John Cavanagh, so much to do, so little time

M. Soledad Fernandez Arana Photography
Picture by M. Soledad Fernandez Arana.

The official Pink Floyd franchise grows and grows, we have (or have had) Pink Floyd bags, bottle openers, coasters, golf balls, key-rings, mugs, playing cards, shoes, shooters, undies, wallets, wine and even incense sticks. There are countless unofficial (and a few semi-official) biographical and under-review-style DVDs and if we may believe certain rumours there are still a few of those in the pipeline.

And then we didn't count the books yet. At the Late Night forum there is a selection of Syd Barrett or vintage Pink Floyd related books, and currently there are over 35 listed: The Big List of Syd Barrett & Pink Floyd Books.

Dark Side Globe

There are, luckily, not that many books describing individual Pink Floyd albums but one that was announced, in 2005, with many bells and whistles was John Harris's The Dark Side of the Moon: The Making Of The Pink Floyd Masterpiece.

It is the perfect example to show the difference between a good and an excellent rock book. The book starts rather traditional with the well-known story about Syd and the boys and how Syd named the band 'in partial tribute to two of his favourite blues singers'. Even in 2005 that story was old news and, on top of that, wrong. The chance for Syd Barrett to have heard a Floyd Council track before 1965 was infinitely close to zero. As a solo performer Floyd Council is a footnote in blues history and only Piedmont blues scholars remember 'Dipper Boy' as a part-time member of Blind Boy Fuller's busking and recording band (a quick count shows he was only present on 7 out of about 138 songs).

copyright: Matt Groening
Picture by Matt Groening.

Although a pleasant read, with the odd interesting titbit here and there, John Harris's book has quite a few flukes. There isn't a word about the dozens different vinyl versions of the album, not a word about its many tributes, covers or parodies, not a word about the hundreds of bootlegs. It lacks an in-depth description of the songs or the themes on the album and no mention of how the revolutionary artwork has been 'cited' over the past few decades on records, magazines, books and in a well-known cartoon show.

The Making Of The Pink Floyd Masterpiece is a nice coffee-table book, especially if one realises that the artwork has been made by the same person who designed the record sleeve and for that reason it is unforgivable that John Harris, throughout the book, insists of naming that man Storm Thorgeson (without an R).

The Scottish Piper

Not only does John Cavanagh's The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn cost about one-third of the above but it also manages to spell Thorgerson's name right. And if you thought for a second this post was going to be about Dark Side of the Moon then you have entered the wrong universe.

Cavanagh's Piper, so tells the blurb, paints a vivid picture of how Pink Floyd's remarkable debut album was created. It brings to life the stories behind each track, as well as the Floyd’s groundbreaking live performances of the time. Generally, most reviewers think this is an excellent 'little' book about the Floyd's first and who are we to contradict them? John managed to interview Nick Mason, Peter Jenner, Jenny Fabian, Storm Thorgerson, Duggie Fields, Peter Whitehead and this lead to information, that in 2003 when it first came out, hadn't been told before.

Recently, the Spanish Syd Barrett blog Solo En Las Nubes published an auto-interview with John Cavanagh, and the Holy Church of Iggy the Inuit, as its preferred partner, has received the exclusive honour of putting the English version on here.

Solo en les Nubes

Self-interview with John Cavanagh, author of The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn

Next to a musician and radio presenter the Scottish John Cavanagh is the author of a small guide about the Pink Floyd's first album. It is a work of pleasant reading and essential information. For Solo En Las Nubes he demonstrates what he knows and what we as well want to know. There will be no time for boring moments.

The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn by John Cavanagh
The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn by John Cavanagh.

Our readers may know you from the book you wrote about Pink Floyd's Piper at the Gates of Dawn album, that was published in 2003. Could you tell us something about that?

