Howlround: The Ghosts Of Bush

(Introduction): Navel-Gazers #51 is an interview with Robin The Fog a.k.a. Howlround who is going to talk to us about The Ghosts Of Bush. Perhaps the definitive work of audio “hauntology”, it’s an album whose existence seems to have emerged like a great lumbering apparition out of the day-to-day - or let’s say night-to-night - working life of its creator, who was on the graveyard shift as a studio manager for the BBC World Service in the waning hours of its 70-year tenancy at Bush House in Aldwych in 2012. Rendered onto tape using Bush House’s disused reel-to-reels in the mysterious basement studio S6, all the source sounds here - a rich tapestry of spectral crackles, murmurs and creaks - were derived from the building itself, a cavernous old structure built from naturally resonant Portland Stone way back in 1935, a time when the BBC itself was only in its infancy. We’re having this discussion behind the scenes at the British Library where Robin more recently worked as an audio archivist in the Centre For Conservation, surrounded by roomfuls of early analogue media and equipment. He welcomes me by playing a wax cylinder from the collection, and it’s then that I understand why I’m here: it’s to talk to the ultimate Navel-Gazer. Let’s hear what he has to say.

AC: Thanks for joining me on Navel-Gazers! We’re here to talk about “The Ghosts Of Bush” but first could you tell me a bit about the background of Howlround?

Robin The Fog: Howlround always has a strict set of parameters. It’s field recordings manipulated on tape machines. No pedals, no plugins, no synths, no samples, no artificial reverb. The only effect you’ll get is tape delay. And if I follow those rules, it’s Howlround. So back in the 2000s, I made a couple of records where I used software and samplers - that wasn’t Howlround.

So much of Howlround is also about when things go wrong in interesting ways, and responding to that and exploring where it’s going. What I have learned thanks to some helpful and patient friends over the years, is that being right isn’t always a good thing and being wrong isn’t always a bad thing. …now that I think about it, being wrong is a hugely important part of Howlround really.

I stopped making music on a sequencer for example, because I realised that I always knew what I was going to get every time. With tape you don’t get that luxury, you just have to see where it goes. In my head I’d gotten into this “I tell you what to do, and you haven’t done what I wanted” thing with the machines. (I do talk to them). But often I come back to it and realise: that’s a lot better than what I wanted.

…but I didn’t start working with tape because I wanted to have my assumptions challenged, or to be surprised, but that’s what resonated with me when I was working with it, and that’s why I continued. I learned the hard way, in hindsight, that being surprised with what you got or perhaps initially disappointed, that can be a really beneficial outcome if you’re able to distance yourself from it a bit.

It’s written on the Sister Corina Kent poster over there (points): “don’t create and analyse at the same time, they’re different processes”.

AC: Yeah they’re the opposite.

Robin The Fog: Right. Apparently, someone told me Walt Disney did this, not that I’m necessarily a big fan of Walt Disney but he would have one room where he would just draw and draw and draw, and he wouldn’t think about it, he would just create. And then he would go into a different room in his house and gather all his material and he’d say to himself: when did it work? This bit worked, this bit could potentially be something, this isn’t so good I’ll get rid of it, etc.

Or that’s the story I’ve heard, it could be total bollocks!

AC: Do you relate to that?

Robin The Fog: Yes. Because that’s what I do now - I make a bundle of recordings, muck around, see what happens, try lots of different things.. it’s all play. And a little while later, I’ll go back and say right: it was good at around 20 minutes, there’s about three minutes here that’s nice, and this is nice for about two minutes here, and a little 30 second chunk here and if I put those two together that’s quite nice.

Sometimes it’s not even that slow. On The Debatable Lands, all the tracks on the LP, I literally threw the machines into record and they just started making the sound that they made. And then it’s just a question of me nudging them in a certain direction, or adjusting something. One of the tracks ends because I was home for Christmas with my machines on the kitchen table and my dad said: “it’s time to get these dogs out”, and I just hit stop.

Or I’ll sometimes have a couple of hours where nothing’s really working, but then there’ll come another moment where suddenly it all aligns. One little parameter changes and suddenly it all falls into place.

AC: I’ve heard so many artists talk about the moment when that happens!

I remembered a thought I had - I wonder what you think about the term “experimental music” as a lot of people don’t like that term? but I do… you mentioned earlier about the plan versus the results which to me is always like testing a hypothesis in an experiment.

Robin The Fog: Yeah well, years ago I played a concert in a cistern in Copenhagen, in this huge underground former reservoir. It was a place with a 16 second reverb. I was working with these foghorn recordings, and you could build up huge cacophonies of sound and then cut the levels - everything across the board, dead - and it would hang in the air, it was amazing.

