As he introduces a new spoken word/musical collaboration with Nina Walsh about growing up in a Northern port, Michael Smith looks back on the magick of making stuff with she and the late Andrew Weatherall.
The strangest sound, a damp mildewy texture, like water dripping in an algae-green pool in industrial Cold War ruins … it runs through a song Nina Walsh once donated to Dark Satanic Malls, a film I made about a haunted stretch of the Thames Estuary. We put the song at the end, as a kind of crescendo, and it gave the film a weight I don’t think it’d have without it, but we also asked Nina for that eerie damp texture on its own, without the song, as it seemed to resonate with the singular atmosphere that hovered over the waters of that troubled stretch of the Dark River we were exploring, so much so it became a kind of base note that anchored the film, a dampness in the foundations that creeped up into the walls of the narrative structure we built on top of the weird atmosphere that inspired it, always there in the background, troubling the dark corners … she told me later that she’d arrived at this strange otherworldy texture by treating the sound of the fire cracking in her fireplace at Woodleigh, the gothic Victorian pile she lived in that was the home of the Research Facility that bore its name. Arriving at the sound of dark haunted water by sampling and manipulating the sound of wood crackling while it burned. A strange alchemical transmutation. Just what were they researching at the facility at Woodleigh?
I’ve worked with Nina quite a lot over the years, bringing words to her music, words to these occult atmospheres she has a particular gift for dredging up like a dowser. Another time I remember listening to her evoking these atmospheres live, like a seance, down in the dark cellar of our old wine shop here in Hastings, a drinking town with a fishing problem where Aleister Crowley once “called forth spirits from the vasty deep”. We used to put gigs on down there, and her band the Fireflies were playing one weekend. It was late the night before the gig, only us in the building, and I thought I may as well get the bar ready while they got set up for tomorrow night. They were tuning up, Franck Alba messing about with the echoey delay on the guitar, Nina fiddling about with the sequencer and other electronic devices … she also had her ‘ghostbox’ going, a machine that apparently scans the airwaves for disembodied spirit voices trying to communicate from across the veil, which was running the whole time, providing an unsettling ambience for the proceedings … it crackled and hissed and maybe even occasionally mumbled something as the dubby delays and gothic psychedelic washes saturated the damp walls of the dingy Victorian cellar, and she made synthetic beats to bind and encase it all …
“Are you using an 808 for magickal purposes there Nina?”
To which she just laughed and nodded her head,
“Why?” I enquired,
“Because I’m a witch, Michael! I thought you’d worked that out by now!”
“Hah! Found any ghosts yet?”
“Well if this cellar’s not haunted yet, it fucking will be by the time I’ve finished with it,” I mumbled as I checked the beer kegs …
I was introduced to Nina by Andrew Weatherall, one of the few truly inspirational people I’ve known, an explorer and an initiator into the mysteries of Gnostic Sonics. We were working on a musical version of my novel Unreal City, and Andrew brought in Nina, his long-term collaborator and fellow traveller, and associate researcher at the Woodleigh Facility.
They conducted their investigations in a part of London I didn’t know, deep down south somewhere … I used to love the little peeks I got into their hidden world, and I treasure my memories of it … Nina would pick me up from the overground in a sky blue Cadillac hatchback camper van thing, like something from the slow lane in Easy Rider that coughed and spluttered as it chugged along slowly past little fluffy clouds in the desert. I remember that peculiar vehicle had a beep like a cow mooing. Much hilarity ensued whenever she had to use it.
Driving down that narrow alley that led to the studio was fully entering their tangental reality, a dimension at right angles to our more familiar consensus one. The whole scene had the peculiar air of an encampment on the edge of town in Edwardian times, the place the travelling fair would pitch up tents, with its tightrope walkers and lion tamers. It had the feeling of a place on the cusp of industrialisation and a more rustic past. Maybe it was an old Victorian stables, a place where horses were horseshoed. A blacksmith beating a glowing iron rod on an anvil would not have looked out of place. I feel like there was a lucky horseshoe above the front door of the studio, but it might have been a tiny brass shovel like the one from the legend of Nina and Andrew’s record label Moine Dubh.
