Exploring transcendental meditation lockdown blues – talking More Than Time with Carl Hunter

At a time when concerns grow over the possibility of a further national lockdown in the battle against COVID-19, a newly-released short film documenting the streets of Liverpool as you’ve most likely never seen them before gives a timely reminder of a period we’re hoping won’t be repeated.

Carl Hunter’s More Than Time offers a powerful take on the international pandemic, featuring his home city but relevant to many others, fusing evocative images with a stirring soundtrack and spoken-word reflections, leaving a big impression on the viewer.

You may know Carl best as the bass player of Merseyside crossover indie dance  collective The Farm, whose nine top-40 hits included 1990 top-10s ‘Groovy Train’ and ‘All Together Now’, gold-certified 1991 LP Spartacus topping the charts a year later.

While occasionally on the circuit with his band, his working days mostly involve filmmaking and a senior media lecturing role at Edge Hill University, near Ormskirk, these days. And although the pandemic put paid to much of that this year, 55-year-old Carl remained busy.

More Than Time takes us back to when high streets were deserted and the world seemed a very different place, shops and eateries closed on a real-life set of what often resembled a post-apocalyptic movie; city centres thriving on hustle and bustle becoming ghost towns overnight.

And during that period, Carl ultimately saw a creative opportunity to document this unique moment, lockdown leading to what some saw as a ‘less than time’, yet he’d rather view, as per a description by close friend and occasional writing partner Frank Cottrell-Boyce as a transcendent ‘more than time’.

In the film, anonymous messages left on a telephone answer machine concerning loss and memory play over the top of Carl’s photographs and a soundtrack by Farm guitarist/tunesmith and TV/ documentary music scorer Steve Grimes. The result is an eight-minute symphony of image and sound from the streets of a deserted city,  describes by its architect as a ‘poetic response to the COVID pandemic’, where ‘memory populates streets of a once vibrant city, instead of its people’.

Produced by Martin McQuillan of Edge Hill University’s Institute for Creative Enterprise (ICE, a ‘hub for connecting ideas and students to cultural industries regionally, nationally and internationally’) and edited by ICE manager Roz Di Caprio (who also produces The Lonely Arts Club podcast), there’s also key input from sound designer Sam Auguste, who previously collaborated with Carl on Sometimes Always Never, among other film projects.

Reflection Time: Liverpool’s sign of the times, the Duke of Welly above, Summer 2020 (Photo copyright: Carl Hunter)

As Carl put it, “I was interested to explore strands of sound and image that draw on my experiences as a film director, musician, and academic researcher. It’s important that universities accommodate filmmakers. It’s also important that filmmakers who work in universities have something to say about lockdown.”

The ICE also co-produces films with Moscow’s Bazelevs Studios and Liverpool’s Hurricane Films, the latter’s CV including Sometimes Always Never and with Farm drummer turned writer Roy Boulter its co-director.

Carl was just back from an inspirational visit to an exhibition of the revered Don McCullin’s photography at Tate Liverpool when we spoke, promising to return as soon as possible.

“I decided to spend half an hour there, have a look, and it’s absolutely mind-blowing. I’ll go back tomorrow or the day after, spend a while longer. It’s very humbling. He photographed so much pain and suffering that now he does landscapes, which he sees as cleansing or meditation. If you’re in Liverpool, I’d highly recommend it.”

It’s definitely on my list, not least after a recent visit to the Walker Art Gallery across town to see the Linda McCartney photography exhibition. Did you get to see that?

“Yeah, anything Beatles-connected, I’m a bit of a geek for, but what was great about Linda, aside from that connection, was that she was an incredibly brilliant photographer in her own right, and the exhibition reflects that really well, proving she was a great photographer before she met Paul.

“I’m a huge fan of photography and take photos every day, and after the Linda McCartney exhibition I went home and having seen a lot of Polaroids there, dug my own out, out of curiosity. I’ve got loads and I’ve been going through them, and might do something with those someday, perhaps another book project inspired by those photographs with my friend, Frank (Cottrell-Boyce).”

Sounds good. In the spirit of the project that led to the pair of you co-writing 2011’s The Unforgotten Coat (having previously worked together on the splendid 2007 film Grow Your Own, the first time I became aware of Carl’s path beyond his bass guitar and sleeve design duties with The Farm)?

