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by Nuno Robles



 When i read the editorial of the latest issue of legendary magazine Ptolemaic Terrascope, I thought that this would be the perfect timing to interview the no less legendary Phil McMullen, the man behind one of the most fascinating and influential music adventures of the last fifteen years. It would be a great opportunity to look back at a way of living and writing about music that nobody else seemed to care about. I’m not the only person touched by the genius of both Phil and Nick Saloman (a.k.a Bevis Frond)…their courage and vision influenced a whole community of musicians and writers that found in the Ptolemaic Terrascope a chance to share their musical and personal experiences.

About a week before I got in touch with Phil, I realised that what he said in that editorial was more serious than I feared and, suddenly, he was no longer the editor of the magazine that he started in 1989.

I’ve got in touch with Nick Saloman and asked for some words on his friend…his thoughts are definitely the best way to introduce you to this interview... ”Phil McMullen is one of that rare breed, a music fan who doesn't want to be a musician. Phil is, has been and always will be the kind of guy who is just happy to let the music take him to various faraway places. He has a deep knowledge, immaculate taste, and a startling ability to hear something in an unknown band which convinces him they'll become universally adored. And he's usually right. Phil has championed many unknown artistes, only for them to become huge and no longer accessible to the likes of us. Why no major labels have ever offered him a job as head of A & R is a total mystery to me. Alternatively, if the BBC are looking for someone to take over where John Peel left off, Phil should be high up the list. He's been totally dedicated to The Terrascope for years, a dedication which has severely threatened his family relationships, his life savings, not to mention his sanity. He's been instrumental in organising the wonderful Terrastock Festivals, let's hope they keep going in some shape or form. He's been a good friend to many people who've needed support when their careers have been going nowhere. He's relinquished control of the Terrascope after 15 years, just to give himself a much-needed rest. Remember, all that time he's held down a high pressured job as well. Somehow, I can't see Phil staying out of the scene for too long. He's got too much to offer, too many views, too much enthusiasm. Basically, what I'm trying to say is that Phil is a great writer with a brilliant ear for that magical whatever that makes bands big. He's a good guy, and I'm pleased to have been mates with him for so long”.

Let’s read what Phil has to say about his experiences with Terrascope… we’re in for a great love story… This is part 1 of 2.
 


In your last Terrascope editorial you’ve commented that you thought that the “Best thing (for the magazine) is to have a change at the top”. Suddenly, earlier than I expected, it happened and you’re no longer the editor of the magazine… how do you feel about it? You’ve explained it very well in the last issue, but (for the ones that haven’t read it) what were the main reasons behind that decision?
 
It didn’t seem sudden to me! I put issue 35 out in early January and everything went very quiet. There wasn’t even the usual drift of letters from our regular readers – I think they must’ve all been holding their breath and waiting to see what was going to happen next. A couple of enquiries came in; one kind lady in Norfolk offered help with some of the day-to-day office duties, and a chap from Hampshire asked for some additional information (having provided it I never heard back from him again!), but I’d already concluded nothing much was going to change and had already started work on issue 36 when Pat Thomas got in touch late on in February.

Pat was to my mind the ideal person to take over the running of the magazine. Obviously he knows his stuff: Pat contributed a Steve Wynn interview feature in issue 16 of the Terrascope in addition to a series of interviews with members of the Jefferson Airplane and the Velvet Underground in later issues of the magazine, so he's like one of the family in a way, plus as a musician himself (I remember him as the drummer for Absolute Grey in the early 80s, since when he switched to vocals and guitar and recorded a handful of solo LPs and more recently of course founded the psych-prog-jazz-groove collective Mushroom) he has all the right credentials. He also has a very astute business brain: he’s run his own label (Heyday Records), worked in A&R with Water Music and with Normal Records in Germany – so he knows the European market – and has worked on reissues with the highly respected Rykodisc label. A solid reputation such as that should stand him in good stead with potential distributors, particularly the American ones who were previously unable to order a magazine which carried the additional cost of having to be shipped over from the UK. Or at least, that’s the reason (excuse?) they always gave me. I can only assume the same US distributors either didn’t sell import CDs and records or books manufactured in the UK and Europe, or had found a way of transporting them free of charge, by osmosis or something. I just wish they could have extended the same technology to magazines as well.
 


