It could be a new, particularly fiendish round on Only Connect: fish or submarine? Cosmo Sheldrake leaps to the computer in the home studio he’s created in his parents’ Hampstead basement - a boho hideaway decorated with wall-hung sousaphones and exotic stringed contraptions - and fires up a found sound file. ‘Ping’, it goes, sonarishly. Fish or submarine?
Um, submarine? Uh-ERR. “That’s one sound that’s built out of the recordings of fish by the American military during the Cold War,” Cosmo explains. And the American military were recording fish during the Cold War because…? “I think so they could distinguish between submarines and fish. Each submarine was armed with this sound bank, if they had sounds coming at them they could quickly cross-reference and make sure it wasn’t a fish.You’d never quite know they were fish really.”
Quite. And this is just one of a plethora of odd sounds that form a track called ‘Pliocene’ on Cosmo’s debut Transgressive album The Much Much How How and I. “That song also features the sound of a pig, and me squeaking in a rocking chair. ‘Pliocene’ is mainly built out of sounds I got from Bernie Krause, who is this soundscape ecologist who’s been recording sounds for over 50 years. A lot of his sound archives are sounds which are now endangered or extinct ecosystems.”
Fish detectors, the squawks of extinct species, bats chewing - Liam Gallagher would spontaneously combust at first exposure to The Much Much How How and I. For this is a modern synthetic pop record built from nature’s noises, classical influences and non-Western styles: east European carnival whirls, Far Eastern shinto, Mardi Gras rhythms and jungle soundscapes. Imagine Sufjan Stevens on safari, or a more WOMAD Alt-J.
It’s very much the result of Cosmo’s background. Boasting biologist father and brother and a musicologist mother who worked with avant garde German composer Stockhausen for four years and teaches Mongolian overtone chanting in the next room, nature and exotic music has mingled in the Sheldrake household for as long as Cosmo can recall. “I’ve absolutely loved the sound of those amazing 2-stringed Mongolian violins, fiddles, the horse-head fiddles, just the pentatonic rhythmic sound of that world, Mongolian and Tuvan.” He was teaching himself classical piano by ear from four and conquered New Orleans jazz from seven, eventually graduating to his own concoction of enigmatic collage in his teens.
“It’s mainly just having things filter through my life that have shone a light on different parts of the world and different musical traditions that otherwise I might not have had access to,” he explains. “I’ve always grown up in a house where everything falls silent for a bit, then you listen then you just hear the (mimics chanting) coming through the walls. I don’t think it was until I started thinking about how to use sounds or cutting and pasting things and reorganising and restructuring that I really started listening to sounds of the natural world or sounds around us, as with any kind of musical potential.”
A keen twitcher, from the age of sixteen Cosmo would travel the world recording birdsong and constructing musical journals from them. “Each bit of that piece would trigger a memory from that trip, so it’s like a photo album but in a piece of music.” From there grew an interest in esoteric musical projects that would see him form an (occasionally) twelve-piece band called Gentle Mystics and go on to score a series of Samuel Beckett plays at the Young Vic, lead a Brighton community choir, run workshops on music, double-handed drawing and the nature of nonsense in Europe and America and develop an interest in creating a project around extinct sounds. “You’ve got to find birds and animals that have been recorded and have died since the evolution of the microphone,” he says. “I’ve found a good few animals that have been recorded but are completely extinct.”
In the world where music and nature collide, Cosmo built a name. He soundtracked the 2017 Netflix nature series Moving Art and composed music for Relax & Dream, a project which brought nature videos and music to children in hospitals, and in 2013 he gave a Tedx talk entitled ‘Interspecies Collaboration’, involving a work constructed using field recordings of birdsong and the sun. All of which added up to a respectable career of mu… sorry, hang on, you recorded the sun?
“I didn’t personal make that recording,” Cosmo admits, “but I have a friend that’s a radio astronomer that explained to me how you would go about it: essentially you need a short-wave radio and a guide pole antenna, that would be one way of doing it. With radio astronomy there’s a lot of interpretation to it - the sun doesn’t literally go ‘boioing’. It depend what kind of data set you’re interpreting and how you interpret it because you’re getting electromagnetic impulses off it, then it’s how you turn those into a sound. So you can get lots of different kinds of sounds from the sun. It’s quite a chaotic sound.”
