DiscountGnostic: Sponge Dreams

Navel-Gazers #7 is an interview with Chris Hill aka DiscountGnostic who is going to talk to us about Sponge Dreams. Although it's a short recording - 26 minutes in total - 'Sponge Dreams' got me thinking of all sorts of things I'd like to talk to Chris about at the moment. Many of our readers know Chris Hill as a live improviser and event organiser - he also moonlights as a painter, sound archivist, contributor to The Fortean Times, scholar of esoterica and arcana, connoisseur of the "shaggy dog tale" and grand-webmaster-general of the crypto-discography known as DiscountGnostic which we're going to learn more about in this month's Navel-Gazers. Is 'Sponge Dreams' the entryway to this dark and nebulous realm? What's the way out? Let's see what Chris has to say.

AC: Firstly thanks, this is well-timed! In this "isolation" period I'm grateful for a discussion on just about anything of substance and I'm especially happy to talk about this music. Encountering a work like 'Sponge Dreams' is like uncovering something almost impossibly, unfathomably obscure... there's a sensibility to DiscountGnostic which could probably be described as "hermetic"? - in whatever sense you like but anyway that's the word that comes to mind. So I think it's a great listening companion for the times. But does anyone ever ask why all the mystery? Why not just hammer out a few tunes on the guitar? That is to say, what makes DiscountGnostic tic(k)?

Chris Hill: Thanks Andrew. I suppose hermetic is a good word to start with. 'Sponge Dreams' was my first sonic attempt to tap into the psychic background noise that colonises my everyday life. The DiscountGnostic project was meant somehow to earth this noise but over time led onto more and more recording activity and I suppose a more formal approach to musical composition. The noise I visualise as a sponge of childhood memory; my interest in literature and the occult; radical psychiatry; TV thrillers; the counterculture I first stumbled into as an adolescent in the early 70s and the flotsam and jetsam of the everyday. In terms of process I try to build into the sound-fields some degree of acknowledgement of the idea of walking along real and remembered paths - analogising the past and present is very important to me.

I like your use of the word tic as I can see these early pieces as symptoms in a way. My use of a particular register of sounds and my desire to accept that they can only fail and then engender further attempts to fail really interested me. I suppose - like for many - it's all about coming to terms with all that we are at any given time and for me the act of remembering has become this agency that has a magical dimension. You never quite expect what you find and then you have to deal with it!

DiscountGnostic came about in one way as I felt that I'd exhausted what I was doing with painting, having become increasingly uninterested in the end-product and only in the process. With sound I felt more able to assemble, reflect, collate and exploit field recordings and performed sounds in a poetic and more systematic fashion, investing them with a ritualistic energy. Invocations and evocations, deliberate acts of remembering - magical technologies.

I don't pursue any deliberate mystery in what I do individually or in a collective way with DiscountGnostic, it's more an occulted approach to practice that remains inclusive. Hopefully, the music is of interest to others but I do admit that much of the source material - especially on 'Sponge Dreams' - may seem a bit trite and obscure to some. One of my interests is in the recuperation of abject sounds - theme tunes, broken down tapes, incidental snippets of the everyday. You know, stuff that you would have to invest some other agency in in order to find it in some way emotionally or intellectually resonant and for me otherworldly.

AC: I guess the various media formats and technologies may either be more or less conducive to what you are trying to do. My experience with sound recording is the same - there's enough of that interplay between process and end-product to turn it into the kind of ritual you describe. There's something there which motivates one to do it repetitively. Maybe the fact that sound - even once you've harnessed it - is always on the move!

You mentioned how you got exhausted with painting, yet images play an important role here. To me they come across as a sort of punchline to the sounds, a more blatant manifestation of the "abject" phenomena which with the music is concerned. Where do you find these images - such as this one of a blurry, Ben Gazzara-like figure doing... ventriloquism? - and how and when do you marry them to the recording?

Chris Hill: Punchline - good word! I had in the back of my mind something that would be familiar to an audience of a certain age, very British. In this case, the perennially ludicrous Keith Harris and his ghastly puppet, Orville who haunted light entertainment! I made a series of photos of this type of performer from TV repeats and documentaries. It's the acid colouration and the profound melancholy. It's saying this is not of this world; it runs counter.

During a stint in a particularly dull job, myself and a close friend would email each other elaborate histories of forgotten personalities, such as Keith, to amuse ourselves. Went on for years - still does! I've always loved the idea of there being narrative options and with 'Sponge Dreams' I wanted to explore (re)remembering; creating parallel histories, distorted by time.