“Exactly! And a few years later, at some point another copy will arrive through the front door from the publisher, Walker, translated for a new edition. There’s been Japanese, Mongolian, French, German … about once a year in yet another language!”

Clear Message: The writing’s on the wall in a defining year, Liverpool, Summer 2020 (Photo copyright: Carl Hunter)

Has he managed to get back to his university lecturing role of late?

“Not a great deal, I’m back there at the moment and students arrive soon. But what happens when they arrive, who knows … one by one universities are deciding to go online, so maybe we will be, which is a shame. The whole point of teaching for me is the interaction between yourself and the students, where A can inspire B, and B can inspire A. It’s two-way traffic, so when it goes online … my heart sinks.

“I do feel for the students, but equally, safety is really important. I don’t know what the answer is. On the other hand, It seem that this Government don’t all want working class, poorer kids in university. They’d rather fatten further education and reduce higher education to a more elite group. That’s fucking dangerous and it’s got to be stopped!

“Everyone has the right to an education and to do a degree. But for some, a degree isn’t the answer. As a society we’ve introduced a value system which is wrong, that somehow if you’ve a BA you’re of more value than someone who’s done their HND or OND or BTEC. That’s nonsense. We need to move back to a time where the value’s the same.

“When I went to art school, it was Liverpool Polytechnic, and those polytechnics were brilliant. It kind of worries me now that this pandemic is playing partly into the hands of this Government, thinking maybe this is a good opportunity to look at universities and which we want to keep and support.

“That’s dangerous, and there’s this argument about the state and people who work in the arts. For me, capitalism and art are enemies. It’s okay if you’re Damien Hirst, securing millions for your work. Capitalism likes that, but art isn’t about making money. I’ve no issue with people making money out of art, but it’s about expression, feeling good, well-being, discovery, exploring things … Sometimes those things don’t have a financial value, but it doesn’t mean they don’t have any value. And there’s a great danger in culture, where we’re heading, where the only value in anything has to be monetary. I cannot agree with that at all.”

Carl’s helping lead the way in a more inspirational sense though, helping show the way through creativity, as seen with the More Than Time project. A lovely idea, and brilliantly pulled off.

“Thank you very much. It came about during lockdown. I’d drive into Liverpool occasionally, out of boredom really, and the city I grew up in and know like the back of my hand, I’d never seen it so empty. It was almost apocalyptic.

Empty streets: An eery Liverpool, locked down during the pandemic, Summer 2020 (Photo copyright: Carl Hunter)

“I thought I’d take photos, just out of curiosity, document this moment in time. Initially, I wanted to use Polaroids, but they’re incredibly expensive and the success rate’s about 50%. I’m also a fan of disposable cameras though, so I took shots on my phone with the idea of converting them so they look like disposable camera photos.

“Walking around Liverpool when it was empty, it felt like I was the only person on Earth. Almost like you’re in your own novel, and I imagined that if I’d taken a disposable camera with me then just left the camera somewhere for someone to find, and later someone found and developed the film, they’d have a whole set of prints of an empty Liverpool and begin to imagine what that was all about. Where were all the people?

“When I went back through these photos, I was thinking I’ve got to do something with these, but I don’t know what. Then I had this idea about setting up an answer machine, putting a call out to people in Liverpool to leave a message, say what they were missing about Liverpool. I ended up with loads of messages, using those as a kind of narrative. And sometimes I was completely lucky that I’d photographed the locations they mentioned.”

In a terrible year bridging the gap between dystopia and reality, it’s a great concept, and I recognised at least one voice, the afore-mentioned Frank Cottrell-Boyce contemplating missing mass at his church, while others talk about alternative places of worship – pubs, shops, libraries, theatres, markets, football grounds, and so on.

“Frank is always philosophical, and what he sees is one of the reasons I love him as a writer and a friend. He sees humanity and has a great talent in seeing good in humanity among the horror, defeat and bad times. And when Frank talks about how we’re living in a ‘more than time’, I thought, ‘That’s a great title!’.

As well as the photographs and messages, there’s also a compelling soundtrack, supplied by your good friend and bandmate, Steve Grimes.

