Stephen James Buckley, aka Polypores, makes electronic music that sits just on the cusp of chaos. He builds synthetic worlds and narratives with the modular synth, an unpredictable machine that while it may never be tamed completely it can be controlled just enough to blow open minds. The unpredictability and exploratory nature of the instrument is what attracted Buckley to it in the first place. He approaches his music much like an archaeologist would approach a plot of land, or a chunk of earth. He carefully works at something raw and brittle, dusting off the rough edges and layers of time, and uncovers something incredible and timeless. Improvisatory composition that leads to something one-of-a-kind, that with only luck and spectral guidance could it ever be emulated.
Stephen James Buckley is a prolific electronic artist in any year, but 2020 was even more of a productive year thanks to lockdowns and quarantine. Polypores has several releases dropping in 2021, the first of which was last month’s mind-expanding Chaos Blooms. This was my first true deep dive into Buckley’s intellectual sound world. His exploration into chaos and the randomness of the universe was equally meditative and disorienting. It will easily end up on my year end list, and I see many trips to Discogs to fill some serious modular synth voids in my collection with Polypores releases.
After being entranced with Chaos Blooms for a couple weeks straight I felt I had to reach out to Mr. Buckley and see if he cared if I picked his brain for a bit. He was happy to oblige. Check out our conversation below.
J. Hubner: So where did you grow up?
Stephen James Buckley: Until I was about 8 I lived in a little village in Cumbria called Great Corby. It’s right next to the River Eden, and there’s an ancient forest there. We then moved to a small town near Preston called Garstang, which was an incredibly boring place, but handy for getting out into the countryside.
J. Hubner: Tell me about your childhood. Were you into music when you were little? More the outdoors type or getting lost in comic books and sci fi?
Stephen James Buckley: My childhood, as with my adulthood, was punctuated with intense obsessions with various things – dinosaurs, geology, fungus etc. My fondest memories are of my parents taking me into the Great Corby woods and teaching me about the various aspects of nature. The woods were right behind our house so I could look at them from my bedroom window. I remember sitting in my room in the dark with my Dad waiting to see deer – which we did. I remember being sad when they had to cut down a big old oak tree because it was rotten and the branches were falling off.
I was very much into books, and particularly Lego. I much preferred being alone and making things with Lego to playing with other kids. I was an extremely sensitive child, and got picked on a lot, so I was much more comfortable on my own or with my parents, who were always very supportive of my creative endeavours, from Playdoh and Sticklebricks all the way through to Warhammer miniatures (via Lego and Airfix planes).
Musically I would tend to fixate on one thing and just listen to that over and over again. First up was Jeff Wayne’s War Of The Worlds, then it was Gerry Rafferty’s City To City, and then Queen. I was never musical as such, that came later.
J. Hubner: Man, I love Gerry Rafferty’s City To City. Of course I knew “Baker Street” and “Right Down The Line”, but didn’t really appreciate the whole album till I was 18.
Stephen James Buckley: Yeah it’s a great record. “Whatever’s Written In Your Heart” is glorious.
J. Hubner: So no comic books as a kid?
Stephen James Buckley: Nothing like that really. Although my friend did buy me the original Watchmen graphic novel for Christmas, because I enjoyed the recent TV series so much.
J. Hubner: When did music become a part of your life? What was the first instrument you got into?
Stephen James Buckley: I was in hospital for two weeks with Salmonella, aged around 10-11. I was massively into Queen at the time, and my Dad got me this double video called “Queen’s Greatest Flix”, which was a collection of their music videos. As soon as I saw Roger Taylor playing drums, I knew that was what I wanted to do. They just looked so cool. I also kind of wanted to be Freddie Mercury too. So when I got to high school I started drum lessons and it all went downhill from there.
J. Hubner: So where did drums lead you?
Stephen James Buckley: After playing drums for a few years I eventually learned guitar and bass, and was in various bands singing and playing one of those instruments. Prior to Polypores I was also doing a lot of solo stuff, where I was playing all of the instruments and recording in my bedroom.