Ventriloquism, that's it - thanks Andrew. If I can use my own photos I prefer to do so and I'm a big fan of the discarded object and the absurd juxtaposition. The old psycho-geographical, liminal business is in there as well (seems mandatory these days). I like a bit of theatre, so I look out for images that create a bit of unease or just amuse. I'm easily pleased. Whimsical - much underrated. And a bit of showmanship! Preciousness, not for me. As to matching image and sound there's a fair bit of artifice. I consider what the overall landscape is and then use the most apt image. A bit nebulous and a bit hermetic, I have to concede.

AC: One thing I've noticed, not just on 'Sponge Dreams' but throughout your catalogue, is that the ephemera we're talking about - the found sounds and found images - tend not to dominate the entire experience. They're not gimmicks. Instead they seem to waft in and out of the landscape so when they do appear, they're more noticeable because we don't really expect them! The obvious example of found sounds on 'Sponge Dreams' is on Drift, Drift.. where I hear a few: a music box, a swarm of bees, some sort of Gregorian Chant... yet the underlying context of this is an electronic one which is relatively vague and inscrutable. I like the contrast of that. How did you - first of all - derive those sounds, and how did you ultimately decide on them and their placement? 

Chris Hill: I tend to walk around with a recording device of some sort, if it's not my microphone recorder then my phone. I'm not too bothered about quality and I often re-record sounds. Some sounds I have an affinity towards, the bees and flies for instance. I can spend hours just listening to them. Birds also, and traffic. Droney stuff. The morning call to prayer, Buddhist chants, liturgical sounds, recitation. Lovely, seductive and very warm. Fairgrounds and slot machines. They're all part of a vocabulary I've built up and draw on repeatedly.

In 'Drift, Drift...' I was very much conscious of reconstructing a memory and the positioning of the sounds was important. They had to tell the story. As a child I was very ill, housebound for 3 months. My day was spent lying around; this was around 1966 so not a great deal to do. The radio was always on, it was very hot I remember, and I drifted in and out of sleep. There was always the hum of traffic outside and the birds milling around. Rain, of course! The sounds of the music box fading away, my Mum's music box, something I loved. The bees, I remember from television, a news item about beekeeping and the voices, voices I recall hearing in my half-sleep, distant, unclear. Put it all together and it's a very linear piece; each of the elements has both a narrative and metaphorical aspect and occupies a specific place. It sounds a bit woozy and that's how I remember that time. The clicks and clunks at the end I kept in, a reminder that it is artifice, it's a memory remade.

AC: That's a far more literal explanation than I'd have expected. I'm glad I asked! I imagine this is what you meant earlier about "analogising the past and present". Are there other examples where the memories are really specific on 'Sponge Dreams'?

Chris Hill: Definitely on Full Fathom Five (for J.H.) which was something I felt compelled to put together after my father died. I hadn't seen him for about thirty years and even when I did he remained a curiously cryptic character. I was reading The Tempest one day and came across the wonderful line - Full fathom five, thy father lies - it seemed apt in describing how the familiar may appear submerged, receding into the distance. Always just out of reach. I used the sound of water on most of these early pieces, recordings I had made in Italy and India of ornamental garden and temple fountains; water became a useful metaphor with lots of correspondences - transience, sinking, depth - not only literally but psychologically.

Liminal came about when I found an old shoebox full of tape cassettes I had collected from as far back as 1973. Tapes of tapes. I used them to form the spine of 'Liminal' - heavily manipulated - an echo of my teenage excitement with music, a real celebration. I suppose they're all ghosts, hauntings in a way, and a part of my thinking behind 'Sponge Dreams' was to position these ghosts in the everyday.

With Recovered Memory 1 and 2 it was more the mechanics of remembering that interested me. I wanted to see if I could replicate that peculiar phase sleeping and waking and the psychic hangover of an intense remembering; that slowly ebbing shadow of being at odds with the world. I like the biographical parity with the sounds and processes I use, my personal tree of correspondences. If I were being fanciful, I would make a comparison with poetics for sure but more so with magical and alchemical discourse. Very early on when I first came to London, 1981, I spent a lot of time looking at the films of Stan Brakhage - a real master of memory - and thinking about it now, he has certainly left his mark on my own practice; nothing's ruled out, mutatis mutandis.

AC: I have to say the specificity of these personal associations has caught me off guard. But then it occurs to me that my own experience as an artist is very similar. Personal associations, pieces of memory, little secrets and inside jokes... how much of the artwork that we encounter out there - including work that really resonates with us - is made up of this stuff which does have definite significance, but not to anyone other than the artist?

