The Psychogeographical Commission - Patient ZeroAfter last years's stunning debut Genius Loci, The Psychogeographical Commission return with Patient Zero. Patient Zero "attempts to psychologically portray the mind of a Patient Zero, wandering through their urban surroundings infected with the solar downturn at the Summer Solstice and tracking the advancements of symptoms as the sun goes from the height of its earthly power to its astronomical nadir". And it does so wonderfully. From the slow crawling haunting strings of 'Antenociticus Reawaken' it sets in motion a feeling of tension.
Light tumbling guitar notes rest against atmospheric tones on 'Beneath The Bricks A Wave' as S.:'s poised tones, pitched here somewhere between Ian Read and Andrew King, touch upon ancestral ghosts, mystical alignments, sacred statutes, secret places to be found within the modern city. Short bursts of buzz guitar chords are interspersed between the passages of spoken words. The entire track reawakens old gods mapping out the upcoming musical landscape.
'Can You Feel It?' takes the form of a phone call from the perspective of an infected individual. Over hanging disembodied guitar notes and the light atmospheric hum of the city's streets the protagonist notes the transformation in the air and the buildings, the drawn-out colours, the birds that are now earthbound and the traffic that appears nervous. It's a vivid portrayal of the effects of the solar illness.
'Earth' features a solemn recitation of Blake's poem 'London' from the illuminated book Songs Of Experience. From then on in the concept becomes more obscure but the results nonetheless startling. The yawning synth stabs and layers of buzzing disorientating electronic rhythms of 'Enochian On The Wall' is a comparatively less intricate Coil-lite piece, ebbing out on resonating church organ like chime. The following track deals with the heady topics of time and evolution. Delivered in a well rounded spoken voice, it posits a theory about transformed reality drawing upon the past and projecting future scenarios. The fate of evolution delivered over precise guitar pluck, shape-shifting keyboards and the babble of human chatter.
Compared to Genius Loci, Patient Zero is much darker but the textures are much more varied. Just listen to the stuttered and stabbing electronics of 'Gutterbright To The Starres' punctuated with excited wails and the fervent delivery of rhythmic texts, before is slips into an electronic shimmer as soothing tones speak of a fading sunset. Noted occult scryers John Dee and Edward Kelley are referenced on 'The Darkness In Light' an intriguing narrative ruminating on the modern magickal properties of glass, lifted by its hymn like chorus ("Light from the stars, in alchemical prism, Refracting the soul, cold demonic vision. Warped vector of light, held in quicksilver, Fluxed arsenic and sand, fused into mirror ...") sung over wafting angelic chorus and fragile guitar notes.
The final track 'Walking With Omega' conjures up images of Elizabethan England with its majestic strings. It's wonderfully evocative contrasting archaic strings with a cinematic voiceover, gliding off with a hauntingly effective guitar solo and wailing police siren.
The entire album is joined by ambient passages of location recordings and electronics bridging the gaps between the tracks offering a sense of continuation. Recordings were made at times of lunar or solar significance with location recordings taken from various spots in Glasgow, Newcastle and London.
Others such as the Mount Vernon Arts Lab and English Heretic may have taken a similar approach but none have so immersed themselves in the landscape of the city and urban sprawl revisiting the past and creating new mythologies in the process. There may even be pointers in the work of Coil and Current 93 as The Psychogeographical Commission come loaded with occult knowledge of William Blake, John Dee and Hawksmoor's churches. And yet they distil enough obscure references of their own to ensure Patient Zero is as singular as the writings of Alan Moore. With Patient Zero they might just find themselves pounding the streets on their own. There's much to digest and much to decipher on Patient Zero. The Psychogeographical Commission have supplied the map but it's up to you to navigate the route. Be careful how you go.
We've been more than enamoured with the releases of The Psychogeographical Commission so we caught up with S.: to shed some light on this enigmatic musical project.
i) Firstly, may I congratulate you on two strikingly designed and beautifully composed albums. Response to Genius Loci has been overwhelmingly positive, have you been surprised by the reaction to Genius Loci?
