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Cousin Silas: Another Flask of BallardAuthor: Simon Sellars • Oct 3rd, 2007 •
Interview by Simon Sellars
Cousin Silas is a producer of dark-ambient soundscapes. He has five albums to his name and a few EPs, spiking the vein of glacial electronica. His work evokes Edward Artemiev and Brian Eno. In fact, for afficionados drawing inspiration from Eno’s most influential ambient works (Music for Airports, say, through to Thursday Afternoon), pleasure may very well be derived from the work of Silas. These textured pieces can be gently iterative, building ambience and atmosphere systematically; they can be as tenuous as ectoplasm, barely there; and they can be dramatically reductive, sloughing layers to reveal roiling depths beneath, echo sounding in waves of sound.
Lately Silas has created not one but two albums inspired by the works of J.G. Ballard: Ballard Landscapes and the recent release, Ballard Landscapes 2, available as free downloads at Earth Monkey, a web-only label devoted to experimental, electronic and improvised music that has made the zeitgeistian decision to give away its entire roster for free.
The mood of these is horizontal. Listen, close your eyes, the sun rises, staining the rusting gantries, the weed-encrusted car wrecks and the abandoned missile bases. It’s a telescoped present, in hazy bas relief, the immeasurably slow suspended descent of entropy, a flat time dilation, rendering the spatial data generated by the classic Ballardian landscape, with its tangle of organic and inorganic forms.
But perhaps the best way to gauge the Silas Ballard albums is with a simple anecdote. Outside my window there was a faulty generator that had been emitting a very low electronic hum for days, almost on the edge of consciousness, but enough to seriously disturb my peace and concentration when writing. To drive me to the edge of sanity, in fact. When I played Ballard Landscapes it began to blend in, appearing to take on different tonal qualities and colour, until I’d completely forgotten it was from an external source and had re-attributed it to the ‘Ballard Landscapes’ themselves. It was still that unvarying hum, but placing it in a different psychological context imbued it with perceptual qualities that seemed to bend and reshape it. To me, that’s a good result — finally, I could get some work done.
I spoke to Cousin Silas about Ballard, Lovecraft, Forteana, Moorcock, Eno, Tarkovsky — all the essentials.
SS: What inspired you to create two volumes of Ballard Landscapes?
CS: I’ve read a lot of fiction over the years, mainly science fiction. I began with Mike Moorcock’s Stealer of Souls, and then it was the odd name-dropping of Ballard that intrigued me. My first Ballard book was The Atrocity Exhibition, and I haven’t looked back, really. Out of all the authors I’ve read, Ballard is the only one who consistently hits the mark when it comes to events, situations and descriptions that I can relate to. A good example is his story, ‘Low Flying Aircraft’. When I read that, I think I was — still am — more impressed with the colours rather than the full picture. I was totally enmeshed — it didn’t take any imagination whatsoever to go deeper into the landscapes of that story, due to my childhood.
As a kid I spent a lot of time at my Grandma’s caravan. Being an only child, much of that time was spent playing on the dunes and beach. Out of season, the local Lido pool was always empty. There were always busy shipping lanes off the beach, mainly oil tankers, and on the way to and from the caravan we passed a place called RAF Binbrook, an air force base which had been abandoned. Empty caravans and beach huts, disused coastal railways, the fog drifting in from Immingham — it made isolation a byword. Also, in the Colne Valley, a lot of the textile industry went into slow decline. As a result the valley became full of empty mills, stagnant canals and rusting equipment — all the Ballardian icons were there. Plus the M62 was being built around the time I began to take notice of things happening off my street!
The short answer is that there’s something that inspires me in almost every paragraph of Ballard, let alone the chapters or novels, and the hard part was making a conscious decision to stop (maybe) at two volumes.
SS: Why not ‘Lovecraft landscapes’, after another of your literary influences?
CS: Lovecraft can’t be read quite the same. Sure, there’s the odd story that contains some marvellous moods — for example, his description of Innsmouth, or the landscapes he describes in ‘Dagon’ or ‘Dunwich’. Damn, those things inspire some amazing images. But a lot of Lovecraft’s imagery has dated — well, it’s his writing style — whereas Ballard’s is just so ‘now’, and yet so retro in some respects.
