Moon Wiring Club and DD Denham: music for children, by children
The Guardian, 24 November 2010
by Simon Reynolds
"One thing I've always wanted for my music is for it to appeal to children," says Ian Hodgson of Moon Wiring Club. "An ideal listening situation would be a family car journey. I think children would like all the voices and oddness. If you present kids with fun, spooky electronic music, then they might grow up wanting to make it themselves, like I did with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop." Hodgson's friend and collaborator Jon Brooks, aka the Advisory Circle, goes one better with the debut release for his label Café Kaput, which consists of spooky electronic music made by schoolchildren in the 70s.
Brooks and Hodgson originally met through MySpace. They rapidly discovered that they were "probably variations of the same person", according to Hodgson, with a shared passion for vintage 70s and 80s TV (not just the programmes but their incidental music and theme tunes). The friendship soon became an alliance. Brooks has done the mastering for all four Moon Wiring Club albums, including the brand new and brilliant A Spare Tabby at the Cat's Wedding. Hodgson, in turn, has done the artwork for Café Kaput. A full-blown collaboration between Moon Wiring Club and the Advisory Circle is in the pipeline.
The pair are chalk and cheese, though, when it comes to the way they operate musically. A skilled multi-instrumentalist whose music is "98% hand-played", Brooks makes little use of sampling or computer software. The Advisory Circle's 2006 debut EP Mind How You Go (reissued this year by Ghost Box in expanded, vinyl-only form) and 2008's much-acclaimed Other Channels reveals Brooks to be one of the contemporary scene's great melodists, with a gift for plush, intricate arrangements. Hodgson's approach, in contrast, is much more hip-hop raw. Entirely sample-based, Moon Wiring Club is assembled using astonishingly rudimentary technology: a PlayStation 2 and "a second-hand copy of MTV Music Generator 2 from 2001".
Hodgson turned to this crude set-up after struggling with software typically used to make electronic dance music. Because he's a longtime gamer, Hodgson found using a joypad to make music "much faster and more enjoyable" than clicking a mouse. But it still took him a while to work out how to get good results out of a PlayStation 2. "After months of tinkering, I discovered that it's good at sequencing short repeated phrases." Instead of looping breakbeats, Hodgson builds up rhythm patterns from single drum hits. Then he'll weave in sinuous and sinister basslines that are often coated in a dank layer of echo and delay. "I'll place the bass melody around the rhythm in a very 'stereo' way. I tend to see it all in my head as a 'cat's cradle'. Then if you add delay to the bass and time it right you get extra little melodies inside this structure. They sort of bounce and react with each other. Add melody and atmosphere to it and you get another interlocking structure – slightly organic, soggy, bouncy and knackered."
Moon Wiring Club often resembles trip-hop if its "vibe" was sourced not in obscure funk and jazz-fusion records but from the incidental music to The Prisoner, Doctor Who and The Flumps. Vocal samples are a huge part of Moon Wiring Club. Always spoken not sung, and always British in origin, they're derived largely from videos and DVDs of bygone UK television series such as Casting the Runes, Raffles and Ace of Wands. A scholar of "vintage telly", Hodgson can discourse at persuasive length about the superiority of British theatrical-turned-TV thesps such as Julian Glover and Jan Francis over American actors like Harrison Ford. He recently dedicated a podcast mix to 70s voiceover deity and Quiller star Michael Jayston.
Moon Wiring Club originally evolved out of what was intended to be "a peculiar children's book", Strange Reports from a Northern Village." That project got stalled but it did spawn the Blank Workshop website, based on an imaginary town called Clinksell, which has its own brand of confectionery, Scrumptyton Sweets, and a line of fantasy fiction, Moontime Books. The children's book project lives on also in the distinctive graphic look that Hodgson, a former fine art student, wraps around the Moon Wiring releases, drawing on influences including Biba's 20s-into-70s glamour, the strange exquisiteness of Arthur Rackham's illustrations, and Victorian fairy painters such as Richard Dadd. Blank Workshop and Moon Wiring Club is where all of Hodgson's enthusiasms and obsessions converge: "Electronic music, Art Deco, and the England of teashops, stately homes, ruined buildings and weird magic." Not forgetting computer-games music, a massive influence. "There is something about the forced repetition that makes you remember the tunes in a unique way," Hodgson says, adding that in some ways "Moon Wiring Club is meant to be Edwardian computer-game music."
"Still a kid in a lot of ways," is how Jon Brooks describes himself. His journey through music began "at pre-school age", thanks to his jazz session-player father. "Fellow jazzers would come round to record demos or share ideas. There were always instruments and tape recorders lying about." Brooks was proficient on a half-size drum kit his dad bought him before he even went to school. Soon the child prodigy was grappling with guitar, glockenspiel and keyboards, as well as messing with tape recorders and learning from his father about microphone placement. Although his dad died when Brooks was only nine, the son continued to pursue music, avoiding any formal training but studying music technology while helping to teach an A-level class in music technology.
Perhaps his early start with music, along with his later involvement in musical pedagogy, accounts for why Brooks was so intrigued by Electronic Music in the Classroom, an ultra-rare recording that was the byproduct of a course implemented at several home counties schools in 75-76 and which he has reissued through his just-launched downloads-only label Café Kaput. Originally released in a miniscule edition of reel-to-reel tapes and cassettes for the parents of the children involved, this remarkable record is credited to DD Denham, the peripatetic teacher who devised and implemented the course. But the contents are actually the creme de la creme of the work created by participating children. Now retired, Denham stresses that "the concepts were always those of the child. I would help quite a bit with technical realisation, in terms of connecting that concept to a sound. But I always explained to them the steps taken in order to achieve the sound. The children soon picked up various techniques and developed them on their own. So, a little bit of collaboration, but it was more guidance than anything."
Many of the pieces on Electronic Music in the Classroom are disorienting and disquieting, reflecting children's under-acknowledged appetite for the sinister. "Some children would get spooked by each other's compositions or sounds," Denham recalls. "Sometimes an oscillator would emit a loud wailing and lots of other children would gather round the instrument like a magnet, rather than run away. Kids actually love being scared and sound, although harmless in this case, can be scary and thrilling." The reissue comes with the original liner notes, in which Denham recounts some of the quirky inspirations that the children drew on, from a nightmare about nuns, to the unsettling smell of the air expelled from a church organ, to the ghostly flitting figures of poachers seen from afar after dusk.
Then there's The Way the Vicar Smiles, a delirium of drastically warped, vaguely ecclesiastical sounds (what could be church bells, a choir singing psalms). In the liner notes Vicar Smiles is accurately described by its young creators Robert and Luke as "a bit creepy". "The local education authority thought we were probably skating a little too close to the middle with that one," recalls Denham. "You couldn't get away with it now. However, the vicar in question disappeared from his work a couple of years later, without so much as a whisper. Make of that what you will."