1. “I wanted to do something that was not melodic”

    Posted February 16, 2015 in music  |  No Comments so far

    The Quietus have published a brilliant interview with Hank Shocklee of the Bomb Squad.

    It’s brilliant because it goes a bit deeper than you might expect into Shocklee’s philosophy of sound, which was—and still is—ambitious, avant-garde and futuristic.

    And keep in mind that none of these [Public Enemy] records have got reverb. I’m not using reverb on any of these records. Because reverb softens the sound. And that’s not Public Enemy’s sound. Public Enemy has to be brimstone and fire. Thunder and lightning. It can’t be soft and warm and familiar. Otherwise it won’t create agitation. So with each sample I was pulling up the high frequencies, in order to pull up, not just the snare of the guitar or whatever, but also pulling up the ambience, and even the imperfections in the vinyl itself. So that’s why people started talking about “noise”.

    As a kid I was really into Public Enemy. You can imagine me as a more boring, Home Counties version of John Connor from Terminator 2, in a PE t-shirt, doing my paper round every day while deafening myself with Fear of a Black Planet.

    Later on I got into My Bloody Valentine as well, thinking of myself as some sort of eclectic connoisseur, but as this interview makes clear, there was always much more in common between MBV and Public Enemy than early-1990s indie tribalism would have dared acknowledge.

    One of the records I thought was really cool recently was the My Bloody Valentine record. Dope. It stayed true to what it was.

    I always had a lot of respect for Shocklee but that interview made me have even more.


  2. Philip Sherburne and the Resurgent Sound of the Loon

    Posted January 28, 2015 in music  |  No Comments so far

    Pitchfork has a great piece up in which Philip Sherburne explores the origins of the “Loon” sound, most famously used on 808 State’s “Pacific State” and Sueño Latino’s eponymous house classic.

    I’m approaching 40 so obviously didn’t realise that the “Loon” is making a comeback, having appeared on new tracks by Nicki Minaj and Rustie. If so it’s nice to hear. And it’s nice to read such an extensive investigation into a single sound.

    The article made me wonder, though: if, as Wikipedia claimed, a macaque can own the copyright to a picture it took, should the loon whose utterance was immortalised be afforded the same privilege?

    (via Kent Williams)


  3. “I thought Jim Jarmusch was going to walk in and shout, ‘Cut!'”

    Posted December 28, 2014 in music  |  No Comments so far

    I was sad to hear on Christmas Day that Matt Cogger, aka Neuropolitique, had passed away from cancer. He was a Brit who was closely involved in the first wave of Detroit techno, even living and working in the city for a while, but his own music retained a unique, distinctive personality. His work on Irdial in particular was outstanding.

    Over at Bleep43, this extended anecdote from Matt about an incident while he was working for Transmat in Detroit is an entertaining read.

    And here’s one of Matt’s tracks from 1993:


  4. Jo Johnson writes about her album “Weaving”

    Posted December 22, 2014 in music  |  No Comments so far

    If you’re into electronic or ambient music in any way whatsoever, you should pick up a copy of Jo Johnson’s outstanding album “Weaving”. I’m lucky enough to count Jo as a friend, but if that makes you question my impartiality just read this review over at Pitchfork for corroboration.

    Getting you to buy Weaving isn’t really the main point of this post, though. Instead I wanted to share this piece that Jo wrote about the album’s genesis.

    “Weaving” started out as a working track title. It originally described the way two arpeggios interplay but it took on more meaning over time and stuck. The word isn’t exactly cool or poetic but for me, now, “weaving” evokes a legacy of women’s work, art and activism, and conjures up a scrapbook of extraordinary images: women working together at colossal machines in a Lancashire cotton mill in the 19th century; Dora Thewlis, the young mill worker and suffragette, who was famously photographed being arrested after breaking into the Houses of Parliament – one of many working class women who nurtured the early suffrage and the labour movements; the art of Bauhaus weavers like Gunta Stolzl and Anni Albers, and the stunning photos of Michiko Yamawaki and Leonore Tawney at their looms, looking like they’re controlling some kind of retro-futurist synthesiser.

    This is not your typical techno-utopian ambient fare. Buy it here.


  5. A track I made called “Lake Manitou”

    Posted December 20, 2014 in music  |  No Comments so far

    Here’s another track I made recently, called Lake Manitou. I’ve been told it sounds like a cross between Bobby Konders and the Aphex Twin. Worse things could have been said.

    I thought I’d write about the origins of this track, for my own benefit, and because I think electronic musicians should talk more about their creative process and less about technology and gadgets. Be warned: you almost certainly have better things to do than to read the next 700 words.

