Features I by I 10.10.13

Supergiant sound: Roly Porter on his astonishing mini-epic Life Cycle Of A Massive Star

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If you’d like a record you can shuffle through, then Roly Porter’s new LP probably isn’t for you.

Charting the journey of a star from formation to death, Life Cycle of a Massive Star is as magnetic and compelling from start to finish as gazing at an eclipse. Track titles that describe the narrative arc simply (‘Cloud’, ‘Sequence’) only hint at the beguiling music within – compositions of richly processed recordings, with massive bass and terrific dynamic range, that make you meditate on your  individual insignificance in an enormous universe.

It’s a far cry from the dread club music Roly used to produce with Kuedo as Vex’d. After the decline of dubstep – a scene it was always more convenient than accurate to lump Vex’d in with – Porter all but abandoned steely synths and drums (though not low-end) in favour of heavy sonic processing and introspective atmospheres. In 2011, he released the extraordinary sci-fi-themed solo LP Aftertime on Subtext, and the following year he collaborated with Ondes Martenot player Cynthia Millar on the electroacoustic live project Fall Back. Porter’s output from Aftertime onwards has precedents in classical, ambient, noise, and film soundtracks, and shares affinities with music by fellow Subtext artists Paul Jebanasam and Emptyset –  but it sits so far outside current trends and genres that all efforts to call it one thing or another are futile.

Life Cycle Of A Massive Star is Porter’s most ambitious and affecting work yet. In our interview, he explains its development from conception to a finished record that you couldn’t skip through even if you wanted to.

“The concept of the star… shows how short human lives are, and I love the thought that human life is short.”

Let’s talk about the new album, which is massive in all senses of the word.

Yes, apart from the size, actually! I was quite surprised when I realised it was so short.

I feel that its length works in its favour and heightens its intensity, though. Did you plan it that way?

It got a tiny bit shorter because of its conceptual nature, but at this length the album does exactly what it’s supposed to do, so there’s no point really in fleshing it out – I didn’t need to chuck any B-sides in there. ‘Sequence’ is an ambient track and originally that was a lot longer and had another phase, but when I started thinking about fitting the record onto two pieces of vinyl, it was unnecessarily long, and at this length it’s functional. I started with the title and the chapters, and as I had the names before, anything else would have had to come with another chapter.

So you started with a fully formed idea and worked from that rather than adding as you went along?

Yes, which is really unusual for me. Normally it’s the other way around – I come up with sounds and try and fit them to things. Here I came up with the title and the track names first.

And did the writing process reflect that? I know you edited out what lay outside the core story, but was writing and producing the record quite so focused?

To a certain extent. There were a few markers that were really easy to aim for. For example, ‘Cloud’ was always going to be rhythmical and fast-paced, though I didn’t know what form it would take, and ‘Giant’ was always going to go dddddjjjjjjzzzzz [drone sound] for about five minutes. The shape and concept of each of the tunes was there from the start, so it was about fitting them into these moulds rather than experimenting with ideas.

It definitely feels more purposeful, whereas Aftertime felt quite fictional, even fantastical.

Fantastical’s a nice word for it. Aftertime wasn’t really sprawling because, again, it was quite concise, length-wise. Though it has a coherent vibe, there’s no real narrative. I could have added tunes or taken tunes out and it still would have done the same thing, but that definitely isn’t the case with this second attempt.

The conciseness is interesting, because I think part of the reason Life Cycle feels so massive is because you work with large-scale ideas and draw on genres that traditionally sprawl, like classical and doom.

I struggle a bit, like I guess like everyone does, with musical self-confidence and listening back to things, Most of the music I listen to and that I like is massive – 18-minute sprawling metal songs and so on. Whenever I approach writing a piece of music that long, I always end up worrying that I’m becoming self-indulgent and just writing to please myself. I’m not suggesting a twenty-minute tune is self-indulgent or a bad thing, but I get really nervous when a tune of mine passes the twelve-minute mark. I used to write absurdly long intros. I was so happy with them and I’d play them to other people, and after about four or five minutes of intro they’d start getting nervous, and you could really feel the tension in the room – “what’s going on with this tune, is it gonna happen or not?” So I think for now I’m going to stick a ten-minute limit on everything.

Oh, actually, that’s a complete lie. I’ve just written a 22-minute piece – but otherwise, that’s my limit.

What’s the 22-minute piece?

It’s for strings, so technically I think it’s acceptable! It’s an Unsound / Werkleitz Halle commission. I’m doing a collaboration with two independent video artists I have worked with in the past, Lucy Benson and Marcel Weber. Keith Fullerton Whitman’s doing half the piece, so I do 25 minutes and he does 25 minutes. It’s based on a JG Ballard short story, Dream Cargoes, and I am supposed to represent the end of human life on the planet while Keith is going to be some kind of new form of evolution.

