Interview: Woebot

By , Jul 3 2009
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woebot-main

This Monday’s FACT podcast was the work of Matt Ingram, one of the last decade’s seminal music writers, blogging and contributing to FACT, Stylus, The Wire and more under the name Woebot.

Following a short-lived but excellent internet TV series, Ingram – who also runs Dissensus, a ‘net forum where you can regularly find discussions between contemporary music writers like Philip Sherburne, Martin Clark and John Eden – retired his blog to focus on making music. He’s put out three records to date on his own Hollow Earth imprint: a pair of 3” CD EPs in late 2008 (Automat and East Central One) and a self-titled debut album this year.

After press-ganging Ingram to put his well-documented love of ambient jungle in mix form for us, we caught up with him to talk in depth about his shift from writer to musician, how he thinks the two relate, and of course, jungle.

Tell us a little bit about the genesis of your album and, more broadly speaking, your decision to enter into the world of music-making. What prompted your decision to do so, and what have been the pleasures and pitfalls of your undertaking?

“I’d been wanting to make my own music for twenty years. Looking back through my notebooks there are lots of ideas for tracks that I wrote down, little snatches of audio I thought would work as samples that I noted, even combinations of samples that I thought would work together in some instances. Many of the projects that I undertook in the past would have actually been musical scenarios were I not so strict with myself that I wasn’t to actually make music. So for instance my 1993 trip round West Africa throwing raves or making videos for Position Normal and The Black Dog were, I think, ways of making music without actually making music. And of course the blog was another of these sublimations/depositions. I’ve never thought of myself of a writer, and I’ve been comfortable watching a bunch of people from the scene leapfrog me and become established journalists and authors. Actually I’ve come to the realisation that I’m better suited to making music than I am to writing or design or animation (which is my métier), so maybe I wasted a whole lot of time? Maybe not.

“I think my antithesis to making music was do with not really feeling entitled to make music. Part of this was discomfort with my own posh background (my family established the Illustrated London News and have been old money for a few generations now), part of it a more unspecific sensation of not being worthy. I suppose I hold the musicians I admire in unfeasibly high esteem and even when I’ve met them and in some instances become friends with them, I’ve not been able to shake off a deep-seated admiration for what they do. It’s sort of embarrassing.

“Music is holy to me, and the unblanched truths of the greatest music communicate to me at a level that is completely non-trivial, and the conduits of this force – well, they’re not so much like shamen or monks than actual saints or incarnated deities. I wasn’t about to claim that for myself, and even now I’m making music I still do it essentially as a non-musician. In fact being a “non-musician” kind of musician is probably quite healthy because it then all boils to choice (Is this the right sound?) rather than technique (Is this an “impressive” approach?) or some reinforcement of one’s profession (Is this going to reflect well on my career?) One has a certain objectivity.

“Eventually in the course of writing the blog I suppose I wore away all the vestigial defenses I had which were holding me back. Writing about music as a by-proxy method of actually making music and I suppose that was inevitable. More and more I felt I had less and less to say. Someone like Simon Reynolds (who I’ve stalked since I started reading him in my late teens) always wanted to be a writer, and even though he has as privileged relationship to sound as any musician alive, he’s always expressed that in the written word. I suppose that was never really true of myself, and even though I’ve dabbled in all sorts of media, it’s transparent to me now that I’m only now doing what I ought to be.

“Making music has been nothing but an unbridled pleasure. I’m really not so bothered by the critical reception, though people have been very generous. I’ve just been approaching each release as though I’m plotting the perpetration of some kind of crime – this is why I suppose it does need to be a public activity and the reason I’ve set up the Hollow Earth label. I’ve found that in the three or four days in which I make a piece I will enter an enchanted space. I feel unspeakably elated and the world melts away.”

You’re of course renowned for being a percipient blogger and music critic. Do you think that comes across in your music? Would it be in any way true to call your album an act of criticism? More generally, did you feel any trepidation shifting from the role of critic/writer to that of artist/producer?

“If I could answer this in a round-about way. What has surprised me is how little what I’m doing sounds like what someone else would do. I suppose one might expect a music critic’s music to be an indexification of their taste and that in a kind derogatory or “rote” way. Also I suppose there’s a danger that a critic’s music might be not visceral enough either by being indirect (when making music it’s easy to not go for the jugular, to pussyfoot around) or by making decisions based on ideas rather than what sounds right (the entire field of musical collisions I guess). Anyway I’ve been surprised that I have a clear “voice”, that I really latch on to sounds more than anything else, and I suppose that is a function of criticism as well, but criticism at its most pure and proper (practiced routinely at FACT).

