Brighton Fringe: John Callaghan

John Callaghan is an eccentric electronic musician currently based in London. For decades he has been releasing music that has been captivating his audience and pushing the boundaries of what we consider music. He has been performing at Brighton Fringe for about 10 years and has continued to release unique and sincere electronic music, even during the pandemic. I wanted to try and find the elements of his work that truly motivated him and how the coronavirus pandemic had affected his output. I spoke with John over Zoom to discuss his work as a musician and how he defined himself in an incredibly competitive market:

When did you first get a taste for eccentric electronic music?

“When I was, I would say early teens, maybe 11 or 12, I’d be listening to the radio and […] things like Human League, Kraftwerk, Flock of Seagulls, Gary Newman, Duran Duran, all of that was happening at that time, and I’d listened to the music on the radio and think that’s pretty good. It’d start off and I’d love the strange electronic sound, but the thing that always gave me pause was the vocals, and the lyrics, and the way the music developed wasn’t to my taste (now I should clarify I think they’re all great, all good stuff, but they’re the cream of the crop). I thought I could do that slightly better. If I was doing this track, I’d change it in this way or If I were developing this piece I’d go off In this direction.”

How long did it take you to publish your first track (or to publish one you felt was worthy of publication?)

“Well not long at all because I thought they all were. In retrospect, my juvenilia can be seen as a little straightforward, but in my defence it was always imaginative. One of the advantages of using cassette tapes is that you can create tape loops very easily. The easiest effect you can do if you want to do something weird is if you turn the tape over, of course it starts playing everything backwards. I would do these odd little cassette tape noodlings, bring them into school and play them to friends of mine. As I say this is when I was between 13 and 16, I think.”

So, at that age did you have a sense that that is what you wanted to do?

“I think if I’d had more of a sense my life would have had a very different course. I always knew I enjoyed music. Looking back, I don’t know if it was because I thought it was a pipedream to pursue music or more likely I felt that avenues in musical development were closed off to me because I wasn’t very good at the piano, and that’s down to lack of discipline. As a youngster I learned the piano, but I didn’t pursue it with enough commitment to get exam qualifications. It didn’t seem possible that I would be able to go to a music school. I did write to the BBC radiophonic workshop and ask, ‘how do I go about this?’

“I would also say 2 things. As a child you don’t see the use these things are going to have, which isn’t necessarily a regret of mine, my life would’ve taken a very different turn. I would also say it’s never too late. I’ve never blamed anyone else for my lack of ability on the piano. One thing I was good at was music production, without false modesty. 

“Probably the big turning point came after I was at university and sent a demo tape off to Too Pure Records and they got in touch saying ‘this is interesting would you like to come in and talk to use,’ and I remember that was the first time where I was reassured that the positive impression I had of my own music wasn’t simply bias because it was mine. There was something objectively good about it. Other people would listen to it and some people would find it intriguing and it did have worth. It didn’t go anywhere with Too Pure. After I left university, a friend recommended I contact warp records, and I did, and I got a standard rejection letter from them. Six months later they got in touch saying, ‘actually we’ve listened to it properly now, would you like to come in and develop the stuff?’ What was interesting is after university I’d spent 2 years as a postman. I’d got that rejection letter from Warp and felt it was the final straw. I thought ‘I’m not doing anything here, I am going to go to London and try to build a new life for myself In London, doing something else, fully expecting my tail to be between my legs. As soon as I’d made that commitment, then I got the message from Warp. I’ve heard that interpreted as sending signals out into the universe. I’m not a very spiritual person though. I’m prepared to entertain the fact that it was a coincidence, but it was a nice one.”

How did Covid impact your production?

“Probably the big change was that I turned to doing shows online, so I prepared half an hour of new video that I then premiered online in lieu of doing the show live. So initially, the link was only available on the Brighton Fringe website and people could pay a pound to the Brighton Fringe and then watch my show. One of my (online) shows has only had 33 views, but again if you get a couple of hundred views, which is more than my show would’ve got, but in terms of the internet its not a great deal at all. One thing I’ve missed is making videos which my friends, the John Callaghan repertory company, the people who I’d have a video idea and say ‘right, let’s get this organized’ and I’d get all my friends together and say ‘right, you’re a Victorian gentleman. You’re this, you’re that, you need to stand here in front of this green screen and you need to do this,’ and I always enjoyed coordinating those videos coming up with new ideas for them, and it was a lot easier when I had a crowd of people and was motivated because it was so much fun.”

“I did a mixed bill at the Spiegeltent a few years ago […], I was at the door handing out fliers and I handed one to a woman and said ‘would you like to come and see my show?’ and she said ‘noooo that was the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen.’ The act who was on after me was dressed as Nosferatu covering Britney spears songs, and I was the weirdest thing she’d ever seen.

“At the Spiegeltent they’re very kind to me and provide a good venue, a guaranteed booking, and a baseline level of promotion.” 

John left me with an Arthur Fried quote that surmised his approach to music production and performing: ‘A lot of people try and be different, but just try and be good. Because being good is different enough.’

John is a perfect example of an artist who thrives on audience interaction and having a physical presence on stage. His work expands beyond primarily audio and visual effects into a seamless blend of the two. Fringe has acted as a steady and consistent source of engagement year on year, whilst also acting as a form of motivation to finish long term projects. He is also the perfect example of why you should not give up on your ambitions after receiving a setback. Through persistence and hard work, John has found his niche within electronic performances. Together with his supporting crew behind the scenes and the renewal of larger scale social gathering and artistic performances, it seems that he will be providing the world with plenty more engrossing performances for many years to come. Be sure to tune into his show at Brighton Fringe 2022!

Words by Tom Read

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