Name: Marconi Union
Members: Richard Talbot, Jamie Crossley, Duncan Meadows
Interviewee: Duncan Meadows
Current release: Marconi Union's Signals is out November 5th 2021 via Just Music.
Recommendations: I'm reading Why We Kneel How We Rise by Michael Holding. It's not a matter of art, it's more important than that.
A couple of people I know have mentioned a documentary called Garage People, I've not had time to watch it yet but it sounds good.
If you enjoyed this interview with Marconi Union and would like to stay up to date on their work, visit the band's official homepage. You can also find them on Instagram, Facebook, Soundcloud, and twitter.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started writing properly when I was around fifteen. Before then I'd played for fun, never writing or recording.
The first musical experience I can recall was playing one of those Yamaha Portasound keyboards, I would've been about four. We were on holiday, staying in a caravan, and one day it rained continuously. So I just sat in front of the keyboard I'd asked for the previous Christmas and played it all day. My parents had incredible patience.
The thing about music that got me was that it was something to lose myself in. And to a certain extent that is still the case. But it's also a job, with certain pressures and expectations. It's a privilege though, I'm not complaining.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
As a child I was listening to whatever was on in the house, classical and jazz mainly. But also pop music, this is in the mid 80's so some dubious influences in those early years. I missed out on post-punk and new wave first time round.
Even when I started piano lessons, my main interest was improvisation. It's something I have to sometimes fight against even now, the urge just to sit and play. Fortunately I can't play as well these days which has somewhat stymied that tendency.
I never set out to emulate particular bands or artists, I didn't see the point at the time. However now I'm older I can see how my own development would've been helped had I been more interested in exactly how other musicians wrote and played.
As an individual I can't say I have style or voice that is identifiable. How many musicians could really say that? Jon Hassell could. But it's only as part of Marconi Union that I see myself as having a particular way of writing and playing.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity? What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
I've never really thought about what impact my sense of identity has on my creativity. Perhaps being musically creative is so bound up with my identity that I can't really separate the two.
My main challenge was to begin appreciating and working on the sonic aspect of making music. I'd spent so many years immersed in the technicality and physicality of playing. One thing that helped was to minimise and simplify what I was doing, to think of the space and how what I played filled it, or how it added to and changed what was already there.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
A big switch I made about five years ago was to ditch sample libraries, VST instruments etc. The choice is overwhelming, and I found it was decreasing my creative output.
Imposing limitations of choice was liberating, and so now I only use hardware, other than when I don't have the hardware version of a certain sound or instrument.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
I bought a synth when I was sixteen. That changed the way I made music. Up until then I'd pressed a piano key and other than damping and sustaining that was all the sonic alteration I could affect.
The synth was a Pandora's box, a rabbit hole. For years it probably stopped me from actually writing any music at all.
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?
We rarely collaborate. When we have it's mostly been file sharing.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. 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?
I wake when the children do, then it's breakfast, then walking them to school.
At the moment we're preparing to go into rehearsals so my morning is mainly going over our music, preparing sounds, learning parts. I've recently bought a proper piano so I'm trying to fit in some practice on that too.
I've tried to integrate other parts of my life into music making but it's rarely productive. I don't have a fixed schedule. There's an ebb and flow to being in Marconi Union.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
We played at the Punkt festival in Norway. The idea was that we would live remix another band shortly after they finished performing. At that point I wasn't making much music electronically, with laptops or whatever, so instead I played a Rhodes, having chosen some phrases to improvise around.
What we ended up creating between the three of us felt like a distillation of where each of us were at, musically. And I think we learned something in terms of it providing a blueprint of one way in which we could write music in the future.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I wish I knew. Sometimes I sit down and everything I try is without value. Occasionally you hit upon something, either through trial and error or an idea emerges seemingly without much effort.
But behind all that though is work. You've just got to work at it. Part of that is deciding what the work should be, is it opening a manual so you know how to actually use a piece of gear, or improving your technique a little in the hope that you'll play something that sounds interesting. Other times it could be deciding not to try to make any music for a while.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
In the first case, I think we have to be careful not to overstate music's potential for healing.
We wrote a piece of music called "Weightless" which some people have found relaxing, whilst others have told us that listening to it (usually routinely) has had a profound impact on their life. But others find "Weightless" unsettling. So music is an incredibly personal thing, and the subjective nature of how we respond to music makes it difficult to be prescriptive.
I heard "Adagio for Strings" when I was fourteen and it made me cry, I'd been happy moments before, and I was fine when it ended. So there is the ability of music to alter a person's emotions in an acute sense.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
Well, as a band we all listen to dub reggae but we'd never write a reggae track, it'd be horrendous for a start.
Of course it's impossible to avoid taking influence from it in some way, and you'd never want to close yourself off from other musical cultures. For us it's more the sonic aspect of dub that sometimes finds it way into our music. And it's the same for the music of other cultures; for us it is about subtlety.
How easy it would be take some Japanese court music and overlay an electronic beat beneath. But there's no art in that.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
Koyaanisqatsi is a great example of sound meeting visuals. We often talk about what sort of visual best represents a given piece of music we are working on at the time. Sometimes it can be a useful exercise.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
I'm not even sure I consider myself an artist. We strive for that of course but it's a rather grand term, “I'm an Artist”.
I sometimes think of Marconi Union as being a band that re-arranges things, tries out combinations, in the hope of hitting on something that satisfies us. And because we're an instrumental band it's easier to use analogies to do with painting and sculpting. But personally, our new album is less about texture, less about moving paint around paper. I'd become disillusioned with Ambient music prior to starting work on Signals. What is there we can possibly add to the genre that hasn't already been committed to record? I suppose that could be our next challenge.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
When I was a teenager I always imagined that as an adult, in times of grief, I'd be sitting around listening to serious music but it hasn't worked out that way.
I think we often put music on far too high a pedestal. I understand that there's this idea of the Power of Music and I think there are occasions where that is felt, in communal singing for example. Yes, music can form the backdrop of a greater good, but I'm not sure music in itself and by itself leads directly to change, certainly not in the relative cosiness of my white Western existence.
Perhaps individual acts can be inspired or propelled by music. Ultimately it's not really for me to pronounce on music's ability to engender societal change. What about those who create art under threat of imprisonment or worse? Those are the people to whom we should direct those sorts of questions perhaps.
As for music's ability to express what we don't have the words for, well that's sort of the point isn't it?