Patterns under the plough
EYELESS IN GAZA, The Wire, 278, April 2007

Although they emerged during early 80s post-punk, Eyeless In Gaza and their vocalist Martyn Bates have been tapping a very English stream of Industrialised folk music. Alone and together with Lol Coxhill, Max Eastley, Mick Harris and others, Bates has produced Gothic tales, murder ballads and songs of the soil far removed from the cosy nostalgia of the current roots revival. Words: Rob Young. Photography: Ivan Jones.

Martyn Bates still remembers dancing round a maypole with his classmates at the arrival of spring. He is a child of the Midlands, the industrial belly of England, where the manufacturing cities of Birmingham, Coventry and Leicester huddle smoking between the rolling hills and market towns of Shropshire, and the surviving pockets of the ancient Forest of Arden. He spent some of his childhood in Collycroft, then a village, now inexorably being swamped by the northern suburbs of Coventry. His family were Methodists, the Wesleyan branch of the Church of England that was originally taken up particularly among 18th century labourers and agricultural workers, and which, says Bates, contained thiny veiled “undercurrents of magic”. He can still see his old grandmother Ethel, staring towards the bottom of the garden at the “gazing souls” floating above the trees.

“It was church twice every Sunday,” he says of the religious climate in his youth. “Those things stay with you all your life. With the onset of puberty, I locked myself in the bathroom – “I’m not going!” … . My sense of what was going on with Methodism was, it seemed, like a benign form of Christianity, where they were looking to the outside world all the time, nobody’s ticking you off all the time for fucking up. The most valuable thing it showed me was how beautiful music could be, with the hymns and the rich poetry of the Bible – it’s full of texts that fire the imagination.”

Bates still lives in the area, in Nuneaton, a town best known as the birthplace of George Eliot, and within a few minutes’ drive from the village of Meriden, traditionally the dead centre point of England. It’s appropriate, because from early in a career that has lasted nearly 30 years, he’s drawn from a wellspring of musical and literary inspiration that sits at the heart of a particularly English sensibility. Whether in Eyeless In Gaza, the ‘group’ – to all intents and purposes, a duo – he founded in 1980, or in the various different pastures he’s wandered in as a solo performer and with an intriguing company of collaborators, including Scorn’s Mick Harris, poet Anne Clark and sound sculptor Max Eastley, he has amassed a huge body of work that’s only just beginning to make sense in the current climate of newly awakened sympathy for folk music. For Bates is drawn to the elemental, pagan, Gothic qualities of Britain’s folkloric music while gifted with a knack for re-arranging it in a more contemporary vein without draining any of the music’s mythological powers. He’s not so much a gamekeeper of traditional forms, trying to ward off the encroachment of modernity, as a poacher, filching what he needs from the surviving body of British folk song.

“Music was my education,” says Bates in one of the upper rooms of his deceptively normal semi-detached house in a Nuneaton cui de sac. “I shut myself off from the formal side of things, but the radio, and music, backs of album jackets, books … you start building up your own education, your own picture.” We are surrounded by the fruits of this self-acquired learning as we speak. The room is lined floor to ceiling with an impressive LP collection, which ranges from early 80s post-punk and Industrial records by Throbbing Gristle and Coil, to British folksong collections, Smithsonian Folkways albums, 60s pop and psychedelia, and rare No Wave sides. The bookshelves are stuffed with volumes of folk and fairy tales, books on comparative religion, psychology and anthropology: Jung, Robert Graves, Maud Karpeles’s Introduction To English Folk Music, Maureen Duffy’s Erotic World Of Faery, George Ewart Evans’s Pattern Under The Plough, Stanley Cohen’s Folk Devils And Moral Panics, and the writings of Blake, Burroughs, Crowley, Hardy, Joyce, RD Laing, DH Lawrence, Rimbaud, Colin Wilson … . Testament to Bates’s occasional parallel career as a teacher, his library helps to map out the terrain he inhabits in his art. “One of my key interests in folk singing,” he explains, “is the way it taps into a collective unconscious, in Jung’s sense, because it’s out there like an escaped gene and we’re all picking up on it. It’s a romantic notion, but I think it still stands.”