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Wow. You’ll be using visuals for the Life Cycle Of A Massive Star performances as well, right? I saw the trailer that James Ginzburg produced. 

We’ve got a light show and a fifty-minute video all on the same theme. There are five different chapters of video for the five songs, but they’re all in a similar vein, and they’re pretty psychedelic. Originally, we thought about a live show that messed around with original footage of space and the sun and so on, the stuff you see in NASA footage. We kept coming back to the questions of what the most cosmic thing for me in films is, and how I see space. It’s like the sequence at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. When I see stuff like that, even though it’s not specifically depicting anything in space, it instantly sums these things up for me. So we did a few experiments, a few video techniques, and every time we found something, it was like, “Yes, now I’m thinking about a nebula”, or, “Yes – now I’m thinking about the birth of a star”, even if it wasn’t actually visually representing that. So it’s quite abstract, and really, really colourful. In the past I’ve been just pure black and white with everything, but this is super high-colour psychedelic video. It’s good fun.

I often find implicit representations are the most powerful. When you wrote the album, how did you plan to portray something of this scale with music?

It’s an absurd title, and it’s an absurd concept. It’s ridiculous. In no way am I suggesting that my music sounds big enough to fully represent these events. Music is devalued, and that’s an increasing problem. But when I listen to music, I can’t do any half measures. I use music as a tool to think about religion, and space, and things of huge scale – as well as small things, human-scale things. For me, this space scale is the scale of all music, not just my music.

I used to think about classical composers in the past, and how closely music was tied with religion. It was always a problem for me because I’d listen to beautiful pieces, often in churches, and I fought against the religious concept until I began to look past that and see that me writing music about the sun or a star is the same thing. I’m not trying to convey a message comparable with these thoughts and concepts; but like religious composers, it’s just what I’m thinking about when I’m doing it.

Interesting. Maybe your music is more universal than religious music because religion is so exclusive, whereas everyone thinks about these things you just mentioned.

I don’t know. Sadly, I think the truth is that not many people do think about them. And I’ve had times in my life when I don’t value music; there have been times when I don’t listen to music – especially ambient or classical music. And that’s when there’s been a massive decline in my ability to think about important things.

Do you think people over-consume music as well as not taking it seriously?

Oh definitely, that’s just as dangerous. I don’t particularly mind that I don’t really make money from music, and I don’t really mind that music’s given away for free – I accept that as part of the process now. But I’ve always struggled with the massive over-consumption thing. When the Pirate Bay and stuff started and everyone was downloading music, there’d be an artist that I wanted to check out whose stuff I hadn’t heard yet, and the only way to do that would be to download a 4-gigabyte folder of everything they’d ever done. And that’s just absurd. I love finding a single tune and pursuing it and finding more that that person has done. Music on the scale that it’s at now definitely devalues it, both financially and emotionally.

The upside of that massive oversaturation is that it’s ever more important to take your time, and release only music that’s significant.

Yeah, I write music very, very slowly. But I think the advantage for me in self-regulating my output is that I’m working in a genre where it’s not really appropriate for me to do singles, and there’s no arms race to release dubplates. It’s not particularly important whether I release the record this year, or last year, or next year, because it’s not compared to anything at the moment. So I don’t feel any panic or pressure to change my style or release my music at any given rate, which is a massive advantage.

And you’re not trying to fit into whatever people are talking about at the moment. There’s obviously a drive to labelling things in music discourse – but though your record will go on the same shelf as Raime, Emptyset and Stars of the Lid, you don’t actually sound anything like them.

I don’t want to big myself up, but what you just described as not really fitting into a genre is really important to me. And I think this album’s really different to Aftertime, though it could be the same genre if we had a name for it. Prior to physically doing anything, a lot of time went into coming up with a concept and making sure it was completely unique. And that’s partly why it’s so slow, because I spent such a long time thinking about it. And I suppose it’s quite a slow process compared to other kinds of music. I don’t really use any synths; it’s just processed sounds, so I guess the physical act of making it is quite slow as well. But most of the time it’s just thinking.

What are those sounds, and how do they come about?

A lot of it is just basic string recordings and things that have just been processed over and over again. I had a couple of fun days in a studio in Bristol running things through different amps and re-recording things. A lot of it is just noise creation, a lot of pedals and amps and things like that. That’s another thing; it’s difficult to remember. It’s strange but I often find the entire period of writing something really hard to recall for some reason. It’s mostly processed recordings. I use simple synths to generate things like sub-bass, things you can’t really escape from.

