Originally published March 2010
Make no mistake: Russell Haswell is one of the most bold and uncompromising multi-disciplinary artists to emerge from Britain in the last 20 years. If you haven’t had your hearing permanently damaged at his hands, then you haven’t lived.
Straight-talking and sharply intelligent, if somewhat erratic, Haswell grew up and studied in Coventry, before embarking on a nomadic period that saw him set up camp in United States, Finland and Sweden among other destinations, forging a reputation that has led him to exhibit visual artwork in such prestigious venues as Sadie Coles HQ, Anthony D’Offay, The Institute of Contemporary Arts (London), TN Probe (Toky0) and Vienna’s Kunsthalle.
Preoccupied with exploring the most extreme and transporting possibilities of electronic music, Haswell is that rare thing: an artist equally comfortable in the often mutually exclusive contexts of the fine art gallery, the academy, the rock venue and the night club. His considered, grievously wrought explorations of digital sound transcend genre boundaries, and his past collaborators – including Aphex Twin, Pan Sonic, Whitehouse and Carl Michael von Hausswolff – are an accordingly disparate bunch.
Haswell’s grievously wrought explorations of digital sound transcend genre boundaries, and his past collaborators – including Aphex Twin, Pan Sonic, Whitehouse and Carl Michael von Hausswolff – are an accordingly disparate bunch.
Since 2003 Haswell has been engaged in an ongoing collaboration with Austria’s Florian Hecker, making use of Iannis Xenakis’s graphic-input UPIC Music Composing System; the recordings have been presented in live “diffusion sessions” around the world, and on albums released by Warner Classical (Blackest Ever Black) and Warp (UPIC Warp Tracks). Haswell’s solo excursions into the live realm have been documented on the acclaimed Mego releases Live Salvage and Second Live Salvage. His most recent Mego release is 2009’s field recordings collection Wild Tracks.
Haswell has curated exhibitions and special projects at venues including MoMA’s P.S.1 and the Aldeburgh Snape Maltings Concert House, and in 2005 and 2006 he programmed two ATP club events, the artists featured – among them British Murder Boys, Earth, Mark Stewart + The Maffia, Robert Hood and Pita – reflecting his own unique sensibility. He is currently curating a project commissioned by Istanbul’s Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, working with Peter Zinovieff, Jana Winderen, Yasunao Tone and Carl Michael von Hausswolf. Over the next couple of months, you can catch him supporting his friends Autechre on their tour of Europe, including a performance at the 2010 Bloc Weekend, before releasing Value + Bonus, a double-album recorded for New York noise label No Fun Productions.
Long impressed by Haswell’s artistic adventurousness and distinction, not to mention his terrifyingly good taste, we decided it was about time we called on him at his Suffolk home to talk it all through. It was a hugely entertaining and edifying conversation, featuring a bewilderingly diverse cast of characters – among them Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson, Michaela Strachan, Swans, Mick Jagger, New Order, Stockhausen, Rashad Becker and Benny Hill.
When did you first become consciously interested in sound?
“I was interested in certain parts of records rather than the entire thing, be it the entire track or the entire album…I used to go to the library in Coventry a lot when I was fairly young, and they had records, so I would borrow those and experiment with them, take them out and say ‘What’s this?’. I guess that’s where I introduced myself to most music until a few years later when I was in my early teens, listening to John Peel and reading the NME for the first time. I read the NME when I was 11 or so, because I was a paperboy. And I would thumb through it and go, ‘What the fuck’s this?’ or ‘This is a bit shit’ or ‘I think this is more down my street’ – like anyone else. This was the early 80s. So I was going through punk and the aftermath, not as a participant – I was too young – but as an observer.”
At what point did computers enter your life?
“The use of computers came when I was a kid, when I used to watch Micro Live [BBC2 show produced by David Allen as part of the BBC’s Computer Literacy Project, 1983-7] It’s all on YouTube now, I’m sure. That was on Sunday mornings at 9am or so, so I used to watch that shit; I was intrigued. At my primary school they wheeled in a computer once, but I didn’t really have access to computers – unless it was to play Sinclair Spectrum games and so on – until I went to university, really. I went to Coventry School of Art (which later became part of Coventry University). They had some computer courses, and I got access to some of their machines…they had a load of new Apples in there. I was on my fine art foundation course, and I got to know a few of the people in the computing department; I was probably three years younger than them, but I got way in there somehow. I used to experiment with things which they had at the time – like HyperCard, and then a few years later Macromedia appeared and everything that you get nowadays.”
