“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?”
Among a number of other charges, Robin Warren (a.k.a Robin The Fog) is a BBC studio manager for the World Service. As an experimental musician, avid vinyl collector, and sound obsessive, it seems a position at the world’s largest international broadcaster is the perfect calling for him. Over the past few years, not only has he been able to use his workplace as an environment for editing and treating his music, but — perhaps most curiously — he has also used the building as an instrument.
Under his Howlround moniker, Robin released The Ghosts of Bush on the same day the BBC made its last radio transmission from Bush House, which is where the World Service began in 1941. The album is a collection of deeply unsettling “hauntological” soundscapes that explore the acoustics of a historic building through the use of tape manipulation. The project has been very well received, and since then, Warren has explored the potential of two new, but very different buildings, to astounding effect. Howlround also became a duo, performing live shows in and around London, while its founding member became known as the BBC’s “Completely Unofficial One-Man Radiophonic Workshop.”
TMT caught up with Robin last year over coffee somewhere in the center of London, where he talked about the delights of working with tape, childhood catalogs of sound, and the unquestionable importance of the Amen break.
I should start by saying that I’m quite a messy person. Quite all over the shop. When I’m working I need to be very strict with myself about routine and it has to be finished by ‘THEN!’ It is what it is at that stage.
I used to have pieces sat at my computer that I would tinker with for months and never really get anywhere with. I find that a lot of the time when you are working on new material, that the first idea, that first cut, is usually the best. And then the rest of it is just tinkering and finishing it off. So I try and work quite quickly.
You mean to put a limit on how much tinkering you can do?
Exactly. Because otherwise you just end up obsessing with things forever. I was obsessing over Secret Songs of Savamala right until the last minute. I had to run for the bus and I was an hour late and my mate at the mastering studio was like, “You’re an idiot!.”.. And then, when the test pressings came back, again, I obsessed over it, and I was like, “Oh, what if it’s not good enough.” I then resolved never to listen to the album again. That is my new work ethic actually. 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. So, The Ghosts of Bush and Secret Songs, I have never listened to since they came out.
But The Ghosts of Bush got a lot of positive press when it was released…
I couldn’t believe it. For something that I wasn’t even going to put out. I was only ever really thinking about a cassette or a download or something, and then suddenly people were going mad for it.
I didn’t think anyone would be interested to begin with. Perhaps that sounds a little disingenuous now, but I honestly didn’t think that people would be that keen. Half the reason for that was because it was the end of an era; it was Bush House, it was the idea of this building closing. Yeah, it was the end of an era, it was a very sad time, and it was a historical moment. That almost certainly helped to push it. Secret Songs of Savamala doesn’t have that; it was part of an arts program, it was made in Belgrade, and I was invited there as part of a commission, but of course it doesn’t have that back story, unless of course you are particularly into the history of Serbian customs houses. But, it was made in the same way, using the same techniques, with a few modifications. Some of it was more digital this time, although all of the recordings are all acoustic. Again, there are no computer effects, no artificial reverb.
The new album certainly sounds as though you are comfortable working within those boundaries you set yourself.
I really hope so, because 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 recently did a project for Radio 3, which was called Whirled Service, but the problem with that is that Broadcasting House really isn’t that interesting sonically. For a long time I was really worried that I would have nothing to make…
You found an interesting door handle though, didn’t you?
Yeah, that was a breakthrough. I made hours and hours of recordings for Whirled Service and most of them were pretty mediocre, but again, that’s the rule, you just have to use whatever is there and in that space. If you are making an album about a space, you can’t cheat, so I was very glad because the building wasn’t suited to it. For Secret Songs, the building has been changed since we recorded, it’s had the basement blocked off, and there is some construction in the middle of it, but when we went there it was just a shell…
… Right, with a flooded basement?
Yeah, it was like something out of a Tarkovsky film, it really was. The acoustics were also just amazing. It was all made using a really small digital recorder, about the same size as your phone, and that’s it. What I’m trying to do is go into a space using basic equipment and just using the natural sound of the building to make this strange sound world. 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?
That’s a good place to launch into, because obviously you had some level of personal attachment to the space when you recorded The Ghosts of Bush. What were you doing for the BBC at the time?
Well, I’m a studio manager for the World Service — for the language services mostly. I specialize in programs in everything from Arabic, Swahili, Somali, and a lot of African languages to Kyrgyzstan. So it’s mostly foreign language news transmissions. Occasionally you get to do something fun like an arts thing, but not very often.
As someone who works with sound professionally, then, do you find that you are interested in the aesthetics of language, that you can play with these various broadcasts?
Well, in Bush House we had all of these old fashioned studios, and some of them did look like something out of a Doctor Who set. They were very old fashioned — did you know that it wasn’t until 2005 that the BBC gave up the tape? Until 2005, every studio would have a bank of tape machines sat at the back of the studio, and the studio manager would spool up all of the different items on the program using these machines. Now it’s all done with computers. So as a huge obsessive of the Radiophonic Workshop and musique concrete, I was aware of the role of the tape recorder and I had started mucking about with tape loops, you know, very basic stuff just to see what I could do with them.
