Ivy Nostrum: Almost Everywhere Pathless

Navel-Gazers #43 is an interview with Paul Margree a.k.a. Ivy Nostrum who is going to talk to us about Almost Everywhere Pathless. This is a recent release from a local artist whose rather restless, frenetic approach to experimental music has caught my attention over the past year. Presented as three pieces of music, each of equal length and each completely different, it’s a remarkable journey from beginning to end and one where knowing the artist personally perhaps only serves to deepen the mystery, if anything. On the first track it’s the persona I’m most familiar with from Paul’s live appearances, leaping spontaneously from idea to idea in a sort of collage come to life. I have plenty of questions about this to begin with! But on its second and third tracks, ‘Almost Everywhere Pathless’ changes gears and veers off in entirely different directions, fulfilling the aspiration of the album’s intimidating title in a formidable challenge to expectations. Described to me by Paul as somewhat more “considered” than previous Ivy Nostrum material, that’s part of what I like about this one, and it’s what I want to ask him about more generally. Who or what or why is “Ivy Nostrum”, and what are the methods, motivation and/or meaning behind these sounds?

AC: First of all what the heck is an Ivy Nostrum?

Paul Margree: Well I came to making this kind of music quite late, so I didn’t really have the confidence to do anything under my own name. And sometimes my creative process is to let my brain just cogitate on things and wait for something to pop up. So Ivy Nostrum popped up.

I realise of course Ivy can be a woman’s name, and one of my grandmothers was called Ivy. I don’t always like a lot of those bands who are male bands but who have a female name… I guess it is what it is. I do think sometimes I want to stop all that and have a different identity. I’m kind of thinking about it at the moment, maybe just deleting the Bandcamp and changing the name.

AC: Hopefully not before this interview is published!

What is your background as an artist? Have you ever done more conventional forms of music?

Paul Margree: By the time I started doing Ivy Nostrum I was 50. I was in bands when I was maybe 15, post-punk bands up in East Anglia where I grew up, but I had never done anything apart from that. I was never really an artist or a practitioner, I studied literature, went to uni, got a job, had a family, all that sort of stuff. I was always crap at art and maybe thought of myself as more of a critic. I did start getting into weirder stuff in the 90s.

AC: But you never did any of your own…

Paul Margree: No. I always loved music blogs, and I loved The Wire, and NME back when it was good. I’d read the review pages in The Wire and almost wouldn’t need to hear the music. So I was obsessed with music journalism, reading, processing, consuming it… sometimes more than actually listening. Then I started going to more gigs and in 2015 I started a music blog, reviewing experimental music.

AC: Is that around to read still?

Paul Margree: Yeah, it hasn’t been active since around 2017 but it’s called We Need No Swords. I thought I wanted to be a music writer after a bit of a midlife crisis… but that got me going to a lot more gigs, places like Cafe Oto, Ryan’s Bar, a place called Electric Knife in Kentish Town…

AC: I don’t know that one…?

Paul Margree: That was Kostis Kilymis, or he didn’t run Electric Knife but he was part of that. Anyway he’s moved to Greece now. It was Thanasis Alvanos who ran it.

So then I started doing a little podcast, which was terrible because it was so badly produced. But one of the guys I interviewed was Phil Julian - a lovely man, a big thumbs up to him - and he said this amazing thing, it was so obvious and straightforward but it blew my mind as well. Because I asked him the same question - how’d you get to be an artist - and he just said: well I went to a noise gig and I thought, I could do that!

And I thought: wow! Because I had a lot of inhibitions, but I guess then I just started trying to figure it out. And at the time, I hadn’t known there were the improv workshops - or I heard of the Eddie Prevost workshop but I just thought that was a special thing for special people… and I didn’t know about Skronk… so I started to just try and produce some stuff on my own, starting with this thing called Genuflection Maps which was actually just phone recordings, stitched together in Audacity, not mastered. And I just duped 50 tapes and I got my “Clod Club” collaborator Laurie Hill to help me do the artwork.

Ever since it’s been a weird crablike progression with many fits and starts.

AC: How does a project like ‘Almost Everywhere Pathless’ come together? Do you have any ideas at the outset? At what point do you have a cohesive album with a track listing, a title, etc?

Paul Margree: I do think about things a lot before I do them, but then I run out of patience with what I’m doing quite early on. I suppose if I’d gone to art school or something, I’d have a really well defined process around creating an artwork.

Ideas for things tend to sit in my brain for awhile, almost like a dark cloud, before they start to coalesce as a visualisation.