It must be very frustrating to be the main force behind Ptolemaic Terrascope, in my opinion one of the most influential and important music magazines ever and always face financial problems….was this also an influence on your decision?
 That’s really kind of you to say so. Yes, it’s true to say that financial difficulties helped spell the end as far as I’m concerned – situations like I was just talking about, knowing there would be plenty of people interested in reading the Terrascope, particularly in America, but being unable to reach them was soul-destroying as well as being hard on the pocket. But at the same time I was determined outside forces wouldn’t spell an end to the magazine itself. I’m a stubborn old bugger, too stubborn for my own good really, and even when personal financial ruin stared me in the face I took out another loan on a credit card to get the next issue out rather than face the fact that I’d already spent all the subscription money publishing the magazine and that there basically wasn’t anything left to publish with. Both issues 34 and 35 were put out completely at my own expense. It was only ever a hobby – I don’t think people realised that. They either thought we were a professional magazine with all the backing of a major publishing house, or that me and Nick lived together in some kind of idealistic commune crafting the things by hand in our spare time between him writing songs and me carving cricket bats out of hardened parsnips or whatever. The fact was, the magazine was quite literally produced on top of a coffee-table in my front room. It was all laid out by hand on boards in the old-fashioned way, exactly the same as Zig Zag and a thousand other magazines had been assembled in the 1960s and 70s. Nick and I would actually meet up only once or twice a year. Nick took the masters (the boards) round to the printers in London – one of the few left who can still handle offset-litho production based on photographic plates of pasted-up boards – and then once they were printed and collated he and I would meet up again at night at the motorway services half-way between where we live, shift countless boxes of magazines across from his car to mine (it’s a wonder we never got quizzed by the police, it must have looked well dodgy!), and I’d cart them back to the west country to begin the process of stuffing them all into envelopes. That just left the print bill – about a thousand pounds – the cost of the CDs (another thousand pounds) and on top of that, the postage cost, which was about 1500 pounds. I used to always reckon the advertising in the mag would just about pay for the CDs to be made, so basically it cost me personally 2500 pounds, or about 5000 dollars per issue, to publish Terrascopes 34 and 35 after what was left of the money ran out. I’ll be paying off the credit card for the rest of my life, probably. Thing is, Nick implored me to knock it on the head long ago – I should have listened to him really, but like I say I’m a stubborn old sod. It became obvious that nobody was going to come along and say, “Here’s ten thousand pounds (twenty thousand dollars) to guarantee the future of the Ptolemaic Terrascope. Pay off your debts, Phil, and keep up the great work.”

I was living in cloud-cuckoo land, basically. At the same time though, I really did feel I owed it to all the people who had subscribed to deliver them their magazines. They’d invested a few pounds each, and though there was never enough subscription money to pay for even the next issue let alone the next four, I was determined not to let them down. So when Pat Thomas came along and offered to take the whole thing off my hands (well, not the existing debts, obviously! I’ve still got to pay that off somehow) and start with a clean slate, promising as well to honour any existing subscriptions, it was too good an opportunity to turn down.

And in many ways it makes a lot more sense to publish the magazine in North America anyway. Yes, there was something uniquely “English” about the Ptolemaic Terrascope, and yes it’s a shame that that’s been lost, probably forever. But it couldn’t continue – it was just completely unviable from a financial point of view, or not without seriously compromising, and I wasn’t prepared to do that. I could have abandoned the free CDs and turned the magazine into a simple double-sided A4 newsletter, but that would leave people feeling cheated. I could have abandoned the print format altogether and “published” online, but that would exclude a proportion of our existing readership – contrary to what the industry might lead you to believe, not everyone has 24/7 broadband internet access. And I feel really strongly that the Terrascope’s too important to too many people to disappear altogether. It’s in the best possible hands now, and it’s based in America where production costs are literally a fraction of what they are here in England, so all being well the magazine will have a long and illustrious future. And maybe it’ll even pass the 250 copies sales barrier in the USA which distributors repeatedly told me for over ten years was the most they could possibly sell.

