How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
I make use of hardware based controllers for software extensively. I have several both of the standard keyboard variety and boxes with various knobs and sliders for controlling virtual instrument, effect, and mixer parameters. Both of these are essential for hands on control, playing notes and rhythms in a non-grid based human fashion, and for allowing more than one person at a time to control things inside the box. While it's initially time consuming to get these control mappings set up for the variety of tasks involved with the various stages of music creation and production, it is most certainly time well spent. Put simply, these interfaces transform virtual software applications into real, physically playable instruments. This is an area of music technology that I expect, and dearly hope, we will see a lot of new developments in the coming years.
The MIDI standard which is still used by the vast majority of developers is now 35 years old, a virtual dinosaur in technological terms. Sampling technology, synthesis, and physical and modelling have progressed to the point where an individual note of virtually any instrument or synthesizer can be reproduced with indistinguishable accuracy. No one however would be fooled into thinking a performance of Kind of Blue by the best living trumpet player on the planet, using the best virtual trumpet software, played on the best MIDI wind controller was a real recording of Miles Davis. Claude Debussy is often quoted as saying “music is the space between the notes” and in the digital domain this couldn't be more true. The accuracy of synthetic reproduction or digital recording of any sound is by it's very nature hindered by the resolution of the grid of virtual ones and zeros which represent it in machine language. No matter how fast our processors get, the minute changes in the shape of the player's embouchure, decay to silence of an individual note in a trumpet's bell and the subtle harmonic distortions it imposes on the notes to follow, to say nothing of the effect of what the player had for dinner or the current state of her or his love life, will never be perfectly modelled. As human beings we bring the full weight of our individual existence into our creation of music, with all the chaos, illogical expression of emotion and untold neurological chemical reactions that implies. While the effects of all these things on a musical performance would inevitably be classed as errors in machine logic, human ears in many cases hear virtuosity, revelation and newness.
By juxtaposing these supposed human imperfections against the elegant mathematical beauty of endless repetition, perfect pitch, and the perfectly controlled dynamic range from silence to deafening noise offered up by machines I believe modern musicians are approaching a near utopian moment from a technological sense people working in other fields can only dream about. These days, if you can imagine the sound, you can make it.
Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
When I began making music seriously I spent a great deal of time developing my own instruments, effects, and performance solutions using modular environments like Native Instruments Reaktor, Cycling 74's MAX/MSP, and the now sadly defunct Tassman by Applied Acoustics Systems who I worked for from 1999 to 2003. I never went to university and as a result my explorations within these environments offered me the opportunity to learn the technical aspects of sound and synthesis on a very deep level, but at a pace of my own making.
When I wasn't making music in the aforementioned hellish bedroom studio, I was learning and building in these environments until I was too tired to hold my head up. Thankfully the modular concepts these programs employ have begun to influence many of the main recording software programs in recent years, perhaps most elegantly by Ableton, who fully incorporated MAX/MSP into Live some years ago, and as such I haven't felt the need to build anything from the ground up in many years. This is also a reflection of the enormous amount of amazing, affordable software tools that have appeared in recent years. Spend a few hours inputting well worded queries into your search engine of choice and you will inevitably be greeted with every conceivable live performance tool you might need, and emulations of nearly every instrument and effect under the sun.
As such, I am only to happy to put my ego to bed, refrain from trying to re-invent the wheel, and spend my time making music. Software development is a thankless, maddeningly time consuming process and the sleep deprived hackers who put the hours in to create all these beautiful tools deserve a hell of a lot more credit and thanks then they currently get. Though as I freely admitted above, my young broke self made extensive use of cracked software. I'd never dream of doing so now. If you make money with your music, you have a responsibility to give the people who allow you to make it their fair share.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
These days I like to spend time face to face in the studio with people to collaborate on things, and ideally in condensed, long sessions that allow the compositional and recording aspects of a project to be realized from start to finish. This goes back to the idea of getting those moments of inspiration out as quickly as possible, and really relishing and sharing the positive energy of those moments together. This is ideally preceded by many hours, and in some cases many years, of discussion about what it is we are trying to accomplish when we do finally get down to the actual business of creating. It is inevitably followed by many coffee fuelled hours of corrections, over dubs, mixing, erroneous file deletions, head scratching, existential crisis, re-mixing, second guessing, drunkenness, depression, re-mixing again, and all faring well a final collective realization that they the initial sessions were just as magical as we thought and the whole process was time well spent.
