I was a little bit sad when Glastonbury Music Shop in Benedict Street closed down, a town with so many fantastic musicians should have a music shop, and it was nice to have at least one place in town that didn’t sell crystals.
I went to meet Jay from Glastonbury Online for some website advice upstairs, in the rather peculiar 1970’s retro shopping arcade that is ‘Abbey Mews’ in the High Street. As I headed up the steps I noted the guitar body and children’s spade combination that bore the legend ‘Music Shop’. Halfway through our conversation, from under our feet, strange synthesized noises rumbled and squeaked. I was intrigued, but still didn’t dare enter, for fear that I would be forced to confess that I have no musical talent and wasn’t actually going to buy anything.
A short while later Hazel from Glastonbury Online mentioned that the shop’s owner, Mark Ty Wharton, was looking for some admin help and that he was autistic. This was reassuring, as 1. I can’t play guitar but I can whip up a mean spreadsheet, and 2. I generally feel less awkward around autistic people as, in my experience, they are refreshingly straightforward.
I finally ventured into Mark’s shop ‘Sonus Magus’ to talk about music, Glastonbury and autism. I began by asking ‘what brought you to Glastonbury?’
“My wife made me move here. We came here on her 40th bday and stayed at Middlewick Farm. She really liked it and wanted to move here. I was very cross about it, as I had lots of stuff to sort out in Bedfordshire before moving. But I have met lots of people, the first one was Dave Beach, I realized there was quite a big music scene here. When I was 15 I registered a business name for a music shop, so I guess I must have always wanted to run one. Originally I was just going to open a sound art gallery, with my self-made instruments, but Hywel who ran the old music shop told me he was closing down and was happy for me to take over selling strings and stuff”
Mark struck me as a man with a mission, so I asked him what drove him:
“When I was 13 I had a panic attack, these continued through my adult life, but have lessened. I spent a lot of time hiding away, but I got fed up with it and I decided I wanted to be in the community and serve it in some way. I realized the panic attacks were a mental obstacle, not a physical one. This is about meeting people and making good connections. I want to create a central musician’s hub.
Now I know I’m on the autism spectrum. If I get 10 people in the shop I find it quite difficult. Hence the note on the door ‘Folk musicians must be accompanied by a responsible adult’. In my experience folk musicians drink lots of cider and fall over, especially banjo players.
I like discussing spiritual subjects with people, pretty much everyone in Glastonbury seems to have an idea of how the Universe works, a lot of people have really complicated ideas, I like to show them a simpler way of looking at it. I sum it up as ‘Life is happening’
Some people think life is an illusion, well what if it is? Something is going on, the fact that we recognize something is going on leaves us open to appreciate and understand all the spiritual viewpoints – I could be a Druid and a Jehovah’s Witness at the same time. I think they are all valid expressions of a story we have about energy. Science is just a version of the story. It only matters if people get tangled up in it and believe it to be true. I have a nagging doubt about, say, the Maitreya centre across the road, I question the integrity of someone who set something like that up. Perhaps he totally believes in it himself. If people get drawn into that I think they may be missing out on leading their own life. I’m not keen on any system that puts someone else up on a pedestal as a deity. They should watch the Life of Brian – that makes everything clear again.”
Mark explained that he had always worked in music, except for a brief period working as an upholsterer in the ‘80’s. His brother is Adamski, they worked together and Mark was in a band called ‘The Garden of Eden’ (reputedly Britain’s first Acid House band). ”We reached the top 100 in the charts, but not the top 75! But we were number 1 in the UK singles dance chart.”
Looking around the shop I spotted several bizarre instruments that Mark had constructed, I was interested to know how these had come about:
“I customize motorcycles. I was an engineering apprentice, learned metalwork, used to make guitars as a teen. This phase all started with a competition 8 years ago at my son’s school to make a musical instrument. I collected loads of junk – old guitars, a spatula. I didn’t win, I couldn’t understand why. It didn’t put me off. I wanted a gas can guitar so I just made one, Smithy welded it up. I didn’t like the neck so I swapped it I even made a guitar out of an old Mac computer. I used to make my own electronics as a child. I see things, make connections between them, and just want to bolt them together to make other things.
I got divorced over a keyboard. I was working with Duran Duran as a sound engineer and Pro Tools programmer, I used to go out and buy weird things to make noises out of and see if I could get some inspiration for the track. I went to a boot sale with my wife at the time and bought a keyboard for £20, my wife thought it was a piece of crap. It was the inspirational pivot point for a really beautiful song called “Still Breathing” on Duran’s Astronaut album. I knew from her reaction, she had no idea what was really important to me. She was just fed up with the clutter. Apart from making me move to weird places, my new wife is much more understanding, she just lets me get on with it.
I don’t make everything in the shop, I buy a lot of unusual things. I want to take things apart and see how they work, out of curiosity. I take toy keyboards apart, lick my finger and put it on the circuitry to see what will happen. I got bored of conventional synthesizers and discovered if you short circuit children’s toys you can make weird noises out of them. I buy a lot of things to learn what they are for.