Bates is old enough to have discovered a love of music in the pre-punk days, yet was still at school during punk’s initial explosion, which was confined to cities far from where he grew up. “My first involvement with live music would have been with folk music,” he recalls. “My kindly uncle used to take me along to folk clubs to see people like Martin Carthy. So that was quite a young experience. But I listened to all sorts of things. The first musical instrument I played was the guitar and I sat with my fingers bleeding. I’m old enough to have heard Nick Drake the first time round. I tried to do something like that, but I always felt it wasn’t my own voice.” It was the second wave, the experimental post-punk period, that really caught his imagination and spurred him into action. “It made a lot of sense,” he says, “and it ushered in the new wave of DIY, all tied in with cheap means of production. I suppose that’s the thing about folk music too – you can do it with the simplest of instruments, or just the human voice.” In 1979, calling himself The Migraine Inducers, he recorded a series of low-fidelity miniatures, which were released as a cassette on his own label, Ambivalent Scale, entitled Dissonance/Antagonistic Music. Reissued on CD for the first time in 2007, it’s an amazing, long lost missing piece in the UK post-punk/DIY jigsaw. It would sound at ease on a contemporary label like Kranky or Häpna: short, hissy scribbles of wordless grit with rough Spanish guitar overdubs; you can even hear Bates occasionally bumping into the mic. “You’ve got to remember the musical climate was very different then,” he says. “You felt stultified by people who were showing their technique. It all seemed about being flash, rather than the content. So that’s why punk burst everything open, because you can make your own music, that’s what the message says. And if you were listening to the message properly, you were able to think, yeah, I could bring bits of folk music into this.”

Bates’s creative relationship with folk tradition has accumulated gradually over time – while it’s detectable in some early Eyeless In Gaza releases, it probably wouldn’t have been called such at the time. Formed in 1980 with his friend Peter Becker, and named after the Aldous Huxley novel (with a glancing reference to the Old Testament story of the blinded Samson), Eyeless In Gaza were one of the more literate early 80s post-punk groups, taking their place alongside the gnomic likes of Blue Orchids, Felt, The Monochrome Set and Young Marble Giants. Their sequence of albums for Cherry Red, from Photographs As Memories (1981) to Back From The Rains (1986) are marked by Bates’s open falsetto soar that’s closer to The Associates’ Billy MacKenzie than the apologetic mumblings of many of their contemporaries. Threaded through the Eyeless In Gaza releases are a series of Bates solo recordings, including an ongoing series of intimate confessional or diaristic pieces called Letters Written. “It’s a very personal way of presenting music,” he confirms, “it’s just me and that organ. So it’s a very small picture, there’s an intensity to it. The idea of the letters was to put across that personal aspect. I’m not doing it at the moment, but the series is there … . I can always open up that page again.” When the lyrics of these songs appear to be addressed to a lover, Bates deliberately confuses the genders involved, a ploy which has led to many people believing he’s gay, even though he’s been happily married for years. “A lot of my pieces I set up to be open texts,” he says. “All my life there have been perceptions about my sexuality – people always think I’m gay. I set the words up that way so there’s an ambiguity. The words appear to be about relationships but they’re all internal monologues.

“For me,” he continues, “the heart of my music, and the best work I’ve done, has been with Eyeless In Gaza, because I’ve had this special relationship with Peter Becker now for all these years, and we’ve built up this telepathic relationship. So all my other projects are like solo explorations, where I’ve taken something that I might do with Eyeless and given it a bit more space. It’s very intense, because there’s two of us. It’s got a real bite to it, and a real fertile nexus. Sometimes it’s too much, so it’s good to have these open spaces where I can go.”

Eyeless were temporarily wound down in 1987 when, according to Bates, the intensity became too much, and the group were at their least commercially successful. Bates contributed to the soundtracks of the Derek Jarman films The Last Of England (1987) and The Garden (1990), and entered troubadour mode with several song albums featuring himself and acoustic guitar, among them Love Smashed On A Rock (1987), Letters To A Scattered Family (1990), and Stars Come Trembling (1990). 1992 found him collaborating with poet Anne Clark, on her album The Law Is An Anagram Of Wealth, before getting back together with Becker the following year for the album Fabulous Library. It was originally intended as a Becker solo venture, but the pair’s easy chemistry led to them using the album to restart Eyeless In Gaza. Records by the group have consistently emerged throughout the 90s, the most recent, Summer Salt And Subway Sun, appearing at the end of last year. In a long and varied catalogue, it’s one of their best: a mixture of instrumentals and songs; jangly guitars set up with choppy delays tussle with outdoor ambience and surprisingly tough lo-fi drum machines. In his lyrics, Bates reflects on the passing of time, memory’s ghosting tricks, the melancholy of failed communication. With a career-survey compilation, Plague Of Years, recently issued on Belgian label Sub Rosa, Eyeless have entered a newly productive phase of their career, which includes stepping up live work – they have made a number of European appearances in the past year.