Thanks, and yes, really surprised. Both of us have been in and around a few bands in the past with varying success and weren't really expecting a great deal from Genius Loci. We'd approached it more as a getting to know you exercise to see how we could fit together and work over the long distance. Things came together quite quickly and we were pretty pleased with the results as a first stab at an album, but even then we decided that a limited edition of CD-Rs was the way to go to see if it was worth pushing on with the project. Everybody we sent it to really liked the whole package, the music, the concept and even the packaging. We got some great reviews and were being accepted by quite a few small to medium distributors which was further than I'd got with projects before. We knew ourselves that some of the kit we were using wasn't really that good and we didn't really know how to use it properly hence the original release was a bit on the rough side so when we sold out of the map book edition we took the time to remix and remaster it properly and put a glassmastered version in 'proper' packaging. This in turn allowed us to get some new reviews from places which wouldn't talk to us originally and allowed bigger distributors like Cold Spring and Tesco Germany to stock us. The problem now is trying to better that with the second album, but I think music, concept and even just general production-wise we've shown we can push on.
ii) The Psychogeographical Commission are S.: and Hokano. Who are Hokano and S.:? What's your musical background? How did you come to work together?
Hokano is the name of Andy's ambient solo project. Back in the early 90's, Andy started off with ex-members of Mortal Terror in a band called Critical Mess which was a sort of anarcho space punk band, and played synths with Newcastle acid rock band The Dead Flowers, appearing on their critically acclaimed Moon Tan album. When these projects died he formed ZOoPhYte, an ambient noise project releasing a few cassette-only albums through the Destroy all Music tape label. This came to a premature end due to ether thieves stealing all the field recordings and master tapes. I met Andy shortly after this when I was living in Newcastle, where we were briefly in a band called Aftercare together (with me on guitar) until I moved up to Glasgow in 2000 but we kept in vague touch. In early 2008 I was playing around with a solo project under the name of mrsix, and Hokano had released its first album Ointment of Civilisation the year before. I was almost there with my solo album but then decided the underlying recordings on all of the early tracks were terrible and would need re-recording so at that point I decided to learn a bit more about production and talked with Andy about maybe doing a project with him and seeing if it would go anywhere. A few weeks later Andy and I were in London for a Current 93 gig and had a spare day to kill, so we decided to look for patterns on street maps and walk around them to see what we could find. We got halfway down the back legs of a Mithraic Bull we found slap-bang in the centre of London, when we were stopped under the prevention of terrorism act for photographing some graffiti on a closed shop blind. We later thought that the arrival of the police was entirely in keeping with having set about invoking the god of the Roman Praetorian Guard. After the C93 gig, on a bridge in the middle of the Thames and under a full Moon, we decided that there was still some life in the old gods, so we thought about writing some music to invoke them further and Genius Loci was born.
iii) I understand The Psychogeographical Commission are split both musically and geographically. How do you approach composition and songwriting?
We tend to write in three main ways, I'll either hammer something out on guitar, put some vocals to it then send it off to Newcastle for soundscaping, or Andy will come up with some dark ambient odyssey and I'll see if I can think of anything to add to it. Then there's the third way which is where he'll send me up a few loops of noise or interesting rhythms and I see if I can hear a song in them. We tend to use all three in equal amounts because it gives a nice variation of songs and prevents the album sounding a bit samey. Another thing that helps is my insomnia, I often sort out my guitar lines in bed at night with an unplugged electric guitar with the window wide open so I can get a backing of street noise, wind and traffic etc. It helps to get a quiet jaded sort of feeling which fits well with the soundscaping that get added to it later.
iv) Your albums Genius Loci and Patient Zero are both informed by Psychogeography. Psychogeography is generally associated with the written word from theorists such as Guy Debord through to the works and investigations of writers such as Ian Sinclair, Stewart Home, Peter Ackroyd... I'm intrigued as how you struck upon the idea to incorporate psychogeography to music?
