“Every time we record it seems like it’s ‘the last time,’ so it’s always special.”
People throw around the word “underground” to describe the origin of breakout artists, but few can claim the moniker as literally as Imbogodom. Truly; collaborators Daniel Beban and Alexander Tucker recorded the entirety of their 2010 debut, The Metallic Year, deep inside the studios of the BBC’s Bush House in London. The result was a dark, foreboding collection of tape manipulations and eerie instrumentation that sidestepped the common tape-looping trope of straightforward granular squall in favor of restrained atmosphere, mangled stringed melodies, and eerie musique concrète.
Since then, the pair has had a chance to sharpen its tape-manipulating skills and coalesce further as a unit. For their sophomore release, And They Turned Not When They Went (which had yet to be officially released at the time we spoke), Beban and Tucker have prepared a tighter, more intentional composition. Although they’re currently thousands of miles apart (Beban makes his home for much of the year in New Zealand, while Tucker is a resident of London), the two agreed to speak to me via email about Imbogodom’s unique existence so far.
Can you tell me a bit about how the two of you originally got together?
Daniel Beban: I lived in London for a few years in the mid 2000s, and Alex and I hung out occasionally.
Alexander Tucker: Dan was one of the first Kiwis I meet in London who knew and played in the experimental New Zealand world. I couldn’t believe he knew of all these obscure bands like Dead C, Omit, Surface of the Earth, and Alastair Galbraith. Dan asked me if I wanted to come and improvise at the BBC Bush House, where he was working at the time.
Daniel Beban: I was working at the BBC World Service and would spend a lot of time making tape loops pieces with the gear in the studios. After a couple of sessions it became quite a natural process for one of us to provide some kind of sound (piano, guitar etc) while the other person controlled the tape machines and the mixing desk, manipulating the sound. So it was always improvised and free.
How does the fact that the two of you live in different parts of the world affect your process for creating music?
AT: We have only ever made music when Dan is in London so the distance has not really affected the project. We have talked about sending loops and tapes through the post but this has not happened yet. These albums are very much about where and when they were made, so it will change a lot now that Bush House is being decommissioned this summer.
DB: I think the fact that we’re from opposite ends of the earth somehow makes working together easier. Every time we record it seems like it’s “the last time,” so it’s always special.
We always record through the night, starting around 10 PM and going through to 6 AM, so there’s this feeling of being really isolated deep underground while everyone else is asleep. That mood definitely seeps in to the music.
Were tape manipulations always something you were interested in, or are they a technique very specific to your work in Imbogodom?
AT: When I was in my late teens I used to buy these TDK one-sided white tape cassettes which has varying lengths of tape loops inside them. I used to make sound collages with these from radio static, feedback, and voices. I was aware of using tape loops on tape machines to create loops and feedback but had never had access to the knowledge of how this process worked until I met Dan.
DB: I got into working with tape machines as a trainee at the BBC. Strangely enough, the bulk of the World Service radio was still produced and played out on reel-to-reel tape up until the mid 2000s, decades behind the times! So I was trained in tape editing, splicing using chalk and razor blades, mixing with three or four tape machines on the go. It didn’t take long before I started messing around with loops, and using multiple tape machines for recording and playback, different feedback paths, and using the mixer to hit specific frequencies. For a while I used to practice using a live mic feed from Big Ben at midnight each night, and improvise a different half-hour piece from just the bongs (incidentally this is what we did with “Borogmog’s Clock,” the first track of the new album). With Imbogodom we really learned how to use the tape machines musically and operate them as an instrument. They are amazing instruments to play when you’ve learned the basics. It opens up whole sonic worlds.
Working with tape introduces a host of technical issues to overcome. In the end, what is it that you gain by manipulating tape physically rather than taking the “easy way out” of digital manipulation?
DB: Working with tapes and working digitally are two entirely different disciplines. I find digital stuff much trickier to make sound good, so in a sense working with tape is the “easy way out!” There are a few reasons I like to work with tape. Firstly, the machines are never entirely predictable, and the older and crappier the machine the more unpredictable it gets. The tape stops going round, the machines speed up, certain frequencies get boosted or dampened, there are clicks and pops and strange cuts… Once you get to know the eccentricities of specific tape machines they start to have a kind of personality. So lots of the ideas come from the machines themselves.
Also, with tape manipulation, you have very limited choices. You can speed things up, slow them down, start and stop… that’s about it. It’s actually a huge bonus, creatively, to have such limitations. It makes you explore a very limited area very deeply, and the more you look the more there is to find. It’s the opposite of the digital way in which you have endless possibilities and spend all day trying to find the right one but often only look at the surface. Another thing with tape is that it’s very hands-on. You actually have to wrestle with the machines, and deal with the physical side of splicing tape together, so it’s more like a craft.
