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 cliché 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. 

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

This Mortal Coil and 4AD: Ivo interview, 1986

This Mortal Coil 
Melody Maker, October 4 1986

by Simon Reynolds

There have been many journeys from punk, different versions of what that upheaval meant, different attempts to fulfil the lost promise — journeys that have led as far apart as ZTT, The Redskins, Red Wedge, Big Audio Dynamite, Siouxsie... 4AD's story is one of those journeys. This Mortal Coil is, perhaps, a fullstop.

4AD came into being at the moment post-punk energy was turning away from confronting the outside world and turning inwards into inner space. Oppositional postures, relevance, alignment were being displaced by introspection and self-expression. When punk relinquished its negativity, when it started to want to create and to improve things, that was the moment when the way was open for the return of progressive rock. And the story of 4AD is a good handle on how, in the name of a spirit of punk (change, diversity, individualism), all the things punk outlawed have been allowed to return — virtuosity, production values, conceptualism, sophistication and strings. For good or ill, who can say?

So I'm talking to Ivo, founder of 4AD, about his pet project, This Mortal Coil, about 4AD's place in the scheme of things. He's tall, thin, in his thirties, and kitted in loose-fitting black.

 "I started 4AD with Peter Kent in 1979, when we were working for Beggars Banquet, on the retail side of things. From Beggars' point of view it was to be a sort of spawning ground to nurture groups that would eventually move onto Beggars Banquet. Within a year it was taking shape and I realised I wanted to create something quite different. So 4AD became a separate company."

Was punk an impetus? 

"Look at it this way. In 1976, I was working in a Beggars record shop. I'd been working in record shops for four years, all I was really interested in was music. Suddenly all these independent records emerged and it became very, very exciting to work in a record shop. What I really enjoyed, though, was the second wave of punk in 1979, y'know what Wire developed into, Joy Division..."

Some say this was the real coming of punk — the real concerted attempt to set up an alternative means of musical production and distribution, the real serious drive to dismantle rock's constricting frameworks. 

"The very fact that I realised it was possible to release records by yourself shows what an exciting time it was. For the first two years of the Eighties, virtually anything could get released. This degenerated into self-indulgence, of course, but that was the price for real gains. To this day, I think there's a larger proportion of people in the indie scene who are motivated by more than financial concerns."

If 4AD groups have anything in common is it perhaps a belief that aesthetic concerns suffice in themselves? From Bauhaus through The Birthday Party to The Cocteau Twins, they've all been interested in dramatising their inner life rather than documenting social reality or participating in political rhetoric.

"There's no manifesto there... it's more a reflection of my musical tastes. I suppose if there's one thing that binds us all together at 4AD, it's the belief that music can be very important within certain moments of your life. I take music very seriously."

But 4AD groups have a different notion of where the importance lies, what effect the power of music can have, than, say, musicians as various as The Redskins or Test Dept. or Costello — all of who have some idea of agitation, of making specific statements for the here and now. The artists on 4AD tend to deal with more existential questions, eternal verities.

"I'd be surprised if I encountered an artist that inspired me who was very specific. I like the idea that the records we release aren't just for the moment, but will sound valuable in 10 years. And I think the groups on 4AD share this aim."

So it's fair to say that 4AD doesn't have much to do with pop, with its rapid turnover and planned obsolescence?

"We don't have much to do with it in those terms, it's true although, when we do interact with that world, as with Colourbox or The Cocteaus, we're prepared to take on the challenge of having hits."

The obverse of your intention to produce work that will endure is your rather studious interest in the lost rock classic and how to restore it.

"I find it a fascinating concept to take a song by, say, an American songwriter of the early Seventies or late Sixties and get three people who've never met into a studio and make it live again. And then place that song next to another cover version from a wholly disparate source or next to a piece of ambient music.

"I was so pleased that six months after the first This Mortal Coil LP, all of the covered songs were available again as either UK releases or US imports... the third Big Star LP, the Tim Buckley retrospective..."

