Pulco: The Art and Craft of The Sonic Biography

[Editor’s note: This article includes a new and free MP3 from the artist. If you’d like to listen to and download the song, please scroll below and find the SoundCloud embed. The song is “Double Denim,” from a forthcoming, untitled EP by Pulco.]

Ashley Cooke once dreamed of going off to Acapulco and hanging out with cliff divers. His band Derrero was doing all of the right things at the right time–three albums, three EPs, and four John Peel sessions. But, as is the case with 99% of all bands on the verge, life interrupted the dream. And while the Acapulco dream faded, the dreamer was unfazed. Ash continued to make music on his own in the Welsh countryside, and Pulco was born.

Ashley Cooke

Photo courtesy of Ash Cooke.

For the past 10 years Cooke has written, recorded, and released albums under the Pulco banner in the spare and precious moments between the routine chores that keep one busy on a daily basis. For most people, life tends to eclipse the art. In this case, Cooke dragged his life into his art and has yet to let go of that embrace. Nearly all of Ashley Cooke’s songs incorporate field recordings of his daily life with music blended from Welsh folk, ’60s Cali-pop, spoken word, noise, and Brit-rock. He calls the end result “home-fi”–a great descriptor for both his art and real life. Cooke’s approach is D.I.Y. and highly experimental. Vocals have been recorded on phone answering machines under the desk at work. Studios are constructed in wardrobes and closets, with vocals whispered as to not wake the family. And the prolific use of field recordings turn the outdoors into an organic studio. The music of Pulco is a great example of how far D.I.Y. can be pushed and that lo-fi does not have to equate with low-quality.

Pulco's guitar

Photo courtesy of Ash Cooke.

Pulco lyrics are highly imaginative, constructed from randomly heard conversations, television advertisements, books, magazine articles, and his personal journals–which are then treated like William S. Burroughs cut-ups. The words are stitched together with found sounds and beautiful melodies. The family piano, cheap electronic keyboards, and his trusty £15 guitar provide the melody and the rhythm. The vocals, field recordings, and found sounds, tell the stories.  And the stories are amazing. Comparisons to Donovan, Nick Drake, Lloyd Cole and Robyn Hitchcock are inevitable. But it is doubtful that any of them recorded an entire album on an iPad or a Dictaphone while crouching under a desk.

In July, Cooke wanted to commemorate his decade of home recording in a very special, and uniquely Pulco, way. Working with Nick Butcher at Folkwit Records, Cooke decided that in tandem with the release of his newest album, Clay Cutlery, a retrospective of previous work was in order. However, rather than just release a “Best of Pulco” album culling favorites from his previous 11 albums and EPs, Cooke reached out to his ever-growing network of D.I.Y. friends and an impressive list of former and current collaborators to join the fun for a much more ambitious project. In February 2013, word went out to 16 artists who were were asked to pick their favorite Pulco song and record it. There were no conditions on how the songs could be interpreted–there was just a deadline: the songs had to be submitted before July 1. Fifteen songs came in before the deadline and the sixteenth will be added to the digital album when it is finally submitted. The end result, Modular Pursuits is a diverse and masterful compilation by some of the best off the radar artists in the U.K.

Modular Pursuits: 15 Pulco Songs Covered by Various Artists

Hearing Modular Pursuits is an eye opening experience–first, it IS a Pulco album, even though he does not play or sing on any of the songs. No one can write lyrics that are honestly sentimental without sounding saccharine. Secondly, this album exposes 15 off-the-map (mostly from Wales) artists; it is always a rare and delightful experience to hear an artist with whom you immediately connect, while kicking yourself in the ass for not finding them sooner.

Modular Pursuits cover

Modular Pursuits cover

The album opens with “Love of the Ocean,” by Cymbient, a folk-pop wandering marked by the steady beat of an analog drum machine and harmonies reminiscent of the Beach Boys. It’s a song of the sea and a person in love with traversing the waters. This is an excellent introduction to both Pulco’s approach to deconstructing life down to the basics, and to the band Cymbient.

“Whistle for a breeze” by Euros Childes (former front for underground legends Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci) is a mournful solo piano piece wishing for better days, and it has one of the most haunting melodies on the album. This sounds very much like a traditional Welsh country ballad, full of hurting and hoping. Childes does a masterful job of conveying these raw emotions, that are carried by a beautifully minimalist arrangement.

The Brit-pop guitar melody and beat of “Clean Face” by No Middle Name (the project name for David Bailey) is a perfect contrast to “Whistle for a breeze.”  In typical Pulco fashion, the song order on the album veers from quiet to loud, from sad to breezy, much like daily life. The lyrics of “Clean Face” are an unmistakable Pulco home life narrative. It’s a song about washing your face, with a chorus that almost absurdly chants, “I WILL MAKE MY FACE CLEAN,” set to a kinetic rhythm. This song rocks. Hard.

