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David Chatton Barker, Folklore Tapes

'We're modern primitives': Folklore Tapes' David Chatton Barker on exhuming Britain's mystical past through music and why popular culture is haunting itself...

Anita Awbi
  • By Anita Awbi
  • 15 Dec 2016
  • min read
David Chatton Barker (right) is one half of Folklore Tapes, a research project and record label gripped by the ancient arcana and cultural mysticism of the British Isles.

Alongside Ian Humberstone (left), David explores the wilder side of our native customs and archaic belief systems, exhuming them for creative impetus and future posterity.

The project has yielded a clutch of sold-out vinyl and cassette releases, each imbued with experimental soundtracks and innovative responses to our traditional histories.

Over the last five years, Ian and David have gathered a troupe of kindred artistic spirits for the project, including Sam & the Plants (middle), Magpahi, Paper Dollhouse and David A Jaycock.

Their template has evoked the tales and myths that previously laid buried by religion, the Industrial Revolution and, more recently, our digital lives, to build a new record of British lore.

We spent some time with David for our Folkways feature in the upcoming issue of M magazine to get his take on unearthing our mystical past, the current trend for record-collecting fetishism and why popular culture is haunting itself…

What triggered off Folklore Tapes?
Myself and Ian Humberstone met in Exeter. We were both separately into folklore, specifically folklore in and around Dartmoor. The myths and the legends crept into our heads. If you're open to it enough, living somewhere like that, folklore is lurking behind every corner.

What was your background?
I'd not long finished art school. I wouldn't say I was disenchanted, but it was difficult to know what to call myself and how to navigate artistically. This research project - and the act of exploring our shared history as a process of self-identification - seemed to make sense.

Folklore Tapes started as a mutual interest of witchcraft and the local region, a creative friendship that we wanted to carry on, with no ambition beyond its first project.

Do you think our ancient folklore is still readily available to us?
It’s almost as though these myths and legends have been covered with a little bit of moss and lichen over time - it's like finding a ruin on a walk. If you want to delve that little bit deeper, it’s literally like peering under rocks to look for insects.

Why are you drawn to it?
I think we're always interested in the more uncanny, supernatural side of things. That's where the imagination really takes flight. It’s strongest when we are children. I think it gets knocked out of us as we grow up.

How has it influenced your sound?
All of this resource is such a wonderful well of inspiration. I’m not a songwriter but I wanted to address these things at a sonic level. So I created sounds and made instruments and thought about creating sonic worlds. There's a rich seam to draw upon visually as well, for me. That could be a screen print, a film or photography.

Do you think there's a place for folklore in today’s society or do you see it as a separate artistic trigger for you?
I think it’s all about identity and heritage. We've become so disparate, broken apart, politically and on all sorts of social levels. I think this past which we share is a great way to unite us. There's a lot of things we've lost that are well worth having.

Our sense of shared past has been blurred and neglected – lost in various nooks and crannies over the years. Much of it is forgotten as generations don’t pass it on. And now, as people begin to find it and bring it back into the day-to-day again, it’s clear so much of it still remains hidden and untapped.

What was the thinking behind your Boscastle Witchcraft Museum residency?
I think witchcraft is a great example of an area of folklore which wasn't just accidentally lost, but was eradicated intentionally by the church. We lost a lot of knowledge of the landscape through herbal medicine and all sorts of folk art, magic and witchcraft practices.

Our Calendar Customs series is linked to that idea. We had so many customs - almost every day was full of something that united us; through activity, through ritual, and through ceremony. I guess there are versions of it all now, but they don't have the same richness or goodness, socially.

So are you trying to help reignite that oral tradition in your own way?
Yes, definitely. It is such a great thing to react to. Fireside storytelling is an ancient art, which we almost lost - even though I do think we’ll always have it in some form to some extent.

The sonic extension to that is great. You can tell a story in a really enigmatic way just with your mouth; you might put on different voices, you might make a few sound effects here and there. But adding some sort of sound-making device extends it even further, and it can be really effective.

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How do you see Folklore Tapes evolving?
I would hope that it outlives me in some way. It’s a mantle that should be passed on over time to encourage all sorts of people to respond to folklore in creative ways. You know, like in a Smithsonian Folkways kind of way?

So do you consider yourselves to be part of the British folk music tradition, or outside it?
Yes, definitely, I totally feel part of it. Just now, it's absolutely of the zeitgeist. In the past, these ideas would have been picked up and worked into something sonically with the tools of the time. People make music with what they have to hand.

Now, I make instruments and I'm much more interested in sound sculpture. I'm not saying that people might not have done that 100 years ago, but I think everybody who works with Folklore Tapes is doing it in a contemporary way. Even though we are analogue-focused! So I guess we’re modern primitives, in a way.

Do you think there's a continuous cultural thread that leads back to our old folklore?
Yes, I think the thread remains unbroken, but in some ways it has become a little bit buried. There is a bit of untangling that now needs to be done. It's a real web to get into.

Cecil Sharp and the old guard had their way back then, but things have got a little more abstract now.

Obviously the Industrial Revolution had a big impact on all of that, and how things were shared, how things were documented, and how, socially, we used folklore.

It feels like something's coming back round again, but not in exactly the same way. In essence, and in the approach, it’s really similar.

People seem to have too much of a clear idea of what they think folk music is, and a lot of the time, from my experience, it actually isn't that. It's not that they're defining it wrong, I just don't think it can be defined that easily.

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Is British music still plugged into these traditions?
Yes, it seems so. I find the idea of hauntology – this idea that we're haunting ourselves – really compelling. It’s that idea that we have no clear vision of the future any more, our utopian ideals have been destroyed, so therefore we're going back again.

I think that's something that British music had to do, and get it out of its system. I think now, it seems to me that there is a more forward-thinking drive. You can be forward-thinking while still plundering the past for inspiration, in a really healthy way.

Music is therapy, it’s not just a commodity. It’s become about creating the artefact as something to collect. Collectors are a really big part of it all these days. There is a fetishism of the object, and I think to some degree that will always be the case, but it's at a particular zenith right now.

How does that idea relate to the beautiful vinyl packages you create as Folklore Tapes?
We only ever do that with Folklore Tapes because you can imbue things with magical meaning. We want a release to be nourishing for the person who gets it, rather than it ticking a box for the collector. For me, straight-up public engagement is a really important thing, and live interventions are something I am very interested in exploring more.

What's next for the label?
A few months ago we did a residency at the Witchcraft Museum in Boscastle, which was incredible. That project is going to be a big part of next year. We’ll revisit the museum and develop our project into a travelling show, to run workshops with children and create new work from it.

Magic and ceremony are really important in the other areas I work in. So it's about linking Folklore Tapes into some of my other work and the work of others.

We’re also going to do Industrial Folklore Tapes, exploring the Industrial Revolution. It’s a really interesting area. On one level, it led to a fracturing of folklore and oral traditions, and the way they were passed on. But we’re interested in the leftovers, the echoes. You know, the visual reminders and remainders of that time are everywhere.

Read our interview with Magpahi.