April 15th, 2011 | Published in Articles
Ashtray Navigations’ Phil Todd doesn’t make alternative music: he creates alternate universes.
Via a dizzying array of bands, projects, alter egos, labels, fanzines, concert promotions, distributions, collaborations and ad hoc groups he has spent the last two decades extrapolating What If? histories using derided, unfashionable and forgotten elements gathered from the dustbins of rock’n’roll’s chequered history, reimagining how things might have been in less reverent – or career-driven – hands. As a key figure behind the UK’s DIY underground, he was forging links between like-minded fringe musicians and releasing a constant stream of bewilderingly consistent material long before the internet made such activities easy or commonplace.
To celebrate his fortieth birthday, Bang the Bore secretly rounded up as many of Todd’s associates, collaborators, fans and friends as they could find in pursuit of mapping one man’s contrary, bloody-minded and impossibly convoluted contribution to the margins of Planet Earth’s Psychedelic Underground. They contributed anecdotes, questions, named their favourite recordings and detailed the extent of the influence they’d taken from his work, all without his knowledge. Finally, in the embarrassingly grandiose style of This Is Your Life, we sprang the whole surprise on Phil Todd and Mel O’Dubslaine (the current AshNavs line-up) and invited them to comment back.
These are the results: a personal history covering twenty years of the UK-and-elsewhere’s most bizarre, unquantifiable and unclassifiable music, from some of its most bizarre, unquantifiable and unclassifiable contributors, including Neil Campbell, Luke Vollar, Phil Legard, Daniel Spicer, Simon Morris, Robert Hayler, Laura Naycher and Jason Williams.
This is part one of a two part feature. Click here to read part two, featuring Stewart Keith (nee Walden), Chris Daniels, Pete Coward, Clive Henry, Matt Valentine, Aaron Moore, Alex Neilson and Paul Walsh.
It’s a total cliche, but my favourite AshNavs recordings are usually the latest ones. This has been especially true over the last year or so: “The Beak Stuck Out of the Snow” CD, “Ink Clouds & Axe Revealer” CDr and “For the Skeletons of Old Rhythm Guitarists” 7″ have had a lot of play at my place.
I’m especially loving how the AshNavs sound has changed and the excitement levels have been ramped up. It was always just about “rock” music, and the sludge trio of Todd/Delaney/Legard was especially LOUD, but on these new recordings (mainly solo Todd, all home-recordings) the addition of more upfront rhythms really makes it all take off for me.
AshNavs is almost certainly the band I own most releases by. However, it sometimes seems as though the AshNavs public profile is receding more and more into obscurity. That 7″ is fantastic, really “pop” in many ways, but it came out in an edition of 20 copies! It’s lucky for me I go down the pub fairly frequently with Phil and Mel or I’d have never even heard of it, let alone be able to have a copy to play at home. It’s crazy.
One of the most beautiful pieces of Ash Navs music I ever heard was a Todd/Joincey duo at CJs in Leeds sometime in the late 90s. I think Phil played some sort of keyboard while Joincey pulled these exquisite sounds out of an old electric guitar, without touching the strings, just using a couple of magnets. It seemed infinite, riding on waves of weird bliss. Then it finished and they launched into the second and final number, which was the most abject formless aimlessly loud guitar duo… that it didn’t completely obliterate the memory of the first half of the set is testament to just how gorgeous that first half was. I do like a bit of inconsistency.
Mel: When did the Todd/Joincey duo play at CJs? Late nineties?
Phil: Yeah, it was a bit chaotic. We were on a bill with Bilge Pump, who were mind-blowingly good that night.
Mel: Was that pre-Neil Turpin (Bilge Pump’s drummer)?
Phil: Turps was there but they had their telephone things… they had these telephones that they sang into, connected to a bunch of strange homemade effects units.
Mel: Bilge Pump didn’t used to be a rock band, they used to do weird electronic circuit bent stuff. Joe’s a real boffin, he made his own noise toys.
Phil: I remember I had to lend Joe an effects pedal that night, because he’d made a made a fuzz pedal out of a margarine carton and he’d trod on it a bit too hard and completely crushed it. I’ve still got the tape of that.
