On Record is a regular feature on FACT in which we ask an artist we admire to pick a record that means a lot to them, and use it as a jumping off point for a conversation.
With over ten years of releases and work behind him, Chris Clark has remained one of Warp Records’ most steady artists while managing to continuously evolve his sound. From his 2001 debut Clarence Park to his most recent release, Feast/Beast – a collection of remixes by and for the now Berlin-based producer and musician – Clark has kept listeners guessing while refining a take on electronic music that has encompassed the weird, the brutal and the bodily invigorating.
For our On Record feature, Clark chose the Thelonious Monk album Solo Monk. Released in 1965, it was produced by Teo Macero, and is widely regarded as one of Monk’s greatest piano albums. It’s also the first jazz album in our On Record series, if I’m not mistaken [ed note: it wouldn’t have been if Slava hadn’t subbed Grant Green’s Street Of Dreams for Cassie’s Trilogy at the last minute]. Discussing the album over Skype from Italy to Germany, Clark touches on the personal meanings the record holds, the importance of challenging your artistic practice and views as well as what made Monk such a unique voice in the jazz world.
I think the albums so far have tended to be more modern albums… In fact, I think you might have picked the first jazz album.
I wasn’t being deliberately facetious, it’s not like I only listen to jazz… it’s a very particular taste. There are lots of albums I could have done, and I was thinking of doing Talk Talk, the Eden album. I haven’t really spent enough time with that one though, and I just got really obsessed with Thelonious Monk for precisely the reason that he was sort of the opposite of what I was doing.
There’s something about working out exactly where you stand musically, in terms of what your output is, and then investigating the absolute opposite of that, until you become obsessed with it. That’s the only way you can grow really as an artist. I’d recommend doing that heartily to anyone but at the same time I’m not going to release any of the music I made that was kind of researching Thelonious Monk and that era of jazz. It would be really trite to do that. Like Clark goes jazz… Subliminally you take elements off it. It’s not like I’m going to get a saxophone on my next album and just do jazz scales, but there’s something about absorbing the spirit of a certain character.
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking on this idea of finding your voice as part of the artistic process, within any creative field. Let’s say in music, which is what interests me, it’s fair to say that process has always involved finding things you are interested in and studying them as part of the learning process. Listening to the opposite of what you make and seeking to learn from that, by copying it, playing with it, seems to me to fit within that tradition of finding, sharpening your voice, and most importantly no one has to hear any of it but the artist.
Exactly. It’s kind of two polarised motivations. What haven’t I done, what can’t I do, what do I know nothing about? I’m going to look into that because there’s always a seed there that will interest you, but it’s like… I’m not gonna do a solo jazz piano album. For one I haven’t got the chops. It’s almost like you absorb it on a more invisible level.
I used to be really snobby and dislike a lot of jazz. And say things like, “I hate jazz.” But it’s not really a valid statement because whether you like it or not it’s there. It’s like saying you don’t like fiction or you don’t like science.
Do you think that comes with maturity as well?
Totally, when you’re young you define yourself in opposition to basically anything for no real reason apart from dogma.
And I guess youthful enthusiasm too. So Monk was known for a particular type of playing the piano, really percussive, and I was thinking that your first releases were quite intricate rhythmically too. I was wondering if perhaps there was something there, in you being attracted to the man and his music?
Maybe, yeah… he plays in a deliberately clunky way, but there’s something underneath it that is undeniable, form-wise. But it doesn’t try to please people by being ornate or floral, or particularly technical. What’s interesting about him, from the little I’ve read, is that he really wanted to have chops on the level of the virtuosos of his time and he obviously hasn’t got them, and yet he’s great to the point where you wouldn’t want him to have chops because it would ruin it. There’s a child-like quality to his music, it’s not childish or immature, but there’s something gleeful. It just screams, “I’m Thelonious Monk and I don’t give a fuck.” There’s so much conviction there.
Listening to the album before the call I was thinking that this clunky-ness you mention parallels the clunky-ness of early sample-based music too.
Yeah. It’s what you do as a kid too. I used to smack piano keys as hard as I could and it was just joyous. It didn’t sound that nice but Thelonious Monk makes it… there’s a few interviews I’ve read with him and he talks about this ‘ugly vs. beautiful’ thing and trying to fuse them. You kind of get it with distortion, and that’s probably why I go for that in my own music. Making stuff intentionally a bit gross and aggressive. It’s that sort of perverted joy in hearing that, and he was writing at a time when people didn’t have samplers. If he was around today I don’t know what he’d be doing, but I’m sure it’d be interesting though.
It’s also an interesting record because it’s solo piano, so there’s a limited sonic range – and yet he takes it places.
The recording on this one is also particularly good. I have to say, it’s not often I listen to this record. You have those albums, Marmite albums. I’m quite often not in the mood for it, but when I am it’s like… perfect. My girlfriend is a dancer and we were working in Australia last year, and it was a perfect record to get drunk to and walk home slightly stumbling, ‘cause it’s completely sort of asymmetrical and you can’t walk straight. So it’s a good walking home drunk record.