The crits have come down like a ton of bricks on Filigree And Shadow, the second long player from This Mortal Coil. A litany of familiar charges have run out — indulgence, muso-ship, a prissy attention to nuance and detail, a suffocating sense of care stifling the whole affair. Trouble is, this sort of dismissal — this music attends too conscientiously to the form of epic feeling, tries too hard, is hollow — has become a standard device, used against the likes of Prefab Sprout for the heinous crime of lavishing too much TLC on their music. It's very easy to assert. You could use it against David Sylvian or Raymonde or Dead Can Dance, just as easily.

Filigree And Shadow is a flawed sprawl, something of a folly, but one that contains a number of moments I've come to cherish. Speaking to Steve Sutherland last year, Ivo characterised his project as being about "the beauty of despair". The cruelest thing I could say is that most of this record achieves the level of prettiness. What tends to forestall the sublime is the scarcity of edges or gaps or spasms in the sound. The music doesn't sound troubled, just unnaturally still. No sound is crisply enunciated, everything is smudged to a soft focus blur.

But there are moments. Caroline Seaman's singing on the cover of 'Alone' (by Graham Lewis and Colin Newman of Wire) is practically the only time this music sounds fraught, worked up. I like the rereading of Talking Heads' 'Drugs' as a kind of catatonic disco — a trip gone bad. And I like Richenel's eerily treated vocal on 'Firebrothers' — a track I warm to even more when Ivo informs me that it comes off the final Quicksilver Messenger Service album. What a strange group to resuscitate. What a strange mission.

Maybe that's why the record sounds so strangely static, so grave, so still. It's an archive. Ivo is very learned. Had you heard of Tom Rapp or his group Pearls Before Swine ('The Jeweller')? Of Gary Ogan, whose one record on Elektra provided the pleasant 'I Want To Live'? Only marginally less obscure are 'Strength Of Strings' (off a mid-Seventies solo album by ex-Byrd Gene Clark) and 'My Father', a Judy Collins' composition so-help-me, but first heard by Ivo in the form of a wonderful version by Nina Simone. And there's a couple of songs, 'Morning Glory' and 'I Must Have Been Blind', by the godlike Tim Buckley.

"I told you — it comes from working in a record shop for so long."

Out of despair with contemporary pop, with the possibility that it can contain any kind of extremity, a mood of retrospection has grown. Some kind of hip consensus of veneration has solidified around a chain of lost rock visionaries — Tim Buckley, Alex Chilton, Scott Walker, Gram Parsons, Van Morrison, Tom Waits, Patti Smith, Tom Verlaine... These singer-songwriters have been marshalled into an alternative rock pantheon of greats. It's a little cosy, this consensus, a little snobbish and a little epigonic (the attitude of an age that considers itself less distinguished than previous eras). But it contains some truth: these people did dare more, weren't at one with themselves, weren't self-sufficient. So, Ivo, do you still go along with "the beauty of despair" description?

"That was a flippant comment... but, yes, I do feel the strongest feeling from music that comes from desperation. I think it's about intense feeling, and whether it's an intense high or an intense low doesn't matter. It doesn't hurt to embrace any extreme of feeling, rather than just carry on in some limbo."

With today's pop you never come across a passion or pain overwhelming enough to put anyone's self in jeopardy. Once pop could contain such an extremism, through melodrama...

"I don't know about that — I doubt if that kind of extremity of feeling has existed within pop, except for the odd Walker Brothers' hit."

Scott Walker: now there's someone who'd fit into your scheme of things.

"He would have fitted nicely into this record... if he'd said 'yes'. We approached his manager, mainly on account of that wonderful LP on Virgin that no one bought."

What do you do, Ivo?

"I'm not a musician, I'm not a engineer, all I can do is get an original piece of material and at least one person who can do part of the arrangement and tell them what I want. The beauty is that, at the end of the day, I am the artist. We have an awful lot of stuff on tape and so much gets thrown away. And that's where the creativity lies. Loads of sounds get compressed together."

Is the This Mortal Coil concept — wayward eclecticism, flexible line-up, quality, anonymity — a brave tampering with the stiff conventions of the rock group, a distant fruit of the punk commotion? Or is it a piece of mere studio dilettantism, the feyest betrayal of punk impatience?