Lovecraft was a writer I really had to work at. A few years ago I used to write SF, and among the circle of friends and co-writers I became involved with, some were always going on about him. I eventually read a Lovecraft short-story collection and found it pretty damn good, and then I read At the Mountains of Madness, which took some time to get going. I think it was my third or fourth attempt. I kept saying that there simply MUST be something here… Anyway, I did eventually finish it and I really did enjoy it. Since then I’ve read more or less all he wrote. Some of it is terribly dated, but when Lovecraft was on form, he was simply astounding. Like Ballard, though, it was the geography and landscapes that inspired me, rather than the characters. Unlike Ballard, Lovecraft’s hit rate isn’t as high.
- Image from Ballard Landscapes cover art.
SS: Your online bio says, ‘When the occasion arose, he found that sound alchemy was more expressive and exploratory than writing.’ That’s intriguing — can you elaborate?
CS: As I said, I used to write a few years back, same as I still (try) and play the guitar, but I found that the Silas material was far more expressive and creative. With Silas there’s only one real limitation, and whilst it might sound pretentious, it’s imagination. With writing there are certain basic rules and with a guitar, to be good, you have to be absolutely brilliant. With ‘sound alchemy’, you don’t even have to know the first thing about writing music, or even reading music, only ‘does it sound ‘right’ for what you’re doing?’ If the answer is ‘yes’, go for it. Obviously having a basic understanding of chords and pitch with the guitar does help, but it’s not essential. Much like the punk ethos, get up and have a go!
SS: Was your SF writing influenced in any way by Ballard?
CS: Initially I was inspired by Moorcock, but gradually I drifted into Ballard territory. I did two stories that were directly influenced by J.G., one was called ‘The Song Of The Shapes’ and I can’t remember the title of the other one. ‘The Shapes’ was basically about floating sounds, like bubbles. The other story was basically an exodus of humans going back into the sea. And to my credit, they were both published. To be fair, though, it wasn’t ‘strictly’ Ballard, but the whole New Worlds thing. I loved the freedom and no-holds-barred that existed in the fiction. I haven’t really written fiction for years now. I find I don’t have the imagination for actually writing like I had, or the time.
SS: It’s no surprise to learn you also draw inspiration from Fortean events. Listening to your soundscapes is very much like tuning into some kind of spectral presence, or even something less metaphysical but still intensely dislocating, like voices drowned in static. There’s that steady hum in your work, and then something unsettling going on in the background, hustling in at the edge of consciousness.
CS: I’ve always had an unhealthy interest/curiosity in most things Fortean. I’m an avid reader and subscriber of Fortean Times, and I’ve even got two CDs worth of material currently being considered/reworked and going under the working title of The Fortean Project. There’s material there that’s been inspired by unidentified underwater objects, objects landing in remote woods, Borley Rectory, poltergeists, strange sounds, EVP, all the usual suspects. Also, ‘Necropolis Line’, the title track on my Earthrid CD, was inspired directly by an article in Fortean Times. There are quite a few other tracks of mine that have been inspired either directly or otherwise by Forteana.
I’m inspired by the strangeness, the mystery, and the downright weirdness of all these unexplained and odd happenings. I don’t especially enjoy reading about the whole world of Forteana, but I am interested in things like Electronic Voice Phenomena, strange moorland lights, places where ill feelings occur, anomalous artefacts. Some stuff I find a little tedious and totally uninspirational, like crop circles and UFO abductions. Even though I inherently know that some of the topics and situations that come under the slowly expanding umbrella of Forteana is bollocks, it can still create certain feelings. The inspiration is rather difficult to describe really — again, it’s moods and feelings and trying to convey these into sound. Naming these pieces does hopefully help the listener to ‘attune’ to what I’m aiming for.
SS: The presence of the paranormal in Ballard is something I’ve been taking an interest in.