Your choice of a jazz album brought to mind some work a friend is doing on the parallels between live jazz and electronic music. You’re someone who’s worked to take what you do in the studio onto the stage in various ways over the years, yet today we live in a world where a lot of what’s supposedly live electronic music isn’t. The closest you get to live for a lot of people is essentially dubbing, adding effects, cutting things out etc… my friend is trying to argue that perhaps what’s missing is that the language for discussing live electronic music hasn’t evolved yet. We’re still talking about it within the greater discourse and vocabulary of western traditional music. He then points to jazz as a potential precursor to electronic music’s live predicament of being in slight opposition to western traditions. Is this something you’ve ever thought about, or is there any particular ways in which you try to approach your live shows?
I certainly think that the dubbing approach is very typical. It’s almost like… it’s like the difference between composition and improvisation. Part of my show is me playing existing tracks, they’re kinda different, there’s a bit of scope to put different textures on with effects and so it’s not what you hear on the record. But it’s pretty much to the script of the original, which is a very western idea. But then the modular stuff is like live sequencing, and it’s the really exciting part of it for me. Electronic music is in this place where it’s simultaneously behind, say, going to see a band, but also if it’s done well with improvisation I think it’s more live than seeing Kings of Leon play a song you already know. You can make stuff up on the spot. So it is quite similar to jazz in that regard.
There’s a band called Supersilent, they’re… not sure how to describe them without sounding trite, but it’s like live music with electronic sources. They’re really worth looking into. They’re amazing. Full-on weird. It’d be hard to play after them I imagine.
Going back to what you said earlier on about testing yourself, do you think there’s anything from this album that you’ve ended up taking into your own music then?
Er… no (laughs) Well there is… I don’t really listen to the stuff he’s done with a full live band. I played piano for quite a long time and recently I’ve been practicing quite a lot again. It’s all I did all day for a sustained period, in fact. I just listened to piano music, I had a playlist of his albums, lots of classical stuff, other solo jazz albums and then other solo piano records that are more contemporary. When you listen to that stuff on random, you realise the boundaries between genres – even if they do exist – are kinda irrelevant when the music’s unified by an instrument such as the piano. You realise you can formulate your own thing by picking bits of all these things you like and fusing it. But not in a conscious way, it’s never conscious. It’s always a subconscious alignment of different impulses and influences. And the thing with Monk is that he’s so distinctive you just couldn’t rip him off. People who knew his stuff would see straight through it. No one would like it. It’s just such weird, angular music, and I suppose I pride myself in that none of my friends like it. I’d put it on and my girlfriend would go for a walk. It’s like one of those things that’s become mine, and the more people dislike it the more you’re like, “Nah, fuck it, I love this!”
You keep referring to it as angular. It feels very appropriate and if anything is also a word I’d use to describe the feelings I had when I first heard your music back in the mid 00s. So perhaps that’s where some of it bleeds over. I just did a piece for FACT on beat tapes and found an interview with Questlove where he talks about how Jay Dee would have beat tapes of him imitating and trying to better his favourite producers – Pete Rock, Tip, Premier. It was training for him, practice. Exactly like you talked about, this idea of absorbing and practicing and most importantly it’s not for anybody else to hear. It’s for you to grow.
It’s like a test area. A free test area and you set the boundary of how far you can go. It’s kind of a discipline and also you have to show respect to the artist, you don’t want to take it anywhere obvious. But it’s a test area for you to grow and ap divpreciate the richness and musical history. With someone so strong as Monk, it’s really invigorating to sink yourself into that world. It was quite weird when I was listening to him, I was doing quite a lot of remixes at the time and so I was having to switch modes, creative modes, really quickly. I have to admit at that point I didn’t want to use my laptop at all, I was just purely into playing piano.
Well, a good place to finish might be going back to this idea of practicing and finding/refining your voice. I guess to me it feels like today that process of finding your voice which used to happen in private is now happening in public, via Soundcloud and similar sites. People are clearly trying to emulate things they enjoy, artists they find inspiring, but instead of keeping those works to themselves, as you were saying, they’re posting them online.
Ha. Yeah it’s all good for there to be no boundary, but we need an interior and an exterior. We need that as humans, you can’t just release everything.
Yeah a lot of the stuff out there is cool but to borrow a famous saying, “what are you actually saying?”
It’s remarkably difficult. If you take music to be the massive thing that it is, it’s a big thing to do. In that you’ve got to really… after Totems Flare, I was going to do an EP, Warp were up for it, and listening to the tracks I realised they just weren’t good enough. I had to scrap it, I couldn’t do it. I think when I was younger I might have done it – you do stuff without thinking so much, but I think there has to be restraint especially as your archive of stuff builds up and your back catalogue grows. You have to edit yourself relentlessly and ruthlessly.