So with ‘Genuflection Maps’ for example, I knew there was something I wanted to do with loads of sound sources in a collage, but collage in a linear, horizontal way rather than a vertical way. Or with Self Own on Invisible City records, I wanted to figure out to make something droney without having loads of presets on a synth.

With this one, my brain was sparking in different directions. I had the free improv bits: the rustling, banging, gestural stuff. Then I was doing work with cassettes and tape loops. But then I’d also bought some synths. So I thought why don’t I do a half hour, that’s a good length, with distinct movements or sections.

The idea sat in my brain for quite a long time, and a guy called Simon Klee who runs the Anticipating Nowhere label put out an open call. So I had these ideas, but the possibility for it came from Simon saying I could do something for the label. Simon is one of those guys who would just say do whatever you want, and that kind of openness was really what I needed to feel my way through it.

AC: Three 10-minute-long tracks is about the least likely format I can imagine for a cassette release. How are they organised on there, was there any thinking around that topic and/or discussion with the label?

Paul Margree: The three pieces are really three self-contained worlds, and I can’t remember how Simon organised it but I think the whole thing fits perfectly on one side of the cassette…?

AC: Yeah actually I think I’m seeing it’s the same thing on both sides.

…even if it weren’t a cassette, it’s an interesting format for an album, three equal-length pieces, you don’t normally come across that really.

Paul Margree: That’s something I actually think of quite a lot. Like on one of the collaborations I’m working on, we’ve got one piece that’s 30 minutes, and one that’s 20 minutes, so then I start thinking about how what we need is a 10 minute piece, or two 5 minute pieces. I don’t know if that’s just me being a bit weird but I like thinking about that.

Anyway that structure of half an hour drove the process a bit.

AC: Could you explain some of the physical locations and context relating to track 1 (Effort Blandness)? Thinking particularly of the “ping-pong” sounds at 6:15, whatever the device is being opened and closed at 7:55, and the narration at 9:00… but anything of interest!

Paul Margree: There’s a whole lot of stuff where I’m working with this noise box that I made. …I’m terrible with my hands but I love it when musicians, people like Graham Dunning for example make things like contact mic boxes or stuff with motors. So I tried to make a thing where I put a contact mic in a metal box with springs on it. And I use that a lot still. That might be the ping pong thing you’re thinking of.

AC: This was sort of a “thwack” sound. Like baby thumps.

Paul Margree: Oh that! I think those are just claps that are not that well-recorded. ..have you ever heard some of that stuff that Dirk Serries does on his label? There’s one album that has some quite meditative voice and natural sounds on it. I started by thinking I’d do something like that but I got a bit frustrated and it turned into this.

AC: I find that to be a funny thing about your music though, which characterises it in a way. Like you were saying you’re not good with your hands, but then so much of when you perform is all this nervous, frustrated movement with your hands, which then takes on a life of its own.

Paul Margree: Yeah it’s that impatience of not quite letting things be.

The device at 7:55 is a cassette player being opened and closed. I was quite influenced there by Phil Maguire who used to do a lot of stuff with blank tapes, tape hiss.. so it’s playing with the tactility of the tape, the sound of the machine and so on.

And then I don’t know, there are people who do spoken word really well like Iris Colomb or someone, I didn’t really want to get too far into that area but I just wanted that kind of vocal texture. What I like in vocal improvisation is either the proper mad vocal stuff like Phil Minton, Audrey Chen etc., or the kind of stuff that Iris does, where I suppose the form and content are combined. It’s almost like an automatic writing thing but then also the sentences are clipped and the syntax is chopped. So back when I was doing this it was an amateurish version of that really. It’s a random book about Indian painting that I picked up on the side of the street. So there’s a bit of defamiliarisation where you’re not quite sure what it’s talking about.

AC: Is Fake Signal a single take or a layered concoction?

Paul Margree: I bought a synth off one of the guys from Ashcircle. It had a sequencer, and you could jam it, add a load of delay to it and it would be quite unstable. So that was the baseline for that.

Then I just chucked a load of stuff on top, in fact I can’t believe I did this but there’s me playing the guitar on there. But it’s slowed right down. I recorded myself trying to play some folk rock song, I think a Richard Thompson thing, and slowed it massively down, like 300%.

There’s a few other bleeps and blops in there, including some no-input stuff.. to keep it messy.

