A Year In The Country is a set of year long explorations of an otherly pastoralism, the undercurrents and flipside of bucolic dreams. It is a wandering amongst work that takes inspiration from the hidden and underlying tales of the land, the further reaches of folk music and culture and where such things meet and intertwine with the lost futures, spectral histories and parallel worlds of what has come to be known as hauntology. Those explorations take the form of a website hosting essays, discussion and artworks, as well as music and book releases.
In the recently released second book from A Year In The Country: Straying from the Pathways, Stephen Prince explores the wider realm of “otherly pastoralism” and its intertwining with the lost futures and parallel worlds of hauntology. It examines such varied and curiously interconnected topics as the faded modernity and “future ruins” of British road travel; apocalyptic “empty city” films; dark fairy tales; the political undercurrents of the 1980s; idyllic villages gone rogue; photographic countercultural festival archives and experiments in “temporary autonomous zones” – (introduction from the A Year In The Country website).
What is “otherly pastoralism”?
I tend to use the phrase “otherly pastoralism” to refer to an atmosphere, work etc that explores the undercurrents or flipside of more conventional views of rural and pastoral areas, folk culture etc. It refers in part to a sense of alternatives to bucolic views of the countryside, although related work can sit alongside and at points intertwine with such more idyllic work.
There isn’t really one overarching name for the loosely interconnected subculture that has flourished since around 2010 which explores such things. “Otherly pastoral” is a phrase that I have used to try and convey a particular related atmosphere – a sense of the hidden or underlying tales of the landscape. In some ways I use it in a similar manner that the word “wyrd” is sometimes used.
What motivated you to begin A Year in the Country?
For quite a number of years I had lived and/or worked in often quite central, busy urban places and worked in subculture and left-of-centre pop culture. A lot of urban orientated subculture etc had started to feel as though it had been very thoroughly explored and harvested and I found myself being drawn to more rural/folk orientated culture and accidentally came across (or sometimes revisited) its more subcultural aspects. At that time there seemed to be more space within such work, more overlooked nooks and crannies.
Also there wasn’t so much work that explored such areas and I found myself essentially thinking about and planning a website, project, music releases etc that I would want to find and explore myself.
You explore a strange confluence of interests that may initially seem disparate to a curious observer. Even within a single explored medium there is a diversity of style. Have you come close to a divining and defining a common spark that binds and guides this confluence?
I think one of the underlying things that connects say the initially disparate seeming areas of otherly pastoral/wyrd folkloric culture and that of a hauntological nature is a sense of loss; in hauntological culture that is often a sense of post-war lost progressive futures, within otherly pastoral/wyrd folkloric culture that may be a sense of a form of lost Arcadian utopias or idylls.
The two areas may have quite different surface aesthetics but they appear to be connected by a similar exploratory, visionary or utopian spirit and, as I say in the A Year In The Country: Straying From The Pathways book, they have come to “shadow and inform one another’s journey’s within an alternative cultural landscape”.
There is also a sense in both of allowing space for the hidden, semi-hidden or not fully explained – which I think can be appealing in contemporary times when that is often not the case.
What are some of your favourite discourses and discoveries from Straying from the Pathways?
I don’t know if I strictly speaking I have favourites, although there are certain things that have particularly stuck with me.
One of those is Andy Beckett and Roger Luckhurst’s observations in The Disturbance (a booklet published by Texte und Toné in which they discuss The Changes television series) in which they draw comparisons between the mid-1970s and the state of flux that British society was in at that time and contemporary unsettled times in Britain. They suggest that because of these similarities the worries, catastrophes etc in the likes of television dramas such as The Changes, The Survivors and the final Quatermass series, the spectral supernatural occurrences of The Stone Tape and films which have been retrospectively labelled as folk horror such as The Wicker Man fit our times much better than they might have done previously.
To be honest, the majority of the things I write about in Straying from the Pathways could be considered favourites; that’s why I wanted to put them in the book (!)
From the phantasmagoric tales of Prince of Darkness and Halloween III to the beautifully produced Texte und Toné releases, via considerations of the faded modernity of British road travel in the book In the Company of Ghosts: The Poetics of the Motorway, the hidden subterfuges of Edge of Darkness and the spectral audio of The Ghost in the MP3 and much more – I find it all intriguing and inspiring work.
