As summer slowly melts into the background and the leaves turn golden and fall from the trees we focus our attention once more to The Jupiter Room and another exclusive guest mix. This month, emerging from the rippling heat-haze like a spectral mirage is Phono Ghosts, a synthwave and future funk sample collagist from Blackpool, who explores the sounds and concepts of 1980’s culture. The mix he has put together is extraordinary. It is a journey through his musical mind, giving us an insight into this most unique electronic artist and producer.
Phono Ghosts is Neil Scrivin, a man who grew up in the 80’s and like many of us who grew up in that decade, is fascinated by the music and TV shows of the time. Television back then was all warm and hazy thanks to the 4:3 ratio and standard definition pictures with bleached colours and slightly blurred and warm images that are haunting and evocative. Nostalgia pulls all these memories together and the advent of YouTube has ensured that reliving these once half-forgotten moments is possible, further solidifying the draw and obsession some people have with this time period.
This fascination led Neil to create Phono Ghosts, a project that is the perfect distillation of funk, disco, synthwave and a melange of samples. It’s like tuning a television, sweeping through channels in a blurring carousel of shows and commercials, allowing the kodachromic swirls to spin and bleed into each other. It’s this kaleidoscopic roundabout of sounds and synesthetic colours that gives Phono Ghosts his bright, textured and vibrant sounds. There is a forward-looking optimism about Phono Ghosts‘ music, mirroring the future-tech shows of the 70’s and 80’s such as Tomorrow’s World, where we were sold concepts like automated living, flying cars and personal jet packs. It was this wide-eyed naivety that inspired much of the synthwave, retrowave and future-funk music being produced and it seems to have had an impact on a young Neil Scrivin.
Music in the 80’s also owed its distinctive sound to the iconic synthesizers whose patches could be recognised instantly (at least by me). Who couldn’t hear the bright and shiny FM synthesis of a Yamaha DX7 or Roland D50 and just glow with all the nostalgic feels. The sound and style was so distinctive that the revival, starting in the early 2000’s, was inevitable and verdant. Phono Ghosts captures these sounds throughout his work, summoning the romance of this era, preserving the retrofuturism of the decade through his futuresynth compositions.
Utilising samples he has found and stored over the years Neil constructs his tracks, molding and melding the sounds with various pieces of hardware, drawing it all together and making sense of it by way of software. His attention to detail is incredible, as evidenced on 2016’s Solar Dream Reel; each note, nuance and cut sample is perfectly placed and balanced, creating rhythmic crunches and snapping-jaw pulses of sound that punch and ricochet within each track. However, this is no mere cut-and-paste affair, there are moments of swept atmospherics and deep rumbling melodies that arc across the blue-sky vistas like contrails from neon-lit cloud ships. Listening to Solar Dream Reel is a rewarding experience, every track can be re-visited and you will find something new hidden among the crisp production and brilliant construction.
Photons in Fashion, released at the end of September 2018, continues Neil‘s explorations into sound manipulation. One of the distinct elements of Phono Ghosts is the dizzying array of sounds and edits that each track contains, it could be a disorientating and overwhelming experience for the listener, seemingly bombarded with so much information, but Neil expertly balances the melodies and staccato samples to create order out of the apparent chaos. It’s an exhilarating thrill-ride that pulls you back for more, time and time again. Opener “Cassential” is full of funk-cuts and electronic throw-downs that spark and tingle with energy-pulses whereas “Dramakai” and “Obelsik Phantasm” evoke the hypnagogic wooziness of vaporwave with their haunting soundscapes and stretched melodic chords. Photons in Fashion is an extraordinary record. There isn’t a single miss-step, a testament to Neil‘s ability to hone beautiful sonic sculptures from disparate and often juxtaposed materials.
Meatbingo is the wayward sibling of Phono Ghosts and presents a harder and more frenetic take on the sample and cut-up style Neil is so incredibly adept at. It is perkier and funkier; think a warped and twitchy Paul Hardcastle and you start to get the idea. The cut-and-paste sampling is still there, however it is adrenaline-pumped with Italo-disco and electro-funk basslines giving it a Giorgio Moroder twist.
