Photo courtesy of Fencing Flatworm
Interview by Jon DaleChatting with Neil Campbell is one of those pleasures that an overseasl fellow like myself can only afford rarely: it's not that there's any point in time at which I would ever not want to speak with Mr. Campbell, it's just that it's all phone lines and exorbitant call costs and bling bling and so forth. But the planets did align for us a good nine months ago - we'd been in touch many times previously and I'd even had the honour of releasing one of the man's many myriad records (this one in collaboration with his amazing and under-recognized genius pal Julian Bradley, and a wildkat bearing the name Sticky Foster. The fellow was naturally inclined toward geniality and even my most testing moments (of which there were/are many) were treated with benign glow from Master Neil. Here's to you, chap!
For those who want history... Neil's been involved in the true UK underground for more years than you could possibly recall, first coming to our attention as one of the head conceptualists of free-for-all outfit the A Band. Subsequent work saw Neil hooked up with all kinds of disparate characters, from UK alumni Richard Youngs, Simon Wickham-Smith, Phil Todd, Matthew Bower, Stewart Walden Prick Decay/Decaer Pinga, and Smell & Quim, to collaborations with Spykes, Paekong Mae, Campbell Kneale (aka Birchville Cat Motel), etc.etc. Neil is currently resident as one-fifth and not the head of the magickal Vibracathedral Orchestra. He also does a very natty line in solo projects micro-released either by himself or dispersed throughout the world on many labels with like-minded temperaments and aesthetic outlooks. There is too much good Campbell to be able to reel off a list of 'just the best,' but if you need direction, VCO's Dabbling With Gravity and Who You Are, his collab with Richard Youngs (How the Garden is), or solo recordings Sol Powr and The Hearing Force of the Humanverse all stand prod as some of the finest potting-shed non-pro rock-jamming-meets-pop-meets-non-idiomatic-improv moves you could ask for. Group sound, yeah: let's get the word from the man his'self.
PSF: Shall we talk about Vibracathedral Orchestra? What's the better tack for you, the history thing first, are you bored with the history thing...
I don't know, the history thing seems kind of documented, unless you've anything specific ... You know, two bands just jamming and then joining together.
PSF: I'd like to hear that stuff from the Mick, Bridget and Adam era.
They burned off a few copies of their original cassette onto CDR and gave them away to interested parties. I tried to get them to keep it available on the Vibracathedral website, as it's easily as good as the early CDR's with the me, Julain and Mick line-up, but they're happier keeping it a bit obscure. Whatever. Originally, they made ten or twenty copies of this cassette, they had no-one to give it to. I took five off them and gave them to various people. They didn't think they'd have any fans or anything, it was pretty crazy. So I guess it's as mysterious as ever. All those CDR's Vibracathedral have done, we've made hundreds of them now. We thought when we did the first few that we'd be making thirty of them. We could have pressed up 500 and got shot of most of them if we'd have known.
PSF: It's weird but good how VCO seem to have taken off so much.
Mmmm. Oh, the bubble will burst! (laughter)
PSF: Don't say that, you're just tempting fate. I doubt that'll happen actually. But I'm intrigued to know why you think it might be.
I've read things in magazines saying 'oh, they have so many releases out' when we hadn't actually released anything for a year or so. We record loads, but are tending towards saying no to a lot of the offers we get to put things out. We take so bloody long these days to come to a collective decision about just what material should see the light of day.
PSF: Maybe it's because there was that influx of CDR's.
Yeah, we threw stuff out a bit more freely at the start of the band. I suppose we do have a fair few releases available, but we see no reason to delete the CDR's. I hate the idea of limited editions - unless it's something you're embarrassed about, why not keep it available if you can? But we're working on a new record now. We've tried to make it a little different. All our stuff is usually just live jams edited together. This time, we messed around with cutting them up a bit, used some overdubs and collage, played around with different structures and the like, but we pretty much rejected the results - we work best in our raw, untampered with state. It's a bit of a pity, as I'd like to make our Faust Tapes one day. I doubt we'll do it, (laughs) but ... I like that approach.
PSF: That's something you definitely haven't covered yet.
