Saturday, 9 April 2011

Mount Vernon Arts Lab - The Seance at Hob's Lane

Things happen when Drew Mulholland goes for a walk. The artist also known as Mount Vernon Art Lab may have silenced his analogue induced soundscapes for the last five years, but if it wasn’t for a casual wander into a newsagent, he might not have realised how influential he’d become.

There he was idling across the shelves while his daughter took her time choosing which comic to buy. Picking up a copy of left-field music bible The Wire, Mulholland’s eye fell across an article about Ghost Box records, a stylish micro label that looks to retro electronics and library music for inspiration, and takes its visual moves from old Pelican science books from the 1960s. The founders of the label talked about how one of the seminal works that had guided them was a long deleted CD titled The Séance At Hobs Lane.

This was the same name as one of the last Mount Vernon Arts Lab records to be released, and for a moment Mulholland thought he’d been ripped off. On closer inspection, Mulholland was both surprised and not a little chuffed to discover that The Séance At Hobs Lane referred to was in fact his own album, now regarded as seminal.

It was, as with so many things concerning Mulholland, “Pure chance. I opened up the magazine at random, and was drawn in visually to it. Then I noticed this headline, ‘Psycho-Geographical Field Trip.’ Then I noticed the The Séance At Hob’s Lane being described as a touchstone of what Ghost Box were about, and I read the thing, and just e-mailed them to say thanks very much for the mention, because I suddenly felt like this grand old man of electronics. Then they got tight back and asked if they could re-release the record. So suddenly, because I’d released a record every year, and then stopped, it was like going back into another life, which you would regard as not being important to anyone at any time. Then the next generation comes along and say they love it. So it’s all been quite bizarre, even trying to remember how they were made.”

Half a decade ago, Mount Vernon Arts Lab was a going concern on the underground independent scene, whose BBC Radiophonic Workshop inspired audio experiments had been fizzing out of Glasgow’s suburbs for several years. With initial releases on Via Satellite the record label co-run with Future Pilot AKA’s Sushil K Dade, Mulholland worked with Portishead guitarist Adrian Utley, and later took his Quatermass obsession to new depths when he played in the nuclear bunker in Troywood, Fife a year prior to The Séance at Hobs Lane’s release. He’d also hooked up with the members of cult band, Coil, with whom he collaborated on his Musick That Destroys Itself album under the name Mount Vernon Astral Temple. It was here the problems started.

World Serpent, the record’s distributor, went bust, which meant that, despite healthy sales at home and abroad, Mulholland wouldn’t be paid the several thousand pounds owed to him. Around this time too, Mulholland’s daughter was born, and, with family priorities now coming ahead of musical ones, sold off all his vintage equipment and hasn’t released a record since.

Thanks to Ghost Box, and indeed his daughter, that isn’t the end of the Mount Vernon Arts Lab story. Indeed, things have turned around for Mulholland on every level of late. Wearing a Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd t-shirt and sat in the professorial surroundings of a staff club at Glasgow University where he’s currently an Honorary Research Associate in the Geography department, Mulholland looks every inch the obsessive boffin which to some extent he actually is.

Mulholland’s primary concern at the moment beyond The Séance At Hobs Lane us to finish off a book that began as an article about his psychic walks in and around Glasgow written for Strange Attractor, a ‘journal of un-popular culture,’ as it styles itself. With a working title of Psycho-geography – Theory And Practice, the book will effectively be a handbook for those interested in the notion of walking through urban spaces and absorbing energies beyond the purely physical. The idea was first promoted by Guy Debord, author of the book, The Society Of The Spectacle and founder of the Situationist group, for whom art and experience were inseparable. While second-hand mythologising has clouded much Situationist thought, Mulholland’s book aims to demystify such notions.

“It’s meant to be Psycho-geography light,” he says of his almost finished volume, “because I want to spread the word. Most people, they hear that term, they’re either intrigued or else think its right up itself. I want to say that it’s open to everyone, and that anyone can do it. You don’t have to buy the t-shirt or use a credit card. You just get a map and go for a walk. It’s as simple as that, and can be exciting and exhilarating on so many levels. It’s a rejection of X-Boxes and 21st century consumer culture. If you don’t have to be anywhere at a certain time you can just wander, and that’s the way a child wanders.”

The day we meet, Mulholland has been up half the night watching vintage science fiction film Quatermass And The Pit for the umpteenth time. It was this very British film, made by Hammer studios with an eerie intelligence that explored psychic disturbances on an archaeological dig, which first inspired Mulholland to make The Séance At Hobs Lane, digging deeper via his own fascination with psycho-geography. The record even took its title from the film’s fictional London Underground station, where ancient symbols and not so ancient aliens are discovered below ground .

“The title came first,” Mulholland looks back now. “I was watching Quatermass and the Pit, and just wondered what would happen if you had a séance in a place like that. Then I did the album, and was asked if I was into psych-geography. I didn’t know what that was at the time, but as soon as I looked into it and read people like Iain Sinclair, I got it straight away. It’s something that I think ties back to childhood. It’s something that you do naturally as a child, but when you’re an adult with responsibilities it stops. But there’s an entire history of walking as a creative thing. Thomas Hobbes had an ink-well in his walking stick in case he got ideas. If you can make time for it, it really brings the blood pressure down, and should be encouraged.”

Besides the connection with Ghost Box, Mulholland has found other doors opening for him since he began work on his book. He was even invited to lecture on psycho-geography at Cambridge University, where even such an august institution’s finest minds warmed to Mulholland’s enthusiasm. Mount Vernon Arts Lab looks set to be reconvened too, with Mulholland making plans to record for the first time in six years.

At the moment, as with The Séance At Hobs Lane, all that exists is an idea and a title. Library Music Concrete, as the project has been dubbed, might even end up as significant a retro-future classic as its forbears. There are too, old tapes being rediscovered. An album of library music recorded a decade ago, thought lost, has just turned up, as has a recording of dark ambient material.

“For five years I was completely in the wilderness,” Mulholland says. “Now I realise that over those five years my batteries have been slowly recharging, and now it seems like everything’s happening at once.”

The Séance At Hobs Lane by Mount Vernon arts Lab is available on Ghost Box records now

The Herald, September 2007


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