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That bass is an ongoing feature of your work but though Aftertime was a departure from the Vex’d sound, it feels like you’re pretty much done with club music now?

When I was younger, and really into certain kinds of dance music, it was really important to me that the artists I was into were at least as passionate as I was as a fan, and there currently isn’t a club format that I’m particularly passionate about. There’s lots of great techno around at the minute but I’ve never produced any techno, and I can’t just start. It’d be strange if after having written music for twenty years, with techno being such an important part of music for those twenty years and before, for me to go like, hey, great, I’m just going to start writing techno now! It’s not that there’s not anything good and new. Take Emptyset, that’s a really new sound and exciting departure from techno for me. And we’ve already mentioned Raime. Raime have a kind of 4/4 thing going on, but again it’s really new, and I wouldn’t call either act techno. But if I was to re-enter writing beats or club music again, and I don’t want to produce techno, then I’m back at square one. I mean, under no circumstances am I going to write breaks or dubstep or bass music again. So yeah, it’s either forget about the club or come up with something new.

It’s funny how you mention Emptyset as doing something new, because James Ginzburg has taken this sidestep to write this beautiful bucolic folk album [subsequently remixed by Porter].

It’s always strange what kind of music you’re asked about. When people ask me what music I’m into they expect me to say Deaf Center, or Raime, or Cut Hands, or something like that, but really I sit at home and listen to folk and blues from before I was born. I listen to a lot of dub and reggae and classical music. These are all genres which to me seem really interlinked and influential. So Ginz’s folk album is a perfectly sensible course of action from my point of view, but I can see how it seems like a massive departure. I mean, Emptyset and the folk album do sound worlds apart. And it’s interesting from a production point of view, because I find that everything I’ve always done, to me at least, sounds pretty much the same. So I know that I don’t technically have the ability to do something as different as that. But I like it.

I feel like folk and blues fed into Aftertime, but are far less of a factor in Life Cycle. Was that intentional?

Aftertime is supposed to sound like sci-fi, but more human, and Life Cycle is intended to be less human, but bizarrely, it’s more human somehow. Blues sums up the human condition to me perfectly, and even though Life Cycle doesn’t have any discernible folk or blues structures in it, the sense of melancholy I was going for has worked really well. That’s something I get from both blues and thinking about stars – that melancholy. I think that’s my favourite emotion. It’s why the concept of the star is so important, because it shows how short human lives are, and I love the thought that human life is short. ‘Gravity’ is the one I’m most proud of from that point of view. It’s got some field recordings that I deliberately didn’t bring out in the final mix and you can’t really hear them but the melancholy really comes through.

I like ‘Gravity’ a lot, and ‘Sequence’ too, though obviously Life Cycle works best as a whole.

Yeah, you can’t give someone a single tune. It sounds like a cop-out to say, “Oh, you have to sit and listen to the whole thing,” but I’m afraid you’ve actually got to sit and listen to the whole thing!

“I use music as a tool to think about religion, and space, and things of huge scale.”

It comes back to what you were saying about so much music being disposable – you have an album, and people can either choose to go deep into it, or they can not. 

It’s possible to listen to music and not feel the modern urge to skip through. People – myself included – skip through music a lot these days, but this only has five tunes, so if you skip through it you won’t have much to listen to.

What would you even skip to?

Yeah, you wouldn’t go, “Hey, why don’t I listen to track 4 off Roly’s new album?” I can’t even imagine people putting single tunes in mixes. The single tunes are a bit odd.

It’s definitely a record to play as loudly as possible, all the way through.

The volume thing is something I’m really pleased with.

Yes! The dynamic range on Life Cycle is incredible.

The couple of times I’ve played it live it’s been really effective. I mean, I love loud music, that’s a given, but as I’ve got a bit older I haven’t wanted to make people uncomfortable. I’ve wanted to sell the concept of loud music to people who aren’t necessarily used to loud music. I think adjusting the dynamic range of the album achieves that. It’s not this massive wall of sound that destroys you for forty minutes – there are only three really loud moments, ten or eleven minutes of super high volume and bass and noise altogether. I’m really pleased with that.

That’s part of what makes it so absorbing, too. The quiet parts make the loud parts seem so much louder.

That’s what my wife said – I talk really loudly, and she knew someone when she was younger who spoke so quietly that you had to lean in to hear him. Everything he said had loads of gravity and seemed really important and exciting, even when he was just chatting away. But as an analogy for the album, there are some bits that are so quiet that you can almost miss them, and I think that makes the volume twice as effective. It’s definitely something I’m going to keep working on in the future. Maybe it’s part of getting old, but I was always on this quest to be the loudest, and the heaviest, and it seems kind of futile now.

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