So a friend of mine and I, we were going to go in there to record his saxophone, and he said to me: what do you do, do you take impulse responses? And I said well no, I’m not a scientist, I just sort of knock things into motion and see what happens. And he said: surely that’s what a scientist does! That was a good point. But I don’t do it in a scholarly or disciplined way.

AC: I don’t like to presume too much knowledge on the part of our readers. Could you briefly explain what the BBC World Service is in relation to the BBC, and what sort of studio Bush House was from 1941 until 2012?

Robin The Fog: I joined the BBC in 2008 as a studio manager for the World Service, and I worked in Bush House until it closed in the summer of 2012.

The World Service has two distinct prongs: the first is news in English, broadcast to different parts of the world, in those days shortwave or medium wave. The other side of it, which is what I actually did as a day job, is BBC content broadcast in lots of different languages to different parts of the world.

AC: Do you speak any?

Robin The Fog: No but I worked for the Africa/ Middle East service - as it was then, it’s changed since - and for example Hausa (a Nigerian language) is phonetic and you could read it as you would English. With languages such as Arabic or Somali, you could read the cadence of someone’s voice. And hand signals were used a lot!

When I started there were around 27 languages. Off the top of my head: French for Africa, Portuguese for Africa, Somali, Hausa, Swahili, Kinyarwandan, Arabic, Sinhala, Tamil, Dari and Pashto, Farsi, Ukrainian, Russian, Uzbek, Kyrgyz… I’d work with them all, running the mixing desk, holding the program together, recording things, mixing, editing. That was my job, and I loved it.

AC: Believe it or not this is the second mention of Kinyarwanda in Navel-Gazers history.

Robin The Fog: Really! Who was the first?

AC: Well, an artist who’d gone to Rwanda for an extended period and did all these field recordings with a lot of people speaking Kinyarwanda!

Robin The Fog: That was a lovely language service. And particularly the Great Lakes service and the Somali and the Hausa and the Swahili, they were all just so friendly and easy going. I do miss the people a lot.

AC: So you’re pretty positive on your time there.

Robin The Fog: I would say the BBC drives me mad, but I will always support it, and I’m glad it exists. In 2012 we went to Broadcasting House, and I think that was one of the main reasons I left. In Bush House, it would be you, the news team and no one else, whereas in Broadcasting House it was all glass cubes, open plan… I get what they were doing - the BBC has to be seen to be open and transparent, you want to be able to see the journalists beavering away in the background while there’s a live transmission happening, but it just doesn’t work as a workspace, certainly not for me.

AC: Could you explain how it is that you had access to Bush House at such strange hours of the night during 2012? …were you on a night shift?

Robin The Fog: Yes. So if you’re doing a morning news program for parts of Africa, Asia, Middle East… say the Cantonese program, their breakfast show would start at half past 11 at night. Or the Dari and Pashto service, those would start at 1am. But there were also other studio managers covering the Americas for example, on totally different shifts.

I was in S6, the basement studio, which was usually empty. There were a lot fewer people around than you would have during the day. You’d have cleaning staff maybe, the program team from the service would obviously be there on shifts, the duty operations manager, just the people involved in the actual programming. And the canteen staff - they’d start serving breakfast at around 3 in the morning.

AC: Was the building particularly noisy, or were you just listening very carefully? Does ‘The Ghosts Of Bush’ magnify the sounds?

Robin The Fog: A lot of buildings make interesting sounds. The fact that I was on my own, walking around late at night, made me more attuned. So you walk to the third floor and you open the door and the handle’s slightly loose, and It squeaks. Then because you’re in a big space with a high ceiling that’s made of Portland Stone, a very resonant material - supposedly Portland Stone is what they make lithophones out of, stone xylophones - to be honest I think anybody would notice that.

Particularly towards the end, when people started leaving, when different bureaus started moving out, you’d find yourself walking around these empty spaces.

AC: So it looks like the sounds were recorded between January and April, and then Bush House closed in… July?

Robin The Fog: Yes and “The Ghosts Of Bush” was released on the day it closed.

Basically how it started was this. Alexander Tucker was down there in studio S6 recording an album with a guy called Dan Bevan, who was a studio manager like I was - he was a studio manager who only worked at night. The two of them were there dicking around with tape loops, and there were a few of them hanging up there in the studio.

There was then this other guy Thibaut in there mixing his band’s recordings. I noticed the tape loops and Thibaut said: “tape loops are easy, I’ll show you”. And we just cut a piece of tape, stuck the two ends together, looped it, and recorded some noises on it.

