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Old 3rd March 2004   #1
V Knid esq
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Squarepusher interview

Here's an interview I did with Squarepusher by email and a little bit by phone.

Q - Chris Cunningham and Richard James did the Flex piece at the RA; you, Jamie and other WARP artists are doing the Ether thing. What does the “art world” have to offer ravers and vice versa?

The first thing is that the "art world" isn't quite desperate enough to try to incorporate ravers into itself yet. However it seems that amongst other things I am now seen as something other than a raver, which is of course perfectly true - it is just as ridiculous to be bracketed as a raver as it is an "artist". I have never composed for an orchestra and I don't actually know what I'm going to do yet, but I imagine that it will soon become obvious. As far as what it has to offer me, I expect it will be what is commonly termed "a right laugh".

Q -Frank Zappa said that the post-classical world is (I’m paraphrasing) in the stranglehold of a load of professors of modern music who compose in the given form of the day - whether it be 12-tone, minimalism or whatever – and want to create protégés in their own image. Was this true? Is this true? Can “outsiders” change this if it is?

I am probably not the best person to ask as I know comparatively little about professors of modern music. Academic musicians as they appear to me are just another men's club where all the members get a sense of superiority over normal people, and suspiciously never really get round to doing anything that anyone (other than another academic) would want to listen to. Presumably that would entail lowering themselves to some sort of earthly criteria. It seems eminently probable that they would want to remake successors in their own image. Unlike those who started the movement in which style they compose, these are the sort of people who despise change and always see it as a fall from grace. It is always forgotten that their movement was brought about by this very process of change. Change is always a threat to aristocrats of culture as it undermines their superiority. As far as an "outsider" trying to change it, I would advise "don't touch the book".

Q -Do you feel that different “scenes” can suck artists in? Are you bothered about being bracketed as IDM / drill & bass / noise / jazz / art / whatever - either by commentators, or by members of those scenes trying to claim you as their own?

Different "scenes" exist precisely because, despite what fashionable rhetoric anyone quotes about being against such things, most musicians need them to sustain their work. I mean this in the sense that in our era, musicians generally work in the spirit of reacting against something, and identification with a scene fortifies this mentality. In the same way that that the necessary corollary of creating something is destroying something else, a positive identification with a "scene" necessarily implies negative identification with other "scenes". It is far more difficult to work as an artist without this sense of unification against a common enemy. The conflicts themselves are inconsequential enough to call them "imaginary", but the sense of conflict, imaginary or otherwise is enough to get most musicians’ juices flowing. Creativity can barely exist in a vacuum of acceptability, which is of course the danger of courting any kind of flattery, and also why "scenes" always stagnate at some point. Once the point of departure for the work switches from other people's mistakes to their own achievements, scenes tend to implode under the weight of their own arrogance. That is not to say that the scene stops existing, or even that any of its members will even notice this occuring. The "scene" may even appear to operate much more efficiently once the baggage of having to do anything creative is disposed of, as all global "scenes" testify. As a well known old fart might put it, the scene goes into orbit of itself; the hallmark becomes a cyclical one, not a linear one. Both geometric forms are not to my taste. Personally, as a geometric analogy to my work I prefer the spiral, and the strange attractor.

As far as being bracketed by others, that is once again nothing to do with me, and correspondingly of little interest. Tough little cultural soldiers are always looking for new recruits, just as the "art world" is, and I am happy to accidentally play a part, but that is all it would ever be for me, as is my minor notoriety, bank balance and lofty standing amongst young men who don't see enough daylight - an accident.

Q - You’ve played all over the world, and are popular in different ways in different countries. Are the separations between mainstream/highbrow/rave/art/popular/alternative/whatever different in different places?

In the place where a particular "scene" has gestated, it tends to be seen, and to see itself as highly differentiated in relation to other constituents of its' cultural background. In some more remote parts of Europe, the minutiae that constitute the bread and butter of lots of music journalists’ careers (and even some musicians) simply don't exist. There is no separating line between "drum and bass" and "jungle", or even "house". It is taken on in a way that is less saturated with empty rhetoric, and more with plain old enthusiasm. Go as far away as south-east Asia say, and the difference even between "dance" and "rock" collapses. Go further still, and I would presume the category of "music" dissolves into simply "sound" or even just "life". Which is to say that our obsession with categories, no matter how prevalent, is simply a function of perspective. Which is to say, pull your head out of your arse.

