Music Interview: Sarah Angliss of Spacedog

Franco Milazzo
By Franco Milazzo Last edited 150 months ago

Last Updated 12 December 2011

Music Interview: Sarah Angliss of Spacedog

This week sees the launch of the debut album, Juice For The Baby, from the strange and wonderful Spacedog.

The album (which can be previewed online here) will be launched with a live show this Wednesday which will no doubt include their robots, some very spooky sounds and a bunch of home-made instruments including The Ealing Feeder, a robotic bell rig named after a title seen in the control room of Battersea Power Station.

We saw them last year and were blown away, saying "if there are awards for bravery in the field of theatre, this show deserves a Victoria Cross and a pat on the back." We spoke to bandleader Sarah Angliss.

Introduce yourself in a sentence. What would someone not guess about you from having met you?

I'm a composer, theremin player and historian of technology — and I perform live with my human and robot band Spacedog. There are three of us in Spacedog — you might not guess that Jenny (the vocalist) and I are sisters but Stephen Hiscock, the percussionist, is unrelated. He looks just like us. Oh, and you might not guess there's no love interest going on — we're always eyeballing each other as there are all sorts of tricky cues in the music (as we're often cueing in robots as well as sounds). And people have mistaken the intensity of our performance as something that's erotically charged.

For those people who haven’t seen Spacedog, how would you describe your live show?

Vocals, theremin, percussion and live robots performing songs that are haunted by defunct machines, faded variety acts and the darkest European folk tales. It's hard to sum up our musical style — my sister Jenny once said "imagine Kraftwerk at the Newport Folk Festival" and I think that's a pretty good description, so long as they had MR James guesting.

We understand there’s a special guest on your new album. How did you get him to appear?

Yes, we have the incomparable Derren Brown on the album — he appears on our Tommy Cooper torch song as one magician calling out to another across time and space. I simply told him about the song and asked him if he'd be willing to do a cameo — we have met a couple of times before, via a mutual friend, the very witty psychologist Richard Wiseman. We'd spoken a couple of times about the squelchy noises you get on cheap 1990s dictaphones — sounds that some suggestible types consider to be EVP traces (voices of ghosts). We're thrilled to have Derren's voice on the song - it makes it so much more poignant — and on the recording day, we had the bonus of meeting Coops, Derren's trusty assistant, and Rasputin, a very cheeky parrot.

Where did you come up for the names of your robot performers e.g. Clara 2.0 and Edgar Allan Crow?

Clara 2.0 is a dolly who plays the theremin, rather badly, now and then. She's named in honour of original theremin virtuoso Clara Rockmore. And Edgar's our robotic crow who does a good line on death, necromancy and other topics in some of our darker numbers. Centre stage is Hugo, a ventriloquist's dummy we wired up and roboticised after I found him at a London Magic Circle event. He'd been rescued from the attic of a dead magician. His full name is Hugo Fitch, in honour of the dummy with the sharp teeth in that old British horror classic Dead of Night (1945).

Is London a good place for artists like you?

Yes, very much so. I'd say my robots are part of the 'maker' scene, something that's really blossoming in London — the culture where you take consumer objects, mod them and make them your own. I love to be among fellow makers and hackers as we're offering a creative, positive alternative to globalised, homogenised consumerism. I'd always thought my work was far too odd for public consumption, until I took Clara 2.0 to Dorkbot London — an evening for 'people doing strange things with electricity' and realised that there were people out there would would get it — and were doing the same, and more, brilliantly. And now there are maker events popping up all over the place. There was Leila Johnston's Hack Circus at Interesting 11, which ran at the Conway Hall earlier this year (Interesting 11 was curated by Russell Davies and the name is on the tin). And there's MzTek, a London group where women can learn the ropes about electronics and embrace their inner geek.

When you’ve come to London, you’ve performed in a pub-theatre, the Royal Festival Hall and the Scala and lectured at the Last Tuesday Society. Do you have a preferred playing environment? What would be your dream venue?

Oh it would be somewhere with warm and crystal clear live acoustics, such as the Wigmore Hall. But I'd have to fill it with taxidermy from the Last Tuesday Society and a few modular synths from the Science Museum stores to get the atmosphere right.

When did you first come to London? How has it changed since then?

Well, I moved to London in the late 1980s — I love the city and would still be there now. But like many other artists on low incomes, I was 'economically cleansed' from my home area, Clerkenwell, when property speculators moved in and used the streets as their financial playground (and didn't that work out well for us all). I needed to afford a space to work in so we upped sticks and moved to Brighton. London is always in flux — that's what I love about it. There's nothing more exciting than those viewing holes they put on hoardings on city building sites — ones where you an see a great big trench, right down to the foundations, and you imagine how many other people have been there, built a home, lived, played, died and so on. It's very Quatermass.

Your output crosses back and forth between science and art in a very creative way. If you had to spend a day at a museum, which London one would we find you in

At the moment, I'd be in the Science Museum, poring over the artefacts in their Daphne Oram exhibition. A co-founder of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, who put electronic sounds into BBC shows from 1957 onwards, Oram also invented one of the world's first music synthesizers and sequencers. It's an astounding machine — Oram played back waveforms which she painted onto film and glass. The exhibition is a must-see for anyone who's into electronica — they even have the tatty old aluminium lampshade that was sampled by composer Delia Derbyshire. These objects are sacred relics for people who are into my line of music — it's so good to see them on public display. I wrote a little about Oram for Ada Lovelace Day this year.

From your visits to London, would you have any tips for tourists?

1) Don't take the tube everywhere — you see so much more of London if you get out and walk. And the South Bank is much closer to Tower Bridge than you might think.

2) When walking, look up. There's so much to see above the ground floor, even in streets that have been homogenised by chainstores. Wonderful stonemasonry — from eighteen-century figureheads to Art Deco finery inspired by the tomb of Tutankhamun. And some wonderful old shop names — my favourite (now gone) was The Fancy Cheese People on Farringdon Road.

3) The Royal Festival Hall is one of the world's finest Modernist buildings. It's free to go in, it's warm and often plays live music in the foyer. The view of London from the balcony is second to none.

4) The Diplodocus is in the Natural History Museum, not the Science Museum (this tip will save you hours of dinosaur hunting).

What are your plans for 2012? More shows? Work on the next album?

Yes, we want to get out there and perform the album more. I also have plans for a new instrument — one that's based on the Euphonia, a mighty strange talking machine that was first exhibited in London in the 1840s. The Euphonia had all the strangeness of the Mechanical Turk.

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