Cosmograf's Robin Armstrong on concept albums and staying independent
If you don’t play live, never tour, and self-release concept albums about aliens, spirits and spaceships that you produce down the bottom of your garden, how on Earth do you build a fan base a
Robin Armstrong, the wizard behind the curtain of Cosmograf, flies in the face of conventional wisdom. He doesn’t tour, has only played one single gig with Cosmograf, and his new album, The Unreasonable Silence, addresses the human condition with a story about aliens in Iowa. Armstrong started releasing music under the Cosmograf banner in 2009. He plays multiple instruments and records and mixes most of the tracks at his studio The Trees, which he built down the bottom of the garden – the only exception being the drums which he records at Aubitt Studios in Southampton. It’s a Herculean task but the narrative in The Unreasonable Silence was inspired by another mythic figure – Sisyphus, who was condemned to spend eternity rolling a boulder up a hill, only for it to always tumble back to the bottom. Armstrong came to the tale via the French thinker Albert Camus. “He was a philosopher that dealt with the human condition which is an area I always seem to end up writing about in my concept albums,” says Armstrong. “What I’ve done is a bit of a modern take on that by mixing it with a more sci fi-inspired story. The rock and the hill are probably very much the same as they always were in Camus’ mind in that it’s the constant struggle for the meaning of life. He described the struggle as the confrontation between the need of humans to work out why they’re here, their purpose, and the fact that the world that they live in doesn’t give them any clues at all. That’s what he described as ‘The Unreasonable Silence’, that the world gave no clues as to why they were here.”
The Sisyphus figure on the album is a software engineer, originally from northern England, now working in Iowa, who, in Armstrong’s words, “doesn’t understand what he’s doing, becomes disillusioned. He starts to become a bit unhinged and believes that his destiny lies not on this world but there must be a bigger force at work and starts to think that aliens might be coming for him”.
The songwriting and the narrative are separate processes at the outset, then Armstrong gradually winds the two threads together as the music develops. “It becomes quite a torturous process right towards the end to get everything to make sense and fit into place,” says Armstrong, who often finds himself with leftover musical fragments. “I do tend to make a rod for my own back with this way of doing it, because with concept albums you’ve really got to make sure that everything ties up and makes sense. That works sometimes at odds with the way I approach music because I like to jump all over the place and try different styles. As you listen to the album, it jumps in and around different styles; it jumps into classic rock and then back out, then into very proggy moments. There’s a track that doesn’t even feature a guitar at all, so I like to move around but that can work at odds with trying to do a consistent story.”