Out 12th February 2007 on Peacefrog
Sometimes a change is as good as a rest. So it proved for Ellis Island Sound’s Pete Astor and David Sheppard, whose records (together as EIS and in their various alternative guises such as the Wisdom Of Harry, Phelan Sheppard and State River Widening) have generally been cooked up in London Town, slotted in amid a mass of life commitments and innumerable, intertwining creative projects. This time the duo determined to change the environment, turning their back on the capital and heading out to the country to cut what would become The Good Seed – the first full album proper from a combo whose almost decade-long existence has played out across a miscellany of EPs, mini albums and singles (though Heavenly/EMI released a beautifully realised assemblage of EIS singles and remixes back in 2003).
With no label yet in place, the pair were free to pursue pastures new, unhampered by expectations of any kind. Having rented a tiny converted chapel in lonely countryside right on the Norfolk/Suffolk border (it satisfied the duo’s key criteria of being “dirt cheap and as far away from any neighbours as we could find,”) the pair packed a station wagon with supplies and every acoustic instrument they owned – everything from parlour guitars to ukuleles, harmoniums, dulcimers and goat skin drums – and, as the summer burned its last, headed east. Also in the car were a Fostex R- 8 reel-to-reel machine, a microphone, several boxes of magnetic tape, a borrowed Casio SK8 mini sampler, a stylophone, a copy of Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica and a pair of bicycles.
Installed in their country locale, overlooked by a field of cows and the occasional B52 bomber from a nearby US Air Force base, Astor and Sheppard quickly set about a disciplined but agreeable regime – cutting tracks after breakfast, in the afternoon and late into the night, interspersing the work with bike excursions to local village pubs, churchyards and abandoned Second World War gun emplacements. Duly enlivened, a body of brief, fragile but instantly involving pieces began rapidly emerging, with the duo playing all the instruments in the time honoured way, using no editing or ‘drop-ins’. That is to say they played from start to finish on every track, while tape rolled – unheard of in the age of computers, micro-editing, Pro-tools etc. Hence short tracks with no extended ‘filler’ sections – no fat only lean. With the songs – and an instantly evocative sound – in place, they invited their friend Josh Hillman (from the Willard Grant Experience) to come by and bow some violin, viola and saw. He picked up on the special atmosphere immediately and slotted right in.
The location and circumstance of the recording made palpable impact on the music in several ways. There is no bass drum on The Good Seed, for instance, simply because they couldn’t fit one in the car! There were less pragmatic influences too. The unexpectedly star-spangled majesty of the rural East Anglian night was reflected in the awed atmospheres of Starlight Madrigal; while the hymnal Auction Of Promises was named after a poster spied outside a local church. Tracks like Angel’s Way, Dark Lane and Cuckoo Hill all take inspiration from evocatively named nearby localities, while the rustic, beguiling but ever-so-slightly sinister The Villagers needs no further explanation.
An unfettered rural quality permeates much of the record; but like the vintage bombers droning low over the fieldscapes, there is retro-modernist technology hovering amid The Good Seed’s analogue innocence. A pulsating Bentley Rhythm Ace drum machine lends a motorik underpinning to the melodious, life-affirming Building A Table and the wearily lovely The Waveney Waltz, while the initially pastoral Density Ratio (named after a crop rotation diagram) soon takes wing in a formation of stylophones, rhythm generators and overdriven harmoniums. The Casio SK-8, meanwhile, helped provide the murmuring incantations beneath Count The Cars’ poignant reverie and the after-hours, free-Jazz mantras of Summoning The Pharaoh.
Remarkably, The Good Seed’s twenty songs were completed in seven miraculous September days – testament to the productivity of concentrated music making and the instrumental versatility of Messrs Sheppard and Astor. A good deal more than a simple case of ‘getting their shit together in the country,’ The Good Seed is a document of a time and a place, closer in many ways to location film-making than run-of-the-mill recording. One listen to a clutch of rough mixes was all it took to have Peacefrog (home of Jose Gonzalez and Nouvelle Vague) proffering contracts.
Human, affecting and packed to the gills with warm, timeless melody, The Good Seed draws on the spirit of Harmonia, The Penguin Cafe Orchestra, Boards Of Canada, Wim Wenders ’70s film soundtracks, various folk forms and much else besides – all of it teased and manipulated into something preternaturally English which ultimately sounds unlike any other record.