I remember walking into the studio to the smell of sage burning to bless the proceedings, along with the whiff of weed. “Listen to the voodoo music,” a stern continental French or German voice instructed you, over stern Belgian or Transpennine techno bleeps. They often had this track they were working on playing round the studio at that time. I don’t think they ever released it, which is a shame, I loved that track.
But then they had so much good stuff. Memory banks full of it. It just seemed to come and come, fully formed and ready to go, “like marble statues falling from the sky,” as someone once described the startling mathematical elegance and beauty of physicist Paul Dirac’s equations.
It fascinated me watching the way they worked. Sometimes they just seemed to jam for hours, weird droney odysseys, the ghostly echo of Franck’s electric guitar gliding around, woozy analogue textures off some old devices (“The 303 always sounded better when you left it on for a couple of days and the batteries were about to die, that’s when you got that weird squelchy acid bass,” Andrew once explained), but then inexplicably the mood would shift and it would somehow all click into place. They’d worked together for so long and were so familiar with each other’s ways, nothing ever needed to be said, the music just seemed to have suddenly decided now was the time to crystallise and manifest itself out of the ethereal noodlings like it had a will of its own.
I’m not a musician, but hanging out in the studio with them was a powerful lesson about the valid and invalid applications of the artistic instinct. For example, it confirmed that if it feels like it’s working and it sounds good, explore that golden seam at all costs and fuck any other more practical considerations that might be at odds with it. Be very wary of pre-existing expectations, prescriptive ideas about where it should go beforehand, and especially don’t waste time second-guessing what the audience, or even worse the commissioners, may or may not think they want.
I met Nina and Andrew at exactly the right time in my life, when I needed to I suppose. I’d just come off the back of a load of television work and was weary and cynical about its corrosive effect on the creative process, trapped in a kind of creativity by committee, a committee that was institutionalised by the British Broadcasting Corporation, whose endless grey corridors had come to feel like the general hospital where ideas go to die, a Fordist, factory-line approach where the formula was always more important than the writer or director’s personal vision, so much so that several directors might work on different episodes of the same series, in such a generic style that you couldn’t tell the difference. When I questioned this working method I was told, “Michael, you have to change the horses,” which left me thinking, “what, are you a fucking horse then?”
Nina and Andrew were not horses. They were two of the very few creative spirits I’ve met who achieved complete artistic freedom. Artists who had freed themselves by sheer force of personality and will and stubborn bloody-mindedness. They helped me remember the fundamental fact that you don’t need anyone’s permission to make a film, write a book, make music, whatever. I’ll never ask anyone for permission to make anything again, especially not some Tory TV commissioner having to justifying his own massive salary, and I partly have my time round that studio to thank for clarifying the fact that this is necessarily the case if you’re presumptuous enough to call yourself an artist. Andrew stubbornly pursued this line in a way that made him a hero to me, often at his own financial or career cost. “Dear boy, I turned down Coldplay to work with you,” he’d remind me whenever I got a bit too gobby. It liberated me, visiting that studio, ceremonial robe and headgear donned, listening to their evocations and invocations, unfolding and transmuting something as familiar to me as my own words into something far more rich and strange.
It’s been wonderful revisiting that process with Nina on Headland, our new piece about my memories of growing up in a Northern port. “I was about seventeen and made lonely and strange by that Pacific Northwest of so many years ago, that dark, rainy land of 1952. I’m thirty-one now and I still can’t figure out what I meant by living the way I did in those days,” as Richard Brautigan once put it better than I ever could. Nina manages to evoke these mixed up feelings perfectly, manages to evoke the feeling of the North East coast, my own dark rainy land of 1993: a sense of industrial heaviness, the metallic clang of the steel works, the slow brown cloud of petrochemical refineries littering the blue peaks of the Tees Bay, a strange, soured beauty, modern manmade sounds and textures overlaying dark pastoral flute lines, eerie acoustic finger picking, a lament for a lost idyll, a strange, enchanted and often unnerving collision, an unsure present caught between a folky deep past and a dystopian future.
The project grew at a distance, during the isolation of lockdown, me in Hastings and Nina in her new home not far from Glastonbury. I sat and listened to her finished version after a long depressing day battling the various effects of Long Covid, and it instantly transported me somewhere altogether more enchanted. It sounded strange and familiar at the same time. Listening to it was like catching up with an old friend.