Beautify Junkyards bring a Portuguese perspective to Ghost Box’s retro-futurist aesthetic. Frontman João Branco Kyron discusses Portugal’s 1974 military uprising, his love of British acid folk, and disturbing spectral voice recordings
“It was Victorian entertainment, where the public would go to see magnified images of exotic landscapes or faraway monuments. We were talking about it and we started to make connections with some of our songs.”
João Branco Kyron, the founder of Portuguese psychedelic troubadours Beautify Junkyards, is patiently explaining to me the concept of the cosmorama – the immersive 19th century exhibitions of panoramic paintings that inspired the title of the band’s new album. Over the course of an hour, talking from his native Lisbon, João acts as my tour guide for an absorbing meander through art, revolutionary politics and the alarming paranormal experiences that have led both to this wonderful, multi-faceted beast of a record and his entire approach to life.
“We came up with the idea of our own cosmorama,” he continues. “Some of the songs work as gateways to other worlds, or to those of artists we like. It’s a kind of journey of discovery.”
These “other worlds” include the work of Hélio Oiticica, the Brazilian artist whose ‘Parangolés’ series dressed its participants in coloured capes and encouraged them to run and dance. Then there’s the Zodiak Free Arts Lab, the short-lived 1960s Berlin venue where Conrad Schnitzler and Hans-Joachim Roedelius experimented with the earliest rumblings of kosmische. Both movements have directly influenced tracks on ‘Cosmorama’. João is also a big fan of filmmaker Derek Jarman, resulting in the delightfully incongruous experience of hearing a man from Lisbon wax lyrical about the allure of Jarman’s home on the unearthly shingled shore of Dungeness in Kent.
“It’s a place we like to visit,” he nods. “And we like to share our visits with people who are into our music.”
He’s talking of metaphorical, not literal, trips to the Kent coastline, but João is a man who clearly finds the power of art almost physically transportive.
Following on from 2018’s ‘The Invisible World Of Beautify Junkyards’, ‘Cosmorama’ is the group’s second album for Ghost Box, a label forged from a fascination with the unsettling pop culture of 1970s British childhood. But sleepless nights about ‘Doctor Who’ rather pale into insignificance compared to the experiences of Portuguese children born under the rule of the authoritarian Estado Novo regime. Their lives were transformed by the Carnation Revolution in 1974, a military coup followed by a popular uprising that completely reshaped the country.
Surreally, the secret signal for the insurgency to start was the 10.55pm radio broadcast of Paulo de Carvalho’s ballad ‘E Depois do Adeus’, which had been Portugal’s entry to the Eurovision Song Contest just 18 days earlier. It had come joint last.
“We are a crazy people,” grins João. “And it was crazy in a political sense too. On one side, we had the communists beginning to gain more influence in the media, while extremists from the far right were trying to launch a counter-coup. There was terrorism and people were exiled abroad or ran away to Brazil because they were afraid of retaliation.
“Before the uprising, we had political police called PIDE. They were really cruel. They used torture. After the regime fell, they started to be persecuted. We reached a point where anyone we didn’t like, well, they must have been from PIDE. The old guy in our building who doesn’t say hello to anybody? Everyone said, ‘He must be from PIDE!’.”
Yet with this turmoil came an influx of art, which had previously been outlawed by the oppressive regime. The cultural transformation ignited the creative curiosity that has moulded João’s entire life.
“A lot of banished musicians returned. All those forbidden movies, like ‘Last Tango In Paris’, we had queues around the block to watch them. My brothers would hold parties at home when my parents were out, with hippies smoking joints and listening to Pink Floyd and Uriah Heep. It was amazing for a kid like me, aged six or seven. It was like, ‘What the fuck?’.”
He laughs heartily and shrugs off my suggestion that the insurrection – despite its liberating effect – must have been frightening for a child.
“It was more a period of curiosity,” he explains. “We were celebrating because we’d had almost 40 years of isolation. I was discovering a lot of stuff I didn’t know existed, like this Portuguese band called Quarteto 1111, who took their influences from British folk music and psychedelia. They were the first band from Portugal to buy Moog synths. Their 1970 record, ‘Quarteto 1111’, explored how the country was dealing with its colonies, but it had been censored by the government. All their records were censored or banned.”
In recent times, Ghost Box have laudably expanded their musical palette by recruiting several international artists, with Beautify Junkyards joining German experimentalist ToiToiToi and American writer Justin Hopper on the roster. The ease with which they have adopted the label’s aesthetic suggests an obsession with spooky 1970s TV is not a phenomenon unique to the UK.
“Television back then had an element of magic,” says João. “Keeping those memories and using them in a creative way is universal. We had ‘Space: 1999’ in Portugal, with all the children collecting the stickers and building models of the Eagle space shuttle. After 1974, we also had a lot of Eastern European animation. I remember we had this cartoon called ‘Professor Balthazar’.
“Our TV was black and white, but the patterns made us think that something special was happening. We’ve carried those influences through our lives and now we’re revisiting them. We were projecting the future as we saw it then – a better future, one full of possibilities, not some grey and bleak landscape.”
When he was young, João would listen to his mother singing Fado – the traditional music of Portugal, which is accompanied by acoustic guitars or by mandolins.