I was thrilled to be asked to write one of the first books in Continuum's series on classic albums, especially as it brought so much to my life on a personal level. The first person I found to interview was Vic Singh, the photographer responsible for the front cover of Piper. Vic had withdrawn from fashion photography to follow his other artistic and personal pursuits in the early '70s and no one had sought out his story in any Pink Floyd books I'd seen, so I was very pleased to find him. We've become good friends since then and he actually shot the front cover for one of my own records (the second album I made under the name Phosphene) using the same lens which he had on the Piper photo session. Since then, Vic has worked on photo and video work with quite a lot of new artists in London and he's a man who finds great excitement in the here and now, which I find very refreshing.

From my first conversation with Vic, the book developed through discovering many more stories which hadn't been told in print before. I thought that potential readers were likely to have bought other books on Pink Floyd, so I wanted to be sure that they felt they weren't just reading the same old stuff over again. Thankfully, that seems to have happened, as I've had so many positive thoughts on the book across time and it has found friends around the world - indeed, I have one very good friend whom I met thanks to this book, so it has a lot of personal significance in my life.

You were into Pink Floyd from a very early age - right?

The first Floyd album I bought was Meddle. That was when I was 9 years old. I discovered Relics the following summer, as I wanted more Floyd and this compilation LP was very cheap, so I had the money to buy it! That's what took me towards Piper - the Relics album and hearing Astronomy Domine on the radio - but my dad and I shared a lot of musical interests and we had, in time, all the Pink Floyd albums between us, so that band became a special thing for both of us and something I associate with discovering lots of music when I was growing up.

Phosphene (picture: Vic Singh)
Phosphene (picture: Vic Singh).

Let's talk about some of the other things you do... you mentioned your own music: tell me about that.

For a long time, if anyone asked me "do you play anything" (meaning an instrument), I'd reply that I played other people's records! Then, one day in 1996 when my friend Gayle and I were planning to do some recording of a band we knew using an old Ferrograph valve tape machine, she encouraged me to get out a clarinet, which I hadn't played in years, and she played a Farfisa Pianorgan. The idea was just to test the recorder and mics, but after improvising together we thought that it felt good, we rewound the tape and, in that moment of listening back, decided we should become a band and so that's how I found the magic moment of being able to create something as well as play other people's records!

We made a lot of our own records in the following 4 years, then we had our solo projects from 2000 onwards, mine is called Phosphene and Gayle's is called Pefkin. We played on each others things sometimes too and then one day in late 2010, we ended up doing a show in a wonderful place in Glasgow called the Sharmanka Kinetic Gallery. We were supposed to be playing with a friend who had to pull out that night, so all of a sudden we were playing a show which wasn't either of our solo projects and afterwards some friends who really enjoyed it kept saying that we should do things as Electroscope again, so we thought, well, why not?

Our first show went really well, so we've continued to enjoy playing again, we're working on a new album too and we released a compilation of rare tracks earlier this year called Diapause.

I have a fourth full-length Phosphene album pretty much finished too and in the time I've made music under that name, I've been privileged to record with lots of wonderful people, including Bridget St. John and the late and much missed Lol Coxhill.

John Cavanagh
John Cavanagh.

You said you played other people's records. I know radio is a big part of your life.

Oh yes, I've presented all sorts of shows for the BBC since 1990 and I also have a weekly show which goes out on a station called Radio Six International which is carried on various stations in such far flung places as Taiwan, New Zealand and the U.S.

Radio can be such a magical medium and I was very much inspired by free-spirited djs like Alan Freeman, John Peel and Johnnie Walker when I was growing up and also by a show called The Sequence which used improvised passages and Radiophonics to link the records and sessions they featured. I think that was important in my discovery and appreciation of abstract sound in music.

All of these things were important in forming my idea of what radio can be, so I was never going to head down the direction of working in some computer playlist format... not for me! I still find as much excitement as ever in putting together programmes with some sort of unusual twists in them or starting a long live show wherein listener requests will be a lot of the content and where I have no idea quite which direction we'll be moving in.

