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Brum Punch: FACT meets Napalm Death and Scorn legend Nicholas Bullen

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When performing music like this, presumably the setting – the specifics of the room, the PA, the placement of stage and crowd – all impact upon it?

Fidelity’s quite important, because although a lot of the sounds themselves are what you might call degraded – they may have been recorded with dictaphones or very cheap hand-held tape recorders – once they’ve been processed I’m trying to make them resonate as much as possible, so I really want the frequencies to shine through as clearly as they can – I’m especially partial to piercing high-end frequencies, although I do like to make sure that they’ll have some fidelity when they’re sent through the system. I’m also interested in the way that they’ll interact with the performance space; I’m more inclined to prefer enclosed spaces, smaller spaces, where it can be a little bit more immersive. I often don’t play with any kind of foldback on stage in terms of monitoring, I like to try to hear it through the room.

You’re based in Birmingham and, to my knowledge, always have been. What’s your relationship to the city and what hold does it have over you?

I’ve spent most of my adult life in Birmingham with a few sojourns elsewhere, yes. I find it’s a very easy city to live in – in terms of day-to-day living. There’s a lot to do, and yet there’s no particular pressure to do anything. I’m a man who generally lacks ambition [laughs]. The only criteria I’ve ever really had for my life is, is it making me happy? And I find that I’m very happy here. It’s a good place to live in. It’s very conducive to the spirit. It allows me to focus on the things that I’m interested in, which is really the interior life that I have. I’m not particularly interested in outside sensation, so I never felt the need to move to anywhere else. I also like the fact that within less than 20 minutes I can be in woodlands, and hill ranges [laughs].

I like the slow pace of Birmingham. There’s a lot of very interesting people here doing very interesting things. And I’ve known many of them for 30 years. In the area that I live in, in the south side of the city, there’s a certain village quality to it – in that if I walk up the local high street I’ll probably meet seven or eight people I know. And it’s very easy to connect with people – a five minute walk and you’re connected, doing something interesting. So it’s very conducive [to creativity].

You mentioned earlier that you first met [Type label boss] John Twells in Prague, but he’s actually from your part of the world, isn’t he? Had you not crossed paths before?

I’m not really the sort of person who introduces myself to other people [laughs]. When John first began Type, he used to put on a night of electronic music called Default, in a bar about a mile down the road from where I live. And I used to go to that night, not knowing the people at all, just going to listen to the music and enjoy it. So we never met until we were together in Prague, some time ago. We’d been in the same room in Birmingham but we’d never made contact as such. It was enough for me just to go and listen to the music.

It never fails to astonish me how much radical and distinctive music has come out of Birmingham and the Midlands since the early 80s, particularly in the electronic realm. Is there something in the water?

I think the Midlands in general tends to get overlooked, and dismissed. And as a result I feel that there probably isn’t the peer pressure that you may in get other places to conform to a particular line. In the 1980s the people that I knew would go to blues parties to listen to dub, they’d go to metal concerts or punk concerts, they’d go to indie concerts or psychedelic clubnights. We had power electronics concerts here – Whitehouse and Ramleh – in the ‘80s. There was a whole range of sounds. And then later on we had the House of God, with people like Tony Surgeon, you know, and of course bands like Pram and Broadcast doing interesting things. And these different groupings would all intermingle, with a certain degree of fluidity, I think because there was nothing to prove, really. You could just take part in these things and engage with them for what they are, and as a result I think that people became very focussed on exploring what it is that they wanted to do.

One other factor is geography. Probably the three key areas where a lot of people that are being creative would live, were essentially on the same road leading out of the city, one area after the another, and people would move easily between those areas. So it’s inevitable that people would meet either by accident, by introduction, socially, at concerts, at art exhibitions, whatever…it’s rather different to other cities where there may be say, 10 or 12 different centres of activity, some of which are separated by an hour and a half journey.
 

I always had an interest in that approach to sound even before I knew what it was…being exposed to the Radiophonic Workshop, and the sounds of concrète on Rainbow

 
What are the three areas?

Traditionally it would be Moseley, which is almost the beginning of the suburbs. Then on one side of it, towards the city, you’ve got Balsall Heath, which would be classed as the inner city, and then on the other side of Moseley you’ve got King’s Heath, which is moving towards the edge of the city. And everybody I’ve ever known has lived in these areas. If you caught the bus from King’s Heath it’s 20 minutes into the city centre, and you pass from King’s Heath through Moseley and Balsall Heath. It’s now Digbeth as well, which funnily enough is on that same track…[laughs]…this almost direct line out of the city centre that almost everyone seems to live on, and there also have been venues and club spaces and things like that along that line for a long time.

You had a real mix of people as well – down in Moseley and Balsall Heath you’d have big enclaves of rastas, punks and hippies; these things would all mingle together. It was hippies that played me the Organisation Tone Float album, and Kluster, and things like that. And then obviously listening to stuff with rastas – dub and especially 80s dancehall. A good scene to be in. It’s that kind of thing that makes you think, well, what exactly am I supposed to be missing? I can walk down to Moseley to Cannon Hill park and there in the arts centre they’ll have a weekend of electro-acoustic concerts – three concerts a day, across three days – and then I can walk out of that concert and walk up to the local pub and see a bunch of people then go off to a blues party.  I think it’s a really good place for creativity, because you can enter in and out of it, and have a degree of solitude in order to pursue things as well.

Can you tell us about any other current or forthcoming projects you’re working on?

Well I’m working on more electronic pieces, and film, as always. I’ve just spent some time recording some new sounds, doing things like leaving the recorder on when I leave the house – removing myself as much as I can from decisions on the sounds. So I’m working on some more pieces because I’m feeling that there’s more to be done, and I hope that I may have suitable material for another album at some point. In the interim, I’m working on a project called Shining Fields, which combines semi-modular synths, harmonium and ebowed autoharp with free drumming and saxophone. Hopefully we’ll begin to play live later this year.

I do quite a lot of art pieces; I have a piece in the forthcoming exhibition Altars of Madness in Luxembourg, and am working on pieces for other exhibitions. I’ve found in general that some of the more extreme aspects of what I do – those which could possibly be categorised as Noise – I’ve removed from that particular field of exploration. So I’ve been using [Noise elements] more in my performances in art galleries, based around my voice, and I suppose they could probably be characterised as quite harsh and abrasive.

I also play in some more conventional bands. Backwards are similar to a late 1970s No Wave sound but with sluggish tempos, and Rainbow Grave explores the more primitive end of punk with minimal note patterns and neanderthal rhythms. I’ve recently been given a Lomokino camera which shoots onto 35mm that can then be telecined, so I’m beginning to explore its potential as a source for moving image material. There always seems to be something new and worthwhile to explore.

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