Over a year in the making, Ghost of Wood’s new album, Amalgam (I), is finally here. Ghost of Wood explains his musical background and the concept behind the album.
How did you get into making music?
I started my first band at the age of 12, with my good friend Simon Hill, back in the early 80s. We were soon joined by Michael Bearpark (Darkroom, No-Man, Richard Barbieri) and were influenced by Heavy Metal bands of the era like Iron Maiden and Saxon, space rockers Hawkwind and more indie stuff like U2 (who were not quite the perennial monsters of dad rock they are now). We had several fairly embarrassing names (Falcon, Eye 2 Eye, Molotov Cocktail) and even more line-up changes, but Simon and Mike were consistent throughout.
Mike had started listening to more obscure stuff and I remember him playing me some fairly out there jazz, which in my recollection I’m sure was Pat Metheny, but Mike’s memory differs from mine. And it certainly had an influence on his guitar playing. In either case, I was a devout listener to John Peel who introduced me to some truly alternative bands like Dalek I Love You, Crispy Ambulance, and one of the biggest influences on me: experimental Australian band Severed Heads, particularly the track, Goodbye Tonsils, which I bought on 12” and played on repeat. One of their tracks, Gashing the Old Mae West, was a one bar loop which in some versions went on for 30 minutes. I guess I liked very weird music.
As university beckoned, Mike had already jumped ship to play with Tim Bowness in After The Stranger and subsequently No-Man, and the band went their separate ways. Simon ultimately found himself in Australia as a journalist and Mike followed a parallel path of computational chemist by day and musician by night.
After a one year art foundation course, I ended up studying film and photography at the University of Westminster in London. In my first year there I began working on solo music, heavily influenced by electronic artists like Severed Heads, Cabaret Voltaire, The KLF and The Orb. This lead to listening to Brian Eno, Harold Budd and CAN. At the same time, I had switched from bass to guitar and was playing in a local band, Hog Heaven, with talented singer songwriter Jason Parker and fellow guitarist Mike Rowson. That was a great time: living a proper drug-fuelled rock and roll life of excess, dropping inordinate amounts of LSD and Ecstasy. Me and Rowson were full on party animals and went to a lot of Deep House, Electro and Acid House raves, eventually migrating to Drum and Bass parties.
Around this time, I met Mikey Thompson (X-Offender), a mutual friend of photographer Phil Knott, a DJ with aspirations to making his own music. When Hog Heaven disintegrated, me and Mikey went on to form a more sample-based Trip-Hop band called Sonik. We were eventually joined by ex-Freakniks bassist Andy Spence (who would go on to form New Young Pony Club) and singer and sax player Chris Davies. After very nearly getting signed to Virgin, that band eventually folded. A few years ago me, under the name DJ Ladybeard, and Mikey formed Battledeck Eclectica, a Hip Hop and Soul DJ tag-team, where I had a lot of fun mixing, scratching, and cutting up some weird Hip Hop tracks.
At what point did Ghost of Wood form?
I went through a number of years of not really making any music. I was concentrating on my career as a designer, but the pull was too strong. I began creating more experimental music at the crossroads between post-rock stuff like Mogwai and Radiohead and ambient stuff such as Biosphere. I release music under several names, but Ghost of Wood is my main jam, and has been for almost a decade now.
You seem to divide your work into several “series”. I wonder if you could talk about that?
When I’m creating music, I let the music flow and become what it wants to be. If it goes too far in a particular direction, I’ll release it under one of my other pseudonyms, but I find with Ghost of Wood stuff it seems to coalesce into a couple of different sub-genres, so I’ll group those releases together.
There is the Black Space series, which was originally a soundtrack for an unfinished movie I was making called Divide by Zero. It was influenced by Tangerine Dream and Jean-Michel Jarre, and the kinds of conspiracy theory books I read in the 80s about the Philadelphia Experiment, Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World and ancient astronaut stuff by Erich Von Däniken. It was heavily filtered through space cults like Heaven’s Gate and Raëlism. So I ended up with a series of weird albums sounding like they’d been created on old wobbly analogue synths, full of brooding sci-fi drones and odd music that I’m gradually releasing through Curated Doom.
Then there’s another series called Melancholy, which had another weird sci-fi concept behind it: that the albums were fragmentary radio recordings captured from Earth’s twin on the opposite side of the sun, only this planet was full of sadness and morose melancholy. These tracks were glitchy, degraded and decomposing, with music emerging from the ether of static, tape hiss and rumbling sounds. It’s very evocative.
There are other series too, but the one that’s closest to my heart is Amalgam..
How did that come about?
After decades of not working together, drummer Simon Hill brought myself and Mike Bearpark back together, and we ended up re-recording songs we’d last recorded in the 80s, with our vocalist from the time, John Done. It was a very surreal and amazing thing! I’d been keeping loose tabs on Mike’s music career and was a fan of his work with Os in Darkroom. So, as well as the nostalgia trip, I was keen to work with Mike on some new stuff, especially given that our musical tastes were very similar. That ended up becoming an album called Ursa, where I took a bunch of Mike’s unused guitar parts from Darkroom recordings and totally reworked them into new tracks, using fragments, time-stretched riffs and looping interesting bits, playing along to them on a variety of synths and guitars. It was my favourite record to date, and there was a particular track called SeppuKuma Part 2 that in retrospect was a prototypical version of Amalgam.
