Don’t mention guitars: Robert Hampson on acousmatic music, the curse of Loop and the rebirth of Main
Robert Hampson is cursed.
No matter what he does – no matter how much he evolves, advances and shape-shifts as an artist – he seems destined to be forever remembered as the guitarist and figurehead of Loop, the psychedelic rock band that he fronted between 1986 and ’91. Though they deserve their canonical status, in this writer’s mind, and in the mind of Robert Hampson, Loop was just the beginning – a fumbling, if often brilliant, precursor to Hampson’s most important work. Immediately after Loop’s demise, he formed Main with Scott Dowson, and set about the serious business of deconstructing the guitar; the resulting music, especially that featured on Motion Pool (1994) and the sequences of 12″s collected as Hydra-Calm (1995) and Hz (1996), is some of the most engrossing and rewarding of the 90s or any other decade. That these records are not more widely known and praised today is mystifying, and frankly unacceptable.
Hampson put an end to Main in 2006, by which point it had been a solo project for several years. Relocated to France, he felt into the orbit of the Groupe de Recherches Musicales (GRM), the revolutionary electronic music studio and research group founded by Pierre Schaeffer in the late 1950s, and began focussing his energies on the practice of musique concrète and Acousmatic sound. Now working primarily with live diffusions in mind, portions of Hampson’s GRM-commissioned work have been documented on Vectors (Touch, 2009) and this year’s Répercussions (Editions Mego). A new album of electronic music for Mego is due later this year; interestingly, the Paris-based Londoner has also deigned to re-activate Main, this time as a strictly collaborative entity; there have been live performances already, and new studio material is in the pipeline. What’s more, after years of desperately trying to dissociate himself from it, Hampson is set to re-introduce the guitar into his music.
FACT’s Kiran Sande decided it was an opportune time to speak to this visionary artist about the legacy and future of Main, his passion for acousmatic music, and the perennial struggle to be understood.
“Acousmatic music was a deviation from musique concrète…it was basically the concept that anything can be musical.”
“Through discovering composers like Stockhausen and Luc Ferrari. Music is often a journey and a jigsaw puzzle, and if you’re inquisitive you see people start dropping names, or saying where they’ve worked…I was very into experimental music in what you’d call the post-punk years, the early 80s, so I was really into bands like Cabaret Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle, etc, etc, who name-dropped people like Stockhausen…that’s how gradually I started discovering composers like that, and eventually it led me to the GRM, and to the works of Schaeffer, Parmegiani, Luc Ferrari, Pierre Henry and so on.
“So I was very aware of that stuff already, and certainly when the more ‘pure’ acousmatic material really started to surface, in the late 70s and early 80s, it was less musique concrète composition and more this fantastic, processed electronic music – which was obviously the forerunner of what’s happening now with computer processing. People like Francis Bayle were very much the pioneers of this acousmatic – acousmatic is actually his term – music. It was a deviation from musique concrète…it was basically the concept that anything can be musical, that absolutely anything can have a musical tonality about it, and about how sound can be abstracted and changed. All things that I’ve been really interested in for a long time.”
“Purely by chance, I happened to start working with a friend of mine, who’d actually been an intern at the GRM. At that time I was still doing Main, but by this point it was very much a solo project; Scott had left quite a few years before. I’d abandoned pretty much all of the guitar sounds from the late 90s onwards, and was working much more in the zone of acousmatic music and musique concrète…So I got introduced to this guy Benoît Courribet, who ran a label called N-REC, and who was an intern at the GRM. He introduced my work to the artistic director there, Christian Zanesi, who was another composer who I was a very, very big fan of.
“The GRM started this yearly festival called Présences Électronique, and I was invited to compose a new piece for it…this must have been 2007, I think; my memory’s not that great. Anyway, they asked me to compose a new piece to perform, and I’m not sure if you’re aware, but they have a very unique sound diffusion system called the Acousmonium. It was pretty much the first of its kind, again designed by Francis Bayle…the name essentially means ‘speaker orchestra’… so rather than simply being a multi-channel speaker system, it was designed originally, specifically, so that each speaker function as an ‘instrument’ in itself, and the size and the shape of the speaker dictated the way that the sound projected into and out of it. Gradually, with modern technology and speakers with more dynamic range being introduced, the original idea of the Acousmonium has been superseded…but even so, the aesthetic is still there.”
“In England I can’t get arrested…seriously, no one seems to care what I’m doing musically anymore.”