“You began to see electronic music everywhere: watching pop bands like The Human League on Top of The Pops with their Synclavier, or New Order’s drummer going off-stage when they did ‘Blue Monday’.”
When did you become alive to the possibility of using computers for artistic endeavours?
“I remember watching films like The Billion Dollar Brain [1967 espionage caper, directed by Ken Russell] or The Italian Job, when they’ve got Benny Hill [in the role of Professor Simon Peach] using brown paper-covered boxes with some kind of device in them that hooks up all the traffic lights in the city…And they write a computer program that’s on a tape, and you see them stop the traffic network, and at the same time you hear BBC Radiophonic Workshop-style bleepy sounds, and you connect the two things. ‘Oh, there’s a computer that does electronic sound.’
“And then of course we all lived through Tomorrow’s World [BBC technology magazine show, 1967-2003] and so on, there was a bombardment of electronic music at that time. I remember being aware that Tangerine Dream were playing at Coventry Cathedral in 1975, and was annoyed – as a child – that I wasn’t taken to the concert. There were all these things, a massive combination of factors. You began to see it [electronic music] everywhere: watching pop bands like The Human League on Top of The Pops with their Synclavier, or seeing New Order, which was very significant for me. The fact of a band of having electronic ‘assistance’ and of being aware of the drummer going off-stage when they do ’Blue Monday’.”
Was there much of natural alliance between computers and fine art when you began further education?
“Not really at the time, no. The computers weren’t for the art students, certainly not the foundation students, not at all – they were for special graphic and video-related projects in the computer department. It was all a bit pre-internet, really. Even though a few people might have had e-mails, not many did, and unless you were in the computer department you weren’t really allowed ‘in the web’, necessarily. This being 1987, ‘88.”
So did the emergence of rave play a role in ’emancipating’ the computer for you and your contemporaries?
“Yes, concurrently at the time there was the whole rave thing. Coventry had the first all-night legal club in the UK, The Eclipse, which used to be a bingo hall – if you look on YouTube you’ll even see The Hit Man & Her [British television dance show, hosted by Pete Waterman and Michaela Strachan, 1988-92] was there once, it was awesome. I saw Altern-8 there, LFO, Forgemasters, A Guy Called Gerald, and all the DJs – but I didn’t really think much of the DJing back then. The live acts – they were something else.
“I didn’t have any equipment, I didn’t have my own computer, I didn’t have specific audio software. If I was messing about with sound, it was in a pretty 8-bit, low-tech sort of way. Pro Tools didn’t exist. And there wasn’t an academic computer music department [in Coventry], so it was a bit stunted. But when I was at university I was already going to a lot of gigs, I met people, and I got to use things like Sound Designer II, which was pre-Pro Tools, and became familiar with the first plug-in programs, but it would still be another ten years before I owned my own computer – so I wasn’t using any of these things as much as I wanted to. A lot of my current work is things I would’ve like to have done when I was a student, if I’d had the equipment and if it they’d been possible at the time [laughs]. And to be honest, a lot of it probably wasn’t. But the impetus, the attitude, harks back to that.”
“I saw Altern-8 at The Eclipse, and LFO, Forgemasters, A Guy Called Gerald, and all the DJs – but I didn’t really think much of the DJing back then. The live acts – they were something else.”
Did rave connect naturally to the more academic computer music that you were getting into?
“Well I was already picking [rave music] apart, because I would only like the specific part that went [makes zapping sound], or whatever. In reality you only like 30% of Altern-8 because most of the samples are of things you think are a bit cheesy…
“I’m not a musician, I’m not a DJ, I don’t pretend to be any of these things, but as an artist I end up playing in completely different contexts – it could be academic, it could be in an art gallery, it could be in a nightclub, or a metal gig…the audience is always very different and you can get very different reactions.
“My influences are quite disparate in the sense that I’m picking bits out of this, and bits out of that, and I don’t really like one specific genre of music – because they’re all full of a load of shit [laughs]. There was one classic night that sums it up: I remember getting the train from Coventry to Edwards No 8 [rock club] in Birmingham, to see Entombed or Confessor, one of these Earache grind metal bands of the time. My old friend Lee Dorian was the singer in Napalm Death and Cathedral, so we’d go and see these bands that we’re totally brutal, and then get the last train back and go down the Eclipse and see Rhythmatic, or whoever it was on that night. I can’t remember now, it’s a blur.
“What I’m trying to say is that is that there’s not one particular of genre music that influences me – I like to pick things apart, even what I see on TV. I grew up with Ski Sunday on BBC2 and I loved the League Unlimited ‘Things That Dreams Are Made Of’ Martin Rushent instrumental that they used to play when the final results were on at the end of the show. And even with things like that, I’d be thinking, ‘The bass is excellent…but I don’t really like the rest of it.'”