A little while later I recorded myself just on my phone whistling, in the big resonating hallway. I then held the recording from my phone up to this KM48 microphone which we had set up, and recorded that onto tape at 15 inches a second, then played that tape recording back at half speed. And we had another machine in the studio, which I set up as a tape delay machine. Suddenly instead of my out-of-tune whistling there was this sort of ethereal choir that was there instead. It was incredible.

Sound Studio 80s
The thing is I’d got so bored of making electronic music on computer screens, whereas this was all just my hands and ears.

AC: What are the voices/languages on track 4 London Ta Ke Kira?

Robin The Fog: Well there are these bits of sounds of the people I worked with - there are little snatches of jingles and call signs. “London Ta Ke Kira” is “London is calling”. That’s in Hausa. They started that program identically for years - when I started it was one of the very first programs I did, and it was also one of the last programs I did.

The emphasis of the way that was said - “London… Ta Ke Kira”, you really get a sense of the significance of it: this is important, this is the news from London that you’re getting. It stayed with me.

AC: You’ve described this project as a homage to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. I’ve also seen your work described as “radiophonics”. Again for our readers who are or aren’t familiar, could you talk about the Radiophonic Workshop and its significance to you?

Robin The Fog: We have to remember that in the 60s, acousmatic music, musique concrète, electronic music, it happened in research institutes and universities - it happened in faraway places. It didn’t come out of your TV, in your living room, on a Saturday evening. And there are whole generations of electronic musicians who readily attest to the fact that this music coming out of their TV on Saturday tea time was a life-changing event.

The Radiophonic Workshop was supposed to be a purely functional outfit. You weren’t a composer, you were just someone that worked the gear and fulfilled a brief. They made sig tunes for radio, theme tunes for TV programs, jingles, sound effects… their initial brief was “special sounds”. The story I’ve heard is that when Daphne Oram was trying to get permission to found the Radiophonic Workshop, she was told: we have a symphony orchestra which provides all the sounds that we need. But then on the continent, experimental drama and Hörspiel and all this kind of stuff was starting to be made, and then the BBC were trying to keep up.

In the early days, it was effectively musique concrète. They would have a few sound making objects that they would manipulate, record them, play them back at different speeds… for the TARDIS, supposedly the brief was: we want the sound of time and space itself being ripped apart, and the solution was was a front door key scraped on the broken wire of a piano. And as I always say to people, if that’s all it takes to make the sound of time and space itself being ripped apart, imagine what you can do with everything else. It’s when you achieve that by taking something so basic and so mundane, that’s what thrills me.

But notice if you look at the credits of Doctor Who or other BBC programs, the Radiophonic Workshop are credited, individual composers aren’t.

AC: What do you think it is that so distinguished the Workshop from other musique concrète from the period? Is it a contextual thing?

Robin The Fog: My understanding is that in France, it was a better funded community where you were given time to experiment with ideas, whereas in Britain, the department was run on a shoestring, wasn’t something you did for fun, and all you had were a few bits of broken equipment.

There’s this thing in postwar Britain of the tinkerer in the garden shed - the make-do-and-mend. My granddad we used to call Mr Fix-It because if something was broken he’d go and fix it himself, he wouldn’t pay someone. If you look at someone like FC Judd, another pioneer of this period, he was an amiable chap who would disappear into his shed and tinker with electronics.

AC: So maybe compared to the relative luxury of the GRM, there was something sort of scrappy about this group of people at the BBC.

Robin The Fog: Exactly. It’s the underdog thing.

AC: You can hear that in the sounds can’t you?

Robin The Fog: Yes! I don’t think it was fun, I don’t think anyone was there thinking: oh I’m so lucky, I’m so glad I’m changing the face of electronic music. But they were.

I’ve been lucky enough to meet a few of them over the years. Brian Hodgson - we shared a sandwich together at a Delia Derbyshire day, Dick Mills - a cheery guy, just exactly as I’d imagine the garden tinkerer… Paddy Kingsland, Roger Limb, Peter Howell…

But if you look at perhaps the two most genius figures from the Workshop, who to me are Delia Derbyshire and John Baker - not to denigrate the others but these were the ones who worked with tape particularly, with a mixture of concrète techniques and musical ability… those two were also the ones who suffered the most.

If you’ve ever listened to John Baker’s “Water Bottle Music”, there’s hundreds of edits in an 8-second piece of music. Tiny, infinitesimally small edits. Supposedly, he could cut the tape ahead of the beat to make it have a jazzy shuffle. But remember if you cut tape and you do it wrong, it’s cut and you’ve got to start from the beginning.