CS: Oddly, I’d never really seen the parallel. Then again, thinking about it, these Fortean themes crop up in any number of SF stories, they’re not the exclusive domain of J.G. People out of place, or displaced momentarily in time, visions of Godlike entities, time travel, and even resurrection can be found all over the place. I suppose it’s because of the way these ‘ideas’ are presented. If they’re presented as fact, then it opens all kinds of doors for discussion, study and speculation. However, if they’re in fiction, then, well, it’s fiction! Perfect example is War of the Worlds. Anyone who’s read the book hasn’t rushed out to find if they’re there, or packed the family and belongings into a car and set of for the hills. And yet, when Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre did a ‘play’, and produced it for radio in a documentary, on-the-spot news type thing, there was mass panic. Same story, different presentation.
SS: With the tracks on Ballard Landscapes 1 & 2, did you choose the title first and fit the music to suit, or did the music suggest a title?
CS: If I remember rightly, I think with the majority of the Ballard tracks I had an idea of the titles first. Some are direct, others less so. It was a case of trying to convey in sound what these images mean to me. Obviously the titles are like an aide memoir, and it could be argued that if ‘Rusting Gantry’ had been called, oh, I dunno, ‘Formless Clouds’, then the imagery and imagination of the listener would be taken somewhere else. I like to think that the titles and the pieces work well together.
- Image from Ballard Landscapes cover art.
SS: Judging from those titles, it’s clear you place equal importance on Ballard’s worth as a short story writer. There seems to be as much, if not more, reference to his shorts than his novels.
CS: Probably more. Being inspired by Ballard’s short stories is easier than novels. With a short story, they’re usually on one level, and get to the point and conclude relatively quickly. A novel is obviously longer, and has a lot more going on. But for me, Ballard’s short stories are more essential than his novels for a variety of reasons — from the late 50s to the early 90s they are just stunning and contain some of the most powerful, experimental and genre-melting fiction this side of the Big Bang. A lot of the ideas that went into his novels were played out in short story form. Plus, in some short story collections such as Vermilion Sands and The Atrocity Exhibition, the boundaries between shorts and novels are somewhat blurred.
Unfortunately, since Empire of the Sun, which put Ballard firmly in the ‘general’ public arena, especially after the film arrived, his short stories seem to have been somewhat ignored. Plus, his actual output of short stories has abated over the last decade. Mind you, there isn’t really the market now that there was back then.
SS: An oft-stated criticism of Ballard, especially his later novels, is that they would have worked better as short stories.
CS: Short stories and novels are two quite separate forms of story telling. Some would argue that a short is never ‘allowed’ to develop, whereas a novel requires more skill in keeping the reader interested. For me there’s just as much skill if not more with a short story. You have to have more acute pacing, deviations from the ‘main’ story aren’t as flexible and there’s not as much time for full character-building as such. As I said above, some of his short stories were developed into novels, so in some respects you can judge the two mediums and the difference between them.
SS: When I interviewed Simon Reynolds, he said that Ballard and Brian Eno are ‘the two greatest British thinkers of the second half of the 20th Century.’ Given that Ballard and Eno are two of your major influences, do you agree with him?
CS: I’ve never really considered Ballard or Eno as thinkers. To me one writes incredibly atmospheric music, the other writes incredibly atmospheric fiction. Both Ballard and Eno are probably my strongest influences, but their influence is very tenuous, difficult to explain. They both invoke that certain mood of isolation. Isolation is a funny thing: it can be forced upon one, or be self-invoked. It seems in today’s world, the last thing you’d really expect is isolation, and yet even in the busiest of places, there are attributes and situations where one can feel it totally. Self-invoked isolation is where the person chooses to step back, away from all the social interaction and so on, to become, in some respects, a suburban exile. I can relate to a lot of Ballard’s fiction and it’s much the same with Eno’s music, although to a lesser extent — Eno isn’t as consistent, and his vocal albums are something else. I don’t mind them, but for me it’s stuff like Music for Films, Apollo, Another Green World, plus a couple of his ambient albums and the two he did with Harold Budd that contain some of the most moody and atmospheric music there is.
