Friday, October 26, 2018

Rob Haigh interview

ROB HAIGH interview
director's cut, The Wire, March 2018

by Simon Reynolds

A ripple runs through it.  The peal of piano - reflective or rhapsodic, elegiac or euphoric - is the lineament that marks almost all of Robert Haigh’s music across his nearly forty years of recording.  You hear it on his Eighties releases, when he aligned with the esoteric industrial underground but had more in common with Harold Budd. You hear it as a Morse signal summoning dancers to the ravefloor in the series of Omni Trio EPs recorded by Haigh for the jungle label Moving Shadow in the early Nineties, and again – but  now more serene and slinky -  on his cinematic drum and bass albums from later that decade. Finally, in the 21st Century, you hear the piano naked and unadorned once more, with the flurry of albums Haigh recorded after parting ways with U.K. dance culture, culminating with the quiet triumph of Creatures of the Deep late last year.

At the risk of bringing Billy Joel into proceedings – possibly a first time appearance in the pages of this magazine - Haigh is truly the Piano Man.

When I enquire just what it is about the instrument that speaks to him so deeply and persistently, Haigh gathers his thoughts slowly over the phone from his home, a tiny town near Truro in Cornwall.  

I think it’s just the fact that you can – on your own – make a really wide sort of sound with the piano. You can create chords and the basslines as well. What attracted me in the beginning was that I could do the whole thing myself.” Later, dissatisfied, Haigh returns with clarifications via email: “The piano is essentially a percussive instrument but it’s capable of the most fluid extended voices. It can produce thunderous bass tones alongside the most intimate and fragile top notes. I also like the fact of its self-containment and independence. This makes it a great tool for improvisation, which is the basis for most of my writing.”

As for initiating raptures that made him notice the instrument’s potential, Haigh mentions the title track of Bowie’s Aladdin Sane, featuring Mike Garson’s famously jagged, dissonant and somehow decadent solo, and the “strange discordant piano” on The Faust Tapes.  In his late fifties now, Haigh is old enough to have experienced that album as a real-time astonishment, thanks to his older sister, who bought Virgin Records’s 50p bargain only to be baffled by it, and passed it on to 14-year-old Rob. Beyond the piano element, Haigh attributes a profound formative impact to this early exposure to The Faust Tapes. “Initially I couldn’t make much sense of it either, but because I only owned two or three albums at that point, I persevered. If you listen to my stuff you wouldn’t immediately think ‘This guy’s influenced by Faust’. But there’s a seam of experiment in my music and it probably started with the way Faust’s music is all cut up and juxtaposed, with beautiful melodies next to atonal chaos.”

Haigh’s first hands-on encounter with the piano came much later, though, when he was a student at London’s Central School of Art.  “There was a room in back, with a piano in it, and I used to go in there sometimes and plonk about.  I never really thought  this is what I wanna do’.  The piano was just something I kept being drawn to.”


Before the piano, though, there was the electric guitar – and the voice.  Considering how camera-shy and publicity-averse Haigh has been during his career, it’s a jolt to learn that he once fronted a glam-rock group called Labyrinth. “It’s a clich√© to say how much Bowie influenced your life, but my first single was actually ‘Starman’.”  More than a mere amateur band, Labyrinth gigged heavily in Yorkshire (Haigh grew up between Barnsley and Sheffield) and entertained serious hopes of being signed. “We got all sorts of promises, ‘oh yeah we’ll record you’”.

Nothing came of it, though, and Haigh headed down south to art school. But instead of painting, most of his creative energy got siphoned into the roiling ferment of postpunk. He formed the avant-funk outfit Truth Club (later renamed Fote) which bore the heavy imprint of the Pop Group and This Heat and would support groups like Clock DVA and Cabaret Voltaire. Haigh was still playing guitar at this point, but in an unorthodox fashion: using a dildo instead of a plectrum.  “I’d seen This Heat doing something similar,”  he laughs. Attracted both by the visual provocation and the possibilities for making strange sounds, Haigh procured his own plastic phallus and soon found that if he “put it near the pick-ups and just moved it an inch away, it made a buzzing tone. I even cut a little notch in the end of it and I could put that over a string, move that along the fretboard and that made a really cool sound.”

Postpunk contained an abundance of the same qualities Haigh had first thrilled to in Faust:  contrasts and collisions, discipline and disorder. “Such a music of possibilities,” is how he fondly remembers the 1979-81 period. “Instead of being based around chords, like rock was in the Sixties and then again in Britpop, postpunk was more like counterpoint: a more spacious way of composing. So with a band like PiL, there was a repetitive deep bassline and almost Steve Reich-like patterns played on a scratchy guitar.” 

