- Mon, 2012-05-28 15:29
Over the last fifteen years, the mind-expanding electronic music of Squarepusher has continued to shock, engage, captivate and challenge his devoted audience. Intense, experimental composition led by erratic drum breaks, warped synthesizers, virtuoso bass guitar and an unparalleled, inquisitive approach to programming and sound manipulation, Squarepusher is one of a kind.
A long-standing member of Warp Records, he has taken his relationship with sound and visual a step further on new record Ufabulum, which arrives alongside a corresponding LED live show featuring his bespoke "video-synthesiser."
I Like Music caught up with Squarepusher (aka Tom Jenkinson) for a conversation about avoiding interviews, pairing sound and visual, grand philosophical concepts, the world of analog synthesizers and what he gets up to when he's finished making music for the day.
ILM: Hello Tom. How are you?
Squarepusher: Everything is pretty good. My feet aren't really touching the ground. Interviews are the principal thing happening at the moment. Prior to that I've been gigging; Japan, then some gigs in Europe. So it's just absolutely full on. Not really being a human being, being a music performing and music promoting device. Which is OK for short periods of time, but after a while it's...not sustainable shall we say. I don't relate and I don't really even identify with the idea of being a musician, let alone one that has a public profile. I kid myself, or otherwise, that it's probably sensible to be like that. I don't know. I don't know what the solution is.
ILM: Finding yourself in a situation where you're expected to describe something you've been working on for a long time in anywhere from five to 20 minutes...
Squarepusher: I want everything I do to sort of be preceded by a caveat that by the way, sorry, I've only had about five hours sleep in the last five days! Goodness knows, you start hating the sound of your own voice.
ILM: You haven't given too many interviews over your career...
Squarepusher: It became something of a knee-jerk reaction for me to shy away from doing interviews. That was born out of my early experiences in the mid and late nineties. It seemed like it wasn't really worthwhile trying to talk about things you really cared about because journalists would try and, you know, just basically pick apart what you'd said and look for a catch-line where you mentioned something about sex, drugs, rock n roll. Then the rest of it just gets sidelined or even worse. Over time it became something where I'd rather sell less records. As I say, it became a kind of habit to think that. When things become habits I always try and scrutinise them and think 'where has the reasoning gone? This has just become an automatic reaction.' That applies to things I'm doing in the studio as much as it does to how I'm conducting the public aspect of my career.
ILM: So with this release, you've broken that habit?
Squarepusher: I've gone out my way to break that habit. To talk to people and see if I can provide a bit of a way in to the music. It's hard to know. It's hard to know whether you're going to give people a greater comprehension of it, a greater appreciation, or actually spoil it. I certainly know that reading about some musicians for me has kind of clouded my enjoyment. I don't know... there's obviously a massive market for music biography, musician biography. I'm undecided.
ILM: I think you're right to be. Music can be so subjective. A direct explanation from the artist doesn't leave much personal space for a listener's interpretation.
Squarepusher: Yeah. This is it. People approach music primarily because they find it emotionally rewarding. I think the fascination that might spring up around the musicain is because they evoke that effect and actually, once they open their mouths you're not always guaranteed that the effect will remain untarnished!
ILM: Well, with that in mind...(!) all of the music on Ufabulum has a visual accompaniment, in the form of a corresponding live show. Though the album stands alone as a listening experience, I understand you worked simultaneously on the creation of Ufabulum's sonic and visual components. Though your music has always had a strong relationship with visuals, perhaps in the form of your inspiration or the strong imagery it evokes for many fans, this project really takes the relationship between the two to the next level. What led you to explore that?
Squarepusher: It comes from a few separate sources. One of which is my tendency to have a visual response, amongst other things, to music, like many people no doubt do. Certainly it has been a long-standing feature of my appreciation of music. A piece might evoke anything from a simple sensation of colour, to an arrangement of shapes, a sense of movement or a scene of some kind. In conjunction to that, the idea was partially born out of conversations I had years ago with Chris Cunningham. His idea, I don't want to mis-represent him, but certainly at the time we were talking about his early videos and in them he was trying to de-code quite complex music for people that were not necessarily specialists, or specialised listeners as it were. Part of the basis of that is that we are quite possibly more visually sophisticated than we are sonically. Consequently, it might be worthwhile trying to make pictures which form a narrative which is analogous to the sound and to an extent, tries to explain it, to clarify it, make it more comprehensible and coherent. So that formed part of the motivation for doing it.
ILM: So it can reach a wider audience?
Squarepusher: As much as I don't personally feel that this music is inaccessible, it's certainly not deliberately inaccessible. But yes, nonetheless, I'd like the idea of getting this music to as many people as possible. I don't see any reason to shy away from that. So, displaying a visual narrative...and you know, it's an experiment, it might fail, but my intention is to try to give people a different way in to the sonic components through the visual. And a negative part of the inspiration is that I feel when musicians have tried to do this it quite often has the opposite effect.
ILM: To what extent?
