Name: Shaw & Grossfeldt
Members: James Shaw & Bas Grossfeldt (Sören Siebel)
Nationality: British & German
Occupation: Producers, sound artists
Current Release: Klavier on Drone
Recommendations: Bas: Book: Leif Randt "Planet Magnon" – just an amazing calmly written, utopian/dystopian story that sucks you in by it’s atmosphere (unfortunately only in german as far as I know). Music: Actress’ first album "Hazyville": the title speaks for itself – there are so much different angles on sound and space in there that I am still daunted by the possibilities you can explore in these sounds.
If you enjoyed this interview with Shaw & Grossfeldt, you can visit Bas Grossfeldt's soundcloud profile or the homepage of Simian Mobile Disco, Jas's main studio project.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
Jas Shaw: I started in bands, as a guitarist, but I don’t really think of that as that making music. The actual process of getting into music started to happen when I began hearing electronic music and wanted to try to make those sounds with a guitar and lots of effects pedals. I really thought that it would be possible to sound like Boards of Canada with just one more stomp box. This was a shift in attitude from playing being a craft type thing or even like an exercise to it being about listening and really picking the sounds apart and the much more open ended process of trying to find ways to make what I had more like what I wanted.
One of the things that surprised me about Bas, who is fairly new to music production, is how he would listen and comment based on how something felt rather than get bogged down in who’s synth was loudest. I guess it’s his fine art training but it’s something that is easy to say but difficult to put into practice and it seemed to come very naturally to him.
Bas Grossfeldt: Thanks mate, didn’t actually know you feel this way! My musical background is somehow rooted in various genres, I used to play a lot of Hip Hop, Calypso, Reggae, Soul and Dub as a DJ before getting into electronic music.
I always had an affection for it, but it was not until I met my good friend Matt Karmil, that I got deeper into this, listening, DJing and production wise. His input opened a whole new world and never ending story for me what instrumental music is able to do on an emotional level.
For most artists, originality is first 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? What is the the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
Jas: I’m still very much in the emulation phase. I get a lot of milage out of listening to other people’s music. When I sit in a studio messing with synths I’ll often stop turning dials when I think ‘ohh, that’s a bit like that track I liked’. It’s probably why I don’t get on with sampling or very construction based forms of music making, because it’s dangerously easy to really get too close to what someone else is doing this way. If you are just messing with a synth then the closest you are likely to to get is that what you have has a similar vibe to something else.
I’m not suggesting that we are first people to hook up a Disklavier to a sequencer. But it’s not a standard setup so there was a good chance that we wouldn’t end up covering the same ground as someone else.
Bas: Yeah, with this project it kind of just happened that in the process we both heard sounds we were mutually intrigued by. So there were no references or anything we used, we just went with a mutual perception that connected us and the recordings/tracks. Of course, everyone has her/his influences, but I guess one can really just do what one feels is right. I also have the feeling that music can be brutally honest there – when you try to sound like someone else, you will never catch that same vibe and that will most likely be very obvious.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
Jas: I like very tactile sequencers but I don’t like keyboards. It was interesting watching Bas use the Max sequencer that I was using - it’s very limited but everything happens on this thing called a grid which is an 8 x 16 grid of buttons. The sequencer is very simple but you can manipulate it very easily and at first he was asking how do you get it to do this, or that, and I said it couldn’t do any of that stuff. I usually use it with fewer steps and let polyrhythms do the composition but Søren wanted to make actual melodies that went past 16 steps. Because the code is open it would be easy to make the sequencer have as many steps as you want. But the grid interface only has 16 columns so then you need to implement some sort of page-changing function; again not difficult but it takes away the immediacy of the thing. Søren’s workaround was to manually play the grid, turning steps on or off or shifting them up or down as we recorded. It was nice to see this because it showed that the grid is not just a programming interface, it’s also a performance thing. More broadly, it was also a neat demonstration of the user wanting certain functionality - but actually if that was put in it would have removed the immediacy of the grid. Playing it rather than programming it was, in this case, a more fun solution. I know that making sequencers takes time out of making music and usually if I break open my editor I’ll get no music done that day. But I feel like there at least as much musical intent in the decisions that you make in choosing how an instrument works as there is in using it to make tunes?