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.


By the late Eighties, Haigh was still working at Virgin but he and his wife had moved out to Ware in Hertfordshire and were raising the first of three children. Increasingly frustrated by the commute and the way it cut into his parenting time, Haigh and his partner decided to start their own record store in nearby Hertford.  “She’d worked at Virgin too, so between us we knew the retail game inside out.”  

Or so they thought:  opened in 1989, Parliament Music’s first year proved to be a real struggle.

“Going into it, we had the attitude of, ‘we’ll make it work’. But it wasn’t working and it was a very depressing time. And then what came along and helped us make it work was this axis of rave music: the house and techno 12-inches that a certain faction of kids came into the store looking for. I realised that if we could get more of that stuff, we’d have the edge on the other, more mainstream record store in Hertford.  And then when I started to listen to that stuff, I found myself falling in love with it.” Haigh discovered not just sonic affinities with postpunk – rough-hewn DIY music released on tiny labels - but that figures from the scene in which he’d been so passionately involved were cropping up as significant players in the new movement. Cabaret Voltaire’s Richard H. Kirk, for instance, reappeared in Sweet Exorcist, leading lights of the Northern bleep ‘n’ bass sound. “Not only did rave save my business, it opened up a whole new way of thinking about music. Because my direction at that point had started to wane a bit.”

One thing that caught Haigh’s ear was the way this radically futuristic, insane-sounding music prominently featured – of all things - the piano. In 1989, a wave of Italo-house anthems built around rattlingly rhythmic piano breakdowns had conquered the UK scene and would permanently place the piano vamp at the core of hardcore’s sonic arsenal. “It’s that juxtaposition thing again:  tracks would have this tough beats-and-bass work-out, and then in would come the uplifting melodic piano. “

The oscillating flicker and rictus-like optimism of the piano vamp is synonymous with the sensations and emotions catalysed by MDMA. Amazingly, given the supremely Ecstasy-attuned records he would soon be making, Haigh never experienced that side of rave culture. “I got a taste of it, though, from certain days in the shops,” Haigh says, referring to Saturdays when local kids, still buzzing from the night before, would congregate to hear the latest white labels.  He says that his only vice really was alcohol. Besides, as a parent in his early thirties, he was a generation older than most everybody else involved in rave. Haigh recalls Andy C of “Valley of the Shadows” legend coming into the shop and realizing that the 16-year-old deejay / producer was young enough to be his son. 

Many leading rave labels started out of record shops (think Warp in Sheffield, or Romford’s Boogie Times, which spawned Suburban Base).  Retail awareness of what’s selling turns into an A&R instinct for where the music wants to go next; relationships develop between the staff and local deejays and producers.  So it was that Parliament Music became PM Recordings, as young customers started to show Haigh their own stabs at making techno. Blown away by the results achievable on an extremely basic set-up, Haigh invested  £300 in an Amiga 500 and got hold of the ultra-rudimentary ProTracker software.  “It was just 8 bit, whereas the minimum anyone would use nowadays is 16-bit.  And ProTracker just had four tracks, scrolling down the screen, into which you would drop events that would trigger a breakbeat or a sound. So it was very primitive indeed”.

Released on PM Recordings in 1992, the first of Haigh’s hardcore forays came out under the name Splice. They include the aptly named “Pianism,” the bonus track “7 Original Piano Breaks for DJ Use,” and numerous collaborations with a Parliament Music employee who went by the name Rhodes K. But Haigh would rather draw a discreet veil over this early phase. Indeed when I first interviewed him back in ’94  - a conversation conducted via the Royal Mail and written in capital letters, as if lower case would be too intimate – Haigh did not even mention Splice or PM Recordings. 

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.

If piano is the instrument of Haigh’s life and remained a melodic signature through all his rave-era discography, he rapidly manifested two other forms of mastery: vocal science and breakbeat science. Haigh’s deployment of diva samples was inspired, his choices often locating emotional resonances that escaped the enclosure of rave (all  primary-colour explosions of E-lation and collective celebration) to connect with real-world feelings of anguish, self-doubt and fragility.  Case in point: “I know I’m not that strong enough”, the main vocal lick in the Mystic Steppers track “Stronger.”

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. 

As for breakbeat science, Haigh’s rhythmic finesse first surfaced on “Mystic Stepper (Feel Good”) with its slip-and-slide drums (some psychedelically reversed for extra instability) and blossomed with the epochal “Renegade Snares”, the lead track on 1993’s Vol.3 EP.   “One of the things important to me was personalizing a break as much as I could. I think I was one of the first to chop up a break into its constituent parts.” Taking anywhere from a bar to four bars of a drum break, Haigh would slice it into sixteen components and essentially write them into new breaks. “Once you’ve chopped it, you can move any bit to any position – and that’s where the fun is because you can really mess about. For me it was all about owning the break.”

