Holidays in Hades: An Interview with the English Heretic

PopMatters meets the founder of the occult-influenced UK project to talk about its fascinating new album/aural mausoleum The Underworld Service.
English Heretic
The Underworld Service

“Our boredom has not made the war go away.”

— John Pilger

If you didn’t know better, you might think that an appointment to meet and interview English Heretic main man Andy Sharp is a potentially daunting prospect.

After all, over its decade-long existence — and if you don’t know about the project yet, you should — the Heretic has produced some of the most evocative, resonant, and often downright creepy music of recent years.

What’s more, Sharp also has an abiding interest in the occult — something which is integral to the work, and that can’t help but put one in mind of such huge, and often spikey, personalities as Alan Moore and Genesis P-Orridge.

In reality, when we finally do meet (deep in Jack the Ripper country, on London’s now uber-hip Brick Lane), Andy isn’t discernibly more outré than anyone else out CD shopping on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. No graven image-adorned ornate walking canes; no verbal affectations; no cloaks.

We’ve met to discuss The Underworld Service, the English Heretic’s new collection charting the “katabasis” [spiritual and psychological descent] that it suggests defined pop culture following the death of the ’60s dream. 

As with prior (increasingly meta) releases, the album is a result of its author’s desire to “fecundate” the imagination by drawing out myth-making equivalences between various disparate pitch-black cultural artifacts. Whereas previous project Anti-Heroes was about renegade personalities however, this one is all about place; stitching together a veritable, well, underworld, inspired by field trips to mausoleums, military installations and haunted churches. 

Aesthetically speaking, it’s an extraordinary thing, layering field recordings, samples, and original performances to conjure a kind of musical charnel house, oppressive and peculiar. (For instance “Operation Wandering Soul”, in which the US military’s use of “sound warfare” in Vietnam is evoked via “micro-samples” taken from Polanski’s The Tenant and ’70s UK current affairs programme World in Action). 

Just as interesting meanwhile is the record’s unblinking relationship to death itself, positioning it in direct opposition to a contemporary culture simultaneously obsessed with and terrified of mortality (as witnessed by, say, the Twilight saga’s eternal teens). In The Underworld Service the listener is presented with a 70-minute space in which to genuinely — cathartically, even – co-exist with the reality of inevitable not-being. Offered the opportunity, in its creator’s words, to reject the prevailing, complacent, “monolith of gothic despondency” and embrace a living necropolis “dripping with verdigris.”

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What was the original concept behind the English Heretic project ten years ago when you started?

At the beginning, it was meant as a subversion of a government organization we have called English Heritage, which helps preserve stately homes, castles and things like that. English Heritage awards blue plaques commemorating historical characters, so the English Heretic set out to do a similar thing, but with marginalized, lost and in particular occult figures. I wanted to release music, so the records became black plaques. At the beginning, it was very much inspired by industrial culture and RE/Search, the great publication from the US in the early ’80s.

Who did the first black plaque go to?

Michael Reeves, who directed [the classic British horror] Witchfinder General, and died at 24 shortly after it was finished. I found out that the film was shot close to where I come from in Suffolk, and that he was cremated in Ipswich. The music in that instance came out of field recordings from the crematorium, as well as various locations from Withchfinder General itself. That’s where the conceit for the project came from.

You’ve described English Heritage as your nemesis. Why?

It isn’t so much a dislike of them, as the way people seem to lose the ability to creatively engage with history and their surroundings as they get older. Whereas children tend to engage in imaginative play wandering around these historical sites, adults are usually happy to be led by the guide book before ending up at the gift shop.

A lot of the English Heretic project came from magical theory and the idea of creative visualization as a means of entering a kind of waking-dream reality. Situationism is important to it as well: the conception of reality as a playground.

How does The Underworld Service fit into that?

It was actually originally meant to be a new project altogether, created as a kind of reaction to not wanting to be limited by the “English” thing. It ultimately became this opportunity for the English Heretic to go on a kind of busman’s holiday, naturally enough, to Hades.

That would explain the more — cosmopolitan isn’t quite the right word — feel to the album.