Things in tape world take a long time to do, especially if you’ve got very specific ideas. Something like a cross fade between three different sounds might take half an hour to set up, and there’s no “undo” button if it doesn’t work out. So you learn to do things right as much as possible, and also you learn to love mistakes!
I’m curious about the instrumentation I hear on your music, especially on The Metallic Year. For example, “Unseen Ticket” has sounds that resemble stringed instruments (although it’s hard for me to put my finger on what they are), and some progressions that sound like very ancient folk music. Can you tell me how these parts were inspired and produced, and also how you see them relating to the tape loops which surround them?
AT: On “Unseen Ticket” and all our other pieces we took turns in playing various instruments. I played piano on the first take, which Dan manipulated through the tapes. Then he played banjo on the next take, which I then treated with the tapes. I think cello is on there too. The process of swapping between player and manipulator blurs the line between how the sound is being produced and how it is being affected. Sometimes it sounds like we are taking older field recordings and re-transmitting them through archaic techniques, which creates an atmosphere of something old, forgotten, and obscure.
It’s easy to compare the tape manipulations you created on The Metallic Year to horror soundtracks. I can definitely hear a spooky feeling in those sounds. Can you tell me about the intention for mood and feeling behind the sounds you created?
DB: I don’t really feel that the music is horror, although I can understand how you might get that idea because of the low doom sounds, etc. To me there’s a sadness and a kind of gentleness. On the other hand, there’s a ghostly feeling, which has a sinister edge. The studio where we recorded most of our stuff is deep underground, in what used to be an old swimming pool. I often feel a presence in that room and will see movement out of the corner of my eye. We always record through the night, starting around 10 PM and going through to 6 AM, so there’s this feeling of being really isolated deep underground while everyone else is asleep. That mood definitely seeps in to the music.
AT: The studio we used has a few objects and surfaces used for foley soundtrack effects such as doors, locks, telephone, and a bed of pebbles and stones. We both love the techniques used by musique concrète artists and what happens to the sound of everyday objects when you stretch and pull them out of shape or imbue them with a certain atmosphere. I personally love the soundtrack to Evil Dead II and The Exorcist; there is a heavy psychedelic quality to the sound design in those films.
Strangely enough, the bulk of the World Service radio was still produced and played out on reel-to-reel tape up until the mid 2000s, decades behind the times! So I was trained in tape editing, splicing using chalk and razor blades, mixing with three or four tape machines on the go.
How did the recording of And They Turned Not When They Went come about? What should we expect to hear from it? The only song from the new record I’ve had a chance to catch so far has been “Heir Looms,” which, while still eerie, seems to have a little more conventional structure and instrumentation, with sung lyrics.
DB: The new album was recorded in the summer of 2010. The process was more or less the same as The Metallic Year, but I think we’d got better at using the equipment and our way of working together.
AT: I was more confident with the tape loops and mixing desk this time and figured out a few more techniques and ideas. Dan and I would separately come up with some ideas then collaborate on the structure, improvising and treating the different parts with the tapes and desk. We like the albums to be equal part song and abstract sound world.
DB: The pieces are more varied than on The Metallic Year. The songs are more songlike and the abstract pieces are more thoughtfully constructed than the first lot. We also did some recording in Dungeness, in the basement of the old lighthouse there, in this amazing brick dome which has the craziest resonance which changes totally if you move from the edge to the center of the room. That piece, “Red Brick Roundhouse” is just straight acoustic recordings in the room. Also “Nuclear Wind” was recorded in Dungeness. It’s the breeze coming from the nuclear power station vibrating the strings of a guitar, with the mic inside the guitar.
How do the two of you take the sounds you explore in the recording process and make them work for a live performance?
DB: We’ve only done one live performance, at an outdoor festival. It was a nice sunny day but when we started playing the clouds closed in and it started raining. I had a tape machine set up, but the rain made the tape wet and it stopped going around. So we ended up doing a real classic noise-guitar set. As soon as we’d finished the rain stopped and the sun came out.
AT: We have plans for future shows. What we realized is we need a much more controlled situation to bring it closer to the studio recordings.
Are the two of you exploring any other music projects outside of Imbogodom?
AT: I have a new solo record out on Thrill Jockey in April [in the UK, and released in May in the US] called Third Mouth and I’m working on a new Grumbling Fur album with Daniel O’Sullivan. I’m also working on collages for a book of postcards for Strange Attractor books and a comic called World in the Forcefield.
DB: The main band I’m in is called Orchestra Of Spheres, psych dance music – very different from Imbogodom! I’ve got another project with Erica Sklenars called Sign Of The Hag, which uses adapted spinning wheels to make rhythms and visuals; real trance stuff. I run a venue [in Wellington, New Zealand] called the Frederick Street Sound and Light Exploration Society, and there’s lots of improvised music happening regularly.