Of course I’m sad. I’m going to miss it desperately, and I’m going to miss the readers and the subscribers especially – we had around 500 regular subscribers and I knew every one of them by name. Many of them I even knew their wives’ and children’s names as well. We’d exchange Christmas cards. It was a real community. Then there were the hundreds – yes hundreds – of free copies of each new issue that I’d send out. I’d interview a band, go and see them play a few times, and we’d become friends, which is lovely of course, and thereafter I’d send them a copy of each new issue, and if I didn’t I’d receive an e-mail saying “Hi! We haven’t spoken for ages” and they’d tell me their news and then invariably finish by saying, “I hear there’s a new Terrascope out?”, and like a sucker I’d send them a couple of free copies. Multiply that by 15 years worth of getting to know people, and it’s easy to see how when each new issue came out I was sending out more freebies than I was subscription copies. Literally. If I was a hard-nosed businessman I daresay I could have just about made the Terrascope pay its way – but at what price? There would be no community. There’d be no “Terrastock Nation”. And you can’t put a price on any of that.

I walked into a record shop not very long ago and found a section marked simply “Terrascopic”. Just that one word. And it contained a whole selection of CDs, any of which might’ve been found in the reviews columns of the Terrascope. How cool is that? I mean, to have actually left your mark in such a way that instead of simply being a mirror, a reflection of the scene around you, that you become a part of the fabric of the scene itself. That’s amazing, and it’s something which is given only to a very few to realise, or at least in their own lifetimes. I think that’s probably one of the things I’m proudest of about the whole strange trip that’s been the Terrascope to date.
 


Was Nick involved in the last few issues?
 
Actually I think the last time Nick contributed any writing to the magazine was a review in issue 30, which came out around the turn of the century. That’s not to belittle the effort he put into each and every issue though: although it’s true to say it was me that tended to source and select the tracks for the CD compilations, Nick did the actual mastering and pre-production work and usually wrote the insert notes and tracklistings for them; plus as I’ve already said he arranged for the mags to be printed and collated, and drove all round London delivering copies to various shops and suppliers. We were a team – and a damn good one at that. We both knew exactly what needed to be done, and we trusted one another to just get on and do it without having to constantly check for progress. Nick thought I was totally barking mad to keep going long after it became obvious the magazine was no longer financially viable, but then again for a while I really was mad (even now when I look at issue 31 I barely remember a thing about it, and certainly don’t recognise the person who wrote it) – and to his credit he simply shrugged and carried on fulfilling his part of the bargain whilst at the same time gently advising me to stop before it was too late. That’s what friends are for, I guess.
 


Have you decided if you’re still going to be contributing to it in the future? As a writer, I mean…
 I’m not sure yet. Obviously I’ll say a few words by way of a farewell in the next issue (Pat’s first), and Pat’s kindly left the door open for me to contribute the occasional review or feature in the magazine in future, but at the same time I know all too well how difficult it is to squeeze everything you want to into each issue and I don’t want Pat to always feel he has to leave a certain amount of room every issue for old McMullen to have his say. I’m in the luxurious position now of being able to pick and choose what I write about. Which to a certain extent I always did with the Terrascope anyway, but during the last ten years in particular it got to where there were so many bands in the “Terrastock Nation”, each of whom were equally deserving of a piece in the magazine, that I was forever playing catch-up and having to make difficult decisions over which ones to run with and which ones to put off until next time. Actually running the magazine was taking up all of my time and I felt I was losing touch with that feeling of falling in love with a particular sound so much that I had to share it, to pin it down somehow by writing about it. Now though I can relax in the knowledge that juggling all those balls is someone else’s responsibility, and I can get back to enjoying the process of writing, and of falling in love with new music, all over again.

