Concretism: Creating an Imagined Recent Past

When I listen to the music of Concretism I picture a scenario in which a horrible cataclysm has happened decades ago – maybe the events of Able Archer did not turn out so well – and we are watching a documentary made at that very moment when everything went wrong. Concretism is the soundtrack for that documentary.

Chris Sharp of Essex (UK) is the man behind Concretism’s unsettling sounds. Across a multitude of EPs, singles, and special releases he has firmly established himself in the sub-genre of synth-wave known as “hauntology” – alongside artists like Pye Corner Audio, The Focus Group, and The Advisory Circle. His particular flavor of hauntology is at many times dark without being overbearing and noisy, instead creating a general sense of unease and anxiety in the environment of the later years of the Cold War era.

Enhancing this mood are the production techniques that Concretism brings to all his recordings. The synths used are all era-appropriate, and there’s an overall analog lo-fi murkiness that would convince the listener that the tracks were discovered on reel-to-reel tape in a basement somewhere. Voice overs from non-commercial films are sprinkled through the tracks to great effect, often from notoriously creepy Public Information Films. At the heart of all these tracks are strong melodies and unusual chord changes alongside often-skittery and inventive drum machine sequences.

Currently there are five EPs on Concretism’s Bandcamp page, including Rabies Warning (2012), Another Way of Looking At It (2012), Don’t Forget the Empties (2012), Forewarned is Forearmed (2013), and Magnox (2015). The full-length album Electricity (2016) can also be found on Bandcamp, and there is a new full-length album in the works.

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I caught up with Chris Sharp as he was preparing his set for Concretism’s first-ever live show, appropriately enough it is taking place at the Kelvedon Hatch Nuclear Bunker on July 28th (Click HERE for more details!). Hosted by the multimedia entity The Delaware Road, the epic-length show also features acts such as Dolly Dolly, Howlround, Radionics Radio, Ian Helliwell, The Twelve Hour Foundation, Loose Capacitor, Simon James, Glitch Saunders + Hill, Teleplasmiste, The Mummers & The Pappers & DJ Food. (Author’s note: this seems like a must-see epic show for any of our readers in the UK!) We discussed the concept of hauntology, Boards of Canada, production gear, and an animated series project in-the-works.

Echosynthetic (ES): Is it possible to boil down the term “hauntology” to an essential characteristic or approach? If so, what is it? What should we listen for in a track categorized as “hauntology”?

Chris Sharp (CS): It’s difficult, because it’s become a wide cultural movement encompassing music, art and film, and everyone has their own slightly different interpretation. Whether it be the sunny North American flavour of Boards of Canada, or the dark British 1980s of Garth Marenghi, it’s quite a broad church. For me, I think hauntology is essentially the creation of an imagined recent past. So for example I think the TV series Look Around You is hauntology, while Downton Abbey is not. The majority of what people call hauntology seems to focus on the 1960s and ‘70s, but I’d say newer genres like vaporwave are absolutely hauntology too, and that can be very ‘90s. In many ways I actually think it’s about exploring your own childhood. There are a lot of my childhood fears and worries buried in my music, so perhaps it’s a kind of therapy. As for what you should listen for, first and foremost the music has to be good, but also sonically the music should take you back in time to the period that’s being referenced.

ES: Concretism started in 2010 – were you involved with any music projects before then? Did they help shape the Concretism sound?

CS: Well my background is all music. I asked my parents for piano lessons when I was a kid (yes, weird kid), so like every good piano pupil I did my ABRSM grades, and then finally a degree in music. Alongside this I saved up for a sampling cartridge for my Amiga in 1993 and spent the rest of the ‘90s doing lots of cheesy dance music using ProTracker. I’ve played and sung in a few bands, had another electronica project in the early 2000s, and written the odd track for TV ads and short films too. Concretism is my first project to gain any real traction, and that’s entirely down to the internet. I wouldn’t say anything I did previously really shapes the Concretism sound, although certainly musical training and the experience with music technology helps.

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ES: What would you say are your biggest influences on how Concretism sounds?

