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July Skies - Interview

  by John Clarkson

published: 22 / 11 / 2006

July Skies - Interview


In all of its recordings ambient act July Skies, the project of Antony Harding has demonstrated a a deep aching longing and sad nostalgia for the past of the last century. With July Skies' fourth album 'The Weather Clock' due out in the spring, John Clarkson talks to Antony Harding abouthis group

In all of its music with its soft resonating guitars, ambient drones and fragile, occasional vocals, July Skies has demonstrated a deep aching longing and sad nostalgia for the past of the last century. The project was formed in 1997 when Antony Harding, already a keen historian and archivist, bought a guitar and a few cheap effect pedals and taught himself a few basic chords. He began making two track recordings the following year, and in 2000 released through Roisin Recordings July Skies' first EP, 'At the Height of Summer'. July Skies' first album, 'Dreaming of Spires', followed in 2002 on the Rocket Girl label. Harding recorded July Skies' second album 'The English Cold', which paid testimony and was dedicated to the "lost airmen" of World War II, with Ben Holton and Rob Glover from ambient post rockers Epic45 at Wheaton Aston, Staffordshire near an old, abandoned 1940's airbase. A third album, 'Where the Days Go', a 19 track compilation that brought together a US radio station, deleted tracks from 'At the Height of Summer', some new songs and two Epic 45 reworkings, came out last year. A fourth album , 'The Weather Clock', which Harding has said will be July Skies' “last 39 minutes of chiming guitars, echoing pianos and dreams of when suburbia first met the countryside”, will come out in the spring, and, like its two predecessors, be released on Make Mine Music Pennyblackmusic spoke to Antony Harding about July Skies and his curiosity and fascination with the recent past. PB : You list a massive range of influences on both your regular website and also on your MySpace site which include, to name but a few, “lost youth”, fractured memories of the 1970’s”, “forgotten England”, “ruins”, “post-war Britain” and “time spent amongst long summer grasses.” There seems to be a real longing for the past in much of your music. Do you see it as more innocent, and in these digital and technological times do you think that we have lost something that is fundamentally important? AH : There is a continual search and attempt to reach the past, memories, love, longing, childhood, and post-war Britain. Believing it is possible, just to touch and see it, constantly convincing yourself that this is actually possible….the looking glass is formed from the relics and places from yesteryear, be it old books and pamphlets discovered at junk shops, or physical relics still in existence in the British landscape. That’s why I am tied to this landscape, constantly hunting down places that are rarely visited, in the hope that the remnants of a building or location will yield some small artefact that time has been kind to and left to be found once more. But with the highs of chasing the past and finding lost gems, come times of despondency. Realising that as each New Year unfolds, it is a year further away from the 20th Century, from 1991 – my favourite summer; now only documented by old photos taken on cheap 35mm camera, unreal blues, distant crop fields gone forever with sad looking pylons stretching across the landscape. The summer I wish I could sometimes return to, the one that seemed to go on forever, when everything seemed possible. One of the other most important influences on the music are certain British 20th Century British artists and their work. Think Stanley Spencer; Paul and John Nash; Henry Moore; Laura Knight; Graham Sutherland et al. Really inspirational visual references that help channel the sound. I guess I find so much comfort in these artists and the way they approached and documented Britain. Their work has such appeal, unorthodox beauty, strange colours and form, this weird way they had an affinity with the landscape. They mean so much to me. So yes, this longing for the past drives and motivates me, to try and reach it through music or photography. Of course, post-war Britain also had many negative social aspects to daily life. But it is the quality, care and workmanship applied to design, architecture and advertisements of this time that fascinates. The hope and belief that the future was so bright by rebuilding the country through vision and planning. I believe there was a real charm to aspects of life in Britain during the 1950’s – 1970’s, something that disappeared many years ago….before adverse changes to the village, town and city….real local and regional distinctiveness in manufacturing and local and regional trades….proper jobs, services and functions, long before privatisation and the severe loss of industry and manufacturing and agriculture. Technological advancements are important, but it is shameful that this is at the loss of many beautiful things that have served perfectly well for years. Both have their place, but manufacturers’ thrust for profit and the consumers’ rush to discard and replace, forces these beautiful, often analogue items, out into the far margins of society. There is still so much beauty in this country, so much to explore, so much to find from the past if you look carefully enough. PB : ‘The English Cold’ was recorded in Wheaton Aston, Staffordshire with Ben Ashton and Rob Glover from epic45. Is it true that you recorded the album in the afternoons and then