Yes. A lot of my favorite writers and theorists — such as [radical Chicago-based Haitian Voudon practitioner] Michael Bertiaux — aren’t English. I didn’t want to marginalize myself.

Why the underworld? There are more fun destinations.

It was a way to look at this kind of “descent” narrative that I identify as starting to emerge at the end of the ’60s. It’s something that really interests me. Post-World War II, we had this kind of brave attempt to climb out of the hell of our own making via all these hippy ideals. By the end of the decade, we were discovering that they actually carried their own attendant pathologies, which you see in Manson, the Process and so on.

I look at the ’70s as a place where we begin to understand our position and place in this underworld. For instance, via this newfound love of these weird John Fowles-influenced Greek-set TV thrillers we seemed to develop at the time. It was a good way of tying in bits of British culture people generally don’t talk about.

Could you explain the influence of the work of James Hillman on the project?

Yeah, Hillman was a big influence. He was an archetypal psychologist who argued that any kind of Herculian spiritual ascent is a pathological impossibility. That the soul isn’t monotheistic in nature, it’s full of gods.

You suggest in the sleeve-notes that the British didn’t really identify their own “descent” narratives until Julian Cope started poking around in Neolithic burial mounds.

That’s right. If you look at his work as part of broader culture, no one was really exploring a specifically British “underworld” until his Modern Antiquarian. You have to wonder why. A lot of attempts at an underworld vision up until a few years ago. For instance, in the work of Burroughs. It would invariably be rooted somewhere else. Mayan mythology was very popular, as was Egypt, something which, again, was marked by a craze for ancient Egyptian culture that emerged in England in the ’70s. The Underworld Service starts in 1947 with Malcolm Lowry and Under the Volcano, which obviously takes place in Mexico.

Why does the Underworld Service stop in the mid-’80s?

I just thought it was an appropriate point to end. For me, that point in history marks the moment at which community as an idea started to get lost lost in this country, as well as the start of a broader shift in morals, signified by something like the 1984 Video Recordings Act. [A piece of legislation banning numerous “video nasties”, including The Evil Dead and The Exorcist].

The other reason for stopping in 1984 is that the project is part of a personal narrative. I was 16 in that year, so I would say it’s the birth of my adult imagination as well. It’s my personal, saturnine, view of the world.

Would you say the descent narrative has continued post-1984? We don’t seem to be able to move for zombies at the moment, culturally-speaking.

I couldn’t really say. One of things that does interest me though is the way in which these darker cultural aspects are now being endlessly appropriated by the internet alongside everything else. Lovecraft would be a good example, cuddly Cthulus and all that. One of the ideas I’ve got at the moment is that in 20 or 30 years’ time, through some kind of vile contamination of internet memes, Lovecraft will become a religion. I’d like to think there will actually be a Miskatonic University at some point. I’d have liked to have gone to that myself.

I’ve noticed — thinking not only of the English Heretic, but also things like Electric Wizard, Kenneth Anger’s work, or even Rosemary’s Baby — that a lot “occult”-influenced art draws heavily on kitsch or pulp. Why is that, do you think?  

From my point of view, I’m trying to get across the democracy of myth. We haven’t all got classical backgrounds, our subconsciouses aren’t born in Athens, but we are always immersed in these undercurrents. Myths can emerge through anything, and do.

A lot of that aspect of my work comes from the influence of an artist called Jim Shaw, who creates comic strips out of his dreams, which are in turn are full of pop culture references.

It’s also a matter of being honest to myself. When I was 13, I wasn’t reading Homer, I was watching Don’t Look Now. That’s my primary experience, and I can’t undo it.

Your mention of [mysterious French esotericist] Fulcanelli’s “green language” put me in mind of Julia Kristeva’s idea of the “abject” manifesting in speech as the debasement of meaning. Does that explain the kitsch thing, do you think?

Yeah. I hadn’t thought about that. In Fulcanelli, the green language is a rural, outsider argot, which is I think is definitely reflected in the English Heretic as well. There’s a lot of word play in there, as well as musical and aural puns. The sample of Styx’s “Babe”, which happens on the last track, is a good example of that. You have to think, How much can I mutate this nice song into something different?