AC: Those cuts, that’s almost like having a different kind of rhythm.

Robin The Fog: Yeah what you do is you scrub the tape very slow, to find the start of the sound. If the tape’s going at 15 or maybe 7 1/2 inches a second, that’s a lot of tape happening in one second. So you have to scrub it by hand to find what you think is the attack sound, and then you make a mark with a chinagraph pencil.

AC: You can’t see the sound waves like with software.

Robin The Fog: Right, you have to feel it, with your ears and with your hands. It’s hard. This is part of the reason why Howlround has such a smeary, shonky sound to it. These guys could really cut sounds like ninjas, and I can’t! They would also use musical training such as perfect pitch, to take a sound and adjust the pitch and say that’s a C, that’s an F#, that’s a whatever… sometimes they’d even cut that so that it played a melody - I can’t do that.

AC: I guess you can do what you like though.

Robin The Fog: Well I do have really strict parameters around what I do where ultimately, what I make still has to function as a piece of music. Regardless of how it was made. I don’t want people saying: that’s very clever. I would want them to say that it resonates, or it moves them. That’s why I would rather make a Howlround album that really stretches for something and fails, than something that just goes through the motions and… spins the wheels.

AC: …spins the reels.

Robin The Fog: Ha.

AC: ‘The Ghosts Of Bush’ is about “the passage of time and the impermanence of all things”. It’s been over a decade - what’s it like to revisit this work? Does it sound any different to you?

Robin The Fog: Well this is the thing, when I’m working on something, I listen to it obsessively, I never put it down. I’ve had incidents where I’ve been working on something at home late into the night, and I go to bed, and I can’t sleep because the sounds are still in my head. So I’ve had to get up and carry on working.

But once you’ve drawn a line underneath it, once it’s cut into vinyl, you can’t do anything. So I have not listened to ‘The Ghosts Of Bush’ since the day I approved the test pressings, 11 years ago. Once a work of mine is finished, the odds are I will never listen to it again.

AC: This is fascinating to me, I wonder why that is. I wonder if for you, the main or sole purpose of listening to your own work is… to bring it into existence?

Robin The Fog: I think so. The thing is, you have to finish things, you have to put them aside. I can tinker with things endlessly, and if I did I’d never finish anything. …the whole object of life, I think, is to move forwards - at some point you need to move onto the next thing. It’s the old cliche: great works are just abandoned, they’re not finished.

…not saying this is a great work mind you.

AC: It is though!

I’m just astonished you’ve never listened back to it. 

Robin The Fog: Well there is certainly a paradox in not listening to it. I was lucky that ‘The Ghosts Of Bush’ got a bit of traction, but if it hadn’t been for that and I never listened to it again, who would it be for? It wouldn’t be for anybody. Yeah, I don’t have an answer for this, it’s a tricky one but everything I’ve made, I never listen back.

Perhaps it’s part of the creative process but it’s that sensation that what you do isn’t enough, or is never enough. All I’d hear is what’s wrong with it.

AC: I always feel sort of embarrassed whenever another artist says this by the way - I often return to my previous work, especially when working on something new.

I’m thinking of a discussion I had with Freida Abtan about the “perceptive” approach to art, where visual art is about seeing, music is about hearing etc. I wonder if you are quite far in that direction, where listening to say ‘Ghosts Of Bush’ would almost inevitably bleed into making it once again if you see what I mean.

Robin The Fog: Quite possibly, yes.

The thing is if you’re listening back to your own music, it must be that it’s something you can still engage with because it’s still in a malleable form, I’m guessing?

AC: No. If I’m honest I think it’s because I make things for my own amusement, or which I perceive to be missing out there, things I wish existed. So I wonder if it’s that there are different motivations for the work to begin with?

Robin The Fog: Yes, maybe that’s it. That’s a great one though!

But I’m very grateful that ‘Ghosts Of Bush’ found an audience, because then I can really just let it go. I think as human beings we need to know in some basic way that what we did mattered, or meant something to somebody.

I often play this childish game with myself: if I were the last person on earth, would I still make music? And the answer is yes… but I still wouldn’t listen to it!

AC: But surely you’d put it in some kind of… time capsule?

Robin The Fog: In the hope that someone somewhere in the far future might possibly hear it. Totally. I can tie myself in knots thinking about this, because why would you make it just for nobody?

AC: The test is would you make something and immediately destroy it?