Also I'm curious now - if we can break the fourth wall here - does it alter the dynamic in any way to unravel that mystery, in a discussion such as this one? How might the dynamic be altered by a discussion "on the record" (again like this), versus off the record? How do you picture the listener's experience to begin with, in the absence of any explanation?

Chris Hill: For the listener I'd like to think that they bring their own experiential baggage and make some sort of psychical investment in the sound worlds on 'Sponge Dreams'. The idea that we are fundamentally unable to hear the same thing is very reassuring. My recovered memory cannot be somebody else's and although there is significant specificity in each piece - an internal metaphorical and narrative mechanics - I hope they're not proscriptive as such. If a listener is curious to know more, well, that's rewarding but hopefully they stand up without contextualisation.

The bigger discussion I suppose, is whether one subscribes to the idea that a wider understanding is necessarily a better one. I remember seeing Abstract Expressionist painting for the first time, Joan Mitchell, what interested me was the mark making not the alcoholism, for example. Whether knowing why I used a sound in a particular way, or what relevance a particular sound may have for me, affects your listening experience I can't say. All I can say is that as a listener myself I'm always prepared to have the rug pulled from under my feet and I like that aspect of the creative process. I like the inclusion of banal references in art and I suppose the subsequent sense of deflation that may occur. Sometimes the sound of the tap running is just that. If that's not what the listener expects well there's not a great deal that can be done about it. Hopefully, the listener will glean a bit of the humour and the everydayness that I do try to reference. That's important I think. A reminder not to take everything too seriously, it's also a strategy to be amused and to amuse others. It doesn't detract from, or lessen, the experience of making and listening in my opinion.

For anyone who may read this maybe it'll encourage them to have a listen, I can only hope so. In a way the experimental music scene remains on a scale that the people involved in it already possess a fair bit of understanding as to where others are coming from. There's a transparency already in place which is good, an honesty and preparedness to explore.

AC: Certainly anyone who knows you personally and has listened carefully to one of your hilarious, meandering anecdotes would recognise that same sensibility here! Otherwise the openness of experimental music can always serve as the shorthand.

Your remark on the scene got me thinking about the way you described DiscountGnostic: "an occulted approach to practice which remains inclusive". I sense an interesting paradox here. To the outside observer 'Sponge Dreams' would resemble the work of an introspective, solitary artist but you are actually quite a sociable person who is active in the music community. How do you include other artists in the practice? Do you assimilate strong influences from the scene?

Chris Hill: The idea of DiscountGnostic started from the need to document and store material initially, to see what sort of patterns emerged in what I was doing, informally, but with an eye on artistic and psychological accountancy. A type of diary I suppose, a case history even. It started to take on a life of its own as I recorded more and started to play on a regular basis. I saw an opportunity for it to become a kind of narrative in itself and began to play around with performance names, track titles, a bit like an anecdote in itself. Maybe it's a Liverpool thing, always looking for a story to tell. I had an idea that it should become a forum for people new to the experimental music scene, performers from other walks of life, and although it remains a vehicle for my own work there is also plenty of live recorded material published that does exactly that.

Regular live events that fall under the DiscountGnostic banner, Babble&Squeak and An Occasional Afternoon for example, seem to have established themselves on the experimental music calendar and have proved very popular with new and established players, complimentary events to the busy schedule that London already offers. That's great and a part of what I had in mind originally. I wanted to find a way of performing and inviting people to perform that wasn't too daunting, especially if you're not from a performance or musical background. I'm always keen to play with as many and as varied players as possible, I like performing, as challenging as it is on many occasions! Naturally, I feel an affinity with certain performers, many of whom I share common ground with intellectually or whatever, and I regularly work with them. Something like Babble however, opens up a broader forum for myself and others, I like to think, and allows players to discover each other.

AC: Those events are a beloved pastime for musicians here in London. It amuses me to think of players at Babble&Squeak - myself included - having been somewhat oblivious to the machinations of this shadowy "DiscountGnostic" universe and the role we may have played there! How can people partake if they're interested?

Chris Hill: Needless to say, if you're interested in playing just get in touch, post-Virus of course! It's very much a 'scene' that relies on the individual to curate and promote events and gigs to survive, sadly it seems. Of course, finding venues can be a bit tricky, certainly cost wise, but there seems to be a real willingness to make it happen. Ultimately the survival of experimental performance depends on the desire to do it! It's nice to think that you play a small part in keeping such a rewarding counterculture alive.

AC: You play no small part Chris. Thanks for that, and thanks for talking to me about 'Sponge Dreams'.

Discount Gnostic can be found at Bandcamp, and contacted at

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