J. Hubner: Do you collaborate with other artists?
Stephen James Buckley: I’ve also recorded and produced lots of music for other bands/artists. I work in a recording studio and I’m a studio sound engineer by trade, so a lot of the production and mixing skills I’ve picked up over the years feed into Polypores too.
J. Hubner: Do you remember the first band you were in?
Stephen James Buckley: The first band I was in that actually gigged was called Noose, in the mid 90s. I was playing drums at this point. We were maybe 15-16? We recorded a demo tape at the Lancaster Music Co-Op, which is still going today. We played a few gigs at schools, village halls, and other under-18-friendly places. We basically sounded like Nirvana and Offspring, like most bands around that time did. We covered the Ghostbusters theme as well. We played in school assembly once, and everyone took the piss, but my maths teacher took me aside afterwards and told me that I was a great drummer, which meant a lot coming from a stern authority figure who wasn’t fond of handing out compliments.
J. Hubner: What was the first album the rewired your brain? Something that was and is essential to you?
Stephen James Buckley: I guess the first one was Jeff Wayne’s War Of The Worlds. I was obsessed with it as a child. My Dad copied me a cassette from his vinyl and I just wore out the tape. It had some great pop/rock songs, but also a lot of weird sound design and atmosphere. I grew up to love concept albums, and albums with some kind of narrative after that. It was probably my first exposure to synthesizers too.
J. Hubner: Random question: The Number Of The Beast or Phaedra, pick one. And why that one?
Stephen James Buckley: This is a tough one. I thought about it all last night. I think I’d go with Phaedra because it’s more in-line with the music I actually make. NOTB loses points because it was before Nicko McBrain joined the lineup, he was my favourite Maiden drummer. I guess I’d listen to NOTB more if I was doing something else, like cooking or whatever. Whereas Phaedra is more something I’d actively listen to.
J. Hubner: What was the draw to synth music? In-particular, modular synth? I find it absolutely fascinating but utterly confounding. It holds a kind of magic for me. Circuital randomness that emanates a kind of buzzing joy, or madness I suppose.
Stephen James Buckley: I think the flexibility is a big deal for me. As I got more and more into synths, it became apparent that I wanted to try to do more things than a fixed-architecture synth would allow. With modular I was particularly interested in the possibilities as far as sequencing/composition went. The different avenues it would take me down. I think that’s the main thing. Exploration. I love exploring. I get a huge buzz from it. So the idea that I’ve got this big box of wires in front of me and I can explore different things, make all these little discoveries – I get real joy from that.
J. Hubner: Modular synth is a very unpredictable avenue of creativity, right?
Stephen James Buckley: I think with modular, it’s pointless getting into it if you’re just going to do the same things you can do with a regular synth. You may as well save your money. I think where it really shines is when you start to explore.
J. Hubner: How long have you been working with the modular synth?
Stephen James Buckley: I’ve been using modular for about 20 months now, and I’ve got to a stage where I’m comfortable improvising with my system. Because I’ve built it slowly over time, according to my needs or interests, it’s become very personal. You develop this connection with the machine. It’s almost like jamming with another person. I’m not totally in control of it all the time, it’s more like I’m making suggestions, seeing what happens, then curating the outcome. It feels like a living organism. Although I tend to avoid uncertainty in most aspects of my life, I do really enjoy the unexpected things that it throws at me on occasion.
J. Hubner: Are there cons to working in the modular synth world?
Stephen James Buckley: It has its limitations of course – it’s very difficult for me to replicate the same thing twice, for instance. So my live sets are largely improvised. That seems scary at first, but it’s actually very freeing. If you’re not tied to trying to replicate something in a live setting then playing becomes a lot less stressful and more fun.
