South Wales-raised graphic designer Julian House's eerie and electronic sound collage project the Focus Group was born out of his co-founding of the influential Ghost Box label in London with Jim Jupp in 2003. While Jupp's simultaneously fashioned Belbury Poly tread a similar path of warped electronics, intentionally misremembered folklore, and British cultural ephemera, House's music scuttled away from the conventional structures betrayed by the music of his longtime friend and fellow BBC Radiophonic Workshop obsessive. Built around uncommon, disjointed loops of anything from textured woodwind samples to excerpts from vintage percussion LPs, the music that House released as the Focus Group was equal parts comforting and unsettling. Inspired by '50s electronica, '60s British jazz, and '70s library music, House's audio collages offered vague glimpses of what our musical landscape could have been like if the distorted electric guitar had not established itself as the archetypal late-20th century rock & roll star's instrument of choice.
The succinct debut Focus Group album -- 2004's Sketches and Spells -- was comprised of 25 tracks in just over 35 minutes, an indication of the fleeting and elusive nature of the sound fragments that were contained within House's strange and beguiling, part-Corn Flakes packet, part-Penguin paperback-influenced cover design. Radiophonic bleeps, clipped xylophones, looped flutes, treated strings, out-of-context choral passages, crowing cockerels, and mangled acoustic guitars all bustled for space to create what was effectively an alternative take on psychedelia. Released in 2005, the equally abstract and enchanting Hey Let Loose Your Love garnered further acclaim by using a similar template and also managed to incorporate snatches of Charles Causley's poem "I Am the Great Sun."
House used a combination of digital and analog sources, and his careful positioning of these disparate sounds within the mix was undoubtedly inspired by his visual collage work. As each new Ghost Box release appeared, his singular gift for design ensured that they became coveted items among fans of a genre that would ultimately become known as "hauntology." Away from his own experimental sphere of music, the sleeves for albums by high-charting artists of the era -- such as Primal Scream (2000's XTRMNTR) and Oasis (2008's Dig Out Your Soul) -- also benefited from House's striking imagery.
Released in 2007, We Are All Pan's People was playfully titled in simultaneous reference to Arthur Machen's pagan-themed supernatural horror novella The Great God Pan and the kitsch, light entertainment dance troupe that appeared on BBC’s Top of the Pops throughout the '70s. Perfectly pitched between the strange and the everyday, it was House's longest and most ambitious record to date. However, in 2009 he reached a career high, collaborating with like-minded friends Trish Keenan and James Cargill of Broadcast, an act for which House had designed every sleeve since their 1996 debut single. Broadcast & the Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age was a major achievement, fusing House's stray and atmospheric loops of unanswered phones and rattling doors with the late Keenan's mesmerizing Gertrude Stein-inspired verse. Almost all of Broadcast's live performances from this point until the sad passing of Keenan in January 2011 were accompanied by House's film Winter Sun Wavelengths. Later that year, his sequel, New Summer Wavelengths, was premiered at the Green Man Festival in Wales. May 2013 brought a third Focus Group album, the swirling, appropriately titled Elektrik Karousel. ~ James Wilkinson, Rovi