Gorwel & Fiona Owen contributed another precious downbeat ballad to the mix in “Close Forms.”  This is one of the more deeply introspective pieces of the album. The song begins with a single plucked acoustic guitar and has many of the classic elements of Welsh folk music. But when the drums and synth kick in at the end, the listener gets a picture of how the current indie/D.I.Y. culture in Wales is connected to a history of regional folk music. The line “find full comfort in aging” is one that will stick. It does not hurt that Gorwel has done production work for Super Furry Animals and the Gorky’s, and that Fiona is a well-regarded poet.

On first listen of Modular Pursuits you might find yourself imagining that this Pulco fellow might be a bit depressed, like a brooding coal-miner. And in many ways he is mining and deconstructing his personal narrative with a pick and shovel. The song “Paddle People” appears twice on the album, covered by James Yuill and Picturebox. Yuill, who is a master of the folktronica genre, provides a trotting, rhythmically layered, ode to summer. A summer where books, coats, and lunch boxes repose in the sand, unattended, and you bought a hat that you didn’t wear. Simple truths about simple pleasures, and the joyous excess of feeling good.

The second version of “Paddle People” is worlds away from the first, fitting in the Pulco tradition: Always move forward, avoid repetition, and write what you know about without being sappy or pretentious. “Paddle People (Personnes à palette)” by Picturebox stands out because it sounds as if this was version recorded by an neo-1960s poppy French girl-group. When asked, “Is this a French girl-group?” Pulco responds, “Well, you should probably talk to Rob [Halcrow] about that.”

Halcrow had just finished working on a Picturebox album on which he had done a lot of singing, and he simply did not, or could not, sing “Paddle People.” Thinking it would add a nice flair to the song if it was done in a foreign language, Halcrow asked a friend in France to record the lyrics. She did this by reading them into a phone and emailing the file to Halcrow, who then edited the words into the song in time with the melody. Upon listening, this does not sound like a cut and paste mashup, and it shows the D.I.Y. genius of Rob Halcrow.

Ian Thistlethwaite’s, “Beyond all Reasonable Doubt” is straight out of Pulco-world. The song starts with a very frantically spoken narrative describing how Thistlewaite met Cooke (in itself a great piece), before transitioning to a fuzzed and phased guitar riff with a simple electronic beat, punctuated by sharp synth notes, creating a very cool groove. This song, like the rest of the album is NOT easy listening. Like many of the songs in this collection, active listening is required to process the lyrics and music before one can fully appreciate each song. The reward is the discovery of complex compositions masquerading as simple tunes.

“Hardships” by Adam Walton (a well-known BBC host) is a classic rocker that describes the internal struggle between being an artist and being a responsible adult. The guitar work is rough and ragged, as is Walton’s voice (imagine a Glen Matlock version of “King of the Road” and you get the idea). It’s a killer song for reckless drivers and the intro says it all, “Should be a time for me, I’m over 40–I hope that I’m just starting up.” And if this song and compilation are valid indicators, Pulco definitely is just starting up.

This autobiography by song continues with “Bean Bags” by Snippet (Johnno Casson). Snippet, by Casson’s own account, plays “bouncy music with a splash of folk and a dash of funk.” Coupled with Pulco’s lyrics about two friends carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders, hashing it all out while laying about on bean bag chairs completes the picture. Depending on your emotional state, this one will either drive you to tears or restore your belief in humanity. One repeating line telegraphs the message–“put your arms around the world”–and when it you hear it, you begin to think Pulco actually believes that such a thing is possible. Even for old-school punk cynics.

Daily life observations and double entendres continue in a more whimsical fashion in “Hair,” as interpreted by Toby Duckett. Duckett typically records minimalist and drone guitar/electronics with meticulous precision. His version of “Hair” is anything but that, which is brilliant. This song, simply about needing to get a haircut because, well, the hair is too long, is set to a sloppily strummed guitar and bass and sung off-key. A simple chore, played to a simple tune, by a person that has turned minimalism into high art. This is a song that is very easy not to like until you pull back the covers. And this happens consistently in Pulco-world.

The neo-folk/lo-fi culture of Wales is well presented in “Wearing down well” by Butcher’s Prime Cuts (Nick Butcher, head of Folkwit Records). This song features traditional Welsh folk instruments but seamlessly drops in loops, ambient drones (almost inaudibly), and field recordings. This arrangement sounds like a simple folk tune on first listen, about maintaining good cheer despite life’s challenges, but there is a backdrop of severely understated complexity. And at this point one starts to think that all of the folks on this compilation have something in common. Dots are being connected. And that commonality is a very cool thing.

The album closer, “Kid Kipling” by Wrightoid (John Wright) is another piece deeply rooted in the Welsh folk tradition with very (un)subtle twists. Are the birds live recordings or synthesized? Hard to tell. The low rumbling in the background–was it a truck passing the studio or a keyboard? It’s the many small secrets that make this song, as well as the other songs on Modular Pursuits, both precious and a challenging listening experience.