“The best music journalists aren’t necessarily writing good prose but are responding intuitively to great sounds in a way that is more unmediated than the average person. That’s why, on the most crass level, they’re taste-makers. They’re just simply attuned to the divine; in the Priesthood they’re like Archbishops. The second thing a great music journalist does is communicate those vibrations, to actually be able to “hype”. To be honest, and I’m aware this goes against the quasi-literate, pseudo-philosophical cant that we are accustomed to being berated with, every other function of musical journalism (the whole socio-historical-theoretical shtick) is a total distraction.

“I think my main trepidation about shifting from being a seen as a writer to a producer stemmed from the uncomfortable fact that it seemed like a really predictable move. Many writers have trodden a very similar path in the past, David Toop and Kevin Martin immediately spring to mind. However there is also a sense that the reason why it is in some ways predictable is because that’s the way the world runs. If you’re not a writer “proper” and you fall deeper into the music then it makes perfect sense. The metaphor I’ve used to describe the process to people is one of crossing over into the mirror. Once you are a “performer” or “musician” people who are your colleagues suddenly talk to you in a different manner. So for instance while I would field – literally – thousands of emails when I was blogging, even though I’ve nearly sold out the album hardly a single soul has written to me about the record.

“Phil Sherburne (another cross-over case) and I were talking about people who have done the same thing, he came up with some good examples. But, on top of the aforementioned, here’s a list anyway. Drew Daniel, Morrissey, Neil Tennant, Chrissie Hynde, Paul Morley and Patti Smith.”

Your work is largely – completely? – sample-based, is that correct? Was this always going to be your approach? Is it a sampled work out of necessity, or is there an aesthetic agenda or strategy at work? Is it one born of mischief, fandom, or…?

“It’s probably 65% samples, but I also use a few old 80s synth modules whose sound I fell in love with. ‘X-Ray’ on the album is 100% synths and ‘Daisy Chain’ is 100% samples.

“As much as I find the sampling terrorist narrative appealing (Hip-Hop/Plunderphonics etc) I don’t think that in the light of file-sharing and the complete meltdown in the perceived notion of what is illegal and what is legal (does anyone seem to care any more?) that it’s a valid artistic “strategy” any more. Actually I’m very nervous about the uncleared samples in my music. I went to see a Music Lawyer in the West End and, slightly to their surprise, asked them what I would need to do to protect myself in the event of a litigation. This is part of the reason why I’m operating the label as a limited liability company.

“The problem is that I’m too insignificant for any major label to grant me clearance on anything even if I applied for permission. In fact I would need to sell upward of 20, 000 copies of a disc for it even being worth any larger entity taking me to court, and even then the standard fee that artists who sample without permission pay in the event of successful litigation is in the region of 20% of the profits. This is why all the big undie Hip-Hop producers like Madlib never bother clearing their samples.

“To strip away all the bullshit the reason I sample is to do with taking a beautiful sound and releasing it. When Grandmaster Flash was spinning the same section of two tracks back-to-back to create a loop it was because the “break”, often that unadorned drumbeat in the bridge, was what everyone wanted to hear. Often those tracks which got sampled in Hip-Hop, which are now lovingly assembled in curated discs, are basically crap excepting those magic moments. Certainly this was how I ended up making ‘Daisy Chain’. Nestled towards the end of this really horrific Hard Rock Opus there was this, really tiny, sublime section. It’s only about 30 seconds long, but I chopped it up into about 40 pieces, looped some sections to extend them, double-tracked some parts, went back and forth between sections and it ended up nearly 4 minutes-long.

“In fairness there is one critical “meta” aspect of sampling which does appeal to me, and that’s the fingerprint of “zeit” which samples manifest. You hear of people hiring in singers and instrumentalists to copy samples, even firms who specialise in this kind of thing, and you kind of weep so drastically does it miss the point.”

The mix you’ve recorded for FACT is comprised of 90s ambient jungle. Can you tell us a little bit about your relationship with this music? Any clubbing/listening experiences from the 90s, how you came across the music, what your reaction/attitude to the music was then, and what it is now…

“Recently I was talking to a friend about how the Gas records were like the sound of rave all washed-out, as though it was the sound of an exhausted army limping home, that martial gabba drumbeat reduced to a tap-tap-tap. All the music of the rave continuum happened along a timeline which could have been mapped onto an evenings party. Hearing the Droppin’ Science track on that mix my wife said it was like 4am music, and in the timeline of the rave Ambient Jungle was the 4am music. When the sun comes up the morning everyone wants to hear the heavy stuff, so for instance the nastiness of Neurofunk or Gabba, you remember! At 10 in the morning it was probably time to stick the Gas record on. At 11 or 12 at night it might have been Hard Techno or the 1993-era Jungle stuff. You get the idea. But 4am. That was the best time wasn’t it?

