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Mount Vernon Arts Lab

True sounds of the underground

Mount Vernon Arts Lab

This interview was originally put online in 2001. We republish it here to coincide with the re-release of Séance at Hobbs Lane by the Ghostbox label.

The BBC Radiophonics Workshop filtered by noise-mechanics Suicide or Throbbing Gristle. A toy merry go round stuck in a vaccuum cleaner. A string quartet in the engine room of a victorian submarine. It's difficult to pin down the sound created by Glasgow-based Drew Mulholland, aka Mount Vernon Arts Lab, but it's certainly fun trying.Created using a range of analogue electronic and traditional instruments, his music and soundscapes are evocative, inventive, absorbing and engaging.

The new album, Seance at Hobbs Lane, alternates cthonic atmospheres, fierce ryhthms and delicate melodies inspired by secret landscapes, hidden architecture and old British science fiction films. Contributing remixes and extra instrumentation are members of Coil, Belle and Sebastian, Teenage Fanclub and Add N to X, making this another eclectic and idiosyncratic release from the MVAL bunker.

MVAL's approach to live performance is equally unusual, and past gigs have included a nuclear bunker, a boat and derelict buildings. A tour of sacred sites and other places of power is planned for the near future. Mark Pilkington conducted this fax interrogation.

What are the roots of your interest in the ‘power of place’? Do you think this can be a literal power, like a form of energy, or is it a psychological – or psychogeographical – effect? Or both?!

It’s something that I’ve only rediscovered recently. As a much younger gentleman I sued to explore our local area, which was quite strange at that time. World War II air raid shelters, bomb craters, abandoned railway tunnels, anything off the beaten track. I think this is the sort of thing most boys do. But after playing at the nuclear command bunker a few years ago I started to be fascinated by not only derelict military structures but also obscure urban stuff and then discovering that there was a kind of network of urban trespass fanzines and web sites, and a subject called psychogeography. For me this took in everything from visiting the location of The Wicker Man’s climax to the scene of the ambush of Percy Toplis, the Monocled Mutineer, to the bombing range used by 633 Squadron. It was the alternative away day aspect that appealed to me. What would you rather do? Have a drink in the Green Man or watch Eastenders?

How do you attach a title to a piece of music? Does the concept come first, or afterwards? Can you give an example or two off your new album.

It’s probably a bit of both. There are definitely some places that are charged. We went to Kenmore on Loch Tay recently and the village and surrounding area have a very interesting vibe. There’s a ghost village, monuments in the middle of nowhere, strange statues in the pub, (half Pan, half maiden) and some Neolithic carvings near the churchyard. At the moment we’re recording a double CD based on all this stuff. It’ll be called The Kenmore Working.

The two really go hand in hand. A lot of the material on this album came directly from the research I was doing. Finding out more about such diverse subjects as Victor Grayson’s disappearance in the ‘20s, or the fact that Thomas DeQuincy lived in Glasgow for a short while, or abandoned underground stations. There was a real current of what some might call occult energy with this record. Two examples from Séance…would be The Vauxhall Labyrinth, which reminded me of Sherlock Holmes and Fu Manchu, and While London Sleeps, which was an article about the postal railway that runs between Paddington and Whitechapel. This subterranean railway carries no passengers and is for the transportation of passengers and mail only. To me something like that is so romantic and evocative. Services began on 5 December 1927 fact fans.

You’ve played gigs in some unusual places. What has been your favourite and what would be your ultimate gig venue? How do you do live gigs?

The disused nuclear bunker (in Scotland) was quite far out although after I played there I went exploring and came across a locked room that only contained a table and a submachine gun. They also have a chapel down there and some of the locals have been married in it, which is too far out even for me! My ultimate gig would have to be Hobbs Lane Underground station!

You’ve collaborated with several musicians on this album. How did that work? Did you work together in the studio, send them backing tracks or what?

John Balance from Coil got in touch a while back and asked if I would do a track for a compilation they were doing, so I asked if they’d be interested in doing a remix for the album and they did a brilliant version of Hobgoblins. The package they sent it to me in didn’t have a stamp on it, I don’t know how that happened! Barry 7 from Add N to X came up with The Submariner’s Song. We agreed that it sounded like a kind of Late Victorian Heath Robinson-esque submarine that only went up and down the Thames. Isobel’s track “The Black Drop” really delighted me. She’s a great cellist. The Black Dropwas Victorian slang for Opium. Séance at Hobbs Lane had a real Black Museum feel to it.

What kind of equipment do you use to get the sounds you do?

The electronics came from various Moogs, a Synth VCS3, a theremin and a unit that I had specially built which currently goes under the name of Turbine Generator.

Some of the music on the new album is quite extreme. Can sound be dangerous?

I think that it probably can under certain circumstances. Things like the Squawk Box, which was used for crowd control, are debilitating. But it can also be used in a very powerful and positive way. We rehearsed recently at very high volume in the dark and it was a totally transporting experience. It reminded me of traversing some tunnel systems beneath Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Park, and the WW2 decoy site at jaw reservoir.

What’s behind your Quatermass obsession?

Well spotted! Quatermass and the Pit, what a film!! I saw it for the first time when I was about 14. It’s got everything! A weird electronic soundtrack, great direction and sets and a real sense of menace. And, unlike Hollywood a real downer of an ending! I’ve got some stills but I would love the poster. Most of it was filmed in the studio, but I’m sure the scene outside the church was done on location. Maybe that would be my ultimate gig! Another weird British scifi film from that time is They Came from Beyond Space. How can you come form beyond space?! It’s a no budget production and completely brilliant. It’s even got the news reader Kenneth Kendall in it. Another one to look out for is The Lost Continent, based on a story by Dennis Wheatley. It’s got giant crabs, a 16th century Spanish galleon and a ravenous jelly fish that they keep in the hold. It stars James Cossins who was also on the classic Deathline, the soundtrack to which is great and due to be re-released soon. Deathline is about a cannibal tribe on the London Underground, which is where we came in…

Séance at Hobbs Lane is available from Ghostbox

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Author Biography
Mark Pilkington edits Strange Attractor Journal and is a frequent contributor to FT. He also performs as part of the Tesla-inspired sound/art project ‘Disinformation vs Strange Attractor’, which uses mains electricity, EM fields and antique laboratory equipment in its live shows. Their CD Circuit Blasting is out now on Adaadat Recordings.


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