Q - The soundtrack to the Darren Johnston piece had lots of rumbling sounds and whatnot that are like electro-acoustic pieces, David Tudor, Stockhausen etc. Do you listen to those 20th century sound composers?

The biggest "electro-acoustic" influence on me by a long chalk was featured on the children's television programme "Rainbow". It consisted of a minute long animation, whereby a picture would construct itself first out of black lines appearing on a grey background, then spaces between the lines
one by one filling themselves in. At length a picture would appear and become full colour. Each new part of the picture appearing was accompanied by a sound, often hilariously juxtaposed - big bassy rumbles next to little squeaks and bird twitters. That is a hunded times more important to me than 20th century composers because it had a sense of humour.

Q -Has seeing his dancing affected the way you notice people dancing to your (or other peoples’) music in a gig or club environment?

At my gigs, I generally have no lighting anywhere other than on the stage, so all I can usually see is my equipment and my organ. That being the case, I can hardly see the audience at all, apart from the requisite nutters that shout "gabba" and "louder". The criteria of "dancing" would have to be pretty loose to incoporate what these loons get up to !

Q - From your experience working with a dancer, can you see more possibilities from musicians which have come from a club/rave background working with formal dance practitioners?

To be honest I again know very little about formal dance practitioners, though in this case, it is not a funny smell that deters me - rather I am just plain old ignorant of it. It obviously can work, though the work I did with Darren I see being at a very elemental stage. The piece was basically guesswork from my point of view. To me it is like any other collaboration - it is as much down to the people themselves as it is the parameters set by any individual's background or training. Criteria and formal concerns always come after the fact of the chemical process of the work. That is not to say that formal concerns are unecessary. No matter what any iconoclastic artists may think, the work is always produced in a tension with the conventions and traditions of a given time. This framework contextualises the work, and it is subsequently made sense of. This is not to say that work cannot be produced without acknowledging the consensus frame. A highly inventive individual may modify the frame as much as the work, but the work subsequently becomes very difficult for anybody to appreciate, as the modified framework is something known only to the artist. It is down to chance as to whether the consensus frame catches up with the work, and hence can begin to become tangible.

With your recorded work, do you think of the reception(s) and reactions (mental and/or physical) that any given track is going to get while you’re making it?

Before I had become known as the pusher of squares, there was a time when I was absolutely broke. I thought to myself, "I am really fed up with living on baked beans and stale bread crusts, I'm going to make a housey-builder track and make a real packet." Everyone I played my nascent house hit to said it was crap, and no-one was interested in releasing it. From that point on I realised that I had no real idea about how people receive my music, and that being the case, it would make little sense to bother to consider it in the process of composition, and never thought about it again. The only exception to this is when I make a track for a friend - for example "My red hot car" was made for my (at the time) girlfriend or "Mutilation Colony" which was made for the cheeky monkey, Mr. Chris Cunningham. Although I find it difficult to picture any reactions to my records, I would have long since stopped bothering to release records if nobody bought them. I am not on a mission to change the world. My music is made in the spirit of fun and exploration. Whether it is received in that manner is again beyond me.

Q - Why do people describe music as ‘difficult’? If some of the music which is described as such was presented to people in different ways, do you think more would be enjoy it?

I agree that it is very much down to the way in which music is presented, but the presentation of music is hardly concerned with transparently exposing and illuminating music so that the educated listener can make his choice. Rather it is an attempt to form his opinion and determine his choice. Again it is down to the framework surrounding it as much as it is the elements of its composition. This framework is not simply a musical frame of reference, it is inextricably linked to the society in which it is situated. Music is presented in accordance with a varied set of societal needs. These vary from relaxation and reflection to identity-forming fashion cults and identi-kit subversion. Everyone has different needs, and
"difficult" music is now one of them. Very few people have ever needed "difficult" music - that strikes me as a quintessentially modern phenomenon. Of course it could be presented differently, but being seen as "difficult" is part of the societal need it serves - for it forms a comforting allegory for people who themselves have a difficult relation to the world. As to whether the music is intrinsically difficult or not is beyond reckoning, as we'll never hear it outside of the situation which determines our responses to it.

