Experimental audio interview
What's the blueprint for the Sonic sound?
The sounds that have influenced me, you know, you're lying there in this kind of weather, and there's the sound of planes going over, people mowing the lawn, and dishwashers, washing machines rumbling away, all that sort of stuff. I've always liked what I suppose you'd call ambient drones. It's just the mood that they can drop you into.
You've lived in Rugby all of your life. Have you stayed here because it appeals to you sonically?
Er, [laughs], no. It's beautiful round here, the countryside. It's near to where the three counties join. I don't think I'd be able to cope with a big city.
You get a different sonic universe in a large city. In the block where I live someone's got a pirate station running on a Saturday afternoon, you can here them emceeing. And then there's two rival ice cream vans; one plays that tune 'Van-der-ee' and the other plays Oranges and Lemons. And their sound reflects off of all the concrete and phases in and out.
[Sonic is looking gleeful] That's great. I love all that stuff. Cities do have much more of an interesting sonic landscape. I'm really partial to tram wires and the 'splash' you get off of them. Occasionally, when the tram's a little way off, the wire whips kind of like a reverb spring. You get it in places like San Francisco and Amsterdam.
Ultimately everything I've ever done has been about moods, trying to evoke moods, whether it's a bad trip or a sunny afternoon. Even the Data Rape (REALAUDIO) stuff is no different. It isn't about doing it for the sake of using certain instruments, it's doing it because of what the instruments do, the sounds they make. We've been working a lot recently with vocal sounds and vocal resonances, and using phoneme sounds to create patterns and textures. We're using vocoders and stuff like that, although not with vocals. We're using vocoders to impart the tonal characteristics of one sound onto the pitch characteristics of another, but in a very vocal sort of way.
The secret with Spacemen 3, certainly with my stuff, was that it was one chord best, two chords second best, three chords third best, and you could only really had two or three chords if there was one note common to all the chords, so that one note can persevere through the chords. If you try and write down something like Walking with Jesus ... in a way the stuff is very cleverly done in that it's far simpler even than it sounds. It sounds kind of simple, but it's even simpler. To me it's very clever, and the most impressive thing for me is to hear a song that I really like, and I go to try and work it out, and I'll find that it's all just two chords. Just very clever harmonies and melodies that move off of it, and by doing that somehow you keep the simplicity, you keep something that's sort of very satisfying and pacifying. And yet you've also got the element of interest that makes it appear that it's changing and evolving without really doing so in a conventional way...
I mean, a lot of the stuff is really meant to be a regression from rock'n'roll, from three chords back to two. And although a lot of my favourite music is three chord music, there's a lot of it. You've got Otis Redding one hand and, on the other, someone really bad that I can't really think of at the moment. Even within a three chord genre of music, like rock 'n' roll, which is like E,A,D sort of stuff. You know, there's some people who can do it effortlessly, but there's so many that are just a load of crap. With EAR, the reason that we did that very minimal stuff, the drone based stuff, is that it seemed to be very evocative of certain moods, and it's very useful for creating or trying to sum up certain feelings. I was doing some artwork the other day, and I was playing some stuff which I needed to listen to - I had to get some tracks out for a project I was doing - and I was listening to this one track, and I can't really describe how it sounds. All I can say is that it had no whale sounds in it at all, like nothing even remotely sounding like whale sounds, but two people in this block of offices both said [adopts a whimsical, floaty voice] "whale". It was just very soporific, mellow, almost drifty. That was the same way that everyone responded to Spacemen 3: "Hawkwind", which to us was like a really big insult.
My brother, who's a big Hawkwind fan, used to make that very comparison...
[laughing] When people used to say that, I could see what they meant... Everyone knows Silver Machine, which even for Hawkwind was meant to be some kind of joke that I guess backfired on them. But, you know, Orgone Accumulator, I would have been proud to have written that song, I think that's a cool song. I guess it wasn't an insult, because I knew what people meant: "Well, it's kind of rock and it's kind of spacey... yeah, Hawkwind!" Even the Pestrepeller record, that got reviewed, and it was like "Oh, Tangerine Dream". Well, I know what he means, but compared to Tangerine Dream it's pretty nasty stuff... it's harsh sounds. But you know where people are coming from, with this limited outlook, where they've got a record collection of thirty records. It's not really as insulting as it should be.
You have quite a mid-century modernist sensibility. What current stuff do you like?