“So that was how I got introduced to the GRM and really for me, at the time, it was like the Holy Grail. I was obsessed with the GRM, and to be asked to go there and to write a commission for it was really the best thing that could have happened to me. I got very friendly with Christian Zanesi and a few other people there, and I’ve been working there off and on ever since, in the studios. And obviously more commissions have come my way from them.”
What was it that prompted you to relocate to Paris in the first place?
“Well, the influence of the GRM my music was already there, before I actually moved to France. One of the main reasons that I moved to France was because in England I can’t get arrested…seriously, no one seems to care what I’m doing musically anymore, since the Loop days… and it’s always been the case since the mid-90s that my music is far more appreciated in Europe than in the UK…I get a lot more work in Europe. I also had some personal issues in my life that I don’t really want to talk about, and that tied in with my decision to leave the UK and move to France, and I’ve been hear for around four years now.”
Your work has evolved radically over the years – the casual listener wouldn’t think that, say, [Loop's] A Gilded Eternity and Repercussions are by the same person. I wondered what, if anything, you consider to be the core, or the constant, in your work – the thing that has remained the same even as your techniques and strategies with regard to composing, playing and recording have changed.
“My aesthetics are pretty much the same today as they’ve always been…I think in the long-term I’ve pretty much developed, I guess, a signature. I’ve never been one to stand still in the same place; I like to move forward often and…one of the reasons for abandoning Main at that time was that if anybody ever spoke about it, they were still talking about the guitar. And I was getting quite frustrated by this, and saying, ‘Are you actually listening to this record, because there are no guitars on this record whatsoever.’
“For many years I’ve felt the guitar as a kind of chain around my neck…it’s been very hard to break free.”
“So it’s always been difficult for me; I have for many years felt the guitar as a kind of chain around my neck…it’s been very hard to break free of that. That said, ironically, I’ve actually made the decision to go back to the guitar now after many years off it, and to try to do different things with it, but…in the 90s I reached an impasse with guitar music.
“The early Main records were made without computers. Computers were still very much in their infancy as musical tools back then, so those early Main records were made in a very traditional manner, with a multi-track studio, which I had in my apartment at that time, this huge 24-track studio [laughs]. Gradually I started embracing the more modern technology, once it got better – I mean, originally it was so archaic that I didn’t want to use it. The decision to leave the guitar behind was largely because I felt couldn’t do any more with it, I felt I’d exhausted all the possibilities of it. But also people like Fennesz were coming through and using much more computer manipulation and everything, and it just felt like the right time for me to abandon that concept and do something different.”
If the computer power available to you today had been at your disposal back in the 90s, do you think the Main albums would’ve have turned out similarly, or would they have been completely different? I’m curious to what extent the 24-track, analogue process actually fed into the character and sound of Motion Pool, Hz, etc.
“Yes, I think they might have turned out differently…but I’m not sure how radically different. I was always frustrated that Loop never had enough time in the studio. Studio costs were extortionate around that time, and labels wouldn’t pay for longer than three weeks to make an album, and I always found that aspect very frustrating. With Loop we really never had enough time in the studio, and even with A Gilded Eternity, which was kind of a definitive ‘studio record’, I would have loved to have had just another couple of months working on that. It just wasn’t to be.
“Anyway, when I started Main, I insisted to my record company and also to my management that I needed my own studio. Because I did want to take a lot longer…I’m very meticulous and very particular about what I do, and it does take a long time – which is something that I hope you can hear in the music. It’s something that’s had a lot of time spent on it, it’s not something which has been knocked out in an afternoon. So it was very important to me to have my own studio, and ever since then I’ve never looked back. Though I mean, now my studio is just a set of very good monitors, a laptop computer and a few good microphones – that’s it. It’s the antithesis of what I used to have.”
“I’m very meticulous and very particular.”
Do you have a nostalgia for the old, stacked, sprawling set-up?
“Oh, absolutely. I miss it very badly. One of the tools that I’ve always used, more than anything, is equalisation. I’m not a big one for multi-effect processing or anything; I always use it in a very subtle manner. But when people ask me how I made those early Main records and why they sound like they do, I tell them: it’s because of equalisation. You can stack up a lot of sounds – I’m not going to use the term ‘wall of sound’ – but the way that the clarity and the separation of these sounds is achieved is through really meticulous EQing. It was all done with parametric EQing on a mixing desk.