Q - Do you think that part of the niche audience protect that ‘difficult’ aura because they want to feel superior because other people don’t ' ‘get’ ‘their’ music?

Absolutely. Music in our time and society has developed into a series of concentric circles in which the position of the circle corresponds to its "exclusivity". Some of the people who populate inner circles pride themselves that they are not understood by those in the outer circles. But that is all it comes down to - the position of the circle. There is nothing inherently superior about music which is commonly held as difficult to understand. It is an attempt form an impervious wall to stop the onslaught of normalised and commodified culture. In that way it is a symptom typical of aristocratic cultural views - resistance to inevitable change. Musicians that like to be seen as "difficult", although often masquerading as
prophetic or visionary types, are actually the most backward looking part of our culture as it is them who most feel remorse for what has been lost. It is also a representation of the esteem that is held (by some aspiring members of "middle circles") for things which are abstruse and forbidding. It is clear that without people to look on in awe at the "difficulty" of supreme cultural practitioners, the "difficulty" soon becomes "tiring" and even "irrelevant". In that sense, the members of inner circles need outsiders to confirm their position. In that sense, they cannot be truly superior as they are dependant on the people they deride. And the people who populate the very outermost circle - the bulk of the population - couldn't give a monkey's about the innermost circles. The superstrucure of our
cultural viewpoints is simply a representation of society at large.

At this point in time, many people are looking beyond their immediate surroundings for something of value, something to pin their hopes on. This has led to an unprecedented interest and corresponding normalisation of "avant-garde" work. The need for novelty is now overcoming "circular" barriers. "Avant-garde" is becoming the new normal, and in that sense can no longer be said to be "avant-garde". Anything that remains in the central circles is trying to fortify itself by being evermore noisy, ugly, disgusting etc. Unfortunately (for them) the appetite for novelty is only increasing, and presumably no stone will be left unturned. It is certainly a fascinating era to be part of!

Q -The Artificial Life aspect of the Johnston piece is interesting. Yee-King has gone into something similar with his online ‘sound breeding’ evolutionary algorithm thing: can music and visual art illustrate / communicate / illuminate scientific research in a way that can aid public understanding or even help the scientific people develop their work further?

Whether music and visual art can aid public understanding of scientific research is questionable. A work which sought to illustrate a scientific idea would to my mind not be art. Art at its best tends to provoke a reverie and sense of awe, which seems to be opposed to the acknowledged purpose of scientific research which is to illuminate phenomena, not mystify them. And on reflection, I would raise an eyebrow at this acknowledged purpose. Given the voluminous amounts of scientific research undertaken, we do not seem to be getting any better at the stewardship of our societies and our planet. I
would take these to be part of the assumed aims and consequences of scientific research. However, as they are clearly not being accomplished, I would be led to question these assumptions. At bottom, do we actually want or even value progress? Do/can scientists consider and foresee the ramifications of their research for the population at large? Of course they can't. In that sense they are like artists who simply create things, and sod the consequences, which is perfectly reasonable given that knowing the
outcomes of their activities is in any case impossible. Witness Einstein’s "shoemaker" comment regarding the atom bomb. It may be retorted that science is "revealed" as opposed to created. Unfortunately, as the subject of research continually retreats just beyond the gaze of the scientist, one may conclude that if the practice of "revealing" science is different to art, it still ultimately leaves us in the same place, facing in the direction of the unknowable, where all we can see is our own shadow. The difference is that Art never pretended to transport you to anywhere else. The safest thing to do with science is to poke fun at it, and I think this can be done admirably with music. Science is in one sense very much like art, in that it seems to have a life of its own, beyond what we consider to be our intentions. It is very much our creation, but what it exemplifies is not a notion of increasing human rationality. In proportion to our increasing power to heal and eradicate problems, it also facilitates greater and greater destructivity and wastefulness. Instead of bringing humans to the helm of the world, it shows how illusory the idea of anthropocentricity is. Science has plotted a trajectory from us being the centre of the universe, to being the centre of nothing at all. It is where we pin our hopes, and all it does is reduce us to meaningless equations. With that in mind, it is always better to depend on things other than yourself and your creations. The only thing these brave human endeavours seem to ultimately reveal is the vanity of their protagonists.