SS: You have two albums available for purchase at Fflint Central and one at Earthrid, but Ballard Landscapes is available for free through Earth Monkey. Do you occupy similar ideological ground to Cory Doctorow, who makes his stories and novels available for free online, justifying it like so: ‘Most people who download the book don’t end up buying it, but they wouldn’t have bought it in any event, so I haven’t lost any sales, I’ve just won an audience.’
CS: Simple answer: he’s hit the nail on the head. A while back I got an email from Earth Monkey, basically asking for contributions to a new net label. I simply thought, ‘why not’? If accepted, it would underline the fact that there’s not just maybe six people who like Cousin Silas, but also, it may well bring in a few more sales for the guys at Fflint and Earthrid. Plus, I’m not exactly in it for the money, but for the simple fact that even if one person ‘got’ or enjoyed Silas, then for me that’s a good return. It does sound awfully clichéd, but it’s how I feel.
SS: Tell us about the process of making the Ballard Landscapes. Do you use field recordings? I hear water drips, factory sounds, electrical hums and glitches.
CS: On some of the material I’ve done, I’ve used the odd field recording: a steam train on ‘Necropolis Line’, a dog barking on ‘John Wayne Gacy Contemplates’, plus a few tracks here and there have had either rain, or drops or a gunshot. The glitches, machinery and hums are all created with synths, editing or processing. You’d be quite surprised at what some of these sounds started as!
SS: A bit like Ballard, then, where you’re never quite sure what’s simulation, what’s ‘authentic’.
CS: I guess I could try and be clever by saying that there are a lot of real vs. artificial oppositions in his fiction, but again, it’s the geography, the ‘feel’, the atmosphere, moods and landscapes I try and convey. A kind of aural texture.
- Image from Ballard Landscapes cover art.
SS: I’ve absorbed a lot of Ballard-inspired music and I see two distinct strands in sonic interpretations of his work. There’s the world-music camp that picks up on the lush, exotic, jungle tropes. Then there’s the ominous, insidious, unsettling, isolationist elements that appeal to a whole other subset of musicians. You’re aligned with the latter: do you see Ballard as an essentially dystopian, dark fantasist? Or do you, like Ballard himself, see something affirmative in this darkness — a willingness to ’embrace the catastrophe’ in order to fulfil personal psychological needs?
CS: Maybe I’m just a superficial reader, maybe I don’t really go too deep in what writers are ‘saying’. Then again, if I did, would I lose that certain magic that writers like Ballard give me? I certainly pick up on the isolationism, and the alienation. With Ballard I think he totally disseminated the phrase ‘One Man Against The World’. He created situations where the man was turning his back against the world, or the world was turning its back on him, many variations that basically culminate in isolation. And sure, there are many dark areas in Ballard’s writing — that’s what inspires! To me, though, there’s a point where fiction and music (indeed, most of the ‘arts’) become lost in translation, as it were. I think when ‘deep’ questions are asked about the whys and wherefores, and ‘what does he really mean’, the whole point seems to become lost and diluted.
SS: Do you have a favourite Ballard novel or short story?
CS: That’s a really difficult question to answer. It’s like favourite music and albums — they change weekly, if not daily. Plus, due to his developing writing style, it would be unfair to choose. His earlier period was pretty different and whilst some of his icons and fixations were there, books like The Wind From Nowhere are more akin to John Wyndham. More often than not, I can rest assured that anything by Ballard will get my attention. I have recently been digging out a load of his novels to reread, some I haven’t read in over twenty years. At the time I bought it, I wasn’t too taken with Hello America, but after reading it again I realised what a fine book it is. I was probably overdosing on Ballard back then. I guess, if pushed, I’d have to pick either The Atrocity Exhibition and/or The Terminal Beach, purely for nostalgia, as they were the first ones I read and perhaps had the biggest impact. Then again, The Unlimited Dream Company was a voyage through one hell of a strange landscape… Must read that again soon.
SS: As far as your compositional style goes, were you inspired in any way by Ballard’s experimental techniques, for example, the cut-up nature of Atrocity, or the collages and fake ads he produced around the same time?