No, not at all, although we are fond of the sudden edit. Some people find it a bit harsh when our records wrench them out of one piece and plunge them straight into another. They must be our new age fans. I grew up with stuff like Throbbing Gristle, so I can take it a bit rough (laughs). Actually, forget Faust Tapes, I want to make our DOA!
PSF: There is something nice, though, about VCO pieces being carved out of a longer jam, I suppose. The pieces have this natural flow.
Often we play in the same sort of tuning for months on end. It's really good for editing and cross-fading and stuff.
PSF: So that's the general approach? Tying into a tuning and...
Yeah. Sort of comfortable tunings that work with guitars. We tend to play in D or G really. I'm not so fussy about what key we play in, as long as we're vaguely in tune, but other members of the band are a bit more discerning about what sounds best on guitars, which are still the base of our sound in the main.
PSF: Oh God, do you have musos in the band or something?
Not particularly, no. (laughs) Just people that like to play guitar and not have it in a strange too-high or too-low tuning. I don't really mind myself. And quite a lot of our instruments we can't tune, like the bells and so forth, we have to bang them. But it's all so inexact, and there's always something that's fabulously out of tune giving that edge. Which is nice. We've had people asking us about tunings before, because they obviously felt it was important, but we don't really know what tunings we play in, we just know the open notes. It's not at all scientific.
PSF: I figured that the tuning itself isn't as important as...
As being in tune, really. It makes it the whole thing a lot easier to get up and flying, and it tends towards a simple euphoric sound if you base everything around simple fifths and octaves. Not much major or minor.
PSF: But that it does really impact on the outcome, because you do get that really nice ring of open notes and overtones happening without knowing it, which is always nice.
Oh sure, yeah, things play themselves, which is great. And being able to play things with one hand, if you're feeling lazy! And you can play two things at once too - it's the pseudo-orchestral thing. If you're not in some sort of tuning, then you miss all the harmonics and resonances that are there for the taking. Nature has put them there, you'd be a fool not to take advantage.
PSF: Getting those ghost tones is always a really nice thing. Mmmm. I don't know who else among our peers does that, apart from Sunroof! I don't think the No Neck Blues Band do that, really, or other people mentioned in connection with us. Maybe Pelt do.
Pelt are... I dunno... I think you were right when you said Pelt should really ditch the amps and pick up on their folk side.
Because they play really well, those guys. And it's good when there's a hybrid of the two things going on. The rolling picking bouncing off the feedback hum. Better than when they do one thing or the other. It just seems more interesting to me.
PSF: They're also still mired in that post-Dead C. post-rockist thing. You guys seem to be taking from rock structures, but not be so 'oh, we have to be freeform and destroy what rock was' or whatever.
Oh, sure, yeah. Also, we really like disco music and funk music and stuff. We like to dance and groove. I dunno if that comes across. (laughs)
PSF: Well, as opposed to a lot of other bands, from that whole scene, most of them wouldn't know how to groove if it hit them on the fucking head. And grooving's a really nice thing.
Mmm. It's not like we play funk or anything. It'd be nice to try. (laughter) I think it would sound pretty horrible, but... you know, we get the wah-wah guitar going sometimes. Adam's a big James Brown fan.
PSF: So is going for a groove is an important thing for you?
Oh yeah. We like to go outside of a groove and have it floating around for a while, but it's nice when it comes together. For a long time we played without a groove, but we just couldn't stop ourselves once we realised we were all on the love train together. It was always there underneath. There's all these pulses, and if we use effects we really like tremolo and flange and those sort of things, which are regular anyway. They create their own pulses.
PSF: That runs through a lot of your solo stuff as well.
Yeah, sure. Again, just things playing themselves. I really like that. It's easy.
PSF: It's nice. It takes the pressure off you a little. (laughs)
It means you can get a good density up as well. If one thing's playing itself, it means you've got an extra pair of hands to go off and do something else with. And feet, too. You know, I often play things with my feet when I'm playing with Vibracathedral; keyboards and things, triggering off synthesizers. I might be playing violin, and then I'll be triggering a synthesizer with my foot, all the while bellowing. (laughs) It's all pretty primitive. Kicking a guitar or something, or... Just tapping on a bit percussion. It's nice. We all do that a bit. Just to make it sound denser, I think. It kind of destroys any possiblility of virtuosity too.
