Discussing the music of the spheres with UNKLE, Vessels and Tim O’Brien at the UK’s premiere space-themed festival...

Next year will mark half a century since humankind first set foot on the surface of the moon, an incredible feat of human endeavour that we haven’t managed to surpass since. Since the heady days of the late 60s when ‘Space Odyssey’ ruled the charts and exciting new series such as Star Trek envisioned our potential to build a galactic utopia, it can seem that our capacity for optimism and belief in a better future has sort of… drained away.

But the dream of the 60s is alive in Jodrell Bank, Greater Manchester. Named after the celebrated Pale Blue Dot image taken by Voyager 1, and inspired by Karl Sagan’s powerful corresponding observation that everyone who has ever lived existed on this ‘mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam’, Bluedot festival exists to celebrate and inspire humanity’s capacity for both curiosity and creativity across the fields of science, music or art.

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It’s the only festival at which you might find sometime Scissor Sister Ana Matronic hosting a series of scientific panels discussing the ethical conundrums raised in 2001: A Space Odyssey, or stumble into veteran cosmic composers Radiophonic Workshop running an all-day sonic masterclass. Overtly space-centred acts such as Public Service Broadcasting (never more in their element than playing to a field full of nerds), The Orb and self-proclaimed extra-terrestrials Henge rub shoulders with some of the North’s most unique and forward-thinking bands, including Hookworms, Rhain and Vessels.

Most festivals have some science tacked on somwhere. There’s always that tent you wander into bleary eyed on a Sunday morning where they’ll tell you about puffin migratory patterns and give you more stickers than you rightly know what to do with. Only at Bluedot, however, can scientists draw bigger crowds than established musicians. Intellectual titans such as A.C. Grayling, Jim Al-Khalili and Richard Dawkins attract legions of inquiring minds, while scattered around the base of the titanic Lovell Telescope are enough scientific stalls, shows and installations to inspire an entire generation of astronauts and eco-warriors.

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Opening with an impactful performance of George Fenton’s original Blue Planet score with Manchester’s Halle orchestra, the weekend really hits its stride with a typically bonkers headline set from The Flaming Lips (who were the first band Jodrell Bank director Tim O’Brien ever got to play in the shadow of the mighty Lovell Telescope back in 2011, planting the seed from which the whole festival would later grow). UNKLE then takes the baton, each song from ‘Psyence Fiction’ they drop getting an understandably rapturous response.

Saturday headliners Future Islands put everything into their show, but they are ultimately outclassed by earlier performances from future Mercury Prize-winner (if there is any justice in this world) Nadine Shah and living legend Gary Numan, whose stark synth anthems and post-apocalyptic attire mark him out as the true headliner of the day.

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On the Sunday the 35 degree weather hit, and this writer got severe sunstroke jamming out to Crazy P then spent the rest of the night in his tent with a fever. By all accounts The Chemical Brothers were next level though, so fair play to them.

Throughout the festival the theme of inspiration was palpable, whether it’s art inspiring scientists, such as Radiophonic Workshop recreating their work on The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and Doctor Who to an audience of childlike University lecturers, or science inspiring artists, such as the fantastically colourful visualisations of pulsar signals that are projected onto the huge Lovell Telescope each night.

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Big questions were the order of the weekend, so I asked two bands (UNKLE and Vessels) and one scientist (Bluedot founder Tim O’Brien) the five most important questions about the relationship between music, culture and space.

What roles do music and culture play in our continuing exploration of space, and vice versa?

UNKLE (James Lavelle) - The exploration of space has always been a great source of creativity because it’s about the unknown, so the imagination can run free. Whether it’s for music or art, it’s just about the idea of the infinite. Some of the greatest records ever made are synonymous with space.

Vessels (Lee J. Malcolm and Tim Mitchell) – (Tim) You don’t have to go to space to be inspired by it. When you look up to the stars you’re looking back in time, and language is a really difficult medium to describe that feeling. Music, especially instrumental music, transcends that. You avoid dealing in clichés and your mind is more free to explore abstract thoughts, which is where the more incredible ideas come from.