Heard on tracks like the “Roasted Rollin” mix of “Renegade Snares”, the result involved an inversion of standard musical priorities. Instead of a steady background foundation to the track,  the rhythm section became the focus of listening, grabbing the  ear with its baroque contortions, the ultra-crisp intricacy of the meshwork of snares, kicks, hats and shakers  complicated further by detonations of bass syncopating against the drum groove.  Meanwhile other elements in the track – piano motifs, synth pads, orchestrations  modeled on or sampled from film scores – might be childishly naive in their heart-tugging insistence.  

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.

As jungle crested to a peak of unexpected musicality in 1994 – only a year earlier it had been widely dismissed as sub-music, chaotic drug-noise for kids so pilled-up they’d lost any sense of discrimination - the genre achieved that oxymoronic coexistence of opposites that Haigh had always craved: frenzied and chilled, minimal and maximal, street and avant-garde.  Another paradox about the scene was that while it was accurately associated – both in terms of its imagery and its demographics – with the inner city, there was a surprisingly strong suburban contribution. Having grown up in that county myself, it always tickled me that Hertfordshire was such a major player: along with the Hertford-centered Parliament Music nexus, Moving Shadow was based out of Stevenage, while Source Direct and Photek hailed from St Albans.

As his series of EPs kept on intensifying the Omni soundclash of fierce and filmic, Haigh released The Deepest Cut Vol 1, one of the first drum-and-bass full-lengths, and still one of the finest ever. Then came a style switch. On 1995’s Vol. 6, Haigh bid farewell to the explosive mode (shredded Amen breaks, hypergasmic divas) that made his name with the dazzling B-Side track “Torn”, a play on the junglist superlative “tearing”. Meanwhile the A-side “Nu Birth of Cool” showcased a new direction: rolling, jazz-tinged, glistening with a sheen of luxuriance. Abandoning what he now deemed the Pavlovian pyrotechnics of the “Renegade Snares” era, Haigh sought a more “fat” sound, as he termed it, on the second Omni album Haunted Science. The shift paid dividends on “The Elemental,” a miracle of restraint, with a bassline as delicately poised as beads of condensation trickling down a blade of foliage in a rain forest, set against a second low-end pulse thudding like distant thunderclaps.  But later albums like Skeleton Keys and Byte Size Life steadily eased into background listening.

From being at the centre of jungle, Omni Trio had gradually slipped into the subgenre known as liquid funk, as had other leading Moving Shadow artists like EZ Rollers and Flytronix. Meanwhile, the genre’s mainstream had gone in the opposite direction: crowd-pleasing rampages of roaring bass and treadmill beats like an interminable chase-scene.  “The drums got pared down to a big heavy kick and a big heavy snare,” Haigh recalls of these disillusioning days at the turn of the millennium. “The beat became just a vehicle for the bassline, and those were getting more and more outlandish, verging on comical. But it worked on the dancefloor and deejays loved those tunes. That stuff would just fly out of our shop. Even a poor deejay could mix those tunes, ‘cos it was all the same beat and there were  no tricky, intricate rhythms.”

For a producer like Haigh, the ascendance of the two-step, bass-blast style of drum and bass “really narrowed down the possibilities...  you couldn’t really explore a musical phrase. I really felt like I couldn’t compete with producers doing that type of drum and bass, and I didn’t want to. I was being drawn into working in other areas. It was a wrench at the time but I just felt, ‘Go on, be brave’.  I had to have a little conversation with myself. “ He also had to have a conversation with his wife, for jettisoning the Omni Trio name would jeopardise their livelihood (the early albums especially having sold very well internationally). “But it had been building in me, and I felt I had to be honest and move into a different sphere. It wasn’t really a choice – I could continue and fake it, but that would have blotted the memory of something that people still talk about affectionately.”

Rogue Satellite, the final Omni album, came out in 2004, and its closing track bore the symbolic title “Suicide Loop”.  To this day he gets regular requests from old skool rave promoters asking him to do an Omni Trio PA (something he never did even in his heyday) but he always declines. “I don’t think I’ve cut up a break in over twelve years now.”  