would spend the evenings exploring the abandoned airfield there before coming back to doing more recordings the next day ? That must have had a very powerful effect on the album. Did you choose to record the album there deliberately because you knew that the airfield was there? AH : ‘The English Cold’ was recorded over a few years and during that time, inspiration was taken from visiting many abandoned WWII airfields, buildings and the countryside surrounding them across Britain. Exploring in all weathers and seasons, from the summer lanes of Norfolk, right through to the bleakness of RAF Dale on the Pembrokeshire coast with winter rain storms sweeping across the airfield. Finding little mementoes, bits of shattered reinforced glass from the windows of the airfield buildings; little bits of fuselage from US warplanes; pieces of coke littering the woodland floor at Thorpe Abbots in Norfolk (home of the bloody 100th) amongst the ruins of the airmen’s huts. These would have fallen out of the stoves lit in the huts to keep the occupants warm through the cold of the night. It all charged me with a vast sadness, seeing these lost communities that were once so busy and important, just crumble to nothing. I pocketed 50 small pieces of runway from different airfields during these field visits, subsequently given away in little velvet numbered bags with an information tag on each airfield to the first 50 sold through our Make Mine Music website. During the final recording sessions for the album, I hooked up with Ben and Rob of epic45 to work on the album up in their village at Wheaton Aston. Ben had mentioned the local RAF airfield to me many times before as it was a haunt of their youth and clearly had made a big impact on the two of them. Rob also knew about an unfortunate airman who died close to the old firing wall by the canal during training. We thought it fitting to head out to this part of the airfield to try and connect with the "lost airman". We drove out and walked the site in the early evening cold and dampness. Past the Control Tower, past the workshop buildings and eventually towards the old monolithic firing wall which is a fair trudge across the muddy fields and stubble. We spent time around this structure. It drew us in to it, and we stood there, occasionally touching the odd and eerie brickwork….silence most of the time just listening, the odd nod of appreciation or a brief sentence. A heavy atmosphere as dusk and night quickly fell on us. We took photos and field recordings, flashes illuminating the structure and barren field (photos from our different analogue cameras both came back with strange white shapes on, which we have not yet been able to understand). I also recall being cut on my leg by the barbed wire that once protected the airfield from the adjacent canal, pain but with weird comfort in the knowledge that the security of the airfield was still doing its job. We went back to the village and to Ben’s house and just went straight into recording ‘Waiting To Land’, ‘The Mighty 8th’ and ‘Countryside of 1939’, fuelled by cups of tea. I don’t think we talked about it too much at the time. We just knew what we had to do and knuckled on down, moved and emotive from our visit to the airfield. I remember looking at Ben whilst he was recorded the guitar line for ‘Countryside’ and he seemed charged. It was just one of those special days where everything worked; we talk about it from time to time…..the day we connected with the airfield. PB : Where did your interest in the World War II airmen come from? Was it entirely historical or did you have a grandparent or another family member who had been one of those airmen? AH : It was one of those things that just developed over time. Building up an appreciation and admiration for what everyone went through during those years. It seems to get a little easier to understand with time, but the size of the subject is huge, too large to ever comprehend. My earliest memories about the horrors of war were quite early on, stories from my Nan about Granddad during D-Day with the REME and being left to explore a tin box of his medals and other mementos that he picked up from over in Europe. I also recall a large volume of black and white books on the whole conflict that Nan owned, that I used to sit and look at for hours. Horrible graphic pictures of war, set against the very odd smell of the books which must have been from the early 1950’s. Not great really, but they must have stirred something. Moving forward many years, I remember going past these ghostly looking abandoned huts next to a small area of wood alongside the A361 (OS SP244092) between Burford and Witney in Oxfordshire in the early 1990’s. I kind of realised they had a military connection but did not put two and two together properly at the time. But every visit to Wiltshire, there they stood, and they became a regular reference point on the journey. In 1994, intrigue got the better of me as I stopped at the driveway to the huts and cautiously jumped the fence and wandered around. They were certainly old huts, some in poor condition, but some had been used up until the 1980’s. Inside one was a big mural of Mr Men characters and other childlike painting upon the walls, really scary stuff as the place was abandoned. I took a few photos and retreated for safety from the site. In researching the site I found out the huts were part of a larger WWII hospital used in connection with RAF Broadwell that was located further up the road. Injured forces would have been flown in from Europe and delivered by road to the hospital. After