Pete Astor is a music nut and a reluctant stalwart of English underground music who combines a taste for the esoteric with a knack for erudite, melodious songwriting that manifests in anything from garage-rock to numinous folk and shimmering electronica. Astor first came to prominence in a band called The Loft, signed to Alan McGee’s fledgling Creation Records – though the Radio 1-championed combo famously imploded on stage at the Hammersmith Palais in 1986. Astor would go on to indie chart-topping, NME cover-gracing icon-hood with his next band the Weather Prophets, eventually signing to Warner Bothers in 1988. After three classically cultish albums, the band split, only for Astor to enjoy a successful solo career, mostly in Europe. After a period spent investigating recording technology and his old Can records, Astor altered direction in the mid-90’s, helming the electronic-tinged combos The Wisdom Of Harry and Ellis Island Sound with a new cohort, David Sheppard and signing deals with Matador and EMI respectively. Astor once again drew plaudits from all quarters and a litany of subsequent releases, high profile remixes and sporadic touring saw him approach ‘national treasure’ status. Astor’s wholehearted muse then sent him slaloming from a 2004 solo folk covers album to the streamlined garage rock epiphanies of The Loft, who reformed to quiet hosannas in 2005.
Multi-instrumentalist David Sheppard has been described as ‘a Swiss Army knife of a musician’. An adroit guitarist and bassist, he’s also a more than capable drummer/percussionist, inventive keyboardist and dulcimer player and has been known to squeeze an agreeable tune out of melodicas, accordions, violins, trumpets and more. Inspired by rock’s more ascetic avatars (Tom Verlaine, Brian Eno, Can¦.) he cut his recording teeth with baroque-pop major label contenders Balloon at the start of the ’90s, but soon turned his back on the ‘commercial’ realm in favour of experiment, initially in harness with old school friend Keiron Phelan, later co-piloting revered avant-folk instrumentalists State River Widening. SRW have released three critically saluted albums since 1999, while two albums of filmic atmosphere as Phelan/Sheppard (their latest, for the Leaf label, is due in summer ’06) have been regularly filleted for film, TV and adverts. Sheppard met Pete Astor in 1996, as both were ‘regrouping’ and found much in common. They formed the all instrumental Ellis Island Sound soon after and simultaneously launched the Wisdom Of Harry – a vehicle for Astor’s songs with Sheppard often assisting (sometimes playing ‘the band’). Sheppard is also a thoughtful writer on music, with books to his name – but he likes to keep that separate from the music-making as, so he maintains, “doing more than one thing confuses the Jesus out of people.” That said, he’s currently penning a major tome on Brian Eno, for autumn 2008 publication.
Selected Ellis Island Sound Discography
All City London EP (All City/Thrill Jockey 1998)
Data Centre/Olympic 2020 single (faux lux 1999)
No7 Goes East/Vig Charm single (Static Caravan 2000)
Ellis Island Sound (compilation LP, Heavenly/EMI 2002)
Home Service mini-album (Static Caravan, 2003)
Gene Pool (remixes of EIS by Susumu Yokota, Pan American, Babay Ford & Sunroof, Static Caravan, June 2006)
The Good Seed (LP, Peacefrog 2007)
Selected EIS Remixes:
Spine Bubbles – Two Lone Swordsmen (Warp, 2000)
Cyanide – Regular Fries (Junior Boys Own, 2000)
Ocean Spray – Manic Street Preachers (Sony 2001)
Concrete Sky – Beth Orton (Heavenly/EMI, 2002)
Cat No.: PFG086CD
PRAISE FOR ELLIS ISLAND SOUND (singles, rarities and remixes compilation):
“Everywhere shimmering heat, cool, soft shadows and a dazzling play between the two, in an LP that’s equally at home with an Ibizan sunset as a rainy London dawn.” (Sharon O’Connell, Time Out)
“A belter¦one long blissful head-trip – a perfect summer record.” (NME)
“They sound like they’re making the soundtrack for a David Lynch film, full of unexpected twists and turns – inventive and accessible in equal measure”. (The Observer)