“I even did inter-library loans, getting books like Xenakis’s Formalized Music, and started to familiarise myself with these things – because I wasn’t being shown it by anyone else, no tutors were giving me this kind of direction.”
When did you first encounter the work of Xenakis, Stockhausen and their ilk?
“I got Xennakis from the library because it started with ‘X’. I remember getting Stockhausen records, and checking out Vangelis because I’d heard that he was ‘a bit electronic’. At the same time, before I actually went to do my foundation course, when I was 15 or so, I did some work experience. Because I’d said, ‘Well, I’m not going to get a fucking job, I want to go to university’, my work experience was to go and shadow somebody at the local uni.
“So I went in, and at that time at Coventry, the art school – or the art fac as it used to be known in the 70s – was where Art & Language were. That was where Art & Language [collective founded by Terry Atkinson, David Bainbridge, Michael Baldwin and Harold Hurrell, 1967-present, responsible for the influential journal Art-Language] started, at Coventry University…They were the first people to implement art indexing with computers, and cataloguing all this stuff. I liked the more formal artworks that they made, like the mirror paintings, the monochromatic paintings, and so on. The library was really good, it had all these early Art & Language publications like The Fox, and other things that weren’t readily available elsewhere. So I basically spent half my time [on the work placement] hiding in the library, looking at books, and thinking, ‘Shit, that looks pretty wicked…’ I even did inter-library loans, getting books like Xenakis’s Formalized Music, and started to familiarise myself with these things – because I wasn’t being shown it by anyone else, no tutors were giving me this kind of direction.
As a Coventry teenager into Xenakis, you must have been quite an anomaly. Did you have any like-minded peers at the time?
“I had my best mate at the time, Lee Dorian – who’s still a great friend of mine, in fact. I met him in WH Smith’s: we were both standing there reading the NME so we didn’t have to buy it, and he was like, ‘Oh yeah, you ought to come and see us’ – because he’d seen I had a Swans T-shirt on. I said, ‘Who are you then?’, and he said ‘Napalm Death’, and that they were playing in the Bull & Bastard or wherever in Birmingham next Saturday. So I went to see them, and thought, ‘This is fucking brilliant.’
“In the later 80s I started just to meet more people in music, I guess. Bruce Gilbert, who was in Wire, and does a lot of experimental stuff of his own – he was somebody that I met pretty young, probably when I was about 17. There was a producer who worked at Mute called Paul Kendall who I did things with, did some editing on some groups at that time.
“I really pursued my interests – god knows how many millions of gigs and clubs I’ve spent my time in.”
Mick Harris [Napalm Death drummer, latterly of Scorn] seems to have been quite a galvanising presence in the Midlands – did you know him?
“I didn’t really ever get to know Mick that well, I mean, I used to speak to him but…At that time I got to know Carcass, I knew Ken Owen pretty well – we were quite like-minded, and when everyone else was talking about demo bloody tapes and fanzines and the metal thing, Ken and I would be talking about some Schoolly D drum-beat. So he was one. There were shitloads of people, though. I’ve been about. I really pursued my interests – god knows how many millions of gigs and clubs I’ve spent my time in, stood there all night, waiting to see whoever it is I’m there to see…
“In Amsterdam the other night, after all the concerts at the festival I’d been playing at had finished, the Paradiso became an after-hours nightclub – and I had to wait four and a half hours to see [Detroit techno icon] Shake Shakir – but it was well worth the wait. I’ve seen all those people before, I used to go to [seminal London techno party] Lost in the beginning, so I saw Jeff Mills the first few times he came over. Then later on into the 90s you’ve got things like Sonar happening every year, these more international festivals. Austria, Germany – they were already having these festivals a few years earlier, before anyone else. I went to a quite a few; God knows how many times I saw the Gigolo people, the first wave of that, when Jeff Mills did things on Gigolo – that was aeons ago, it makes me feel really old [laughs].”
Tell me about the UPIC Diffusion Sessions.
“It’s a collaborative project I’ve got with a friend of mine, Florian Hecker, an electronic musician. Basically, we embarked on a project years ago in 2003 where we did a residency in Xenakis’s studio. I’d previously visited the studio myself, so we had some connections, and we did a residency. During the residency we recorded lots of material, which we subsequently edited at my studio in Suffolk, into a record that came out on Warner Classical: Blackest Ever Black. It was the first electronic computer music record to be released on double vinyl in Britain since 1972 or something ridiculous like that [laughs]. We cut direct metal masters at Abbey Road.
