m-orchestra – The Grim Circus – track-by-track guide from my #GrimTwitterListeningParty

Today, 100% unlicensed and unofficial, I did a #GrimTwitterListeningParty for new m-orchestra album The Grim Circus. I don’t have a fancy replay facility, but here it is presented as a track-by-track guide to the stories behind the songs and what goes into the making of Fortean Electronica.

1. The Grim Circus

A woman waits for a lift to take her upstairs to her home, but what she sees inside begins a frantic chase

I deliberately wrote this as something short that could be used as the opening track for a series of slightly weird webcasts I did when lockdown started. The video that goes with this track is mostly a woman running away from ghosts/zombies in a Korean horror movie. Unlike most of the album there’s not much of a narrative.

It’s good as a short sharp set-opener. When I do live shows everything has a video that is totally synched to the track and projected over me, with subtitles and tons of weird old creepy footage.

I think the paranormal theme and the videos lift it over and above it being a “bloke with a beard and a laptop” and honestly make it a good intriguing little show as an opening act for 25 minutes or so. Everyone loves a ghost story

2. Of Animal And Brimstone

A leading Jesuit visits a house in Ireland with a ‘bad room’ to exorcise it, and is never seen again

My dad sometimes used to let me stay up to watch the late great Dave Allen in the 80s. He was such a wonderful storyteller, and this features him telling a spooky tale. The full sketch has a few digressions where there are studio audience laughs, and a typical Allen shaggy-dog style punchline at the end, but I excised all that to keep it as a dark and menacing story.

I used to be in bands a lot when I was younger – I was in an early line-up of Bark Psychosis back at school. But I stopped gigging as I just had such over-whelming stage fright about everything. I did no gigs between 1999 and 2019. I love playing songs like this live now. Towards the end I can look up from the keyboard/laptop and see a room full of people absolutely glued to the video, eyes as one on the subtitles, totally drawn into a ghost story

3. Just A Silent Room

A ghost hunter promises no devices, no Wonderbox, no apps, no radio – just a silent room

One of the first tracks when I started making music again in 2017. I hadn’t done any for a decade. I think I tweeted at the time something like “There’s no need to make people listen to middle-aged dad laptop techno”. That aged well.

I asked people on Twitter what they remember scaring them as a kid in the 70s/80s/90s on the tellybox so the video that goes with this has Noseybonk, Sapphire/Steel, public information films, Ghostwatch, Threads, Boy From Space, Tripods, Doctor Who etc etc

The video also has pics from this Arthur C Clarke book – the nun with stigmata, the severed burned leg, “Marianne – I cannot understand tell me more”. My nan had this book and I read it avidly as a kid, possibly the source of my fascination.

I don’t believe in ghosts by the way, not the spirits of dead people returning to haunt us. But I always think about how static electricity and electricity existed before we could harness it. What did people feel it was? How did they experience that? How did they explain it? So I think there might be bits of physics and chemistry we don’t understand yet that cause what we currently describe as “paranormal experiences”.

I have had a couple of odd paranormal experiences myself, but those are maybe stories for another day. And often I think ghost stories are just a brilliant way to preserve the local folk memory of traumatic events. Or it could just be peacocks.

4. The Wax Image

A man discusses the supernatural powers of local witches, and the wax effigies they make

One of the great places to get old clips of people talking about spooky things is local news archives, so many interesting interviews with people talking about the paranormal from the 50s and 60s are out there.

The guy from the archive speaking on the track at the beginning, who sounds absolutely terrified of the witch’s power in this track – or possibly just of all women full stop – is a priest. At the end it is a journalist who sounds quite grumpy that the woman he is speaking to – who claims to be a witch – is being pretty unforthcoming about her powers. Unhelpful interviewees, eh? I know the feeling, mate, I know the feeling

5. Telekinetica

A man discusses how scientists around the globe have begun to study and measure paranormal phenomena

This features voice clips from a 1970s US documentary about scientific investigation into the paranormal. Chords are actually me playing Neil Young’s Dont Let It Bring You Down verse chords r e a l l y   s l o w l y   i n d e e d

I tried to write this on purpose as a bright explanatory set-opener of the whole paranormal music set-up, and for a while it was going to be the first track on the album. It has some great dialogue – like “Siced ping pong balls over a woman’s eyes” – and absolutely brilliant footage to go with this.