It was a Termite gig, opening for some guy who used to be in Soft Machine when Soft Machine weren’t very interesting. While we were setting up,some old Termite jazz buffoon came up to us and said “Excuse me, young man. Are you going to be as loud as that last lot?” – meaning Bilge Pump – “It’s not an aesthetic problem, it’s more to do with my hearing.” I told him, “I think you’d better leave the room for a few minutes.”
None of the equipment worked. Joincey was playing guitar with two magnets, I stepped on a fuzz pedal that was turned up way too high, hence the formless, aimless loud guitar duo thing. The first half of that gig was released on a cassette which I’m planning to reissue one day.
Neil: Do you still have much recourse to your original pre-millennial AshNavs aesthetic of actively seeking out broken-down instruments to use?
Phil: Yes, and I still have a lot of the broken down instruments that I used to use, although a lot of them have now broken down completely and don’t make any sound whatsoever. I still look for things, but these days old stuff goes on Ebay for silly money. I don’t seek them out as much as I used to because there’s very little to be sought. It’s used to be all I could afford, but it’s also just what I was drawn to anyway.
I’m still in keeping with the original aesthetic of doing things cheaply, but these days doing things cheaply involves using computers. I use both digital and analogue. I do things like record from the computer onto cassette, then upload it back to the computer and mess with it. I’m kind of balancing the two at the moment.
Neil: Are the arpeggiating synths on the “Ink Clouds…” CDr an attempt to keep up with Emeralds/Oneohtrix and get a new hip younger audience?
Mel: Aren’t Emeralds the ones who are keeping up with you?
Phil: Heh. I like it. I’ll stick with that. It is kind of a comment on that, but it’s also to do with me downloading free synth programs that can make those sounds. Again, it’s form and function. I like a lot of that Hypnogogic stuff though I’m not sure about the whole “recuperation of the 80s” schtick. I can remember the Eighties the first time around and they were horrible, but I can see why they might be of interest to people who were born in 1990. I quite liked the Hype Williams record. I always imagine myself and Ashtray Navigations going through and shovelling up all types of music. Everything gets thrown on the furnace to some extent.
Mel: I think all these guys played off what Skaters were doing, but that Skaters don’t get repped as much. But it became kind of different, everyone cleaned it up. I wasn’t so keen on the cleaned up stuff. But I like James and Spencer’s scuzzy, crazy world. They’re too crazy to get as famous as Emeralds. They do what they want to do, not out of any sense of cool but because they’ve got to, that’s who they are.
Phil: The other thing that relates to Ashtray is that I’ve always had a love of things that are slightly naff, wrong or in questionable taste.
Mel: Or zero taste.
Phil: Certainly when I started doing this music the worst thing you could possibly do would be to have cheesy sounding synths, that Tangerine Dream kind of thing. Admittedly techno played on that, but that wasn’t really the kind of area I operated in. There’s always been a wallowing around in things which are of questionable taste.
Mel: And beards.
Phil: Oh, you couldn’t have a beard. Beards were so unfashionable.
Mel: Now everybody’s got a beard. Well, men… not women.
Phil: Bearded ladies, that’s the next big thing.
BtB: Androgyny only seems socially acceptable or desirable when it’s predominantly feminine…
Mel: …so if anyone looks like David Bowie then that’s alright…
Phil: …but if a woman looks like David Bellamy then that’s a totally different thing.
Neil: When can the world hear your version of “Disco Duck“?
Phil: I don’t know, Neil… you tell me. You were trying to get it released. We’ll probably do it at the A Band Festival (Anonymity and Artlessness at the Elevator Gallery, 11.03.2011).
Mel: Stewart (Keith/Walden) loves Disco Duck. He’ll probably force us to do it.
Phil: Stewart started a Facebook campaign to get Disco Duck put back on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack.
Mel: It’s in the film, but for some reason the guys who licensed it wouldn’t give them the copyright to put it on the soundtrack album.
Phil: Because he was doing his own album, and he thought, “Oh, Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, that’s not going to sell, I’ll have that on my own album.”
BtB: Whoops! Can you remember how you met Neil?
Phil: He ordered the Tea Culture cassette, which was one of my old bands, from Paul Wild of Fisheye. He liked it, got my address and wrote to me. It was a big thing because Tea Culture was a very stupid music project that I used to do. It wasn’t what people were doing, it wasn’t Current 93.