“Since then we’ve been doing concerts of the material, doing a specific edit of the material for each concert – a traditional diffusion. So every concert is numbered, and every one’s different – some of the material might appear in different concerts, but it’s been rearranged. It’s all only done with two-channel editing; there’s no cross-fading or layering of any of the material at all. We take the original sound-scape recording that we produced with the UPIC in the studio, and we re-present that, we diffuse it over a multi-channel soundsystem, as high quality as we can possibly manage. And then, in the true spirit of Xenakis, we ask [the venue/organisers] to get in the best lasers they can afford or get their hands on, and blast them around the place. It’s a multi-sensory, surround sound environment.”
“Before we went into the studio we were gathering images that would be put into the machine – whether they be abstract, whether they be influenced by existing artworks, or pornography, depictions of terror, atrocity, everything.”
How prepared were you before using the UPIC in Xenakis’s studio?
“You can replicate UPIC on a PC if you’ve got the right operating system, but we’ve always used the hardware-software version in Xenakis’s studio. And so everything we did, every experiment, was there and then. To begin with there were a few days of ‘Shit, how do we use it?’ and then we had a small window of time to actually do what we wanted to do. So it’s kind of a rushed process, but we spent a lot of time researching it in advance, we got every paper that had ever been written about it. I’d already introduced this idea of putting recognisable pictures into [UPIC], so it would become a kind of synaesthesia, creating a ‘can people see what they’re hearing?’ situation at the concerts. Before we went into the studio we were gathering images that would be put into the machine – whether they be abstract, whether they be influenced by existing artworks, or pornography, depictions of terror, atrocity, everything.”
It’s quite formalist, your work with UPIC, in that it’s tied to a very specific system and process. Are your other projects similarly constrained?
“Not at all, I’m trying to do completely the opposite with my other work. Performance-wise, I do different things depending on the situation, the invitation, the context – it’s quite site-specific. I have to be quite aware of where I’m being invited to, what’s going on, what they can get in terms of equipment and production-set up, and whether, fundamentally, they can really front it. A lot of the time, you have to ask yourself: ‘Is this is a bullshit request?’ Once you have a MySpace page you get everyone and his dog going, ‘Yeah, I’ve got this big space,’ and you have to go, ‘Yeah, but mate, it costs this much just to put it on, never mind pay anyone to do it.’
“So it really does depend on the place, who’s going to be attending, what’s the demographic is. Are they a bunch of mutants? Is it a load of monging kids? Is it a bunch of old people? When Florian and I did a UPIC Diffusion in Switzerland we got Dieter Meier from Yello to come, and it was great, we all had champagne with him before the show, I think you can find the photographs on Flickr of him with his fingers in his ears going ‘Arrrrrgh!!!!’ [laughs]. That was a great gig actually, fond memories.
“My performances are also site-specific in the sense that I’m going to take advantage, if there’s an adequate surround-sound set-up, to work with surround. That’s really my focal interest at present, and actually it has been for quite a few years. I’m intrigued about surround recording, surround playback, representation, perception, I’m totally interested in all the surround mixes on DVDs, whether it be an album – when it’s usually total crap – or a movie. I like to know what’s really going on there in Hollywood surround sound. So I’m always attending conferences to do with that if I’m able to be involved.”
What are you working on at present, performance-wise?
“The last thing I did was in Sheffield, at the Lovebytes festival, using 8-channel surround sound in the largest greenhouse in Europe, the Winter Garden. It was with the assistance of some software from the Music Research Centre at York that I was able to do this. I’ve been doing work with the Research Centre for some time now, and dealing with some of the students there.
“Not so long we worked on an event that I curated at Aldeburgh, called LISTEN, part of the Faster Than Sound festival. I think it’s the first time that anything like that has been executed on that scale of PA – it was a 360 degree overhead set-up, and all done ambisonically, so height information is a large part of it. When they say ‘3D cinema’ these days it’s a load of bollocks, because it’s not, it’s a horizontal slice, it’s just the little middle slice out of the orange, and the top and the bottom are missing…There have been some films that have actually used ambisonics and included height, but it’s rare.
“What we were doing was genuinely 360 degrees, and it involved my getting people like Chris Watson [revered field recordist, known for his work on BBC wildlife documentaries and his releases on the Touch label, as well as his role in the early line-up of Cabaret Voltaire] and Bernie Krause. Bernie Krause introduced the Moog synthesizer to Europe, he was the demo guy for Moog, and also the guy who did the electronic music for the Nic Roeg film Performance with Mick Jagger, and was the synthesist on Apocalypse Now. I brought all these people together because it was a residence, so we had a whole week to work with, setting up and then doing what we wanted to do, making recordings of roundabouts with 360 degree microphones and the like.”