How did you pick your locations for the Underworld Service? There seems to be a certain amount of coincidence involved, such as the banishing ritual you mention carrying out at Orford Ness military base leading to the offer of a trip to Japan.  

That was less a banishing, more an opening of dangerous gates. [laughs] It’s a matter of following conceits, which in the case of Orford Ness came out of the work of Kenneth Grant. You end up on this imaginal trail, which that time produced the “Invisible Canon” track. Regarding the base itself, I started using it as a kind of Lovecraftian landing area. They developed the British atomic bomb there, and there were also some really covert Cold War experiments around a project involving UFOs and psychotronic weaponry called Cobra Mist.

I think whatever imaginative path you take, and whatever influences you have, is based on a bunch of coincidences and overlays which start early on in life. The important thing is not to throw them out. You have to feel that they’re part of you.

Changing the subject slightly, who would you identify as your musical influences? [Sharp performs all the music on the album himself, alongside beautiful occasional vocal work from collaborator Hannah Gilbert]. I can pick out Coil, but it’s certainly not a straight port from their work to yours.

Yeah. Part of the thing I’m trying to reclaim, particularly in The Underworld Service, is an interest in the industrial culture I mentioned earlier, but coming from a different perspective rather than just copying it. Throbbing Gristle, that kind of thing.To me, all that represents a genuine transmission of information and heritage. Growing up, that’s how you learnt about the esoteric, and these kinds of information systems.

So something like Current 93 would be an influence?

Yeah, their early stuff in particular. I’m hugely influenced by a track of theirs called “Killy Kill Killy (a Fire Sermon)”, which is a really interesting kind of sound-tracking of the end of the ’60s. It cuts in Barry McGuire’s Eve of Destruction — the line, “Even the Jordan river has bodies floating” — and starts with Purcell’s Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary, which was obviously on the soundtrack of A Clockwork Orange. It’s this kind of fake black mass really, weaving in narratives from pop culture in to these ritual soundtracks. A lot of my tracks are put together in a really odd way as well.

Odd like how?

Well, the songs start with very codified, tight concepts so that’s generally reflected in how they’re constructed. There’s not a lot of improvising, unless it’s as part of a field recording that I’ve already done, kind of using reality as a recording studio.

That’s an interesting phrase.

One of the things I’ve started to do is take my laptop out and record melodies in certain locations in order to create the mood for particular tracks. For the latest album I went to de Grey mausoleum in Bedfordshire, which is a very quiet, very atmospheric place, with lots of religious architecture.

Going forward, I want to create more hermetically-sealed areas, where you record an entire piece over the course of a day, and that’s the concept. It’s about creating a symbolic memory of a location, if you know what I mean. A kind of hyper-real heightening of the imaginative interplay with a particular location.

Thinking of the English Heretic in relation to people like, say, Alan Moore or Grant Morrison, or indeed, Genesis P-Orridge, is the project intended to part of a broader magical working? Are you trying to effect change of some kind?  

There is an element of sigillation in there, definitely. It’s very influenced by that. The aim of the project at the beginning was to have adventures that would fecundate what you might call the mythic imagination, in order to affect the fiction that I was writing. The fecundation period has gone on for a long time. [laughs] The adventures have taken over. It’s become very metafictional.

Can you describe your own way of understanding the universe? What do you actually believe?

Everything. I’m quite suggestible. [laughs] A belief in all paradigms enables you to see the world as a series of harmonics and correspondences, which I like. Looking specifically at, let’s say, conspiracy theories, if you entertain the notion of believing them, you can then look at the narratives sitting behind them from an almost Shakespearean perspective. Julius Caesar can be read on multiple levels, almost as a psychodynamic struggle, and therefore so can the assassination of Kennedy.

You don’t conjure with belief, as [Austin] Spare would have said, instead, belief conjures with you. The filigrees of all different beliefs, these incredibly resonant narratives, are imposed upon us. It’s a matter of creatively, poetically, stepping into them. It makes things much more interesting.