Friday, 16 June 2017

The Stone Tapes: On Stories, Folklore and Stones

Kat Beem and Matt Peach.
As I mentioned yesterday when I reviewed the reissue of The Stone Tapes' Avebury album, Kat Beem and Matt Peach had kindly agreed to an interview.


The Stone Tapes project defies easy description. In Avebury we learn that Kat and Matt have receive box of tapes from an elderly and somewhat eccentric gentleman named George Wilberforce. Wilberforce has made it his hobby, we are told, to record the aural vibrations of standing stones in the belief that he can find, recorded in the fabric of these objects, the ghostly remnants of past events – this is the "stone tape" theory (the best known example in fiction being in Nigel Kneale's teleplay of the same name).

It becomes apparent, as Kat communicates with a retired vicar, that the tapes do indeed hold some uncanny secrets, but also that forces are bent on preventing these secrets ever being discovered.

HDI
So. George Wilberforce. Real?

Matt
The man in the photo is real yes and lives across the road. I can't reveal his real name

HDI
But the part about the box of tapes?

Kat
Yes, there is a box of tapes.

Matt
The songs do feature sounds from those tapes and field recording from the places in the episodes. The chap over the road is a 'character'. He brings his speakers out into the street when the sun is out. We are also fans of Nigel Neale so I acquired a bunch of old used reels to use that had some odd things on them. Training seminars, religious talks in foreign languages. All of them were a bit knackered but seemed to be perfect. We are both interested in standing stones and their original uses.

We came up with the story one evening and got to work. It took 12 weeks from beginning to end to create.

HDI
So how much of the whole is "found" audio?

Matt
Every song either contains a field recording that I did, sounds from a reel or a photograph turned into a noise file and converted into control voltages that I use in my modular synth. Some music software will open an image file. It's always noise, but I used it anyway.

HDI
The collage gives the whole thing a rich texture. Was that texture something you were aiming for, or did it happen more organically? What part did serendipity take in the process?

Matt
We knew how we wanted it to sound and feel. There are a lot of not-so-obvious layers going on at the same time.

HDI
Yeah, and I get the feeling that they overlap at times, like sometimes words and fragments surface in the mix, and then subside.

Matt
It will sound a bit different depending on how you listen. If you're in headphones you will hear other things that you miss with a speaker system, but they both translate the story we think. Sound magic. Certain frequencies and tempos can effect your thoughts and mood. Some induce trance.

HDI
About the story. Obviously in the Extended Edition there's an extra twist. How much more detailed is the story in your head to the one we get?

Matt
The story is going to unfold in each episode, but we already know where it's going. It can be frustrating because we can't say what's going to happen.

HDI
So The Kingdom of Mercia, that's a direct sequel?

Kat
Yes.

Matt
When people first heard Avebury, they didn't know the Vicar was going to be kidnapped, for instance.

Kat
We're digging deeper into the box.

Matt
Yes, George and I both live in The Kingdom of Mercia. Tamworth. There is a lot of local folklore that isn't that well known.

Kat
Yes, there are definitely some bits associated with Tamworth Castle.

Matt
The Hopwas Copper Plates, and the Witches' Table, for instance.

Kat
I do lots of trawling about on the internet looking for obscure books that we can reference in the project, and came across The Friar With the Gory Cowl.

Matt
The plague pit crypt.

HDI
I've never heard of any of this stuff, I admit.

Kat
The Friar actually came from an early 19th-century literary magazine that I found online. It was made up to be a sensational fiction from a time when there was a bit of anti-Roman Catholic literature still floating around, but it was set in the area, so....

HDI
Sounds terribly Gothic and dramatic.

Kat
It's fun to think that no one has thought about the Friar for about 170 years.

Matt
There are also two ghosts at Tamworth castle.

Katherine
It was this sort of cast-off bit of pulp trash fiction that now has found its way into the 21st century.

Matt
The Marmion Stone is also an odd object.

Kat 
The Marmion Stone used to be part of the Lady Bridge across the River Tame. When the medieval bridge was replaced in the 1800s, they moved the stone to the castle grounds.

Matt
It's now a wishing seat.

Kat
We went to see it in February, and there was a little girl and her ma sitting and making a wish.

