INTERVIEW

The story of Andy Popplewell and T.R.A.S.E: a lost physics and woodwork project from 1982

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In 1981, Andy Popplewell was a 16-year-old spod studying O Levels in Government Economics and Commerce. He was the kid that would stay late – the one that seemed to enjoy learning a little too much. Today, he’s pushing 50 and is a respected audiotape engineer and archivist. He lives in the northwest that raised him, where he’s spent pretty much his whole life. School has become the Internet, and Andy has taken full advantage of its 24-hour access. “I love the Internet, mate,” he says in an inescapable Mancunian blast, manic and familiar, like Terry Christian preaching on The Word. “It’s the best data resource ever invented. I’ve learned more in the last 8 years than I have done in my entire life about how the world works.”

Talking from his home in Stalybridge, Greater Manchester, Andy tells me: “I’m doing a project at the moment on how the world works. I’m back engineering reality at the moment.” He slips it into conversation and then it is the conversation. But before we get into what “back engineering reality” entails, a little about Andy Popplewell’s hidden musical past, and the reason we are here.

In 1981, Popplewell was not staying late at school to swat up on Government Economics and Commerce. That would come much later. He was educating himself in the production of electronic music, then in its infancy. In 2013, if you know where to look, you can find an electronic piano on the end of a tie; in the early ’80s you had to build this futuristic equipment yourself, and for that you needed to know something about physics and general wood and metal work.

Andy’s teachers supported his new enthusiasm for their chosen fields fully, allowing him full use of their classrooms as he wished. “I was into The Human League and John Foxx and Gary Numan and Giorgio Moroder, ‘I Feel Love’, and all of that. I just loved it,” he says with what becomes a recurring, mad laugh.

It took 12 months of soldering and saving for Andy to buy the parts and build his first piece of kit – a 6-track audio mixer, as published in a 1979 issue of Practical Electronics magazine.

Elektor – a similar publication that implored Britain’s nerds to take scalpels to circuit boards and bring science into the home – then gave Andy his next project: the Chorosynth, which would become his primary instrument. He bought a Clef Master Rhythm drum machine, too, but again in kit form, which needed piecing together in the science and woodwork labs of Paars Wood High School.

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Finally, he was ready to emulate Foxx, Numan and Moroder under the chosen name of T.R.A.S.E, meaning Tape Recorder And Synthesiser Enable, as that’s how early electronic acts were performing live – singing to a backing track. Kids name things all the time. Usually it’s half the fun. Yet it’s something of a mystery as to why Andy Poppleman bothered. After recording an album worth of material over a three week period in 1982 (also named – ‘Electronic Rock’), followed by a few additional songs later in the year and a fleeting visit to a professional studio in 1983, Andy boxed up his tapes and T.R.A.S.E was over. Only the master copy of ‘Electronic Rock’ was made and it had been played to hardly anyone, 10, 15 people in the proceeding 30 years, by Andy’s estimation. There were no attempts to play the songs live.

“I was never going to release the album because I was never happy with it, because it was never finished,” says Andy. “It was always a work in progress, especially the stuff from 1982 – I mean, that was done in my bedroom with homemade equipment. It was just a teenage kid letting go and just doing it.”
In 1984, Andy chose the BBC over his project. He moved to London for three years to train as an engineer at Bush House. “Training at the BBC was like a degree,” he says. And so T.R.A.S.E has been his secret juvenile folly ever since, although it’s telling that a man who has made a career out of fixing recording studios and restoring tapes spent more time in his youth building the equipment that he would eventually play.

Popplewell met Andy Votel whilst working his day job. Votel is one of two founders of independent archive label Finders Keepers. This month the label released T.R.A.S.E’s debut eponymous album, a dusty time capsule for fans of experimental, embryonic electronic music. ‘T.R.A.S.E’ is an extraordinary collection of sci-fi b-movie soundscapes, half ideas from outer space, nods to Kraftwerk and drone rock, one Gary Numan b-side (‘We Are So Fragile’) and the occasional austere post-punk track complete with Popplewell’s dead-eyed vocals, a source of embarrassment for him that played its part in him keeping T.R.A.S.E to himself all these years. Andy Votel was impressed though. Says Popplewell: “[Votel] was just a client and he asked me if I’d done any music in my life. I’d just archived off my cassettes, and I said, ‘Here you are mate, have a laugh at this! It’s just stuff I did as a kid’, and he was gob smacked! So I gave him all the tracks and said, ‘do what you like with them, no big deal’.

“I’d also kept a record of everything I’d done – I had scrap books of all the circuit diagrams, all the equipment, and I’ve even got the Chorosynth. Some of the other kit has unfortunately fallen by the wayside – my homemade mixer wasn’t safe, so that met with an untimely demise in the ’90s. But I just gave him everything, and was like, ‘here you are, mate, that’s the whole lot, everything from that project, from 1981 to 1983.’ I gave them free reign – ‘do what you want with it’ – and they’ve done a brilliant job.”

A majority of Popplewell’s scrapbook makes up the album’s inner booklet, original photographs by his mum and extensive, candid sleeve notes by himself. He tells me that his mother burst into tears when she recently heard his music for the very first time, and more than once he voices his disbelief at a T.R.A.S.E album finally being released. “I never expected this, ever!” he says. “I’ve worked for pop stars and bands, but I’m a back room guy, a techy, with the unsung heroes of the industry. And to be offered this, I am utterly gob-smacked.