Like 4AD music in general, there is shallow grandeur, there is mere decoration, but there are also one or two moments of rapture. 

Friday, October 12, 2018

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith
directors' cut, Village Voice, 2017

by Simon Reynolds

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s wondrous new album The Kid was hatched in a sound-garden  attached to her home in Glendale, CA.  A compact chamber that appears to be a converted garage, the studio is crammed with vintage analogue synthesizers. There’s a Prophet 5 and a Eurorack, but the pride of place goes to a Buchla, the modular synth that first sparked her passion for electronic sounds.

Alongside technology, the room teems with vegetation. Smith has often talked about how her creative process requires the presence of “a plant nearby”. Look closer, though, and the tendrils of ivy strewn everywhere turn out to be plastic. So are the plants in little hanging pots.” I’ve tried to put real plants in here,” sighs Smith. “I even tried pretending I have this ‘pet plant’ that goes everywhere with me and I’d bring it in here from outside. But plants just don’t like it in here.”  Her other artistic prerequisite, natural light, is also poorly supplied by the near- windowless space. So Smith came up with ersatz solutions: fairy lights pulse through a translucent sheet tacked to the ceiling, while foot-level bulbs flicker, creating an effect like light reflecting off water. 

Look in the Dictionary and the opposite of “synthetic” is “of natural origin”. All plastic and wires, synthesizers seem about as far as you can get from the organic.  But Smith has a different view, preferring to see synths as just as Gaia-given as a redwood or a pond full of terrapins.   Using a machine like the Buchla, she’s always felt “like I’m getting this rare opportunity to sculpt electricity”. And electricity, she points out, is a natural phenomenon, from the messages flickering through our nervous systems to the lightning sparked by the colliding of clouds. Waxing a little mystical, Smith enthuses about the way her synths run on alternating current: “With A/C, there already is that breathing feeling – you feel that there’s life in there.”  She returns to this idea when specifically exalting the Buchla’s operational mode, which lets the user “set up all these environments for unpredictability and movement... It makes things have a lot of life.”

Surrounded by living things is how Smith grew up. She was raised on Orcas, one of the San Juan islands in the Puget Sound.  The place sounds like an ecotopian idyll. Thanks to the rainy Pacific North West climate there’s moss everywhere and the place teems with livestock and wild critters. Every year the main village of Eastsound elects an animal as Mayor. The current officeholder is an actual orca, a killer whale called Granny. Usually it’s a dog, like a blind golden retriever who previously held the position.  That all sounds a teensy bit hippie, but that word makes Smith frown slightly. She prefers to characterize the  inhabitants of Orcas as “people with a deep appreciation for Nature.”

Her music as much a form of cultivation as an intervention in culture, Smith is rather like a hybrid blend of the two main professions on Orcas: agrarians and artists.  “I grew up working on a farm. I also worked at a raw goat dairy. And there were always horses around.  Living in LA is the first time I’ve not had that thing of there being a connection at all times to a living thing.“ As a young adult, Smith became involved in homesteading, a hardcore form of do-it-yourself in which you hand-make everything  you  need in life.  “I was learning how to hunt and how to tan the hides. Learning how to store my food for the winter.” Smith even went as far trying to make her own pencils.  “You get a stick and melt lead and pour it down – it’s so time-consuming!” Smith also abandoned money, relying instead on barter. “I would go to the doctor and say ‘I’ll give you this round of cheese I’ve made in exchange for a check-up”, she recalls. “The work/trade thing worked for a whole year. And that’s one of my happiest memories, that time – I was learning so many new things I just felt overwhelmed with joy. I was in love with that existence”. 