Ash Cooke has said that being part of the D.I.Y. movement in the U.K. is like being a member of a secret gang. If you listen to this album more than once, you will become part of that secret gang. As a bonus, Pulco has made Modular Pursuits available as a free download. There really is no excuse to not having this album in your collection, and you will likely find yourself exploring the catalogs of almost all the contributors.

Clay Cutlery

Clay Cutlery was released a week after Modular Pursuits on Folkwit, and it is an evolutionary step forward for the artist and a lo-fi wonder of first magnitude. Cooke played all of the instruments on this album, which were recorded and engineered on an iPad. Yes, this album was recorded on a fucking iPad–and when you hear it, you won’t believe it. Cooke presents the songs as a sonic autobiography. Cooke explained that while most people keep photo albums to document their lives, he wants his grandchildren to have a soundtrack to accompany the photo album in order to provide the appropriate context. A simple yet brilliant concept.

Clay Cutlery cover

Clay Cutlery cover

Like many of the songs on Modular Pursuits, Clay Cutlery is not an easy listen. It is a series of vignettes documenting the days and nights in the life of Pulco, a man recording the sounds and feelings that fill his head.

The sonic architecture of “Karate Kid” is a good example of Pulco’s approach to recording as a craft. Cooke has commented that the tools used for recording are like a painter’s brush. The picture is in the mind and the tools bring it to life for others to see (and hear). Sampled sounds are splashed against single piano notes and a synthesized glissade. The reverb of slapping sounds and shouting might have been recorded at one of his kids’ karate classes. This piece creates tension. It’s confrontational, combative, and sonic.

One of the high points from Clay Cutlery is “Who are you?” This song is like a slow burn. Down-tempo synthesizer carries the melody, with a beat provided by a muffled ride cymbal and minimal percussion. A song that questions identity is a common Pulco (and Welsh) theme, and this one will ride in your skull for a while.

As mentioned, field recordings play a critical role in Pulco’s musical paintbox. “Chair O Plane” is a great example of how these recordings are incorporated into the melody. Picking a repeating pattern on his £15 guitar, spoken word, and the collisions of sounds from a South Wales fairground create a picture of a walk through chaos. Beautiful chaos.

“The Spectre” is the song on the album that completely hooks the listener. The song begins with an almost nonsensical chant: “noo noo noo nee noo nonna,” which is joined by a phased synth and a single-ride cymbal. It sounds like gibberish set to a minimal beat. This goes on for 58 seconds and just as you put your finger on the fast-forward button, the song blooms into one of the most compelling psych-folk melodies. This is Syd Barrett-freak-folk-you-will-neve-go-back territory. The £15 guitar sounds elegant; the sound expands as the keyboards fill out the melody, along with now-familiar bird sounds and the squeaking of a plastic toy dinosaur. The melody is an ear worm that burrows in for the next two minutes.

“The Spectre” is one of those songs which leaves you feeling completely satisfied, yet robbed–you want it to go on for at least another measure, and then another. If Donovan, Robyn Hitchcock, Lloyd Cole, Pulco, Syd Barrett, and Colin Newman had a love child, it would be named  “The Spectre.”

“Trial of the lanyard” is another Clay Cutlery winner.  The intro is reminiscent of a Renaissance fair–an unfair stereotype of U.K. folk music. But the abrupt transition to a techno rave is reminiscent of something that Emperor X would pull off. Like “The Spectre,” “Trial of the lanyard” has an intro that might be off-putting to some, but if you are patient there is a reward, and it rocks.

Pulco likes to close his albums with a long piece, and this one is interesting in ways that might not seem obvious. “Snowdon Race, July 21, 2012” is 6:25 of field recording. It’s exactly what the title implies–documenting an annual road race to the top of the Snowdon Hill and back. This piece consists entirely of crowd noise before the race start, a very spatial recording of casual cacophony. According to Cooke, the musician wanted to create a soundtrack for people to listen to, as they looked at photos of the race posted on Flickr or Facebook. The goal was to document the sounds that would match the images that people captured. Another almost un-noteworthy event from life, yet one worthy of documentation and preservation. This piece reminds us that the sounds of life are just as important as the images.

There is some truly amazing D.I.Y. music coming out of Wales, mixing traditional Welsh forms and lyrical themes with modern technology, and Pulco is solidly on the frontline. It took an act of selfless bravery to let 15 artists cover Pulco songs without conditions on Modular Pursuit, and the result is a great sampling of innovative folk/noise/rock pulsing through the region that demands further exploration. The new crop of songs that comprises Clay Cutlery shows an artist who pushes the limits of lo-fi technology to great success as a gifted engineer, songwriter, and musician.

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