Squarepusher: To my mind, there are a lot of very tokenistic approaches to marrying up sound with picture. Almost like people are just paying lip-service to what they feel is a kind of obligation now days. My main concern is it doesn't matter that you do it or you don't, but if you do it, you've got to have good reason to and you've got to have striven for coherence between the two things, otherwise you're watching these pictures and they just distract you. They actually take away from the music. I used to find this at raves in the early nineties and I'm talking now about the very lowest form of, in inverted commas, "visuals", a crappy sort of collage of TV footage, graphics and film clips of whatever. That's the very worst of it, just this sonic, visual foam, a flannel just interrupting the experience of listening to the music. I'm only bringing this to a show because I have some conviction that it's actually going to heighten people's enjoyment of the music. And actually, hopefully it will work the other way around. That the sound brings something to the experience of the visual, that actually, one consolidates the other.
ILM: Has that happened in the shows so far?
Squarepusher: It's hard to know. As I say, I make these experiments! But, um...yeah...I'm not the kind of person to go out there digging through internet forums and reviews. If people are turning up to the shows, that's my proof. That's sufficient for me. I don't need to know the intimate details because that for me is definitely a distraction, I don't need it! So, if word spreads about the show and we're selling them out, that's all I need to know. But, er...yeah. The ones that I've done thus far have all been great! So yeah, you know...!
ILM: You've provided a track by track description for the album. Images of some kind, be it dreams, memories or imagined scenes, play a big part in your creative process. When you're making music, at what point do those images tend to manifest?
Squarepusher: It's quite often very hard to say. For the sake of things like press releases you kind of have to simplify things so you don't give some waffling account of the process. If you were doing your best to describe the situation as it actually occurred, you'd be writing a book, not a side of A4. Broadly speaking, all those ideas have been critical, if not the very source of the music. Quite often, the sound will come first but once you get going it will bring something very clear to mind. On other occasions, the image will come first and you try to form a sonic analogy to it. Of course, we're immediately in pretty deep, subjective waters and I wouldn't expect anyone to agree with me, I just put those things there and if that happens to be a good signpost or stimulus for someone else to consider their own images or just, you know, adopt mine, that's fine. And I actually don't mind if they completely abandon it.
ILM: As we touched on earlier, not everyone is after an explanation as to why certain pieces of music were made.
Squarepusher: And it doesn't matter. Some people don't listen in terms of any kind of rational construct around the music, they just go in, hear the sound and then they're satisfied with that. It reminds me of a thing a friend once said. He'd always read concert programmes; for example, he'd sit there studying a programme. And I'm actually, not really of that persuasion. I'll just sit there and wait for the music to happen. So I asked him, "why are you reading that?" and his comment was "I want something to hang it on," which is quite a nice phrase, but that's not me.
ILM: It's interesting to hear you talk about your audience, providing them with potential signposts and routes in to Ufabulum. In a 2008 BBC interview, where you answered fans' questions, you spoke about setting out criteria to govern and inform your music making process. Speaking about Music Is Rotted One Note, you noted that you'd abandoned sequencers and samplers and also, the overt use of melody. That you'd come to see melody "as a cheap way of getting people to like my music." Music Is Rotted One Note was released thirteen years ago, to what extent do you consider your audience today?
Squarepusher: My general take, I mean when you're talking about melody there...quite frankly, when I'm in the studio it couldn't be further from my mind. I hasten to add that I don't mean that in any way that's disrespectful to them. My basic premise for how to process and make sense of the fact that you have an audience is that I gained an audience on the basis that I was doing precisely what I want, musically speaking I was following my whims. I was in various bands as a teenager which were all trying to get signed, following the usual kind of routes, 'yeah, we've got A&R from so and so coming down,' or 'there's management interest,' all these phantoms that haunt local band scenes around the world. And you know, by the age of 19 I was like, 'this is a load of bollocks. I'm sure these A&R people exist but, if they do, they're not interested in what I'm doing. So fuck 'em. I'm going to do what I want to do. The majority of my music making practice has taken place at home, in my spare time, just knocking out tracks for the fun of it.' So, that's what I returned to doing. It was funny because at the point when I was doing precisely what I wanted to do, that was when things started to take off for me. So I've never looked back and I think well, for better or for worse, I'm going to carry on with that, that's my guiding principle.
ILM: It's something we talk about a lot. Musicians that have all the time in the world to create their first record, which goes on to huge success. They then find themselves in a situation, potentially brought on by a label, certainly encouraged by outside influence, to repeat that success, often in a limited time-frame...
