It was a pivotal moment. 1991, Probe Records in Liverpool. An EP called Secrets and Falling with a strange railroad cover shot by a band with an equally enigmatic name: Cindytalk.
Four ‘songs’ that fell apart as quickly as they coalesced. Eerie atmospherics, rock stretched to the limits and verging on perpetual collapse. Post-rock, years before such a thing was categorised into existence. A yearning unique voice, not genderless exactly but both male and female at the same time. “In the still of the night/ I wake up screaming”. A meaning just out of reach but none the less empathetic. That song, ‘The Moon Above Me’, imprinted forever on my adolescent consciousness…
“Some people might see this as a criticism but I don’t see it like that at all. We don’t really write songs. I mean they’re more like moments in sound which in may suddenly come into being, hinting at being a song which then suddenly dissipates.”
I’m talking to Gordon Sharp aka Cindy, transgender warrior and the one mainstay of Cindytalk over their three-decade existence. Speaking with a soft Scottish brogue and constantly laughing, Sharp is the enigmatic leader and fractured romantic soul at the heart of a band who have always existed at the margins of sound and who are undergoing a renewed resurgence on the basis of three hugely acclaimed solo ambient albums on Peter Rehberg’s Editions Mego label.
Cindytalk functions as a variety of co-existent strands at present – their historical presence as a post-punk band that sonically dissipated very early on in their career into what Sharp terms ambi-dustrial; as a now formidable extraordinary fully-improvisational live band featuring Paul Middleton on drums, Dan Knowler on guitar, Gary Jeff on bass, Jacob Burns on electronics and Cindy on vocals; as a solo live act with Cindy on piano, laptop and voice; and as the aforementioned solo recording presence behind a trilogy of cracked ambient masterpieces: The Crackle of My Soul (2009), Up Here in the Clouds (2010) and last year’s Hold Everything Dear. Prior to a string of pending live appearances, we meet up to try and dissect what lies at the heart of this most unique, beautiful and haunting projects. My first encounter with Cindytalk was in their band format so I decide that this is as good a place as any to start.
“What we’re doing at present is pretty fucking outstanding and unique.”
“We’d been playing in semi-improvisational mode for a long time until last year and then we were invited to do the [Ray Davis-curated] Meltdown gig. We had effectively a group of 7 or 8 songs top and tailed with laptop computer stuff (played by Sharp and Sheril Crosby) and then halfway through our rehearsals for Meltdown we thought, well, fuck this for a lark and we abandoned the whole thing and went on from nothing. But nobody realised which is of course the trick because if people realised that’s what you’re doing then it’s probably because you’re noodling or something but if you’re able to effectively keep your improvisations short and shifting it’s like you’ve written an instant set of songs.”
It’s not your ‘standard’ kind of improvisation though is it?
“Well yes – I think what we’re doing at present is pretty fucking outstanding and unique in the sense that its going two different directions at once with a full band improvisation – not proggy and not droney either, but short pieces with lots of melodies and things happening but… we’re not getting booked. Partly I think it’s due to the usual nonsense whereby people can’t afford it (or that could just be an excuse of course) and I get booked for a lot of solo gigs so every time I get booked I offer the band but I’m always told that nobody can afford to bring the whole band over. I mean sometimes it’s appropriate to do the solo set of laptop, voice and piano but it is very frustrating as we all feel we have something very special.
I can see why lazy promoters would run scared though. A fully-improvisational band who have come from a rock background to exist in a landscape entirely of their own making is not going to attract the profiteers but as all kinds of marginal textures bleed in to dancefloor electronics, Cindytalk live seems to make more sense now than ever before. Of course the Editions Mego albums may also be compounding this problem?
“But I can’t understand why you would want one and not the other – why could you not understand that it’s the same thing just going in different directions?”
“You can’t really just stand on street corners and start shout your head off…”
This is true. The loose trilogy of solo albums on Mego have reintroduced the Cindytalk name to a wider and different audience and well they should. These are instrumentally a million miles from the Cindytalk band and stand as unique tablets in current ambient music. Glistening and unfolding with rich melancholy textures made up of field recordings, found sound and (barely perceptible) voice these are by far the most abstract recordings in Sharp’s discography. Were these three albums intended as a trilogy then and how did they come about?
“I guess it is a trilogy but it wasn’t originally conceived that way conceptually. The Portrait of Decay was sort of the overall title for the whole thing which then came to represent the vinyl repackaging of The Crackle of My Soul and Up Here in the Clouds. “Hold Everything Dear is a bit separate from those two but is still very much in that vein and they were all recorded in essence in the same period when I was living in Long Beach, California when I got my first laptop. I started to make noise with that straight away ‘cos well I’m a singer and I needed the band around me and they’re not there so what can I do – you can’t really just stand on street corners and start shout your head off [laughs] so I got this demo version of Ableton live and started to work. But then Crackle of My Soul didn’t really start to formulate until I was in Japan 2004/05 and already in 2005 I was recording Up Here in the Clouds.
‘Guts of London’ and ‘Transgender Warrior’ (from Crackle… ) came out quite early on though?
“Yes, I was in Hong Kong and Klanggalerie wanted something for their singles club and I didn’t have anything really suitable at that point apart from those two, so I took advantage of it and it worked and then they became the focussing point. When I got to Japan I was finally in the right place and head space to push this further.
“I’m an existentialist in that sense – I think that’s enough – I think who we are is special enough and yes, we should always be looking to things beyond us.”