AC: Yeah it’s not a very disciplined synth piece. It’s wild and woolly. So I think it fits with the other material. I suppose the only thing left to do is speed it up and listen for the Richard Thompson song…

Paul Margree: It might have been one of the dirge-like ones with Linda Thompson on “I Want To See The Bright Lights..”.

AC: So… a slowed-down dirge.

Paul Margree: As if the original wasn’t miserable enough for you!

AC: I love the sound of rainforests.. how did you develop track 3 There Is No Water - There Is No Rainforest? What is the woozy music that comes in at 2:16? The way that complements the other sounds is sublime!

Paul Margree: There was a bit of a Jon Hassell 4th World thing going on there.. but done badly. But then, there’s also in it an implicit critique of that kind of field recording - I do like those considered critiques of field recording, how orientalist it can be, Eurocentric etc., and the work of people like Seth Cooke who’ve given a really rigorous examination of what field recordings are. …but basically I just had a load of BBC wildlife tapes, and I thought I’d construct a thing so it sounds like I’m in the rainforest.

Anyway one of them I had, I thought was going to be really good but it had loads of cheesy music on it! And I was desperately trying to find a bit where there wasn’t this horrible fucking music.

AC: But that’s the best part!

Paul Margree: Ha! But right so then I figured I’m going to use this, but I’m going to slow it down.

Sound Studio 80s
So then you’re into textures of the tape, and whether there’s enough to give it that uncanny or false feeling. Because I’m not trying to spatialise a load of beautifully recorded fruit bats, you know.. like me and Werner Herzog dragging the ship up the mountain with a bunch of white guys with expensive reel-to-reels from a university in France… no. It’s supposed to be that this is a shit tape, it’s choppy to begin with.

But then after all that, you can’t help responding to the rainforest stuff despite yourself.

AC: You come across as fairly well-acclimatised to the normal world outside of experimental music, in terms of tending to a separate career, family etc. And yet I can tell you are really into this stuff. Why do you do it?

Paul Margree: Do you know Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint”? In “Portnoy’s Complaint” there’s about 200 pages of him going on about his sexual neuroses, growing up in the 50s and 60s as a Jewish man, being obsessed with sex and all this kind of stuff. And it comes to the end of this whole thing and the voice of the therapist suddenly appears and says “now we can start”!

Well I’d been well-institutionalised into bourgeois life before starting all this. I’ve got an impostor syndrome about it because why am I doing it all now, when there are people half my age who are doing it.. better? There are people who live this stuff, artists who make it their life… so that does kind of plague me a bit.

The positive part is this has given me a whole different perspective on life. I’ve got a job, a house, a family, etc… there is that privilege to negotiate and be aware of, but this also gave a path slightly away from that and a way into something that’s really interesting for me personally.

Maybe having slogged my guts out commuting to work, I’m sure loads of people do that and not everyone is an artist living their artistic life every day, but to come to this having done that, to me is almost like an evangelical thing!

I also value the relationships with people I’ve met in the scene, the gigs, the community. The creative thing I just think of as my contribution to that. And to get onto putting on gigs myself, I’m quite a risk-averse person so to take a step into that world for me, it was quite a big step.

AC: Oh I thought you did that all the time.

Paul Margree: Never. Not at all. The guys from Ashcircle basically said to me - I was moaning about not having any gigs - they said you’ve just got to put them on yourself. That of course was another light bulb moment, like the one I had with Phil Julian. But you don’t get an underground scene without people having, I suppose, skin in the game.

So that’s been great (“Tread Into Mulch”), I’ve done three. It does give you a different perspective.

It certainly does. I’m already looking forward to the next one of those.

Any final thoughts?

Paul Margree: I did have one thing I wanted to add and that is that my practice is often informed by stuff that’s happening outside of London. The people who do the Tusk Festival for example, who were absolutely essential in helping me find a path, partly because I was going up there and enjoying the festival, but partly because Joe Murray and Rob Hayler were writing their blog Radio Free Midwich, and that opened my eyes to a lot of the lo-fi underground stuff happening around. Or what Mariam Rezaei does in Newcastle, now she’s taken over Tusk. Or Theo Gowans in Leeds, whose work is amazing but also what he does at Wharf Chambers to kind of build that scene. There’s a lot in Glasgow as well.

Those networks in the UK are really important. London has a strong, centrifugal pull but those networks that happen outside the capital, for me have been almost more important. And I’d love to somehow plug into all that more.

AC: Yeah let’s make it happen. Thanks Paul!

Paul can be found at https://nostrumivy.bandcamp.com/.

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