Chris Watson

After co-founding the influential Sheffield industrial band Cabaret Voltaire in the 1970s, Chris Watson turned to field recording. He has had an illustrious career as a sound recordist with both solo work and commissions for organizations like National Geographic and the BBC Natural History Unit. His solo albums for Touch include Weather Report (2003) and El Tren Fantasma(2011), both classics in their genre.

For the BBC, Watson has recorded sound for many nature documentaries hosted by David Attenborough, including The Life of Birds (1998) and Frozen Planet (2012). He has also created sound installations for galleries across the world. He recently contributed the piece “Unlocked” to Unsound Festival’s Intermission compilation. On March 4th, 2021, Matthew Blackwell met with Chris Watson over Skype to discuss haunted landscapes, dangerous animal encounters, and whether the Atlantic and Pacific oceans sound different from one another.

Matthew Blackwell: Where are you located now? In Northumberland?

Chris Watson: Yeah, in the northeast of England. Just north, in the suburbs really, of Newcastle. But I’ve been away actually, on a shoot these past few days. 

What is Northumberland like, for someone who hasn’t been there? I’ve been to England, but only London. 

It’s far better than anywhere in London. It’s the northeast of England, so it’s a coastal county, a very ancient county. It’s got a really remarkable coastline which is quite industrial at the southern end, near the River Tyne, near the city, but as you go further north it gets wilder, rather more remote. Yeah, it’s great. Ends up at Lindisfarne and then inland, there’s a large forest area, one of the largest planted forests in Europe, Kielder Forest, where I do a lot of recording. And then there’s a lot of open hill land, the Cheviot Hills, which have a really old history as well.

In the 17th century, this area was really occupied by clansmen, by families that didn’t think of themselves as either Scottish or English because Northumberland borders Scotland. And that really didn’t mean much to them because they were associated in family groups. Collectively, they were known as the Border Reivers. It was really quite a violent place because these people would go around robbing other farms and properties and stealing cattle. And they made their own laws—they didn’t bother with laws that were made in London or Scotland. They sort of lived by the sword and that’s evident still in some of the place names where I go recording. There’s places like Hangman’s Rock and Murder Cleugh and Bloody Bush. If you were visited by the Border Reivers, you were “bereaved,” which is where the term comes from, to give you some idea of what they would do. 

So it’s great, I love it! (laughter). It’s relatively unpopulated as well, so you can get away from people and places quite easily.

You recorded there for a piece a few years ago called Haunted Spaces, is that correct? 

Yes, the Soniccouture piece. Well, that included recordings from all around the world, actually, but I did some special recordings in Northumberland. And I’m doing so again, actually, for another edition to that series.

Oh really? Excellent. 

It may be out later this year or early next year, I’m not sure. But yes, I’ve been working with James [Thompson] on that. I really like doing those, actually. It’s a really interesting way of applying some of my recordings. And I use that Haunted Spaces [sound library] myself, I really like it.

Could you explain a bit about the concept of a “haunted space” that the project is based on?

The title really comes from haunted spaces, from a long time ago—and this covers some of what I’ve just described, actually. In the early 1980s, when I first moved up here to Northumberland, I was reading some of the books of Thomas Lethbridge. Thomas Lethbridge was the director of the Museum of Antiquities in Cambridge in the 1930s. He was an academic, but was also a historian, archeologist, and explorer, and he spent a lot of his time on location investigating places, and as far as I was aware he was the first person to use the technique of dowsing over maps to find places. Something which just blew my mind when I was reading this in the 1980s, that you could dowse with a map of a place and then go and find what you were looking for in reality. He wrote very eloquently and interestingly about places that he thought were inhabited by a sense and spirit of place and he tried to investigate as to why that was and what that embodied.

To put it very simply to start with, in our lives we can all go into houses or buildings and quite often, if people are house-hunting or looking for a new apartment, you can walk into somewhere and you get a feeling of good or bad. People quite often say, “that house, that room, that space has an atmosphere.” Thomas Lethbridge was interested in investigating that. And when I moved up here, I started looking at the maps of Northumberland to find places to record. And I found these places on the map in remote parts of Northumberland which were called Hangman’s Rock, Murder Cleugh, Bloody Bush. I went up there, and now there’s a planted forest in many of those areas because just after the First World War there was a national timber shortage. The forestry commission planted forest on what was moorland and upland and the remote valleys of the Cheviot Hills. But the place names on the old maps and on the ordnance survey maps still held the history of what had happened there and why these places had been named so. So I went up there to see if I could retrieve something, draw something out of that landscape even though it had been transformed, which drew upon that history, which again was something that Lethbridge believed, that he discovered.