“I’m endlessly obsessed with the stuff that’s just below the surface — sounds that are there but you just need to tease them out a little bit, you know?”
So these are sounds that you have consciously recorded in your mind or that you have remembered.
Yes, this is one of my bad habits! I walk down the street and if I hear something I will say, “Oh, that’s a good sound,” and if I have got my recorder on me then I will record it there and then. Anyone who is there has to stand and wait for me… which is totally unsociable.
Well, kind of. It’s like taking a photograph, only not…
Yeah, I guess so. But I had been there long enough, so I knew which places could get a good sound from. The amazing door handle was on the fifth floor leading into our office, so everyday I was there playing with it. There was also an amazing, vaulted ceiling, so when you made this squeaky noise with the door you got a nice echo.
Does that mean you would consciously hear something and think, “Yes! This is the sound I want to play with”?
I did. I had a few of these recordings and I played them back and dubbed them onto tape at different speeds, and I would be like, “Right, it’s nice there.” Sometimes I would create a melodic effect by playing the sound back at one speed and then making a slight adjustment to the pitch and playing it back again. I think that’s how “Cold Space and Peeling Oxide” was made, but I can’t remember what the source material was. I had two tape machines, and I would dub between the two, and after about two or three sessions of dubbing back and forth, the sounds were broken down to the extent that you couldn’t remember what it even was.
What do you enjoy most about working with tape?
Well, up until then I had spent my entire life editing waveforms on a computer screen, and I got reasonably good at it. I mean, it’s my job. But when I was making music on a computer, I always roughly had an idea what it sounded like when it was finished. When you spend a few years working in that way you get a bit bored. There is a real unpredictability with tape and that’s what I love about it.
You mean in terms of degradation?
Partly yes, because after a while the tape does start to degrade, and the sounds that come from it start to change. It starts to devolve. And in the worst-case scenario, it could break or snap, or as on one occasion, the spool will jam and it will throw itself to its death while your back is turned. But yeah, you never know quite what you are going to get.
I think what Howlround do is to show you how fun it can be to make things complicated again.
In comparison to working on a computer, as you mentioned.
Exactly. Because even something like a simple mistake where you fix the spool on upside down and the sound goes backward — that might sound quite nice and so you keep it. I can’t really go beyond that — you never know what you are going to get. Some days the recordings that I would note down as having a particular sound would appear differently the next time I played it back, and after a while the loops would start degrading and the oxide would start to go. I’ve always been a complete control freak so actually allowing the tape to dictate the direction of the recording was difficult, but rewarding.
You have to remember that I wasn’t expecting The Ghosts of Bush, and in a way I wasn’t expecting Secret Songs of Savamala, I just started working on them. There were so many evenings when I thought it was all rubbish and I wanted to stop, because nothing had happened. I remember one night where I had been working for about three hours and it was all just sounding like a sloppy old mess and I was really fed up. My friend who was working the night shift with me came down and asked me what I was doing. I played her a couple of things that I had previously finished and she got really excited about it. She went off to do a program, and I was really hyped by her encouragement, so I gave myself another half an hour to work and managed to get the rough version of “Cold Space and Peeling Oxide” sat in front of me. I’m not sure where it came from.
I find that a lot though, when you are creating stuff, there is like a 20-minute period where you go off into a weird state and then you snap out of it and you have the idea sat there in front of you — then trying to get back into that stage is impossible.
Do you have an academic background in music?
I have a degree in music. The irony is that I can’t read a note and I can barely play anything. I have the utmost respect for people who can, but my first love was jungle — hardcore jungle. I love the kind of rawness and the visceral nature of the sound. But when drum n bass got that live component, with real instruments and a drummer, I lost all interest in it, because the music had lost that raw crunchiness. The music I love the most has that saturated grittiness to it, which you don’t get by just mic’ing up a drum kit. Are you familiar with 90s jungle?
Sure, a lot of UK stuff.
The thing about jungle is that it samples the Amen break, do you know that?
Yes, the Winstons.
Yes, it’s an amazing record, the original. It’s an amazing funk record. But if you listen to that having listened to all of the music that came after it, you wouldn’t necessarily go, “That’s the moment that hip-hop and jungle was invented right there,” you wouldn’t. But when you hear what people did with it, this kind of amazing raw, visceral music that they were making, if you tried to replicate that with a drummer just playing the same pattern, it wouldn’t work.