The first year of A Year in the Country in particular felt like a ritualistic experience, with a new blog post every day, and regular physical releases in the form of prints, badges, stickers and CD’s. How much of the first year was planned, and how did this ritual effect you?
I had a loose plan in place before I started the first year, although I left space within it so that, for example, if I came across something that I found particularly interesting I could write about it.
How did it effect me? I think by the end of that year I was physically and mentally somewhat tired (! again).
At the same time, I was glad to have completed it, to have been able to see it through. I had written about most of the subjects I wanted to at that time and much of what I thought of back then as my core areas of interest and inspiration in this loosely connected culture, which had been one of the aims of that year.
The A Year in the Country musical releases are often collaborative concept albums. Tell us about the idea and evolution of these wonders.
Sometimes with the themes/concepts of the albums they will come to me very quickly and largely fully formed. Sometimes it’s just an inkling of an idea and they will slowly develop over time.
It’s similar with the artwork and packaging design. At times it will all fall into place quickly, other times it will slowly evolve and be honed down over quite a period of time, with the atmospheres of the music by the different people often influencing the artwork that I create for them.
The themes of the concepts draw from quite a wide area but at their core they are generally inspired by the intertwining of otherly pastoral and spectral hauntological ideas.
In terms of the other people music which featured on the albums, their previous work is often something that I have discovered and found myself returning to over time, people who’s work I appreciate and would like to hear more of – which is one of the things the albums do, they help to put such work out into the world.
A Year in the Country is now approaching the end of its fifth year. Did you expect to be still wandering spectral paths at this stage?
Ah, good question. I think initially I just thought about the first year of A Year In The Country but then once that was done I realised that there was much more in this “otherly” cultural landscape that I wanted to explore – the ongoing years of A Year In The Country give me space to do that.
The Leaf Library bring their hypnotic drone-pop to vibrant heights & depths with their wondrous new album The World Is A Bell.
An interview with Matt Ashton
2019 has been a prolific year for The Leaf Library, with your side-project Monuments, the About Minerals album on the Inner Space Travels label, and now the wondrous new album The World is a Bell. Is this productivity reflective of a state of evolution for you, both personally and as a band?
Yes, I guess it is. There are several reasons for the amount we do; partly to do with constantly feeling like time is running out, and partly to do with making the most of the people around us while we still can. There will be a point when we can’t all make music together for one reason or another and when that comes I want to feel like we’ve made the most of our time.
There was a period a few years back where we weren’t really getting anywhere with new songs and I definitely considered stopping. That we got another chance to put more music out is great, thanks to Where It’s At Is Where You Are and it makes me feel that we should make the most of the opportunity.
Finally, I’ve always admired bands like Stereolab who were super prolific – anything less just seems like slacking. Lewis (Young, drummer) and I write a lot, and I’m pretty impatient about getting new stuff out there.
Can you give us an insight into band-member dynamics within the compositional and recording process?
Most commonly the music starts with Lewis and I. We rarely write together, instead working on things separately at home and then sending basic sketches back and forth online. We live a few roads apart but still find this the easiest and most productive way to do things. I don’t tend to start something with the intention of it becoming a particular type of music – I usually just record to get something out of my system.
One of the great things about working the way we do in those initial stages is that I know Lewis can (and will) totally transform something I’ve sent him. A good example is An Edge, An Ending from the last album (About Minerals) – I don’t recognise anything of what I sent him but I know it’s in there. And had I planned what the track would end up sounding like we wouldn’t have found our way to the weird and surprising place we eventually did. Lewis is a studio wizard and should be producing pop hits for Ariana Grande (all the rest of the band are also wizards in their own special way – will DM the curious with details). Without the working relationship we’ve built up (and Dropbox) I don’t think we’d have quite the same sound going on as we do.
Once we have something that is definitely a Leaf Library track then we’ll decide what else it needs (or doesn’t), and the others will add parts accordingly. The great thing with the other members is there’s very little ego involved anywhere – if something only needs a very simple, one note line then people (including me!) are pretty happy to play it and to just serve the song. The vocals tend to come right near the end, however for something to be a Leaf Library track it needs to feel like it’s going to work with Kate’s singing. Pretty much everything I consider for us is written with her voice in mind – without that there is no band, really.
