it all reforms and sings for a while along the way.’

I’m aware you’ve made a clear distinction that when you talk about ‘ghosts of the media age’ you are referring to the artefacts of different creative media from the past haunting the creative acts of our present and future, rather than ghosts of a supernatural kind; but I also read that you were fascinated by Edison and his experiments in trying to create a device to communicate with spirits… What prompted this interest, and did it lead you to any further investigations into similar subjects? Are there other themes within the fortean repertoire of topics which have held a similar fascination for you?

JF: ‘I’m very interested in where the demarcation lines between science and those sorts of areas lie – and I think it might surprise many people. Human beings are very good at decanting very old activities into new ones, without consciously recognizing the connection.

For instance, the way a priesthood might tend to monopolise direct access to spiritual experience, then come to use this as a means of control and acquisition of power and status, in any society.
I see scientists of various kinds currently engaged in very similar activities for very similar reasons.

The usual sequence occurs – an ensuing elaboration of largely self-referential theory and writing, which seems to be deliberately positioned beyond criticism, by being made to seem esoteric and difficult to examine by the rest of us
In the end, only ‘experts’ may make any valid comment. Any outsider challenge risks ridicule, yet paradoxically, there is an insistence that what is being espoused ought to be revered and universally acknowledged as ‘the truth’.
Viewed from this perspective, the Higgs Bosun and Angels on Pinheads seem intimately related devices.

Perhaps the whole tiresome process is a very human trait.
After all, the same exponential growth of busy, puritanical personnel and written bilge also occurs when bureaucracies become autonomous. I’ve even witnessed the same process of professionalised obfuscation evolve in fine-art critical writing.
I think this tendency to elaborate may be a genetic trait, carried over from those tiny creatures that eventually gave us coral reefs.’

In a similar vein, what are your feelings about the supernatural and its uneasy relationship with science, considering that each technology has brought us an awareness and knowledge of realms that would have been considered heretical before? Sound and image travelling through airwaves, X-rays, microscopy and advances in medical science, for instance.

JF: ‘We might need to make some distinction here between what has come to be known as ‘theoretical science’ – and the real thing.
Science is intrinsically conservative – it can’t allow anything unproven and unrepeatable into itself, otherwise it simply would not be functional.

We need to maintain a body of knowledge that is proven and trustworthy and not at all speculative. To allow unproven elements in would be destructive of the rest, because this body of knowledge is a distillation of everything the human race has accumulated in its history, and can rely upon as true and certain as anything can be in this universe.

So the theoretical side is a complete misnomer and ought to have another title, because it is very far from being Science. Speculative or Unproven might be a better term. Science-in-waiting. Ideas that still require testing by reliable physical experiment.
This is not to say that theory and speculation have no place – they are of course absolutely vital and must continue, so they can eventually add to the body of Science – but only after being proven through physical test.

I say ‘physical’ to distinguish between this and mathematical proof – since mathematics is rather like a map – simply not the territory it represents. Rather it’s an intellectual model or construct, and as such, fallible in many ways.

On the other hand, I think we need a more considered view of the improbable, the seemingly impossible, the wildly imaginative, the inadmissible – and the persistent. There are several concepts that seem to require much more attention, yet are routinely locked out.

I’m also very aware of the aesthetics of theory. These closely resemble the pleasures of fiction or music or drama – things that may not exist and which may not be useful, but which are pleasing in some way. Beautiful, exciting and mysterious stories. I love a good story too. Making these is what humans seem to do best.
I’m equally aware that the best stories are those that seem most convincing – appear to be true – feel as if they ought to be true. And there are lots of those presently mixed in with the more obvious contenders in the realms of Theoretical Science.

Another aspect of all this is, just as religion doesn’t have any monopoly of spiritual experience, I strongly feel that modern science doesn’t have any monopoly of discovery. I think there are still many discoveries to be made by simple, close observation and reasoning, involving both our internal and external ecologies.

Many manifestations of technology can be equally well understood in terms of ectoplasm, mysticism, ether and ghosts for instance, as in scientific terms,. So this begs the question – aren’t they often discussing the same thing?
Even the term ‘Medium’ springs from that early scientific investigation of the invisible, intangible, but powerful connective. These investigations eventually gave us radio, television and electricity, and it was assumed that this was the end of it. I think it may just be a beginning.

We still don’t even know what electricity is, even though we know how we can use it. I think this goes for lots of things we do – and think.

We seem to enjoy imagining that we are a set of individuals, for instance, when nothing could be further from the truth. Often we seem little more self-aware than a flock of starlings – or a shoal of red herrings.’

You have often mentioned the Futurists and their noise machines – how did these early music pioneers influence your work? Did early electronic pioneers like Dodge, Babbitt, Scott, Subotnick and so on have a similar influence on your work?

JF: ‘The Futurists first defined music as organized sound. They also had the first aesthetic for acceptance of machines and music in art – and in the practise of everyday life. They saw cities as beautiful and the noise of industry as pleasing. Then they made noise generators for public performance.

I detested their politics – but those other elements resonated, since I was looking for new ways of viewing and coming to terms with the modern world. I even found the noise of passing traffic and jet planes tremendously exciting. My first drone song was sung over the continuous drone of a motorway. Daft as that – but it worked. I got a viable song from it. A pure futurist piece of music.

In retrospect, those Futurist sound systems look exactly like modern club sound systems – they also do the same job – and, by using synthesizers and electronics we’ve recently evolved a sort of music that literally is organized noise.

As for those early pioneers – I feel it’s important to remember the motivations behind their work. And often surprising to discover how it was often driven by a sort of instinctive mysticism.’

Beyond ‘pop’, have you ever experimented with electronic sounds outside of music… for instance, trying to do EVP recording, as Coil did on one of their albums?