We've both always approached things from the point of view that every sound is music, now it might not all be good music you'd choose to listen to but music nonetheless. We used to find sometimes that we'd ended up listening to the mains hum from next doors fridge when an ambient album finished, and had friends who live on major bus routes where songs are often interspersed with external noise which added into the mix. Sometimes listening to the album again we decided we liked it better with all the bus noise or hums. Andy was living in a large tower block at the time so no matter what you did you could always hear wind noise and people running and shouting in the stairwell which really added interest to some ambient albums. The big one for me was out walking though. Neither of us drive so we both spend many hours a week listening to mp3's whilst walking around, I really liked the way that some external noise interplayed with the music, it was like another instrument and was never the same twice so you never really got bored with it. It's a short step from there to incorporating certain places for their noises or the reverse of that, allowing the place to take a solo while we play the background music for a bit. Once you start interacting with a city like that you start to see it differently. There's a lot of interest to be found in cities if you approach them differently, and that's what Psychogeography is all about. People tend to ignore huge swathes of information everyday simply because they are used to it. But by walking a different way to work or looking above the level of shop signs you can rediscover a fantastic amount and reconnect emotionally with a city you've got bored with, and nothing aids an emotional attachment quite like music. Within the albums we try and create a balance between songs that try to stoke the imagination, confront you with concepts or ways of looking at thing anew, and songs which allow your mind to drift and revel in your own thoughts. Going by some of the feedback we've had it seems to be working for listeners.
v) Magick appears to play a strong role within your work. Do you agree? How is magick incorporated into your music?
I've always seem magick as a precursor to Psychology in the same way that Alchemy was the precursor to Chemistry. Magick is just antediluvian reality hacks passed down through time because they work. We both see magick as a very personal thing and approach it like magpies, we've read and experimented with many different systems and Andy goes down a vaguely Ramsey Dukes route whereas I prefer my magic a bit more symbolic and Austin Osman Spare, but we're not too dissimilar. We both tend to cherry pick the bits that have worked from whatever we've looked at and use them again, and it's very much the same approach with the music. Neither of us have been taught music to any degree and have actively avoided being constrained by such lessons, yes, we might have borrowed a few techniques from places, but it's methodologies that we've adapted into something that fits the music. We both tend to work more creatively around times of lunar significance which we managed to build into the concept of Patient Zero and deliberately add elements of chaos into our more ambient pieces as it helps to give it a more natural feel, it takes off the sharp corners.
vi) Releases from The Psychogeographical Commission are conceptually very strong. What are the principal influences (music, authors, film, ideas) that feed into The Psychogeographical Commission?
This is probably the first and last time you'll here this from a band but the thing that really set us going was thinking about the psychological effects that Town planning has on the inhabitants. Of course, as you'd expect, we came around to this after studying Magick, the natural alignments accentuated through time by evolving cites, lost rivers, symbolism and remnant traces of religions and customs past which still surround us all, but our biggest influence are Cities and how they make us feel.
Andy reads lots of Arthur Machen amongst other things, I read quite a bit of China Miéville, Looking for Jake and Other Stories with people chasing alleys which have disappeared from one city only to reappear in different one, beat up a another street and disappear again. I think our favourite at the moment has to be Mythogeography: A Guide to Walking Sideways by Phil Smith though, it's just jam packed with cool ideas and concepts. Film wise, there are Patrick Keiller's films, London and Robinson in Space with a third one coming out this year some time Robinson in Ruins and the excellent Nine Lives of Tomas Katz which is great for the window conspiracy and talking bollards alone. Musically the most obvious influence is the Musick To Play In The Dark era of Coil and most albums by Nurse with Wound, then there's some of the Ghost Box releases and a lot of the mid-late period of Einstürzende Neubauten where they started getting a bit quieter and sonic, and perhaps bits of TG as well. These things get the mind going, then we go for a walk and start investigating.
vii) On your website you write: "After a great deal of time wandering the back streets of London and other large cities looking for the spirits which now dwell within them, we came to the conclusion that the psychological make-up of cities is now at odds with the populations inherent rural based mythology. People aren't evolving to cope with cities fast enough to keep up with the constantly shifting cityscape." Could you elaborate on this? What lead you to this viewpoint?