The homesteading phase coincided precisely with the period when she was introduced by an Orcas neighbor to the Buchla.  That opened up a different kind of do-it-yourself  - electronic daubs and sound-molding – which bore fruit with early Bandcamp releases like Cows Will Eat The Weeds and Useful Trees. As the titles indicate,  these were direct responses to her surroundings, what she could see out of her windows.  Then came Tides, Euclid and last year’s EARS, by which point she was getting some serious critical acclaim.  Partly picking up on the prompts of titles like “Wetlands”, “Rare Things Grow” and “Existence in the Unfurling” and partly responding to the succulent panoply of her textures, the reviews  have tended to be be profuse with imagery of flora and foliage. Even if you’re unaware of her backstory, by themselves Smith’s sounds suggest real-world analogues such as bird-song, bubbling springs, undergrowth rustling with small creatures.  

In interviews, Smith has talked about how she has no interest in making the kind of forbiddingly abstract electronic music that fills the mind’s eye with images of cold inhospitable regions of outer space.  Her music is terrestrial; these electronics are fully Earthed.  So instead of stark  angularity, Smith emulates Nature’s undulating ornamentalism,  its baroque splendor of curlicues and folds.  “It’s what just  comes out,” she says, attributing it partly to a near-synesthetic sensitivity to sound. “Music and sounds can change your whole mood, your environment, the atmosphere in your house – I feel very sensitive to that and I want to make music that makes someone else’s environment feel alive and enjoyable to be in.”

Along with the lush fecundity and spongey intricacy of natural ecosystems like marshlands, Smith’s music can also make the listener imagine a children’s play environment: an inflatable bouncy castle, or a kindergarten flooded with iridescent bubble-bath foam. These two tendencies – the enchantment of all things that flourish and that frolic - converge on The Kid. It’s a concept album that tracks an individual life across four stages from birth to death. On the vinyl version, each phase corresponds to one side of the double LP. There’s a faintly New Age aura to the project. Profuse with “I”’s, many of the titles resembles  affirmations or  promises-to-self  (“I Am Curious, I Care” , “I Will Make Room For You”, “ I Am Learning”)  while others suggest abundance-consciousness or present-mindedness (“Who I Am And Why I Am Where I Am”). Actually, says Smith, the titles are meant to be read downwards, “like a poem”.  And as well as a celebration of life in general, the album is a celebration of a particular, and particularly dear, life now lost.

“Through growing up farming and being close to the life cycle,” explains Smith, an awareness of life and mortality “has always been on my mind.  But when I lost this person, it was a big slap of that, and it kind of burst with this really intense urgency in me to not waste a moment. Since then there’s been  a constant reorganizing and figuring out of what I want to do with my time. Every night I try and reflect on how I spent the day – how much on things I enjoy and how much on obligations and commitments.” The overall message of The Kid – communicated as much by the inventive buoyancy of the music as by the words, which are mostly indistinct on account of Smith’s love of processing her own vocals to sound like a multitude – is the importance of never losing your spirit of play, the child spark within. “The biggest thing I learned from all of this is realizing that I want to play – that’s a really big part of who I am, and it was also a real big part of the person I lost. So I really wanted to just encapsulate that playful energy and put it in other people’s environments, if they want it.”

As well as the up-close brush with mortality and transience, another influence on The Kid was reading the composer Henry Cowell’s 1930 book New Musical Resources, which tracks the history of human hearing in terms of our evolving ability to cope with dissonance.  “It’s kind of mildly boring,” laughs Smith, “because it was written such a long time ago in this somewhat clinical style. But the content is fascinating and it really turned my wheels in terms of thinking about where are we at now, in terms of the evolution of our hearing. We’re totally fine now with atonality, there isn’t really a shocking interval anymore of the kind that once caused riots in audiences, like with Stravinsky.”

Thinking about what the new cutting edge might be in terms of what  would be viscerally upsetting to the average listener, Smith decided it might involve simultaneity and stereophony: the audio equivalent of Bowie’s alien character in The Man Who Fell To Earth, who is so advanced he can watch a dozen TV channels at the same time.  “One of my favorite things  to play with when I’m in a group of people is listening to multiple conversations at once and really trying to hold onto each one.  So on The Kid I’m really playing with the left and right channels. Because so many people listen to music on headphones now.  I had to keep rewriting the music so many times in the beginning because it just sounded annoying!”