Remixing other people's music has become one of my favourite things to do over the years and of course the ease of sharing files with people anywhere in the world has made this process incredibly easy. Real time collaboration at a distance is another area where I expect to see more and more technological solutions for in the coming years, though in truth this area of things doesn't excite me at all these days. I feel like I and everyone else spends entirely too much time interacting virtually online and I would much rather collaborate with people sharing the same real space and experience of the moment.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
In an ideal world (though thankfully it happens often)...
07:30 – Wake up, shower, coffee, make breakfast
08:15 – Take my eldest daughter to school
09:00 – Get home, check email, coffee #2 with my partner, play with my youngest daughter, put her down for the morning nap
10:30 – 12:30 – Studio
12:30 – 13:00 – Home for lunch
13:00 – 15:45 - Studio
15:45 – 17:30 - Pick up my eldest from School, take her to piano/ to play with friends etc
17:30 – 22:30 – Family time, dinner, put the kids to bed
22:30 – 00:30 – More emails, back to the studio, or on very rare occasion a movie I inevitably fall asleep watching
… Rinse, repeat.
Though I have rebelled against this, families work best on a set schedule, and I am very lucky to have such an amazing partner. Without her support and Godlike patience, I would be a hopeless mess. The unpredictable nature of touring and it's physical and mental hardships obliviously throws an enormous proverbial wrench into even the most well laid plans, but we have thankfully managed to navigate a very complicated collective existence with remarkable poise all things considered.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
I have particularly vivid and fond memories of writing my third album for ~Scape, New World Observer. I was intensely interested in finding new rhythms at the time outside of the conventional and excepted dance music genres, and did a lot of what might be most easily described as rhythmic research, experimenting with the with pushing and pulling beats off the standard 4/4 grid, and moving the tempo up and down looking for a sweet spot. I eventually settled on 107 beats per minute, and it's a tempo I've return to again on my forth coming album. It's a strange middle ground which allows for the syncopations of dancehall, cumbia, and bangra, but is also particularly conducive to slow, spacious, chugging house and techno grooves. Run it at half time at 53.5, and you are suddenly presented with incredibly heavy stoner dub or rock rhythms. It seems ridiculous in some ways to equate so much creative power to an individual tempo, but it's the speed at which I feel the most free and inspired, and I return to it again and again. Being a fairly oddball number in dance music terms, it's one I feel I can claim a sense of ownership for to a certain extent as something that makes the tracks I write at 107 unique in some way. I would absolutely love for it to catch on and hear what other people come up with moving at that speed.
That album is also the first time I worked with a vocalist, and it was a magical experience for me. Athesia is an incredibly talented singer, and a beautiful soul, and she was incredibly patient and generous with her time. In hindsight I really couldn't have asked for a more perfect partner in learning to record vocals. We did all the recordings at my house and one day when she had just arrived and was getting the levels set on the mic and headphones, I came running into the room to ask what she was singing. She informed it was a vocal exercise she did regularly to warm up, and I nearly fell of my chair. I promptly cued up a beat and we recorded several passes of what would eventually become the Song "Port Au Prince".
After she had left I listened to those recordings, utterly transfixed until the sun came up. There was no other melody outside of the voice to begin with and I spent hours trying to find an accompaniment. I had recently been given a CD full of well recorded one shot samples of string instruments by a friend which included several guitars, cello, mandolin, and viola he made for a degree project he never finished. I had played around making pretty random patterns with them in fruity loops and and basically by mistake ended up dropping one of those loops into the session in the early hours of the morning, and it just so happened to be perfectly in key with what Athesia had sung. Anyone who makes music will tell you the satisfaction in moments like this is nearly indescribable.