Name: Joe Banks
Occupation: sound artist
Current project: The Rapture at the Cable Depot
Recommendations: “Keep the Faith” by Runnin’ Riot / pretty much everything by Dead Rat Orchestra / The Clash by Arturo Barea.
If you enjoyed this interview with Joe Banks, visit his website to learn more about his work.
When did you start writing/ producing/ playing music and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
There’s a Disinformation sound artwork called “Language [as] Meta-Technology”, which states that “speech itself is an art form”, and that “all literature and poetry are forms of sonic art”. So, on that basis, everyone creates forms of music and audio art, every time we open our mouths to create any form of sound. In light of that, I guess the question I find mysterious is why anyone wouldn’t be drawn to creating some form of music? We don’t start making music when we choose to pick up a musical instrument, we start making music as soon as we start organising sounds. The world of sound is an aspect of life, and we’re drawn to start making music because of that.
For example, I guess one of the most primal and awesome forms of music is the chant in a football stadium - it’s pretty much the most accessible form of sonic art, and, for the people involved, immensely powerful and rewarding. As for early influences, when I was a kid my dad bought a train set, and, when I got bored watching the trains go around, I disconnected the (AC) power supply, and hooked up the transformer to a loudspeaker from grandad’s broken TV. The loudspeaker suddenly jumped into life, making this amazing intense and hypnotic buzzing and droning sound, until smoke came out of the back of the loudspeaker and I pulled out the wires. Fifteen years later the record company Ash International released a Disinformation LP track called “National Grid”, which is basically another version of the same concept - sounds from live mains electricity.
Around the same time, I nicked my dad’s fancy tape deck and hooked up the input to the output from a portable tape recorder, recorded a voice from the radio, and played the voice, at maximum output level, into the tape deck, at maximum input level, repeating several times. The speech sounded like intense crackling that you might hear on a de-tuned radio. In effect, the speech transformed into abstract electrical noise; but I found that if you remembered what the speech had said before being distorted, then the crackling suddenly came back to life and turned back into a form of recognisable language, not in the loudspeaker, but inside your own mind. I’d stumbled on a psychoacoustic phenomenon similar to what’s known to science as “sine-wave speech”, and 20 years later I started a research project based on these phenomena, called “Rorschach Audio”.
A more straightforward answer is that I listened to much the same music as most people in my age group - from Sister Sledge and Chic to Throbbing Gristle and Crass, living in London, before I broke the radio, I listened to the late-night reggae shows on Capital Radio, etc, which is where I learned about remix culture - what, at the time, they called “versions”, etc. I got involved in making music for the same reasons everyone else does - because it’s great fun and a nice way of meeting people.
Some people experience intense emotion when listening to music, others see colours or shapes. What is your own listening experience like and how does it influence your approach to music?
To give you an example, I realise that my love of drone music was influenced by very early experiences. My grandparents lived near RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire. So, from time to time, the sound-field of this huge wide-open rural landscape was filled with this deeply musical, booming, pulsing, hypnotic, didgeridoo-type drone produced by the propellers of the RAF Hercules transporter planes circling the airbase, and I often drifted off to sleep with this sound influencing a kind of hypnagogic dream state. The drone also has this pulsing or beating property which resembles another really primal sound experience - a heartbeat, and this experience also influenced “National Grid”, and another Disinformation project called “Blackout”.
How would you describe your development as an artist in terms of interests and challenges, searching for a personal voice, as well as breakthroughs?
In the early days of the Disinformation project, meaning 1995 to 2000, I tried to adopt a documentary type approach rather than more traditionally expressive means of creating music and sound. Early Disinformation tracks consisted of Very Low Frequency, so-called VLF-band radio noise, electrical interference produced by natural and man-made phenomena, picked-up on normal domestic AM radios, 2nd hand shortwave sets and cheap and home-made VLF receivers etc. Ash International, the company that released the early Disinformation LPs etc - were very good at encouraging more established musicians to produce remixes and collaborations using this raw material, which led to a double CD of Disinformation remixes called “Antiphony”, and a single CD follow-up called “Al Jabr”.
At that time quite a few people asked if I was interested in Electronic Voice Phenomena, so-called EVP recordings, which are considered by enthusiasts to be literally recordings of ghosts. It seemed self-evident that these claims are fraudulent, so, when Ash International published a CD of EVP tapes called “The Ghost Orchid”, this was a great opportunity to write an article, called “Rorschach Audio”, printed in “The Ghost Orchid” sleeve-notes, which explained exactly why people shouldn't be taken-in by EVP. This was a massive breakthrough in that I’ve continued producing “Rorschach Audio” articles, lectures and even a book etc, for nearly 25 years, and not least because “Rorschach Audio” has proven to be by far the most lucrative project I’ve ever produced.
Tell me a bit about your sense of identity and how it influences both your preferences as a listener and your creativity as an artist, please. What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to music and art?
