Tom Jenkinson – Squarepusher – forever strives to surprise.
His earliest records (the Rephlex-released Feed Me Weird Things and Music Is Rotted One Note in particular) are prime examples of the sort of hyperkinetic electronica that came to define Warp Records’ glory years. Throughout the Noughties, his output became increasingly diverse. Pic’n’mix selections Ultravisitor and Hello Everything really brought Jenkinson’s astonishingly virtuoso bass playing to the fore. 2010’s skewed ensemble effort Shobaleader One: d’Demonstrator showed Jenkinson navigating an idiosyncratic path between the acoustic and the digital.
Ahead of his performance at this years’ Dour Festival, Jenkinson returns this month with Ufabulum, arguably his most brazen release in almost a decade. If 2009’s Solo Electric Bass 1 saw Jenkinson showcasing his instrumental chops, Ufabulum hones in directly on sounds artificial and cybertronic. It’s a sleek digital fantasia, veering from convulsive d’n’b through to mangled boogie funk, all the while struck through with a bright ersatz gleam. FACT’s Joseph Morpurgo spoke to Jenkinson about LED masks and the importance of the ‘pop principle’.
“I’m still trying to catch up with ideas I had when I was a teenager.”
It struck me that there was some sort of through-line between Ufabulum and the Shobaleader One record. They both have quite similar artwork, and there’s this shared digital processing going on in both of them. How do you see the new record relating to its predecessor?
“It’s interesting you pick up on that. You’re actually the first person to have done so. I’m in agreement with you: there is actually a fair amount of shared ground, shall we say, between the two. It’s probably easier to talk about the differences, first of which being that there’s absolutely no instrumental playing – no instrumental live performance – on this record. And secondly, that, as you rightly say, there’s a shared focus in the artwork. This album is attempting to make a sort of development of what was being used in experimental form on Shobaleader One, i.e. the LED mask that features on the front cover.
“The concept of that is being used again, but actually it’s brought about a fundamental difference, not only between this album and Shobaleader, but also between this album and everything else I’ve ever made. What I’ve been doing is working on visual representations of the pieces as concurrent with working on the music itself, with the aim being to show those visual representations on that LED mask which is shown on the front cover of both of those records. So, I’d say that this album’s been quite wildly different, because I’ve been switching from music to visual mode and back and forth throughout the process. Rather than trying to do a load of visual interpretations at the end and tacking it all on, so to speak, I’ve been working on it at the same time as the music to try and afford as much coherence and as much of a link between the visual and the sonic aspects as I can.”
That’s interesting in light of the ‘Dark Steering’ video. Obviously it’s incredibly striking, and it’s a great example of a track that made an impression at the same time as the visuals made an impression – a complete, holistic, experience. Do you conceive of Ufabulum as something that, to be fully appreciated, has to be an audiovisual experience?
“It’s a very good point, because I’m talking about these visual representations, but the album of course doesn’t feature them apart from stills in the artwork. It did leave me with something of a quandary, because on the one hand I feel the visual interpretations are quite integral to the project. On the other hand, one of the principal ideas about the visual interpretations was how they were going to be displayed. As I mentioned earlier, one of the screens on which these images are going to be displayed is mounted to the mask thing which I wear on stage and can be seen in the artwork. But there’s also a large LED screen which is set up behind me again on stage. The point is that the LED format affords me a kind of intensity for the light, a very sort of bleak ‘strikingness’ to these pictorial representations.
“As much as I like the ‘Dark Steering’ video, that was the only compromise or concession I was willing to make in terms of making an audiovisual product that people could appreciate at home. I wasn’t ever going to make a DVD out of this, because once you show this stuff on a computer screen, it loses so much of its intensity. It really only comes to life for me on stage with that gear. On a television or computer screen, you’ve got this very flat, lifeless version of it. I decided that the audio album stands up for me in its own right, and then if you care about the visual interpretation, go to the show.”
“I’m a path of most resistance character. I like to explore and investigate and discover things.”
Although Ufabulum is a very rhythmically diverse record, there’s clearly a distinctive electronic timbre all the way through it. What attracted you that hyper-digital sound palette on this record?
“It didn’t appear to me fully formed, as it were. I did, at the outset of the project, have an idea to move away from a tendency I’ve been following for the last seven or eight years, which is to incorporate a large amount of instrumental playing into the music. From practical and aesthetic viewpoints, I wanted to change it. From the practical side, there’s a very peculiar nature to trying to be an engineer and performer at the same time, which is certainly what I was doing a fair amount of in that period. Switching from being the person who gets the sounds right to playing. I’ve cut that job out for myself and enjoy the challenge, but I really felt it was time to change. To change the whole method, get away from that live playing.
“There’s a peculiar character to music when it incorporates live playing. You can extrapolate from it, you can digitally process it, you can rip it up in a computer, what have you. But for me there’s always a particular type of character that it lends to a piece of music if it incorporates someone playing, rather than the musical material being sequenced or programmed. I suppose there’s a fair few considerations at play. Broadly speaking, it was really time to bring about change. I try not to let habits set in, and it felt like I was beginning to depend on that. The programming side of my work had taken a backseat, and it was just time to shake everything up.”