the war the hospital was used for various medical purposes by the local health authority which also explained the presence of the murals. Unfortunately a few years later the site was bulldozed and redeveloped for housing. I drove by last year and caught site of the pastiche rural housing estate, wondering if the residents knew of the history of the land. The buildings are just ghosts in the memory now, along with a few photos taken that winter day when I jumped the fence. But it was finding the remains of RAF Chedworth in Gloucester by accident one autumn afternoon in 2002 that really got interest in the matter going. Whilst walking the old runway, I met by chance a chap called ‘Lance’, the game warden for the estate. We chatted for hours. He showed me the old hangers, took me down to the battle HQ bunker, and we watched the afternoon streams of sunlight filter through the ivy curling around the observation gaps in the bunker. Whilst watching the streams of light my mind wondered…..who sat here sixty years ago?….what conversations happened down here in the bunker….how did the airmen react to the beautiful countryside around them and the airfield during the day when night after night they were so far away over Europe in freezing conditions….the sight of the fields and hedgerows, memories of better days, sweethearts….innocence…..childhood, possibly the countryside taking the mind so far away from the horrors of war. RAF Chedworth was the start of the inspiration for ‘The English Cold’, followed by research into the lost and abandoned airfields of Britain. I started reading about the air and ground crew, absorbing as much information as possible. Documenting field visits to other abandoned airfields with a 35mm camera, Polaroid, and Super 8mm film, so one day I can look back at it all when it has long since disappeared. Tears and sadness at times, looking out across the vast tarmac of the runways and the ghostly control towers…..knowing that generation is fast fading, good people, not wanting much now, many on the poverty line, but giving so so much back then. PB : The titles of much your music -‘Coastal Stations’, ‘Countryside of 1939’, ‘Wiltshire Days and Skies’, ‘Lost Airmen’ and ‘They Played in the Harvest Fields at Dusk’-evoke very clear images of what each track or song is about. Do you start writing each piece of music with a very clear snapshot in your mind of what it is going to be about, or is that something that develops as you work on it? AH : It is a very strange process. Most tracks evolve within a general theme, like the majority of ‘The English Cold’ (WWII abandoned airfields and the countryside surrounding them) and ‘The Weather Clock’ (the nothingness of weekday afternoons in the beauty of post-war Britain). The majority of the songs themselves in respect to the notes and chords are not planned. They just happen somehow through focusing on the past, being inspired by a visit to a geographical location or by classic British 20th Century literature, poetry, images, art and so on. This is where the continual search for a lost Britain and its artifacts plays an important role, as these are the points of inspiration that focus the sound and the song when reaching for the past. The song titles will usually happen during recording or just after, and are so important in giving reference to places that have inspired, or to hint at the subject matter of the song. PB : ‘Where the Days Go’ has in its packaging a list of unusual and lost ‘Places to Visit’ off the beaten track in Britain. Why did you decide to put this list on there? Are these all places that you have personally discovered and gone looking for in Britain? AH : Many of the places listed in the booklet have influenced the music or ethos behind July Skies. Everyone one of the places listed has been visited over the years and are referenced as there may be someone out there who takes a chance on exploring these often strange or unusual places. Many of the places listed will bring good reward, especially in the summer when the grasses are long and the sky wide…each has their own unique charms, but that is for the listener to explore if they want to find out more. I love the way there are these layers of history cross the landscape, one on top of the other, the way there are these obscure places in these Isles that still hold intrigue and strangeness. From childhood, I now realise I have always been attentive to weird British detail in the landscape. The detail is very hard to explain and I won’t even try, but I think it is perfectly articulated by Peter Tinniswood in his book and BBC radio dramatisation ‘Uncle Mort’s North Country’ and the follow up ‘Uncle Mort’s South Country’. The audio versions are a highly recommended listen for capturing a strange beauty of Britain in the 1980’s. Genius. My first fully conscious relationship with the land was accidentally finding the village of Avebury in Wiltshire and its stone circle with my family at the end of summer one evening in 1989. It stirred me…..I painted pictures of the stones, fields and skies, afterwards, trying to capture the mysterious atmosphere of that evening. I also remember a string of pylons across the fields later that evening around Chedworth, stopping in a country lane to watch the sky turn to fire. I found that line of pylons again by accident last year with an amazing sun set across the harvested fields….it made me sad, in the sense of people so close growing old since the last visit; yet the landscape remained unchanged, and will eventually outlast us all. Into the 1990’s, much exploring of the