It’s like, it’s the same band, but with a completely new line-up. Obviously I wish it well, and yes I’d love to contribute occasionally, but I’m not going to try and influence the production at all. I’m doing a solo gig now, publishing on the www.terrascope.co.uk website, and a lot of the original line-up are alongside me as well I’m happy to say – Iker Spozio, Simon Lewis, Tony Dale, Jeff Penczak and Mats Gustafsson contribute regularly, and Nigel Cross has written a piece for us – so really people have the best of both worlds to look forward to.
 


Now that you’ve put the pressure behind your back and that you’re free to write about anything you want, what bands would you like to interview these days?
 
God, where to start?! Whilst obviously incredibly proud of what we achieved, there’s still a lot of past heroes I’m gutted that we never managed to feature in the Terrascope: Neil Young, Pete Townsend, Joe Walsh, Stackwaddy, the Grateful Dead, Steve Miller, Keef Hartley… the list goes on.

I guess what you’re referring to though are more current bands. Again, there’s a massive list of bands and artists I was planning to feature in issues 36 and beyond, some of which will hopefully appear on terrascope.online in due course – Gravenhurst, Residual Echoes, Aartika, My Education, Colour Haze, Explosions in the Sky, The Future Kings of England, Marissa Nadler, Tall Grass Captains, Steffen Basho-Junghans, Floorian, Urdog – and Patrick Porter and Nick Castro are doing some really interesting stuff. So far we’ve only managed to publish the Aartika interview on terrascope.online, but hopefully we’ll be able to feature a lot more soon as well.

And then on top of that there’s all the recognised “Terrascopic” artists who were either interviewed long ago who are desperately in need of fresh interview features or who have somehow slipped through the net altogether and only ever appeared in the review columns: of the latter the most obvious candidates are Tower Recordings, Saint Joan, Fursaxa and Sonic Youth (hard to believe we never actually interviewed them!) – and of those we last spoke to a long while ago there’s Sean Connaughty (Salamander), Glenn Jones (we last spoke to Cul de Sac prior to Terrastock 1!), Espers (Greg Weeks was still a solo artist), The Green Ray, the Kitchen Cynics, the Spacious Mind (who are doing some awesome solo pieces as well as ensemble releases right now); the Magic Carpathians (who were still called Atman when we featured them years ago!); Black Forest / Black Sea (Jeffrey Alexander was still with Iditarod last time we interviewed him)… And finally there’s the next generation of “terrascopic” bands, like the Phoenix Cube (reviews editor Simon Lewis’ band – highly recommended!), and I’d love to see Thought Forms develop to the point where they’re ready for an interview feature as well.

There’s still so much to do, in other words. Volunteers welcome!
 


Pat Thomas is obviously very committed to this cause and I believe that he’ll have the support of all us readers…how do you see Ptolemaic Terrascope in the future?
 
That’s entirely up to Pat and I wouldn’t want to pre-judge where he decides to go with the magazine. I’m sure it’ll be in keeping though, and I’ll be following it with interest. What I can say is that the small corners of the Terrascopic world that I’ve retained responsibility for, i.e. past and future Terrastock festivals and the Terrascope Online website, will continue largely as people recognise them now. I’ve also retained the intellectual property rights to all the back issue magazines (issues 1 to 35, plus the ‘Terrastock Special’) and all the various compilations, i.e. those that went with the magazine and fund-raisers like the ‘Succour’ and ‘Alms’ CDs and the often overlooked ‘Audible Rumbles’ compilation, which I still count amongst one of the best things we ever did. So there’s the possibility of reprinting the magazines or reissuing those CDs someday. If enough money ever became available, I mean. I never could quite find enough to release the ‘Mendication’ masters that we made up out of the best of the EPs that we gave away with early issues of the magazine, so that doesn’t bode very well! Although having said that, Tony Dale did say he might be able to put something like that out on Camera Obscura next year, which is kind of him.
 


Going back a while, when did you start to write about music? I have read some articles from you in early issues of Bucketfull of Brains. Was this magazine your first experience as a music writer?
 