    “Lake Manitou” started life on a Sunday evening in late October. I was playing around with some new melodies but the process was closer to musical doodling than to serious or even semi-serious composition. A pentatonic scale stopped everything sounding like a mess, but even still the different melodies just weren’t connecting, they sounded like they came from different pieces of music. This doodle, I felt, would go no further than the margin of my metaphorical notebook.

    Later on I isolated each of the melodies, wondering if any might be spared oblivion before I moved the whole thing to the trash. Most were forgettable and insipid but one stood out, a two-bar descending riff that had a lot more character than anything else in the doodle. That riff ended up becoming the backbone of Lake Manitou.

    The riff’s journey from its doodle origins to Lake Manitou was not a straightforward one, however. At first it was meant to be a background part of a faster electro track, which was what the original doodle had sounded like. But I couldn’t really come up with an idea for what that track would do, or for other sounds that might complement the two-bar descending riff. I had reached a creative impasse.

    A week later, while walking through Bermondsey to a friend’s housewarming party, the riff was playing in my head. It suddenly struck me that it should be part of a much slower house- or disco-oriented track, and that, instead of being in the background, it should take centre stage. I thought about how it might sound: dreamy, languid, tropical, subtly euphoric. I thought about post-disco tracks like “Adventures in Success“, about “Sweet Harmony” by The Beloved. It was a big change in direction from the uptempo electro track I’d been planning, and from anything else I’d done before. But the more I thought about this new track, the more determined I became to make it.

    When I sat down to work on it, most pieces fell into place quite neatly. Slowing it down, backing up the main melody with some warm chords, adding some space to the sound with delay and reverb: these things didn’t take long and I was happy with the results. The choral pad sound was a challenge, however. I’ve often tried to use a sound like that in a track—Kraftwerk’s “Radioactivity” being a kind of exemplar for me—but always got it wrong. Would Lake Manitou be undone by yet another botched choir pad? Trying the preset choir sounds on various synths just made me even more downhearted. In the end I spent about an hour making that sound, using a combination of synth pads, reverb, filter and actual samples of a choir.

    With everything in place the next job was to arrange the track. Arrangement is stressful. Sometimes you uncover major problems with your composition, with everything else sounding awful when the one strong element is taken away. Sometimes your mistake is to reveal the key idea too early, or too late. Lake Manitou ended up being quite hard to arrange, going through two major iterations over several days before it was eventually finished.

    One thing that might be worth mentioning is the fade out. I always like it when bands start to do different things while a track is fading out. You can hear that on happen on some Parliament songs. It leaves you wondering what else the band went on to do after you left the room. In Lake Manitou there’s a subtle nod to that gimmick, when the flute changes tack right at the end and starts jamming along with the main melody. I like the idea that the flautist was just embarking on an epic, self-indulgent jam session which the producer had to kill before it all went a bit Jethro Tull.

    Anyway, that’s the origin story of Lake Manitou. I’m not going to write stuff like this about every track I make, you’ll be pleased to hear, but if you make music yourself I’d be interested in reading similar notes about your own creative process. It’s a lot more interesting to me than gadgets and VSTs at any rate.

    (Oh yes, I nearly forgot: the title is a reference to an internet thing)


  6. Getting back into making music

    Posted December 13, 2014 in music  |  No Comments so far

    If you read this blog or follow me on Twitter you might have noticed me making a lot of music recently.

    And if you’ve known me for a long time, you’ll know this is less of a recently discovered hobby than a case of normal service being resumed.

    I’ve been making electronic music for a long time, since I booted up NoiseTracker on my Amiga as a precocious 16-year-old, and it used to be a major part of my life until the twin pressures of work and parenthood conspired to crowd out almost everything else.

    My recent resurgence in music-making motivation dates back to March this year when, after leaving my job at Tobias & Tobias, I was presented with an an extremely generous leaving gift—a Maschine Mikro. According to Chris Tobias, the idea was that it would get me composing music again, and on that score it was a raging success. Since then I’ve recorded around 10 tracks which I’m reasonably happy with, along with lots of throwaway experiments that are best left gathering digital dust on my hard drive. And it’s been really good fun: in fact I’ve been quite surprised to find how much I enjoy it.

    I always did enjoy making music, of course, so why am I surprised to find that I enjoy it now?

    One possible reason for this is that, these days, I’m approaching music from a different direction than in the past. I don’t really think about musical genres or styles or “playability”—the degree to which a DJ might want to use your music in a performance—as much as I used to. In the past I thought too much about things like that, about how closely the music I was making adhered to a specific genre’s set of rules, or how it would sound on a club system. That would often get in the way of enjoying the creative act in its own right.