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith has zero interest in annoying the listener, of course, or otherwise subjecting them to an extreme and testing experience. The term “avant-garde” came from the military originally and still retains an aura of ruthlessness, envisioning artistic innovation in terms of ambushes on middlebrow sensibility and daring maneuvers that outflank bourgeois complacency.  Smith’s approach could not be more different. She uses the phrase “comfort and novelty” to describe the inspiration she gleaned from her discovery of minimalist composers like Terry Riley and Steve Reich: the way their rippling patterns gently propel the listener ever forward,  as opposed to the terrifying leaps into the abstract unknown proposed by other forms of experimental music. 

Smith’s project in fact is all about naturalising the unfamiliar (electronic sounds) while also bending the known a little out of shape.  Another fresh development with The Kid is that where she has in the past made synths sound “organic”, much of the new record involves her taking so-called natural instruments like bassoon and cello and making them sound like synths. One focus of these experiments was the trumpet, a sound she’s always found grating. Smith decided to conquer that aversion, which required making the trumpet sound unlike itself:  softening its stabbing attack, muting its vaguely military, bugel-like peal. “There was a lot of blending. Sending it through the synth and breaking up the harmonics to slightly delay them, so that the trumpet sound has a softer onset.” Smith adds, “Whatever I’m frightened of or I’m bad at, I love stepping closer to that to see what’s there.”



The ObserverSeptember  231990
by Simon Reynolds

Chaos is a word with special resonance for Adam Tinley, better known as Adamski. He even named his canine companion Dis after Discordia, the goddess of chaos.
"Music and madness" entered Adam's life when, as a precocious nine-year-old, he was freaked out by the spectacle of the Sex Pistols playing 'Pretty Vacant' on Top Of The Pops. By the time he was 11, he had his own "kiddy punk band", the Stupid Babies.
Throughout the ’80s, Adam nurtured an admiration for the former Sex Pistols' manager Malcolm McLaren, with his scams and subterfuges, and his slogan "cash from chaos". By 1986, Adam had formed Diskord Datkord, a Dadaist pop group, whose live performances frequently ended with the band performing entirely naked.
"Johnny Slut was ultra-camp and manic, a cross between Cilla Black and Robocop," recalls Adam. "My brother's role was sampling bits of what we were singing and hurling it back at us. The rest of the music was on tape. Our show was an extravaganza of visual and aural chaos. Most of our gigs culminated with the promoter pulling the plug, and us trashing the venue as a reprisal."
Chaos continues to be the guiding principle behind Adam's bewildering career trajectory. Last year, Adam was in demand on the rave scene as a live performer of acid house, which is usually a studio-based genre, and quickly garnered the tag of "keyboard wizard", a term which Adam himself finds nauseating.
But after the chart success of his instrumental single 'N-R-G' and the album Live and Direct, Adam confounded his image as a "Nineties Rick Wakeman", by releasing 'Killer'. A brilliant slice of futuristic blues, 'Killer' occupied the Number One spot for a month, thanks in no small measure to the harrowing, deep soul vocals of Adam's friend and collaborator Seal.
Now Adamski has confounded expectations again, by following the "heavy" statement of 'Killer', with the whimsical, deliberately throwaway 'The Space Jungle', a house track over which Adam sings Elvis Presley's 'All Shook Up' in a reedy tenor, and which is currently in the Top 10. 'The Space Jungle' is further evidence of Adam's desire to confuse. "I don't use formulas, and I do change every time I come up with a record," says Adam. "There's no method or masterplan."
But there is one element of continuity in Adam's career: his technophile attitude. He's constantly exhilarated by "all the great new machines for making music the Japanese come up with", while his videos are littered with sci-fi imagery.
The video for 'Killer' presented Adam as a Nineties alchemist. "When I was messing about with all the test tubes and buttons it was meant to look like I'd somehow made Seal's head." Like Betty Boo and S'Express, Adam takes a camp delight in off-beam ideas from previous eras of what the future would be like. The video for 'The Space Jungle' imagines an Elvis look-alike contest in outer space.
Adam also identifies with Saint-Exupery's hero the Little Prince and his castaway existence on a tiny asteroid. Adam's fragile, little-boy-lost demeanour (reminiscent of early Gary Numan), is probably the reason why he's the first teenybopper pin-up to emerge from the rave scene.
Not that Adam's exactly happy about this state of affairs.
"When I used to play raves, I never appeared onstage with lights, I was more like a DJ. When the album came out, it didn't even have my picture on it." But now certain, seminal acid-house producers like Frankie Bones have singled out Adamski as an opportunist, someone who used the rave scene as a stepping stone. Adam is adamant that the accusation is unfair.
"I started playing on the scene simply because I was going to raves a lot. I wanted to contribute something. It's true that I've always wanted to be a pop star, but I also just chanced to get into the scene, like a lot of others. A lot of pop stars have emerged from it."

