“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?”
As an example, you played a rather interesting show in Sothwark the other evening. How did that go?
It went really well. The floor was a bit uneven, which meant that the things we put the loops on, which is like a tension device — the loops have to be kept tense — and it kept slipping because the floor was uneven. It was at the Kirkcaldy Testing Museum, which is this amazing place where they used to test machines that tested the structural integrity of things, like how much of a load something could take before it broke. So we set up our gear amongst all of this stuff, also Oscillatorial Binnage were actually doing a performance incorporating the machines on that night and we were warming up for them. So I did all the tape-reel changes on the night, which is what you can see on the video, just moving about and changing the tape loops over, and then Chris was running the desk. We had a few technical problems but we did find our feet. I haven’t listened back to the recording yet, but I will do.
What you are hearing on Secret Songs, particularly on the second side, the second and third track, is a slightly more prepared and composed version of that set up. The A Side was done largely digitally using the same techniques but mostly just by putting them into a sequencer and then arranging them. But I had a whole lot of samples that I liked set aside for the second side of the record. I couldn’t quite get them to sit though, so I dubbed them on to tape, set them up in my room — luckily I have a reasonably big room — and we just jammed for about half an hour. And the best bits are what you hear on side two.
I think you have emphasized in the past that your project is a collaboration between you and the building. This latest album of yours was a commission, as you mentioned, where you were asked to go over to Belgrade and record. Because there wasn’t any emotional or historical connection with this building, as you had with Bush House, how much of an impact did that have on the recording and your approach?
Yes. Yes, it’s very much a collaboration. Certainly there was no way I could have formed the same attachment with this building as I had with Bush House. I had arrived there 24 hours previous to setting up and I hadn’t had much sleep either. But the three people who knew why I was there and were really excited by the project, they loved the building, it was their… They called it their temple. They directed me to the Spanish House immediately. Within a few minutes of arriving, we had set up and we were making recordings. These people loved the building, and in some ways they hate what it has become now, even though it is being used as a sort of art space.
Was it an arts foundation who set up the project in Belgrade?
I was invited by an organization called Camenzind, which is an architecture magazine. You should check the website to make sure I’m not talking complete bollocks, but I think their aim is to look at the historical and cultural implications of architecture. It’s not just to be read by architects, but by people who are interested in the subject. So their idea was to produce something that was for people living in the area, and my role was to create a sound piece for their website but also to help local people to make their own art. There was also a radio station that wanted to broadcast some of our works, which is what we did. I wasn’t expecting an album out of it to be honest. I thought I would make a couple of pieces and nothing more, but it sort of took a life of it’s own. I think you can hear — although it is very difficult talking about this thing. You can hear our collaborators’ relationship with the building on the album somewhere.
It was a wonderful experience. When we arrived, we stood on the final step of the basement before the flood waters began. To demonstrate what the acoustics were like, they started singing into the space. The first side is pretty much just that. They were also banging on the structural supports on the back cover and them singing. The Goethe Institute in Belgrade runs a thing called The Goethe Guerrillas, and they had actually filmed themselves in the past banging on the supports so they made Youtube videos of it, so it was them who introduced me to the building. I think it does sound quite Serbian, I guess. I hope so. I think it’s a cold-sounding record.
Just to get a sense of the chronology, then. Did the Whirled Service recordings happen after you had done Secret Songs.
Well, this is why I am so bad at promoting my own work. Whirled Service was supposed to come out a couple of months previous to Secret Songs and the idea was that the former would be out in June. The latter was supposed to come out in late August/early September. As it happens they both ended up coming out within about a week of each other, which is appalling self-promotion.
So Whirled Service was recorded first?
No. See, this is the thing. It was a collaboration with Franziska Lantz, who wasn’t the original collaborator. The first collaborator bailed on the project, and so while I was sorting that all out, the project got delayed. Thankfully Radio 3 were very good about it. So the delay wasn’t entirely my fault. Basically it meant a lot of the work needed to be re-done from scratch and I only just got it done about a week before it went out. Secret Songs of Savamala was actually finished back in July, but then I had to get it pressed and get the test pressings done and I didn’t want to let anyone hear it until it was finished, and rather unfortunately for any kind of coherent promotional campaign, they were both actually finished and sat in front of me within about a week of each other. So this is why I need deadlines.
The reason I asked is because I’m interested in the way that you approached the buildings. Obviously both had a different angle to Bush House, but with Broadcasting House, you still had a connection to it. How long had you been there before you started making recordings?
It was almost as soon as we started really. I mean, we moved in just over a year ago, the release date for The Ghosts of Bush was day of the final transmission from Bush House, which was on 12 July, 2012. And by this point we had moved in, so it was about a year-and-a-half ago now.
I’ll try and work very quickly on things and build on spontaneity throughout, but then never listen to the recordings again once you have finished with them.