Mel: It’s like Stock, Hausen and Walkman, in a way. But more musical than that.
Phil: Just cut ups and junk sounds.
Phil: I think I first met Neil face-to-face at a Smell & Quim at the 1-in-12 in Bradford concert. I came up to Bradford with people from University to look at the film and television museum.
Mel: I remember you saying that your Uni class all got bussed over there only for you to disappear into the 1-in-12. And everyone else just found out how televisions were made… they should have been out with you learning stuff.
The memory of Phil Todd that sticks in my mind is seeing Ashtray play at The Packhorse sometime before I joined, around 2006. I remember standing at the back while Phil played an unearthly guitar line that drifted above a sea of churning electronic noise. I suddenly had a vision of an endless guitar solo, girdling the earth and ready to be plugged into and channelled at any time. Cosmic.
Another fond performance memory I have was as part of Mike Dando‘s final concert as proprietor of the Termite Club. A boxing ring had been hired and the idea was that various experimental guitarists, among them one Eugene Chadbourne, would go for five minute bouts against each other. I seem to remember Phil being paired with a bassist who had already done a number of things to get on the nerves of many audience members and musicians. Their improv sort of trudged along a bit until Phil stamped on the distortion pedal and completely destroyed the other guy. A bit of a dirty move, and I’m not sure it was entirely premeditated, but it elicited a few well deserved cheers from those assembled.
Phil makes the best curry I’ve ever tasted, and I always felt he was a kindred spirit in psych-nerddom. The moniker “Ashtray Navigations” feels like a dirty, grimy spin on the old band “Astral Navigations”, who put out a record on Wakefield’s homespun Holy Ground label in the 70s. It’s such an evocative band name… full of cosmic grit. It’s also great material for anagrams, my favourite being: Gay Santana’s HIV Trio, which makes me happily recall our performance at ATP being dismissed as “Santana” by one commentator. I seem to remember later that day stumbling into a chalet shared by Lanterns and listening to “Tapwater Locomotive” until the early hours.
I think my favourite recording remains the desk recording from one of the Todd/Crowley/Legard trio gigs at Instants Chavires in Paris. I think Phil reckons the recording sounds a bit ‘weird’ (in the wrong kind of way) and hasn’t done anything with it, but I think it’s beautiful – bells, cosmic synth, Phil’s electric sitar, clarinet, flute. Admittedly the oscillator could’ve been cranked a bit more, and the drum machine sounds like microwave popcorn, but it was undoubtedly one of the best gigs I played with Phil and Mel (Duncan Pinhas also joined in on drums during the latter half of the performance).
Phil: I want to say something about Legard. When I used to come to Leeds for Vibracathedral Orchestra gigs – before I moved there – I noticed a very glamorous person who was always in the audience. I was like, “Who is that big haired man? Marc Bolan from 1969 is among us again!” No one used to look like that. I met him via a fanzine he used to do called “Paisely” something… a psychedelic music fanzine. Legard is brilliant. I wish he’d do more stuff with us.
Mel: Didn’t Legard have the first psychedelic and prog rock website on the internet? And he’s not even that old, so you can imagine how early he got into this stuff. He’s a bit of a boffin. I think he told me once that he went to a Hawkwind concert – or was it a Gong concert? – when he was sixteen and it changed his life. I think they gave him an acid tab at the door. He was into indie music before that, but it just completely changed his life and made his hair go all wavy. Then you can see the man presented before you today.
Phil: I remember that Termite show. There were no bass players, it was all guitarists. It was Hugh Metcalfe, I think.
Mel: I’m not sure it’s Hugh Melcalfe he’s talking about. Whoever it was got on the nerves of a lot of the audience…
Phil: …both audience members…
Mel: Mike Dando had this amazing idea that he would have a gig in a boxing ring. It looked great but unfortunately nobody turned up.
Phil: I was the one playing drums at that Paris show, Duncan Pinhas didn’t play with Ashtray Navigations at all
Mel: Duncan Pinhas is the son of Richard Pinhas from Heldon. Richard Pinhas turned up at our gig and apparently asked, “Where are these people from?” and someone said, “They’re from England.” And he said, “Oh, I thought in England it was only pop music.” So I guess that means he was impressed.