“If I went on The X Factor, they’d go ‘No! It’s all wrong, mate. You’ve got it all wrong.’”
You’re playing support on Autechre’s imminent tour. How will you approach that?
“With Autechre I’m doing either of one of two things. There’s the ‘hard-disc-jockeying’ – as I call it [laughs] – because I’m basically DJing with a computer but I’m not using any software like Ableton, so I’m going to play some music that I like, music that hopefully gets the kind of reaction from an audience that’s appropriate before Autechre play, or after they play, or whatever it is. But then, depending on the situation, I might do a live set: computer-generated and also analogue-generated sound that will be processed through a variety of different guitar pedals, so it’s a bit more physical and noisy, and kind of synthetic too, quite dense sound.
“I’ve just made a record of this kind of stuff. It’s on No Fun Productions, the New York label, and it’s a double CD and it’s called Value + Bonus. It’s a combination between a stereo test CD – like one of those that tells you you’ve got your speakers the wrong way around – and a kind of free, live, acid noise improvisation, recorded in one take with no over-dubbing. Then there’s editing that’s done in a free style – inspired by the freestyle editing of Omar Santana and Latin Rascals, all these people from the 80s whose edits I used to be really into, whether it be pop music or something else. They were the ones who did it better than anyone. Also, New Order’s ‘586’, the Peel session, has got a backwards edit, a reverse edit, which was pretty hardcore for 1982…”
Your best-known records, Live Salvage and Second Live Salvage are recordings of live concerts. Is it fair to say that you prefer documenting live performances to creating studio works?
“No, no, no. But I can see why you might think that. I’d been badgered by Peter Rehberg, who runs the Mego [latterly Editions Mego] label – I’d known him for a while, I used to go to Vienna and go to gigs and festivals and meet him. I was working with software, real-time-generated material, and also sample editing, with Max patches and so on – all on a borrowed laptop, it wasn’t even mine. I had to do these things in that way, and that’s why they ended up as they did.
Anyway, Mego were badgering me to make a record, and they were like OK, there’s a cassette from so-and-so concert from 1992 when you played for five minutes to, like, six people. Peter and I realised that one friend must have a recording of this, and then didn’t Morag or whoever have a video camera recording of that [laughs] – so we’re pulling all these things together and pre-mastering them into what would become some kind of document. Because there’s no way these performances will ever happen again, and anyway they happened at a time when they probably shouldn’t have happened at all. Sometimes people were quite outraged – mainly because of the context that they were actually presented in. If it had been some rock pub somewhere no one would have batted an eyelid…
“Those [performances] that exist on the recordings aren’t the mad ones, because those ones were actually stopped, people would pull the cables out, or close the laptop – close the laptop on me, in some cases – I’ve had all of that happen over the years. So that live thing is a document. But it’s also at the same time absolutely a fetish of mine, because I love live albums: I really like albums where you hear a reaction, whether it’s somebody being obnoxious in the crowd or whatever. I think it’s good. A lot of people criticised Second Live Salvage, because you could hear people talking through it, and they said [adopts snivelling voice]: ‘Well, this is shit, if it was real noise you wouldn’t have been able to talk through it’ and similar bullshit on the forums. If they’d been in the fucking place and seen how big the PA was, then they might have realised how loud it really was. Sure, I’ll go and do it at Fabric tomorrow if they want me to, you know – we’ll rip the place.
The things I’m really working on now are quite different to those [live albums]. I’m working on other projects and I have other things that I have to do to make an income, because it’s not like I sell shitloads of records. I’m doing the exact opposite. If I went on The X Factor, they’d go ‘No! It’s all wrong, mate. You’ve got it all wrong.’”
“When I was young you really had to fucking search for something. It would’ve taken years to find out the discography of some bands when I was a teenager.”
It’s interesting what you said about people reacting unfavourably to your 1990s performances. Do you still encounter much hostility to what you do?
“A customs guy stopped me yesterday when I was coming back from Amsterdam. He must have just taken one look at me and thought, ‘Right. You. Come on.’ So I was stood there thinking fucking hell, I want to get my taxi and my train, I’ve got a long way yet to go. And he’s going right ‘Right. Where’ve you been?’ and I say ‘Er…Amsterdam’. ‘Have you been anywhere else on your trip?’ he asks. ‘No, only Amsterdam.’ I don’t know what he was implying; I said, ‘I’m not on a stag do or anything like that’. So he says, ‘Right, what do you do?’ And I said ‘Well, I’m an artist’.