“To be honest with you, it’s been a really crap couple of years and this is the one shining light in it. I’m just flattered. I’m still reeling from this. I’M A MIDDLE AGED BLOKE, MATE!” he yells and laughs.

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‘T.R.A.S.E’ is a romantically lo-fi record, but, much like its unpretentious naivety, its melancholic gloom and suspended sense of loss was not lost as it fizzed through Popplewell’s rudimentary homemade mixer in 1982. At 10 years old, Andy unexpectedly lost his father; an experience he now feels affected his music.

“One day he was there the next he wasn’t, he was dead, and that was it. And if you’re a mother and you have to tell your kids their dad’s gone, that’s brutal. If you haven’t lived it you don’t know it. I’m not asking for sympathy on this – it was a long time ago and it happens everyday – but for me being a geek teenager that was an outsider, [T.R.A.S.E] was me expressing how I felt. Only looking back after 30 years gives you that insight. Some of it’s quite raw, and there are some tracks that I’m going to release next year that are directly about my dad. I don’t know if I’m meant to tell you that yet or not, but there’s going to be another album next year, and there’s a track on there called ‘Memento’…”

Andy mentions his father’s death at the start of his sleeve notes, and towards the end, after enthused lists of obsolete tech (Tandberg 3000X, Sony TC-FX2, TEAC 3440), the passing of a boss and mentor in 1991, which he says raked up old, unwanted memories. He freely goes on to discuss what followed in ’92: “struggling with the psychological scars of grief and asking questions regarding the nature of reality and why the world was/is the way it is, and why I have never fitted in the mainstream.” To me, he calls himself an outsider. “I’m a bit of a geek,” he says. “I was a geek at school, and if you look into the autistic spectrum and Asperger’s spectrum, I’m right in there.” It’s a thought echoed from the sleeve notes, and it’s round about there that he also writes about engineering reality.

I ask Andy exactly what that means, having a guess at searching for the meaning of life. “Yes,” he says. “Well, that’s one of the questions. The other is why is our world run by insane people. John Lennon actually said that in the late ’70s and he was absolutely right. It’s the usual suspects – it’s the power brokers, the bankers, not the politicians, who are just puppets doing what they are told…

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“But I’m beyond the pettiness of human existence now. I’m looking into esoterics, the nature of reality – I mean, are we meat popsicles with consciousness embedded in us? Is there life after death? What is the nature of the universe? How does it work? Why is it the way it is?

“I’m an engineer mate. The first thing an engineer thinks is, ‘how does that work?’ I’ve got a lot of questions and I need answers to them. It seems to me that the powers that be don’t want people capable of critical thinking. They want sheep who do what they’re told and don’t ask awkward questions.

“I’ve been looking into law and how that works,” he continues. “I’m especially interested in strawman legal fiction, which is the corporate entity that everyone of us has. You can Google this – it’ll mash your head, mate. I’m two years into it and I think a grand deception has been perpetrated on every man, woman and child on this planet, but I can’t prove it yet – it’s just a hunch. It’s all about birth certificates. Everyone has a birth certificate, but actually what it is, is a corporate entity – it turns that child into the property of the state, so you don’t own your own children, and it’s done under duress, because if you don’t sign a birth certificate you get fined or sent to jail, but by signing it, you unwittingly turn that child into a slave.”

Andy whips through 8 years of self-imposed research in 30 minutes, barely pausing for a breath. One theory triggers another, which digresses into three more – Admiral Law (it turns out us Brits are still ruled by the law of the sea), spirituality, conspiracies, the New World Order, the registered business of Washington DC, who’s buying the gold, why I should (and can) refuse to pay car insurance, the banking crisis and racketeering, to name a few. Eight years is a long time, but still I wonder how he finds time to sleep.

“A mortgage is actually a death bond,” he says. “That’s why it’s called a mort gage. But when I was a kid I said, ‘hang on, you’re borrowing a hundred grand to buy a house and you’re paying back two hundred grand? That’s racketeering!

“If you want to make the world a better place, get rid of charging interest. There’s loads of advanced technology, which is being suppressed by the government because they don’t want people getting their hands on these free energy devices. You can go and Google this. We don’t need a national grid, we don’t need nuclear power and we don’t need to burn fossil fuel. Go and have a look,” he says, “make your own decisions on that – I’m not here to tell the people how to think.

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“The banks are all insolvent. The banks are going down. I don’t know when, but the western banking system is finished. If you want to work out who’s going to run the planet, find out who’s buying the gold!”

On reading that sodium fluoride was used by the Nazis in concentration camps to sedate the inmates, Andy stopped buying toothpaste that contains the chemical compound (“or sodium monofluorophosphate,” he notes). He’s knocked soft drinks containing aspartame on the head too, “because it’s a neurotoxin – it dumbs you down and lowers your IQ.”

“It’s all a bit out there,” admits Andy, the barer of bad news, here to tell us all we’re fucked. But, then, a majority of us already knew that it’s not looking good. I’m not sure I believe in all of the grand deceptions that Popplewell does (my toothpaste contains fluoride and if anything I wish I got more of a buzz from it), but when he signs off with, “It’s got to be fixed. I’m a repairman; I repair things and my next job is to fix the planet,” I like the naivety of that, just as I like the naivety that went into T.R.A.S.E – a project for the sake of it, which may be more enigmatic and magical for having fallen down the back of the sofa for 30 years, but would remain an eerie feat of adolescent DIY drone pop had it been made yesterday with modern plugins. God knows plenty of others have tried to remake this record in the last five years, even if they didn’t know it yet.

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