What do you imagine when you hear the word ‘hauntology’? The study of the paranormal? Signals from the beyond, encoded into the everyday? The fogged boundaries between the real and the dreamed? The term has, over the last couple of years, been oft-misused in the music press; but for Joseph Stannard, writer and head of Brighton’s regular audiovisual foray into the unchartered, The Outer Church – which makes its first trip to Manchester this month to celebrate the release of a 28-track compilation on local label Front & Follow, bringing with it some of the record’s featured artists, including Blackpool’s VHS Head and avant-folk experimenter Kemper Norton – it denotes an uncanniness, a non-specific notion of the ‘other’ (or, indeed, the ‘outer’), a sense that ‘something weird is stirring in modern music’.
The word has, Stannard says, “become synonymous with music that has a nostalgic quality, and that’s valid to an extent. But I think in almost becoming a genre, the concept has been devalued. Certain artists have reduced it to the sonic equivalent of a Keep Calm and Carry On poster and I find that objectionable. The term is now used to denote a kind of quaint and fusty Britishness when it could be much, much more – this is a haunted planet after all. But let’s consider the basic concept of haunting – who’s to say it can only be an emanation from the past? We could equally be haunted by the future, the present, or parallel dimensions leaking into our own. I would characterise the music on the compilation as ‘weird’ or ‘uncanny’ rather than nostalgic.”
Having been among the first to showcase acts that have since gone on to garner wider attention, such as Bobby Krlic’s The Haxan Cloak, Stannard’s night of ‘unheimlich audio’ and video – pairing found footage and overlooked film with shadowy, uncompromising artists from Anna Meredith and Ekoplekz to Alexander Tucker’s Grumbling Fur (Tucker provides the album artwork) – has seemed to pre-empt and maybe even help precipitate a crescendoing curiosity in contemporary music to listen to voices from the beyond; to enter into dialogue with the discomfiting. “I’d noticed the seepage some years earlier, but by 2009” – when he founded the night – “it had become unavoidable,” Stannard explains, expanding on his observation in the album’s accompanying notes that ‘magazine pieces I had written in my capacity as a music critic were revealed to contain subliminal memos for my own attention’.
“I was brought up to acknowledge the possibility that what we perceive as real is not all there is” – Joseph Stannard
“Broadcast and The Focus Group released Witch Cults of the Radio Age, which seemed to signal the conclusion of a primary phase. The marriage of Trish and James’s songcraft with Julian House’s signature cut-up production style resulted in a genuinely magical piece of work. It’s my favourite Ghost Box-associated release. Aside from that, it felt like things were broadening and diversifying after the initial burst of interest in all things hauntological: Mordant Music and Demdike Stare were perfecting their own distinct forms of mossy weirdness and there was a surge of interest in horror and science fiction soundtracks. In the US, Zombi’s Steve Moore was making progress with his solo career while Umberto released his debut album From The Grave. Something that had initially resembled a parochial trend was revealing itself to be an international phenomenon.” As to any reasons why this willingness to engage with the uneasy might be increasing, he speculates: “I suspect a widespread denial of reality is taking place. I’d characterise this as a gnostic phenomenon, the refusal to accept the world as it seems because it simply doesn’t ring true.
“It’s not just happening in music,” he continues. “Horror is big again, on TV and at the cinema… Art that hints at the unknown is always going to be attractive to a lot of people, but especially when the known is so numbingly omnipresent.”
For Stannard, a fascination with the otherworldly and occult goes back to his childhood. “It’s in my blood,” he states. “Both of my parents love ghost stories and horror films. My dad would let me stay up late to watch Nic Roeg and Ken Russell films with him and my mum has had a few uncanny experiences that I still love hearing about. I was brought up to acknowledge the possibility that what we perceive as real is not all there is, that there might well be something else concealed behind it all. I developed an interest in the paranormal early on and read everything I could about UFOs, ghosts and the like. Later on, I encountered Stephen King, HP Lovecraft, Brian Lumley and Ramsey Campbell.” This lifelong diversion began to coalesce into the founding of a Church when, among other gradual awakenings, he “started getting a series of garbled telephone calls that I chose to interpret as instructions – to some extent The Outer Church is an attempt to appease forces I still don’t fully understand.”
Though he’s reluctant to attribute any real influence to his locale – “like anywhere,” he insists, “Brighton most definitely has its uncanny aspects” – Stannard recognises that it has its effect: “The atmospheric conditions, particularly the sea fog, can lend themselves to macabre fancies,” he concedes. “I live across the road from the city’s most haunted house and we have a bizarre local magazine that could easily be transposed to Scarfolk or Belbury. It’s well known that Brighton was once the location of Genesis P Orridge’s [magic practitioners’ collective] Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth.”
Above all, though, he wanted to build something that would both acknowledge Brighton’s “very strong experimental/noise/improv scene” but establish its own identity, being “more preoccupied with narrative and atmosphere.” With a unique aesthetic somehow built on elusive, inexplicable impulses, The Outer Church certainly seems to have achieved the latter; and, with intentions to take it yet farther afield, Stannard seems set to only encounter more followers: “Collectively,” he says, of his many and lasting collaborations over the past few years, “they have confirmed my suspicion that magic works.”