I spent ages trying to get that last chord/key-change right, I could hear it in my head for ages, with very ZTT-style pads, and couldn’t work out the right chord to play for weeks. Still not sure it was right, but too late now and I’m used to it.

6. It’s Like She’s Still Alive (1982 Version)

In the 1980s a young girl from Skipton is visited by the ghost of her dead nan

One of my very favourite tracks. It’s called (1982 version) because the story is set in 1982, not because it was actually recorded in 1982. I’m not quite that old. Although I did record the first ever m-orchestra stuff in 1987.

It is a slightly remixed and edited version of the track that appeared on the Three Ghost Stories EP early in 2020. I was so excited to have an EP out I printed some flyers for the gigs I had planned. Then everything got shut down. A bit of an extreme way to stop me from doing terrible gigs. I often use this as a set-closer.

I was lucky enough to get a hometown gig done supporting Pye Corner Audio in March 2020 in E17 just before lockdown.

I love this little kid, the brother, in the video, the way he talks about his sister, he cracks me up every time.

The thing with this story, is you just end up feeling that the kid has told a fib that has got out of hand, and that basically she just really misses and longs for her nan. It’s really bittersweet the ending.

7. Your Own Ghost (Caught On Your Own Film)

A girl walks through a garden in a dreamstate, only to meet a version of herself trapped in the past

This is the only pure instrumental on the album. The video uses clips from the creepy opening of old kids’ programme Moondial which had Jacqueline Pearce in it.

Sometimes you just have to lean into your influences, the keyboard solo parts sound like Telekon-era Numan, and then there’s a bit at the end that sounds just like you are being exterminated by a Dalek. It’s very on-brand for me.

I went to some 80s night at the Lexington thinking it was all gonna be middle-aged men like me but it was rammed with young people, some cosplaying the 80s, it was fab. I decided not to be so shy about my 80s tendencies

8. Swim With Me (Drowning Child)

A woman recalls the feeling she had as a child, that something in the house was trying to lure her to her death in the swimming pool

In a way this is the oldest track on the album. I wrote Swim With Me in Leeds in 1993, and played it live around that time, back when m-orchestra had guitars and me singing and I had it in mind back then as the first single.

Here’s some pics of me playing live at a party at a mate’s house in Leeds in February 1994, and Swim With Me was in the setlist that night.

I programmed it up again a couple of years ago – minus the guitars – and then found this clip of the woman talking about thinking a ghost was trying to drown her as a child and the two seemed to really click together.

It was the lead track on my More Ghost Stories EP earlier this year, so belatedly the song did get to be a single after all, bless it.

It is one of those songs though, playing it live, the title screen comes up, and I think to myself, “Mate, have you really made a song about a ghost trying to drown a child?” and the answer is yes, yes you have. You fucking weirdo.

9. Ghosted

A woman seeks answers after she begins to feel an oppressive presence in her Los Angeles flat

This is another song where, like the one with Dave Allen, judicious editing has shifted the narrative a bit – it has turned someone explaining an experience fairly rationally into a tale with a real air of menace.

This was previously on a single as well, picked by people power. I put the video up on Facebook and a couple of people said it was the best track I’d done so far, and then one of them was coming to one of my gigs, so I put it in the live set-list, then more people said it was a highlight that night, so it stayed.

It has got quite a pretty tune to it, I guess if I was being more conventional about things it could have ended up as a rather pleasant melancholy love song. Instead – ghosts.