“Steve’s a huge fan of Brian Eno, and we were chatting and he said Eno explored all this in the ‘70s. He had an idea, so after we edited the film, I sent it to Steve, who sent back this choral, Eno-esque soundtrack, which is brilliant.”

And you had backing from Edge Hill University’s Institute for Creative Enterprise (ICE).

“Yes, I do quite a lot of work with them, and as someone interested in photography, film, music, art and design, I tick a few of those boxes in the fabric of my days, so my relationship with ICE is quite strong and goes hand in glove – that’s where I gravitate towards, and they respond very quickly to ideas.

Booked Out: From Carl’s images of his home city in COVID lockdown, Summer 2020 (Photo copyright: Carl Hunter)

“When I mentioned this box of photographs and the idea of an answer machine and soundtrack, they said, ‘Do it! If you need money, we’ll help financially’. It cost virtually nothing to make, but sound design was very important and Sam (Auguste), who did that, also worked on Sometimes Always Never and two shorts I did before. Yes, poor Sam’s had the misfortune of being stuck with me in recording studios for months on end. I tip my hat to that man!

“Sound design was so important. We were developing this idea about how when photos have no people in them, you add this imagined idea of what the sounds were like. When you look at a silent photo, it’s silent, but if you then find that photograph after a film’s been processed, without realising it, you imagine the sound that was there.

“Photographs generate a whole emotive response. But your response would be a different response to the one I’m imagining, based on our own past, or whatever. So you’re kind of populating what’s essentially a silent film with the missing noise.”

I see from your social media posts there’s been another project of late, working on photographs concentrating on typography in the bricks found on the Merseyside coast where you walk every day.

“Yes, the coast is really important to me. I go walking a lot, taking photos, and started to notice something you don’t tend to associate with the beach – words. Words are what you use to describe how you feel about being on the beach – it’s hot, it’s fun, it’s windy, whatever. But it’s all audio. You don’t expect to see words on the beach.

“I became fascinated by seeing these words. But it’s not so much the words as the typography. The specific words themselves aren’t so important. It’s almost trainspotting, isn’t it?”

Not in an Irvine Welsh or Danny Boyle way though.

“Ha! No way. If only. But once I’ve a camera in my hand and go walking, I find it’s impossible not to be inspired by spotting something.”

Six Appeal: The Farm in a Sire Records publicity shot from 1994, with Carl Hunter far left (Photo: Mark McNulty)

It’s been 15 months since our last conversation, at which point I caught you at the airport, about to head to Canada to help publicise Sometimes Always Never alongside one of its stars, Tim McInnerney. A lot’s happened since, and my last gig was in March, one of just three I’ve seen This year, 2020’s live casualties including several shows for The Farm.

“We had a lot of festivals this summer and were out with Madness again, always a real joy for us – being old friends. Every gig disappeared, bas has been rescheduled for next summer, and weirdly we’ve got more next summer, as some two-day festivals have been booked for three days. Of course, that’s sheer optimism, but I hope so. I miss playing and days out in a bus watching a movie.”

Incidentally, has the time arrived for a proper biography of The Farm?

“We’ve never really been interested in doing one, and there’s that thing that you like to think if there was a bio, the world would be waiting for the day of release so they can go to Waterstone’s and buy it. But I think the reality is that the day arrives, you wander into Waterstone’s and there’s your biography hidden in a corner, people crowding around Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen’s latest interior design book in their thousands while you realise your current place in popular culture!”

A bit like ‘Call Me Dave’ Cameron, maybe, his memoir reduced from £25 to £3, I see. I take your point, but The Farm were far more important in a positive, creative sense. Besides, the band continues to this day, but none of you are trading on your past, having used the band as a springboard to several other creative careers, in music, film, art …. An inspirational tale of a group of unlikely scallies coming good, right?

“Mmm … an article, maybe, but I think a book would be probably 88 pages too far! Jayne Casey, a long-time friend of the band and someone I’ve the greatest respect for – one of the heroes of music, culture and art in Liverpool – said something to me years ago which summed up The Farm more than anything anyone else ever did. She was talking about how we went off and became novelists, screenwriters, filmmakers, composers, producers, lots of other things. She said basically you’re a working-class version of Blur, but nobody gives you credit for it. A very good description of us.”