Yes it was – Nigel Cross, bless his heart, game me my very first break as a writer not long after he founded Buckefull of Brains magazine in 1979 or so. A friend of mine from where I live got himself a job in a research library in London and met Nigel working there. He realised we shared broadly similar (OK then, outlandish!) tastes and put us in touch with each other, and Nigel was kind enough to publish some of the stuff I’d written. I was finding my feet as a writer really throughout the early part of the 80s; by around 1987 though I’d pretty much reached cruising altitude and had virtually become a writing junkie… I can’t remember the name of every magazine I contributed to – in addition to the Bucketfull a few of the regular ones were ‘The Bob’ in the USA, ‘The Thing’ in Spain, ‘Goar’ over in Germany and latterly I contributed some bits and pieces to the ‘Unhinged’ and ‘Freakbeat’ fanzines over here in England. I was forever being asked to write features on bands that my name sort of became associated with: the Bevis Frond, the Green Pajamas, Man, Spirit - at one time I used to be able to rattle off a potted history of Spirit in a single day! I remember when I did a piece on them for ‘Record Collector’ magazine it took longer to assemble the discography than it did to write the article.
 


Were you influenced by any writers in particular? Many music writers were influenced not only by the music but by the writers, by their lifestyle; their attitude…how did it happen with you? Are the early Terrascopes issues influenced by earlier magazines like Creem, Comstock Lode, Bam Balam, Bucketfull of Brains, etc?
 I think the thing that I was primarily influenced by was the whole aura that surrounded early issues of ZigZag, back when Pete Frame was still the editor (actually he had a couple of stints as editor, but the early 70s tends to be remembered as the “golden age”)
The fact that their voices shone out like a beacon from the countryside was almost as important to me as the music they covered – I loved the way the editorial would contain lines like, “As I sit here pasting up the new issue, idly watching the farmer hauling the first cut of silage down past the Queen’s Head, the strains of the Edgar Broughton Band are still ringing in my ears from last night’s gig at Aylesbury Friars….” To me, living in rural seclusion a hundred miles away from where everything was happening – primarily in London – reading things like that made me realise that not only did I still have a valid viewpoint, but made me want to write even more about the music I was listening to. Zig Zag was wonderful for many other reasons as well, of course – it lost it’s way rather later on in it’s life, I felt, but for a decade or so it was pretty much the “bible” for all the heads, freaks and underground rockers. I used to get a warm glow of satisfaction whenever people wrote in saying the Terrascope reminded them in some way of Zig Zag. Stylistically the Terrascope looked nothing like it, but there was definitely that same aura of being written by the fans for the fans, and we both managed to avoid the trap of pontificating about the artists we were writing about. I don’t particularly want to do anyone down here, but some fanzines and magazines – and I’m sure you know who I mean – tend to present articles as if they’re saying, “This is the definitive feature on this band. Everything you’ll ever need to know is here, along with a photograph of an acetate of their third single which was never released and anyway I’ve got the only copy so there.” We never, ever sought to do that in the Terrascope. In fact, I always made a conscious effort to try and present the other side of the story – the bits the historians tended to overlook. That’s why we’d quite often interview drummers or bass players and not always the obvious front-man of any given band. That way you get an interesting insight into what REALLY took place.

Plus of course we must never forget the late John Platt – aka Philo Calhoun in Bucketfull of Brains magazine (most of the time; actually I acted as a ghost-writer on a couple of occasions when he was unable to contribute): John’s ‘Comstock Lode’ magazine was just phenomenal. We all looked up to John. Funnily enough I was talking about this just the other evening with Nigel Cross and Colin Hill. The three of us enjoyed a rare “get-together” at a gig in London recently, and I suggested that someone somewhere really ought to be writing a book about the whole scene before it’s too late. We’ve already lost John Platt – who knows who else will be next? People like Pete Frame and John Platt and John Tobler and Nick Ralph and Brian Hogg (whose ‘Hot Wacks’ fanzine I remember fondly, though I never much rated ‘Strange Things’ magazine that he was associated with briefly later on) – plus of course Nigel and Colin themselves – and I suppose me too now, though I never really like to think of myself as being in the same league as those guys; we’ve produced an incredible body of work between us which has largely never been properly catalogued or documented, and even though many of them are almost household names amongst underground rock fans, nobody really knows who they are or what makes them tick. I think that’s such a shame, y’know?