I've been a pagan for many years, since I started thinking about religion, but I also live in a city. It always struck me as a bit odd that most pagans are only really pagans on weekends when they go somewhere green and celebrate its well, greenness, and those that do keep it up during the week usually dislike being in cities because it's at odds with their religion. I suppose it shouldn't have really surprised me because Paganism had developed in a time when the vast majority of people, even if they lived in towns or villages, were essentially still rural. Trouble is it's not the case any more and hasn't been for a long time. A lot of the old hedge lore is becoming increasing irrelevant due to man changing the environment of the plants and animals, you can't see the stars anymore in most large cities and the rivers and grass are mostly covered in concrete. It just seems to me that lots of people are losing their connection with their environment because we changed our circumstances but our methods of coping didn't. Catholicism realised it early on and demons and angels were born to update the old gods, but even that has been eclipsed by our psychological evolution since then. Atheism and Psychology wiped the slate clean as far as gods are concerned, but there's still that edge that people can get from magick and paganism that has enough freedom within it to make use of it. People live in cities now, pagans should accept that and move on. There are more than enough newly created aspects of the human consciousness to think about rather than concentrating on withering irrelevances. Don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting a massive dumping of tradition, but the methodologies which have been used to great effect down the years which are dying out due to a lack of relevance can be used in new and more relevant ways. For instance, Geomancy essentially derives down to divination by 16 binary digits, it could be lights in a tower block or spaces in a supermarket car park it doesn't matter. The Romans documented methods of divination using the patterns of bird formation which could be similarly adapted for people moving on a street. The wafty bearded gods of the ancients have not gone away, they just have iPads and Bentleys now. There are a few offshoots out there trying, but most are too dogmatic and clunky in their updating. The main point of the music is to help people to create their own personal mythologies, ones that are relevant to them in whatever environment they live or work in.
viii) On your website it states "Genius Loci attempts to explore further the Psychogeographical nature of our built environment and is therefore written to be played whilst interacting with a city …" Did you receive any feedback from your listeners about this that you would care to divulge?
Yeah, there's been a surprising amount of feedback, it's been really good to hear back from people.
Quite a lot from Londoners saying it really capture the essence of the city, there was even one guy who emailed us who was brought up in London and lives in the States who said it helps him feel a little less homesick. Most people have commented that it's making them listen to background city noise now because there are points where they can't tell if certain noises are on the album or not which was one of the things we wanted to do. I think most of feedback is a result of the listener looking up above the shop signs and seeing things about their city that they'd not noticed before, which can only be a good thing. Your imagination needs to be fed as often as you can. Because there's more to the band than just the music, it's great when other people play around with similar concepts as us and tell us how they did something differently and how they got on with it. We all have fun then.
ix) Just out of interest in terms of psychogeography what are you favourite pieces of architecture and areas for exploring?
I don't think it's a case of having a favourite, most places have a vibe about them but they're all different. But big tall stone buildings with lots of narrow little alleys and stairs leading of in all directions are usually the most fun, so places like the Quayside in Newcastle used to be great before it was redeveloped. Generally most places with a bit of age have collected some sort of vibe about them over the years. It usually makes me remember The Stone Tape, a great drama from the seventies that's well overdue a remake. In it the stone of a castle is affected by sonic experiments by beardy 'scientists' to the point where it released the traumatic memories it had recorded over the years as ghosts. I can really see where that came from, generally the older the place the easier it is to get some sort of a connection. Most new places don't have the same capabilities because they have an inherent impermanence about them. There are quite a few architects out there these days that do take emotions into account but never usually in social housing, it's usually corporate buildings and large public works which is a shame. Most people have to put up with almost identical prefab buildings with very little emotional content. That's one of the great things about Glasgow, the amount of Tenement housing, built to be around long enough to carry feelings, all that lovely stone.
x) Patient Zero is based around a fictionalised concept involving the outbreak of a contagious illness aligned to solar changes. I'm intrigued by this concept could you expand on it? How did the idea originate?
