Neil Campbell

you can't wander for long within the UK's experimental underground without bumping into someone who'll tell you that Neil Campbell is a “bloody nice bloke” (Australia), “top fella” (UK) or a “great guy” (USA).

As part of the underrated A-Band and Vibracathedral Orchestra he’s been producing and releasing quality music that both experiments and captivates. He’s also the man behind a (so far) seven strong run of magnificent Astral Social Club CD-Rs. This series has left a trail of memorable electronics, drones, harmonics, joy and beauty in editions of 100. As if this wasn't enough, there have also been attention drawing collaborations through the years with Wire pin-up Richard Youngs, the ever busy Matthew Bower, Decaer Pinga, and the back-to-front Campbell Kneale of Birchville Cat Motel and Battlecrusier fame.

If you want an entry point into the 'scene', you could do a lot worse than to follow the breadcrumbs of his musical journey.

If you don't mind me asking, how do you balance getting time to record music with home life?

Ah, it's no big deal—there are plenty of us out there juggling all manner of other commitments with the absolute necessity of making music or whatever. As for me, I have a very limited social life, don't play computer games, and don’t watch films. I just generally try not to waste too much time; I prioritise. Yeah, it's got harder to find the time over the past few years, with starting a family, but that just encourages me to use my time better. It's always been like that with me. I spent much of my late teens / early 20’s on the dole, hanging out, partying, being "bohemian," and producing very little of note. I did spend a lot of time sitting around talking about producing things though. But as soon as I bit the bullet and got a regular job that messed my life up and shagged me out, I became much more focussed and productive. If I start with the basic premise that I'm never going to have enough time, then anything I get done is a bonus.

How do your two children fit into the musical equation?

Having kids has been a kick up the arse really, and I've become more productive and happier with what I produce as a result. I never held with that boring ‘artistic’ notion of the pram in the hall being the enemy of creativity anyway—that's been an excuse to batter down women's art and folk art in general over the years. There’s a ridiculous train of thought where it's somehow not ‘serious’ or ‘proper’ unless you're doing it all the time and for financial reward. Bollocks to that. I have a mundane day job three days a week, look after the kids for the rest of the time, and do music whenever else I can, and I feel like I'm at the top of my game. And anyway, I think the best music is usually that which is cut quickly and without too much premeditation, so my circumstances keep me sharp and on my toes.

What sort of music do you play around your kids?

My kids, and I think most kids, just seemed to respond to music from birth onwards. But it's the primal thing that music has that, for me, gives it the edge over other art forms—instant celestial transport which probably works as much on our physiologies as it does our aesthetics. My three year old son genuinely likes abstract noise, his favourite band is Wolf Eyes, and has been known to throw a tantrum if I try to play anything too "normal." But he still loves his nursery rhyme tapes too. Right now our six week old son stops very still when music comes on. Some of it holds his attention, some of it doesn't, but it's too early to discern any preferences. He had a great time with Basement Jaxx the other evening though.

What’s the happiest piece of music you've been part of creating? And does the recording capture the feeling?

Ah, so much happiness...I love playing music, it really gives me a lift. I like to convey some sort of feeling of joy through it, so I couldn't really pinpoint any one piece. But yeah, the feeling I get from playing music doesn't always transfer to the recording. But the converse applies, and sometimes I may feel like I'm just coasting, or trying to find the right sound to hit the spot, but then I'll listen back to the tape and it'll sound wonderful and just right. That pleases me—it's a huge cliché, but I do feel like some sort of conduit/lightning rod for sounds and feelings that are already out there and just waiting to be unleashed. A basic pagan worldview, with little need for late-Christian / materialist "genius" crap, y'know?

Ever got a buzz from a leyline?

Nah, I try to avoid hallucinogens.

What would you recommend in terms of basic recording equipment to someone wanting to start out making 'experimental music'? Is that too vague / technical a question?

No idea—whatever makes life easy for you. Keep it simple. If you can't do something worthwhile jamming live to minidisc or a tape recorder, then maybe you shouldn't be doing music (and I'm speaking as someone who often likes to layer and process things heavily using a computer). My process is totally quotidian—whatever time to myself I can snatch. I might drink a beer or a glass of wine or a whisky first, then retire to the attic room and press the record button.

More than a few people I’ve talked to about your music have picked out Lost Predelic Moonshine Music as their favourite Campbell release. How was that release to record and do you think it captured something special?