Anyway, back to your original question. The other magazine which served as a strong influence for me was another English publication called ‘Dark Star’. Nick Ralph was involved in that one – it seemed to have several different editors rather than being one person’s vision, but Nick was certainly there throughout. As the name suggests, it set out in the early 1970s with the intention of covering U.S. West Coast music almost exclusively. By the end of it’s run, 27 issues later, it was 1979 and they were embracing “the new psychedelia” in the shape of Teardrop Explodes, Echo & The Bunnymen and the Soft Boys. The magazine also featured a guy who for me was the finest writer covering rock music in England at that time, Steve Burgess. He died in the late 1980s and I never did get the chance to meet him, but his reviews, columns and features in ‘Dark Star’ (primarily; he also wrote for a few other peripheral publications) were to me the stuff of legend. I devoured everything he wrote; I didn’t even know or sometimes like half the bands he raved about, but the way he wrote, the way his words flowed, and the alliteration, similes, metaphors and expressions he used made me want to pick up a pen and write myself. I don’t think there’s been anyone since the American beat poet Richard Brautigan (another hero of mine) who has made metaphors such fun to read – they’re superficially mad, and yet the more you think about them the more appropriate they seem to become. When you’re writing about music I believe there’s two really valuable tools that you need to keep ready to hand: the facts, and a pocketful of metaphors to describe them with. Burgess, like Brautigan before him, seemed to have a virtually endless supply.

“There’s five long songs, all drifting aircurrents like the rustling of witchy thighs, and several tranquil watercolours from Buckingham - a fine writer, a guileless singer and one genius guitarplayer, he stands at the band’s apex, his contributions matched only by Mick’s drums which frequently sound like thumped cushions, assaulted packing-crates and rattled cutlery…” – (Steve Burgess writing in ‘Dark Star’ issue 22, 1979)

“There is one of them sitting behind me right now. She is wearing an old hat that’s got plastic fruit on it, and her eyes dart back and forth across her face like fruit flies. The old man sitting next to her is pretending that he’s dead. The crazy old woman talks to him in one continuous audio breath that passes out of her mouth like a vision of angry bowling alleys on Saturday night with millions of pins crashing off her teeth.” – (Richard Brautigan writing in ‘Revenge of the Lawn’, 1972)


As an aside, in around 1987 or so I had a regular gig writing for a short-lived magazine called ‘First Hearing’, based in the north of England. When they first approached me to write for them they claimed they wanted to be “the successor to ‘Dark Star’”, so obviously I was really chuffed to be involved in that. Turned out the editorial team were actually more into “roots” music, which I’ve never been particularly interested in to be honest – but still. Anyway, the icing on the cake was that for just one issue, they managed to coax Steve Burgess out of retirement to write some record reviews. So, my name actually appeared alongside his on the masthead just briefly. I was bloody proud about that. Unfortunately either they lied to me and it wasn’t Steve at all or he’d lost his touch completely, because it was utter drivel. Shame, that.

I think the third writer who influenced me the most was or is probably Steve Pescott. It sounds a strange thing to say when you consider that Steve’s name is unknown outside of Ptolemaic Terrascope itself, but for virtually the whole run of 35 issues that I was involved, Steve was there, mostly behind the scenes (he never did contribute a feature article, much as I wanted him to; only ever reviews), listening to more records than I previously thought it humanly possible to listen to in an average lifespan, writing about and cross-referencing them either in the reviews columns or the ‘Ptolemaic Rumbles’ column (which I’d started originally as a kind of tribute to Steve Burgess’ ‘Syde Trips’ column in ‘Dark Star’ magazine, it should be said) - and adding value to every single one with a fund of knowledge and rock ‘n’ roll trivia which was second to none. I tended to rely on Steve to a large extent because I knew that whenever I became tired or jaded, as invariably happens, it wouldn’t be long before another hand-written missive from Steve would turn up in the mail (he never did get a computer, and only gave into the CD revolution in 2004 – up until them he had exclusively listened to vinyl!) to spur me on.