J. Hubner: I’m a new convert to the world of Polypores. Your music has been in my peripheral for some time, but only recently did I take the plunge. Of course your work on that Stefan Bachmeier compilation on Spun Out Of Control got your name firmly planted in my brain. Brilliant work there. And I’ve been devouring your latest Polypores release, Chaos Blooms. It’s absolutely stunning.
Going into a project, how do you begin? Do you have a concept in mind and compose around that? Or do you just sit down and start plugging and patching like a mad scientist/1950s operator and see what the machine tells you?
Stephen James Buckley: Thanks! I think the music tends to drive the concept at the moment, rather than the other way round. For the earlier releases I did it was more starting out with a concept and then writing based on that. But nowadays I just mess around and sort of allow the ideas to come. From there it can lead to some kind of concept based on what it inspires, or the process I’ve used. So for instance with Tempus, the tape I put out via Woodford Halse, I was messing with a lot of stuff relating to time divisions and stretching. Taking sounds and messing with them in the time domain as opposed to the frequency domain. What started out as a series of experiments started to become a cohesive collection, and it eventually got to a point where it was an album.
J. Hubner: How do you get into a creative groove? What’s your process for getting started?
Stephen James Buckley: I’ve found the best way for me to work is to get into a kind of flow state. That comes from just messing around and trying new things. We’re back to the exploration element again. I set up an environment that’s the most conducive to creativity. One where I can easily get into a state where I can channel the ideas. It’s almost like they come from somewhere else. I just open myself up and allow myself to channel my subconscious – or perhaps the Astral Plane – and then it just flows. My job is to decide what to keep from all of that, and what direction to send it in.
J. Hubner: You work constantly it seems as your Bandcamp page is overflowing with albums. You also release with Polytechnic Youth and Castles In Space among others. I’d like to pick your brain about the latest, ‘Chaos Blooms’. What was the appeal of the randomness of chaos? What influenced you to go in that direction with this record? You mentioned being influenced partly by free jazz work of Sun Ra, Pharaoh Sanders, and Miles. I can hear that.
Stephen James Buckley: Yes I am pretty much writing and recording constantly. Especially in the last year, when there’s been a lot less for me to do. I do have plenty of other hobbies – painting, cooking, hiking, board games – but I was still working on music almost every day.
I arrived at ‘Chaos Blooms’ through a couple of different avenues. Firstly I was reading about and exploring some of the early electronic pioneers – people like Morton Subotnick – and the ideas and process behind their work. I was trying different techniques from a book by Allen Strange called ‘Electronic Music’, which has a lot of theory-based exercises that can be applied to a modular system. I was particularly interested in the use of random or chaotic voltage sources, and how those theoretical principles can be applied to music.
J. Hubner: But wrangling in the chaotic and randomness, that’s the key.
Stephen James Buckley: Now once you start with random stuff, it can very easily become difficult to listen to. Whilst I found it theoretically fascinating, it wasn’t exactly sounding like a Polypores record. So I started exploring free-jazz musicians like Sun-Ra and Pharaoh Sanders, as an example of how what seems like chaos can also be very musical. This eventually all started to come together into something that made sense.
The tricky thing here was making sure that it wasn’t all just random noise. That sort of thing is totally valid as a form of music, don’t get me wrong, but I didn’t want to go too far down an experimental route. Rather I wanted to apply these experimental techniques and processes to something which already existed, ie the Polypores sound (whatever that is!). So what we ended up with was a record that was pretty experimental as far as Polypores goes, but not full-on experimental music. Just something that was heavily influenced by it.
J. Hubner: You seem to have had a great time creating the world of ‘Chaos Blooms’. Are these one takes? No overdubs?
Stephen James Buckley: It was a fun album to make, there’s a lot of energy there. I record my tracks live, so it’s not like there are any overdubs or anything. Each track is a single performance. As some of these tracks are quite fast (for me anyway) there was a kind of energy coming when I performed them. I could feel it in my body. Something just on the edge of anxiety, but also close to excitement as well. I could get 75% of the way through a take and then it would go wrong and I’d have to do it again. There’s a danger there. That danger is there all the time because it’s inherent in how I chose to work. But on this record in particular it’s far more apparent. You don’t hear that as much on some of my more soothing work.