“So yes, I do very much miss that aesthetic…I’m as bad as everybody else in the sense that I really get fed up of sitting in front of a computer. Unfortunately I’ve never been so poor in my life as I am now, and it’s a struggle for me to buy equipment these days…but if I could, I would actually love to take a few steps backwards and start acquiring some more analogue gear. But I stress that I’m not bothered about trying to find an antique Allen & Heath desk or something like that, I’m quite happy to buy modern materials…nonetheless, I don’t have the space and I don’t have the money right now.”
“Very much so. With all those early Main records, there were always at least five or six versions of each track…because I would do passes of a track, do a different mix every single time and pick what I considered to be the best mix. I don’t do anything like that now, because it’s much more…well, it’s more difficult with acousmatic and musique concrète anyway, because it’s not about feeling your way in something, it actually has to be very, very precise.
“So a big analogue studio doesn’t lend itself to the way that I compose anymore. Only in so far as there are certain bits of equipment that would be very nice to use and to have a little bit more of that flexibility. It’s not necessarily anything that I can’t achieve by using computers, it’s just that I like that old-school way of working, of experimenting…it’s much more of a tactile process, and you don’t really have that with computers, unfortunately. Not unless you have a lot of money and a lot of space and a lot of equipment.”
“I’ve always liked that amateur edge to things, not playing by the rules. Everything I’ve ever done I taught myself to do.”
Pretty much from the off, right back to the beginnings of Loop, you’ve been very hands-on, very holistic in your approach to making music – you’ve been as involved in, and concerted about, production and mixing as much as writing and playing. Where do you think this impulse comes from?
“I think I was always hands-on. I’d had things like Portastudios in the early 80s. As soon as I became quite obsessed with experimental music, I wanted to make it myself, so I saved up quite a lot of money and bought myself a Portastudio, and then I had a little multi-track machine, etc, etc. So I’ve always been interested in the way that music is recorded and processed. Obviously when I first started buying this equipment I had no idea how how it worked, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing…I’ve always liked that amateur edge to things, not playing by the rules. Everything I’ve ever done I taught myself to do, I’ve always been a self-taught person. When I listened to piece a music, even when I was young, I was always very curious as to how it was done. And it was through experimenting that I found out how it’s done – and now I think I have quite a good ear for that. When I hear something now, I know exactly how it’s been done. That’s from years and years of studying.
“And I’ve always been a bit of a control freak, I have to say…even those early Loop records, working with an engineer, I was always the first to stand up and move over to the mixing desk and start the mix and the EQing. It’s very much a cliche, but I always had these sounds in my head, and I was trying to realise those sounds I heard in my head on a piece of tape. Post-Loop, with Main, the idea was very much to deconstruct the guitar, and with that deconstruction of the guitar the song-format completely fell by the wayside as well…it just wasn’t something I was interested in anymore. The initial idea of trying to completely destroy the notion of what the guitar was, even that faded quite quickly, because I immediately got back much more into field recordings and concrète sounds. I wanted to further alter people’s perception of what Main was…even late in the day, I think a lot of people expected Main just to sound like Loop.”
Motion Pool is a particularly fascinating album, because it acts almost as a bridge from Loop to Main – there are still traces of intelligible vocals, song-structures, and guitars that sound like guitars, but over its duration it becomes more abstract, more deconstructed…
“We deliberately made Motion Pool to be half and half…it was the tail-end of that very abstract song approach, and then the rest of that was basically blowing that out of the water. It was a very definite and deliberate statement. I said to our then manager and record company, ‘This is what it’s going to be. It’s literally the tail-end of what people know, and then it’s a whole new ballgame after that.’ Post-Motion Pool is when it really became very abstract.”
“With Main, the idea was very much to deconstruct the guitar, and with that deconstruction of the guitar the song-format completely fell by the wayside as well.”
But even the more ‘absolutely’ abstract records that followed, like Hz, there’s still incredible discipline and internal logic palpable in each recording. The tracks sound very ordered, very composed, and each element within very intentional; they’re not just gassy, interminable improvisations.
“Oh yes, I mean, I hope that everybody that ever hears anything I’ve ever done immediately thinks that. It’s my undying wish that they should. I have to say that I make music to be listened to – it’s not coffee table music, it’s not something to be put on in the background. Without wanting to sound arrogant, it’s music that you have to listen to, that you have to listen to properly and really concentrate on if you’re going to get anything out of it. Because there is a lot of work that’s gone into it. Yes, it’s very intentional – there are all kinds of nuances in there, often deeply buried, but if you listen hard enough then you will find them. So, even though it’s not composition in the traditional sense, definitely I would say that it’s very, very composed. I’d like to think that, anyway.”
