I don’t think many of the more sloppy rhythmic tunes could have existed without Dilla’s Donuts. It seems to have infected so many people. I don’t think I’m inspired by what I’m listening to around the time of making the track, it is more of a mix of preferences seeping in over time. I know that when I make a tune and I can recognise something I’ve heard before in it that I’ll probably try and change it. I didn’t have a record player while I was making this stuff and my mp3 player died, so a lot of down time was spent watching films or socialising with my disco-obsessed mates. Its not my favourite genre of music but whatever is around you has to seep in I’m sure.
I felt a strange flurry of nostalgia about some of your recent work – it seems caught in that wonderful space between the past and the future – not least the song ‘Telecom Eireann Logo’ – I did smile when I saw the song title. Perhaps it links back into that question of the passing of time. Do you feel you crave the past in some ways?
No, I’m not one to think too romantically on the past. I tend to hover through life thinking I’m still 19 and everything’s ahead of me – it’s not of course!. ‘Telecom Eireann Logo‘ is a little bit of a piss-take title. I was spending ages building this synth sound based on an odd harmonic series for a different project. When Friday came around I thought “shit I better make something”. The chords progression that came out sounded like an old utopian 80’s advertisement – and suspiciously like B.O.C.- so hence the title. I think it’s a good thing when music has some sort of element anchoring it to the present. If you make a so-called “timeless” record, its probably something that has been tried and tested for years. The old / new thing that comes from my music might just be a coincidence – I’m usually just trying to find the right accompaniment to an idea. I have been sampling old films on records a bit more on this album, so you’ve immediately got a timbre associated with older technology.
You went to see Low when they recently played here, and they are a band you hold dear. They take composition very seriously, and there is a very controlled structure that they adhere to, yet it contains a wild emotional landscape – does this kind of contrast inspire you?
I suppose so. I always thought that as I got older I’d mature into appreciating improvised free form structure. But it hasn’t happened so much yet. The Low compositions are simple enough, and you get to focus on that rich guitar tone. You could talk about Low being minimal but the sonic content is really rich. I’m not sure I try to inject much emotion into my music. I’m a little bit more interested in evoking landscapes, journeys, structure, action, non-action and that sort of thing. When things become too joyful or sad as a whole piece I’ll usually try and steer them around a different corner.
You did a Masters in Music Technology – what kind of creative space do you think that afforded you? Do you feel it was a turning point in your own work?
I got to work with a proper recording studio in college – I stayed late most nights trying to figure out mic positions on guitars, and how the equipment worked. It was very much what you made of it. The acoustics class was something I wasn’t very excited about, but I ended getting a lot out of. And I was really trying to get to grips with how all of these sound pressure waves interact and make this thing that we perceive as sound. A little understanding of harmonics has really helped me when it comes to making and mixing sounds.
You have worked with so many different people, including the wonderful Carol Keogh – who is such a beautiful, interesting singer – will there be more Natural History Museum work with her do you think, and how would you describe the working process with her?
Oh yeah there will be more – we’ve been saying this for 47 years now, but there is an album. We’ve written a few new songs this year and I’ll put this stuff out on Countersunk if it kills me. Our working process tends to be like this – Carol calls over and we drink tea and talk about Dublin. Then we go into the studio and one of us will have something that we’ve already started. Then the other will play something that they’ve already started, invariably the two things start to work together, and we keep pushing it for a while and record the vocals. Then I start mixing it, run out of time and leave the tune sitting in a hard drive until the hard drive dies and the tune is lost forever.
What have some of your happiest collaborations been? You seem to veer between a love of the solitary state and collaborative.
I’m better working on my own that’s for sure – but that’s because I’m not the most dexterous of live musicians. I played a gig accompanying David Kitt last summer and noodled together a few guitar lines for it in preparation. They seemed to work pretty well and it was quite satisfying working in an area I hadn’t done so much of. The most important thing to me when collaborating is getting on with the person you’re spending all this precious time with. Like in an afternoon of recording, you’re missing at least four episodes of Friends, so your partner in crime better be good fun.
Something like Ambulance illustrates a different aspect to your world again – the surreal, slightly more abstract part, as opposed to something like Natural History Museum perhaps – what are some of your dream collaboration left to do?
I have a lot of picky guitar pieces that I have written, and some day I’d love to record some more piano with Jurgen Simpson. He really “got” what I was trying to do and he has this brilliant style of playing which is really mechanical, while being completely flowing at the same time. I like how he would write out my whole composition on the stave first before any kind of improvisation. It wasn’t really like lighting some incense, kicking off your shoes and letting the spirit of Avatar enter you – it was more honest and considered.
There seems to be quite an exciting period at the moment with electronic music, and I have been thinking about the fact that many young people seem to be applying themselves to it, perhaps it’s the shift in the accessibility towards technology – what do you think?
It’s so great to be able to hear more electronically programmed music about these days. There was quite a period there where all the incidental music I’d hear about the place was rock-orientated – its nice to mix things up a bit. But maybe its like when I was a kid and some years BMXs were in, the next few years skateboards were in, and every few years they’d swap around. I was going to make some crack about one foot on the pedal / one foot on the board…….. ugh.
I do hate to generalise, but I see a kind of shift towards nostalgia again – even the new Gatekeeper album EXO has a nod back to the emergence of acid house, and Teengirl Fantasy’s second record, soon to be released, is a throwback to early Detroit techno. A huge debt is owed to people like Juan Atkins, but there does seem to be a distinct division between those that helped to create the form and that came slightly later in the development, such as Theo Parrish – and those that are borrowing from the palette all the time.
It’s the Instagram thing – realising you can emulate a genre, or sound or image or character isn’t the most creative thing in my mind, but I suppose it has its place. It can really turn me off music. But then I hear something like Martyn’s album from last year [Ghost People], and the more I fight against its early 90’s throw-back sound, the more I completely fall for it. Music as a commodity is being digested in such a different way. There’s way more access and content, so perhaps the majority of people need to know in advance what they’re getting into – so as a result there’s less surprises.
It’s funny how when someone plays you music from a country/genre that you’ve never heard, the originators always seem to get the message through to you more succinctly than the pretenders, even if you have no frame of reference.
That also brings me to thinking about a sense of place, for me, the greatest electronic music has always been somehow infused with a sense of place. What is your relationship to space, both in terms of your studio, and in terms of nature – how important is space to you and how far do you think it finds its way into your work?
Not really. Once tunes are recorded and released, I start to forget when and how they were made. That’s a really nice feeling. I read Ital Tek referred to this by saying that he was “no longer seeing the grid” when listening to some tunes that he had recorded a while back. I listened back to the first Ambulance EP for the first time in years the other day. I remembered Decal sitting behind us on the couch eating sandwiches while we were recording the master!
In terms of evoking space with music, I like when it’s very alien and abstract. I tend to dream in very claustrophobic confined spaces, and I reckon that might be linked to how I like to fill up all the space in my tunes most of the time. Its something in my psyche I suppose.
Do you still have your studio by the sea? The sea for me is probably the most important part of nature somehow.
Nope, I’m slap bang in the city centre. I’m sure there’s a connection between the more electronic chunky action stuff on this new album and what I encounter every day. I’d love to be back by the sea though. The air is different and any large expanse like that is good for clear thought.