How far back are we talking?
The end of 2011 I would say. A friend of mine is a musician and we were making these basic tape loops, which turned into the Earl Grey Whistle Test, which is a collection of demos we made. I don’t know, I think I just always loved the sound of the building. I would love to say it was because I was really interested in the broadcasting that we do, which of course I am, there is no denying that, I am completely obsessed with radio, but it’s just… It has an amazing sound. And at night, when you are wandering around [and] the building is empty, I just used to walk around and whistle, and I used to love the way that the whistle would just swirl around my head. One day I recorded myself whistling on my mobile phone from quite a distance — I put it on one windowsill a way away, and we had some microphones set up in the big drama studio in the basement for another project we had been doing… I had the place to myself for an hour and I held the recording up in front of the microphone and dubbed it onto tape at 15 inches per second and then went into the studio and played it back at 7.5, or 7 inches per second, and suddenly there was this ethereal choir noise coming out of the whistling. So I thought “Oh, OK, I think I could be onto something!” And that’s actually “Fog at 5am.” I knew that the BBC was leaving Bush House and I knew that we wouldn’t have access to all of these studios and tape machines any more — the tape machines… gathering dust, nobody was using them for anything because they were outmoded. The desk in Studio6 was falling apart because nobody was bothering to fix it, and within six months it was going to be ripped out.
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.
So you knew you had a set period of time to work with?
Yeah, I knew that. I was also working a lot of night shifts, and because there were so many cuts occurring, we ended up having this couple of hours here and there where there was nothing to do. Obviously you can’t just doze off, and I don’t like sleeping during night shifts. I like to think that I’m doing something useful. So I used to tell the control room that I was down in S6, and I would just lock myself away in there for a couple of hours at a time. Then I would go and do a program for an hour or two, and then I would come back and do another couple of hours. The experience was everything that you hear. I always stress this because I’m worried that people will assume that it’s all effects because nowadays, with things like ProTools, it’s so easy to make anything sound strange — you can blow your nose and make it sound like some sort of Radiophonic master work, it’s so simple now — but I think what Howlround do is to show you how fun it can be to make things complicated again. We have imposed these very strict sets of rules: it’s only the natural sounds of the space, and all other effects are strictly forbidden. I really don’t want people to think that we have just taken recordings and put swathes of reverb on them, or put them through a processor, because we haven’t. The Ghosts of Bush is just made from walking around the building with a recorder — that’s it. There was a weird door handle, and there was a bin that made a squeaky sound when you moved it, but it is just that — it is just taking those sounds and playing them back at different speeds. The only minor addition is that there is a little bit of tape echo, but that’s just created by feeding a sound back into itself, not sort of adding that as an additional effect. But if you use things like that sparingly, you can get this sort of ethereal glow to the sound.
Simon Reynolds called it hauntological; he said it was “the ultimate hauntological artifact,” I think. How do you find that sort of appropriation fits in with what you are trying to achieve?
I’m worried that hauntological has become sort of stigmatized, like trip-hop did in the 90s. I think there was some amazing music that was made that was called “trip-hop,” but I think some people poo- poo’d the music because of the label. I mean, I was proud that Simon Reynolds would say anything about my music, let alone that it’s the ultimate hauntological artifact; I couldn’t stop smiling for about a week after that. I think there is a range of amazing music that’s been made under the ‘hauntological’ banner, whether or not people who make it wish to call themselves ‘hauntologists’ or not, I don’t know. Someone at work started calling me the “BBC’s resident hauntologist” and I thought that was really sweet, but you will notice on my Twitter profile it’s in inverted commas, because I’m not sure what I think of it. I’m still just proud that people are paying attention to my music and including it in with some amazing material. I’m very proud to have been called a hauntologist, but I don’t know if it’s the term I would refer to myself as. It’s like with dubstep. Apparently you call it “bass music” now. So you do get to this stage of not knowing what to call anything. I should also say that I’m promoting the records singlehandedly, so whatever people want to call it — go ahead.
How long had you been working at Bush House before you recorded the album?
It would have been about three-and-a-half years — so I was a relative newcomer. I was one of the last people through the door.
But even with three-and-a-half years, you are there every day and night by the sound of things. You familiarized yourself with the space, you created a lot of memories there… So how do you go about, not cataloging it, but selecting certain areas to record; rooms, or stairwells or hallways…
Well, at the World Service, you look at your daily timetable and find that you are doing, say, a Somali program at 23:00, in a certain studio, and then you are doing an Afghan program in another studio later on. So, you would work within about 20 studios fairly regularly. And if you use them a lot, then you become familiar and can say, “Well, I know S5 has a really nice kind of creak on its door” and, “I know that S21 has a thing on its desk that when you hit it it makes a kind of springy noise.”
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.
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.