They also recently reissued another fascinating instance of their eclectic early years: a collaboration with saxophonist Lol Coxhill. A sequence of experimental improvisations by Coxhill and Eyeless individually were originally released as a split cassette in 1982 on the French Tago Mago label as Home Produce; the 2003 CD version, called Home Produce – County Bizarre, includes all the original tracks plus a half hour of remixes in which Coxhill’s and Eyeless’s tracks are blended together. Clatterings, ticking clocks and mechanical music boxes build to uncanny effect; the sounds and the packaging, with its British 1950s austerity meets post-punk DIY ethic, is an eerie precursor to the stuff that’s coming out today on the Ghost Box imprint.

In the 90s Bates explicitly embraced his literary heroes. He arranged music for Rilke poems on Anne Clark’s 1998 album Just After Sunset, and made two CDs of musical settings for James Joyce’s poem cycle Chamber Music for Sub Rosa. “That was an attempt to take the academy out of Joyce,” he avers. “You read Joyce and you can see it’s multilayered writing. But it’s written in a very idiomatic way – vox populi. It’s not meant to be a dry, dusty academic thing. Finnegans Wake is just a belly laugh, and there’s parts of Ulysses that are like that. But with Chamber Music, I’d only ever heard art song renditions, it just seemed a good vehicle to use a folk, untutored approach. Nobody to my knowledge had ever recorded the whole cycle of poems. They’re quite a mouthful, some of this stuff: beautiful texts, but I prepared all the material before I went into the studio – it’s all one-take stuff, mics all round the studio and live feeds. That’s probably the first time I went for it with a folk approach, or an untutored approach.”

But he’s especially obsessed with the chilly Gothic middle Europe of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. When he was commissioned last year by the American Hand/Eye label to contribute to its Folklore Of The Moon series of 3” CDs, Bates leapt at the chance to make a piece based on his reading of the novel and its lunar, psychosexual subtexts. The resulting mini-album Leitmotif was too long for a 3” format, so it’s the only full length CD in the series.

“Fascinating, the moon and Frankenstein: the feminine principle at work in that book,” he enthuses. “The first version [from 1818] is excellent, there are a lot more suggestions of incest, the whole thing’s darker, but she modified it for the second [in 1831]. It’s proto-sci-fi, Gothic, all sorts … . The validity of religion, Prometheus … . The murder ballad on there, “Twa Sisters/Minorie”, is where someone turns into a stone.”

Nature plays a big part in English culture and in the gestalt of what might be called the ‘British imagination’. Our relationship with nature is often as much of a literary one as a direct engagement: we talk of Wordsworth’s Lake District, Hardy’s Dorset, Bronte’s Yorkshire. “For me, it’s a rich metaphor for the internal landscape,” continues Bates. “It’s a manifestation of the psyche. As a writer I am totally trying to clue into the intensity behind the ordinary, behind the everyday. It’s not passive at all.”

This seriousness of purpose is refreshing, given that so much of the current ‘folk revival’ tends to sanitise and dampen the music with twee kiddicraft packaging. The compilation series Folk Is Not A Four Letter Word features marquetry on the sleeve design; Folk Off is adorned with ‘Home Sweet Home’-style woolly embroidery; the self-explanatory Fuzzy Felt Folk harks back to a 70s children’s craft product. These do nothing to alter the perception of folk music as a nostalgic comfort blanket. Some younger singers such as Alasdair Roberts, Alexander Tucker and Daniel Padden have been traversing some of the music’s darker pathways recently, but in hindsight, Bates was clearing them of briars years before.

His reworkings of traditional music began in earnest in 1986, when a version of the traditional song “She Moves Thru The Fair” appeared on the Eyeless album Back From The Rains. Ever since, Bates has quietly been guarding the flame of British folk music – not the stubborn, parochial variety, but preserving something of the poetry, the romance, the tragedy, the destinies and the revengers, the chance meetings that prove fatal, the slayings, the entrapments, the swooning attractions, the passionate surrenders, the rapes, the leavetakings, the magical beasts, the class delineations and the symbolic, psychic landscapes in which these lores are enacted. He became particularly interested in England’s rich body of grisly murder songs, such as “The Death Of Polly”, where a woman is lured to her bloody death by the man she is shortly to marry; or “The Bramble Briar”, where a servant returns from the dead to inform his lover that he had been killed by her own two brothers.

