“There’s possibly a bit of very British unglamourous exoticism that may appeal to our overseas listeners. May be something to do with boffinish and eccentric cultural stereotypes – but also I suspect there’s hints of the downright weirdness” – Jim Jupp
In 2004 Jim Jupp and Julian House took their jam sessions and the recordings they’d made (for pleasure, and the occasional gift to friends) and put them on a website to share them more easily, and perhaps a little more widely. Their new site was pounced upon by a number of blogs, this spike in interest spurred Jim and Julian on to turn Ghostbox into a “more traditional record label.” This may be the only time that Ghostbox is called traditional. Although on one level their sound is ‘backwards looking’ (an evocative blend of 1970s documentary and film soundtracks as well as musique concrete) it shares the same optimistic forward thinking energy of the era it conjures, in a sense it is timeless rather than ‘traditional.’
With Julian House [designer of album artwork for Oasis, Stereolab and the Prodigy, amongst other things] as one half of the creative partnership a strong visual aesthetic was always going to be a strength to rival their distinctive sound. So in the same way that the sonic output may be said to mirror the BBC Radiophonic Workshop the continuity between each release also pays visual reference to Penguin Books and provides a thread between artists, tracks and titles. Ghostbox is a “record label as fictional narrative, with a kind of imaginary parallel world setting” taking inspiration from folklore in a broad sense – musical traditions, world cultures and story telling – though no one at the label claims to be an expert, when pushed Jim admits that if anything “this stuff is informed as much by folk music, supernatural fiction and British horror movies.”
Over the years Ghostbox’s sound has incorporated elements of jazz, disco, psych and electronica past and present. It with the “pleasant surprise” of the label’s popularity in the US, the overt ‘Britishness’ of Ghostbox is obviously not an obstacle, they have a big fan base in the Far East too. Even if they think of themselves as a “little parochial” Ghostbox can be seen as another link in the ‘eccentric and boffinish’ British stereotype that includes “weirdness” – like The Prisoner and old Dr. Who.
Whether it is Belbury Poly’s playful vintage children’s television vibe; the kind of retro nostalgia that people think they reminisce over but is actually pure fantasy. The sound here is more than evocative, it exceeds the quality of source material. Pye Audio Corner lend a more hypnotic Warp feel. Broadcast provided a slightly abrasive deconstruction of the Focus Group, twisting and turning Inside Out in new and unexpected ways. Vocals are spare, and lyrics often wistful, seeping the music with a mood, using the voice as another instrument, with dark undercurrents via tone of voice. Roj injects droning tones, a sense of the ‘exotic’ injected into the ‘parochial,’ but one entirely in keeping with this imagined golden British hinterland. Ghostbox’s catalogue is punctuated by wonky stomps, the weird, the wobbly, the whimsical and the retro synth driven; all characterful, and lively, fun and fully formed.
2004 was a primordial time in online distribution, if not quite a time of CD-Rs handed out among friends, to Jim and Julian was “the best way of maintaining total creative control” – Julian releases music on Ghostbox as The Focus Group and Jim as Belbury Poly. Jim describes their work as “very niche” and lo-fi to the extent of “verging on ameteur-ish” taking a modest, typically British self deprecating and pragmatic approach (“I don’t think we would ever have had any success finding a larger label to put our music out on”) they decided to go DIY. The label grew larger, became a “real” business, with an international fan base but still avoids ‘traditional distribution.’ The aesthetic thread that ran through the music continues unbroken though, with established as well as new artists “continuously learning and developing their individual style and techniques” adding more layers to the mythos. Selectiveness allows them, judo-like, to turn their “narrow aesthetic limitation” in to a major strength, few labels have such a unique, distinctive and charming sound, fewer still have one that carries that across their entire roster, as if the likes of Jonny Trunk, The Advisory Circle and Roj all inhabit their own esoteric psychic plane. All Ghostbox’s artists share a natural understanding. The “price though,” says Jim ruefully, “is that we have to pass on some otherwise great bands, who for whatever reason wouldn’t slot in as nicely.”
Ghostbox have been ploughing their idiosyncratic furrow for eight years now, quietly getting on with building their own sound, with a very real sense of place. They are still more excited with each new release. 2012 is another great year lined up, Jim has a new album to promote – his latest release as Belbury Poly “the culmination of three years work” how does he feel about shipping it round the world? “scared and exhilarated!” The label will also be revisiting and revising older works by The Focus Group. Collaborations abound too with John Foxx and The Maths, and with the latest addition will be put through the initiation rights as Pye Audio Corner who take Ghostbox in to “darker and groovier territories.”
Buy a slice of eccentric and boffinish weirdness here.
This post first appeared on The What Where When on 21 February 2012