I like Pan Sonic. I was meant to actually do a track with them, with some circuit-bent stuff. They were really into it. Yeah, I like a lot of the Kranky stuff. And Labradford and Bardo Pond. We're putting out a compilation album with Ochre and Earworm, and a lot of the acts have been on at least two and sometimes three of the labels: there's people like Skyray, Longstone, Magnétophone, Stylus ... EAR will be on there, and Peter Zinovieff. And there's a cool band in Rugby called 121 Dials. It's a weird place Rugby. Not very much happens here. I've got a friend from San Francisco who comes here on holiday quite a lot... he loves it. He hates going back to San Francisco after the week or whatever. He reckons it's the coolest place he's ever been. There's a lot of nutty people who live here. There's this cool guy I know called Tommy Webber, who was Keith Richards' drug buddy through Exile on Main Street and that period, and used to take eyedroppers full of acid with Hendrix. About six weeks before Timothy Leary died he came along to one of the Spectrum shows in Los Angeles, and invited me back to his house for the next day. And we were just chatting, and smoking joints and shit, and I said to him "You haven't met this guy called Tommy Webber have you?", because I'd got it into my head that Tommy had mentioned Timothy Leary at some point. It turned out that Timothy Leary remembered in a flash and said "Yeah, yeah, yeah. When I was on the run from the CIA in Tangiers I was kidnapped by the Black Panthers," who were also on the run at the time, and they were there because there was no extradition from Tangiers to America. And this guy Tommy apparently saved Timothy Leary from the Black Panthers by swinging in on the telephone line, onto the balcony, and got in and, like, escaped with Timothy Leary off of the balcony. Yeah, it's a weird place. The hologram was invented in Rugby, and the jet engine too.
Unfortunately I've got to build about 3 or 4 [circuit-bent] Speak & Spells in the next 24 hours. To do them properly they take about eight or ten hours each, but I'm only going to put on the major features on these which I need for touring. The last ones I had got destroyed on tour, so I'm making a second batch. I'm designing them differently so that all the switches are totally protected. The last tour was on planes, this one isn't, so it should be OK...
The Pestrepeller album's coming out. What's that about?
You know Savage Pencil, right? Savage Pencil is a real cool guy, a cutting edge cartoonist since the mid 70s. He's done stuff for The Residents and God knows who else... he worked for the NME and Sounds forever. He's got a very good book called Rock 'n' Roll Zoo, which is all his strips from Sounds from the late 70s...
[A single-propeller light aircraft flies over] My kind of sound...
He has this group, I mean he still does artwork, but this group, their full name is Sonic Attack Wave Pestrepeller, which I think they've kind of shortened to Pestrepeller, and I liked the CD a lot, which is along the lines of, though it was made in a slightly different way, to Metal Machine Music, ie, there's probably quite a few people who bought it who never listened to it. It's pretty intense feedback. And what's really great about it is that you can tell that the people on it aren't musicians. No one's trying to get their solo in there, and no one's trying to show off. It just sounds like people really having fun getting noise out of guitars. It's a very, very rich sound source I thought would be ideal for processing. So I got my EMS VCS3 which, as well as being an incredible, incredibly versatile synthesiser, is also an incredibly versatile treatment device for treating other sounds. I took different segments of the Pestrepeller CD and treated it through the VCS3 using control voltage to control different elements of the electronics to do things... crescendos and volume crescendos and tone crescendos and ring modulation, all sorts of stuff like that, and then constructed a piece reprocessing their stuff quite dramatically...
Ed Pinsent from The Sound Projector magazine, he's from Pestrepeller, and he agreed that it was pretty much unrecognisable as the original record... so I put it out.
Then there's an automatic piece I set up on my Serge, which is a much bigger modular synthesiser. All I had to do was turn on the switch and let it roll for however long... I didn't touch it. Unfortunately with modular synthesisers, if you don't know what you're doing... You can't go "oh, I'll stick a few leads in there and it'll sound good anyway". You can do that to some extent, and you might have some luck. But if certain criteria aren't fulfilled you won't get a sound...
The Serge is a very complex third generation analogue synthesiser that has to be learned and learned and learned. You can have low frequency oscillators, control shapes, lasting up to 70 minutes, which means that you can get patterns... you know, you could get an automatic piece that wouldn't repeat for years. You can have different modules affecting different modules affecting different modules which in turn affects the first one.
It's kind of like an automatic version of that Cardew piece, isn't it? The vocal systems piece... Do you know that?
I haven't read that much about it myself. I only know about it via Eno, really. Somebody starts and there's a set of rules regarding singing notes based on what others are singing etc... [this piece turns out to be The Great Learning from 1967]
Oh, I've seen that performed. There's a rather good film, actually. I think the Arts Council of Great Britain made a video about AMM. Eddie Prevost, who I was talking about earlier, was of course working with Cardew... Cardew adopted AMM as his ensemble pretty much. The piece I'm most familiar with is Treatise by Cornelius Cardew. I tried getting it from the Arts Council and they didn't even return my call [they only seem to loan to academic institutions]... there's a whole load of old footage of Cardew, I think it was made in Oxford or Cambridge, performing pieces with students or something. It's in a church or a chapel. And it's got AMM performing on it.