Robin The Fog: Aha. No. Absolutely not.

AC: Right! You don’t need to know for sure that someone will discover it…

Robin The Fog: Exactly. So: I have to make it, I don’t listen after it’s finished, I hope someone listens to it and responds to it, but if they don’t, it was still something I had to do.

And my dearest wish is if my music could make some 15 year old kid as excited about what they could possibly do themselves, as I was at that age. The greatest thing when I was teaching Sound Art & Radio were those rare moments when you saw in a student’s face: I could do that.

AC: Right, rather than causing someone to think: “wow, I couldn’t do that”. Which a lot of people seem to think is how they’re meant to respond to art.

Robin The Fog: Yeah how about “does it excite you? Does it get your motor running, does it give you goosebumps, does it make you feel more alive?” And you know what - if anyone could do it, that’s great because that’s empowering to other people.

I’ve always said to people that there’s no mystery to Howlround. If you ask me, I’ll tell you exactly how I made it. I keep nothing as a secret. But, like the conjurer explaining the trick, it will still be magic, because it’s magic to me.

AC: What a thought.

What are you up to nowadays?

Robin The Fog: Well there was recently a reissue of Trespass and Welfare this year, an album which came out the year before. That’s a quite a good summing up of where the project’s come in the ten years since ‘Ghosts Of Bush’. It’s become a lot darker, more abrasive, broken sounding. That wasn’t a deliberate response to the way the world seems to have gone in the last ten years - or my own being angrier and sadder these days - but it is weird the way it seems to have molded itself around things.

The next release “A Loop Where Time Becomes” is coming out this year, and it’s a collection of previously unreleased material from the first few years of the project. It’s a little closer to the ‘Ghosts Of Bush’ sound and in fact, there are some recordings on there which were made in the ‘Ghosts Of Bush’ sessions. There’s a particular recording of a water fountain that I never used on the album, a water fountain where when you pushed the handle it went: “oooooooooooooo”. And again, echoed in those big high ceilings. It’s been sat on my hard drive for years.

I gave Castles In Space 60 tracks, all unreleased and said pick what you want, and the label manager Colin picked 13 of them.

AC: What did you think of the selection?

Robin The Fog: I was happy with it, bizarrely! Actually the last three studio albums I’ve done, a label manager has chosen from a body of stuff to pick from. Having someone else pick through the bones as it were and decide, has been quite helpful.

AC: Yeah it’s good to get another set of eyes. Oh sorry-

Robin The Fog: Yeah, you mean…

AC: Another set of ears, right.

Robin The Fog: I always say we see with our ears, as well as we hear with our eyes.

So again, I’m glad that they’re getting out there, and I won’t ever listen to them again.

Also, The Howling have just released a second album - me and Ken Hollings - and Ken, who’s my yardstick with that, is super enthusiastic about the album. As is the label manager. So I can part with that too, although The Howling still perform live so I will occasionally have to revisit those tracks, but that’s fine.

I’m really still trying to figure out what Howlround is, and I think I’m getting closer. Any type of creative endeavour is a search for something, and the thing about searching is: it’s not finding. Being an artist can be lonely and miserable, and really difficult, because you’re searching for something and you’re not finding it. So I’m so grateful that for that brief moment when ‘The Ghosts Of Bush’ happened, I found something - kind of by accident - that appeals to a lot of people.

In the 12 years since ‘The Ghosts Of Bush’, the search has continued, and occasionally I’ve found other things that have brought some sense of accomplishment or continuity. But from here on out, probably forever until I pass out or expire, the search will just continue. I’ll never stop, because I cannot stop.

In Peter Howell’s autobiography, there was a sentence which really stuck with me. He said:

“You are what you cannot stop doing”.

AC: A nice place to end our discussion.

This has been a real pleasure Robin. Thanks for talking to me!

Robin The Fog can be found at his website, at, and at Bandcamp. The new Howlround album A Loop Where Time Becomes is out February 26th on the Castles In Space label.


0) 'The Ghosts Of Bush' cover image (Lisa Hack)
1) Image uncredited/ Robin The Fog
2) Image by Pete Woodhead
3) Image uncredited/ Robin The Fog
4) Image by Hannah Brown
5) Image uncredited/ Robin The Fog
6) Image by Hannah Brown
7) Image by Inga Tillere
8) 'The Ghosts Of Bush' vinyl image (Hannah Brown)
9) Image uncredited/ Robin The Fog
10) Image by Hannah Brown
11) 'A Loop Where Time Becomes' cover image (uncredited/ Robin The Fog)
12) Image by Antonio Curcetti

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