Seasonal changes and the increasing darkness are as much a psychological factor as the building and it's not a great jump to say that times of solar/lunar significance also have an effect psychologically. Full moons causing increased madness have long been talked about to the point where the police actually do put more people out patrolling city centres on weekends that fall on full moons than on those that don't because of the increase in trouble even though any link between lunar activity and psychological state has supposedly been scientifically disproved. Seasonal Affective Disorder is now a recognised condition with firm biological roots, the decrease in serotonin and increase in melatonin causes increasing depression due to reducing daylight hours. We wanted to investigate this link a bit further. Our music can be quite dark at times so it was natural to use the period when the sun goes from the height of its power to its lowest point. From the Summer solstice, the sun is on a downward path until it is reborn at the Winter solstice, it's like the sun is infected by a hyper Psychogeographical Seasonal affected disorder of it's very own. We decided that everyone is infected to some extent by the dying sun and extrapolated a single case to study out of that, we then thought to move the project steadily northwards to try to accentuate the changes. The thing that really tied it together was realising that the omega symbol (Ω), used to symbolise death for centuries looks just like a setting sun, I'm not sure if that was originally how it came about but we liked the connotations.
We've not actually considered doing an album chronicling the rise of the suns power to complete the year but I suppose that might be a concept to bank for a future album.
xi) Do you think the concept of Patient Zero would work well as a graphic novel? Have you any interest in graphic novels or any of their writers? I'm thinking initially of Alan Moore and Grant Morrison both of whom employ both psychogeographical and occult ideas in their writings but also of the work of Warren Ellis.
I don't know so much about a graphic novel, but we were watching a film called Heartless (2009) last time I was in Newcastle, and the first hour or so of that so easily could have been a video for Patient Zero a guy in a hoodie slowly becoming more and more paranoid with an increasing undercurrent of something eating away at the soul of the city, it was great.
It's only been the last 10 or so years I've started getting into graphic novels. My personal favourites are The Invisibles by Grant Morrison (which dropped off a bit when transferred to the States) and From Hell by Alan Moore with the whole darkness and the (not quite) alignment of Hawksmoor's churches thing, I've also been a big fan of Hellblazer for a number of years now and I've just finished reading the story arc that Denise Mina wrote where John Constantine comes to Glasgow and fights off demons in Kelvingrove Museum with pornography, great story. John Constantine spends most of his time walking around cities in the rain looking for spirits, so do we.
xii) Patient Zero features location recordings from London, Newcastle and Glasgow provided by Missing Transmission. Who or what are Missing Transmission?
Missing Transmission is the solo effort of a good friend of ours who set it up as an ambient Steampunk project to create soundscapes evoking the paths not taken by history. He's into early Tangerine Dream and Sleep Research Facility, so it sort of fits.
For Patient Zero we came up with the Alphaville concept. Because we wanted to produce a smooth flow to the album to avoid breaking the listener's train of thought, instead of it stopping between songs we decided to add in small songlets to bridge the gaps. I suppose it's like having smaller shops or buildings on a street, it offers something a bit different but still in the same flow. To do this we asked a couple of people to listen to the first album and create some textures of about 2 minutes, and Missing Transmission came back with the best ones. I'd just watched Alphaville: A Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution (1965), where they'd built numerous computers to run cities (Alphaville 1-59) until they perfect one which outlawed emotion and outlawed free thought, and decided to call these bridging textures after the early attempts to shape cities. We'll probably invite a few more people to contribute Alphavilles on future projects just to add a bit more city to the diversity of the album. I doubt we'll ever get to 60 but we might get enough of them to mix down into a separate album at some point, but that will be way off.
xiii) You reside in Glasgow and Patient Zero features location recordings from Glasgow and an altered photograph of Glasgow's main shopping fare, Buchanan Street. Have you or do you intend to investigate Glasgow, its occult significance or its underground history?