CS: I have done the odd cut up, using a variety of sounds. I must be honest, though, I was probably thinking of Burroughs rather than Ballard, although I’ve never been too happy with the results. My new CD on Earthrid is a collaboration with Kevin Busby, recorded under the name Abominations of Yondo, named after a short story by Clark Ashton Smith. I used isolated and combined phrases from that story as inspiration when recording, and I guess that could be classed as a kind of cut up (although I left the ‘cutting up’ to Kevin!). However, I have often been accused of writing pieces which are too short. In my defence I have always maintained that these pieces say it all — any longer and it would lose its way. I guess the same could be said for the pieces in The Atrocity Exhibition: any longer and they wouldn’t be condensed novels. It wouldn’t be The Atrocity Exhibition!
SS: Is the composer Edward Artemiev an influence? You have a track called ‘Leaving Solaris’ on the Necropolis Line album, plus the Ballard track ‘Flight over Abandoned Village’ reminds me of that very displaced feel that Artemiev achieved in his soundtracks for Tarkovsky.
CS: Edward Artemiev hasn’t inspired me as much as his son, Artemiy, who has a label called Electroshock — I keep threatening to send him some material! Solaris was a film that did kind of inspire. I remember Brian Aldiss saying it was one of his fave films so I made a note and can remember watching it many years ago late one night. Stalker was on around the same time as well but I find it difficult sometimes with films like these, especially Stalker. The imagery is just outstanding, but you’re flitting between that and the subtitles so the full impact isn’t what it should be.
SS: You take your name from a Pete Sinfield lyric for King Crimson (‘Cousin Silas grew a beard, drew another flask of weird’). But you’re such a minimal stylist — so how did you name yourself from one of the most bloated songbooks in rock?
CS: It goes back to my mid-teens. I’d picked up a copy of (I think) Sounds, a music mag. With it came a free flexi disc, featuring Emerson Lake & Palmer. The first track was called ‘Brain Salad Surgery’, and then there was a fairly long piece with a load of cut ups/highlights of tracks from the actual album. It was my first foray into ‘proper’ rock music. I bought the album a couple of weeks later and then began a quest! I read up all there was on ELP, and began buying their previous albums. Along this voyage of discovery it came to light that Emerson had been in The Nice, Greg Lake in King Crimson and Carl Palmer did a brief stint with Arthur Brown. I bought some Nice, and Crimson, and then discovered Sinfield had been involved with early Crimson. These days I still listen to Crimson, and still reckon that those first few albums, In the Court of the Crimson King through to Islands, are peerless. I even bought Pete Sinfield’s only solo album, Still. Halcyon days! So, because I am an avid Crimson fan, and one of my fave albums is Lizard (which contains ‘Happy Families’, the song featuring, albeit briefly, Cousin Silas) it was a natural choice. To be fair it wasn’t me who chose the name. I had been ‘named’ something else, I can’t remember what it was but I know I wasn’t too keen on it. Cousin Silas was mentioned and I thought what the hell!
SS: I like Crimson, but I’ve never been able to get on with Sinfield’s imagery. A bit too pompous for me.
CS: Ironically enough, a few mates and myself were on about this the other night! Comparing Sinfield’s lyrics to Jon Anderson’s on ‘And You And I’ and Topographic Oceans, we wondered what ‘really’ was going on in those songs. I always think of Sinfield along the same lines as Fred Frith. On some releases, at face value, Frith ‘sounds’ like he’s not quite got the grip of how the guitar works, and yet on others he plays like a genius. Both of them experiment with their art (indeed, like Ballard in his condensed novels). And, to be fair to Sinfield, he has been behind some incredibly beautiful lyrics. His first foray, In The Court Of The Crimson King, has some great ones, In the Wake of Poseidon less so, and then we get Lizard, which is an album of opposites: some make sense, some don’t. Islands is kind of back on track again. Out of context (sometimes even in!) some make very little sense, but it’s the ‘whole’ that works. And don’t forget, he did write lyrics for Bucks Fizz and Cher!
SS: He even made an album with Eno, based on a Robert Sheckley book.
CS: Here, did you know Brian Eno has only ever acted once, and it was in Father Ted! He played, originally enough, Father Brian Eno.
SS: He did not!