PSF: Just to billow the sound out a little.
Instead of doing overdubs. As I said, we've tried that, but we just can't get results that are as good as plain old turn the tape machine on and let rip.
PSF: Overdubs can... I don't know if you'd agree but... for want of a better term, an 'improvisation' is recorded in a specific space and overdubs can throw it by...
They can, but sometimes that can be a good thing - random overdubs without reference, that's something I'm very fond of in my solo recordings.
PSF: I guess that goes back to stuff like Durian Durian.
Yeah, I guess so. (laughs)
PSF: I'm intrigued to know what you think of that record now.
I don't dig it out much. (laughter) I don't know, it's pretty harsh, especially side one. (laughs)
PSF: It is a bit of a tough listen. (laughs)
It's a bit of a tough listen! In a way that was part of the idea, you know? Durian I think is pretty tough to eat. You must have it in Australia?
PSF: We do, we do. They're so fucking weird.
Who the hell eats it?
PSF: I don't know, I only ever see it at Asian grocery stores. Durian looks so bizarre.
We get it in Chinese supermarkets here, but because it's so bulky, it's so expensive. It's insanely expensive (laughs). They have to ship it from the other side of the world.
PSF: If you're ever in Australia...
We'll have some. (laughter)
PSF: You'll have to pick up a job lot of durian, take them home and ... sell them on the durian black market, or something. (laughs)
God... And they really smell bad.
PSF: They do smell bad. I just see them sitting in the corner of an Asian grocers, thinking 'I don't know how anyone could look at that to eat it'. Does it taste OK?
No, it tastes like shit. (laughter) It's got this horrible ... When you cut it open, most of it you don't eat anyway, it's all this spiny stuff, and then there's these little globules of what looks like rotting butter, smells like rotting butter. Nature is telling you not to eat that thing. It's big, it's spiny, it's really difficult to get into, it stinks, it looks bad, it tastes bad. (laughs) A bit like our record.
PSF: I wanted to talk to you about the difference between most 'improv' and what VCO do, which I guessed you've touched on a bit earlier. If anything, so I can have someone else ranting about how boring a lot of improv music is.
Well, I don't really think we do improv, or... I guess we don't play songs. So that's improvised. I like good old unfashionable "jamming" as a description of our approach, I've said it before. It's what we do. But I just think... It's not like we're doing a blues scale or something, or cutting blues licks.
PSF: Maybe it's improvised but not 'improv.'
Oh certainly, yeah. Which has become such a... You know, despite being free or supposedly free, free improv, it's not at all. It has its own little language.
PSF: Yeah, from the moment it started it limited itself to that dialect.
And I guess that's not really our background or our language, so we 're not going to play that sort of thing. If we grew up listening to rock music like Can and the Velvets, this is what we'll do. When I first discovered free improvisation existed I did go and check out a lot of it, see if there was anything useful in there. I was interested. There was something to be got from seeing people doing it, but I soon got tired of it. These days I could barely sit in the same room as it.
PSF: It's a freeing thing to do but a tiring thing to see people do, maybe.
Yeah, and often you'd see people who were just going out of their way to avoid anything that was pleasurable. (laughs) It's so cerebral. Why would you do that? If someone cooked you some food and it was a perverse mix of flavours that didn't quite work, would you say it was interesting, or would you just say it was an awful meal? (laughter) I think it would be an awful meal. I think music's like food and sex, it's sensual. You want it to be good, for Christ's sake! You want it to tickle your pleasure zones.
PSF: Which is something that, as much as I like him, Derek Bailey for example doesn't really do.
He doesn't do it at all! (laughter) Evan Parker does though. I've seen Evan play and it's been terrific, when he does his solo circular breathing thing. That really does it, I think.
PSF: Evan's one of the people you'd rate from that whole milieu?
I think so, I've always enjoyed seeing him play. And I like the more jazzy end of it. Do you know Hession/Wilkinson/Fell? They're a great band, they're really good. Phil (Todd) played with Hession recently. I mean Hession lives in Leeds, and he's got no-one to play with. It wasn't terrific, but it was okay. It was just guitar and drums, I'd have much rather it have been tape loops and synthesizer and guitar and toy instruments and the whole barage of Ashtray Navigations effects, plus Paul playing his fabulous drums.