Phil: Ha, “Gay Santana’s HIV Trio…”
Mel: Why did he never tell us that? We’d have changed our name straight away.
Phil: He’s been waiting for the right moment to spring it.
Mel: We should have a release as that, at least.
Luke Vollar (Lanterns, Castrato Attack Group)
I’ve accumulated a mountain of Ashtray recordings since first coming into contact with Phil, most of which are excellent. But the one that first comes to mind is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it 3″ CDr called “Aurora Sweet Rocket,” a bubbling Technicolor Casio masterpiece of peaking drones and righteous carved feedback. This tiny CD seemed so perfect to me. Like so many of Phil’s releases it looks beautiful, an eye-catching picture of colourful balloons and the usual cryptic song titles.
What has always impressed me about Ashtray Navigations – in addition to their tireless release output – is their attention to detail. Phil’s signature artwork graces all the releases making them – to me at least – highly desirable items (I even got the 10 CDr box set that came packaged in an old film reel box). Ashtray navigations are a truly unique British psychedelic phenomenon who continue to floor me with their output (the recent “The Beak Stuck Out of the Snow” is a mandatory purchase). Long may they reign.
Phil: I remember recording that CD – “Aurora Sweet Rocket” – and being on a major high for the rest of the day. I love that CD.
Mel: That’s one of your favourites, isn’t it?
Phil: It’s my favourite cover as well.
BtB: Is it still available?
Phil: I can find you one, yeah. I’ve got some spare covers, so I could make one up.
Mel: That’s my artwork on the 10 CDR set.
Phil: That’s your photo of the guitar in the bin.
Mel: We cleaned the house out when we were moving. We shifted ten years worth of detritus, from people who had lived there years ago who we didn’t even know. That summer the council had put skips out in the street for all the students to use when they moved house. Phil’s old guitar was thrown in the skip with loads of other stuff, and I thought, “Oh, that looks quite nice” and went across the road and took a photo of it. It ended up on the cover. The next day I was going to the Co-Op and I saw one of Herb Diamante’s sons – who was studying Leeds University – walking down the road with all his friends proudly brandishing this crap, knackered up guitar. It was Phil’s, he’d taken it out of the skip. It doesn’t work, so I hope he got some use out of it.
Phil: It’d be a crap guitar even if it did work.
BtB: Maybe it’s a talismanic thing. Someone, somewhere is putting together an AshNavs shrine.
My AshNavs anecdotes both relate to two different Bolide trips to Leeds, both in 2008, I think. The first time we went there was on the way to another gig in Edinburgh. We played at the Cardigan Arms to a virtually empty room: just the promoter, Spoils & Relics (who’d been the support) and two punters – a man and a woman. We played an enjoyable set, the handful of people there enjoyed it and were generous with their applause. It was only after we’d finished we realised the mystery punters were Phil and Mel.
The next time we drove up to Leeds from Brighton especially to play the Termite Club, at the Packhorse, I think. It was a four hour drive in two cars, fraught with peril, involving a narrowly missed nasty accident, a road-side rescue and other set-backs. Miraculously, we made it there on time. AshNavs were playing support, with a line-up that included Neil Campbell and Phil Legard. They were pretty great, but unfortunately they ended up playing for about forty minutes non-stop. Bolide were left with about ten minutes. Afterwards, they were pretty mortified… I guess you never can tell when the spirit of pan is going to take hold of you.
Phil: I remember seeing Bolide twice and they were absolutely amazing. Yeah, we did play for ages. That was when Neil deafened Legard with his obnoxious violin. It was Neil’s fault; I’ll blame Neil for that one. A recording of it came out on the CD called “New Fashions in Toilet Training.”
Mel: We wouldn’t have played that long, but Neil doesn’t like to stop.
Phil: I’m really sorry if we played too long. Too many people on stage going at it too long and too hard.
BtB: There are sometimes as many as six people in Bolide. I’m amazed they know when to stop.
Phil: They don’t have Neil Campbell with a violin, though.
