Publishing company Eleusinian Press describes itself as the place where “music, madness and politics meet”. We speak to its founder, Alastair Kemp, about how he turned a deep love of underground music and his triumphs over mental health issues into one of the UK’s quirkiest and most fascinating indie publishers.
Q. How did your publishing house, Eleusinian Press, come about?
A. Eleusinian Press came about as a direct result of having to give up a PhD in Social and Political Thought in 2012, to care for my daughter. She had been born the year before with Crouzon's syndrome. I was getting Carer's Allowance but, as much as I loved my daughter, I felt the loss of doing my PhD. I had been particularly proud about enrolling on that course as I had beaten some personal mental health issues to get to that point. So I needed, at least, a side project to focus on as a way of dealing with the more stressful parts of the care, especially the many hospital visits and supporting my partner, who spent nearly every hospital visit by her bedside while I looked after our son, who was only an infant at the time
I decided to publish a fanzine/ edited collection of poetry, short stories, and non-fiction articles on mental health and music (mostly). The first ‘Newhaven Journeyman’ came out as a book in September 2012. Two more followed over the next two years. On top of that, in looking for somewhere to do a book launch, I visited Newhaven Fort on the south coast of England and was struck by how great a place that would be to hold a music festival. I phoned some promoter friends, who agreed, and the experimental music festival ‘Fort Process’ was born.
Unfortunately, my daughter was in and out of hospital so much that it affected my mental health. As a result, I couldn't take too much so the company Lost Property was formed by my promoter and jazz musician friends, and they did the festival based on the idea that I had seeded. However, having three journals under my wing I decided to push further, seeking out other authors to release their work.
The first book that I released was a collection of poetry by talented poet Virginia Wilkerson. At that time, music journalist Mick O’Shea contacted me to publish his book, Stayin' In Tune, the first biography about The Clash’s co-founder, co-songwriter and lead guitarist, Mick Jones. As a result I formed Eleusinian Press in 2014 as a limited company and the rest, as they say, is history.
Q. Why did you choose to specialise in books on music and mental health?
A. I have lived with mental health issues for most of my adult life. I was able to start university in my late 20s after having to spend a short spell in a psychiatric unit the previous year, in 1996. During the noughties, I pursued voluntary work for the likes of NSF/Rethink, MIND and the NHS in different areas of mental health. In short, then, I’m no stranger to the subject, from both sides of the fence.
I have always loved music and after completing my undergraduate degree at the age of 30 I was able to secure a Prince's Trust loan which enabled to me set up an online record shop, which I ran for five years before tackling a Master’s degree in 2005.
A few years later, I read DIY: The Rise Of Lo-Fi Culture, a book about fanzines by author Amy Spencer. That’s when it struck me that I could start my own magazine, which ended up being the Newhaven Journeyman, and, given that I know about music and mental health, they seemed the perfect topics to cover. Having studied in academia, I knew how to do a journal so I just set to work learning the rest: researching publishing and getting to grips with typesetting, editing, and laying out a cover. As already mentioned, the journal led to Eleusinian Press, and the same topics seemed a natural direction to follow.
Mick Jones - Stayin' In Tune: The Unofficial Biography
Photo Credit: Front cover designed by Pistol Art.
Q. What have been the popular titles or biggest successes released to date?
A. On the music side, the Mick Jones biography Stayin' In Tune is a consistent seller, and the biography of the cult American band the Butthole Surfers, Scatological Alchemy by Ben Graham, also sells very well. The collated columns of music journalist Daniel Spicer's Lost In the Vaults from Jazzwise magazine is a more recent release and does well. In mental health, the psychiatric survivor art activist Dolly Sen's book DSM69 has sold consistently well for several years. Recently, in the London Evening Standard, there was an article on museum directors’ favourite pieces in their collection that they would want to take home with them (if they could). Dolly's work was one the choices for the director of the Wellcome Collection.
Q. What do you look for in a title before taking it on for publication?
A. Well, it has to have a focus on music or mental health usually, and has to be reasonably unique. In music, the more underground it is, the better. In mental health, it has to be critical of the system and I don't take on recovery narratives. So, something that has a challenging perspective is always of interest. I do take on academic books as I have the background to do so. I say that I don't take on novels as I find them harder to sell, but I seem to have published a few anyway!
Lost In The Vaults
Q. What titles have you personally been most proud of?
A. All the music books I have mentioned that sell well, obviously, but I am also pleased that I released Dolly Sen's books as well as the novel Suspect M by Canadian author Aleksandra McHugh. It’s kind of Girl, Interrupted meets Alice In Wonderland with a surreal take on the classic science-fiction adventure novel Escape from New York. The central idea revolves around complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) where 'New York' is an asylum.
Q. What’s the next book set to be released by Eleusinian Press?
A. It’s called Variations on an Inexhaustible Theme, and is by jazz musician Massimo Magee. He describes it as a ‘multimedia novel’, somewhere between a Thomas Pynchon novel or Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco. However, it comes with a unique 'album' of music designed to be streamed using QR codes that go with the narrative and his own artwork throughout. it will be in hardback this time, as a kind of record/book special edition.
Q. Where does Eleusinian Press go from here?
A. We also have a sister company, Dymphna's Archive , which is a retail company that sells vinyl, CDs, tapes and books, and we are hoping in the next few years to go into podcasts and documentary shorts as well as workshops, talks, seminars and gigs in a variety of areas including mental health and music. There is precedent for this as I have done some small promotion in the past going back to the late 1990s and have organised book talks, including with the late writer, philosopher and critic Mark Fisher. I’ve also previously provided a show for community station Radio Reverb, so I will be trying to combine this experience to push the company into these other areas.
Scatological Alchemy: A Gnostic Biography Of The Butthole Surfers
For more information, visit Eleusinian Press