PSF: So what are your feelings on AMM?
Other people have asked us this - is it some sort of obscure chat-up line in underground music circles? Ah, I don't know a lot of their records. I know the first one, and I know some of the later ones. The first one's pretty good, but I can't say I've listened to it more than five times in my whole life.
PSF: The weird thing about AMM is that they come from... not so much come from a rock background, but they were somehow influenced by it.
And they played with a lot of rock bands. I've got a tape of their first record somewhere, I should dig it out and have a listen to it. I don't really listen to that stuff, that's the thing. I've heard it, but... It didn't liberate me. Whereas Sound Pool by MEV really did something for me when I first heard it. And the Scratch Orchestra record.
PSF: What was it about those things that really grabbed you?
Just the fact that there were lots of people doing it, and it didn't sound like they were all super-cerebral musicians, and it was primal. And it grooved in a way. Strangely enough. It really does. Particularly the MEV one, I think. Sound Pool I'm thinking of here. Rather than their other stuff.
PSF: Yeah, Sound Pool is the stand out, isn't it.
It is. The other ones are kind of okay, but I don't know. (laughs) I don't dig them out much.
PSF: I wonder if this is something you'd find in, say, Sun Ra or Pharaoh Sanders records...
Oh, sure. I've been really enjoying Pharaoh Sanders recently. I always loved those records, but someone sent me, oh, what's it called... Elevation. I'd never heard it before. Bloody hell, it's great! And so I just dug out the old ones, went and bought the ones I didn't have. I just really enjoy that stuff. It's kinda cheesy too, there's a cheesy side to it too, which I really like.
PSF: Totally. I mean, "The Creator Has A Master Plan" is pretty cheesy...
Yeah. It's a groove, it's a tune... And it's happy and open. I think what I like about it is that it's very obviously happy music, whereas if you listen to AMM, it doesn't sound very happy. I know I'm making a judgement here, but...
PSF: It dawned on me that that stuff was the closest parallel to what VCO are doing. Maybe you could say that because Pharaoh Sanders is this incredible saxophonist it's sort of, played better, but in a sense that makes what VCO are doing more impressive, because coming from the basis of playing but not being so technique focused...
Yeah, but there's some good chops going on in our band, though. (laughs) Not myself, I'm really the worst musician in the band. Bridget's pretty hot, she plays flute and piano really beautifully, but she never touches a keyboard in this band. (laughs) And it's really difficult to get her to play the flute. She's really musical. Mick too, particularly. Adam and Julain are no slouches either. They all are. Except for me. (laughs) I'm just a chancer, you know. If asked, I'd say we're much closer to Pharaoh Sanders. Because it's happy. I think my wife Ali asked me last week, 'what if someone asked you what music you like', and I said, I like happy music. I get kind of bored with misery and reticence. When I was a teenager I loved Leonard Cohen, you know. (laughter)
PSF: Don't worry, we all had that painful upbringing, (laughter) Although for me it was, like, The Cure, which is so much more embarrassing.
Fuck 'em - happy music, that's where it's at. (laughs)
PSF: Well, it really comes through in VCO's stuff.
Not always, and particularly maybe not on some of the earlier things. I guess we're getting better at what we do, but we still have folk who think we're a super heavy badass bunch.
PSF: Well, Dabbling was a pretty happy little record, I thought. It seemed like a subtle sea-change, it felt that way.
I think it is, yeah. It seems more pop to me (laughs)... whatever pop might mean in that context. I think I describe a lot of things as being pop, and people look at me crazily, you know. I'll say something's pop and people will look at me like I'm insane. I think baroque music is pop music.
PSF: Well, it's got good tunes... That seems like pop music to me.
And it's short and punchy. It's also pretty formulaic, often. The way it's structured. Which is fine, I don't mind. We're kinda formulaic in a way.
PSF: No, a good bit of structure never goes astray.