Q - Are you aware of predecessors to that i.e. art/music works which are inspired by contemporary scientific thinking?

That is the key word, "inspired". Of course artists can be inspired by science as much as they can be inspired by daytime television or contemplation of celestial bodies. The thing is that Art will never explain science, just as science will never explain the world. It is a set of pleasing analogies. We are deluded by the destructive potential of science into thinking that because of the severity of the consequences it brings about, it must be "objective" in that it is a true account of the objective
world. However just because of the clearly visible changes that science effects, that does not prove the flawlessness of its premises. The fact that a man is murdered by somebody suspecting him of sleeping with his wife is not proof that he did so. That is not to say that I reject science, or think that is not a worthwhile activity. Science, like music, to me is utterly fascinating. But neither exemplify a tendency to perfection. Rather they exemplify a fantastic ability for contingency. The people at the forefront of their fields know this, and pursue it as a form of reflection. Unfortunately science has been wedded by more paltry ambitions to the pursuit of progress, and there in lies the our endless tendency for creation and unfortunately, destruction.

Q - Do you have a dream gig? Do you fantasize about doing things more ambitious than Ether? If technology and manpower were no object would you like to go the full Orff and have 3 orchestras? Immersive VR environments? Explosions as percussion? Seismometer-bothering sub-bass?

It sounds like good fun, but I am really a man with simple tastes. If you want people to pay attention to the music, then I don't think bombarding them with endless other things at the same time is going to help necessarily. I like to see such things, but my peasant tastes deter me from making any glitzy showy stuff. Seismometers though..... hmm.

Q - Does it all make you want to go back to just drum machine and bass guitar?

Fortunately I've never strayed too far from that! There is nothing better for me than to give the old trusty a good thumb-slapping.

Q. Is jazz important to you, to listen to for pleasure and/or for inspiration? Do you think the improvisational spirit is vital to music, and do you fear that the rigidity of midi sequencing and multi-track overdubs are strangling that?

Improvising is very important to me, but it runs certain risks that composition is less likely to be in danger of. In making a composition, it is easy to keep a piece concise, whereas in improvisation more insight is required as to when you have said enough. In a sense, it is more difficult than composition as it is composing in real time, exercising the skill of playing at the same time as knowing what to play and when to play it. There is always a correct point to shut up, and this is the crux of improvising, more difficult than the actual playing itself. This is what makes a lot of jazz unlistenable to me - it just doesn't shut up. Only a few visionary soloists, such as John Coltrane, have enough momentum to justify lengthy solos. Most musicians run out of things to say pretty quickly. A valuable adage, seemingly antithetical to the basis of most modern culture, would be that "if you haven't got anything to say, don't say anything".

Q. Do you think the improvisational spirit in music can be inspirational in a wider sense - that in some way it can people in living in a more contingent, reactive and thus non-dogmatic way?

There is a problem with "improvisational music". It is parallel with other developments of the 20th century which sought to revolutionise various aspects of culture, and in so doing, the human participants. As in an "expressionist" approach to painting, allowing the musician an unprecedented freedom to play something that might be termed a "stream of consciousness" certainly at first seems like a step into fresh air. Having been cooped up for so long, it is time just to "blow", something which befits the vicissitudes of life as experienced, not formulated as ideas. However, what is clearly a oversight in the intellectual side of this approach is that the new found freedom itself becomes formulated into a style. Under scrutiny, this shows up to be not dissimilar to the preceding forms that were supposedly superseded. Not similar in aesthetic details, but similar in the superstructural form, i.e. it is not a break with old conceptions, it is simply a new version of them. With this in mind, certain musicians who claim to be free from the old rulebook are actually in an odd position in that they are unwittingly subject to a new rulebook. Such an approach manifests a telling contradiction in that it is described as being free, yet being a formulation of so called free ideas, can in no final sense be said to be "free". Human life may well be simply impossible without codes.

