Each year on the icy, windswept coast of the Baltic Sea, a group of sonically-aligned pilgrims convene to worship together at the altars of space rock. One of the main draws of Gdansk’s annual SpaceFest! is PURE PHASE ENSEMBLE, the international music collective they assemble each year to explore the boundaries of repetition, audio innovation and collaboration.
Pure Phase Ensemble was set up by former Spiritualized musician Ray Dicktay to explore the potential of experimental music to unite, by inviting an assemblage of musicians from across the alternative spectrum: to date, members of Slowdive (Simon Scott), Stereo Lab (Laetitia Sadier) and Dead Skeletons have been involved in Pure Phase Ensemble’s various iterations.
In 2015, Ride guitarist MARK GARDNER was invited to lead the collective, writing and performing a stunning, shoegaze opus, which has since been released as a live record and film. In an eclectic mix of spacerock, shoegaze and psych, PURE PHASE ENSEMBLE 4 first played their composition at SpaceFest!, after spending just five days working and jamming together. That composition is now going to have its first UK performance as part of Liverpool International Festival of Psychedelia, with Gardener re-joining the collective for its latest version. Matt Hogarth speaks to the Ride frontman and leader of Pure Phase Ensemble 4 about this latest challenge in his long and varied music career.
Bido Lito!: First of all, how did you get involved in the collective?
Mark Gardener: Well, I was approached a couple of years before I actually took part, in 2014. They came to me asking if I’d like to take part in a workshop and I didn’t quite get it. I didn’t really fancy the idea so instead I told them I’d do a solo show. When I went over I saw how the set-up actually worked and it all seemed to click – so when I got asked to do it again I was delighted.
BL!: How did you find the experience?
MG: It’s quite well supported. We stayed in a new kind of art centre in a pretty rough part of Gdansk. It’s outside the city centre and a bit dodgy really, not the sort of place you’d want to be walking around late at night. However, in the middle of all this there’s this oasis in the form of an arts centre where we’d eat, drink and sleep, and where I met my fellow band members, who rehearsed with me for five days in the pursuit of making music to be played at SpaceFest! on the Friday.
At the end of the day we’d head into Gdansk and drink vodka because that’s what you do when it’s that cold, ha! You just hang out and get to know to these people. In fact, I went to see the drummer and bassist’s band on the first night. As soon as I saw them and how good they were I knew it was going to be great.
The only other English guy who was there was Ray Dickaty, who played sax in Spiritualized and set up the whole thing. A lot of the other guys’ English wasn’t that great, so it was interesting to play off the cues and in the end it came out pretty good.
Jamming together in rehearsals allowed us to explore each other’s talents. When rehearsing, I realised one of the Polish guys was a great singer as well, so it was great to get him involved with harmonies. There was very little time but it when we got it going it seemed to really work out.
It was around the same time that I was reforming Ride, so it was kind of a strange time, y’know? I thought it was one of the last collaborations I would be doing for some time, but the way it worked out in the end really felt great to me; I was really happy.
BL!: What did you want to achieve creatively from the project?
MG: I just wanted to make something good. I knew we had an hour and that was pretty much it. Making something good was by far the most important thing. In this day and age you can’t really get away with anything. We knew it would receive press and so we were highly critical of ourselves. I think the real challenge was how to create something new and interesting. So, when it’s good you feel you can take people on a transcendental journey and you can see that in their faces when you play. I managed to achieve this first with Ride and my main aim with every collaboration I do I try and [recreate that].
BL!: You made the piece especially for SpaceFest in Gdansk. Did the location affect the music that you composed?
MG: Well, whenever I remember the place I always remember it as cold and dark. Every night we’d go for dinner in a place which was basically someone’s dining room. In the background there were lorries just loading freight onto the ships and, as I’ve already said, it was absolutely freezing. I think these conditions really helped colour the tracks. I mean, Poland’s a beautiful place but it has a huge amount of horrific history which it’s still recovering from. It’s still recovering from its past and you can still see the scars on its geography. Places like Auschwitz obviously carry this really dark history, and it’s quite visible in some places.
It was great to see these Polish musicians and how much the music means to them. It’s really tough for Polish musicians to break through on to the world scene. Don’t get me wrong, some do – but I think that places like Poland, where life can be quite tough, need music more than ever. It was present in these musicians [in] how much music meant to them and the effort that went into their art. That’s where they find their sunshine and happiness, and that’s a great environment for creativity.
BL!: What made you want to get involved with the project?
MG: I hate borders and barriers and I think music transcends all of that. I think of myself as a European as much as a Brit: I lived in France for a few years, too. In England I think there’s loads of great music coming out and you just think, ‘Ugh, French music is crap,’ but then you realise there’s tonnes of great French music which we just don’t hear about in the UK because it doesn’t really get mentioned. However, I do think those barriers are getting less and less. Europe is an amazing melting pot of culture, art, music and language, and if something like this brings all this together and produces something which is fresh, creative and interesting then that’s great.
BL!: How, if at all, will the project change for Liverpool?
MG: I don’t think it’ll change too much. I’m going to listen again to the album. We’re literally going to arrive and have a day to rehearse it, like the Gdansk show. Obviously it won’t be completely the same: it will hopefully take on the feel of Liverpool, so perhaps a bit warmer! There are points we are going to keep but other bits are a bit more freeform. It’ll be great to get in a nice space and just jam it.
I never thought that we’d ever play this again actually, but obviously when we got asked to play by Liverpool Psych Fest I was a bit surprised, and excited. On top of this, it means so much to these Polish guys. I love Liverpool, but for them they can’t wait to come and play a city with such a rich musical heritage. To see that level of excitement refreshes you and it’s nice to see such enthusiasm again. I feel more excited about music than ever and things such as Pure Phase Ensemble remind me how powerful music is.