Click here to download an MP3 of Solo – Circle (from A MAYFLOWER GARLAND)
“Trapped Hairs and April Ballads” (10″ lathe-cut on Betley Welcomes Careful Drivers, absurdly limited) is my favourite Ashtray Navigations record in that it transports me to the time zone of its release, spring/summer 96. A very difficult time for me and this tentative, fractured, slightly alienated collection of experiments helped me through it. In more recent times I enjoyed the rock out material of “Chronique Du Nord.”
I will sound like a tired old fart, nostalgic for things that weren’t all that brilliant at the time, but I have wonderful memories of Neil Davies’s Stoke parties in the 90s at which Ashtray Navigations made a debut live performance, with Phil Todd on moog and Stewart Keith (nee Walden) on percussion in front of an audience of about twelve mates. All the exploding DIY scene of the time reminds me of a blur of possibilities, of boundaries between indie/industrial/experimental, and between music/writing/art/film dissolving. And just about everyone I met from that tiny scene is still active, which is remarkable.
Phil: There were twenty copies of that lathe release, I think… I should do something towards reissuing that. Although one side of it was reissued as a CDr, there’s more odd stuff on the other side.
Neil Davies was the other guy in Tea Culture with me. He wasn’t really a person who was into noise or experimental music, but he was into things which were a bit crazy or a bit wrong, humorous things, and he would have two or three parties a year in his house because there was nowhere else to play that kind of music in Stoke. Simon used to come to them, and on one occasion Ceramic Hobs played in his front room, which was pretty amazing. They were great that night.
Mel: We’ve still got some of the tapes of those.
Phil: There’s a video as well, of one of Neil’s parties. I need to go through it and remind myself of how stupid we all looked in those days.
Simon: Your lugubrious tones on Inca Eyeball records reveal that you have a more than passable singing voice. Would you ever consider doing an Ashtray Navigations record with audible vocals of some sort?
Phil: Yeah, I’ve thought about that a lot. I don’t really have lyrics or anything that I want to say in Ashtray Navigations. I’ve always tried to be a little bit impersonal, tried to disguise the source, so using my own voice wouldn’t really fit. I did do some vocals on some very early Ashtrays stuff: the “Overflowing Bone” lathe cut has me singing on it. I didn’t have very good recording equipment, so the vocals are just a vague mumble in the background.
We recently tackled T-Rex’ “Ride a White Swan” for a compilation of covers, with Mel’s harmonious vocal tones. Mel’s a good singer. I’ve thought about doing some more stuff with Mel singing, maybe some more covers at some stage. Doing songs is not something that I automatically think of, but is something that I like to do.
Mel: It’s only when you start trying to cover somebody’s song that you realise how in individual their voice is. Marc Bolan’s voice is so him, it’s not really something you can put on. I did two takes on it, one’s really low and one’s very wavering and querulous.
BtB: Which one did you end up using?
Phil: We mixed them together, it sounded good. I think I’ve got a passable singing voice, but I don’t think I’ve got a great singing voice, and there’s too many records by people with passable singing voices. I don’t really want to add to the pile.
Mel: Why don’t you Autotune yourself?
Phil: I did have Autotune. I had the demo version but I could never get it to work well so I didn’t want to splash out for the full version. It’s since expired.
BtB: Did Simon end up doing anything AshNavs related?
Phil: He’s not on any Ashtray releases, but we did end up doing a few projects together.
Mel: There was Formula Ghost 2001, live at the Brudenell: “Have you Ever Swung on a Swing?”
Phil: Yeah, Simon just turned up this gig very drunk. We were meant to have Heather from Capo D’Astro playing a musical saw – this was just a one-off band that I did with my old housemate Duncan and Adam from Vibracathedral – but she kinda bottled it and didn’t even turn up. So we needed another member. Before the gig, Simon was rhapsodising poetically about his afternoon drinking in the park, swinging on the swings. So I said, “You should get onstage and say some of this.” And Simon ended up joining in.
There was also a band called Classic Seventies Porn with this guy from Stoke, Al Monger. I’d be here all day talking about Al Monger. His band was called Hatemonger. He was in a band called Truck Driver, he was in a load of bands. He’s a legendary man.
Mel: Legendary teeth.