With recording it’s different every time. The majority of the last two studio albums were done in the same places (Studio Klank in Wood Green, London and The Drone Lodge in Walthamstow in London), with people coming and going as interest and energy allowed, whereas About Minerals was made whilst we were mixing The World Is A Bell, on laptops in the control room. The four of us that made that one were rarely in the same room together, aside from doing Kate’s vocals. Melinda recorded hers at home and sent them in (before she and I mixed them in a café).
I understand that that you typically allow a year or more of gestation in the studio for the creation of an album. How important and impactful is this maturation from kernel to finished product?
It’s really by necessity rather than design. We have a certain amount of time each week we can give to recording, so naturally things take a little longer than they might if we were to go away and concentrate on something day after day. The World Is A Bell took a particularly long time because the pieces were written and arranged (as part of On An Ocean Of Greatness, for the WIAIWYA 21st Anniversary release) before they were even considered as songs, so we had to fit everything around pre-existing structures. It was a really torturous process. Because it took so long we have some of the next album written, having slowly built up new songs whilst playing live over the last few years. We’re hoping to record these as simply as possible, ideally live. But we’ll see what happens.
About Minerals actually took very little time at all – about six months all together. There was a very definite deadline for that one, and I wanted to see if we had it in us to do something quickly. I was very grateful to Tiago who runs Inner Space Travels for asking us to make it.
You write the majority of the lyrics for The Leaf Library. How do approach the craft?
Before any music happens I write many single lines and titles in my notebooks. Often when starting a piece of music (or deciding it’s going to be a Leaf Library song) I’ll find a suitable title to give it and when it comes to writing the lyrics the title will often help give me the start of the lyrics, or a jumping off point (or sometimes just an idea about atmosphere).
All of that seems very considered so I think it’s worth saying that lyric writing is still an absolute mystery to me. Many people have said this before but it’s definitely a case of putting oneself in the right situation or frame of mind in which to channel something that might lead to some useful or interesting sounding phrases, rather than an easy flow of words from the conscious brain. I have no idea where a lot of the lyrics come from – so much gets discarded, and things are written and re-written many times so I love having the notebooks because it’s the only proof that wrote them.
I’ve never found it easy but I like the challenge nowadays – the feeling when the last line clicks into place is great. I do sometimes decide that I want to write vaguely about *something* but it’s always much more fun finding the meaning in things once it’s done.
Do you have any rituals or quirks in regards to your process of composition, recording and producing?
This will sound ridiculous but I honestly feel that the act of making something, of setting oneself up to create something and see it through is one long ritual in itself, though that might not be the thrust of the question.
And there are definitely quirks to how we work – most seem pretty inconsequential as I come to write them down, but I guess they all add up to something in the end. Some examples (most of which could be shot down by other band members): I try to not use the grid too much when making music on the laptop, and we try and stick to the ‘first thought, best thought’ principle as much as possible – in writing and recording. I try and use whatever equipment is nearby, and to do as few things as possible with it, or at least try and squeeze out as many variables of the same sound before moving on, particularly when it comes to synthesisers (both hardware and computer).
I also only ever use a plain black Bic biro when writing – anything else just feels like excessive ornamentation.
What non-musical pursuits inform your music?
Same as most people I know – titles and lines come from books and the titles of paintings, the artwork and design comes from all the cool looking stuff that people have made over the years. We’re lucky living in London to be able to get to galleries and museums on a regular basis. That said, I’ve mis-read the back of a food carton in the past that has then turned into a lyric or atmosphere for a song so anything can happen.
I guess walking and travelling are the most personal things that affect the music. Train travel in particular is something that I come back to again and again – it’s one of my favourite places to listen to music, and I very rarely read on a train journey.
You’re based in London but seem thematically more interested in things rural than urban. Is there a philosophy behind this perspective?
That’s hard to answer because I don’t want to undo any meanings or feelings people have attached to particular songs or pieces of music. I think the rural in our music is very much from the perspective of city dwellers – stuck within the M25 looking out.
To me there is much more of the urban in our music than other people might make out, though I admit we’ve definitely talked up the coastal themes in our work before (possibly at the expense of other narratives). There are several songs on the new album that, for me at least, exist in the city, definitely on the outer edges and suburbs if not the centre. But when the rural or non-urban does appear it’s usually as a means of escapism, even if it’s just intended for me as the writer, rather than attempting to transport people somewhere. I think the philosophy behind that is clear – I’m obviously bored of the city!
To what extent does a sense of place affect your creativity?
