Sarah Angliss – of infrasound and spacedogs (Part One)

Posted on: 16 March 2012 by Alexander Hay

The polymath talks to us about infrasound, roboticised ventriloquist dummies, grim folk music and voices 'from beyond'...

Sarah with Hugo, image c/o Barbara CetlovaSarah Angliss is a woman of many parts. Mostly, these have been bolted together to form the automatons who accompany her band, Spacedog, which defies categorisation and skips freely through the weirder end of music and sound in equal measure.

Her background is just as varied. It's a rare musician who performs with a theremin and a saw, and cites robotics on her list of saleable skills. She's also a music historian, as demonstrated by her recent appearance at the 2011 Uncon and her Radio 4 documentary on the curious practice of songbirds being trained as the 18th century equivalents of i-pods and jukeboxes. She also has, as she puts it, “pecs of an Olympic weightlifter as I haul so much equipment to my gigs.”

This passion for music, especially the kind that alludes to “our most ghastly, primal fears” dates back to her childhood, where Sarah and her sister Jenny (who is also Space Dog's lead singer) would listen to the funereal grimness of English folk music in a Watford club.

These included cheerful numbers like The Wife of Usher's Well, wherein a bereaved mother is visited by her three (dead) sons, and The Lankin, “about a malevolent creature who slipped through the gaps in the window pane at night.” Apparently, it was very easy to know if a Lankin is in the house “when you heard him pricking your baby with a pin.”

By contrast, Sarah's other big passion lies in technology, or rather the busted, rusted archaic end of the spectrum. At the Uncon, she even recorded speech onto a wax cylinder live on stage, and so the history of the first gramophones, radios, telegraphs and so on hold a particular allure for her.

“We forget how odd it is to hear a disembodied voice emanating from a machine, let alone the voice of someone who is dead,” she explains. After all, it must have been rather scary for Victorians, troubled as they already were with the tumultuous change of the industrial revolution and an often overlooked crisis of faith.

“I wonder if they discomfort us because they tap into our primal fears – for instance, a fear of meddling with the boundaries of the living and the dead,” Sarah explains, though she herself is a rationalist and very “evidence-based”.

Sarah with colleague, image c/o Gaynor Perry Spacedog itself was first formed in 2001, and has the unique honour of being “the only band on the circuit to give equal billing to our human and robot performers.” (Gary Barlow, please take note.)

“The Spacedog act evolved over the last decade”, Sarah adds. “Originally it was a solo venture and all rather cheesy – just me, a theremin and some backing samples on a laptop...”

Naturally, and because “it's so unscintillating looking at someone hunched over a screen,” Sarah started adding robots to the mix, starting with Clara 2.0, “named after theremin virtuoso Clara Rockmore.” As the robots grew in number, Sarah added some much needed wetware in the form of Jenny who, as mentioned, provides the vocals, and more recently, full time percussionist Stephen Hiscock, “who adds some motive power to our sound.”

Naturally, however, every band must have its frontman. In Spacedog's case, it's Hugo, “a 1930s ventriloquists' dummy wired up and robotocised after he was rescued from the attic of a dead musician.” One dreads to think of what the rider must be like.

One selling point of the band is its refusal to turn down a booking. Whether it's “a steampunk gig” or “an electronica night”, the band will happily turn up, theremins an-oscillating. In part this is due to Spacedog being rather hard to pigeon-hole in the first place. “We’re too cabaret for the shoe-gazy end of the electronica scene; too lyrical and story-based for the contemporary classical crowd; too dark and odd to be called geek pop,” Sarah concludes.

Even the folk scene hasn't quite 'got' the band. “A folk site recently gave us a lovely review - although they said our choice of instruments was ‘challenging’.”

Sarah with gulls (not in the band), image c/o Gaynor Perry

Still, it's a sad fact of our dreary age that all things must be shoehorned into a genre. The closest approximation for Space Dog, at least for now, is 'hauntological,' as purveyed by label Ghostbox.

Sarah doesn't think this really applies, “but I would say our music is haunted,” and she also admires many of the artists in the field.

The band's new album, “Juice For The Baby,” is out now, and its title is a reference to the days when women did all the housework (as opposed to today, where they do about 82%).

“The title is a quote from the Electrical Association for Women, c. 1930” Sarah elaborates. “And the ‘juice’ in question is the electrical current used to run various machines for your baby in the modern 1930s home.”

Needless to say, the sound and the themes are both very strange, including (fittingly) “our paean to the original space dog Laika.” At first, the band feared its live act, with all it entails, would be too hard to distill onto one disk, but found itself able to “work with richer textures” in the studio.

Old habits die hard, however. “I can’t stop saying ‘and we could make a machine to do that on stage’”, Sarah admits. They'll be driving buses next.

With special thanks to Barbara Cetlova and Gaynor Perry for the images used in this article

[CLICK HERE FOR PART TWO!]

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Alexander Hay

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