Stray Ghost is the pseudonym of Anthony Baden Saggers, a self-taught multi-instrumentalist and producer born in Brighton. During a highly prolific decade of music production, Stray Ghost has released albums with different record labels, self-produced several ambitious projects and participated in compilations alongside the likes of Peter Broderick and Nils Frahm. While not having a classic lineup, Stray Ghost creates elegant soundscapes that create an immediate emotional connection with the listener. From the previous minimalism of ‘Nothing But Death’, through the pastoral and more contemporary sound of ‘Those Who Know Darkness See The Light’ and ‘So Much To Remember, So Much To Forget’ to one of the latest piano works ‘A Shade Under Thirty’, Stray Ghost is one musically restless spirit, his music, in fact, evolves and matures continuously, exploring global and social issues through its own intimate and personal lens.
What was your artistic path?
In some ways I became a musician by accident, or at least it wasn’t my plan growing up. I wanted to make films, I sang (screamed) in bands, I had never played an instrument. When I was about 18 or 19 I started experimenting with sound art and sound design using a computer, and started “playing” electric guitar in open tunings I made up; this gradually led to me making music both alone with some friends. Hearing Godspeedyou! Black Emperor was a real eye opening moment, the beginning of my wanting to make dynamic and beautiful music. When I went to University in Canterbury I co-founded a band called Bardo Thodol. We started out as a lose and extemely loud jam group and evolved into an equally as loud and intense band and that really taught me a lot about making music. At the same time I was making albums as Stray Ghost, with no idea what I was doing, barely any equipment and no money. Somehow people started to pay attention. I was lucky, creative and worked hard at my music when I should have been studying and eventually it started to seem like I could make music other people enjoyed.
The Myspace music thing was just about at it’s highest ebb, soon to slowly die off and disappear. For me it made all the difference to have that outlet on myspace I think.
My first ever album was put out by Highpointlowlife (on the recommendation of my friend Matthew Rozeik of Necrodeathmort) now non-existant label called Dead Pilot Records run by a lovely guy who had so much faith in my music that he printed enough Cds to bankrupt his label (Thanks Dan/sorry Dan!).
It took another maybe 10 years of constantly educating myself about how to make music, working constantly to improve and learning how to best express what I wanted to express before I got to where I am now. Many great (and a few not so great) labels have helped me along the way and I’ve managed to get to the point where people seem genuinely interested in what I’m doing. Which is more than I could ever have imagined.
As anyone who listens to my albums will no doubt be able to tell just by listening, my ability as a musician has been growing steadily with my releases to the point where I now don’t feel too much of an imposter telling people that I’m a musician/composer.
“If the path is beautiful ask not where it leads” – Anatole France
What about your musical studies?
I don’t have any, or at least… haven’t had any formal education at all. I didn’t own an instrument until I was about 19 or 20 and started out having literally no idea what I was doing and kind of fumbling my way to things I liked. Over the years I’ve taught myself a lot of music theory, learning piano is one of the things which really started to force me into understanding the mechanics of why things work and into learning chord shapes and relationships, as well as how to mix and master things properly the kind of thing which, along with having something to express, means that you can evolve as a musician and a producer. I’m driven in trying to make every album or release a step above the last and so that requires increasing your technique, or your application of it… along with improving your understanding of what it is you’re doing. So in that way I suppose you could say I never stop my “study” of music.
What brought you to approach this musical genre?
I never at down and conciously said “I’m going to make Neo-Classical music, or whatever you wish to call it”. At the beginning it was just a growing love for piano and string based music, and the later it just became my musical language. I never questioned it.
Are there any composers you were inspired by, or to whom you feel more connected from a musical point of view?
Well it might surprise people to know that I rarely listen to anything in my own “genre”, especially by contemporary artists. That’s probably a concious thing to stop myself from being too influenced by anyone who makes music similar to mine.
Obviously music by people like Satie, Goreki, Arvo Part, Max Richter and Dustin O’Halloran had an influence on me earlier in my life, but I kind of absorbed it all then, and then just took off on my own.
I met Arvo Part twice actually, the first time he was kind of distant but was quite gracious. I gave him a cd of ‘Nothing, but Death’ and he was initially confused that the tracks were named “Part 1, Part 22 etc”.
The second time he was very rude to me… which I was really surprised at! I never expected it.
His daugther ended up spending the next hour or so talking to me, perhaps as a way to apologise; she was really really kind.
Maybe he thought my music was terrible… which it was back then to be honest.
My main musical influences are Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, Scott Walker, Lee Hazlewood. They influence me not just through their music but their own personal approach to their work and to music in general.
Leonard Cohen taught me to try and tap deep into what it means to be human, and to try and express something timeless.