I like to think it has a deep profound effect on me, though I do just end up about writing about the same things over and over again. The sound we find ourselves working with is usually far more to do with what equipment or space is available to us at the time. I’ve been living in a new flat for six months and have had very little hardware here, so what I’ve made in that time is different to what I would have done back at home in the same time. It would be interesting to know what we’d sound like if I moved to the countryside. I’ve always loved the idea of doing an artist’s retreat somewhere, and trying to make an album really quickly whilst in a barn on a hill.
Having said that, I wonder if one day I’ll look back on these London albums and a pattern, or an obvious city atmosphere will be clear. Time will tell.
You often bring in guest musicians for your releases, and The World is a Bell is no exception. Tell us about these collaborations and the impact they had on realising the album.
This relates to the point in the first question about having people around us now that won’t all live within easy distance of the studio in the future – I made a decision when making Daylight Versions to get as many friends on there as possible before they all moved away. It was so much fun that it seemed like an obvious thing to do again. There’s something about strength in numbers too.
In terms of picking the guests for this one, most were obvious choices. When I first saw Ed Dowie perform I hoped I’d have the courage to ask him to sing on the record – I was very pleased when he said yes and, like when Alasdair from The Clientele came to sing on the last one, it was so surreal to hear a voice I admired so much singing my weird words.
Far Rainbow were another obvious choice as I’ve wanted to do something with them for a while. I’ve always thought we were probably a bit straight for them but the song Bodies Carried Off By Bees seemed to be a good meeting point for us both. They turned it from a bit of an aimless amble into something much more intense.
We came to Iskra Strings through Ben at Daylight Music, and when Dan (Fordham – arranger, saxophonist) were discussing who we were going to get to play the arrangements it made much more sense to get an established group to do it. Knowing that they were going to be able to do it gave us much more confidence in doing the arrangements we really wanted – we didn’t have to worry whether they’d be able to play them or not.
Everyone else has been in and out of our orbit in one way or another over the years. Michael ‘Whoa Melodic’ Wood (piano) was our third guitarist for a while, and Laura from Firestations has been a sort of unofficial member for a long time now. I wanted her and Mike to sing on the record because they both have such lovely voices, and they’re pretty fun to have around in the studio. Pete Gofton is a whizz on the vibraphone, and we got Nathan Thomas in right at the last minute as we decided we absolutely MUST have some French horn on the album.
Making music is a fun thing to do so it just makes sense to try and share that with as many people as possible. Knowing that all those hands have been involved with it makes me a lot more confident about what we’re doing, and it makes things interesting. Adding new sounds and voices into songs that already exist can bring a spark that otherwise might be missing.
What is The World is a Bell about?
The title comes from a Johann Wolfgang von Goethe quote: “The world is a bell; it is cracked and does not ring out properly” – when I first read that I knew that I wanted to use it as a title. I loved the sound of it and the shape of the words; it carries a lot of implied meaning, but at the same time is blank enough to allow you to attach your own meaning to the phrase.
What are your plans for 2020?
As usual we have many plans, and even if just a few of them come to fruition it will be very pleasing. I have a couple of collaborations planned, one with Firestations and another with a really good poet that I’ve been chatting to on and off online for a while. With that we have got as far as writing some titles, and he has written some fantastic lines but we need to be able to give it the time it deserves.
I would like to have the time to collaborate more with others, particularly as we have the Monuments series as a good outlet for that sort of thing. I’ve recently been talking to an excellent Canadian artist called Pallas Athene who I would love to make some joint tracks with but again, there’s no point rushing these things. Likewise, our recent t-shirt artist Teruyuki Kurihara and I have talked about doing some kind of music exchange.
There is talk of reissuing the About Minerals album from earlier this year on LP, and we already have a handful of songs written for the next album. I’d love to record that one very quickly, but I know that once we get into it the ideas will come and it’ll roll on and on. I would also like to do another Basic Design (solo) album – there are many sketches for that one already. Melinda (Bronstein, TLL co-vocalist and percussionist) and I have made an album as well, so that might see daylight soon. Melinda and Lewis also have another band together called Zonate Tooth who are working on things, Gareth our bass player’s other band Wintergreen are working on the follow up to The Rule Of Small Things and Simon (Nelson, guitar) is just about to release something as The Nameless Book.
Finally it would be great to get back to playing live again as we haven’t done it for ages – I want to hear how the new album sounds when we all try and play it at the same time.