I’ve created several magical moments where people bring things in for sale, often I don’t think they will sell, but almost immediately someone will come in and say it is exactly what they are looking for. A ‘meant to be’ moment.”
Here’s a video of Mark demonstrating his ‘Time And Relative Distortion Interference Synthesiser’
I wanted to know more about Mark’s Super Power
Prominently displayed on the wall of the shop is a poster proclaiming: “I am not good at ending conversations because: I have an autism spectrum super power!”
For a long time those with autism were perceived of as suffering from a ‘disability’, autism activists now suggest that autism, particularly at the ‘high functioning’ end of the spectrum, often comes with super abilities. I found it enormously refreshing to see that Mark was so uupfront about his autism and happy to talk about the influence it had had on his life:
“I used to go to the Mind Body and Spirit festival and I got into healing when younger, but it was all a quest to end my panic attacks.Since learning I’m autistic I’ve learned I can just accept the way things are, I don’t have to be like everyone else.
When I told my Mum I had been diagnosed with autism she saw it as some sort of personal failure. In the 60’s parents were blamed for their child’s autism. I see it as hugely advantageous, I can make pictures in my head, some other people can’t do that. I can do it with my eyes open. I couldn’t understand what clairvoyant was as I thought seeing pictures of something in the future was normal. I’ve got an excellent visual imagination – good for creating new things. It’s really useful in designing motorcycles and instruments – a bit like an internal CAD system.
I’m overly sensitive to sound but can hear things when doing recording studio work that others don’t. Perhaps my failing is I’m very detail oriented, I find it hard to step back and see the overview.”
I was interested to know what Mark thought of Glastonbury:
“There’s a huge transient population in Glastonbury, people I befriended when I got here have now disappeared. I find that odd. People come here for spiritual healing, very enthusiastic, often they leave despondent, perhaps what they saw happening didn’t happen.
There’s a strong divide between New Agers and people who grew up here, but some are more accommodating than others. It did take me a year to see there was an underlying argument between natives and incomers.
A really beautiful thing about Glastonbury – we lived in Huntingdon, then Biggleswade, we really liked it, as it wasn’t jam-packed full of vanilla High Street retailers. In Biggleswade, we became members of the history society but discovered that the townspeople wanted the big shops. It had started to happen when we left – the change from quaint market town to something else. While Glastonbury has changed from a market town to something else, it has changed into something much better, not homogenized. If it wasn’t like it is it would be like Yeovil – dominated and dictated by big companies. It feels different here, more of a community feel.
There’s lots of creative people here, a huge amount of people who want to be leaders, with not enough followers. There are workshops for everything, but their audience is made of people who want to run workshops. Some really popular people do workshops here and no one comes. Too many organ grinders and not enough monkeys. Everyone has their own unique idea of how the world works and wants to be telling everyone else.”
Mark had spotted a similar dynamic going on in the Glastonbury music scene:
“There’s an open mic night every night, and Sunday afternoons, it’s a good place to play, but you’ll be playing to an audience of musicians, all trying to sell you their CD’s, so they aren’t likely to buy yours”.
Mark did recommend ‘Succulent Humm’ – Pete Warnock’s choir, as one of best things to go to locally.
My friend Marco, a German carpenter and man about town on a bicycle, came into the shop looking to buy a tuner. He picked up an instrument made out of tin in the shape of a campervan, with a dulcimer neck, which is played with a slide. He sat down and played Norwegian Wood.
I spotted a note on the wall ‘Note to self – stop revealing details of your colourful past’. It hadn’t occurred to Mark that this would make nosy people like me desperate to ask him about his colourful past. He didn’t reveal anything terribly scandalous but did say he’d had a few celebrities in the shop – one from Rev Co (the Revolting Cocks) who loved how unusual the shop was. One of the Mutoid Waste Company had been in and promised him guitar necks and broken radios. Mark revealed he used to go to all the parties in London with friends who were part of that scene.
We inevitably talked about the Glastonbury Festival. Mark didn’t like the idea of people everywhere but was surprised to find that the town is ‘stone dead’ when the festival is on.
“I was on the Pyramid stage as crew in 1990, I’ve been as a touring artist. We might go this year on the Sunday, but it’s so complicated getting tickets. Not my thing being stuck in a massive crowd, but it would be a challenge. Could be a new TV show – ‘I’m Autistic, Get Me Out of Here’.”
I really enjoyed chatting to Mark, he’s interesting, forthcoming and honest. Check out his shop in the Abbey Mews Arcade opposite the Post Office in Glastonbury High St, for all the usual and unusual instruments, strings, tuners and other musician’s essentials. On the Sonus Magus website you can buy a selection of wav files of tarmac munching machines that Mark recorded outside his house for £6.66, and download (for free) an Ancient Solfeggio Frequencies plugin sampler instrument.
Mark is one of the many fascinating people who live and work in Glastonbury, would you like to read more interviews with some of them? Or perhaps you’d like me to interview you? Let me know in the comments, or send me a message.
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