Nick Cave taught me to treat what I do as work, not just sit around and wait for inspiration but to treat it like a job and work, work, work until you have something.
Scott Walker took music to places it’s never been, was fearless and uncompromising.
And Lee Hazelwood taught me that getting paid for what I do wasn’t some kind of shame and didn’t negate the fact that I can make great art and make a living from it at the same time.
As for music I listen to, I could give you a list ten metres long, so I’ll refrain from doing that for the sake of the length of your article. Two contemporary musicians I listen to a lot are Daniel Knox and Aldous Harding, check them out if you haven’t heard them. A friend of mine makes beautiful music under the name M.Butterfly, check out his album “II”… that album has got me through some tough times in the past few years and I feel he deserves more listeners.
He’s like Townes Van Zandt but softer, so melancholy… it’s great.
As for composers… well they’re mostly all dead.
I love Mahly Vig’s scores for Bela Tarr‘s films.
I’ll never make anything as moving as Valuska, but I’ve almost come to terms with that.
Can you tell us about the meaning of the title and the reasons behind your latest beautiful work?
I’m grateful that you refer to it as beautiful, but I’m not sure exactly which release you mean, so here’s a breakdown of the last few:
‘If I Could Cross The Space To You’
This last one, is kind of a mystery to me.
I don’t even remember composing or recording half of the tracks to be honest with you.
I made a huge amount of music in the first half of the lockdown, and nearly all of them sprang from that. One thing I can say is that I really like this album, it surprised me when I sat back and listened after deciding the final tracklisting and cut out the weaker tracks.
If this is the last ever Stray Ghost album, I think it’s a good place to let the name rest.
Daniel Knox, who I mentioned previously said of the album that it “felt like being told a story from two distinct points in time that don’t meet but sort of pass each other by” which I thought was a very beautiful and complimentary way to describe it.
I’m very happy with the sound of the string and woodwind pieces here, and I feel like this album marks a good step forward in my understanding. Hopefully the next one will be even better.
This mini-album was recorded and written in Izmir, Turkey. White Rose is one of my nicknames
for my partner. I don’t actually call her it, but it’s kind of a symbol for her in my mind. That composition took a lot of work, despite how simple it might sound now that it’s finished. Trying to replicate that delicate fragile beauty of a white rose, and all that symbolises for me…that was difficult. I think I got there in the end.
One of the tracks If Ever There Was A Way was actually written as a gift for my partner at the same time as ‘Sketches from a Minor Tragedy’ but hid itself away in my hard-drive for a year until I suddenly found it again. At a Loss For Words came from one of the stillest and loneliest weeks of my life, and I’m glad I managed to get something I like so much from such a bad week. That’s the first track I’ve ever played Viola on… I bought one for cheap in Turkey and it’s great, I always wanted one because of John Cale in The Velvet Underground. Sometimes it Hardly Seems Worth Trying at All is probably one of my favourite solo piano pieces I’ve ever written, and it’s one of the tracks which never seems to get any streams on Spotify much to my chagrin. Actually I was really disappointed with the label’s PR for this release, I think it’s a good one and deserved a bit better in terms of publicity.
‘Diary of a Life Inside’
This album was 100% the product of lockdown/quarantine and being forced to stay inside all week for weeks at a time. It’s so lonely and still sounding (which was my intention) that it may very well be the bleakest album I’ve ever put out and when you’re talking about my discography that’s no small feat! It was only supposed to be a small thing to help pass the time, and I decided I should offer it as a pay-what-you-want download. I was surprised by the amount of people who contacted me saying that it really helped them through the recent Covid lockdowns etc. I was grateful and even a bit surprised to know that it had been of comfort to some people. I guess I didn’t think anybody really cared, especially as it was such an under the radar release.
‘Sketches from a Minor Tragedy’
This album became an album almost by accident. I made the pieces as gifts for my partner in the months following meeting her. I sent her one every week or so, and I never intended for the public to hear them. It was only when I sat down maybe half a year later and listened to them all in a row that I realised that I should put them out as an album. Most of the tracks are repetitions of a theme for solo piano, which was written for my partner Ilayda. The two orchestral tracks are pretty strong I think, and they help break up the album. The tracks which were included on the vinyl release (Via Oscarson) are the “canon” tracks for that album, but the digital version on my bandcamp contains pretty much every track I originally sent to Ilayda; something for the completists.
What is your idea of musical aesthetics, what creative research is behind your piano music?
I’m not entirely sure I understand what you mean by the question, and I wouldn’t say I have any one idea about aesthetics, musical or otherwise. As for research, it mostly constitutes learning chordal and harmonic relationships, and listening to other people’s music…and just enduring the “slings and arrows” of life and turning that experience into music.
You have lived in different cities, how much does all this influence and have influenced your music?