“At this point he obviously just thought I was taking the piss. But then he looked at my totally mangled, almost-expired passport – a passport that’s been lost for four days in Japan before, and been soaked through, and is falling to bits – and suddenly he’s going ‘Fucking hell, how many times have you been to Japan?’ And all the Visas are there. So suddenly he’s saying ‘Yep, yep’, and waving me through, and I was free to go. These situations are happening to me all the time. Trying to travel around and do the stuff that I do: I’ve been refused entry onto planes before.
“When I graduated from university back in ‘91 or ‘92, whatever the hell it was, I was unemployed. And ‘artist’ wasn’t even on the fucking list of things. It wasn’t even recognised. And you could go ‘But I’ve got a fucking degree,’ and they’d say ‘But it’s not on the list mate’. Fuck, anyway…So in some ways it’s a hard life. But that’s why I’m quite passionate. Equally, there’s a lot of stuff that I just can’t abide. I always have to find out who else is playing, just because so much of what’s out there is brain-numbingly bad. I looked on Boomkat yesterday and just went ‘Oh no. How many fucking records are there?’And they can’t all be the best records. I mean, it’s great that they have all this variety available these days, but when I was young you really had to fucking search for something. Now everyone’s just got it, everyone’s PirateBay’d it or they can get it off iTunes or Boomkat or whatever. It would’ve taken years to find out the discography of some bands when I was a teenager. I’m not suggesting that there’s no passion now, but there was a lot more passion then, I think.
“Anybody can get a computer and bang out a few tunes, and then they get amazed at the simple reality of having created something…”
Modern software does tend to “professionalise” a modern musician’s sound, to mask its shortcomings and to suppress eccentricity…
“That’s why it’s easy to pick out what’s good. Because if you’re into hard listening – i.e. you’re really going into slow motion when you listen to sound – then you pick out fucking everything, every clip. On my new album I’ve catalogued every noise clip that’s there, like they used to on the first ZTT Records. ZTT releases at the time – they were some of the first CDs ever to come out – catalogued the sampling rate the music was recorded at, the time code data and so on. I guess it was because CDs were just out and designers had all this data to respond to and play with. This was way before Designers Republic, by the way. And I quite liked the honesty of it.
“The things that I’m doing [on Value + Bonus] are in real-time with no sequencing, no MIDI – I refuse to use MIDI – and as a consequence I’ve catalogued all these clips. It’s about being honest, and exposing how things are done. As you said, modern software is masking what people have really done, whether it be good or bad, and that’s why I’ll always pick out records that have been made better. When they‘re not just some standard copy-and-paste looping thing, when there’s some arrangement going on. Like if you listen to, I don’t know, the new MMM record for example – not that you couldn’t construct in [Ableton] Live, but you can tell that it’s been done in a different way. That’s why the record’s a bit more mutant, and a bit wobbly, and weird. Every element in it is always changing, so therefore, even though it’s got repetitive elements, it’s not repetitive. It’s always changing, whether it’s the pitch, or they’re filtering it, or whatever.
“All these techniques and tools are available to people now, whereas not so many years ago you would have had to go to bloody ERCAM to use the digital reverb on the computers there. It’s so new, all this stuff. Everyone’s got everything, and they want more: they’re ‘Ooh, yeah, fucking hell, have you got this, have you got that? Have you got the new…?’ It’s endless. On the one hand I’m fucking tired to death of all this shit but at the same time, if it’s the stuff that you’ve always wanted to have, because it does what you want it to do, and it works, and it’s intuitive, then obviously you want it. You need it. And then you find out that it’s £1600 – and you go, ‘Fuck.’ If you’re not a post-production house, or you’re not a kid who works down one of them, then…
“Actually, I think that’s great: this musical underground of people working in professional jobs that aid and abet their real passions. If you work in a post-production house, then on the down-time maybe you get to fuck about with the gear, and maybe make something…”
“It’s about being honest, and exposing how things are done.”
Do you think the government should play more of a role in facilitating electronic sound-art?