I must say, Carl’s Merseyside accent confused me there, and I thought for a moment he meant a ‘working-class Blair’ … thinking ex-PM Tony (rather than celebrity dancer Lionel).

“It definitely wouldn’t be him!”

I take your point on the biography, but feel there’s at least room for a future documentary about The Farm.

“We should turn us into the smallest deck of Top Trumps. There’s only five in the pack though, so it’d be the shittest game of Top Trumps ever. ‘Peter Hooton – broadcaster, cultural correspondent, 7 … Carl Hunter – film director, 4 …’

Steps Taken: Not a soul around during the COVID-19 lockdown, Liverpool, 2020 (Photo copyright: Carl Hunter)

It could just work. I’ll get my marketing team on to that. We should add ice cream man to Peter’s description too, after his cameo in Sometimes Always Never. Incidentally, you could definitely have more than five cards. As well as Peter (vocals) and Carl (bass), the afore-mentioned Roy Boulter (drums) and Steve Grimes (guitar, keyboards, tunes) plus Keith Mullin (guitar), how about Ben Leach?

“He lives in France. Not seen him for years, but he’s always welcome to join us. We’ve never fallen out. There’s Shona (Carmen), our backing singer, too. She’s great.”

So that’s a Magnificent 7, at least, with several more having featured over the years with a band that initially formed in 1983, Suggs producing debut single, ‘Hearts and Minds’, the following year.

And going back to the question he asked contributors to the More Than Time project, what did Carl miss during the lockdown and over the course of 2020 that perhaps he hadn’t realised he would?

“I think what I missed most in a way was friendship. We all have lots of friends, if you’re lucky enough, so not being able to see your friends and family, that was problematic. But what I missed really was more to do with the worry. And my worry was about the future after this thing passes – and it hopefully will pass – and what’s left behind, the debris of the pandemic.

“Not the death and loss and sadness, although that’s obviously terrible. There’s another kind of debris left behind, and that’s unemployment and poverty. And in a way what I was missing was that I’m normally optimistic in general, and that optimism was beginning to be diluted. When that happens, self-doubt creeps in and that sense that what’s around the corner isn’t good.

“Look at the way we were starting to think about things a lot more. But as we head towards the exit signs – hopefully – that hasn’t happened. The Tories are still bastards, still making a ploy to get the NHS in their hands – some kind of trade deal or private ownership. I thought that wouldn’t happen. I thought if one good thing comes out of this, it’s the fact that these bastards wouldn’t get their hands on our NHS.”

Typography Fieldtrip: among Carl’s collection of images from his coastal walkabouts (Photo copyright: Carl Hunter)

True. We were all on our doorsteps, clapping medical staff and carers, thinking at last there was a general realisation regarding who was truly important in our society.

“Yeah, and that (thinking) shifted. Healthcare is the most important thing, yet I read the other day how Eton College was doing covid testing for pupils, whereas others (in the health service) can’t get those tests. That fucking sums it up, doesn’t it! If you go to a comprehensive in Bootle, fuck you – the staff and the kids! There’s this argument that class doesn’t exist anymore. But the only ones who don’t think it exists are the upper and middle classes.

“I don’t want to be pessimistic, but I began to feel more like that. In a way though, doing this film was a kind of medicine. My ideas and optimism were being challenged every day, so the film was kind of like a cleansing process that suggested maybe I was wrong after all.”

Well, creativity has the power to afford us all a little optimism, hope and sunshine, right? And we’ve gotta keep on pushing, as Curtis Mayfield would say.

“Yeah, we gotta keep on keeping on, as the Redskins sang. Now, there’s a song!”

Blazer Glory: Carl enjoys a pint at Irlam Live, Summer 2019, modelling the jacket Bruce Foxton wore as The Jam played Strange Town on Top of the Pops, bought for him by his bandmates at a charity auction, (Photo: Steve Grimes)

For this website’s July 2019 feature/interview with Carl Hunter, timed to celebrate the release of the superb Sometimes Always Never, head here.

And for a link to More Than Time, produced by Martin McQuillan and edited by Roz Di Caprio from Edge Hill University’s Institute for Creative Enterprise (ICE), head to https://youtu.be/T805_w4B2SA

 

About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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