So for you, it’s about the texture of the music that’s being played as opposed to the rhythm or the composition?
Well, maybe. The best example is “Stand By Me” by Benny King. The reason I think that all cover versions of that song have been disastrous failures, including the happy hardcore version that came out in the early 90s, which was absolutely diabolical, was that it has this kind of scratchiness to it. I’m not even sure what it is… It’s like a scraper. I also think the bass sounds very fuzzy and raw, and Benny has an amazing scorched-earth voice, and then there are these shrill grating strings. It also has an amazing timbre to it. I don’t think I even own the record, but it’s an example: if you notated it and arranged it for a band and put them in a studio and got them to play it, it wouldn’t be the same song, there is no way. There is something in it, some sort of textural timbrel quality that makes it so special that I don’t think you could replicate.
Is this something that you are going after, or that you are in search of in any way within your music?
Whenever I have been trying to make a piece of music, it has always been about the timbrel quality of it, the texture that it has. The way I tried to explain it to somebody once was that, the things I am interested in aren’t supposed to make music. I went to university and the professor played me a piece of music that had been made out of a door handle — which I didn’t think about while I was making The Ghosts of Bush — and it had a profound impact on me. I had tried to include some abstract recordings into some of the appalling dance music I was making as a student, but it was only when I went to uni and heard people doing it properly that I made the connection.
I love a well-written pop songs as well, but the music that really excites me is the stuff that has a textural feel to it. I can hear the potential in things, I can hear like a train going past and I hear the rumbling of it and I think, “That could sound really good if I did this and that to it.”.. but then again I could be wrong, I often am. But sometimes I can be right in a way that I wasn’t expecting.
It’s just what was there when we hit ‘record.’ If you base your work ethic on that action, then that’s it and nothing more, you could end up with a terrible record.
I think that comes through in your music. When you listen to Howlround, you can sense composition. There is a distinct flow within the music that doesn’t seem to just come from pressing ‘record’ and seeing what happens.
For sure. I mean, the tapes are loops, and my background as a DJ or a maker of bad dance music is all loop-based. So I suppose that once you have a nice phrase that you have in your collection of recordings that you have, it’s on a loop. If you have several of those phrases dubbed onto a computer, running simultaneously, they sort of shift and the tape itself. Every time the loop passes over the playhead it sounds ever so slightly different. It’s an infinitesimal difference that your ear doesn’t notice, but it is there. I should say though that I’m under no illusion that I’m a pioneer, because people have been doing this stuff for years, and all I’m doing is just repeating what they did. But, at the moment I think we have a slight advantage in that there aren’t so many people doing what Howlround is doing, by which I mean playing live with tape machines.
How does the live performance come together, then? On one of the videos it looks as though there is tape all over the place…
… Yeah, that’s how it is. It’s a complete mess.
What’s it like being amongst that then, that lack of control in front of a live audience?
It’s scary because they are unpredictable machines. It’s happened before where we have switched them on and they go, “Nope, not working today,” and then the next time you switch it on it will be fine. They don’t work in the way you would expect them to. Ever. I love performing, but I never enjoy the sets so much, because I always just think, “Nobody is going to be into this, this is just ridiculous!”
How does the live set work?
It’s all acoustic sounds we have recorded that are dubbed onto tape. They are then cut into loops. Some of it is vintage recordings of ships horns, that’s a recent thing we have been doing, because I’m a foghorn obsessive. Other things were made in Chris’ spare bedroom using symbols and bowed symbols. We just used a few objects around the house and hit them and rubbed them and messed around with them. So that’s the acoustic sounds for the live show. When we play we have three tape machines and a mixer and then we have an echo unit, which is a blank loop of tape. That sets the recorded to play back at the same time, so usually Chris runs the desk and we sort of divide duties down the middle as it were. We create a mixture of the three loops that are playing and perhaps send one or two of them to the tape machines to create a nice texture, it’s as simple as that. It doesn’t always work but when it does work it sounds, to my mind, absolutely amazing. We have had sets that have just been like, “Wow, where did that come from!” Then we have had other sets that have sort of taken five or 10 minutes to find their feet and it’s sort of unpredictable. And sometimes, to ask people to watch you being unpredictable is testing them. But the response has been amazing. Our audiences have been really supportive.