Neil isn’t only Phono Ghosts and Meatbingo, he also records under his own name and has released three albums of hauntological-tinged retrowave. Incredibly he also runs Fonolith Records, a label dedicated to harnessing this creative energy he so positively exudes.
Neil very kindly found a gap in his busy schedule to answer a few questions for us here at The Jupiter Room, giving us a fascinating insight into his craft.
1. What is your earliest musical memory?
One particularly strong memory that stands out is hearing Jeff Wayne‘s War of the Worlds LP. It both fascinated and terrified me! Probably because my Dad would play it in the next room whilst I was supposed to be sleeping, and the sound of the cylinder unscrewing conjured images of unearthly alien breathing to my infant ears, over that unforgettably ominous bassline. And the Red Weed section, with its eerie detuned warbly synths, also left a lasting impression.
2. What did you grow up listening to?
TV music obviously seeped into my consciousness from a young age. Something that particularly resonated with me were the final two synth chords of the Blake’s 7 theme, which my Dad had recorded onto cassette from the TV. And the early ‘80s Tomorrow’s World theme tune still sounds futuristic to me. But even Pigeon Street had an influence!
Among the first tapes I bought was Peter Gabriel‘s third album. Even in 1988 it sounded impossibly old, and yet somehow resonated with me on a level that nothing contemporary could match. I was always attracted to music slightly older than that which was current, even at a very young age. Those older sounding recordings felt more familiar and exciting to me than what I was hearing on the radio.
Then my older brother introduced me to New Order and I took off from there during my early teens on an exploration of Joy Division, The Cure, Siouxsie & The Banshees, The Human League (particularly Reproduction and Travelogue), The Fall (thanks to John Peel), Fields of the Nephilim, Japan, XTC, Iron Maiden, Numan, Depeche Mode, The Stranglers, Bauhaus and on and on… I suppose I was a semi-Goth in some ways!
3. Where do you draw your inspiration from, musically and non-musically?
Musically, I like a fairly wide range of stuff, but I’m particularly drawn to music made by amateurs. It’s a kind of musical archaeology. I’ve no doubt that there are countless hidden gems out there, existing as one-off cassettes made by enthusiastic experimenters, but never heard by anyone but the creators and perhaps a few of their friends. The internet has of course brought some of this obscure work to light, but there’s probably so much more that will never emerge.
There’s something special about music that’s made in isolation like that, with no real regard for potential commercialism. Creativity requires a contextual frame, and working against limitations is one way to provide that.
Sometimes, I find reading about the process of making music more inspiring than listening to it. I enjoy a good ‘behind the scenes’ studio story.
Away from music, I’m into documentaries – often those concerning UFOs or other paranormal phenomena, or stuff like James Burke‘s Connections series, or the BBC’s The Secret War (good spooky theme music by the Radiophonic Workshop‘s Peter Howell); books (I have a fairly extensive collection of ufological/paranormal/Fortean material, or the kind of dystopian sci-fi that was all the rage back in the ’70s); vintage TV (the usual suspects like Blake’s 7, Doctor Who, Sapphire and Steel, The Prisoner, 1990, etc, etc.).
4. You currently record as Phono Ghosts, what is the sound and ethos behind this project?
I can trace its roots back to when I first started creating computer music, probably around 1990. I had an Amiga with the MED (later OctaMED) tracker program, and a sampling cartridge. I’d create tracks by building up samples from various sources – tapes; records; CDs; radio; sounds ripped from games or demos; everything really. What I do now with Phono Ghosts is essentially a more sophisticated version of that.
In the early 00’s, I started picking up cassette tapes in charity shops. There’d be boxes full of them at 5p or 10p each (I would baulk at paying anything more than £1 back then, even 50p felt like an extravagance!), so it was a very cheap way of finding interesting sounds. Even at that time, vinyl crate-digging was well and truly played out, but tapes were ignored, forgotten and out-dated, hence they were cheap and plentiful. Plus you’d find things on tape that you never would on vinyl, such as demos and home recordings and the like.
Before long, I had amassed so many that it made sense to do something using these tapes, and that became the basis of the Phono Ghosts project. I like it because, as I was saying before, it’s a useful frame to give context to the creative impulse.