For me that’s been the key to making music - very basic building blocks but having them interact or messing with them so that you get something that sounds much more developed.
Bas: Yeah, maybe it is boring to say it like this, but we just went with the so called "flow" I guess and that led us to the tracks of the album somehow naturally.
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
Bas: I just give that one to you mate, since I am basically a studio nomad who used to work mostly in the sound studios of the art school I studied and worked at. So working in a semi-public shared studio means a lot of carrying around your stuff and thus I developed my setup around just a few synths, drummachines, controllers and a laptop. But I just love Jas studio, which has just the right combination of atmosphere and technical possibilities.
Jas: My first studio was a shared space, with James, in our house in Manchester. We lifted the carpet and drilled through to the very damp basement so that we could record drums, very badly. We had a 16 channel desk and a computer with 4 inputs. It was basic but really it was the same process as now - we would set up some sound making stuff and see if we would make it do something that sounded like it could be a record, or the start of a record. Over the years we have replaced all of this stuff but the process isn’t miles from that. In terms of current stuff I have lots of gear, I tend to buy things secondhand, often broken and once I have fixed it and worked out how it’s musically useful to me I tend to hang on to things. There’s the odd thing I just didn’t get on with but usually there’s fun in any bit of gear you choose to grab if you are willing to spend time with it.
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?
Bas: It has always been a complex relationship I guess, but I really believe that it is the human who makes the sound. I mean, there have been records from decades ago that have the most interesting and intriguing sounds on it, just made with a very limited machine, whatever that might be. But there was not only someone who tweaked the knobs and maybe excelled the machines intended capabilities, there was someone who heard something, who said "wow, that is interesting, I feel this".
It is often said that especially in electronic music, a lot of stuff is chance. But I think there is more to it, because this chance is shaped by the perception of the artist, which then again is shaped by her/his practice and life in general. So I don’t think that technology has the possibility to make us more creative, which to be honest can be seen right now: in a time where everything is available and possible, the really sparking creative approaches in artworks, being music or whatever, are still very few. Even though there are a lot of small striving scenes challenging the borders of a common understanding of music of course.
Jas: Electronic music has always come from people taking existing technology and using it to get somewhere that they couldn’t before. The relationship between music gear and artists doesn’t really reflect this though. 90% of the new music gear I see seems to take the precise opposite view, it provides a convenient way to make some well established type of music. Mostly the way this achieved is by narrowing the scope of what can be done with the box in question, it’s a strange and contrary trap that’s easy to fall into.
Even so, people are resourceful and I see people making interesting music even with very function-specific pieces. There’s no need for us to go back to tape and diy oscillators to get interesting music made but it would be nice to see manufacturers make their kit more ambiguous or deliberately make it hackable on some level.
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?
Jas: I don’t write music at all, the machines do it all. In fact in the last few years I have started to find music that was written on instruments kind of annoying. Like you can hear the player getting bored and wanting to do a fill every 16 bars, or do a little variation to show that they can, ugh. I do not want to hear show-offy licks or very fast playing, at all. I have a bunch of sequencers and none of them pull this nonsense and I thank them for this.
Bas: But you are the one who is telling the machine what to do, and more importantly, you are the filter who says what goes in and what doesn't. So I don’t think you can say that you don’t write music. Of course you do, maybe not in a classical sense of writing notes, but you definitely are the author in my opinion.
Of course the tools have a say in this and I am grateful for their opinion as well, but you, or in this case we, are the ones who make the calls if we pull of some nonsense or not, no?
Jas: Yes, that’s fair. I do feel that there’s a more assertive influence from the system that we often set up for electronic music? I’m not denying that with a piano or guitar there’s a feedback between the instrument and the player, of course there is, but imagine if a guitar started adding or changing notes you were playing, that would be weird but that’s pretty normal when working with sequencers.
Also, I like the sense of distance that letting the gear have a voice gives. I wasn’t kidding when I said in the first question that I was surprised how easily you zoom out from working on a detail to take an overview, I find it really difficult. Maybe thinking of the music as ’some music’ rather than ‘my music’ helps me not to get stuck on things …