“I think it’s great when there are people who can help you out. I’ve found in some countries, when I’ve done international artist residences, that there’s some kind of electronic music studio, and they’re more than happy to have you come down and have a go on their gear. And they might even pay you. The idea of that happening in the UK is a fantasy. When you do hear about people who get help, they seem to be people who are already so established – to the point that they’re already being financially rewarded somehow – that they don’t need the fucking help. It’s all a bit the wrong way around. It’s like in Amsterdam people go and buy drugs and then they go into a club and get searched – it just seems incredibly hypocritical. And it’s the same in terms of how people get help in Britain. I think we’d make a lot more, as a nation, in the entertainment industries, if we helped people a lot more. Why isn’t there a fucking electronic music studio in East Anglia that I could go and use? [laughs]”
Subsidies, grants and the like – whether it be for music, or art, or nightclubs, or film – seem to be far more forthcoming in Europe, particularly Northern Europe…
“And I’ve ended up in those places, because that’s where it happens. That’s why my gigs tend to be abroad, I hardly ever play in England. If I didn’t get asked to do the odd Warp thing, or something with Aphex or Autechre, then I would really never be in Britain, or at least it would be very rare. It’s always been in Austria, Oslo, Stockholm, Japan – because they seem to be into it, and there are audiences there for it – and they’re well-versed, they know what it’s all about, what its influences are.”
In England the standard reaction tends to be quite sniffy, suspicious – people don’t always approach art with a mind to engaging with it on its own terms.
But then in Europe sometimes people can be a little too accommodating or unthinkingly deferential to what they perceive as art…
“And that’s the worst. That’s why they produce a lot of bad work in certain countries, because they get so much funding assistance that no one actually has to do anything, there’s no hard grappling going on. That’s why the YBA art movement really happened here and succeeded, and why it didn’t happen in Sweden, or Berlin. I mean, Berlin has its galleries, but it didn’t have a scene that exploded like that – because [the artists] didn’t really come from the gutter and have to work their way up, and be pushed into such mad situations that they end up doing that fucking natty stuff [laughs].”
You’ve been based in the Suffolk countryside for the past six years. Were you a city-dweller before that?
“Previously I was living completely in metropolises. I lived in London for 10 years, I served my sentence in New York for a few years…But when I want on international visits, even if I did go to cities, I’d gravitate towards the countryside – for example, in Japan, I’d always get on the train and go off to see Nagasaki, or Mount Aso, or the [Aokigohara] forest where people commit suicide – not tourist things, necessarily, but just whatever’s available to you.
“I hate cities, I’m quite agoraphobic, I hate all the fucking people everywhere. You have a panic attack when you get into Liverpool Street [laughs]. There’s bomb dogs everywhere, and it’s like…going to the airport just to get out of a tube station. And the shops are shit. They’ve not got what you want. You say, ‘Ooh, I’m in London for the day, I’ve got an hour to kill, right, I’ll go and have a look at the music shop on Denmark St. Oh, it’s £30 more than it is on the internet, and they haven’t got it in stock anyway.’
“I come from Coventry; I wish I’d grown up here [in Suffolk]…or Japan [laughs]. Being here has enabled me to be more productive and prolific, and I wasn’t able to do those things before; now I’ve got somewhere permanent to live and concentrate on my work. It was like being on the run before, for years I lived out of a hold-all and a laptop bag, just going, ‘OK, I’ve got a year here, and then….’ When I had to leave Sweden, Coil happened to be on tour, so I took the tour-bus with Coil to Helsinki where I lived on the fortified island, Suomenlina, in the harbour. And then I ended up DJing at the Coil gig that night. All because it was just for the best way for me to go. I was on the ferry and the tourbus with them, and all the restaurants and the bloody nightclubs – it was great getting pissed on a ferry with Sleazy [Coil/TG’s Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson]. And Geff [Rushton, AKA Coil’s Jhon Balance], when he was still with us.”
“I was always going from place to place. In Finland, when I lived on the fortified island, you didn’t see anybody – so it was kind of rural anyway. I went there after being in New York for years, and London before that. I spent a lot of time in Barcelona, for example, because it was cheaper to stay with your friends and hang out in Barcelona for two weeks than it was to be in London. Well, that was the case in the mid-90s, anyway.”
“In Finland, when I lived on the fortified island, you didn’t see anybody – so it was kind of rural anyway.”
Your 2009 album Wild Tracks is based around field recordings. Is field recording a long-standing preoccupation or something you took to only recently?
“Well, one of the main things that contributed to me being able to do that was simply have the right microphones and recording device – it was something that I would have liked to have done years ago. The recordings that I made are to be used in other projects, in particular a film project that I’m making. And that’s why they’re called Wild Tracks, because they are wild tracks – which is a term that comes from cinema. Again, it’s about being honest. It’s quite honest, my work, I think. It’s Wild Tracks because that’s what it is.”