Lou Reed, John Cale, Andy Warhol

Lou Reed and John Cale, Songs for Drella live in Brooklyn 

The Observer, 22nd April 1990

by Simon Reynolds

A frisson of excitement traversed the rock world last year when it was announced that Lou Reed and John Cale were working together for the first time since their days with Velvet Underground in the Sixties. Since then, Reed has gone on to refine the Velvets' New York street romanticism in an acclaimed solo career and Cale, a Welsh-born academy-trained musician, to production and composition.
What reunited these different characters after 20 years of musical estrangement was the idea of writing an elegy for Andy Warhol, their former mentor and friend. The result is Songs For Drella, a suite of 15 songs, which the two performed for four nights last December at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Luckily, Channel 4 had the presence of mind to jet over to New York to film it.
Shot without an audience, but accompanied by Jerome Serlin's sombre back-projections of Warhol and his acolytes, Songs For Drella will be broadcast on Friday, while WEA Records has just released the album. With Reed on guitar, Cale on piano and violin, and both on vocals, the songs chart Warhol's life.
'Smalltown' is about his Pittsburgh background ("When you're growing up in a small town/You say no one famous ever came from here"). 'Images' and 'Style It Takes' describe Warhol's Sixties heyday as manager of the Factory, patron of the arts, and collector of bohemians and freaks, while 'It Wasn't Me' sees Warhol refusing to take the rap for the premature death of some of his creatures, like Edie Sedgwick.
Most of the songs are voiced in the first person singular, and attempt to see events through Warhol's eyes. Others are deeply personal expressions of Reed's feelings about the man/myth. 'I Believe', for instance, concerns Valerie Solanas's attempt to assassinate Warhol and sees Reed howling for retribution ("being sick is no excuse/I would have pulled the switch on her myself"). And the closing 'Hello It's Me' is both a poignant adieu to Warhol, and an expression of regret for not having talked while they could. It ends with an acknowledgement of unresolved bitterness: "There are resentments that can be never unmade... Your Diaries are not a worthy epitaph."
Songs For Drella, says Reed, is an attempt to create a fitting epitaph. "Andy was an extraordinary individual. After he died there was a spate of very negative, gossipy articles about him. The idea on this project was to do him justice. Andy was wonderful to get ideas from. Average ideas are always readily available, but extraordinary ideas you can only get from someone like Andy Warhol. John and I saw this as an opportunity to try to let people know about the real Warhol."
'Drella' was a nickname (a cross between Dracula and Cinderella) that Warhol himself disliked. But Reed is quick to quash the idea that there's anything double-edged in their use of the name. "It was a name that everyone in his intimate circle used and was purely affectionate."
The most moving song, 'A Dream', is an imaginary Warhol soliloquy that wryly incorporates reproaches against both Cale and Reed for giving him the cold shoulder during his twilight years: "I hate Lou, I really do... He won't even hire us for his videos... He got married and didn't invite me." Musically, the song sees Cale and Reed rekindling the magic of their turbulent partnership in Velvet Underground. Does Reed have any plans to work with Cale again soon?
"Every 20 years," smiles Lou Reed, then adds: "Please write down that 'he smiled'."