Shine on you crazy garden! Syd Barrett's strangest tune yet

A lecturer in hauntology has turned debris from the Pink Floyd singer’s garden into a piece of music. Should Dua Lipa be worried?

Drew Mulholland knew something spooky was going on when he played the Sex Pistols at the wrong speed. He had mistakenly stuck a seven-inch vinyl copy of Anarchy in the UK on at 33⅓rpm and noticed that Johnny Rotten’s slowed-down cackle at the beginning now sounded just like Carry On star Sid James.

Bizarre, you might think. But extra bizarre for Mulholland, who had had a vivid dream a few months before making this discovery, in which he’d watched the Sex Pistols playing live, with James replacing Rotten as the frontman, pacing up and down the front of the stage, repeating the exact same laugh. “I thought, ‘Wow, there’s got to be something in this,’” he says from his home in Glasgow. “There’s some hidden part of my brain that’s heard Rotten laugh and made the link with Sid James.”

Drew Mulholland
Godfather of musical psychogeography … Drew Mulholland Photograph: -

Locating strange connections that lurk in our unconscious has become an obsession for Mulholland. He’s a lecturer in psychogeography and hauntology – areas of study that stray into the unconscious and the seemingly supernatural – at Glasgow University. He’s also a musician who likes to incorporate these ideas into his work.

His latest project is a case in point. When in Cambridge to visit the childhood home of Syd Barrett, the enigmatic former member of Pink Floyd who died in 2006, Mulholland noticed a pile of leaves and detritus from the property’s garden sitting on the pavement. He scooped it up with a view to making something out of it. “I’m interested in sound, memory and place,” he says. “So my first thought was, ‘How can I turn this into sound?’”

He decided to glue his findings on to a seven-inch cardboard disc, play this on his record player and record the sound, chopping it all up digitally into a piece of music. The result, Mandy Rakes Up the Leaves Again, is unlikely to give Dua Lipa any sleepless nights – it sounds largely like a Martian trying to get to grips with a transistor radio. But that’s not really the point. Mulholland is interested in the associations listeners might arrive at, especially those who first encounter the music with little or no knowledge of what it’s about.

The debris from the garden of Syd Barrett’s childhood home, pasted on to card then played on a turntable and recorded.
The debris from the garden of Syd Barrett’s childhood home, pasted on to card then played on a turntable and recorded. Photograph: -

“If anyone listened and said, ‘Oh that reminds me of being in Cambridge’ or something like that, then that’s interesting to me,” he says. In a way, says Mulholland, it’s an invitation for listeners to have their own seance with Syd.

Mulholland is interested in echoes from the past – and there are certainly echoes of his own past in this project. As a teenager, he was obsessed with Pink Floyd’s first album – Piper at the Gates of Dawn, the only one largely written by Barrett – and became fascinated with the story of this psychedelic genius who, possibly as a result of an LSD-induced nervous breakdown, ended up retreating first from the music industry and then from the public eye altogether. “I immersed myself in the story, the whole tragedy of it,” he says.

It was also as a teenager that Mulholland first dipped his toe into the waters of experimental music, albeit unwittingly. He would wander around Glasgow’s Mount Vernon with a friend, recording ambient sounds on a mono tape recorder and then chopping them into loops with razorblades and Sellotape. “As a kid you don’t think your area is particularly special, but where I lived, there were wheat fields with bomb craters from the war, air-raid shelters full of reverb and a really heavy industrial scrap-metal yard used to dismantle locomotives.”

Listen to Drew Mulholland: Mandy Rakes Up the Leaves Again

It wasn’t until the 1990s that Mulholland made his mark, under the name of Mount Vernon Arts Lab. At the time, he was simply trying to make experimental records. Little did he know that his ideas would be cited a decade or so later as helping to pioneer the underground musical genre hauntology – recordings full of ghostly hiss and crackle that evoked an unsettling nostalgia for other times and places.

In 2001, the label Ghost Box agreed to rerelease his cult album The Séance at Hobs Lane. These days, though, Mulholland works largely in academia. He’s been labelled a “groovy academic” and “the godfather of musical psychogeography”, which pleases yet baffles him. “I read about this guy Drew Mulholland who’s the godfather of musical psychogeography, and I don’t think it can be me,” he laughs, “because I’ve run out of milk and have to get the kids ready for school.”

Mulholland is also the university’s composer in residence, which has given him the chance to compose with scientists, geologists and historians. He’s staged all-female choirs singing in Latin for the geography department, and taken music from space (courtesy of Nasa) to compose for the astrophysics team.

A few years ago, a history professor asked Mulholland to compose something to commemorate the centenary of the battle of Loos. It was an event he was aware of, having once seen a photograph of his grandad at the battle, where he’d been a stretcher bearer. Mulholland says the first time he saw the image, he assumed his mum had mocked up a photo of him in the first world war, so uncanny was the resemblance. Combined with the link between the pair’s endeavours around the battle, a century apart, this seemed in some ways like yet another ghostly visitation.

It certainly sums up the strange connections and coincidences that give Mulholland’s work resonance. Whether it’s bloody battlefields or icons of psychedelia, the ghosts are out there. You just have to listen.

Mandy Rakes Up the Leaves Again is on display at the London Arts Board until 5 April.


Contributor

Tim Jonze

The GuardianTramp

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