Phil: He’s got gold teeth, and he’s got Psycho tattooed on his back. We did this one-off session in Stoke with Simon singing lyrics about how his life had been ruined by being a fan of Psychic TV. It was brilliant, Simon’s such a good writer and improviser with words. I’ve always been a fan of his stuff.
Mel: He’s a really good frontman too.
BtB: Did any of it ever get recorded?
Phil: Both of those came out on cassette. The Stoke session came out on Betley Welcomes Careful Drivers, whereas Formula Ghost was on Rob Hayler’s label.
One of the first times I met Phil was at the 1 in 12 in Bradford, at which Vibracathedral Orchestra played to a bunch of puzzled punks. I remember being slightly awed by the presence of the guy behind Betley Welcomes Careful Drivers, whose catalogue I had at home, heavily annotated in my own scrawl. He had very kindly agreed to trade some of his stuff for CDrs from my fledgling Fencing Flatworm label, and I’d asked Neil Campbell’s advice on what to go for. “Phil’s Ashtray Navigations stuff is ALL good” he insisted and so I got as much of his back catalogue as I could. After being steeped in electronic music for years these releases, especially “Four Raga Moods” (alongside all those Vibracathedral Orchestra CDrs), reminded me that experimental music could ROCK. The more recent stuff, with Mel’s involvement upping the synth content, is even better. And has anyone mentioned the graphics/sleeve design/track and album titles? Always great: a unique sensibility brilliantly expressed.
Phil: At gigs back then, Rob was this happy looking guy with a huge grin. He used to say, “I’m going to do some interpretive dancing tonight.” He’d get completely rat-arsed and do this blissed-out dance at the front of the gig. He actually turned up to that gig at the Packhorse last Wednesday, where you played (as Ganbatte, supporting the Campbell/Flower Duo, Duncan Harrison and Hobo Son). I hoped we’d see some interpretive dance when Neil and Mick played. Maybe we will again, I hope so.
I’m glad people have noticed the graphics. I think they’re rather good, but nobody ever mentions them.
BtB: Did you ever have any releases on Fencing Flatworm?
Phil (laughing): There wasn’t an Ashtray release because it was rejected. He said it sounded “too live”. It was poorly recorded so I don’t blame him. But some other projects came out, yeah.
Mel: He’s very discerning.
Phil: I was going through some stuff recently and rediscovered the second album by Truant, my band with Rob and a guy called Cloughie. Cloughie was in an amazing Yorkshire prog band called Rancid Poultry but he’s moved to London now. We did two albums as Truant, the first one came out and has me playing some very, very crap guitar on it. We spent ages doing the second one but never released it. I should put it out, it’s quite good.
BtB: What does Rob play?
Phil: He’s got this groovebox, this make-you-own-electronic-dance-music kit, but he didn’t really use it for making electronic dance music. He did these droney, overtone-heavy things with it, which were rather nice.
Mel: Puzzled Punks; that’s a good band name.
Laura Naycher (Leeds Other Paper)
In its field it holds the pole position – that of a constant star that keeps on shining bright – with other formations circling round it.
Phil is a dynamo. His drive is extraordinary: his creativity, and his ability to keep it at the centre of his life. Not just the music, although that’s clearly central, but Phil also has very strong visual awareness. He knows a lot about avant-garde cinema and turns up for all kinds of obscure screening events; he designs and creates the covers for many of his numerous releases.
When I have occasionally worked on films to be projected while AshNav was playing, he would join in whenever he got the chance, whether with design or editing decisions, or getting hands-on with old film. He was very excited when I found some 16mm shots of old Rolls Royce engines: it turns out they had a factory in Stoke where he used to live, and I think he said his first job was there. He really seemed to enjoy submerging the footage in a bucket of bleach and making it suffer.
Mel too, in addition to her musical skills, is a visual artist, and has created paintings, films and installations, not to mention a pretty damn fine Ashtray Navigations T-shirt. She also seems to have a bit of a gift for electronics, and can generally work out which knob to twiddle on any given bit of troublesome machinery.
(Phil and Mel both look puzzled at the pseudonym, which neither of them recognise)
BtB: Do you know XXXXX XXXXX? Laura Naycher was her pen name when she wrote for Leeds’ Other Paper.