In more recent years, you've moved into producing other people's records too. How did that happen?

The first of those projects was The Seance at Hobs Lane by Mount Vernon Arts Lab, aka Drew Mulholland. Drew had already joined with Electroscope to cover Geoff Goddard's Sky Men and I'd known him for quite a while. He wanted to make an album with guests and acoustic instruments on it and he asked if I would work on that.

This was a really interesting process and it also led to my meeting with some people I would record with subsequently, like Raymond MacDonald and Isobel Campbell. At the time, the album had limited circulation, as there were business problems with Cargo, the company who released it, going bust, but it was re-issued more recently by Ghost Box Records. It was heartening to read that Seance was one of the things which inspired the people behind Ghost Box to start a label in the first place.

After that, other things started to be made here. A lot of the source material for the album Colleen et les Boites à Musique was recorded here, although Cecile Schott then manipulated the sounds in her own unique way, so that was quite different from recording a band or whatever. I got into that sort of thing rather more, starting with the first album by Family Elan "Stare of Dawn" and right now I'm working on the new record by Rab Noakes, which is tremendous fun! I've known him since I started working at the BBC and we've made, literally, hundreds of hours of radio shows, but we'd never worked together on his music before. Amongst many releases, Rab made 2 albums produced by Elliott Mazer (famed for his work with Neil Young, The Band, etc.), so I was well pleased when he asked me to produce a record, asking specifically that I choose the players who would work with him which gave me a lot of creative input right from the start. At the time of writing (August 2012), we still have some things to add before mixing starts, but we're both excited by how well it's coming together. In between those points, there have been albums by Nalle & Ben Reynolds, the debut by Two Wings, Trembling Bells first two releases, projects with some outstanding improv players active here in Glasgow including George Burt & Neil Davidson, Una MacGlone and an album by Lol Cohxill & Raymond MacDonald (yet to be released), plus the pleasure of working with George Gallacher and Fraser Watson of the legendary Scottish pop band The Poets on a new recording for a project being put together by Andrew Loog Oldham.

Sharmanka Kinetic Gallery
Sharmanka Kinetic Gallery.

You mentioned a place called Sharmanka Kinetic Gallery earlier. Tell me more about that.

Sharmanka is the unique and wonderful world of a Russian sculptor called Eduard Bersudsky. He and his partner Tatyana came to Scotland in the '90s and set up a permanent exhibition here which is now located in an arts centre in Glasgow called Trongate 103. I first saw Eduard's marvelous mechanical sculpture machines in 2000 and become completely hooked at once on this work which blends Eastern European woodcarving traditions with a feel Eduard has for using old bits and pieces to tell stories. In Russia, Eduard did some public art (a big wooden sculpture of a lion in a playpark, for example), but most of his creations were just made and operated in his own apartment using parts of old bicycles, typewriters, gramophones, you name it along with his carvings.

That's where Tatyana first met Eduard and, as a gifted theatre director, she saw a possibility to create a show which, in time, has become aligned to a whole sound and light experience and has toured many parts of the world.

The machines animate some sort of story, it might be about Soviet society, literature (for example, Mikhail Bulgakov's Master and Margarita), film (Fellini's La Strada), something from Eduard's dreams, it's very wide ranging. However, I thought there was another possibility and that was to have live players improvising with the machines and we've been running these shows on the first Thursday of each month since March 2010. I believe that Sharmanka is one of those things where, in many years time, people will look at photos or film and marvel that there was once a place where you could go and see this show, but it's here right NOW! If anyone reading this is coming to Glasgow - or is here already - I urge you to have a look at the website (sharmanka.com) and go along to see this place: I feel you will not regret it!

Sharmanka isn't your only connection to this Trongate 103 place, is it?