British landscape and coast - hill forts, follies, overgrown pathways, ancient tracks, the Ridgeway, ruins, parks and gardens, castles, villages etc. Building a collection of British landscape guides from the 1930’s onwards, my favourites being those from the 1960’s and 70’s that have very strange black and white photos of the relics of Britain’s landscape very poorly printed, which adds to the weird effect. I must also mention the work of S.P.S Mais, who wrote some great guides to the British Isles in the 1930’s, very descriptive books with a style that somehow draws you in as one of his party booking into long lost hotels, or visiting public houses or antiquities. With hindsight, I realise the sound of July Skies is inspired by all of this and much more. I can trace it back across many years; it is just that the music is its way of ‘this thing’ reaching the surface as an output. PB : ‘Where The Days Go’ also includes two reworkings of songs by epic45. You obviously share a very close relationship with epic45. You share a record label, have appeared on each other’s albums and help each other out at shows. How did that relationship initially evolve? AH : I purchased epic45’s first 7” from Tempest records in Birmingham. The guy who ran the alternative section at the time really supported experimental bands from the Midlands that were being released on labels such as Earworm, Wurlitzer Jukebox and Bearos. I remember being drawn to the first epic45 7” by the cover and taking a chance on it. Enjoying the music immensely, I contacted the band and eventually exchanged letters with Ben Holton. His correspondence was full of innocent hope and clearly a longing for past times, pylons, weird skies, and importantly, the oddities of the British countryside. Soon we were sending each other old ‘Countryman’ journals, photos, Ladybird books from the 1960’s and discovered that we both had this appreciation of a ‘lost Britain’ and its many artefacts and memories. We eventually met up in Staffordshire and I met his band mates Rob Glover and Matt Kelly. Close friendships and musical collaborations progressed from there in terms of helping each other out. I think we all have similar core values but importantly, both projects have very different sounds, pathways and approaches. PB : Martin Anderson has done the artwork for the covers of all three of your albums. How does your relationship with him work? Do you tell him what you want on each sleeve, or does he come up with ideas and then bring them back to you? AH : Martin was appointed by Rocket Girl to prepare three of their 2002 releases, and had previously created work under V.23. So the initial connection was purely by chance. I first met Martin in London on a day set up to work on the ‘Dreaming of Spires’ album, mastering with Noel Summerville and to discuss artwork ideas with Martin. Martin got me to bring objects I love from days gone by that inspired, things I had collected for from antique shops, second hand bookshops, charity shops….old British books, leaflets, adverts, fonts. From this material, Martin used his unorthodox creativity to produce art that captures the mood within the music. The really weird thing is Martin’s work on ‘Dreaming of Spires’ helped me realise and understand what I was trying to achieve with July Skies. From nondescript ‘found’ 1960’s photographs of parks, trees, lanes and hedgerows, Martin created such atmospheric artwork that visually crystallised the music. His work on ‘The English Cold’ with his sister Line was equally sensitive and I think more emotionally drenched. It seems to capture the autumnal pastoral wartime mood of the album. For me, Martin’s work on this album is like peering through a magnifying glass into this past time, and observing the British landscape from the aircrew’s perspective, the view that would have been taken in on their flights from, and if fortunate, back to their airfield in this midst of the beauty of the countryside. I try and give Martin as much artistic flexibility as possible, so that he interprets the music and any other reference points provided. It is so exciting opening his packages full of draft artwork ideas, he always manages to surprise and provide the unexpected. It is an absolute privilege and joy to work with Martin during the final stages of album production, it is all over too quickly though. PB : Your next album, ‘The Weather Clock’ is due out this year. You have said that it has taken years to complete and refine. Why has it taken so long ? AH : ‘The Weather Clock’ has developed over many years, although only at real pace since about 2003. The album deals with the beauty of lost non-descript carefree days of Britain in the 1950’s and 60’s. The album has naturally emerged from a passion for many aspects of post-war Britain. The unorthodox beauty of the new towns and estates has been an inspiration, but also the striking use of design and architecture in Britain during these times. Further inspiration was taken from the Festival of Britain in 1951, that advocated such a bright future for everyone…the emergence of the municipal post war housing estates and high rise flats that promised so much with row upon row of identical houses and clipped green open spaces…..where the fast sprawling towns met the countryside… single storey schools providing pristine education facilities fresh from the local authorities drawing boards….British coastal holiday destinations far from the town and city during the summer months…..fields, streams and hills where children would play innocently for hours during these holidays….BBC ‘Broadcasts for Schools’ echoing around the school assembly hall…the last days of steam trains along former branch lines….weekday afternoons behind net curtains, waiting for the test card as the gentle breeze rippled through the net curtains. Most of this is now consigned to memory or lost in the decay of modern Britain….but was once so magnificent, gleaming and pristine. I dearly hope ‘The Weather Clock’ will offer an opportunity to escape these modern times, to shut the eyes for a short while and to recall or picture a Britain that is lost, or never really happened. Aiding the creation of ‘The Weather Clock’ have been a few artefacts. Primarily, an old painting found on a junk stall in Coventry market one cold winter afternoon in 2003….it sent shivers down my spine, an instant connection, as though I recognised the picture from another time. Two girls on a grassy hill, one blowing a dandelion and the other looking out across an obscured landscape. The beauty of the painting is that from the viewer’s position in the long grass. You cannot see the distant view or landscape that the girls have. It is left to the imagination. The painting appears to depict a time in the 1950’s and has this huge cloud formation rising up behind the grassy hill in such a pastel blue sky. Enigmatic, striking and although slightly sinister, the image for me captures more innocent days of childhood in post-war Britain. The image became the focal point for the album and has been there throughout all of the recording sessions. The title of the painting has also provided the name for the album. During darker days in 2004, I found solace in the work of the British 20th Century artist Paul Nash. I lived and breathed Nash for months, absorbing his work, trying to understand his life and pain and am grateful to the man for helping me through bad times. Now this may seem daft, but I tried to connect with him late one November night during a real low point fuelled by much sadness and red wine. The result was ‘Skies For Nash’. I owe a lot to Paul for this. Work continued on the album until autumn 2006 around the West Midlands, Warwickshire, Norfolk and Wales, refining the sounds and textures, making sure the right connections were made. PB : You have said too that it is about the “often painful process of not fully understanding why things happen as they are never planned.” What did you mean by that? AH : All of the recording takes time. It is not simply a case of plugging in an instrument and playing, as I find it does not happen like that. I have to wait for this thing to happen, to suddenly have this connection with the past or emotion. It can be weeks and months between these moments and feelings. It creates frustration as creation is not instant…but when these fleeting moments do occur, when a connection is made with the past, music and atmospheres can be created….intense feelings, elation at times. I do not understand this process of it all, I wish I did as it would make life so much simpler. I truly don’t understand why the music works out like it does. How did ‘The English Cold’ happen? I don’t know, I recall some of the recording process but most of it is lost to memory. As for ‘Dreaming of Spires’, that is even more of a mystery to me now. PB : It will also be “the last 39 minutes of chiming guitars, echoing pianos and dreams of when suburbia first met the countryside.” Does this mean that this is the end of July Skies or do hope just to take things in another direction after this album ? What direction will that be ? AH : No, certainly not the end, but I understood that July Skies would be a three album project with a ‘macro landscape’ sound whilst working on the ‘The Weather Clock’. Also over the past few years, other tracks have been recorded, darker more electronic music based around an old Korg and VSS, but still highly influenced by the landscape. It has a greater emphasis upon fractured childhood memories from the 1970’s and 80’s; Public Information Films; pylons across bleached fields on late summer evenings; the atmosphere of the old school playground; taking B-roads across the countryside by car; programmes for schools in the 1980’s; the sound of starlings flocking into the City at night as a child, enigmatic things that are burnt into memory. PB : What will July Skies be doing over the next few months. Are you going to be touring ? AH : The main objective is getting the ‘The Weather Clock’ album released and promoting it. Martin is just progressing the artwork to completion and then it will be ready to go for manufacture with a release in spring 2007. We really hope to create something very special with the format of the artwork and packaging. Work will also continue with the next July Skies projects until they are ready to be released, whenever that may be of course. As for gigs, we have just played three enjoyable shows over the past few months with Secret Shine, epic45 and Piano Magic. We are planning more gigs for 2007, trying to head further up north in the UK and also have a couple of live dates in Paris organised for March. PB : Thank you.

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July Skies - Interview

July Skies - Interview

July Skies - Interview

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digital downloads


The Weather Clock (2008)
Reverent and thoughtful largely instrumental fourth album from July Skies, the project of Antony Harding, which with evocative tenderness displays a deep longing for the past
Where the Days Go (2006)
The English Cold (2005)

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