Monday, 20 September 2010
Grasscut: One Fell Swoop
At first sight the area separating Bullock and Castle Hills to the east of Brighton doesn’t look like much, another valley nestling between two more points of undulation in this most rippling part of the southern English landscape, the South Downs. Obvious it ain’t, but here be buried treasures, both historical and musical.
The valley was formerly home to the Sussex village of Balsdean – it was abandoned after World War II, during which it was used as artillery training for the British army. The well-trained gunners duly blew it to crap before heading off to the Normandy beaches and now there is almost literally nothing, just one small, apologetic plaque and a couple of dilapidated farm buildings. Beneath the soil lie the ruins of a 12th-century chapel, a mediaeval manor house, two farmhouses and an object that might reclaim the term ‘hidden track’ from irritating doodles that lurk at the end of CDs and clog up your iPod with dead space.
Here the Brighton duo of Grasscut have buried what bassist/keyboardist Marcus O’Dair describes as “a little capsule with as much personality as possible”, including a cassette tape – the only existing physical copy – of a track that will never be released. Clues to its whereabouts can be found in the free download Lost Village and the artwork for their debut album, 1 Inch: ½ Mile, itself the name of an old map scale. The album inlay folds out into a map of the Balsdean area, complete with the suggested route for the walk, a guide to which track to listen to and where, and, for the treasure hunters, a hint about where to look. Though inspired by journeys around the country, from Sussex to North Wales, it has been designed with this specific walk in mind, a 50-minute ramble just north of Rottingdean, once home to Kipling and the final resting place of Fred Perry.
So the opening track High Down accompanies the first steps, taking us past the giant phone mast with its gentle classical piano, then swirling up in a giant electric rush as the valley opens up in front of us, home now to nothing more than a flock of sheep (even the burnt-out car referenced in the album map has been removed). Despite the rural setting, the urban is never far away, and High Down’s saunter past the phone mast is accompanied by a swarm of bleeps, the electric fuzz of a thousand flickering phone calls.
“A track like High Down, it’s very easy to make it too stylised. I wanted to make it feel like you really, really were there, rather than just writing a song about being there,” says singer, programmer and multi-instrumentalist Andrew Phillips. “Ninety per cent of the music I listen to for fun is on headphones. I get transported by music I love in an environment, it doesn’t matter where it is, I just get into a transcendental state, transported to a demi-world. It makes it a bit more porous.”
It’s a grey and muggy June day (though the fair-skinned among us still come away with a headful of sunburn) as we follow the album’s path, down into the valley to the sound of Meltwater (actually conceived in Snowdonia), the buffeting wind crashing into its grand synthesisers and live drums, courtesy of jazzman Jim Whyte. Although the term folktronica seems little used lately, 1 Inch: ½ Mile is perhaps its perfect embodiment. Not only is it designed to be listened to in an environment that blends the pastoral with the modern, a merger reflected in its instrumentation, it’s peppered with old voices, many recorded from 78s. Album credits include speaking parts for novelist WG Sebald, poets Ezra Pound, Edmund Blunden and Basil Bunting, the Irish tenor Count John McCormack and writer-poet Hilaire Belloc, whose singing of his poem The Winged Horse is sped up to soprano pitch on the closing In Her Pride.
But the most telling voice on 1 Inch: ½ Mile, apart from Phillips’ own, is that of his mother, whose covertly recorded recollections of austerity Britain (“it was grey, very grey”) form the album’s centrepiece, 1946, which soundtracks, at the end of the long winding path downwards, our arrival in the ‘village’ centre. It’s now just one small wall of bricks, marking the foundations of some vanished undetermined building. The plaque marking ‘the site of the altar of the Norman church of Balsdean’ is the only historical footnote, the farm buildings are completely deserted, a hose gently dripping into a water trough the only sign of ongoing interest. The manor house, a mental asylum in the 19th century, is so far gone no one actually knows where it stood. On these fields, Phillips assures me, Henry V’s archers practised for the battle that would take place in Agincourt. Now it’s just grass, trees and wool; lots and lots of wool.
After the short, sharp shock of the climb back out of the valley (soundtrack: The Door In The Wall, by far the poppiest moment saved for an uphill adrenaline shot) Phillips talks of the influences of Powell and Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale, “the idea of the ancient running through the modern” in its contemporary walk through historic places. Phillips, who used to play with 1 Giant Leap and earns his current crust composing music for film and television, is already talking about a track for another disappearing-village project, this one a place drowned to make way for a reservoir.
“I don’t know if we’re gonna become the band of lost places,” O’Dair adds quickly. “The fact there’s now travellers’ vans at the start of the walk and the burnt car has gone just shows the extent to which it’s about change. The record’s meant to be about contemporary England, we’re not interested in nostalgia. That’s why we use old 78s and new Kaoss pads. Neither is idealised or superior, but if you’re in an iPod Shuffle era, then it is all there.”
Indeed it is. You just have to look for it.