It’s got some nifty packaging…
“Yes, I think it’s very commercial – so I don’t know why it’s not in Top Gear magazine or why they don’t have a little thing in The Guardian [laughs]. The idea for that design came from the very late 80s and early 90s when Sony – and some other companies as well – had these DAT packages, with a little handle, and they were like those KIDZBOXes. I had one once – I nicked it from a studio and put my DAT tape it and fetishised it, basically [laughs]. Then I saw those KIDZBOX things and found out where they were manufactured, and that was that. It was hard to get, and they didn’t do them in black – well, if you want them in black you’ve got to pre-order 50,000. So unless it was coming out in Universal, with a major advertising campaign, that was never going happen…But again, it’s site-specific or context-driven, really. The result of working with what you have to work with.”
Responding to the innate strengths of a given medium or material.
“That’s something else I’m quite interested in: fetishising the object. The materialist thing. I’ve always been aware that a CD’s a CD, that it’s not a vinyl, and that the masters are different. There are different places and different ways to get the sound you need. You always go to the people you know. So if it’s for vinyl you go to Dubplates+Mastering and you get Rashad and it’s all sorted then. But a lot of good places have died. That’s why I’m interested in digitally mastering things myself.
Are there any mastering houses in the UK that you recommend?
“Not enough. Digitally, I have to give a shout out to Denis Blackham at Skye Mastering, which is based out on the Isle of Skye now. He used to be the guy who did all the CDs at Porky’s years ago. A lot of the other places have closed down. I’ve not been to any of the newer ones, with the geezers who do 12” grime records and whathaveyou, so I don’t know if they know what they’re doing or not. And I don’t buy any of those records, so I couldn’t tell you.
“Apparently Rob Gordon [of Warp techno heroes Forgemasters] has got a cutting lathe, but I don’t know if he ever gets it out. I long for the idea that maybe there could be a Sheffield cutting lathe place. I mean, what do people do now when they make 12”s? Don’t they still all send them to Czechoslovakia or somewhere like that? Cut them over the telephone? [laughs]”
What have you done, design-wise, for your new record?
“The album I’ve just made, Value+Bonus, the reason it’s a double CD – it comes in one of those No Fun gatefold CD sleeves, like those Japanese jazz reissues or the old Impulse ones – was that there had a been a Prurient record that had a CD + a 5” vinyl. I previously had some 5” records – Merzbow’s Green Wheels, and Masonna’s Destructive Microphone (I think I gave my copy of that to Jeff Mills). Anyway, I wanted to do a double-5” record in a gatefold, but it turned out that the guy who makes 5” records in the States was a nightmare to work with: you couldn’t get it cut at Dubplates + Mastering and send him the lacquers, he had to cut them himself. So we didn’t bother, and I thought, OK, I’ll do a double CD – because I’ve got the material, I’ve been working on all these different things, and they fit together.”
Russell Haswell: DIY Podcast or Playlist: 05/03/2010.
1: Spoken Introduction. Keith Jarrett: The Impulse Years 1973-1974. (impulse).
2: Track 03 (ACID). Robert Hood: Omega Man Album Promo. (M-Plant).
3: Anima Pepsi (Recording from Pepsi Pavilion, Osaka, Japan, March 1970). David Tudor: Live Electronic Music. (Leonardo Music Journal).
4: Nous sommes MMM. MMM: MMM 4. (MMM).
5: Fetish. Baby Ford: BFORD9. (Insumision).
6: Quicksand Area. MISSING CHANNEL: Atomic Whirlpool EP. (Hardwax). (*note: All tracks play in-side out).
7: The Digital Domain. James A. Moorer & Elliot Mazer & Janis Mattox: The Digital Domain – A Demonstration. (Elektra).
8: Silent Calculus (An Introduction). RLW: Acht. (Selektion).
9: Acid nO!se. Russell Haswell: VALUE + BONUS. (No Fun).
10: Exterminana. Sacher-Pelz: Cease To Exist. (Marquis Records).
11: 11: Voyage absolu des Unari vers Andromede. Iannis Xenakis: Musique Electro-Acoustique. (Fractal).
12: Addiction (Dog House Mix) [Edited By – Chep Nunez]. Skinny Puppy: Nettwerk Sound Sampler Volume Two – A Food For Thought. (Nettwerk).
13: 5-8-6. New Order: Peel Sessions. (Strange Fruit). (*note: transmission: 1st June 1982. Check: editing + reverse edits).
14: Untitled B-side. Ugandan Methods: Mat Oput – 1/2. (Downwards).
15: thank you, goodbye. good luck. Swans: FEEL GOOD NOW. (Not On Label).