Friday, 9 August 2013

Wake Up The Moths by Matt Deighton - a lost folk horror classic


“Ghost folk,” was the term that sprang to mind the first time I heard Wake Up The Moths, Matt Deighton’s fourth and finest (to date) solo album. There are a few rare records whose ambience is so powerful (I’m thinking immediately here of Exile On Main Street) that they seem to carry with them a strong, palpable sense of the place where they were recorded, and Moths instantly seemed like one of them. I was thinking, as I heard it: “old farmhouse, no central heating, cold floors, river out the back, former tenant deceased in suspicious circumstances.” I had no idea, at this point, that the album had been recorded over a number of years, in several different locations, nor that the house where Matt was living at the time, in Woodford, Essex, was haunted: an old terraced house with an air raid shelter in the garden and its own spectral black cat. A place where objects mysteriously vanished, and disembodied voices called both Matt’s and his ex-wife’s name.
   Actually, I didn’t know much at all about Matt at that point. I’d barely heard his work with Mother Earth, and had been introduced to him six years previously via his second solo album, You Are The Healer, a funkier, modern answer to John And Beverley Martyn’s wonderful Stormbringer and The Road To Ruin LPs. There was no PR working on Wake Up The Moths and, having not hesitated for a second to pay £15 for it in the Norwich branch of HMV (remember when we still paid that much for CDs?), I immediately rushed home and called my editor at Observer Music Monthly, who commissioned me to review it. 
   I still stand by most of what I said in my review from May, 2005: that, while the songs on Wake Up The Moths sound like they’ve been recorded in a haunted farmhouse, they have the sweet, hazy feel of having been composed just before dusk on a river bank. If anything, though, my measly four out of five star rating did it a disservice. It’s a record that’s sounded that bit more magical and spooky with the passing of every one of the eight years since: something that Matt, who’s always been interested in the idea of albums improving with age, the bedrock of whose record collection is folksy mavericks unappreciated in their own time, had no doubt always hoped for. It’s easily his darkest work: his ‘Pink Moon’, his ‘Heart Food’. The difference being that, fortunately, unlike the creators of those particular ominous twilight masterpieces, he is still here long after the album’s original release, making music.
   “My plan was to make a really great record, then disappear in some way,” Matt told me recently. “I’d split up with my wife, and I’d not long come off tour with Oasis, where there’d been a lot of bad stuff going on, that I didn’t quite realise at the time.” Even the cover versions on the album - Bill Fay’s Release Is In The Eye or Brian Protheroe’s Pinball, for example - tend towards an imagery of exhaustion and domestic desolation: empty fridges and cobwebs. Asked to use two words to describe his mood when making the record, he says “really upset”. By the time I struck up a friendship with him, the following year, he was in a happier place, and recording with Chris Sheehan as The Bench Connection. Chris and Matt kindly let me use the Bench Connection’s music for an experiment I was doing on myspace for The Sunday Times about the indelible connection between people’s love of music and their love of the stories surrounding it. It’s a great measure of the timelessness and mystery of Matt’s songwriting that when I presented his and Chris’ songs under the guise of Son Of Bench, an unfeasibly obscure and deeply tragic seventies singer-songwriting duo whose work had been rediscovered by a family member, none of Son Of Bench’s new fans questioned the veracity of their legend. 
   As I’ve got to know Matt better, I’ve simultaneously admired and worried about his pure, anti-self promotion approach to his art: something that no doubt adds hugely to your listening experience as a fan of his work, but is also a little frustrating, when you want to see a friend eat and live well, and get his critical and commercial dues. For several years, Matt’s linkless website featured nothing but a photograph of him asleep on a sofa. It’s only now that he has made his first, tentative steps onto Twitter. So far he’s tweeted twice in two months. Both tweets were replies.
   Not that Matt hasn’t made music with enormous commercial potential. His third album, 2001‘s The Common Good, is full of the kind of from-the-heart electric anthems Noel Gallagher might have made with six times the talent and an infinitely better record collection. It seemed to have “Radio 2 playlist” written all over it, but bafflingly remains Matt’s least-heard work. This is another frustration of being a fan of Matt: that his music seems like a vastly more special, honest and powerful version that made by the more famous musicians he’s played for as a session guitarists, yet receives hardly a fraction of the accolades. Is it any surprise that, after making an album as great and absurdly unheralded as The Common Good, he retreated into the lo-fi, haunted rooms and fevered imagery of Wake Up The Moths? 
   Matt calls Wake Up The Moths “a little more candle, a little more incense” than The Common Good, which is something of an understatement. It’s the sound of The Common Good taking off a big duffle coat and a couple of layers of knitwear, cutting the phone line, and lying on bare floorboards, reading an anthology of MR James stories. Matt had already attempted to make a “folk horror” album of sorts - a musical equivalent to the atmosphere found in early 1970s British films such as The Wicker Man and Blood On Satan’s Claw, and the BBC’s Christmas MR James dramas of the same period - with Villager, the first album he made on his own, after his departure from the Acid Jazz band Mother Earth, but it’s on Wake Up The Moths that he really achieves it, and not just because of the dialogue samples he uses from the BBC’s adaptations of The Treasure Of Abbott Thomas and The Stalls Of Barchester, and 1974‘s obscure, Donald Pleasence-starring Amicus anthology film From Beyond The Grave. Its whispery atmosphere makes Villager seem positively sugarcoated by comparison. Many have been the times over the last eight years that I’ve been driving through an eerie part of the British landscape - that particularly haunting part of the Lincolnshire fens east of The Wash, or the deserted, post-apocalyptic, Jamesian stretch of Suffolk coast directly south of Lowestoft - and wanted to write my own rural horror film around it. I imagine it to be a slow-moving one, with no gratuitous violence or gore, but where the atmosphere steadily builds and stays with you after the closing credits - even, perhaps, to the extent that it becomes a little, magical, spooky part of you forever.