By the early Eighties Haigh had quit art school and was working at a Virgin record shop on Oxford Street – not the famous Megastore but a branch further up the road. The basement became a hang-out for London’s industrial-aligned musicians. Former employee Jim Thirlwell would bring his Foetus releases, Nurse with Wound’s Steve Stapleton visited regularly and likewise came bearing strange sounds, and all of it got played on the big sound system. After recording a solitary Truth Club / Fote single, Haigh had by this point launched Sema, a “dark ambient” solo project, which in rapid succession generated three albums (Notes from Underground, Theme from Hunger, Extract from Rosa Silber) during 1982-3, all issued through his own Le Rey imprint. “Steve was into the Sema stuff. We would hang out at his graphics design office, just down the road from Virgin. Then he invited me to some Nurse With Wound sessions.”
Haigh contributed to the Faustian frolics of mid-Eighties Nurse With Wound albums such as The Sylvie And Babs Hi-Fi Companion and Spiral Insana. Meanwhile, he put out the EPs Juliet Of The Spirits and Music From The Ante Chamber via the Belgian label L.A.Y.L.A.H., joining a roster of industrial luminaries that included Coil, Current 93, 23 Skidoo, Organum and Hafler Trio. In an echo of Throbbing Gristle’s “dis-concerts”, L.A.Y.L.A.H. talked about putting out “anti-records,” while the label’s name was an acronym for the Aleister Crowley dictum "Love Alway Yieldeth: Love Alway Hardeneth." But Haigh says he never had too much truck with the magick and ritual element in industrial culture, responding more to its cut-up and Dada side.
Besides, Haigh’s own music was steadily drifting away from the industrial zone. Sema started as disquieting abstract ambience sourced in various processed instrumental sounds, but the piano gradually emerged as the principal voice, and a calming one. A pivotal release was 1984’s Three Seasons Only. Credited to Robert Haigh and Sema, the Haigh side was piano-only. Satiesque sketches like “Two Feats of Klee” pointed ahead to Valentine Out of Season (released on United Dairies in 1987) and 1989’s A Waltz in Plain C. Both came out under his own name.
The Sema moniker was borrowed from an artists organisation co-founded by Paul Klee. “I was a Klee fan from my art school days and I think I just literally opened a book on him, saw the word ‘Sema’ and thought ‘I’ll have that!”. Other homages include “Rosa Silber” (a reference to Klee’s painting “Vocal Fabric of the Singer Rosa Silber”) and “Concrete and the Klee” (presumably a play on “Concrete and Clay”, the 1965 hit for Unit Four Plus Two). “Some of Klee’s work is probably not far off a visual representation of Satie’s music,” Haigh says. He relates the juxtaposition of “figurative and nonfigurative” in Klee’s work with the blurring between tonal and atonal that fascinates him in music. “When I’m doing a tonal piece I’m trying so hard to pollute it with wrong notes, notes that aren’t meant to be there, because I find that’s what makes the music stick. If it’s all tonally correct, I lose interest.”
Allusions to high culture pepper Haigh’s output of the Eighties (which was reissued several years ago by Vinyl on Demand as the box sets Time Will Say Nothing and Cold Pieces). There’s the Fellini nod of “Juliet of the Spirits”, the Chopin reference of “Berceuse”, and the John Cage title pilfered for Valentine Out of Season, while “Empire of Signs”, from Three Seasons Only, is named after Roland Barthes book about Japan.
“I was young then”, Haigh says with a self-deprecating chuckle. True, the trying-a-bit-hard comes over slightly jejeune. What’s more striking, though, about all these serenely sad etudes for solo piano, and their highbrow framing, is how there’s minimal indication that within just a few years Robert Haigh will be making intensely rhythmic music at the pulsating heart of a working class drug culture.
For sure, while tracks like Syko Mak’s “Recognise” or Splice’s “Falling (In Dub)” have the nutty, made-in-two-minute charm of the era, there’s no lost classics to be found here. Indeed there’s a palpable quantum leap with the first release as Omni Trio: the Mystic Steppers EP, initially released on the PM sub-label Candidate, and then, in refurbished form, as his debut record for Moving Shadow.
Haigh attributes this to the advantage of working in a record store and accessing “a lot of a cappella albums that other people couldn’t get their hands on, import records...” . He also talks about using vocal samples as the starting point for his tracks, which he’d fashion around them (partly because of his obsession with everything being in key). But you can’t help thinking that being so much older than most of his producer peers – and a parent too – Haigh might also have had a deeper feeling for how challenging life can be.
Drum patterns became primary hooks, the melodies that sang in your memory. Like the intro to Vol. 4’s “Original Soundtrack,” a vertigo-inducing beat-sequence that feels like a video loop of a swimmer plunging into a pool only to reverse out of the splashy surface and back onto the board. Or like the stiletto stitch-work of the breakdown in “Soul Freestyle” (off 1994’s Vol. 5), a ballet of exquisitely controlled violence.
Further Reading on Omni Trio and Robert Haigh
blog post on Haigh's pre-Moving Shadow pianocore tunes for PM Recordings
ambient jungle feature from September 1994 for The Wire (a/k/a Hardcore Continuum Series piece #2) including interview with Omni Trio
review of Moving Shadow rave Voodoo Magic in May 1994 at which Omni Trio supposedly performed + the same '94 interview with Omni Trio repurposed for 1995 Melody Maker mini-profile
Incidentally, that short interview - conducted remotely via the post, 24 years ago - is the only other time I've profiled Haigh. So it was a great pleasure to speak with the man - one of my favorite artists of all time - earlier this year and finally do a full in-depth profile covering the entire span of his career, including the pre- and post-Omni activity.
BONUS BEATS, OR BONUS VAMPS: ROB HAIGH ON PIANO LICKS IN RAVE
SR: In rave anthems like Landlord's “I Like It (Blow Out Dub)”or Outlander's “The Vamp” or your old pals 2 Bad Mice's beyond-classic remix of Blame's "Music Takes You" - specifically at the break at 3.52 - what is happening on the piano? The effect is very euphoric and UP!! – is that due to the kind of intervals used (they seem very simple, major chord-y), or just the rattling-along propulsive nature of the riffs? Sometimes I hear what sounds like a double-chording, like the same chord being played very quickly in succession. The timbre is also part of the bright optimistic feeling. They also have something of the quality of the player piano about them.