In 1994 a mutual friend put him in touch with Mick Harris, former drummer of Birmingham grindcore unit Napalm Death, who by then had embarked on a very different course: the crepuscular electronic wastelands of his solo Dark Ambient projects Scorn and Lull. Lull’s early records like Dreamt About Dreaming (1992) and Journey Through Underworlds (1993) were, for Bates, some “of the first Isolationist things, and I thought it was fantastic music, but there was something missing. It’s all very well but it needs something, a human face. I thought, what a fantastic vehicle to go to the quiet place inside yourself and unwind these huge murder ballads.”

Murder Ballads (Drift), released in 1994 on the Italian label Musica Maxima Magnetica, projects four songs – “The Death Of Polly”, “The Fowler”, “Lucy Wan” and “Long Lankin” – onto a backcloth of silvered, cold midnight scenery that calls to mind the shimmering paintings of Samuel Palmer and the melancholy, grotesque engravings of Mervyn Peake. Bates, in superb voice, pitches them perfectly; he avoids toe-curling ‘folkie’ delivery, retaining the drama of these songs but falling short of cheap histrionics. He made a notion of rewired folk music plausible at a time when folk seemed a musical genre that was completely unredeemable. Harris himself, he states, was not particularly interested in folk music per se: “I did a demonstration for him, and he just liked the way the two elements worked together. I think Mick still likes hitting things – he’s like a gentle giant really. Mick did tracks, he presented them to me, and selected from there. And from that point I showed him the vocal ideas. He lived with them for a while, same as I lived with his tracks, then we got together and did it. He got these loops together, so there’s some live creation in the moment, it wasn’t just Mick’s bit and Martyn’s bit.”

“I remember at the time, it seemed really important to try to open up the dialogue about folk music. It was really out there in the cold, a vilified music form. And now we’re sat here talking about it.”

The duo recorded two more volumes of Murder Ballads over the next three years, Passages and Incest Songs (the three volumes have since been collected as a three CD set on Invisible Records). Taken together, their sparse aesthetic gestures towards an earlier corpus of English pagan music albums such as The Watersons’ Frost And Fire (1965), Martin Carthy & Dave Swarbrick’s Prince Heathen (1969) or Shirley & Dolly Collins’s Love, Death And The Lady (1970). Here the texts are paramount, presented either with unaccompanied voices, or with minimal instrumentation, and the songs seem to survive the passage of years to possess the singers, using them as mouthpieces for the natural cycles and horrible narratives they recount.

The dialects of these records are unmistakably English, and Bates too is concerned about the need to find a phrasing that does not stray over to the Americanised delivery of pop music. “If you listen to the early Eyeless records,” he says, “it’s a lot more incoherent and there’s a lot more shouting and straining, but that’s probably more in keeping with the musical mores of the time, and part of the adrenaline rush for me as a younger man. I made a conscious effort not to be in ‘bay-beh’ territory. I don’t have to spread my legs and straddle the mic. Look for your own voice, reflect the person you are. Having said that, I still like the idea of collective unconscious and tapping into that, and I still think these ideas run perfectly side by side.”

Bates made another folk based recording in the mid90s, Songs Of Transformation, but it is only seeing the light of day now, more than ten years later. It was made with the environmental sound artist and improvisor Max Eastley, veteran of collaborations with David Toop, Thomas Kaner and others. Originally slated for release on Virgin as part of the Ambient series that produced the Isolationism compilation, it was shelved when its curator left the company. For several years Nottingham label Sentrax intended to issue it, until it went off the rails. It’s now finally coming out on Musica Maxima Magnetica and sounds magnificent, with Bates crooning over Eastley’s improvised bowings on single-string monochord, whirling objects and nameless sculpted devices. The partnership is especially appropriate, given Eastley’s distant past. Bates reveals, “Before he took up environmental sculpture and making instruments, he was a folk singer-cum-beatnik bloke. He used to hang around in St Ives with people like Donovan Leitch and Matt McLeod [the bass player who inspired Donovan’s “Hurdy-Gurdy Man”]. He was interested in getting back in touch with those parts of his persona.”