5. You also record as Meatbingo, how does this differ from Phono Ghosts?
I see Meatbingo as more of a cynical, slightly mischievous persona. Brian Eno used to talk in interviews about his ‘idiot energy’ tracks and I look at Meatbingo in a similar way. It generally tends to overwhelm me every 3 or 4 years, and I have a compulsion to make this hyperactive music that’s very intense and has a kind of irreverent attitude to it. Then it goes back into hibernation again, until the next time.
6. Tell us about your studio setup. Do you use hardware, soft synths, DAW or a combination?
The main workstation is basically a PC with Ableton Live. That’s where most of the work happens. I don’t use any soft synths, just the built-in Sampler in Live. It’s not that I dislike soft synths or VSTs; I just prefer to keep things simple and stick to a few tools that I know inside out.
Over on the other side of the studio room, I have a collection of various synths, keyboards, samplers, effects, recorders, etc. which currently, for the most part, is used to generate sample material, but I am starting to work more in the hardware domain as an end in itself.
7. Your latest album is Photons in Fashion, can you tell us about it?
Essentially, it’s a direct continuation of Solar Dream Reel. Some of the tracks stem from the same period, albeit updated. But I didn’t want to do another double LP right now. The format is similar to that of Chrome Position – eight tracks over half an hour. Either a long EP or mini LP depending on your viewpoint (it’s confusing these days!). The idea being that it’ll be followed with another similar release next year.
8. What’s your favourite sound?
I’m not sure I have a particular favourite sound. Generally, I’m more attracted to how sounds combine together. The interest comes from the contrast between two or more colours, rather than one in isolation. But I confess a fondness for natural sounds like waves, rain against a window or howling wind, and these sounds crop up now and again in my music.
9. Tell us about the mix you’ve done for The Jupiter Room.
I’ve also included a few exclusive things – an extended live remix of “Tape to Tape” from Chrome Position, plus a few extracts from the archives. Otherwise, it’s a pretty eclectic mix of stuff that reflects the sort of thing I listen to. It was difficult to restrict myself to an hour!
10. What’s next for Phono Ghosts?
I’m already working towards the next Phono Ghosts album. I tend to have things in gestation for quite a while before they are finally released, but there’s quite a bit of stuff that’s nearing completion.
I’m also preparing a new project based around working in a quicker, more intuitive fashion, away from the computer. That’ll be under a new name, and have a rougher hewn aesthetic. It’s a conscious attempt to move away from the more micro-manipulated music I do with most PG and MB stuff, and something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. The problem is finding the time, ironically.
I’d like to contribute to more compilations. I enjoyed the opportunity to work on a single track for the Emotion Wave Daffodils compilation last year.
And of course there’ll be more cassette tape releases of my archive material from the past 20 years. There are numerous albums I made back in the days when myself, Kris (White Mask) and Ade Blacow (VHS Head) were challenging ourselves to create new ones every month! So expect a reasonably steady stream of releases to come.
11. If you could make music history, how would you do it?
I don’t think I have musical ambitions of such a lofty scale! I’m reasonably content to be producing music that seems to have found an appreciative audience.
We’re probably living in the late stages of musical history anyway, at least in the sense of it still being created by humans. Probably within our lifetime, artificial intelligence will reach a sufficiently advanced stage to be able to instantly create new music in real time, which is perfectly attuned to the listener’s taste, mood, etc. And it won’t necessarily have to be electronic or synthetic in sound. Any historical or unimagined genre of music and any timbre will be achieved in perfect accuracy, and it will be indistinguishable from the real thing. If you want to listen to new albums made by Genesis in 1974 or Boards of Canada circa 1998, or if you want to hear what a collaboration between them would sound like, you’ll be able to. The algorithms will instantaneously and endlessly generate new music that sounds 100% authentic. Automation will replace the musician.
Many thanks Neil.
All artwork and pictures by Neil Scrivin and taken from the artist’s Facebook page.
Find Phono Ghosts on the web:
The Jupiter Room on the web:
This show was broadcast on Thursday 27th September 2018 on Fourculture Radio.