Actually, it was that film through which I found out about AMM, and then I mentioned it to Kevin Martin, who was the guy who encouraged me to form EAR as a separate thing outside of Spectrum, because he knew I was really doing that sort of stuff. The first EAR piece was really Phase Me Out (Gently) from Soul Kiss (Glide Divine), which is me and Kevin Martin, and I really wanted to use it on that album... the Spectrum album. I think he didn't really want me to... but being a cool guy he let me do it. Yeah, so he kind of encouraged me to do EAR. And when I mentioned to him I'd seen this programme about Cornelius Cardew and AMM he said "Oh, would you be interested in working with Eddie Prevost." And of course I said "Would I fuck? I'd love to." So he said "OK, I'll ask him... I know him, I'll ask him... I'll see what he says." And he was up for it, and that was it. I don't always play with him, but any big show... I don't like to do it unless I can afford to pay him proper rates, because he's been doing it for so long, you know. I just think that he deserves to get paid for it. If I'm only getting 150 quid, I wouldn't insult him by asking him to. If someone was going to pay 150 quid for a gig I'd say "OK, but you get me for that". We get to play a few times a year, we get invited to these festivals, places in Europe and stuff. Through talking with him and playing with him, he's been a real great teacher, he really has. He's a very, very interesting, open-minded guy, for his age particularly... although it's not really fair to say that, because this is a guy who'd been doing this kind of music since the 60s. Yeah, I've got tremendous respect for him. And Delia Derbyshire as well... she hasn't been doing music over the last 20 years, well 30 years, nearly, but pioneered electronic sounds in this country during the 60s.
Haven't you been working together?
Yeah... only in a small way with me. But we get on very well, and she helps me with some of my stuff. With the EAR stuff I've been doing lately I've been asking her for advice. And, I've been helping her catch up with technology, sampling, modern synthesisers, stuff like that. She's really been getting into FM synthesis.
I guess she completely passed that by.
Absolutely. I found this Yamaha thing... it's almost like a toy, it's a PSS or something like that. They've put two-operator FM synthesis in it, which is very easy to use, and she really gets off on that. And she comes over here every couple of weeks, and we use my stuff sometimes... she's rediscovered the VCS3 as well, and what an amazing instrument it is. She's now realised what an incredible thing it is, really.
Yes that's right... Oramics.
Have you done any of that?
No, no. That was a unique system.
Yeah, that was with the gang synchroniser. But I have a 16mm projector, and you can, well, scribble on the edge of clear filmstock and synthesise that way.
Oh... what, you can put an optical soundtrack on it? Daphne Oram's unfortunately on her last legs, she's had several strokes. We're hoping to put some of her music out as well. Delia has been in touch with her for a long time, and, they're keen for someone to put out their stuff. She put out one EP, I think it was called something like Patterns in Rhythm and Dance, back in the 1950s. She was a genius, a real genius. Unfortunately a lot of the credit for innovation that went on in synthesis and sound manipulation has gone to America, when a lot of the work was actually done in this country. Peter Zinovieff, David Cockerell, people like that, the real pioneers...
His stuff was incredibly beautiful, organic sounding music, using very sophisticated software, and a very sophisticated interface between the user and the computer, using very primitive equipment. And a lot of the stuff they were doing, involving analysis of sounds, and what we now call sampling... digitally encoding sounds, but mainly analysis and re-synthesis: I mean, computer programs to do that have only become available in the last 10 years, and only in the last 2 or 3 years have they become widely become available.
In 1973/4, they made these massive video synthesisers which are something else, and they also wired up a Sony camera to the computer and translated pixel information into programming information as well as sound information... and he said it was the most beautiful sounds a computer has ever made... you just pointed the camera at anything and it would go into this incredible sound... unfortunately there's no record of it, no sound record of it at all. When his company went bust he had this incredible state-of-the-art studio, running this custom built stuff, and it was unique in the world. He tried to give it away before the company went bust. He tried to give it to the nation if they would house it and run it, but there was no takers for it. So, in the end it got stored somewhere, and it got flooded and all this stuff basically got wrecked.
I've got his tape library here, but there's some pieces, important pieces for which the tapes do not exist any more, which is really frustrating. Luckily, there's enough really amazing stuff that's still worth doing something with. But he wasn't doing it because he thought he was making history. He was doing it because that's what he was mad for. He didn't archive everything. Luckily, he must have had some good photographer friends, because there's a wealth of photographs of all the gear they made, even prototypes and stuff. Hopefully that'll be out early next year sometime, I've been working on it for a good couple of years so far.
[Another plane flies over...] Going back to the idea of your aesthetic, there's very few musicians who'd quite willingly say they make music that is soporific.