J. Hubner: I feel like despite the feeling of spinning through space on some of these tracks, “The Computer” and “Machine Jazz” for examples, there’s still a grounding element in there. How did you find a melodic center or just a center at least when composing these tracks? How did you ground your musical chaos?
Stephen James Buckley: I’m not entirely sure how I did it technically, I think it’s more of an instinctual thing. It’s more feeling than thinking. I just get a sense of when it’s the right time to reel it back in a bit. There’s a sort of wave of energy that you’re riding, and it can be tempting sometimes to just let it take you wherever. But I think there’s always part of me that’s a little bit scared, a little bit cautious. Probably from having a background in what can loosely be described as “rock music” as opposed to more experimental forms.
J. Hubner: Out of those artists you found inspiration from, what was an album that you truly connected with in-particularly? Sun Ra has always been on another plane, music or otherwise.
Stephen James Buckley: I listened to The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra a lot, that was the one that really got me. Thembi by Pharoah Sanders too. Hoping to get a copy of that on vinyl at some point. There’s such a vibe on those records. It’s like you’re there in the room with them. You can only get that from live recorded performances. You don’t get that magic from overdubs.
J. Hubner: Who are some other artists you’ve pulled inspiration from?
Stephen James Buckley: There’s a lot of them, but to name just a few…. Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, Fennesz, James Holden, Danny Wolfers, Hiroshi Yoshiruma, Susanne Ciani, M Geddes Gengras, Pauline Anna Strom, Luke Sanger, R Beny, Benge, Michael Stearns, Shiho Yabuki etc etc.
J. Hubner: I love that Stu Richards artwork. How did you come across his work?
Stephen James Buckley: Yeah it’s fantastic isn’t it? Dom from Polytechnic Youth showed me maybe 12 pieces he’d done that I could chose from for the album, and I was torn between two of them. So we used one for the front and one for the back. I feel an affinity to it because taking imagery that’s usually associated with something calm and comforting, but re-arranging and re-contextualizing it, so it becomes something more chaotic. I like to do that with music as well.
I’ve been chatting with him on Instagram, and we’ll hopefully be working together again at some point.
J. Hubner: So what’s next? Do you have the next album lined up?
Stephen James Buckley: My next release will be a collab I did with author Gareth E Rees, who wrote the brilliant Unofficial Britain. It’s called Dream Motion Trips, and was recorded for Miracle Pond, as part of their Subliminal Suggestions series. It will be out on cassette in early March.
Then I’ve got an album called Shpongos which I recorded last year for a US label called Behind The Sky, who you might recognize from the fantastic ‘Portals’ compilation. That should be out on vinyl in April.
After that I’ve got two more lined up for Castles In Space. A double LP called ‘Myriad’ which will be available only via their subscription library, and then another LP called ‘Praedormitium’, which I did over Christmas. I’m not sure when these will be released, but I’m guessing some time this year.
Aside from that there’s a split tape I did with Patrick R Park, which is still pending cover art and a release date.
I’ve actually had a break from writing/recording because I pretty much didn’t stop for a whole year. But I’m starting to get back into it now, so there will no doubt be more smaller cassette/digital releases on the way soon as well.
J. Hubner: What’s your hope for 2021? Is there a possibility of some live shows?
Stephen James Buckley: I’m not holding out too much hope as far as live shows go, simply because our government has screwed up pretty much everything related to Covid so far, so I can’t see things being any different for a long time. I’ve been asked to do a couple of live streaming gigs, which I’m getting together some ideas for at the moment. And I’d always be up for more. As an introvert I do actually quite enjoy doing gigs in the comfort of my own home.