“The second cut starts off with an echoing industrial grind that doesn’t grate, but is the summation of all that was wonderful about German experimental music and machine music; it then crescendos into such a noise that Merzbow can be seen running for cover, his already elephant-thick eardrums bleeding profusely under the blitzkrieg of white noise. Never fear, the final tone lullaby is on hand to soothe the poor fellow with an anaesthetic of submerged angelic voices and sine waves. This record is so organic it’s like watching microscopic cultures grow on time-lapse footage....” (Steve Pescott writing in Ptolemaic Terrascope issue 32, 2002)
 


You’ve obviously been influenced by many British magazines…were there any US magazines that influenced you as well? Like Mojo Navigator, Crawdaddy, early Bomps, etc…
 
I have to be brutally honest and say no – none of the US magazines you mention were at all influential. If copies made it over here at all they certainly didn’t get as far as West Wiltshire, and I’m not even sure I’ve ever seen a complete copy of ‘Crawdaddy’ to this day. Obviously I’ve seen cuttings and extracts, and have since become very familiar with the layout, style and approach of early issues of ‘Bomp’ and the ‘Mojo Navigator’, but I can’t honestly say they inspired me to create something myself in the same way that the UK magazines Zig Zag and Dark Star did.
 


The magazine started in May of 1989, right? It started as a project between you and Nick Saloman, I believe….were you long time friends? How did you meet?
 
Nick Saloman and I met at a record fair in Bath, a city in the west of England not far from where I live, about 20 years ago now. He was down from London selling some records and I was a customer at the fair. I ordered something from him via mail-order and we started exchanging increasingly strange, funny letters and increasingly weird compilation cassette tapes of music that we liked, and somewhere along the way he included a home recording of some of his own work on one of the tapes. Needless to say I was blown away by it. I was writing pretty much exclusively for ‘Buckefull of Brains’ magazine at the time and over the course of the next few months I encouraged Nick to put down some of his bedroom recordings for posterity onto vinyl (the ‘Miasma’ LP), helping things along with an article on the man, the mystery and his genius in the Bucketfull.
 


What were the reasons behind the starting of the magazine? I remember reading somewhere (in a very early stage) that Ptolemaic Terrascope was like a Woronzow official magazine…I think that this was a very limited point of view…was it true in any way?
 No! The Terrascope was never intended to be a “Woronzow Magazine”, and to be honest it used to really frustrate both Nick and myself when people referred to it in that way. It was exactly that kind of narrow-mindedness that the Terrascope was endeavouring to overcome when we started out. The scene was really telescopic back then – it’s not a lot better now, except websites have largely replaced magazines and fanzines. Music magazines tended to be dedicated to one genre or era or one type of music or worst of all even just one band: “The Progressive Rock Magazine” or “The Dark Side of the Tune” or whatever. It was almost unheard of for a magazine to actually reflect the average person’s tastes and cover all kinds of eras and styles. There are fans out there who only like to listen to one particular artist, I’m sure there are (actually I know one! For almost 40 years now he’s worshipped Bob Dylan, bless him) – but what would be the point of producing a magazine for people like that? They already know everything they want to know.

I’ve come across plenty of narrow-minded people down the years: we’d run an interview with a band and shortly afterwards letters would turn up correcting us on some incredibly minor, trivial point. You know the kind of thing: “I would like to correct something in your otherwise excellent feature in issue 12 of Ptolematic Terrascape,” (they always spelled it wrong, mainly because it was the only issue they ever bought: the one which featured their favourite band - who they already knew everything about!) “Actually Randy Stringbender played the drum solo part way through the second track on their third album, the regular drummer Frank Tubthumper had a sore hand and was unable to perform on the day they recorded it: March 22nd 1972, in TriBent Studios…”

Inevitably the next thing that would happen would be that some fanzine devoted solely to the band in question would run an editorial which mentioned ‘Plotematic Terrascope issue XX’, and you could almost feel the writer’s anger that we had DARED to interview “their” band without asking them first. That would be followed by a handful of letters from people saying they “must have a copy”. I always took a perverse kind of delight in writing back and saying “Sorry – the Terrascope is primarily subscription based”.