Mmm. When we play live we often have this really tedious structure. We tended to play just one piece, although of late we might play two or three that meld somehow. And we just start with silence and we build it up from there and it gets louder and louder, (laughs) it gets a bit denser, perhaps it might groove, then it comes to a head, then it comes down and we have ten minutes going down. It seems really obvious. (laughs)
PSF: It sounds like the ZZ Top show I went to a few years ago. (laughter) They started with some songs that were okay, then they peaked with "Tush" and then...
It's pretty obvious, there's nothing worked out about it. But of late we're just naturally messing that up. We're taking a few more liberties. That was a comfortable way of playing for a while. Happy. Obvious. Easy.
PSF: And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that, ey?
No, no, not at all. It might not be obvious to some people. What seems really basic and a given to myself may seem really groundbreaking or perverse or unpleasant to someone else.
PSF: With that in mind, I wonder how your Low and Stephen Malkmus supports went?
I don't know. We're pretty convivial when we play, we don't try and alienate anyone. We're pretty polite. We've never had anything thrown at us. (laughs) We play a lot. I'd have thought that at some point we would have aroused some anger somewhere...
PSF: No heckling?
I don't know about heckling. (laughs) A few whoops and I think someone tried to join us once, a hippy guy just thought he could come and smash things. (laughter) People have been pretty well behaved. I guess we have to play with more metal bands or something.
PSF: Get that Dr. Dre support, see what happens.
Yeah. They would kill us. (laughter)
PSF: I was pleased to read in that interview in The Broken Face when you said that Wolfgang Voigt and Dr. Dre were the two main things for you. I thought that might throw their readership a little.
And that was the truth, that wasn't me being perverse. The Voigt stuff is great, he really peaked a few years ago I think. Do you know the All records? They're the best! In fact one of them, Alltag, is the best thing he's ever done.
PSF: I just got the new Pop Ambient thing which has got a nice All track on it.
That's good, yeah. The 12" is kinda like that, it's got a groover on it and three non-groovers. I just got one here, the Regensburg remix, that's really good. And that's really pop and happy, he just puts a bit stomping beat over it, (laughs) it's very good.
PSF: I love it when he does that.
It's kind of a recent thing, you know, I thought modern electronic music was really conservative, it just seemed like bad industrial music, (laughs) but there's a few people who are really hitting it, and I think he's one of them. And his stuff's really happy!
PSF: Yeah, that last Gas record Pop was really... The way that record starts is just so up and... Romantic almost. (laughs)
Yeah, fabulous record! I don't know what sort of guy he is, he doesn't really do interviews, does he?
PSF: A lot of trouble with electronic music these days is it's just formalism really.
And it's really easy to do, you can just sit and do it on your computer and you never have to engage with the outside world. There's no air in those records sometimes, it's just an electronic sound and you just put a bunch of digital effects on it, and everyone is using the same digital effects. It's nice that you can do that, and I'm sure you can come up with something pretty good doing that, but... And, of course, that's probably exactly how Voigt makes his records, but I suppose the difference is that he's good, he's a human being.
PSF: There's something nice about the hermetic side of it though, it's vaguely appealing.
I wouldn't like to say it's the wrong way of doing things, but you need to let a little light in somewhere. Also a lot of it seems very unmusical, and they're not really bothered about, again, pleasure and stuff. Glitch... glitch can be so arduous. Like improv.
PSF: It usually is, isn't it? It can be so draining to listen to.
Because they've just got a sound and put a filter on it to make it sound 'weird.' I'm sure it sounds weird, but it doesn't necessarily sound good. (laughs)
PSF: Yeah, people really need to learn that weird does not necessarily equal good. It's weird that we're still fighting that battle.
Yeah. But I always really loved stuff like the Cluster records, they seem to predate all that.
PSF: My housemate says that no-one's really ever topped Kraftwerk's Computer World for all that stuff. That's such a beautiful record.