No shit. And it was sun and chaos that helped forge ‘The much much how how and I’ - a title that emerged from one of his free-writing poetry workshops - too. Cosmo’s solo pop career didn’t start well; at his first live gig, playing loop pedal guitar improvisations during his time studying anthropology at the University Of Sussex, he fell backwards offstage when the table he was sitting on broke (“I kept the table leg that did it; I have smashed things with it since”), but he persevered. Having released his first solo single ‘The Moss’ in 2014 and the Pelicans We EP in 2015, midway through the three-year process of writing the album Cosmo found himself in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, recording some very drunken mariachi brass.
“I absolutely loved it, it was completely amazing, totally cool, wild. It was nothing but celebrating and quite serious debauchery. There’s such a swampy atmosphere and swampy vibe. I was in one of their parades a couple of times, feeding the band and the dancers from the roving bar, actually.”
Cosmo’s plan to write in New Orleans for two months went up the Swanee in a haze of voodoo liquor and fancy hats, but when he fled to a friend’s ranch in New Mexico to “process some of it”, Mardi Gras seeped into his album. Cranky closer ‘Hocking’ became “an all-out homage” to that lost fortnight, as New Orleans mouldy brass mingled with shinto melodies and Alt-J alt-rock. Elsewhere, the energy of the Bourbon Street parades combines with eastern European folk, baroque, gospel blues and western rock to drive engrossing melodies like ‘Linger Longer’ and ‘Wriggle’, tracks played on everything from bass clarinet to banjo and, um, bat.
“I’d just come back from Panama where I was visiting my brother, who was doing his fieldwork there, and I had all these recordings of bats from the bat research scientist had given me,” Cosmo explains of the chewing bats that made it onto the album. “I just put them in, they started making a sound almost like trappy hi-hats.”
By lobbing together - and then making sense of - field recordings from nature, traditional global musics and western indie pop hooks, Cosmo has broadened Sufjan’s modus operandi of updating classical tropes and deepened Vampire Weekend’s art of the found-sound collage. Yet, despite lyrics referencing Winnie The Pooh’s heffalumps and nonsense poetry like Jabberwocky - lines make the album feel like a magical, child-like exploration of the natural world - it all shrouds a commentary on modern politics and global events of which Everything Everything would be proud.
“I do use a lot of nonsense themes or nursery rhyme imagery to explore things that don’t feel at all childlike,” Cosmo says. “I have a love for the imagery that has formed my mythological understanding of the world through children’s books, whether it’s Hobbit worlds or Alice in Wonderland worlds, things that helped form my imagination when I was young, and I think there’s something quite profound in nonsense, it can catch you off guard. But I try and use those frameworks to explore really heavy, serious things going on in the world. ‘Egg and Soldiers’ for example, is about our relationship with time, with short-sighted self-interests, the consumption on a daily basis and not really thinking about your relationship with the bigger picture. “We’ll play while Venice drowns”, for example, rising sea levels, and “submarines can’t save us now”, or “we climbed a hill and then fell down”, some of the general hubris of this industrial, materialist age. It’s still housed in a way that wouldn’t necessarily smack you in the face as a heavy subject.
“It’s really important that we engage in this creative way, with the amount of terrible things being done in the name of corporate greed, self-interest, the bottom line. ‘Linger A While’ I wrote the day of the Paris bombings and you’d never necessarily know that. It was about this loss of innocence, and fear and entering this otherwise not-so-fearful place. I don’t think it’s possible in such a globalised, terrifying age not to respond to that in some way, shape or form, and I guess I wanted to do it in a way that wasn’t going to shout and carry some political party’s flag on its chest.”
In it’s own playful way, then, ‘The much much…’ is a symbol of creative global unity, learning from the mistakes of history, attuned to the needs of nature and softly making sense of a messed up world. On this showing, if one new career is safe from extinction it’s Cosmo’s…
Words: Steven Kline