CS: I first heard Boards of Canada in 2010 and they blew me away. I’d never heard anything quite like it, and immediately wanted to go down a similar path. I’d come to a bit of a dead end musically but that really revitalised and inspired me. No Boards of Canada, no Concretism, it’s as simple as that. Others around that time would be Oneohtrix Point Never and Casino Versus Japan. But how much of this filters through into what I write is open to debate. Two of the biggest influences on Concretism are actually books: War Plan UK by Duncan Campbell, and Beneath the City Streets by Peter Laurie. They’re both an intriguing look into the UK’s preparations for nuclear war, and have played their part in shaping the themes of the project.

ES: Your music seems to fit very nicely with the visuals and stories associated with the Scarfolk Council blog – are there plans to incorporate your music into a larger Scarfolk-based project?

CS: No. But I know Richard very well and we’re currently working on an animated series for Rook Films called Dick and Stewart (https://www.rookfilms.co.uk/dick-stewart/) . I did the music and sound design for the pilot and I’m on board for the series. It’s wonderfully dark, which you’d expect.

ES: Are there any unique bits of gear that you use in recording?

CS: I wouldn’t say unique. Most of what’s in my studio you can pick up quite easily on eBay, although I suppose my Amdek RMK-100 drum machine is slightly uncommon. The core synth in the Concretism sound would be the Roland Alpha Juno. I bought this when I started the project and it’s still used on nearly every track. The SH-101 gets a lot of use, mainly because it’s difficult to get a bad sound out of it, and in recent years the Korg Volca Keys has played a part, which is an excellent little synth for the price. I bought a JX-03 late last year but haven’t had time to fully explore it yet. I also have a bunch of ROMplers I bought in the early 2000s that I take the odd sound off but they generally sit there gathering dust. A lot of elements are bounced to my old Technics cassette deck during production, which adds a nice layer of gunk and uncertainty.

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ES: Who are some other artists currently releasing music you would recommend to Concretism fans?

CS: Alongside the big boys like Boards of Canada and Oneohtrix Point Never, there are a lot of smaller artists doing some great work. Certainly check out Cities of Earth, Losscom, and LoveKrafty for starters. For me they all tickle that sweet spot where great music and inventive production meet.

ES: Beyond the upcoming show at the Kelvedon Hatch Nuclear Bunker, do you have any other plans for live performances?

CS: Not at the moment, but if anything else comes along I’ll certainly consider it. Although I’ve done piano recitals and live gigs with bands in the past, this is actually my first show as Concretism. I’ve had to figure out how to replicate my music in a live setting while keeping it interesting. So it’s a combination of live playing, knob twiddling, improvisation and video. Oh, and my set is 1hr 25mins long.

ES: Are there any particular bits of 1970s/1980s culture you still enjoy today?

CS: Who doesn’t enjoy aspects of ‘70s and ‘80s culture? I’ve had a long-standing penchant for ‘70s sci-fi films, so I’ll often watch things like Logan’s Run, Rollerball, Westworld and so on. I have a few DVD shelves full of that stuff. Maybe it’s because it’s the future of the world I was born into, or maybe I’m getting too deep. I’ve been a big Bowie fan since my late teens, and have always favoured his ‘70s work which I still listen to today. I only recently got into Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds, after hearing bits for years I finally bought a copy. I’m also a big Terry Gilliam fan and Brazil is probably still my favourite film – it’s just about perfect in every way.

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ES: What are your interests outside of music?

CS: I work for myself as a freelance audio producer and engineer, so I don’t have buckets of free time. But when I’m not working or writing music I like to make cocktails, watch films, do a bit of gardening, and have a mooch around the charity shops. I’ve been a fell walker since I was 13, and usually visit the Lake District or the Peak District a couple of times a year. I also do weekends in Ireland where I have friends, and France.

ES: If you could re-score one film, what would it be?

CS: I can’t really see the point of re-scoring a film, unless the music is particularly bad. A film is a finished product that shouldn’t really be fiddled with. But if I had to choose one, I’d probably go for the CFF film One Hour to Zero. I saw it as a kid, and it’s a children’s film about a narrowly averted meltdown at a nuclear power station. It’s pretty bleak when you think about it! I’d cover it in sparse analogue synths and give it a 100% electronic score. A few years ago I did a track that shares the same title inspired by the film.

When he’s not rewatching “Protect and Survive” films, Chris Frain performs and produces electronic music under the name of Pattern Language. The debut EP from Pattern Language, “Total Squaresville,” is now available from Happy Robots Records HERE.

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