Squarepusher: No doubt, most people come to the notice of the public by doing exactly what I did, they were just enjoying themselves, having fun, blah-dy blah, but when they get that first moment of attention and fame and money and all the rest of it, it actually puts you in a spot where you have to...whether you realise you're making a decision or not, you are by default or otherwise making a decision about how you're going to continue. About what strategy you choose with which to conduct the rest of your career. I think a lot of people get scared. That they think, because I made this record and it made me famous, I've got to now keep reiterating it in order to stay famous and stay popular, stay making money, stay loved. Crikey, why wouldn't anyone do that? Maybe my reaction is the perverse one. But it's still the one I'll stick to. Because actually, I'm not confident to make sense of the audience's response, I'm not confident to know what they're thinking, I'm not confident that I understand the public perception of my work. The one thing I do know, is what I think of it. And that will always be my principal touch-stone. I'm not saying I don't want people to like it.
In the previous interview I was talking about that precise point. I think it's idiotic to think that things are bad because they're popular and conversely good because they're not. I think a lot of leftfield music and the more obscure areas of music making are haunted by these prejudices, you know? That because it's popular it's in some way crass. I totally repudiate that. If I could make my music global, I would. I'd love to get my music to as many people as possible, but I'm not going to change it in order to achieve that or make some sort of estimation as to why I should change it in order to become more popular. I'll just plough on. Working from that is a strong basis of judgement.
ILM: Absolutely. No doubt the pressure of audience-expectation can be harmful to any creative process.
Squarepusher: You have this problem that people go to a record wanting to hear something and when they don't hear it, they confront their initial reaction of disappointment and actually cease to hear the merits or otherwise of what is there in its place. So, you know. It's ridden with problems! I know that it has, it will have, at certain points frustrated my audience because it would be like, they want me to do this and I've done that and therefore, they're pissed off. But it's like, well look, I'm battling with their preconceptions. My solution is just a hard headed plough on. And that is, fundamentally, a mark of respect to them. Because I'm simply doing what I did when I...er, when the public...pulled me into view, so to speak...
ILM: And there's the argument that as soon as you begin creating explicitly for other people, perhaps you're not truly creating anymore... I recently came across the book Gˆdel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter. A lot of the ideas raised by the book remind me of your approach to music. Have you read it?
Squarepusher: Oh yeah. I've seen it knocking about, you'll have to...
ILM: Oh, well...you should read it! I know I don't know you that well, but...
Squarepusher: No, no, no. I'm no doubt fascinated by it. Honestly, other people have said that to me.
ILM: You say you're not confident to make sense of the audience's response, and of course, how could you ever really begin to. Likewise, the images you provide may provide a wonderful route in or they may be completely abandoned. It's not for anyone to say, really. One of the big questions the book asks, which by the way, has been blowing my mind over the last few days, is 'How do you define reality outside your own experiences?' and, you know...
Squarepusher: Well, that's a problem in philosophy which has created all manner of problems for centuries, and it derives partly from Descartes trying to build on the subject of his experiences as a ground for knowledge about the world, and the first thing that you encounter is your own experience. What can you establish beyond that with any degree of veracity? I think my answer to this would be, well, science is our best attempt to do this. Because even if we doubt our experiences we collate information as a society. If those experiences which manifest within scientific knowledge then give rise to predictable results, then we can start to say that we've established something about the world. But...I don't know if this is a little bit, maybe er, leading us into territory...
ILM: Yes, yes. I know we've already run over our allotted interview time! Probably wasn't the best time for me to drop a philosophical question that's been, as you say, causing problems for centuries.
Squarepusher: I'm totally fascinated by it. But...yeah, the answer probably leads well beyond this phone call...
ILM: Ok. Well, finally, I wanted to ask you about analog synthesizers. I'm currently writing about the EMS VCS3. What are your thoughts on the world of analog synthesizers?
Squarepusher: I'm not an analog synth maniac. If anything, I'm actually a bit anti. I've got a contrarian edge to my character, the whole analog synth fad kind of bums me out. There's a lot of collectors inflating the price tags of these things, which are fundamentally tools for making music. They've now taken on a sort of other-worldly desirability which has turned them more into a form of investment than a music making tool. Certainly, pricing it out the region of most musicians, which I do object to, coming from a situation where I had very limited access to musical instruments as a kid but a burning desire to use them. Anything that restricts accessibility I'm against. Consequently, I would be much more in favour of people using their ingenuity rather than their cheque books. So you know, going out to actually programme a synthesizer that had the capacity of a VCS3 rather than worrying about the original. Don't get me wrong, if one was in front of me I'd happily spend the rest of the day playing with it and I'd love it! But there's a whole strand, almost a wad, a political-economic strand to that sort of question which is more important to me than how a synthesizer sounds. I feel somehow, this sort of adulation of these objects...there's something quite wrong there.
ILM: Finally, finally...as we're I Like Music, I wondered, what music have you been listening to recently?
Squarepusher: Yeah. I mean, I always, um...yeah, back out of this question! I don't know really what to say! I've been up to my eyeballs in the studio with my own stuff. Typically what happens is I leave the studio and the last thing I want to do is listen to any music. I'll read a book instead or go for a walk and that seems to suffice. I suppose I'm not desperately looking around for inspiration, certainly not from other pieces of music. Hopefully, that's a kind of diplomatic way of answering your question...!