But you didn’t have these memories, you didn’t have a routine where you were accustomed to different sounds that interested you within the building…
… No, exactly! And yet, all three pieces are all made in the same way, with slight changes here and there. But I mean, yeah, this is the thing, the last two recordings have been made using buildings that I have no real connection to, or haven’t had a chance to build up a connection to, but I am a great believer in just getting on with it and making a connection, forcing a connection, and I had already been walking around a bit to feel the things out. It’s probably a bit OCD but I go around and find things — I nearly got off the tube the other day because there was this really strange sound on the platform and I wanted to know what it was, but I was carrying loads of records so I didn’t. If I hadn’t had all of my stuff with me I would have gotten off the tube and I would have spent 10 minutes wandering around the platform trying to find that sound, and then I would have got on another tube after having made a recording of it.
See, when I was a kid, I lived in a small town up North. I didn’t come to London very often, but when I did, the thing that really obsessed me was the “Mind the Gap” announcement. As a little kid used to try and imagine who that man was! Where was he? What was he doing? Obviously I know now that it was a recording, but I tried to imagine what he looked like and where he was sitting and what he was wearing and I suppose now, that still has an impact.
I didn’t think much about my interest in sound when I was younger. I didn’t realize that I was into it if you know what I mean, but I remember having a catalog of sounds that my grandma’s house made: the way that the gate had a certain clang to it and the bathroom door had a certain creak when it opened. There were these really old-fashioned radiators that made this very peculiar sound. So I realize now that actually, sound as a memory is actually important to me. It’s so hard to talk about this kind of stuff though and not sound pretentious.
I don’t think it sounds pretentious. It sounds like you are talking about the relationship you have with the sounds you hear.
Yes, but this is the thing. It is music. I think, this is music [noise of a coffee grinder in the background]. I’ve heard people say things like, “Oh yeah, but that’s not proper music,” and when you press them they normally say, “Well, proper music is guitars, or real instruments,” and I don’t think it is. It’s music, even if you don’t like it.
What’s happening to the Whirled Service recording?
I don’t know at the moment. It’s available as a download on the BBC website, although I think that may have expired now. I would like to release it as a record, but I think I would have to license it and licensing is so expensive, and then there are the manufacturing costs on top of that and I think it would end up being at least £2,500, at the very least, which is double what it cost to make Secret Songs, and you just think… “Is it worth it?” Would it not be better to make something new and just put it out? I don’t know. Maybe I’ll do a Kickstarter. The other thing I should say, for the purposes of full disclosure, is that Whirled Service does feature a certain amount of reverb, which I was terribly ashamed of. It doesn’t feature as much as you might think actually, but it is there because the sound of the building was just so dry. And the reverb saved the piece. So, that’s the other reason I’m concerned about putting it out. I mean it wouldn’t go out under the Howlround name because it was made with Franzy, so it would be Robin The Fog with Franziska Lantz. But I think then that people would go, “Well, wait a minute Robin, you’ve said this whole thing about using artificial reverb and then, you’ve put artificial reverb on that!”
Actually, the first bit of feedback I got when the record came out, was from a complete stranger who said, “Just to let you know, the DC offsets on the record is slightly off.”
See the thing is that I’m a sound engineer, but I’m not the most scientific sound engineer, because I know others who are brilliant. But they listen to the microphones. Which is important of course, but my approach is to basically… Well… I’ve got a friend who is a photographer and I said to him, “What’s the best camera to use?” and he said, “Well, it’s whatever you have with you when you need to take a photograph.” And I apply the same thing to recordings. Obviously I don’t tend to use mobile-phone recordings because they are not that good, but I have a digital handheld recorder that does me fine, and that’s the thing I have with me and that’s the thing I use to record. I’m sure most sound engineers would take issue with that. But I’m quite proud of the fact that this seems to work — I seem to be able to produce the work I want to produce with it, so until I feel like I’ve failed, then I will carry on.
Finally, I wanted to discuss the vocal samples that you used in The Ghosts of Bush and Whirled Service. Because these are very apparent, non-site-specific samples, how did you chose what to use and where to include them?
Well The Ghosts of Bush opens with the Cantonese Service announcement, which is the opening of a program. We do quite a lot of learning English program at the BBC, and what they do is they will have a dialogue, and then they will go back over it again and then translate it. But what I loved about the end of Whirled Service, for example, was that I was playing this thing as it went out on air as a feature, and it just made me laugh because of how gushing the female voice was and how bemused the man was. It seemed like an appropriate way to end the project. I sometimes wonder if Howlround is… It can be quite austere and quite sombre, not deliberately because I’m trying to create great solemn works, but I think it can be quite austere so I wanted to include something that would break the atmosphere up a bit. I think it did that. So I use these things to give the work a bit of context and just because I think they are interesting sounds. In The Ghosts of Bush, somewhere in the depths of the mix, there are lots of little [identifiers] for language services that don’t exist anymore, and they are functional these things, they are purely functional objects, and yet they are also interesting. They are no longer used, these things. They are obsolete now. But so were the tape machines that I used to make the album. So was the studio it was recorded in. They are all obsolete.