    Sometimes I was able to step away from that production-line mentality, and it always felt liberating and fun to do so. But more often than not I would slip back into it, laboriously building tracks up from genre-friendly templates and rejecting anything that took me too far from the beaten path.

    Today, I have no ambitions to release music or play it in nightclubs, and am not making it for any other purpose than my own enjoyment. That’s why I’m enjoying it a lot more. And it’s probably the reason why the new music I’m making seems to be a lot better than the music I made in the past. It’s more like play than work—the way it should be.


  7. A track I made called “Birthday”

    Posted September 22, 2014 in music  |  No Comments so far

    I’ve been meaning to get back into making music for a while now. Here’s a track I made over the weekend, called “Birthday”. It’s been described by those in the know as “a bit Cbeebies.”


  8. How I’m taking control of my oversized vinyl collection, one record at a time

    Posted December 10, 2013 in Diary, music  |  No Comments so far

    I own far too many records.

    These records total over 2,000 and they’re sorted in alphabetical order by artist. A couple of months ago I decided to go through them systematically, one at a time. For each record I find, I ask myself a simple question: do I want to listen to it, all the way through, then and there?

    If I don’t, then the record gets listed for sale on Discogs. If I do, and I like it, it gets to stay; but if it gets a “meh”, then it gets listed for sale too.

    When I started this exercise I didn’t quite know what I was getting myself into. Now that I’ve passed the 200-record mark – still less than 10% of the total – I’m realising that it’s going to take ages to finish. Which is not such a bad thing. This long-running triage project is, after all, good fun. It’s nice to re-immerse myself in records I’ve not listened to for years. And it’s curious, almost exotic, to subject myself to its strict alphabetical discipline.

    In this digital age of expensive algorithms and the mind-bending calculations they perform to choose music that takes us to the precise centres of our comfort zones, it’s an odd experience to step away from the “Genius Mix” or the “Recently Played” playlists into an unforgiving regime of alphabetically-sorted vinyl. So you didn’t want to listen to Analord today? Tough. Thinking of leaping out of sequence to Sun Electric just because you ‘feel like it’? Again, tough: list or listen, that’s the rule. Selecting music based on what mood I’m in or what I want to hear will often bring me down the same old pathways to the same old group of albums, and this project is forcing me to do something different, which is great.

    I’ve come to realise that a lot of my record collection had become like junk DNA, lots of seemingly useless detritus that pads out the interesting stuff. Records that I’d regularly flick past without considering, on my way to the releases I wanted to hear. But, like junk DNA, many of them have turned out not to be so useless after all. Having to stop and subject each record to the “list or listen” test has kind of re-connected me to each one of them, encouraging me to remember why I bought the record in the first place, and to imagine future situations where I might regret having sold it. And there is some good stuff in there too. I’ve discovered that even records you’ve purchased can be ‘slept on’.

    OK, this all sounds like a convoluted description of a straightforward nostalgia trip, which it is in a way. But as much as I harp on about rediscovering music and things like that, this whole exercise has one clear and unsentimental objective, which is to reduce the size of my record collection. I’ll probably always own too many records, but one day I hope they’ll all be records I actually want to listen to.


  9. My Top Ten Albums of 2011

    Posted December 31, 2011 in music  |  No Comments so far

    Now that I’ve got with the program and started tagging MP3s properly, I can use Last.fm to see what I’ve been listening to. So, in the spirit of the end-of-year retrospectives that are customary around now, here are the ten albums I’ve listened to the most in 2011*.

    * hardly any of these were released in 2011

    Barafundle10. Barafundle by Gorky’s Zygotic Minci (1997)

    Gorky’s were a psychedelic rock band favoured by John Peel and highly prolific in the 1990s. Their outlandish and experimental approach to instrumentation is combined with a knack for haunting and sometimes decidedly catchy melodies. This album is more polished and refined than some of their earlier work and is on this list because Cathy regularly plays it to our baby son.
    Notable track: Patio Song

    Blackout9. Blackout! by Method Man & Redman (1999)

    The first of several hip-hop albums on this list, Blackout! is a collaboration between the Wu-Tang Clan’s Method Man (who also plays Cheese in The Wire, fact fans) and New Jersey-based rapper Redman. It’s a really playful album that’s powered by the interplay and dynamic between two MCs who couldn’t sound more different from one another, yet whose styles are mutually complementary. There’s nothing serious or thoughtful here though. It’s an energetic and cartoony album and sometimes that’s what you want from hip-hop (although not always – of which more later).
    Notable track: Cheka