What matters is not the rules themselves, but a balanced knowledge of them, as a musician can only compose or improvise in a tension with rules. This is the only freedom we are able to experience, a certain degree of freedom amongst a system of constraints. Obviously it is down to the individual musician to be aware of these or not. A musician in a rule-free space would be like trying jump when there is no ground beneath to jump up from. But obsession with rules is just as useless. Balance between these states, though impossible to manufacture, is the only thing needed.

Q. In a wider sense still, what do you see music as contributing to your and other people’s lives? Obviously the act of composing is positive for you as it allows you to indulge in “the spirit of fun and exploration”, as you put it, but what about listening?

Music to me is ultimately about listening, and in that sense listening does not have to involve a composed artifact to listen to. Most of the time when I am not working, I like to just sit and listen to the minutae of the sounds around me - traffic, birdsong, rain, muted conversation, whatever. I only listen to music in company of others. As for other people, I try not to make assumptions. As far as I am concerned, the "general audience" does not exist. There are only individuals reacting in their own ways. Looking at people as members of a general audience does violence to any single member of it. It implies that all of the constituent members are fundamentally the same, and react and behave in the same ways. This is why I find music that is "aimed" at a specific audience patronising, because it tries to collapse the differences
between any of it's recipients. It treats a person as a formula, as their desires have been predicted, encoded and answered in a cultural artifact. But that is to forget a person always extends beyond a description. That is why such gestures of universality ultimately fall by the wayside. People will never completely be subject to such reifications. It is better not to bother with any generalised view of an audience, because that allows people to find themselves within it, as opposed to lose themselves within it.

I do hope that my music can help people in some way - I release records for other people's sake, not my own. It is just that I refuse to engage in manufacturing things specifically for people. I am too fond of people to patronise them in this way.

Q. How about sound technology? You and a only a very few other musicians seem capable of exploring the most extreme capabilities of the latest soft- and hardware whilst still retaining a degree of control (rather than just nihilistically turning everything up to 11 and calling it “extreme”). Do you think the mainstream of electronic music can catch up and incorporate these mental sounds into their grooves? And do you continue to get excited by the possibilities of each new technological development or is there a law of diminishing returns?

Regarding technological developments, I only take what I need - I only use two pieces of audio software. Technology excites me only in the sense of what I can imagine to do with it. I hate a superfluity of gadgets. I generally have two or three things in front of me that I know so well I could tell the manufacturers things about it they didn't know. That is enough. As with talking, the limits on my use of technology simply come down to what is necessary, and that is all.

Regarding whether other musicians could catch up with what I do, I have no idea. I don't look at what I do as extreme or revolutionary, it is simply what I like to do.

Q. Collaborations. You’ve worked with a fair few people within electronic music - but would you like to collaborate with people in seemingly far-removed genres? Do you ever have any desires to do full-on songs, or to play with a band? Do you think you could even bend what you do to encompass musicians from a different era, like Herbert does with his big band?

The Sinfonietta will do for now. That is a group of some of the most capable performers in the world. I should imagine that there is a lifetime of things to explore within that ensemble alone!

Q. Care to add anything about Chelmsford, geographic origins in general, and the inspirations of places and communities?

It is difficult to evaluate the influence of a place, particularly a birthplace, on one's work. Maybe in the case of somewhere like Chelmsford, seemingly devoid of redeeming features, it is precisely that which precipitates a need for creativity. In London, where everything is on tap so to speak, one hardly need to go to the trouble of making something as so much is already present. Obviously things do come out of big cities, but there is something about provincial origins that really tweaks the few who manage to escape –Zappa and Beefheart are good examples of this.

Places often feature in my track titles. Different places inspire me endlessly - I love being on the move.

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