Grief, hallucinations and exhumed violins: the astonishing music of Richard Skelton | Music

Winford Hunter

‘It’s not a landscape that’s there for people to go and look at,” says Richard Skelton. The countryside around the Anglo-Scottish border doesn’t share its secrets willingly, but a few hours spent in the passenger seat of Skelton’s MG hatchback reveals some of its strange charms. Wide, arrow-straight roads are a mesmerising constant that switches one’s focus to the granular details – the textures of the road surface, the ditches flanking each side, and the occasional cartoonish tree. The effect is hypnotic. “It’s kind of maze-like, and you don’t know where you are half of the time,” Skelton says. “I feel like I could drive around here for decades and not really get the measure of it.”

Skelton is one of the UK’s most prolific and consistently impressive experimental musicians, the creator of slow-moving yet unexpectedly gruelling drone-based music, and his work often communes with landscapes like these. He’s seen plenty of them at the mercy of the rural renting market. The Lancashire-born musician and his wife, the poet and publisher Autumn Richardson, have lived in Cumbria, Fife, Ireland, and now Liddesdale, just over the border into Scotland. After six years there, they’re preparing for another move, but not before Skelton ends this chapter with Selenodesy, a drone album of yearning swells and searing intensity, motivated in part by the region’s dark skies.

Skelton, 49, has been a prodigious creator of experimental music since 2005, self-releasing more than 60 albums, although that’s far from his only creative output. Skelton and Richardson founded Corbel Stone Press, a small independent publisher, publishing the literary journal Reliquiae from 2013 to 2022, and Skelton has written poetry and prose himself, including nature writing. “I feel like there’s kind of an institutional mistrust of people who do more than one thing,” he says when we stop for coffee in a busy tearoom. He’s also just written the brooding score for Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, the new production by esteemed theatre company Complicité. What drives him? “I characterise it, at least in myself, as a kind of compulsion,” he says. “I see it as a kind of psychosis, and I don’t think that it’s a healthy thing.”

Richard Skelton: Faint Ray Systems – video

Skelton’s first wife, Louise, died in 2004. At that point, he moved back to his parents’ home in Wigan, and spent time in the West Pennine Moors, “reconnecting with a sense of that childhood wonder, completely refracted through the prism of grief”. Music was always out of reach for a younger Skelton, be it on the violin (he wanted to play left-handed) or in the school choir (an awkward voice break that never quite righted itself), but rocked by Louise’s death, he found solace in solitary musical experimentation. Borrowing a friend’s car, Skelton would take his instruments (a guitar, a cheap violin bought from Manchester music shop Johnny Roadhouse, and later, a mandola) to uninhabited farmhouses on the moors early in the morning, and play as he tried to connect with the forgotten voices of previous inhabitants. “When you’re feeling everything really powerfully, and not knowing what to do with it, [making music] was a way of trying to open the gates to let it pass through me, so it wasn’t collecting inside of me,” he says.

Grief spilled from Skelton, and accumulated in objects that quickly became heirlooms. In his early records, Louise’s acoustic guitar became a proxy for her; he made percussion instruments out of her rings. It extended beyond sound, too. Skelton would turn scans of the art Louise left to him into composite artworks for each record, released under pseudonyms – A Broken Consort, The Inward Circles, Riftmusic – to ensure collaborations didn’t seem one-sided. He attached handwritten labels to carefully constructed albums filled with dirt, seeds and twigs, released and sold as editions of one. “I’m a lot less precious about things now,” he says, “but in those days, everything had incredible significance, and everything had to be incredibly meaningful.” Skelton is stoic as we talk, but he wells up now.

Music was also Skelton’s escape capsule from his day job as a graphic designer for a website company in Cheshire. “I’d have this precious window of time at the weekends when I got to do it, and then it was gone. And then I had five days optimising images of dildos to look forward to.” Skelton would have panic attacks on his long commutes across Lancashire, and handed in his notice in 2008.

A landscape in Liddesdale, where Richard Skelton currently lives and works.
A landscape in Liddesdale, where Richard Skelton currently lives and works. Photograph: David Kilpatrick/Alamy

He has been working full-time as a musician, writer and publisher ever since. His work gravitates to the borders of myth and history, marrying self with surroundings as much as possible. Skelton dedicated his 2015 album Belated Movements for an Unsanctioned Exhumation August 1st 1984 to the phenomenon of bog bodies, centuries-dead buried people who have been naturally preserved in peat soil; for the album Nimrod Is Lost in Orion and Osyris in the Doggestarre (2014), Skelton buried a violin, exhumed it, hooked it up to some microphones and experimented with the unplayable husk. For Selenodesy, he picked up an old science textbook, and scoured it for interesting words – “albedo”, “isostasy” – that would eventually become track titles. They piqued an interest in a mind that was already seeing stars: medication for chronic pain in 2017 left Skelton with night-time hallucinations, “green phosphorescent images that slowly coalesced into really vivid, hyperreal objects, strange bodies, shapes and architectures”. Being awake at an hour where the region’s dark skies reveal their splendour added more to his collage.

If this all sounds quite fringe, it’s because he is. “​​The edges of places that aren’t the conventional focus of attention somehow speak more loudly,” he says of choices of location, but it could easily be said of his eerie, punishing music too – it’s as if you’re thrown into a shadow world, with no map or waymarkers, and have to fend for yourself among the unidentified shrieks of the night. “For the past 13 years, I haven’t really listened to music apart from my own,” he says. The last gig he went to? “My Bloody Valentine in Manchester, maybe 10 or 15 years ago.” The idea of being influenced fills him with dread.

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Does he feel like a northern artist, at least? Skelton tilts his head. “I’m an artist of northern landscapes,” he replies. He certainly feels drawn to the area, over, say, the south. But not communicating with other musicians in the extended locality – in Carlisle, or in Newcastle’s prosperous DIY scene – makes him an artist truly on the periphery. “It’s almost by necessity, the kind of work that I do is a solitary activity,” he says. “I want to make music that’s a process of discovery, given the limited means available to me.” This feeds back into his art – having moved past grief, Skelton says he has also shed questions of identity: “I think about myself getting out the way as much as possible.”

Existing without a wider artistic support network can be a vulnerable place. A 2016 residency in Orkney, which saw Skelton and Richardson planting birch trees on the beaches of Papa Westray, caused a crisis of creativity. He remembers thinking: “This afternoon I’ve spent planting trees has been more tangibly productive, more meaningful, than any of the work that I’ve done for the past 15 years.” He still pressed on with music. “I’d like to say that I’ve had a revelation, or something happened to persuade me of the merit of what I’ve been doing,” he says, but he has gradually accepted himself in recent years. “Just because you aren’t doing things that are tangible, doesn’t mean you’re not having an effect.”

Skelton’s heightened productivity is part of his determination to make a living as an independent DIY artist: “I’m an evangelist for people doing things themselves.” He scarcely performs, but admits that he’s beginning to compromise by making his compositions more suitable for live performance. Now, he stands at a crossroads. The impact of Brexit has made him seriously consider Corbel Stone Press’s future, and there’s talk of joining an intentional community, buying some land in Richardson’s native Canada, or finding a practice-based postdoctoral research role – he’s just completed a PhD about magico-religious practices in north-west England during the last ice age. “I’m not a person that needs to know where I am,” he says as we drive along another identical road.

Selenodesy is out now on Phantom Limb

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