Interview: Designing a Concept Album with Faye Simms

Rock and Roll is driven by narrative. Musicians adopt personas, world-build around themselves and the audience plays along. Some examples are overt — David Bowie becomes Ziggy Stardust, Brian Hugh Warner steps on stage as Marilyn Manson — but there is something particularly immersive about a good concept album.

Perhaps more than any other modern genre, the Synthwave movement has taken meta narrative to the next level. Many of the artists working in the scene take on fake personas themselves, or fabricate phoney cult movies to produce soundtracks for.

This brings us to “All Hallows’ II“, the latest album from synthwave composers Robin Ogden (A.K.A OGRE) and Dallas Campbell, that takes the ‘interactive album’ to a whole new level by inviting listeners to investigate a missing person case involving a mysterious health cult called The Shepard Institute of Psionic Inquiry. Inspired in equal parts by a love of H.P Lovecraft and the occult, the story of the record is as dark and mysterious as the tracks within it.

To bring the story of the album to life in a way that most musicians just don’t, Ogden and Campbell partnered with narrative designer and illustrator Faye Simms who worked with them on developing how listeners might interact with the story through more than 40 pages of painstakingly designed case file documents “collected in 1983” when police broke down the doors of The Shepard Institute and found the remains of dozens of patients inside.

We managed to pull Simms away from working with Phi Dinh on the new game “Recompile” as well as the second issue of her series “The Foldings” to discuss more about the process of developing the interactive album.

THE STORY FIX: The journey of an album is very different than a game or a book. Did you have to alter your approach to narrative design to work on All Hallows’ II”?

FAYE SIMMS: The core concept behind “All Hallows II” was to treat it as if it weren’t a story, but real events, and to recreate whatever documents might have survived the last 40 years.

True Crime and mystery novels fascinate people, and a big draw of murder mysteries is wondering how we might have behaved if we’d been there; if we were witnesses or detectives trying to put the pieces together.

I wanted to give people a true taste of it, making all the evidence available with no detective to give a neat denouement at the end. The most thrilling mysteries are those that give you enough information to form your own conclusions, but not so much as to spoil the enjoyment of speculation.

TSF: Presenting it like a case file is really cool. The story is all there, but you have to figure it out from old evidence.

FS: One of the most interesting parts of writing this was that extra-textuality; that every page is an artefact from the story and as such part of the story itself. Who made these documents, posted these flyers, kept these notes? Was the desk sergeant who filed it bored, coffee-wired or exhausted? Could he have made a mistake? Did he rip the edge, spill some coffee on it? Or was that the person who, years later, is photocopying sealed court records?

I wanted to leave people with a sense of this entire moment in time; these few months, the institute, the patients, and people who collected the evidence, all through the lens of these tiny fragments. Layered over that is the decades, the missing pages, the lengths your source went to to find these long buried documents and get them to your hands. The reader is looking at this story through the long lens of time, and I wanted that time to be apparent the moment you touched the case file. I even joked to Robin we scrub a little sand over the physical editions where it’d been buried for a month for safekeeping.

In aiming to keep it as real and tangible as possible, the person reading the final case file becomes part of overall story. The latest person trying to make sense of events that, as time moves on, are increasingly hard to understand.

A portion of a 1983 article by Ellis Ledstone from the Dunwich Chronicle

TSF: Is there a definitive answer to the mystery? Multiple possibilities?

FS: I think we have strong feelings about what exactly went down for some parts of the story, but the beauty of true crime stories is that no one is ever really sure. We weren’t there, you weren’t there and as sure as we are that we have the right answer, we can never really know.

The really interesting thing is after showing this story to friends, they had totally different ideas, different questions at the end from the one’s I’d formed myself. For now you have all the evidence we have.

TSF: What did the collaboration look like? Did the music drive the narrative, vice versa, were you listening to tracks as you worked on the story?

FS: Robin (OGRE) is well known for his real and imagined soundtracks, so he came to me with strong feeling about the mood and direction he wanted the story to go. “All Hallows I & II” are all about the cinema of the mind, the album and the story being one entity, combining to leave you with the strong impression that you’ve totally seen this movie, a long forgotten 80’s cult classic.

We started out by asking a lot of questions, coming at it from different angles, trying to uncover any scenes already present in the music. Once we had a strong direction I was able to chisel out our major players, locations, motivations and a rough outline of events.

We spent months creating the actual artefacts, one of the trickiest parts of this was creating authentic or close to authentic looks for everything. How does one write a police report? The guidelines for officers at the time are along the lines of ‘Try not to miss-spell everything and keep your handwriting neat’, from which we extrapolated that maybe a few spelling errors and smudgy typing might be more realistic than a clean and accurate document.

An portion of Ledstone’s admittance form

Ageing and destroying and partially burning papers was a lot of fun, especially when we had to take the full murder case file to a local library to get that old-fashioned bulk-photocopied effect.

TSF: What was your takeaway from this whole experience?

The idea of using multiple perspectives, found artifacts and breaking the borders of the panel to break the fourth wall of the story are quite common, but it’s rare to get a chance to work on bigger multimedia, multi-format projects like All Hallow’s II.

I’m fascinated to see how else we can break the rules.

_____________________

ABOUT THE ALBUM:

35 years ago investigative journalist Ellis Ledstone admitted himself as a patient to an alternative healthcare facility, The Shepard Institute For Psionic Inquiry. 6 months later, police would break down its doors to discover the remains of a dozen patients in The Institute’s basement. Until now, the events leading up to that night have been largely withheld from the general public. For the first time ever we attempt to piece together that story. 

While the album is available digitally (the case files bundled as a PDF), the definitive version of “All Hallows’ II” seems to be the limited cassette pack which includes all kind of extras:

– A hard copy of the 38 page “All Hallows’ II” Case File
– “All Hallows’ II” Limited Edition C46 Cassette, with variant cover art
– All Hallows’ II: CODA Limited Edition C26 (15 additional cuts & b-sides).
– Psionic Realignment Meditation Cassette Tape
– Original Shepard Institute Of Psionic Inquiry Flyer
– Download cards for All Hallows’ II: CODA and Psionic Realignment Meditation Cassette Tape
– Digital .PDF download of the All Hallows’ II Case File

Definitive “All Hallows’ II” Cassette + Case File Set

[Full disclosure: OGRE also contributed a standout track to the Sythnwave Playlist for our forthcoming interactive fiction game, THE PULSE]

___________________________

StoryFix Media produces interactive fiction games and novels. Our sci-fi text adventure The Pulse releases in 2019. Our novel New Horizons is available now.

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