When you start thinking about it, there are plenty of great stories about stone and things made of stone

HDI
But I imagine in the world of Wilberforce that you have to be careful what you wish for?

Matt
In the world of Wilberforce, people wish for very different things. The stones are places of sacrifice. The wishing seat would be used against your enemies.

People presume that when people flick a coin into a wishing well or sit on a wishing seat that they wish for nice things. You may be wishing your mother-in-law was dead.

Kat
The crypt at the Church of St Editha is interesting, as well... story goes that it was used as a plague pit, and during one renovation, workers used the coffin lid from a crusader's tomb in fixing the roof.

Matt
The page from John Britton (early in the Avebury album) sounds nice but towards the end of the song it brings up some not-so-nice facts. The New Age movement has tried to make the places into nice mystical places but I think they're incorrect.

HDI 
Do you think the New Age version ignores the blood and pain of it?

Matt
It does ignore it. Nature is trying to kill you from the moment you are born. Life is a struggle to survive and people do horrific things to survive.

Kat
I think that there's a lot in the New Age movement designed to make people feel good, perhaps in direct opposition to other religions that cause a bit of guilt.

HDI 
Among those people doing horrible things are the cult who appear in the album.

Matt
Yep. the cult are aware of what it was made for, and continue to use it.

HDI 
So, what do you know about them? Are they a pagan village conspiracy or something else?

Kat
So far, we know that they've been meeting around Hopwas Woods. We suspect that they were also practicing at Avebury

Matt
We're not going to say who they are yet.

HDI 
Will that secret be revealed, then?

Matt
The first part of Mercia reveals this somewhat. We have used a person in that script who lives here.

HDI 
How many albums do you see the story unfolding across?

Matt
It's going to be a few, as it doesn't just cover the British Isles.

HDI 
Will there be an American chapter?

Kat
Yeah, there are some mysterious petroglyphs in the Appalachians.

Matt
And groups of secretive folks.

HDI 
What do you see as the main differences between American and British folk horror?

Kat
America has so much more wilderness. Our folklore is mainly based on stories that people brought with them from Europe. There's an especially rich tradition that the Irish and Scottish folks brought to the mountains. But there's also a lot of interesting lore from Germany and Holland that came to Pennsylvania, New York, etc. Then there's a wealth of lore from Africa, stories from all over the continent, plus some that originated in the Caribbean. Baltimore still has a sizeable Voodoo presence. And then there's Native American  folklore as well, not to mention that now we have wonderful folk traditions from Latin America spreading. So, America is really a melting pot for all these wonderful folk traditions. And of course, each tradition has a ton of its own horror and its dark side.

HDI 
And all of them take on their own flavour. I remember reading Borges' sections in The Book of Imaginary Beings about the weird creatures of American folklore.

Kat
Every area has its weird creature (I'm in Goatman territory), but when you have the potential for very European ghosts to rub shoulders with duppies and La Llorona, there's more than enough Folk Horror going on here.

Matt
Its usually about people controlling others, and to do that you have to have power, in the form of money of knowledge.

HDI 
And we're back to the cult.

Matt
Yep. Back to the cult.

Kat
We have to be careful what to say about them... we don't want them to come after us at the moment.

Matt
For real.

HDI 
OK, let's talk about something safer. What are your influences?

Matt
(laughs) I grew up watching Hammer horror and Tales of the Unexpected on a small black and white TV in the 70s and 80s when my folks were in bed. All my favourite books as a kid were ghost stories. I worked in a video shop when I was around 10 and used to get all the free posters. My bedroom was pretty scary.

Kat
I've always loved ghost stories. I grew up with the wonderful Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books with illustrations that traumatized many kids my age. I used to watch Hammer movies with my dad, and he introduced me to the classic ghost story writers – James, chief among them. I wrote a dissertation on gothic horror at uni. But I was always the kid making up ghost stories about everything.

Matt
I've also long had a fascination with death, but now I try to avoid it.

Kat
When I was a kid, my parents dragged me to a historical site every weekend – be it an old plantation house, a Civil War battlefield, etc. I always asked the tour guides about ghost stories.

Matt
As you get older, you realise that the real world is much worse than the stories and movies.