I think Ralf and Florian is the best one they've done. It's unfathomably good. It's like they invented a new form of music on that one, but no-one's really noticed it yet. Wow.
untitled 7" (no label)
Artex/A Lot LP (Siltbreeze)
untitled CD (no label)
Durian Durian LP (Forced Exposure)
Mundanity split w/Richard Youngs TC (Cakehole)
track on Gooseweek comp 7" (Oska)
Is Not Here TC (Union Pole)
Face of Scurf TC (Union Pole)
split w/Jazz Buffoon TC (Scum)
"Wheel Ramble/Real Scramble" 10" (no label)
Boomerang is Love TC (no label)
Casio Rapman and Electric Guitar TC (Matching Head)
The Singing Pubis TC (no label)
These Premises Are No Longer Bugged LP (Giardia/Fusetron)
"Pan Wagon Oasis" on split w/Campbell Kneale 7" (Celebrate Psi Phenomenon)
String Quartets, Loops, Garden Talk CDR (no label)
Itinerant String Section CDR (Freedom From)
"Paint Everything White/Blip Pneumonia" 7" (Giardia)
Excerpt from the Never-Ending Bowed Metal Song CDR (Fencing Flatworm)
"Mizzlefield Ploof Kingdom/Muttertown Birdsong Cindy" 7" (no label)
The Hearing Force of the Humanverse CDR (Fencing Flatworm)
SOL POWR LP (Lal Lal Lal)
Mothing CDR (no label)
Copse CDR (no label)
"Falling Free You and Me/Filling Sacks With Coloured Scraps" 10" (no label)
The Vibracathedral String Quartet CDR (no label)
Lino Hi CD (Giardia)
Hollin CDR (no label)
Music for Red Breath CDR (no label)
String Quartet/Drum Troupe 7" (Freedom From)
My Gate's Open, Tremble by My Side LP (Roaratorio)
Versatile Arab Chord Chart CD (VHF)
Their Spines Crumble For A Hug TC (no label)
Long Live the Weeds CDR (no label)
Hot Booty - Live 1999 CDR (VHF)
Live in Newcastle and Leeds 1999 TC (Matching Head)
"Live Glasgow 28 July 2000" on Freak On! CDR (VHF)
"The One You Call Ghost Train/Oblong Two" 7" (Tonschacht)
Dabbling With Gravity and Who You Are CD (VHF)
Textile Vinyle Serie 3 split w/Jackie-O Motherfucker 12" (Textile)
"Stole Some Sentimental Jewellery" on split w/Low 7" (Misplaced Music) MMICD CDR (no label)
JULIAN BRADLEY/NEIL CAMPBELL
First TC (no label)
2 TC (no label)
Bradley Campbell Three TC (no label)
V TC (no label)
untitled LP (American Tapes)
"Untitled" on Scenes From Ringing Isle 2CD (Rural Electrification Program/Betley Welcomes Careful Drivers/[K-RAA-K]3/Giardia/Swill Radio/Ecstatic Peace!/Freedom From/Polyamory)
JULIAN BRADLEY/NEIL CAMPBELL/STICKY FOSTER
The Lift, Brighton,14th March 1998 CDR (The Rhizome Label)
Buffin' the Celestial Muffin CD (Rural Electrification Program) Eternity's Beautiful Frontispiece CD (VHF)
Delicate Autobahn Under Construction 2CD (VHF) Slipstream CDR (Giardia; reissued by Rural Electrification Program) Found Star Sound CD (VHF) Temple Music Vols. 1&2 2CDR (Rural Electrification Program) Bliss 2CD (VHF)
NEIL CAMPBELL/RICHARD YOUNGS
How the Garden is LP (HP Cycle)
RICHARD YOUNGS/STEPHEN TODD
"Bananas'n'Muffins" on Georgians CD (VHF)
NEIL CAMPBELL/STEWART WALDEN
Here Comes Fun CDR (Slippytown)
untitled CDR (American Tapes)
NEIL CAMPBELL & DECAER PINGA
Strobelights to Boston CDR (Chocolate Monk)
Electronic Honky TC (Polyamory)
!!!Cuba.Planet Cuba!!! TC (Union Pole) "Vachement Click with Turntable Editions" on Studies For Postal Orgies TC (Chocolate Monk) Rate of CHB is in TC (Union Pole) Big Band Xerox TC (Chocolate Monk) "He'll Look Like Moses" on Studies For Postal Orgies Vol. 2 CDR (Chocolate Monk)
Paekong Mae LP (Giardia)
DEAD MAN'S GRAVEL
The Cuckoos Sang in Their Appropriated Nests CDR (Fencing Flatworm)
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