Tim O’Brien - I strongly feel that exploration and discovery are as much a part of human culture as music, it’s all part of human creativity. I was inspired by Doctor Who and Star Trek when I was a kid. They were broadcasting creativity from a writer’s mind that has inspired so many people to work on the actual exploration of space. I talked to Wayne Coyne yesterday and it’s clear that some of what they do as a band is inspired by the human exploration of space, these scientific ideas. Scientists listen to music too, we have playlists!

Which of your own songs would you put on a sequel to Voyager 1’s Golden Record to be shot up into outer space?

UNKLE - I’d probably choose 'Lonely Soul'. It’s the record sums up most of what UNKLE is about, as it brings together so many different elements of music into one song: there’s classical, there’s hip-hop, there’s classic DnB, there’s rock. It’s an interesting hybrid of sound, so if alien lifeforms discovered it then they would have an interesting example of human endeavour.

Vessels – (Lee) I wouldn’t want to choose one of my own! I’d like to put the whole of ‘I’ by Meshuggah on it. (Tim) - Or the 13th Floor Elevators or someone. If it’s one of ours then maybe ‘4am’ I suppose?

Tim O’Brien - I do actually have my own track! It’s called ‘Hello Moon Can You Hear Me’ and it’s made from signals dedected by the Lovell Telescope mixed into a track. If I picked somebody else’s then The Flaming Lips’ ‘Do You Realise?’ The message in that song about everyone you know one day dying so you should celebrate what you have now is important. Astronomers think about time in terms of billions of years, so we’re very aware that every atom we’re made of was not created here on earth, but in stars billions of years ago. When we die our constituent parts are recycled. It’s a long continuum that we’re just a sliver of and we ought to get on and enjoy it while we’re here!

Who should be the first musical act to perform in space?

UNKLE - The first band that springs to mind is Radiohead, just because they make records that manage to be both emotional and intellectual. But I think it would be difficult to have one act that defines a mixture of all culture. Massive Attack might be the ones to go for here.

Vessels – (Lee) I think it should be The Flaming Lips up there. They’ve been vying for it for ages, they deserve it. But their stage show would be a little bit reduced. It’s a tricky one, I don’t see why anyone would deserve it more than anyone else apart from Wayne Coyne.

Tim O’Brien - Why not Hawkwind? They’re cool. They’re the gods of space rock aren’t they? Whether they would want to go to space I don’t know, or maybe they just wouldn’t want to come down. But could you imagine ‘Space Is Deep’ or ‘Masters of the Universe’ or something like that? If you were on one of SpaceX or Virgin Galactic’s inaugural space flights, what would be on your headphones?

UNKLE - Maybe Louis Armstong’s ‘What A Wonderful World’?

Vessels – (Lee) The whole of I by Meshuggah! (Tim) It’s a tricky one, because so much music would be appropriate. But do you go really ambient or something really intense. ‘Flight of the Valkyries’? Or ‘The Rite of Spring’? Or ‘Greensleeves’? (Lee) I’d probably put on either some classic post-rock or a Stewart Lee podcast.

Tim O’Brien - Something relaxing I would imagine, or maybe something really thunderous. Maybe both ‘The Blue Danube’ and ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’ by Johann Strauss from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Duhhhh duhhh duhhh. Duh Duh!

Which is better, Star Trek or Star Wars?

UNKLE - Star Wars, because Star Trek’s shit.

Vessels – (Lee) I love both but I’d probably have to go with Star Trek. It’s a bit more real and closer to the heart for me. I think it’s quite an inspiring idea that we could get to that point in our future, whereas Star Wars is just mental.

Tim O’Brien – Star Trek. It was my first love and I do remember the first episodes on British TV in the 1960s, almost 10 years before the first Star Wars came out. So I like them both, but I’m going to go for Star Trek.

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Words: Josh Gray

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