Kat
Music wise, I started intensive piano training at the age of 5 – we're talking practicing several hours a day. As a teenager, I fell into the goth scene but was a bit more interested in industrial bands like Skinny Puppy than The Cure, et al. I wanted to learn how to do synth stuff and be like Cevin Key. But I think a boyfriend talked me out of it at some point by saying it was unfeminine.

HDI 
Your boyfriend sounds like a jerk, Kat.

Kat
Too much of my life has been spent listening to stupid boys. (laughs)

Matt
I moved out of Birmingham when I was 12. My neighbour had a music studio and was doing the music for the coming Olympics. He showed me the ropes. I was there every night. Although, I was already making music. I took guitar lessons in infant school and played at a music for youth thing in London when I was 10. I also used to use two tape decks and a turntable to make new songs out of other songs. Me and my best friend used to do our own little radio shows, The Adam and Peachy Show, and record them to cassette.

HDI 
Did you have a lot of listeners?

Matt
Two listeners. Us. I have been a music collector since. It's taken over my house a bit.

HDI 
How long have the two of you been working together?

Matt
Two years this month.

Kat
We started recording music for our Wandering Eldar project, and The Stone Tapes was just really a fun side project at the beginning.

HDI
But the stones started rolling?

Kat
Yep. It was last fall.

Matt
Yep. It wasn't really a struggle. I had been producing for a long time under other guises and knew how the industry worked. We had both mastered our instruments. Kat plays bass too. She had been in a few bands.

HDI 
What would you like to achieve with The Stone Tapes?

Matt
Something that hasn't been done before. Something unique. That's not easy, now the internet exists. There are thousand of songs uploaded every day. It's really tough to not blur away. Which leads to Hare's Breath Records. Talented people we know who aren't getting the recognition we think they deserve.

HDI 
So what's the model with your label?

Matt
We don't own the artists recordings. We create a package and involve them at every step. That isn't what usually happens in this industry. We put in the funds that they probably don't have. We recoup the cost of project from gross income, show them detailed list of costs and split the profits. They are still free to sell digitals etc. We just sell the limited package through our shop. They get a nice physical release out into the world and hopefully gain a larger audience. Most small labels do not pay the artists.

Kat
They give them a portion of the hard copies instead.

HDI 
Do you see physical releases as still having a place in the music economy as it is now?

Matt
Definitely. People still love having something to hold, to put on their shelves or show to their friends. A digital download doesn't feel like you actually own it.

Kat
Yes, definitely. I think people are starting to get a bit starved for it. I go to a monthly record meet and it's shoulder-to-shoulder packed.

A human hand always goes into some part of a Hares Breath creation. It's not just sent away to a factory and put into a warehouse.

HDI 
Do you have signings?

Kat
Yes, we have agreements with some other artists.

Matt
We shall slowly trickle out releases.

Kat
Plus, Wandering Eldar and Spiralithic.

HDI
Your other projects?

Matt
Yes. We'll put our own things out through the label. Makes sense. A lot of artists do it for the same reason.

HDI 
And they'll set the tone for the label too?

Matt
Yep. No pop music. We make a good team. Kat can edit words and I can edit audio and same tastes in most things. The hardest part is promo. I'm doing it all day in the background, without it being obvious. We hope its going to grow so we can get some rest.

HDI 
And hire help?

Matt
Yep.

Kat
I dream of having interns.

Matt 
I'll train them up and focus on the other things.

HDI 
So, The Kingdom of Mercia comes next. Then what?

Kat
I think something about Wales next.

Matt
And lonely London.

Kat
I'd love to do something about the Aran Islands, Inis Mor in particular.

Matt
Mercia has taken so long because we've involved other people. But we'll keep a mixture of people involved. For instance, Mercia features some quite famous people and my friend's mum and dad. Recorded in their living room. We hope people will be unsure again what is real and what isn't. The fact is that some of the things are real. There is a bloke over the road. There are news reports about witches at Hopwas, there are copper plates and standing stones. There are moody cults. People have been arrested.

Kat
And The Friar With the Gory Cowl existed, if only as a dopey 19th century short story.

Matt
They did have a trial at my local pub and tried to drown the landlady. There is a box of old tapes with odd stuff on them. Hopefully, a cult doesn't come after us, though.

Purchase Avebury (Extended Edition) here.

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