    Camino Del Sol8. Camino Del Sol by Antena (1982)

    In the early 1980s Antena, a French pop trio headed by singer Isabel Antena, recorded and released a mini-album, Camino Del Sol. The one I’ve been listening to is a more recent reissue with an expanded tracklist. As an electro-pop act Antena weren’t as pioneering as the likes of OMD or the Human League, but their gentle tropically tinged electro-pop is definitely unique to them. It’s just a shame they didn’t make more of it.
    Notable track: Camino Del Sol

    John Maus7. We Must Become The Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves by John Maus (2011)

    One of only two new albums to make my 2011 top ten, We Must Become… is a dazzling piece of work. Although it’s ostensibly a synth-pop album it has none of the irony, nostalgia or kitch overtones that tend to plague deliberately retro music. You’d never think this was old. It’s intensely modern and complex in a way that becomes more obvious with each listen. As a piece of electronic music it’s excellent, but it’s the baffling, revolutionary lyrical material that makes this album endlessly fascinating for me.
    Notable track: Cop Killer

    Head Over Heels6. Head Over Heels by Cocteau Twins (1984)

    In 2009 and 2010 I was obsessed with the Cocteau Twins’ later album, Victorialand, but in early 2011 I picked up a copy of Head Over Heels on vinyl. Today the Cocteau Twins are seen as an early influence on what people now call ‘dreampop’ and while Head Over Heels is less dreamy than Victorialand – it actually has beats, for example – its indie/gothic songs are surrounded by a spacey, drifting atmosphere and Liz Fraser’s voice is otherworldly as always.
    Notable track: Musette And Drums

    Only Built 4 Cuban Linx5. Only Built For Cuban Linx by Raekwon (1995)

    This was Raekwon’s first solo album and was released during east coast hip-hop’s second golden age in the mid-1990s. Raekwon’s like a modern-day Raymond Chandler – a noir storyteller whose prose style is itself a rich backdrop for his crime stories. Cuban Linx is experimental in a way – its cinematic narratives and dense lyrics were definitely unlike anything that came before – but it’s not in the least bit noodly or arch, this is pretty raw stuff. I listened to its 2009 sequel, Cuban Linx II, a lot in 2011 also, but it doesn’t appear in this chart due to some ID3 tag problem that’s too boring to explain.
    Notable track: Criminology

    4. Fishscale by Ghostface Killah (2006)

    Ghostface Killah appeared extensively on the abovementioned Raekwon album so in a way it’s fitting that this comes next in the chart. If Raekwon is modern hip-hop’s Raymond Chandler then Ghostface might be its James Joyce – hyper-lucid and loquacious, wildly associative, more versatile than most, Ghostface can move from street-soaked crime stories to tales of puppy love and heartfelt accounts of an impoverished childhood at the drop of a hat. Fishscale marked a major return to form for him when it came out in 2006, but I only got into it this year after being sucked back into the world of Cuban Linx.
    Notable track: Beauty Jackson

    Fear Of A Black Planet3. Fear Of A Black Planet by Public Enemy (1990)

    This album was a blast from the past for me in 2011. I was obsessed with this when it first came out, but what made me dig it out and start playing it again this year? I’m not sure. Maybe I was infected by the zeitgeist in what TIME magazine eventually labelled “the year of the protestor“. Public Enemy definitely made protest music with a businesslike precision and work ethic which came together to produce a sound that was as industrious and motivated as it was confrontational and revolutionary. Most critics will tell you that Nation Of Millions was their best album, and they’re probably right, but I think Fear Of A Black Planet is more immersive.
    Notable track: Revolutionary Generation

    The Infamous2. The Infamous by Mobb Deep (1995)

    Like Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, this album came out of New York’s resurgent hip-hop scene in the mid-1990s and quickly became a milestone in the genre. But while Cuban Linx is ambitious and panoramic, The Infamous is closer in spirit to hardcore hip-hop albums of the late 1980s. There’s no concept or back-story, just a collection of strong tracks making for a solid album. It concludes with the phenomenal Shook Ones Part II, which plays a key role in the Eminem movie 8 Mile. Indeed, it was an article about the mysterious sample used in this track back in March this year that led to me getting sucked into this album.
    Notable track: Shook Ones Part II

    Let England Shake1. Let England Shake by PJ Harvey (2011)

    So the album I listened to most this year was Let England Shake by PJ Harvey, which also won the Mercury Music Prize for 2011 so it’s not exactly obscure. Its subject matter is the centrality of war and military adventurism to English history, which proved newsworthy enough to get the attention of broadsheets, Andrew Marr, and so on. So I was expecting to find a series of worthy polemical songs set to grandiose or dirge-like music, but within the first few seconds of the first track I found myself gripped by the sound and the melodies which jump right to the forefront. You almost have to go back to rediscover the lyrical material after the first couple of listens, as the music itself is so arresting.
    Notable track: Written On The Forehead

    So that’s that! The 10 albums I’ve listened to most in 2011. I’ll try to remember to do this again at the end of 2012. Happy new year everyone!