Mel: I think Leeds’ Other Paper turned into the Leeds guide, which turned into a big pile of crap that told yuppies how to make their lives more anodyne. But it used to be quite interesting. It was very left wing.
Phil: The Rolls Royce factory was actually in Crewe. I used to work there. I remember that film, that looked really excellent.
Mel: Your Dad worked there, didn’t he?
Phil: Yeah, he did. I’d say there’s nearly as much influence that I’ve taken from experimental film as I have from music in what I do. I’d like to see more of XXXXX’s films and collaborate with her more, but she’s a busy woman.
Mel: She had a week off last week. I went to the Yorkshire Gardens – can’t remember if that’s what they’re called – near Harrogate with her. It’s owned by the Royal Horticultural Society. She says they’ve ruined it, because they don’t know or write about anything that’s relevant up North. She was a member of the Yorkshire Horticultural Society, and then they got taken over by the Royal Horticultural Society, so unknowingly she signed up to have a subscription with them again but they sent her a magazine which was all about how to grow palm trees in Torquay and she was like, “I’m not going to grow fucking palm trees, I’m from Yorkshire.” There was only one page on how to grow plants in a cold climate. She was a bit pissed off about it. She’s a very, very militant gardener.
BtB: How does the film influence actually get worked into the music?
Phil: Just thinking about editing, rhythms of editing and techniques and how one shot follows another, how things blend, all kinds of things. I did a dissertation on film. I was always into film from watching Channel 4 when I was a kid, getting into the animations and things like that, the more sort of abstract things. In an ideal world I would do films as well as music. But it’s too expensive and there’s even less of a sizable audience for experimental films than there is for experimental music. I just don’t have the money to do it, so forget it. It’s a dream.
Mel: I’ve made films. Not film films. They didn’t cost that much.
Phil: Yeah, but you did yours mostly on video. I don’t want to do them on video. I’ve got a Super8 camera and I’d quite like to make films on that, but the film stock is too expensive. And there’s no audience whatsoever. When XXXXX says that I turn up to all sorts of obscure screening events, usually me and XXXXX are about the only people there. So I’ll stick with the music. I don’t make much money, if any, but at least I don’t lose hundreds of pounds, which I would do if I was making films.
Never mind the AshNavs, where’s the Tea Culture?
I was on a recording session with Phil. The “Archaic Braille – Ossification During Improvisation” LP was recorded in my living room in Brighton, amd that was the moment when I realised Phil was perhaps as much ‘punk’ as anything else. After the recording session (read: jam) the Brighton contingent were wondering if it was any good / worthy of release… not so Phil, who had dragged a heavy keyboard and other equipment down to us. He was sure that from the effort he’d made he was gonna get an LP out of it! It came out with a handmade sleeve shortly after. Inspiring.
I’m probably one of the few people to have taken a detour to see the actual “Betley Welcomes Careful Drivers” sign, and I saw his room full of boxes in Madely. Those were happy days, Phils Betley Welcomes Careful Drivers catalogues and Asbestosis fanzine were wonderful creations, and tape trading with him back then – way before the internet – was a musical education I feel privileged to have had.
Mel: Jase is the man. I’ve got a photo of Jase on my wall with me standing at the top of Beachy Head, I’m covered in a crochet blanket and I look at it most nights before I go to sleep thinking, “Damn, that was a good day.”
Phil: Yeah, I’m probably as much ‘punk’ as anything else. Not as punk as Jase, though. He’s the most punk man who ever lived!
BtB: Where is Betley?
Phil: It’s near Crewe, in Cheshire. I think we should talk about Betley for a bit, because Betley’s got some kind of rock’n’roll cred. While I was still in the womb there was a mammoth rock festival featuring the Grateful Dead, Demon Fuzz and Black Sabbath going on about three miles outside Betley, about half a mile away from where I lived…
Mel: It was the first UK performance of the Grateful Dead. The first time they played in Europe.
BtB: So do you reckon you absorbed some of those vibes?
Phil: Heh, yeah.
Mel: Your Mum hated it, though.
BtB: There’s a Saul Williams lyric where he talks about his mother being rushed from a James Brown concert in order to give birth to him… don’t know whether or not it’s true, though.
Phil: Wow, that’s a better story.