“Most of the time, it’s really melancholic, all about missing the sailors who went away and never came back. It was played in local clubs and my mother used to sing it on the radio. But as I got older, my family moved to Brazil. This was in the 1980s. We went to live in Rio and I met a post-punk group called The Last Resort there. They were similar to Echo & The Bunnymen and The Smiths. They had concerts booked, but their singer was in rehab, so I told them I could sing… which wasn’t true.”
It’s easy to imagine how the band would have believed João. He is a compelling conversationalist. His all-consuming interest in art, for instance, is not dry and academic, it’s more of an integral part of a personality both enigmatic and quietly zealous. And, as encapsulated on ‘Cosmorama’, his favourite artists provide thresholds to realms far beyond the everyday. He talks at length about the occult-obsessed painter Austin Osman Spare and his sense of connection to the mystical.
“Automatic drawing,” he says. “Austin would draw with his eyes closed, which is an intriguing link between the supernatural and the artistic process. Since I was a child, I’ve been very engaged with the paranormal. My father was vice president of the Parapsychological Association in Brazil, so he was always bringing home case studies – paperwork and recordings and even people. On one level, I think it’s a way to extend our abilities. We live in a closed crystal dome and sometimes we have to break it. It can make our artistic language richer.”
He still owns the tapes that his father made.
“There was one time I was with him and he was recording in this room,” he recalls. “No one else was there, but when we listened back afterwards, there were voices of other people on the tape. They had Portuguese accents, even though we were in Brazil. It was someone who was going to the beach with their father, but they seemed to be afraid of the water. It was a really weird experience.”
When I suggest incorporating these recordings into a Beautify Junkyards song might make for the ultimate link between the mystic and the artistic process, João laughs again.
“I’ve considered it, but it’s a little bit frightening, although I find it more normal nowadays than I did earlier in my life. When you’re deeply immersed in nature and the countryside, you feel it. It’s just a question of embracing it.”
João returned to Lisbon from Brazil during the 1990s, after he had completed his studies, and it wasn’t long before he’d formed his own band, Hipnótica.
“This group released five albums,” he says. “We experimented a lot, so aesthetically they were all very different. One was electronic, one was jazz, another was indie rock. But we were reaching saturation in our musical language, so in 2010 we retreated to the country, to the house of the bass player, Sergue Ra.”
Sequestering themselves amid the olive-growing plains of rural Alentejo, Hipnótica‘s interest in the artistic and the otherworldly, together with the lingering spectres of the 1970s political upheaval, coalesced with a growing appreciation of the healing properties of the countryside.
“That association is from our childhoods,” notes João. “My grandparents lived in a small country village and I would pass my summer vacations at their place. Most of the guys in the band had similar experiences.”
This mass decamping was an epiphany and the point at which Beautify Junkyards started to emerge. The group’s new name came courtesy of Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan, who talked about a sign he’d once seen at a Toronto refuse dump which read, “Help beautify junkyards. Throw something lovely away today”.
But the main catalyst for the change in direction was the discovery of a book that became something of a blueprint for forging a “better future” from the shadows of the past. Rob Young’s ‘Electric Eden’, published in 2010, charts the evolution of British folk music, from the 1960s revivalists to the retro-futurists of Ghost Box.
“Rob Young’s book was life-changing,” explains João. “It introduced us to a lot of acid folk artists and we began to play people like Nick Drake and Vashti Bunyan. And the way that we were able to develop from there was amazing. The book explores the idea of looking at those origins and finding the paths you can take to go forward, to build bridges to other possibilities. We discovered a lot of Portuguese musicians from the same period, such as Zeca Afonso and Banda do Casaco, had also been inspired by folk tales and pastoral scenes. We saw it as a rebirth.”
Beautify Junkyard’s self-titled 2013 debut, recorded alfresco in the surrounding fields, includes covers of songs by Drake, Bunyan and Roy Harper, as well as a bucolic take on Kraftwerk’s ‘Radioactivity’. The 2015 follow-up, ‘The Beast Shouted Love’, was the album that João speculatively sent to Ghost Box after learning of the label’s work through ‘Electric Eden’ and the writings of early champions like Simon Reynolds and Mark Fisher.
“They were also exploring the relationship between folk, spiritual places and childhood memories, which resonated deeply with us, even though we were living in Portugal. When you find that kind of synergy, it has no borders. So after reading that Ghost Box wouldn’t accept any demos, I sent them an email with a demo!”
‘Beautify Junkyards’ approach to collaboration is strikingly and admirably cosmopolitan. ‘Cosmorama’ features mellifluous guest vocals from British-Brazilian singer Nina Miranda (“A magical being,” declares João), whose 1990s stint with trip hoppers Smoke City earned her a UK Top Five hit with ‘Underwater Love’. Allison Brice from New York dreampoppers Lake Ruth and harpist Eduardo Raon also contribute to the album.
And the doors continue to open. ‘Starlit Remembrance’, João’s solo collection of electronica, was released in August under his surname, Kyron, and there’s also his experimental spoken word project, ‘O Maquinista’.
“When you explore your roots and your recollections, you always discover new things,” he says. “Sometimes you can use the music to repair the wounds you have from the past. It can even serve as a sort of exorcism.”
And with that, the enigmatic João Branco Kyron vanishes through the virtual gateway and leaves me in the company of an album whose psychedelic majesty belongs to a troubled past and hopefully a brighter tomorrow too.
‘Cosmorama’ is out now on Ghost Box