  10. How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The ID3 Tag

    Posted October 2, 2011 in music  |  4 Comments so far

    You know what ID3 tags are, don’t you? When your MP3 player shows you artists, album names, song titles and stuff like that – well, that’s ID3 tags doing their thing. So if you’ve ever listened to MP3s you’ll have come across them, even though their name makes them sound a bit nerdy and obscure.

    These days I can’t get enough of ID3 tags. If I find an MP3 on my hard drive that doesn’t have ID3 tags it’s like an itch that needs to be scratched. I can’t relax until it’s corrected. Slowly, inexorably, over many years, structure and organisation is coming to my digital music collection. It’s all thanks to ID3 tags.

    Logitech Squeezebox

    Just another day's work for ID3 tags

    It wasn’t always this way though. I used to be opposed to ID3 tags, an ID3 tag sceptic. When did my attitude change? There was no Damascene conversion, no eureka moment, no high-level defection to the ID3-tagging community. Instead it was more like boiling the frog – with me as the frog.

    In the early days of digital music – before Napster – there wasn’t much of a call for ID3 tags and if I didn’t hate them it was only because I hadn’t heard of them. Here’s why you didn’t really need them back then:

    • You didn’t own many MP3s – Small hard drives, limited bandwidth and few avenues for acquiring digital music meant that most people didn’t have a huge number of MP3s, so it wasn’t difficult to keep them organised using folders and filenames. Digital music collections had yet to grow to a size where information management became a real problem.
    • Music players were pretty primitive – Digital music was very new and the supporting software was at an embryonic stage in its development. Remember MacAMP? We might look back on OS’s from the late 1990s and laugh, but the fact is that many people preferred using their file systems to manage MP3s, making ID3 tags irrelevant.
    • Music was stored on a single device – Data was less portable then than it is now, and you didn’t tote around mobile phones, tablets, and other devices on which you wanted to play your digital music. This also reduced the need to organise and manage music collections.
    • You rarely used other people’s music collections – Admit it, you used Napster, or something like it anyway. When file-sharing came along people started to poke around in one another’s MP3 collections, but before then it didn’t really happen so no-one cared how your files were organised. If it worked for you, that was good enough.

    These factors combined to create a “real ale” approach to MP3 files. We thought up ways to organise files into usefully named directories – by year, by genre, by album, by provenance. We had conventions for filenames – artist, track number, title, all separated by hyphens. ID3-managed music collections felt messy and random, with no thought given to curation and structure. Our solution worked for us. It was good enough.

    But then the 1990s turned into the 2000s, and then the 2000s got out of nappies and learned to talk and started forming opinions and views and making demands of its own. A brave new world came about, in which we had to reappraise our relationship with ID3s.

    The tipping point probably came when our MP3 collections grew to a point that to adjust all their filenames, or reorganise them into a new folder structure, was an unspeakably time-consuming task that we couldn’t contemplate doing. Then we started to think, how can this stuff be automated? How can I do it in bulk? And that’s when ID3 tags started to appeal.

    When I started using ID3 tags, it was like a benign drug addiction. You do it for a laugh at first, for a quick thrill, to save a bit of time through automation, but suddenly they’re in your life and there’s no looking back. The benefits of using them become clear.

    You copy your MP3s to an unfamiliar device with an unfamiliar UI – but the informational structure is consistent, so your collection is just as usable. You do futuristic things like “scrobbling” your music to Last.fm – but, rather than submitting junk data to these services, ID3 tags make it actually work. And as your digital music collection grows and grows, you no longer have to worry about stupid things like which directory to stick a file, or how to handle compilations, because the decisions you make are easy to change later on.

    For someone who came to digital music any time after the advent of iTunes, a world without ID3 tags would be an unfamiliar and awkward place. It’s strange to look back and remember how scornful I was about them, how much I preferred the “real ale” solution of folders and filenames which was never going to successfully scale.

    ID3 tags are the unsung heroes of the digital music age. I like them now, and you probably do too – even if you’ve never actually heard of them.