Really? That's amusing to me, in that the thing was originally conceived as a c60 cassette for Chocolate Monk, cut out of all the left-over bits from some of my more dense workouts—backing tracks and early drafts if you like. I liked how they sounded, so thought a cassette would be a cheap and unpretentious way of rounding them all up for anyone who was interested. Because of this I was never too sure about the thing as a CDR when Dylan [Nyoukis, Chocolate Monk’s label head] asked me if he could keep it available in that format—seemed like it was then elevated into something "finished" or whatever, which it was never intended as. Whatever, I didn't argue, so Dylan fired ahead.

So is this simpler, less precious approach something you’re using purposefully now?

Strange thing is that it does prefigure my approach in Astral Social Club, where I've stopped trying to present things as finished and stopped worrying if the whole thing doesn't run together as a completely smooth whole. That kind of neurotic approach was blighting my solo recordings for a while, so very little came out for a while because I was always wanting to do one last overdub, one last edit, one more mix etc. Once I stopped worrying, and invented Astral Social Club as a "band" to be the receptacle for my solo recordings, I became much happier with them and the whole recording process. I'm so fired up for astral social action right now!

If improv already has its own language, how is it possible to avoid that and the clichés/familiar territory of playing with the same band?

With Vibracathedral, we don't avoid the obvious. We stare straight into its eyes and ride it wherever it's taking us. In essence, we've found a sound and an approach, and we're probably attempting to play the same piece over and over again. It's the failures and inconsistencies within these performances that are keeping us interested and hopefully interesting. With my solo material I like to take a few more chances and dive headlong into areas that Vibracathedral Orchestra can't or won't go. Often its places where I feel an antipathy towards the results of most other practitioners in that that field, like Electronica or Noise.

How large a part of your playing is determined by looking for the harmonics in the instruments you play or harmonies with what other people are playing?

I like simple melodies, rhythms, and harmonics, but like to hear a slew of simple things stacked up and bouncing off each other. I guess I naturally gravitate towards harmony rather than melody.

Which other artist / collaborator that you've worked with do you feel most 'gets' what you do?

Apart from the other members of Vibracathedral? Skaters, Matthew Bower, and Tirath Singh Nirmala spring readily to mind.

Tirath Singh Nirmala?

He’s incredible. Its just great to have Tirath’s sublime string soar back—he withdrew from the music scene a few years back, when he was still known as John Clyde-Evans. He then reappeared at the end of last year with new name, new beard and a whole slew of new sound. He’s immensely talented and probably capable of anything. Check the two CDR compilation volumes of Tattv-guna-ma Ia for an introduction.

Birds of Delay are worth checking for as well. They’re a couple of young upstarts who I’ve witnessed really ripping it up in scuzzy upstairs rooms of Leeds pubs. They specialise in really invigorating noisy blasts. My favourite of their recordings is the Chambers CDR on Chocolate Monk.

Who or what do you do you give credit to for the last few years' rising profile for 'experimental' music?

The advancing redundancy and lameness of standard guitar-music? The influence of dance music in breaking the chains of “The Song” for a whole generation of listeners? The infectious enthusiasm of many people in the scene? Cheap thrills for the media? Something in the water? Oh, I don’t know…

Are you a record collector / obsessive? And who do you collect and why?

I love records, but I'm no obsessive collector—I'm too tight to pay big prices, and I like to keep a healthy turnover of sound in my life, so am constantly getting rid of things. That said, over the last couple of years I've acquired a frightening amount of Sun Ra vinyl—seems like that stuff often really only comes alive on vinyl, flipping it over every 15-20 minutes, gazing at beautiful big 12" sleeves while listening.

What are your musical plans for 2006?

Largely, take it as it comes. There are plans to edit an Astral Social Club CD for vhf records, from the first 7 CDR volumes. I'd like to approach it more like a DJ set than a greatest hits type of thing, layering and smashing different pieces together to create something a bit new. Apart from that, just to play whenever I can with Vibracathedral, Astral Social Club, or whatever else takes my fancy. Astral Social Club is playing Glasgow’s Subcurrent event in April, which I'm pretty excited about. It's on the same bill as Skaters and Axolotl, two of my favourite bands right now, plus I'll get to have more of a band feel with the addition of my old friend Tirath Singh Nirmala and possibly one other person for this gig.

Talking of festival events like Subcurrent, let’s say we organise Campbellfest 2006. What’s your six band line-up?

Skaters/Axolotl collaboration, Sunburned Hand of the Man, Mick Flower / Chris Corsano duo, Incapacitants, Kasai All-stars and someone drag Wolfgang Voigt out of retirement, give him a kick up the arse and get him to DJ. Can I get John Olson to MC too?

Vibracathedral Orchestra

By: Scott McKeating
Published on: 2006-01-26
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