Since closing that chapter of his life, music has been pouring out of Robert Haigh, with eight albums of solo piano in the past decade.  Creatures of The Deep, released towards the end of 2017 by experimental music label Unseen Worlds, is different from the sparse, piano-only watercolours of earlier albums like Written On the Water.  It would be a massive exaggeration to suggest there’s something faintly Omni-like about Creatures, but it does sound significantly more produced.  The backwards sounds on “From the Mystery” made me flash momentarily on the psychedelically-reversed beats of “Mystic Stepper”, while “Winter Ships” actually features a bassline of sorts. “It’s this simple motif that doesn’t quite repeat itself”, explains Haigh, “It’s shifting slightly as it moves along, almost forming a drone for the piano motifs to weave in and out of.”

“I Remember Phaedra” harks back further to Sema and that wintry postpunk / industrial vibe,  its hovering drones and indeterminately-ethnic woodwind vaguely reminding me of Eskimo by The Residents.  Overall, Creatures of the Deep teems with unidentifiable wafts of texture, subliminal smudges, and an intense attention to sculpting the ambience through subtle adjustments of reverb halo or stereo placement. “It’s like painting pictures,” says Haigh, referring to the compositional balance, the contrast, and the shaping of empty space in his pieces. “I don’t set out to be experimental but it always creeps in, because I’m always looking for a fresh way of doing something. I don’t know if I have a lot to say but I look for new ways of saying it.”

Entirely self-taught as a pianist, avoiding notation (except occasionally for his own self-devised diagrams), Haigh composes through a process of improvisation and editing.  He once said that it would be more accurate to say that he uncovers music rather than writes it.  I’ll just play and play - and then I’ll come back to it. It’s like chipping away at something, rather than building it up.”

Haigh once argued that “all genuine music is to some extent autobiographical” . That’s an intriguing assertion, especially from someone who’s avoided the public eye and about whom most of his fans know very little. What is his lyric-less music telling us about Robert Haigh the man?  “I don’t think there is a narrative coming through, except perhaps on a subconscious level. But I do wonder sometimes what is attracting me to a Lydian-type scale that I seem to be drawn to, or a Dorian minor scale in some of the tunes.”

The closest Haigh has got to autobiographical music in the commonly understood sense was  2015 album The Silence of Ghosts.  That came out of a period of illness, the sort of perpetually sapping malaise that makes normal functions of life (eating in this case) difficult, and that in turn triggered a depression. “The last thing you wanna do when you’ve got some kind of ailment is obsess about it. But when it’s that sort of intimate ailment, you keep coming back to it. It coloured everything I did through that period.” Thankfully the condition eventually improved and Haigh’s equilibrium was restored.

More generally, though, there’s a feeling that runs through most of Haigh’s work –  the post-Sema records, the breakbeat era, the last decade’s run of solo piano – that was beautifully caught by Kodwo Eshun in his phrase “the kindness of Omni Trio”. A feeling of benediction and grace that shone through even when the beats were at their most frenetic.  And now the beats have been taken away, that cloudless blue-sky serenity is, as Haigh says, “more exposed now”.

Another factor that’s possibly brought this reflective and soul-soothing aspect to the fore is that Haigh has been practicing meditation for almost two decades now.  “I was a bit of a mess by the end of the Nineties”, he says, referring to the twin attrition of overwork and drinking to unwind. “I was turning into an anxious wreck. Because I was drinking in the evenings, my days were a bit foggy for a while. I was looking for an alternative to living like that and one day I just came across a book, in W.H. Smiths I think. A really cheesy, commercial book on meditation, but there was something in there about mindfulness of the breath. ‘Watching the breath’ – that caught my eye and I thought, ‘I’ll give that a go.’  And surprisingly on my first attempt, a little switch went off in my head.  So meditation is something I try to do to keep my spirits up.  And I’ve had varying degrees of success with it, but I’ve stuck with it for eighteen years. I do it practically every single morning.” 

He pauses. 

“Please don’t turn me into a bean bag hippy!”


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.


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. 

Robert Haigh:  In each case here the piano is a sample of a chord. That sample/chord is then laid out across the keyboard and triggered (simply with one finger) at various positions (so it’s always the same chord but played at various pitches.) 

On Landlord, we have a sample of a minor chord which is triggered at four points giving us the effect of G+m - D+m - F+m then C+minor.

With "Vamp", which sounds like the very same sample (maybe eq’d a little differently), the sample is triggered at five points giving the effect of C+m - D+m - Em - F+m then G+minor. 

The sound (which I agree is wonderful) appears to be doubled up and highly compressed and clipped - I suspect all this was in the original sampled chord (probably from a Deep House or Techno track - it’s got a bit of a Kevin Saunderson feel.)

Same deal with 2 Bad Mice. This sounds like a maj 7 chord and again the sample been laid across the keyboard and triggered at various pitches. 

Maybe it’s the artificially quantised nature of the notes/chords which give it the player piano quality. 

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