CS: He did. I was watching a batch of Father Ted (the whole three series, actually) and in the last episode, ‘Going to America’, I saw his name on the final credits. I ran it back, and there he is, very briefly. I thought, well, I know he’s done a lot of soundtracks, I wonder how many times he’s actually acted. And if you go on IMDB, there’s only the one entry for him, in Father Ted. I was going to say that this was another thing that Ballard and Eno shared: that they’ve only ever acted the once. But with Ballard, on IMDB, there’s no entry for ‘acting’. However, I remembered the early Crash! thingy… it isn’t even mentioned on IMDB. I was sure he appeared (maybe as himself or a very, very close character) in an old black and white film. I remember him stood near a car, and an actress slightly out of shot in the background. So I looked on YouTube, and there it was. Followed the link, and had a good read on some website or other… Ballardian.com, I think it was. Tee hee.
SS: Will there be a Ballard Landscapes 3?
CS: Don’t tempt me! I honestly could spend the rest of my Silas years doing nothing but pieces inspired by Ballard. I feel as though I’ve only scratched the surface. Trouble is, where do you stop? With folks wanting more, and with no more on offer, would that enhance the stuff that’s already there? It’s the Fawlty Towers/Father Ted question: would more have diluted the lasting impact?
..:: TOP 5 BALLARD-RELATED TRACKS FROM COUSIN SILAS, AS CHOSEN BY SILAS HIMSELF
CS: When asked to name a top 5, I chose two and picked three others that are the most popular, judging by Last.fM and other download sites.
‘Vermilion Drift’ (from Ballard Landscapes 2)
CS: Obviously inspired by Vermilion Sands. I loved the way that you could go from the large dunescapes to being shut away inside one of those beach properties.
‘Concrete Islands’ (from Ballard Landscapes 2)
CS: The whole obsession with roads, motorways and cars has featured a lot throughout Ballard’s fiction. As I mentioned, I can remember them building the M62, and once in Madame Tussauds in Blackpool, as a kid, I went into the horror section and saw a mock up of an accident. It left a terrible impression on me for years. I think a motorbike had come off a flyover and hit a car. Nasty… For all that, there is a dark beauty about major roads and motorways when they’re quiet.
‘Empty Airport’ (from Ballard Landscapes 1)
CS: If I remember rightly, there are only two ‘sounds’ on here. I felt that any more would destroy the mood. Indirectly inspired by Ballard’s obsession with airports, and my idea of what one would be like when it’s empty.
‘Bikini Atoll’ (from Ballard Landscapes 1)
CS: I was well into the whole mystique of atomic bombs as a kid, where the results were contrasting in complete opposites: the destruction, with the strangely beautiful blast clouds (check out the mushroom blast of the first H bomb). The secrecy, the technology, the complete warping of nature was fascinating. It was only afterwards when the dust, literally, had settled, that it was revealed how these early tests had totally devastated these small islands of paradise. Earth Monkey put visuals to this track and it’s on Youtube. They did a phenomenal job.
‘Crashed Bomber With Weeds’ (from Falling: An Earth Monkey Sampler)
CS: Okay, so this isn’t on either of the Ballard albums. However, as you might gather from the title, it does have links with ol’ J.G. The Pennines run close to where I live, and from Sheffield, over towards Manchester, that whole backbone has, like iron filings to a magnet, attracted hundreds of air crashes over the years. In the valley, one of these sites witnessed the crash of a flying fortress. I remember looking at the crash site on a web page, and it was literally, a crashed bomber with weeds.
Also, it might be worth mentioning the Geographics album on Earth Monkey [also a free download]. I feel there is a definite link between the Ballard albums and Geo. As I said in the interview, a lot of the empathy I have towards Ballard’s landscapes (airports, airfields, roads, dune, beaches, etc.) come from my own experiences and memories. I try and ‘realise’ these on Geographics. Tracks like ‘The Fog From Immingham’, ‘Abandoned Airfield’, and ‘Cathedral Arch Of Trees (Lincolnshire)’ are all in effect realities, whereas by definition, the Ballard soundscapes are fictions…of a kind.
..:: MORE INFO
+ Cousin Silas at MySpace, including six unreleased tracks.
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