Guest Playlist #06: Matt Bower of Wizards Tell Lies

“There was music in my house, but it wasn’t at the forefront. It wasn’t a particularly musical house,” claims Matt Bower before reeling off a long and varied list of fundamental sounds that would make the some of the most musically-inclined homes in the country blush. “My mum liked jazz when she was young, and so that was played – Ray Charles and stuff she’d heard at Ronnie Scott’s. My granddad was a big fan of swing and early jazz… that’s probably where my love of jazz comes from. My dad was a huge Blondie fan and I still listen to Parallel Lines and Eat to the Beat. He [also] liked the Beatles and Fleetwood Mac but I never got into that. My brother was bringing electro and hip-hop tapes home, so that was normally booming from his room – then he got into acid house, which he still has a passion for now. We shared a brief musical journey together listening to The Black Dog‘s Temple of Transparent Balls and various Warp releases. Those Artificial Intelligence compilations were like nothing else. Incredible.”

Bower is emailing following a hiatus of sorts, having seen his output reduce during the Covid pandemic. We go back a little way together, since I released some of his work on my old label, both as Wizards Tell Lies and The Revenant Sea, so I was glad to see on Twitter recently that he had started thinking about picking up his instruments again. He’s a keen collaborator, at times working on a bewildering array of projects with names like Isobel Ccircle~, Meat House, Cloak and Cloaca, and Hidden, all with a range of fellow underground shadowfolk such as April Larson and previous playlist contributor Simon McCorry. Bower doesn’t often take breaks; his silence had become disconcerting. “Being able to slow down and focus on family for a few months was a gift, to be honest,” he reassures me. “Around August 2019 I changed career and I had to go back to studying to do it. Amazingly, I passed the qualification despite the shit-show of Covid causing huge disruption to the course I was doing and much of the world going down the toilet. As a result, the last music I recorded was back in April/May 2020, just after the first [UK] lockdown. It was an album called Gallery for MuteAnt Sounds, as my other alter ego The Revenant Sea. But, in August this year, I got back to recording some new Wizards Tell Lies material, which has been pretty good therapy for me. It’ll be an album eventually but it’s slow progress. It is coming together, though…”

The Wizards Tell Lies sound is classically a combination of radiophonic squall and tense post-rock, with a ripe backwoods musk of damp soil and dried leaves running through it. This cobwebbed ritual cabin element is eerily reflected by the characters of Fox, Owl and Hart, who are credited as creators on each release, and liner notes that often include references to seances and other supernatural goings on. It extends into his other projects too, particularly Isobel Ccircle~, with their Exorcist-inspired album Save Karras. “[T]he audio of my favourite scene from The Exorcist III sits at the end of this mix,” says Bower. “On Save Karras we did our own sound for that very scene, [which was] such fun to do. [I] think there’s still a video on YouTube of our dub.” 

As for his influences, Bower struggles to hear much of what he heard as a youngster in his own work. By way of example, he recalls the time his father was unwittingly exposed to a hip-hop masterpiece. “I remember picking up A Nation of Millions on tape from WH Smith – it must have been the late eighties. My dad took me to buy it and I whacked it on the cassette player in the car on the way home. His face was a picture! Life changing stuff, the music on that album though, [and it] still sounds incredible. I’m fairly sure bits feed somewhere into the music I make. I still listen to a lot of it but I doubt it’s obviously there. I don’t hear it at least.” Instead he pinpoints the early 90s as possibly the most important time for him as a consumer. “[T]he Mercury Rev track ‘Black and Blue’ is one of those,” he remembers. “It’s a beautiful piece of work and I think that album is their best. I stopped listening to them after a few albums as they seemed to lose their experimental creativity which is so strong on Yerself is Steam. David Baker was a force on those first two albums and the beauty of that track set against that truly odd noise of what sounds like a breathing drain is superb. I really do love that album.” It was around this time he was given a copy of the Dada For Now compilation, too, by a college tutor who recognised his desire to explore the outer reaches of sound. “I was really interested in Dada and Surrealism [at the time],” says Bower. “[He] thought I’d enjoy the album [and] he was right – it blew my nineteen-year-old brain! It just showed me a different way of looking at sound and what was ‘allowed’. At the end of the album there’s a sequence of boat engines recorded by Luigi Russolo which was really alien to hear. That ‘sound with no visual context’ was something that I was interested in.”

“When I started buying films on VHS, I would record the sound onto tape so I could take the film with me on journeys.”

Bower ties this to his enduring fascination with movie soundtracks. “When I started buying films on VHS, I would record the sound onto tape so I could take the film with me on journeys,” he says. “I did this for a while and it opened the films up in a new way to me – that idea of sound without visual context, I think.” 

The interest continues today, as reflected by the inclusion of tracks from Blade Runner and Alien, as well as the Rhythm Devils’ attempt at incidental music for Apocalypse Now. “At one point I’d read that there was a fully improvised score to the original five-hour cut of Apocalypse Now, which sounds like an awful idea to me now, actually,” comments Bower on the latter. “It was done by Grateful Dead’s two drummers and some of their mates. I have never listened to a Grateful Dead track in my life but for some reason this sounded really interesting. Anyway, the track on the mix from these sessions is by far, to me at least, the most interesting on the Rhythm Devils album – creepy and ominous and that great thwump at the end is just wonderful. This thwump is made by [one] of their instruments called ‘The Beam.’ From what I gather this was essentially a beam with a bunch of piano bass strings on it and you were meant to hit it with a mallet. On the track it sounds so heavy. [I] would love one to set up at home.” 

Bower’s contribution to the Underscore Guest Playlist series also reflects the sheer variety of music he imbibes. On this he says he “likes to dart around” but still favours the album format: “I much prefer to listen to a collection of songs in the order the musicians have sequenced them. They’ve no doubt spent a lot of their time doing it in that way, so I think, you know, it’s part and parcel of that experience. The listening experience…” So what about this mix, then? “I think playlists and mixes are a different thing though,” he posits. “I grew up with tape swapping and putting mixes together to listen to in mates’ cars and at each other’s houses. With this mix, a lot of it is tracks that stood out to me from albums or first listens in those years leading up to or in the early years of me making music, and some of it is stuff that I heard later that made total sense sonically to me and drew me in other directions. It’s a mix possibly about using found sounds or even sounds that can’t instantly be placed – instruments used in unusual way, or bands that approached things, to me at least at the time, in unique ways.”

We hope you enjoy listening.