So anyway, it was precisely that kind of thing that we were consciously trying to distance ourselves from when we started the Terrascope. We wanted to take a kind of wide-angle lens view of things. I think the very first issue featured bands who went on to be associated with Woronzow – the Flyte Reaction and Twink and the Green Pajamas – but they just happened to be artists who we dug so it was obvious we wanted to write about them. Also there’s only so much you can say about the Bevis Frond – I for one run out of superlatives after a while! We didn’t run a single Bevis Frond feature for five years – between issues 6 and 19 – and yet still people would describe the Terrascope as “The Bevis Frond fanzine”. I think we largely got away from it in the end, people gradually understood what we were striving to achieve. But it was really frustrating for a long time.

So to get back to your original question, the reason originally for starting the Ptolemaic Terrascope was that, in 1988 at least, there were no other magazines being produced which we wanted to read - everything else seemed to be either thinly disguised mail-order lists for record labels, had a school-masterly kind of approach, were poorly produced and written, or as mentioned above they only concentrated on one type of music. Also what frustrated us was that music magazines tended to have this idea that if you featured an interview with someone who was in, say, Mighty Baby in 1972, it was completely irrelevant to anything happening on the contemporary current music scene. What utter and complete nonsense!

Obviously these days there's other, vastly more successful, magazines doing exactly the same thing - you only have to look at the cover of an early issue of 'Mojo' to understand exactly where they got their ideas from (and in the case of the Flat Earth Society for instance, their articles too – it was a straight reprint of ours, but without any credit given, of course). At the time though there simply wasn't anyone else around who was willing to cover anything like that much ground. Even Bucketfull of Brains had gone from being a power-pop publication to virtually an R.E.M. fanzine.

So, going back again to 1988. I was writing pretty much full-time for Bucketfull of Brains, and enjoying it less and less to be honest, and Nick was on his third Bevis Frond album, ‘Triptych’. I’m playing it again now as I write this and it really is an extraordinary work. I love the way the cover on original copies is falling apart now as well – just like the first Mad River EP. Details like that seem important somehow as we all grow older together. Anyway, the thing is, Nick and I are very good at bouncing ideas between us – I tend to be the dreamer for who almost anything is possible, and once Nick’s stopped laughing he either adds a layer of realism to the idea or throws in something that’s even more crazy, which sets us off all over again. If it’s financially viable though Nick, ever the astute, will be onto it like a flash – and when the idea of starting our own magazine first bubbled up to the surface, it was one of those moments.

“You know, this could really work,” said Nick excitedly. Obviously the Bevis Frond albums were selling well and people were interested in anything that Nick Saloman put his name to (they still are of course; it’s only for the purpose of illustrating the early days of the Terrascope that I’m talking in the past tense here) – my name was at least vaguely familiar as a writer by that time, plus I’d been building up a network of useful contacts; and R.M. “Cyke” Bancroft’s stock was phenomenally high as an artist, having crafted the unique look of the first few Frond albums.
We basically wanted to write about anything that we three were interested in, be it classic psychedelia (Nick), folk and folk-rock (Bancroft), indie, or whatever, (me) - and we wanted to produce a limited-edition, hopefully high quality magazine that contained the best writing and the best artwork we could achieve on a limited budget. Actually, it was started on no budget at all. We stuck a few hundred flyers into the sleeve of a Woronzow Records compilation album (‘Woronzoid’) announcing the magazine and inviting potential readers to send us money, which they did, bless their hearts. Enough to print 500 copies, anyway, which is all we did of the very first issue. It sold out within a matter of days.

photo credits from Phil:
1. Me outside Joe Ross of the Green Pajamas' shack
north of Seattle in 1994

2. The cover of issue 35 of Ptolemaic Terrascope,
artwork by Iker Spozio, 2005

3. Pete Frame (yes, THE Pete Frame) sat in his garden
in Cornwall in 2002, a photo that he captioned himself

4. the cover of issue 1 of the Ptolemaic Terrascope,
artwork by RM Bancroft, 1989

5. Yours truly on stage at Terrastock 1 in 1997