Songs Of Transformation is Bates’s selection of ‘magical songs’ such as “Nottamun Town”, “George Collins” or “Two Magicians”, whose narratives are brightly encrusted with emblematic symbols or riddles, with vivid use of colours and numbers, as if encoding important information to be transmitted to future generations.

About the role of magic, Bates comments, “I’m interested in magic in the same way that I’m interested in religion. I like the idea of ritual being useful in life, but it doesn’t sit easily with me. I think you tend to disappear in a ritual, maybe that’s the idea, but I think this stuff’s going on all the time anyway. At the risk of embarrassing myself,” he continues, “I just think there are gods in everything, and there always have been and there always will be … but at the same time I think it’s all part of some psychological process. It’s Freud’s fault really. He brought God back, banging on about him not being there so much … .”

Bates’s other ongoing project is Twelve Thousand Days, a duo with Alan Trench of Orchis. Their three albums since 2000 contain yet more esoteric, melancholy folk and frosty acoustic music on guitars and keyboards plus dulcimers, recorders, glass harp, Tibetan bells and the occasional psaltery. Trench’s former job, running World Serpent Distribution until it went bankrupt in 2004, placed him at the heart of England’s ‘hidden reverse’, handling releases by Coil, Current 93, Death In June, Nurse With Wound, Sol Invictus, et al. Bates goes back a long way with this UK avant garde; in the early 80s he sent review tapes to a zine called Stabmental, edited by one Geoff Rushton, later known as John Balance of Coil. “He liked the stuff,” says Bates, “and actually gave me the first positive press for Eyeless, because he liked the stuff I’d done with Migraine Inducers,” But he is keen to distance himself from ‘apocalyptic folk’ or ‘neo-folk’, the terms commonly used to describe the post-Industrial shift from harsh electronics to a more folk based acoustic in the 1990s, and which have become controversial due to Death In June’s interest in the same European historical/mythological continuum as that employed to justify the Nazi Holocaust, and references to European fascism.

“If you look at the basic ethos behind the Industrial stuff,” Bates cautions, “you’ve only got to make the slightest exploration of the key dark impulses of the 20th century, and if you look at fascism, one of the key proselytising aspects is folk music. If you’re exploring that kind of thread, at some point you’re going to come back to folk music – but I think I’m sailing far enough away, and I always like to think I’m coming from a benign place rather than the destructive aspects. You can only afford to put out so much hate, but it costs too much in terms of negative energy.

“I’m unpicking things and trying to keep things country simple,” he explains. “It helps you get to the music quicker. Otherwise, you start to forget why you’re making music. Where are you in the music? That’s why I’ve tried to keep it simple, simple working relationships – keep it down to two people, three at most.”

Previous folk revivals in Britain have usually occurred at moments when a population realises something within their own culture is about to be lost. At the end of the 19th century, when collectors such as Cecil Sharp and Ralph Vaughan Williams were transcribing songs direct from the mouths of English villagers, the pomp of Empire favoured progress in the swelling metropolises and shifted attention away from the nation’s rural heartlands. The revivalist wave of the mid-60s followed hard on the heels of prime minister Harold Wilson’s famous speech about the impending “white heat” of a technological revolution. In the mass consumer-driven economy of the early 21st century, books on homemade crafts, knitting and customising furniture with cheap materials are bestsellers. Bates sees an equivalence between the new digital age and the Industrial Revolution. “There’s a parallel with the first wave of folk exploration, people coming out of the fields and into the towns and cities,” he says, concluding, “psychologically there’s a resonance there with what’s happening now with the exchange of information. The dust’s flying around everywhere, and it’s quite exciting. The Marshall McLuhan argument was that it’s going to be a global village, a mutual exchange of information to the benefit of everyone, but I think it seems to be happening so quickly that we’re not quite sure where things are going to settle. It’s not negative, it’s just being aware of the flux.”

Martyn Bates & Max Eastley’s Songs Of Transformation is released this month on Musica Maxima Magnetica. The Bates compilation Your Jewled Footsteps is out now on Sub Rosa, who have also issued an Eyeless In Gaza collection, Plague Of Years. Eyeless In Gaza’s Summer Salt And Subway Sun is on A-Scale. Twelve Thousand Days’ From The Walled Garden is on Shining Day. The Migraine Inducers’ Dissonance/Antagonistic Music is out next month on Beta-Lactam Ring.