The centre opened in September 2009 and another of the places in there, Street Level Photoworks, began their exhibitions in this new location with a retrospective of work by John "Hoppy" Hopkins. Hoppy was another person I met and remained friends with through the Piper book, so I was asked to conduct a public interview with Hoppy in the gallery. This went so well that it developed into an occasional series of events and I've hosted discussions there with the likes of Barry Miles, Jenny Fabian, Jim Haynes and Joe Boyd. On one especially memorable Saturday afternoon in 2010, the room was packed to see Andrew Loog Oldham in conversation and this was a great day for me as ALO is someone I admire tremendously for his innovative spirit, style and chutzpah and he's also no pushover to interview, so that became a wonderfully memorable event.

There are extracts from some of these things on YouTube:
John 'Hoppy' Hopkins
Andrew Loog Oldham
Jim Haynes, Barry Miles & Jenny Fabian

John Cavanagh (picture: Vic Singh)
John Cavanagh (picture: Vic Singh).

You seem attracted to doing lots of different things. Tell us about some of the "one off" events you've been involved in.

Earlier this year I was one of five people chosen to contribute a sound-work to a series of pieces called High Slack Low Slack High devised by a Glasgow-based artist called Minty Donald. The theme of these pieces was to reflect or respond to the tidal flow of the River Clyde. My piece used a collage of sounds ranging from underwater gurglings captured at low tide by a hydrophone to the sounds heard inside a nuclear submarine. That was quite an experience in itself, to be permitted to have a peep inside that world and the way sailors live on these vessels. The sounds were fascinating too.

Then there was an event in an old place here called The Glue Factory which is indeed an erstwhile glue factory! That was called Games Night and was a "happening" in the true sense of that term, something unique for those who attended it. My friend Claire Biddles were co-presenters of a live game show which, at first, seemed to be an innocuous quiz event, but as each round unfolded it became increasingly bizarre.

Next month (September 2012) I'm off to the Isle of Lewis to take part in a show which is part of the celebrations of the centenary of John Cage's birth. That will be broadcast on American NPR radio stations, so that's all exciting too. Lewis is one of Scotland's Western Isles, I've never been there before and I'm staying for a few days so there's a chance to see round the island and visit some stone age sites there.

Those are some of the things happening this year. I do like the idea of exploring new things and... I don't know... maybe people get some sensation of that and respond by asking me to try working in new ways. Whatever generates it, I'm glad it happens!

What's the most unusual thing you've worked on recently?

Something I've done for a long time is to work as a commercial voice-over artist. That might involve voicing, say, a radio commercial for the tourist agency Visit Scotland, perhaps a tv spot for station in Ontario or some such place or providing the narration for a video for UNICEF in Vietnam. Recently I've been doing some children's story narrations which included character voices and even animal noises. Those were great fun, but I think the most unusual one was the American guy who commissioned me to read a love letter to his "Scots/Irish lass". This was, as you may imagine, a very personal thing to be entrusted with and I'd never been asked to do such a thing before, but I'm pleased to say that he was very happy with the outcome and, apparently, so was she!

What are your ambitions?

To keep on finding interesting things to do and to be able to enjoy working on them! I wouldn't say I was "ambitious" in any sense of wanting, you know, lots of money or anything like that. So long as there are ample funds to enjoy life and wonderful people to enjoy it with, places to see, things to discover... next week I'm going on an evening looking for bats and moths where we'll have a bat detector and be able to hear their ultra high frequency calls decoded in a range audible by the human ear. That, to me, is a more interesting thing to look forward to than be craving some flashy car or something... I don't even drive!

© 2012 Antonio Jesús, Solo en las Nubes. Pictures courtesy of M. Soledad Fernandez Arana, Matt Groening, Vic Sing, Sharmanka Kinetic Gallery & John Cavanagh. Notes & Introduction : the Holy Church of Iggy the Inuit. Translation mistakes, typos and all possible errors are entirely the responsibility of the Holy Church of Iggy the Inuit.