Rob St. John releases a new album, ‘Surface Tension’, via Edinburgh label Blackford Hill.
A side project to his work as a member of Modern Studies – who most recently released EP ‘The Body Is A Tide‘ – the new record is available as a 12” album, limited to 300 copies.
Aside from his band work, St. John most recently worked with Simon Kirby and Tommy Perman (who designed ‘Surface Tension’s artwork) on another Blackford Hill release, ‘Sing The Gloaming‘ in August 2020.
Based in rural Lancashire, St. John was commissioned in 2014 by conservationist Benjamin Fenton from the Thames21 Love the Lea charity to create a project documenting pollution, life and biodiversity through the Lea Valley’s changing environment.
The record was originally released as two limited book/CD editions (both sold out), but is now available on vinyl for the first time as a limited edition deluxe package which includes film photographs and new sleeve notes by Fenton as well as writer Richard King.
‘Surface Tension’ was made over the course of a year St. John spent walking, recording and photographing the Lea Valley in East London before taking his field recordings and mixing them with analogue synths, fingerpicked guitars, tape loops and tube organs.
The tape loops of field recordings plus guitar, cello and piano melodies were recorded in Scotland with Modern Studies bandmate Pete Harvey before being mixed in St John’s home studio.
Various recording techniques were employed including experimental microphones to record underwater and through different surfaces; and 35mm and 120 film photographs, many of which were taken with home-made Lesney matchbox pinhole cameras, and developed in polluted Lea river water.
The release also includes a long-form essay on the creative processes drawing from art, ecology and sound used to create ‘Surface Tension’. Each record is also, appropriately, pressed on eco-mix vinyl (made from plastic cut-offs from other pressings, also meaning each copy is visually unique as well as more environmentally-friendly than standard pressings).
“I was born in Edmonton and spent the first few years of my life in Ware, further up the Lea, and the route north along the river was full of memories of places and family connections,” says Blackford Hill founder Simon Lewin.
“Time spent exploring the Lea was never about a need to escape the city – we enjoyed our return to Hackney as much as our outbound journey. But we’d often pinch ourselves when remembering the birdlife we’d encountered while exploring an environment that was so close to home, more or less on our doorstep.
“When planning the launch of Blackford Hill and considering the output of the label, Surface Tension was never far from my thoughts. So we’re delighted to have the opportunity to release it on vinyl for the first time.”
“Back in 2015 I worked with Rob on the design of the first version of ‘Surface Tension’ – two editions of the artist book and CD sold out quickly,” says designer Tommy Perman.
“I’m so happy that with Blackford Hill we’re revisiting the project and releasing a special edition pressed on unique eco-mix vinyl. The package highlights Rob’s beautiful and thought-provoking film photography. For selfish reasons, I can’t wait to have a copy in my collection!”
As well as a variety of Modern Studies records and solo releases, St John has installed artworks at Tate Modern, The Barbican and The Victoria and Albert Museum and had his work profiled on BBC Radio 3, 4 and 6 Music.
You can also hear an two part interview with Rob St. John about his latest