Mel: Phil’s got the same birthday as Jimi Hendrix.
BtB: It only counts if you were born on the same day as that person died.
Phil: A couple of months after.
Mel: The same year he died, you were born. I think Jimi’s spirit was just floating around, waiting for a suitable host.
BtB shows Phil and Mel an example of AshNavs fan art, pictured left.
Phil, laughing: Did Legard do that?
BtB: I’ve been sworn to secrecy…
Phil: I need to clarify at this point that I do not believe myself to be the reincarnation of Jimi Hendrix.
BtB: I’m going to doctor that quote so that it looks like you think you’re Hendrix Reincarnate.
Phil: You can’t alter quotes by removing the word ‘not!’
BtB: How did you first hook up with Jason?
Phil: Through some of the first musical things I did… in 1991 I was going to do a compilation tape of people who didn’t really fit in anywhere. Some guy said he couldn’t do a five minute track, he had to have a whole half hour, so I told him that he might as well do a full tape, which then made me think that I may as well just start a label. So it was around about then that I started noticing that there were other people in the UK doing tapes. One of the best, most fun and most obscure labels was this thing in Brighton called Oska, run by a guy named Jod. He put out some really crazy stuff, including some very crazy stuff of mine. Jase was one of his friends.
Mel: What was the band that Jase was in? I’m Being Good?
Phil: Yeah, he was in I’m Being Good. That was Andrew Clare’s band. Jase also messed around doing tape things, it was basically him reading these surreal texts over this industrial-type music.
BtB: We had them as a duo for Bang the Bore… Jason and Andrew. Both playing guitars, while Jason had some kind of device that he’d built sitting on the floor just out of sight.
Mel: Jase is like the Mad Professor. He’s so lovely, he just seems like butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth but he seems to get into the most outrageous scrapes of anybody I know. Yet he seems to not know how he got into them. He came up to play at the Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds as a soundtrack to Jeff Keen films. He was a friend of Jeff Keen, and I organised a Termite Festival – this was before Jeff Keens’ DVD came out – for I rented the films from Lux and got him to play a soundtrack for them. No-one can make as intense a noise as Jase, he’s just really coruscating. He just goes right through you. There’s something really uplifting about it. It’s just fucking vicious, and you can’t believe that this really smiley, lovely man is creating such an evil racket.
BtB: It’s totally unreconstructed and unfiltered, as though he hasn’t tried to force it into a context where it approaches some kind of conventional musical sense. I didn’t get the impression he really cared about that sort of thing.
Mel: I don’t think he does. I think that’s great. That’s how it should be. Jase was doing this sort of thing long before noise had a vocabulary or a canon or any set of expectations for how people were supposed to react. He just did it because he wanted to. That’s what’s so good about it.
Jason: When is the Nihilist Spasm Band Live in Leeds LP coming out?
Mel: I suppose when I dig the tapes out of my bedroom and figure out what strange mix they’re in and whether I can combine two different tapes recorded from two different sides of the room at different volumes.
BtB: Weren’t you the last people to run the Termite Club before it went inactive?
Phil: Yeah. I was involved since I first moved to Leeds, I stopped doing it a little while before Mel.
Mel: I was the last person to run the Termite. I’d like to start doing really cheap, scuzzy, no fans, no money type gigs again though. Back to Jase, though… his new band is called Mothers of the Third Reich. Apparently it’s been banned from Facebook for having an offensive name. You’re not allowed to have a silly name.
Phil: As if a band who really were Nazis would call themselves Mothers of the Third Reich.
Mel: That’s Jase though. I don’t know how he does it.
Phil: Jase manages to offend people without even really trying.
Mel: He lives in Eastbourne, and the Council actually contacted him saying, “Please don’t put up posters for this band.” I thought all of them in Eastbourne would be into it, sitting there in their rocking chairs thinking, “Where do I sign up?”
Click here to download an MP3 of Secretaries of the Future (from INK CLOUDS AND AXE REVEALER)
This is part one of a two part feature. Click here to read part two, featuring Stewart Keith (nee Walden), Chris Daniels, Pete Coward, Clive Henry, Matt Valentine, Aaron Moore, Alex Neilson and Paul Walsh.