Definitely, but rather than Underground history, the next Psychcomm project is about the history of the Underground. The idea is pretty straight forward, we take a recording of the Glasgow subway as it performs one loop of the anticlockwise inner circle, soundscape it and release it as a limited edition mini CD. Where it starts to get interesting is when we go back onto the Underground and play the CD back at a slightly higher volume than the train and out of sync with the passing platforms. If we do it late at night or early in the morning then we should be able to spot which other passengers are using audio cues to work out where they are and when to stand up for their exits, at the very least it should confuse people and draw an emotional response. I'm just hoping that the emotional response doesn't involve us getting hit.
There's also another project about Glasgow I'm doing a bit of research on at the moment and that's probably more akin to Alan Moore's The Moon and Serpent Grand Egyptian Theatre of Marvels. It's a long narrative piece about the history of Glasgow, based heavily on Harry Bell's work on the Geometry of Glasgow and the surrounding area, and Ludovic MacLellan Mann's work Earliest Glasgow, a Temple of the Moon about networks of moon temples in the area, but then bringing it forward showing the undercurrents to how the city evolved and its more esoteric background, its pyramids, miracles, hidden rivers and even Crowley's (non existent) meeting with Rudolph Hess. So if there's any stories or interesting facts that people think I ought to know to help out, then let me know, there's an email address on the website.
xiv) I can detect the influence of Coil in the sound of The Psychogeographical Commission but are you aware of English Heretic, another shadowy outfit who investigate the spirits within architecture and landscapes? Or back in Glasgow what about Drew Mulholland and the Mount Vernon Arts Lab? Who do you regard as musical affiliates to The Psychogeographical Commission?
Yes, we swapped some albums with English Heretic early on and I really loved The Séance at Hobs Lane so I might have a go at contacting Drew at some point even if it's just to have a chat give him our stuff to listen to. There's also a bunch of people doing work with Acoustic Archaeology like Z'ev who go a bit further in to the interaction with a place, but it's probably not for us to say who we feel we want to be affiliated with. It's been really astounding that we've been liken to so many great bands and we're just happy with that.
xv) As far as I'm aware The Psychogeographical Commission have never played live. Can you envisage a situation where you would play live? How would you approach it?
We might get around to getting something into shape for playing live, but because there are only two of us in the band and I'm playing multiple instruments, it means adding a few more people to the band or just generally being a bit more creative about how we're coming up with sounds. We're currently sorting out a free to download album consisting of few tracks off the first album with five or so covers of songs that fit in with our concepts and perhaps a couple of Alphavilles, so we're taking that opportunity to perhaps try out a few people we know, so we might end up with enough bodies to consider playing live at some point.
We had thought about doing the Underground EP live using the train as a third member of the band, but getting permission to take over a whole Subway carriage and powering a PA in there was going to really difficult. It's probably more likely at the moment that we'd be doing something site specific like this rather than just standard gigs, it would probably fit with the band ethos a little better as well as being a bit more special for those who can make it, but it would depend on finding places with interesting enough noises that are useable as venues.
xvi) And just where can we find the Xerxes Bar and Grill?
It has been said that the Xerxes Bar and Grill is the etheric creative space originally found during the ZOoPhYte phase as a receptive place to practice and experiment, and that it has had many locations over the years forming when needed and dissolving back to the ether till the next project is born. But I could be wrong.
The Psychogeographical Commission