[laughs] Uh-ha. Well, to most people a drone is something boring. To most people a drone is something that would instantly put their back up and irritate them. I think it says a lot about people - how they react to certain music. That piece I was talking about, Phase Me Out (Gently), for me it's one of the most beautiful, relaxing pieces of music I've done. But I know other people who when they heard it thought it sounded satanic. I think it says a lot about people, you know, what's within them, and how they react to stuff.
How do you feel about the sound of the Data Rape stuff? That's pretty hard and edgy, really.
Harsh, is it? Well... it's not the first time I've done stuff that's harsh. I think Forever Alien was pretty harsh... it's meant to be intense and fun. I don't find it with Data Rape, I must admit. I know those sounds are quite harsh, but I think what I do with them, texturally, and the places that it goes I think are hypnotic.
I don't know... those disembodied voices. I think it'd make fantastic hold music for a telephone call centre, where there's people in a shed, and they're all having to answer call after call after call without a break.
[laughs] A lot of my stuff's been about contrast, and you know, everything's relative. It doesn't mean shit if it isn't. If you give someone something harsh, and then follow it with something that's mellow, then the mellow thing's mellower by definition... But then, I think if a piece of music sends you to sleep, then that's very valuable... very powerful.
I don't think that's a bad thing... the same with the drone thing. There's the idea that the drone's nasty and to be avoided. Used in the right way, having the tune paying homage to the drone and working round that can be the most spiritual, consciousness-raising stuff.
Does it depress you that the drone's been on the margins for so long and it's never crossed. It's anathema.
I don't think it is in other cultures. And even in medieval times we had instruments like Hurdy Gurdies. Even in the West Celtic music is pretty drone-based. I think that a lot people live their lives on a very shallow level.
It's as though people use their music as wallpaper to background the rest of their lives, what they regard as more important.
It's not even like wallpaper really. Wallpaper should be something, well, like Brian Eno.
Something you want on the wall.
Exactly. Yeah. I don't listen to Radio 1... Occasionally I check it out just to see what's going on. I'm in touch enough that if any cool stuff comes along... I've got friends who'll point it out to me. Actually, of all the people working in what I would call crap-pop music, Fatboy Slim is really the only one that has done anything I've thought was vaguely interesting. He did a remix of a Pierre Henry song from 62 or 63 [Psyché Rock from 1967, as it turns out, but it's clear why he thought it to be earlier], it sort of sounds like The Troggs with Delia Derbyshire on top. I was VERY surprised to hear that... I heard it on a kids' TV programme. And he did, like, a pseudo-gospel song...
That's it. And I think what was really brilliant was at the end of the first verse, the last vocal line... well it goes into a frozen loop... and it stays like that for ages... well, it very slowly... it disappears when something else comes in almost subliminally, so you almost feel like it's in there for the rest of the song. So, no, fair play to him, that's great to put shit like that in a pop record.
[Sonic is distracted by some gliders flying silently overhead]. Isn't there some live circuit-bending material coming out?
Yeah, there's a live LP coming, from the last Data Rape tour that we did in America. It's basically called Live at the Dream Palace, which is a venue in New Orleans, and that's me doing the circuit-bending stuff live. Although a lot of the stuff on the record, the [original] Data Rape record; probably about a third of it was done multi-track in the studio; two-thirds of it was done live.
You never know what you're gonna get with circuit-bending, you know, it's always random selection, but I do give myself a time limit. It's like spinning plates; if the plate doesn't spin the first time, you can try again and again and again, but, you know, if you don't get back to the first plate that needs starting again. You have to give up on things at a certain point; you just go with what you've got. It's nice to work like that, but the whole idea of EAR is that it is experimental stuff, so if I knew exactly what I was going to get every night, there wouldn't be much point, really. It would be totally predictable. And the same when I perform with other musicians... I never have and never will rehearse. I play with the calibre of people who don't need to, who are good improvisers, and with just a minimal direction at the start they know exactly what to do. Sure, yeah, it's different every time, so sometimes by its nature things can go a bit better than at others. It might be disconcerting if they sound horrible or something, but by the nature of it that's the way it is. And you can't have ecstasy if you don't have pain sometimes. It's that relativity thing again. You can't only have half of the equation; it doesn't work out. I think it's important that it is like that. I do want to keep what I'm doing experimental, although I don't believe in things being experimental just for the sake of it. As I said earlier, the content is the end product.
16th February 2001, E.A.R. live in London
Sonic will be playing a live set as E.A.R. in London at the Spitz, Old Spitalfields Market on 16th February 2001. Closest tube stations are Liverpool Street on the Central Line and Aldgate East on the District and Hammersmith & City.
POSTSCRIPT: Due to reasons still unexplained, the dictaphone picked up an ominous, ever-present drone throughout the first side of the interview tape. Rather than ruining the recording it seemed rather apt that form should meet content in this way. Sonic phoned the next day and was rather impressed (but also perplexed) by the unexpected audio bonus.
Many thanks to Sonic, who gave so much time when he should have been soldering.
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