JF: ‘Well, I did a lot of leaving microphones – and video recorders – on in empty rooms and houses. Several interesting results. This was way before that recent movie.

But even without all this, there is something intrinsically strange about the act of recording that we are only just becoming aware of – how it creates all kinds of evanescent and permanent traces, displacements and overlaps. How media is becoming an externalized, globalised memory system, containing its own ghosts. That view of the Ghost in the Machine has been endlessly useful in making this process visible.’

And has anything you would deem inexplicable or deeply strange ever occured during any recordings you’ve worked on? Or outside of the recording studio?

JF: ‘Oh lots of odd unresolved experiences. Everyone has them. Anecdotal stuff – but I do have witnesses to one or two.

I began to write a few down during one period, when something odd was happening almost every day. I remember coinciding with one woman every time I stepped out of the house – and always at the same place, but at random times – for about two weeks. I would be walking down toward the tube station and she would be walking up toward the high street. It couldn’t possibly have been arranged in any way.

When I was an art student in Preston, Lancashire, I was with my girlfriend in a house on Avenham Colonade one afternoon. The relationship was just breaking up. Physically attracted, but irreconcilable – that sort of adolescent thing, so the atmosphere was very uneasy, to say the least…

Suddenly there was a crackle of blue electrical flame in a corner of the room that startled both of us. I went over to investigate and it happened again as I was approaching. I found the carpet was damp in that spot, but there was no electrical wiring anywhere near – no identifiable cause at all. It never happened again.
It felt as if all the angst, resistance and sexual desire and tension in the room had somehow manifested in that electrical short-circuit.

There have been several other incidents, all very different but equally memorable and inexplicable.

I think everyone experiences these sorts of things. At their most interesting, it seems they are singularities – things that only happen once and never again.
This is an example of one of the inherent limitations of Science – things must happen repeatedly in order to be examined scientifically, yet, there may be many things that only occur once. These are understandably inadmissable to Science – but that doesn’t mean they didn’t happen.’

You are quoted as having had a very Catholic upbringing… Did this have an impact on your views about religion, spirituality, the afterlife and so on?

JF: ‘Oh I think so. For instance, my class was told exorcism stories by the priest when we’d be around ten years old. This was quite normal. He gave one particularly vivid account of an exhausting battle he conducted with the devil or a demon overnight. The house was by the side of a factory in Chorley and occupied by an elderly woman who was blind. Visitors would witness strange events – manifestations and objects moving.
The priest was around thirty years old then, and certainly not a liar – I’m quite certain that he believed absolutely in the truth of his experience.

My maternal grandmother was a lifelong spiritualist – front room, Lancashire-industrial variety. After my father died, she would calmly say she had been talking to him the previous night and would pass on good will messages from him to us. All this was quite matter of fact, as if she’d just met someone at the grocers.
The living and the dead co existed quite happily for her, and her view of the world included a calm, untroubled and admirably cohesive acceptance of all this.
Again, I know for certain there was no trace of fiction in any of these accounts. For her, they were as real as the weather. I seem to have grown up surrounded by stories like this. They made perfect sense in that very dark Lancashire world.’

Have your views of these changed over time?

JF: ‘Only in as much as I now realize that the means of description will vary, but the things being described are often the same.’

Some have described your more ‘ambient’ material as having a spiritual and mystical dimension… What do you feel about this?

JF: ‘I’m very cautious about employing these sorts of descriptions, I guess because they get used so much by various sorts of charlatans and exploiters. Even without the charlatans, these terms often refer to fairly dull sets of received conventions, so there’s every chance that they’ll co-opt any real sense of wonder. Feels like a debased currency – or perhaps that’s me.’

Your latest album DNA once again sees you working closely with film and sound… tell us more about how this project came about?

JF: ‘Several film-makers used pieces of my music as a means of structuring short films. I’m very pleased about this and really like the results. We decided to release a collection, and I think there will be at least one more.’

You’re sharing a stage with Gary Numan for the first time this year – has a collaboration ever crossed either of your minds?

JF: ‘Oh it gets talked about – and it may even happen at some point.
I really rate Gary’s work. He’s a genuine star, and that’s a very rare thing.

Working with other artists is great fun, but inevitably you find that you’re both scheduled so far into the future that coinciding at any point becomes increasingly problematic.
Just like working with Robin Guthrie – the recording took a few days, and it was a great experience, but getting together again to finish things off took over two years.’

Finally, what other medium are you curious to experiment in that you haven’t yet explored?

JF: ‘Urban design. I’d dearly love to reconsider London.
There are over a hundred rivers currently buried beneath London. Why not use them?
Some streets in the centre would have pavement replaced by glass walkways over the excavated rivers beneath, which would be lit and planted. Beautiful at night.
At strategic points these rivers would turn millwheel generators, out of sight. Riverpower would run street lights and public lighting systems.
Soho would be linked to Hyde Park, Richmond Park and Hampstead Heath, via green highways.
Some buildings would be entirely composed of living trees.
A series of huge, linked, floating islands on the Thames, forming a tree-bearing central park, so you could walk across it.
A few of these islands could carry public buildings that may be moved and moored in various places.
Some would be almost entirely used as power farms, via solar panels. Some would also have revolving blade generators beneath, moved by the rivers current. All rooftops in the city must carry panels.
No cars –you’d have to walk, cycle or swim. Cars and goods transportation relegated to tube tunnels. Only engineless transport goes overground.
Human powered and electric bicycles, moving at the speed of a milk float. Free access on every street, powered by the river Islands and local solar panels. Just leave them at the nearest plug point when you reach your destination.
I’d like to have a place to test every wild utopian idea – just to see if it has any substance – we need to do it now.’

Thursday, February 10th, 2011 MEDIA