The work I produce has been published under the name Disinformation, which I like to think of… I guess it’s a bit tongue-in-cheek, though there’s also a more serious aspect… as a brand name for a series of cultural products, rather than as a pseudonym for myself. In that sense, I’ve tried to de-personalise the work. It’s never been a priority to engage in self-expression, and I’ve never thought self-expression was a necessary or sufficient condition for making interesting art.
But, in the end, lacking a sense of identity provides some sense of identity, perhaps? Coming to more gallery-oriented sound art from a background in underground noise music, coming from a world of work, not from art school, and being pretty much completely self-taught, gives some sense of being a bit of an outsider… though, over the years, having a degree of public exposure starts to cancel that out, I guess?
In terms of how this all influences preferences as a listener, I listen to everything… even to the extent that I have medical problems arising from an inability to tune-out sounds, known as hyperacusis. That doesn’t mean my hearing is unusually sensitive, it means I’m bad at ignoring sounds the way most people do. I have very broad tastes in music - which is normal, even fashionable, these days, but was really unfashionable 25 years ago… though to answer your question directly perhaps having a degree of hyperacusis influenced the extent to which I hear conventionally non-musical sounds as though they’re music?
How would you describe your views on topics like originality and innovation versus perfection and timelessness in music? Are you interested in a “music of the future” or “continuing a tradition”?
A paradox of pursuing originality is that no matter how much you try to overturn the apple cart, no matter how radical your innovations, they fall into line behind historic tradition given enough perspective. Sooner or later, all music becomes part of a tradition whether the artists like it or not.
As a case in point, Disinformation produces the sound art piece “National Grid”, featuring micro-tonally re-tuned electrical noise from live mains electricity, which was first performed live and published on LP in 1996, and first exhibited as an art gallery sound installation in 1997. As futuristic as this concept might sound, one of the great pleasures of developing “National Grid” has been researching and documenting the precedents, which go back now well over 100 years - the “Dniepr Hydro-Electric Power Station” composition by the Ukrainian composer Yuliy Meitus, which was I think recorded in 1932, and writing about sounds of electricity by the authors H.G. Wells, Bruno Schulz and William F. Temple, from 1894, 1934 and 1953. “National Grid” also features a so-called beat-frequency effect, similar to the effect produced by propellors from the RAF Hercules transporter planes, and this effect was pioneered by the Italian composer Guiseppe Tartini, who was born in 1692.
Over the course of your development, what have been your most important instruments and tools - and what are the most promising strategies for working with them?
There’s a bit of a risk of giving away trade secrets here, but, without question, the most important tools I’ve used are all books! For years I had a strict personal rule, that I’d never go past a second-hand bookshop without going in.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please.
Get up, coffee, news, e-mails, laundry, shopping, socialise, sleep… gripping stuff! … the years of living dangerously are definitely over ;)
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece, live performance or album that’s particularly dear to you, please?
A good example would be that in 1999 I started experimenting with a load of surplus laboratory oscillators that came from a skip (for American readers, a dumpster) outside London Southbank University, and a laboratory oscilloscope picked up for £15 at a car boot sale in Walthamstow. The great beauty of laboratory oscillators is that they produce musical sine-waves of near-absolute purity, which you can see, pin-sharp and crystal clear on the screen of a laboratory oscilloscope. The effect is entrancing, and the green glow of old-style oscilloscopes also carries connotations of the phosphorescence of sea creatures, fire-flies and glow-worms.
The installation that emerged from these experiments is called “The Analysis of Beauty”, which was first exhibited at Kettle’s Yard gallery in Cambridge in 2000, most recently at Talbot Rice gallery in Edinburgh in 2014. With regard to what you said about originality and innovation, in contrast to how many electronic musicians fixate on creating “music of the future” etc, the title for this piece was taken from a book published by the artist William Hogarth in 1753. Some artists might be content to just play about with surplus lab equipment, but what really made this project come to life was, I was at my mum and dad’s that Xmas, and, leafing through an old book there’s a self-portrait, painted by William Hogarth in 1745.
There’s a painting-within-a-painting, pictured alongside Hogarth’s favourite books and an artist’s palette. Instead of featuring a brush and paints, the palette features what you’d now call a sine-wave, and this weirdly cryptic and mysterious image is what lead me to his book “The Analysis of Beauty”. The book is super-interesting as a narrative device, but also ideologically loaded, as an example of a somewhat outsider artist trying to frankly kick down the door of a hostile art-world.
In terms of creative process, I guess this is the equivalent, in conventional music, of adding vocals to an already kicking track to make it really rock - it’s about providing a narrative element, and, not just exhibiting technology, but deploying technology, using technology creatively to tell a story. Some critics and institutions find this clash of symbolism hard to process, though what I’ve tried to achieve is to create work that isn’t fashionable, with a view to creating work that may hopefully stand the test of time.