“All these projects overlap each other, they weren’t albums at first, but I already knew the structure for Crackle and before I finished it I became aware of the structure of Clouds and so on. Crackle is probably the key of all of them as that was the first one and I was composing with abstract noise and found sound and not really the field recordings. I did have those recordings but I wasn’t quite ready to use them and, well, the trajectory was important as this was the first proper Cindytalk since Wappinschaw (1994). Of course I had no idea if I was going to be able to release this stuff. ‘Cos at the time I was in the wilderness, almost cave-dwelling as I generally tend to do, headphones on, making this stuff, dreaming that this would get a release – which is my culture, to get the fucking things available somewhere – but I did spend a decade not being to release very easily which was kind of difficult to deal with.
“So when I was putting these things together I was structuring them so I imagined they would be the be the follow-on from Wappinschaw – so they’re all recorded in pretty much the same 5 year period, and if they’re connected sonically or in other ways then that’s why. But I was very particular – this is going here, that is going there and this is going here so that there’s a step-up with each of them, so they would develop, change, move…”
These albums although different still strike me as being uniquely Cindytalk. carrying a very particular emotional resonance, something akin to searching…? Do I detect a religious aspect to the music?
“I am one of these people who searches – I have a very strong desire to create – I’m not a trained musician in any sense and the only thing in my repertoire that I would consider accomplished is that fact that I’m a good singer and I taught myself to do that. But religion doesn’t play a big part in my life – the searching aspect is vital but it’s not religious. ..[long pause] I’m an existentialist in that sense – I think that’s enough – I think who we are is special enough and yes, we should always be looking to things beyond us, but religion itself is not a part of my life.”
You mentioned only being accomplished as a singer, but you’re not singing on these albums?
“[laughs] Well yes, but that is how I like to work– I’ve effectively moved past that point at the moment and the only thing I’m able to do with any sense of knowing is the one thing I am not currently doing– I want to be in the alien landscape, rummaging around and trying to find the light. So it’s very important for me at the moment to not do the one thing that I can do well, so I’m in the dark working with technology that I am not comfortable with. I’m grappling again.
“I’m in the dark working with technology that I am not comfortable with. I’m grappling again.”
You’re almost resorting to guerrilla tactics on your creative self?
“I’m a big believer in jumping around and upsetting your own processes to stop yourself from making the same record.”
How does the compositional process work in the solo recordings?
“Well I’m interested in the shape and architecture of these things. I spend a lot of time making the pieces fit in certain ways and so no matter how far down you go there’s something there – every single thread I put in is like a universe in itself so if you find a tiny sound in the corner then that has its own levels and dimensions as well. It can be fairly random too, to be honest.
“I’m not a great fan of gadgets or effects so I don’t really care that much about gear or software – I mean obviously I’ve had to learn some things but at the end of the day what I really do is just play with sounds. And then I have the field recordings, CDs, other peoples CDs [laughs]. Well actually I began this journey by DJing at parties in America – hardcore, breakcore and eventually noise – I would have these CD mixer things and I would take other people’s music and then slow it down, fucking it up, tearing it apart.
“I was into the Oval fashion of taking sounds and editing them. Some of it will come from this or the field recordings or my voice – ‘Transgender Warrior’, for instance, started life as me just singing those words over and over. So it’s about finding a sound, playing with that sound, finding the inherent quality of the rhythms and melodies within that; every single sound that I put in to a piece of music should be able to stand up on its own – should be enough so that even if I was only to use that sound once then it would be enough just to listen to it, that you could still feel it and that if even if it was on its own it would still be something interesting rather than a sound that is just disposable. Every single element should be able to exist as a thing in itself.
“Every single element should be able to exist as a thing in itself.”
[I start to rabbit on about Coil and sidereal sound but Cindy interrupts me]
“It’s science fiction! When I toured with Cindytalk in the States in 1996 somebody played me that box set of deep space sounds and I never recovered – you know, crackles and pops and deep hums and well I only heard it in passing and I’ve not heard it since and I don’t even own a copy but it totally affected me. Certainly with Crackle and Clouds I was trying to create music that came from another world, almost like sending signals out and them coming back.
“But this changes slightly for Hold Everything Dear. It’s funny you should mention religion though as I wouldn’t call myself an atheist either – it’s too much of a position. But anyway, yes, with the last album I was very determined, knowing how nervy and angsty, to create something a little more…still. I occasionally get moments like that when I’m at the piano and I get glimpses of [breathes out] but I wanted to try with the longer tracks and when they do have these moments where they do sink down and there are these long tones and – well, I don’t know what other people think, but I wanted moments of stillness. With the first two albums as soon as you find yourself somewhere you’re being shunted off to the next place so I’m looking for the space on Hold Everything Dear.
So is this actually a slight movement back towards composition then?
“Yes, well, maybe just slightly less abstracted. But I’m a mistress of the abstract so it won’t last. Going back to the piano, I remember being in a studio and seeing this piano and thinking right I’m going to have a go at this and just literally feeling my way across the keyboard searching for the melody and finding it for a tiny moment so you’re looking for the cohesion and you catch glimpses of it in the sunlight and then it’s gone…”
Which is much more like life.
“Well yes, exactly. So what is a song exactly? It’s like it’s a perfect moment but our lives aren’t like that – once in a blue moon there’s that three-minute period where things go brilliantly, and thankfully there are some songs that capture that in our world, but then there’s a million ten million other songs that are rubbish, dull, pathetic and I refer to that as the conspiracy of song, the tyranny of song – as though we’re forced to keep trying to make those perfect little things that do not reflect our far from perfect lives. I prefer something that is more… diffuse.
Cindytalk are performing live as a full band on May 4 at The Cube, Bristol and at Woodland Gathering Festival with Faust on August 17-18.