I really like how the laughter begins to creep in and then basically you know it has all gone wrong for her. I think m-orchestra works best when it is slightly unnerving or unsettling.

10. Geisterbahnhof

A man recounts the strange things he has experienced in the empty tunnels of the closed U-Bahn stations in East Berlin

So it is true that during the Cold War era there were stations people called Geisterbahnhof that were on U-Bahn lines that crossed from West Berlin to East Berlin and back into West Berlin. Trains could pass through but not stop in East Berlin, they were left unchanged for decades. I’m not sure it is true that they were actually haunted, but for the video I have matched this dialogue with some clips from the old Sapphire & Steel assignment on the haunted railway station which creeped me out as a kid.

This has definitely got that early 80s sonic feel – lots of use of an Oberheim OB-X emulator by me here, a keyboard originally used a lot by Japan, Eurythmics, Killing Joke, OMD, Ultravox etc. I made a deliberate decision to having an 80s sonic palette, videos are in 4:3 aspect ratio treated/mistreated to look like distorted VHS, all the typography is from my beloved ZX Spectrum, the clips have vintage footage/items in them like this BASF tape.

That pic was from a livestream I did out in my garden at midnight one summer night during lockdown. You had to make your own amusement back in them days

11. Anneliese

A German woman in the 1970s dies after her family subject her to repeated exorcisms at the hands of local priests

The story of Anneliese Michel is a true one and a cause célèbre in paranormal circles, but it is essentially a story of child abuse, and in my view, murder. There are horrific photos and sound recordings of the exorcisms that her family put Anneliese through before she died, but I did not want to use any of those or make the song exploitative in any way like that.

I feel she was so mistreated in life, and then her memory and the events surrounding her death have been mistreated too. I don’t know how you could treat your own child like this. It’s a straight telling of the tale, and I’ve chosen to emphasise that her parents and the priest were found guilty of killing her, and then essentially let off with no punishment by the system in Germany at the time.

12. Lost Captain

The men of a Welsh dockyard discuss the building with such an ominous atmosphere that one man simply refuses to work in it

Another local news feature, I’ve not been able to identify the location, but essentially these foremen working on this dockyard are talking about their working hut where they do their paperwork being haunted.

It’s probably more clear on this track than some others, but a lot of these songs start off as piano chords/riffs and then I build them from there – often taking the original piano parts completely out by the final mix.

The guy at the end, you should see the video for this bit. Right at the end he’s laughing and saying it doesn’t bother him, but in his eyes you can see it is all fake bravado and that he absolutely fucking hates working there alone at night.

13. The Trap

A religious teacher in search of ghosts describes his encounter with a guru who claims to have trapped the spirits of the dead in a collection of bottles

I wanted something long and a bit more uptempo and uplifting to finish the album. I mean, by its nature, everything has been very dark and melancholy so far. This is the only track on the album I’ve never played live either in-person at a gig or on a livestream at some point. It’s so sparse I’m not sure which element I’d actually play live on the keys.

One of the reasons all the videos have subtitles is I figure most people who ever see me play live are going to be seeing/hearing the songs for the one and only time, so it just makes it easier to follow the stories.

This track has lots of reversing elements, putting reverb on them, reversing that. I used to do all this sort of stuff using actual tapes back in the day, really time intensive, now you can pull it off with a few button presses. Not as much fun though.

I mentioned that this is my first album for 16 years. Here’s some of the physical discs I put out in the early 2000s. The last LP, in 2005, was called “Car Crashes Happen Every Day”. Always been a cheery soul.

I love the story-telling style of this guy on the final track so much, the way he laughs at his own jokes, and its kind of a weird meandering tale that touches on many different things, the ghosts-in-bottles, the crematorium, the guava fruit.

“You are ghosts with a body” – just thought that was a really apt phrase to end the album on.

Thank you for reading/listening – a reminder you can buy my album here for £4.