“There’s a unspoken bias against Ambient Jungle because of the club Speed as well. I went to all the parties: AWOL, The Paradise Garage (no not that one, Gachet’s home), the Voodoo Magic events, tailing off after the first Metalheadz nights at the Blue Note. Speed was a victim of its own success. I went to the very fist night, when it was just me, two lost-looking Japanese girls and a couple of Reinforced records refugees in Metalheadz t-shirts (this before the label even existed). I was something like a cheerleader and mascot for the place, dancing from early in the night often alone on the dancefloor. It took a long-time before Bjork showed up and people started looking over their shoulders.”

You’ve spoken before about how ambient jungle has fallen out of favour whereas darker and ragga-oriented variants have gained stock with time. Why do you think this is? Do you envisage a wholesale critical reappraisal of this “genre” any time soon?

“Reappraisal? No probably not. The people who have steered the Nuum discourse are not necessarily Dancing People, and actually what made Ambient Jungle so special was that it was the greatest dance music ever. The separation between the bass/drum and those gorgeous arcs of ectoplasm was sublime on the dancefloor. Your head was in the clouds, your limbs in a rapture of clockwork.

“As well the Nuum Guardians the Dubstep masses have favoured the Ragga and Dark stuff. It’s ostensibly much “cooler” music. There is something a bit cheesy about Ambient Jungle, and for instance everything on Good Looking after ‘The Dolphin Tune’ and the subsequent Looking Good stuff unconsciously pushed that cheesiness a little bit too far.”

How and in what ways – if at all – is ambient jungle and influence on, or presence in, your own work?

“Ooh. Not greatly! Or at all even! [laughs]”

This is a big question, I know, but – your recorded work, particularly your two EPs, have a very heightened sense of place – London, more specifically Clerkenwell, St Brides, Shoreditch, etc, seems to be the subject of the work. Can you talk a bit more about this?

“I’ve been living in the same street for fourteen years now and I’ve just become really ingrained in the place and vice-versa. Just to the East of us, Shoreditch has changed to become very trendy, but around St Lukes it’s not all that different. I’ve got involved in local activism, pretty much singlehandedly protecting community areas from redevelopment. I know everyone in all the estates, all the old ladies.

“When I first moved here I was hanging out with Ken Downie a.k.a. The Black Dog who lived just up the Hackney Road. This was just after Plaid split off. I suppose, with this guy James who was one of the KLF’s circle, we were the second incarnation of The Black Dog. We even rehearsed in my basement here. Probably the closest I ever got to dabbling in music was supplying all the samples and working with Ken on a strange remix he did of a Lalo Shiffrin tune. Anyway even at that early stage I was obsessing on the area. Picking up some of the things that Peter Ackroyd had written. Doing a lot of ritual walking through the area. Crazy stuff I suppose.”

In the press release accompanying your album, you talk at length about reproducibility and the indelible marks left by human beings at each stage of artistic/mechanical reproduction. Can you explain a bit more how you feel this relates to your work, or rather why this phenomenon is something which interests/concerns you?

“It relates to the whole fingerprint of zeit thing which I mentioned vis-a-vis sampling. It’s essentially an occult concern I suppose, but it has a real-world corollary especially in detective work.”

Why did you decide to retire from blogging? Was it boredom, a sense of completion…?

“Just as I was wittering on about earlier really. I’ve started again actually but it’s a very different thing. WOEBOT was 100% music, but now I have a better vehicle for that. Someone was teasing me the other day, that I was like the bloody comeback king, and I’m ashamed to admit it’s true.”

What’s your current “relationship” with the internet? Are you still a participant reader, if not writer, in the world of blogging? As a record collector and also music-lover, what are your personal feelings with regard to how the internet has changed the way listen to / receive / digest music? How would you say you yourself have been affected by the now irrevocable sea change?

“I love the net. I still run Dissensus as well. I don’t contribute to it, but only because I can’t think of a better thing than a forum which is not steered by anyone or answers to any agenda. There’s still not a WOEBOT thread in the Music forum which makes me think I must be doing something right.”

Is there any contemporary music that you’ve been particularly enjoying?

“The Micachu and The Shapes disc is amazing and I love the Dirty Projectors new record. I had the last one as well, Dave Longstreth is a great character.  I’ve tracked down all Zomby’s bits and pieces. He just gets better and better. His reggae stuff is a bit rubbish, but it looks like he’s stopped doing that now. Also Xylitol and, naturally, Belbury Poly.”

Do you have any thoughts as to the concept/execution of your next recording project?

“I have a title for the album which is People think I’m insane because I am frowning all the time. And the idea is that it’s going to sound like that time when you’ve ingested magic mushrooms and the muck in your tummy is just starting to glow.”

Kiran Sande

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