Whether the infuence can be felt musically or not is one question, but of course living in other countries always effects you as a person, which of course adds another layer to what you bring to the world as an artist. In terms of real influence on my musical style though… Paris had an influence on my music, mostly through deepening my interest of French piano composers like Satie.I lived a few streets away from Satie‘s old house in Montmartre, and used to go sit outside on nights when I was depressed about having no money and feeling like I’d never make it as a musician… it gave me some comfort.
I didn’t take much of an inspiration from Turkey directly in terms of its music, as to be honest the cross over between Turkish music and Western music isn’t something which would work well in my style, although I did a few experiments, all of which left me feeling like Anouar Brahem has already been there…
One huge, huge influence living in Turkey had on my music is that due to the relative cheapness of living there in comparison to Europe, I had all the time in the world to make music, which I’d never had the luxury of before. I played piano all day everyday, I focused on making music so much that I think I grew more in that time than at any other; and to be honest I miss that. Italy had a less of a direct influence because I had no piano, other than when I rented a place for a month with a piano, and to be honest I was mostly just living my life. I wrote one piano piece in Macerata however, and I think it’s really, really good. You can listen it on Spotify, search for La nostra Macerata.
I really liked your album ‘A Shade Under Thirty’, what are you inspired by? How did you build that sound?
Thank you, that’s very kind. I expected a better response from that album in all honesty, but the label made a very disappointing PR campaign and I was left feeling a little disappointed that it hadn’t received a bit more attention, so it’s nice to know it found its way to you.
That was one of my albums which had a few thematic ideas, all tied together by the idea that I was, at the time of writing and producing the album, a shade under thirty years old.
I challenged myself to make an album which I could look back on later in life and say “I made that before I was Thirty years old” and hopefully be proud of it.
As for the music itself, each piece has it’s individual meanings and I won’t bore you with all of them. Jaures is about European disintegration, as Brexit was in the air at the time, and I named it that after Jean Jaures who’s death signalled a very bleak period in history which came about during the last breakdown in European history, the World War I. Eliza is about an imaginary girl who seemed to inhabit my mind at that time; that scale on the piano was “her” and everytime I went to play it her mood had changed, spookily her name sounds a lot like Ilayda who I would later meet. Fear of a Silent Spring was about future crop viability, and the threat of a parched and dead world where nothing grows. Fear of the Capital Collapse is about the threat of large scale economic and societal collapse… there’s a lot of fear and anxiety on that album I guess. Song for Nick was written for Nick Cave, who had recently experienced a huge tragedy and one which I felt very deeply for some reason. I lived not far from him, and was luck enough to give him a copy of the vinyl and tell him about the dedication. I was very very grateful to be so well treated by one of my heroes. He’s such a gracious and welcoming guy. He later made ‘Ghosteen’ which is about, in essence, a kind of “stray ghost”….so maybe I got into his subconcious, who knows. I somewhat arrogantly like to think so.
I was always a bit disappointed that the finished version of Two Steps never got anywhere near the amount of popularity that the early version did, which somewhow has nearly 8 million streams on Spotify. I really like the finished version, so if anyone wants to check it out… it’s on that album.
How has the pandemic affected your musical activity and your creativity?
I’ve probably been more productive than ever before to be honest, that’s not to say it’s been easy…but I’ve dealt with it by working really, really hard.
New projects for the future? Upcoming Concerts? New records? Can you tell us something about it?
Well the first thing is that Stray Ghost is no more. I’ve decided to stop using the name and simply carry on making music under my own name. So all releases will be under the name Anthony Baden Saggers from now on, which I hope isn’t going to lead to me losing all my listeners!
The other news is that I’ll be releasing an album very soon for another project I’ve been working on, under the name Vernon Spare. I’m actually singing in the project and I’m very nervous and excited in equal measure by the idea of it. I have finished an album as Vernon already, but this one is a new record recorded in a very lo-fi way in Macerata under lockdown. I never considered myself a singer, so it’s as much of a surprise to me as it probably is to anyone. As for shows, who knows at this stage, we’ll see what happens when covid is no longer an issue. All I can say for the next release as Anthony Baden Saggers, is that I won’t do it unless I’m satisfied it’s my best ever work. I mean I have to raise the bar on this next one in every respect, because in some ways I’m starting all over again by casting off the name I built a reputation under.
It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time however, and I felt the time was right.
I think it’s time to put my music out under my own name, I think it’s at the level now where it’s perhaps too serious for a pseudonym. I need to stand up and say “This is me, this is my offering to the world”. Time will tell if this is a wise move or not. This year I’m also doing my first score for a full length film; it’s a horror film called ‘The Good Wife’ and a short film about a depressed and philosopical hitman called Marston, which I am very excited about.