For Amalgam, I had this crazy idea: rather than work on my stuff solo, I wanted to work with a bunch of musicians, but I wanted to cut-and-paste their contributions like a DJ with a box of vinyl: mix it up and create unexpected juxtapositions. So I decided the album (this was originally going to be just a single album experiment!) would have a single key and a single tempo to ensure I could slide contributions around without worrying if it was going to work.
To start off with I couldn’t convince anyone to contribute to this album, so I ended up writing most of the stuff myself, and it developed its own texture, a sort of Pink Floyd meets Krautrock meets Twin Peaks and Fire Walk With Me vibe. It was a very organic, and had a real-instrument feel that oscillated between hypnotic, looping grooves and dark, unsettling, mysterious pieces. I thought I was onto something.
Eventually I managed to persuade some musicians to get involved and ended up with guitar solos from Tom B in Australia, noted jazz bassist Doug Ross and pedal steel guitar from Curt Trisko who resides in a tiny town in the American Mid-West. And of course, Mike Bearpark was on board. Everyone brought something unique and special to the party, but it was all refracted through the prism of my own aesthetic which gave it all some consistency.
One of the most amazing things to me is that both Mike and Simon from my first band in the early 80s have played on Amalgam, and that feels really special.
What does Amalgam mean in the context of the album?
Originally I wanted Amalgam to mean an amalgamation of musicians, a bunch of people coming together to make something new and interesting. But I soon realised that it had a second meaning. The albums became an amalgamation of musical influences, too. This was me distilling decades of music into this project, and quite a diverse playlist it was. You can definitely hear the Pink Floyd and CAN, and you can totally hear the David Lynch/Angelo Badalamenti in there. But there’s also Air, Mogwai, Tortoise, Deep Purple, Latin Sambas and Bossa Novas, Bob James’ theme music to Taxi (which I always bizarrely found a bit melancholic for a comedy show!) Talk Talk, Yes, King Crimson, Steve Reich and other minimalist composers. One of the biggest influences was Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, which is the possibly the album I have listened to most, and never tire of it. Taking a theme and allowing it to develop over the course of a (mostly) unbroken album was both musically ambitious and exhilarating for the listener. Equally, Kate Bush’s A Sky of Honey from Aerial had a similar effect on me. Conceptually, stuff like my experiences clubbing, listening to hypnotically looping house music was a major influence. I like the trance-like state that repeating musical motifs can create.
With so many different influences, you’ve managed to keep a unique and consistent sound to the Amalgam series. How have you done that?
There’s a definite aesthetic to Amalgam. This is partly due to my obsession with shakers, which keep a chugging rhythm going through the albums, as well as my love of electric pianos like the Fender Rhodes, which I play a lot on the albums. Shimmery tremolo guitars and tinkly glockenspiels are also the glue that holds everything together too. I like building complex melodies out of layering simpler ones, so there’s usually a gradual build up, ebbing and flowing, across the albums. I’m not the best guitarist, certainly not the best keyboardist, but I know enough to be dangerous and I keep things simple and not too flashy, giving space for the other contributors to be more flamboyant. The project has definitely pushed my songwriting, production techniques and performing to new levels, so that’s been a great challenge.
Of course, having the same key and tempo running through the albums sounds like the recipe to dull, bland sameyness, but in fact it’s been quite liberating. It’s astonishing, in fact, how much tonal, musical and rhythmic diversity there is.
How would you describe Amalgam to someone who’s never heard of it?
It’s uh, difficult to summarise. But you could describe it as ambient prog rock jazz fusion… but that’s probably only half the picture!
Will Amalgam ever be performed live?
I can’t remember how to play most of it! But I’m seriously looking at doing some limited performances, getting a supergroup band together to take some of the musical ideas in Amalgam and jam around with it.
Talk us through your studio set-up.
I have a very simple studio, but it’s my pride and joy. I have a modern, powerful iMac running the latest version of Logic Pro X. I tend to work in the box with minimal outboard gear, but I have Scarlett 2i2 for getting my microphone recordings and my guitars into Logic. Channel 1 goes in via a DBX 286s compressor/gate effects unit, and the channel 2 (usually basses, guitars, and recorded acoustic guitars) is unprocessed. In terms of guitars, I have a lot of cheap, flawed guitars, such as Squire Strats and Epiphone SGs. My favourite bass is an Ibanez Gio, which is a joy to play. For keyboards, I have a trusty M-Audio Keystation 61, which I’ve had for so many years the keys are yellow, and a relatively new Yamaha P-45 piano which is amazing. Both are used to control soft synth and samples within Logic.
My first DAW was Cubase, and after dabbling around in Garageband, I ended up with Logic Pro X, because it felt like the natural extension to Cubase. I wish I could get into Ableton, but it makes my head hurt.
For the longest time I used no additional plug-ins inside of Logic Pro, just the native ones. But when I started getting serious about mastering I bought Sound Theory’s Gullfoss intelligent EQ plug-in, which has been an absolute game changer. I also use George Yohng’s clone of the Wave L1 limiter, the W1 Limiter, which does a fantastic, transparent job of cleanly boosting the audio.
I recently expanded my sonic palette with Spectrasonic’s Omnisphere. I’ve only scraped the surface of this synth, and I’m anxious to import my own samples into its powerful granular processor. My next purchases will probably be some amp modelling plug-ins as I’ve moved beyond Logic’s ok-but-nothing-special built in amp modelling.
© Curated Doom 2018. Interview by Raoul Sanchez.