Unusually for someone who’s not generally inclined to look back, you’ve reactivated Main. Tell me more.
“I made the conscious decision to re-form Main, but it’s more a reimagination of it then a re-formation. I get asked at least once a month to re-form Loop and the answer is always no. I just don’t want to do it. But with Main…
“I’ve always liked to hide really, I’m not one for sticking my name on things, but at the same time I felt like I was trapped…I was constantly asking friends and my wife at the time, ‘What do I need to do to make people understand, to get them away from this guitar thing?’ You know, what do I have to do to put a definitive foot down and just say to everyone, for christ’s sake, will you just leave the guitar thing alone? Every time anyone mentioned Main they talked about guitars, and so I thought the easiest thing to do was to abandon the name. So that’s what I did, even though the music I was making didn’t radically change – it just became a solo project under my own name. But at the end of the day, that didn’t achieve anything, because people still talk about me as a guitar player, so… so I just thought, well, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em [laughs].
“I thought, I’m allowed to have different projects, I don’t have to focus on one sole project. I missed collaboration – you can’t really collaborate with people on acousmatic music, it just doesn’t work at a compositional level. I felt like exploring some avenues that I hadn’t touched for a very long time. So I thought this is great, because now I can use Main as a collaborative project and just invite people that I would like to work with to do just that. Recently I’ve been working with Stephan Mathieu, who makes very beautiful music with string-based instruments and antiquated 78 players, turntables and stuff like that. I’ve been a great admirer of his music for a very long time, and we met, and got on very well. He’s the ideal sort of person for me to work with on my first reinvention of Main – so we’ve just done a few live shows together, and hopefully going to be doing some recording by the end of this year.
“I get asked at least once a month to re-form Loop and the answer is always no. I just don’t want to do it. But with Main…”
“I think a lot of people are confused as to what’s going on, and think that Main is going to be me and Scott Dowson again, and that we’re going to have a wall of amplifiers and guitars and everything [laughs]. So I’m quickly trying to quell that anticipation. But yeah, I’m hopefully going to involve a few other people too – I’m very good friends with Gordon Sharp from Cindytalk, so I’d like to invite him to play on some Main music, Mark Spybey from Dead Voices On Air, there’s a few people like that. I’m very aware of not making this a solo project anymore, it’s always going to be a collaborative project from now on.
“I have actually spoken to Scott – he hasn’t made any music for years, he stopped doing so after he left Main. We’ve had a brief conversation and I’ve told him I’d really love him to do something with Main again, and he seems keen to do that, so hopefully that will happen. I don’t think really he has the time or the inclination to work with me in the live context, but for this moment in time it’s very much an online collaboration anyway. The beauty of modern technology now, with Dropbox and so on, is that however far away I am from somebody, we can still work together. It’s not my ideal situation by any stretch of the imagination, nothing can really beat collaborating in the same room, but…it’s a start. We all live in different parts of the world nowadays, so it’s an option that I have to use. It’s early days yet. We’ve played a couple of live shows, just myself and Stephan, and I think once we’ve got a recording out, there’ll be more.”
“On a personal level is does seem that people want to talk to me about it again, after years of being ignored – not to sound bitter. I’m my own worst enemy as well, because I’m not one of those people that feels they have to release every single bowel movement on CD.
“I always give myself a time limit…I can spend two months on a minute’s worth of music, and there’s other times where it seems to adapt to itself very quickly and the process is much quicker…As I mentioned before, I’m now doing yet another solo project where I’m actually introducing the guitar in again, with electronics, and I’ve already recorded another album, which will be out on Mego in the Autumn. It’s a vinyl record of two pure analogue electronic pieces and another two pieces of guitar and electronics, which is very much from the minimalist school of harmonic/tonal stuff.
“Maybe I’ve hindered my career in some respect by having both my feet firmly in the acousmatic camp for the past six or seven years, and not wanting to stray from that. I can understand that a lot of people might not quite get where I’m coming from, and you know, it’s not the easiest music to listen to – I’m the first person to hold up my hands and admit that. But I hope that people if devote some time to it then they do find it quite rewarding. But who knows, once the finished product is out of my hands I don’t think about it; that’s it. I’m already thinking about the next one.”
Robert Hampson’s Répercussions is out now. editionsmego.com