By Bob Gourley | Originally published in 1999
For those who haven’t seen you live yet, how do your concerts compare to your recordings?
‘Quite different, to be honest. I’m not a jukebox, so I can’t just play…. I don’t make hits, so I couldn’t do that. I’m studio-based a lot of the time: My records are produced in studios with keyboards and samplers and computers and all those kinds of things. I can’t take those on the road, nor do I attempt to duplicate it. So what I do live is really quite different. I generally improvise the set, but around themes, kinds of structures. “I’ve got a tiny sampler, basically I’ve got miniaturize versions of what I have in the studio back home, like a tiny sampler, a tiny keyboard, mini discs, which have split channels on them with different rhythms, textures and everything – and I know what speed they run at. I can MIDI all the other things so they can run at the same speed as the mini disc. So the mini disc could contain a strange abstract texture, with a drum pattern or something, and the keyboard could contain more sounds. So I can do kind of deconstructed versions of the album in a sense.
“But generally, I rarely play stuff that I’ve released, very rarely try to emulate something I’ve done in the studio. So they’re really different.’
Have you considered releasing the live material?
‘I don’t know. I’m just redesigning a new website, and the friends of mine that I’m working with just made the new Kraftwerk site, which is very analog-looking. On that, what I’m going to be doing is putting a RealAudio stream on there of lots of back catalog and live concerts and that type of thing – because lots of things you can’t buy anymore, or concerts which you’d never be able to hear, or commissions.
“I work an awful lot on commission now, projects in different countries and mainland Europe, different cities. It would just be great for people to be able to hear this stuff, I think. It’s quite handy, because it’s an opportunity to reinvestigate what somebody’s done, maybe follow the history and see how these processes work live.’
What made you start up your own label?
‘It’s a simple thing – lots of people set up their own labels. I wanted to do it quite professionally. It took over 18 months to get it sorted out. I didn’t want to just release a record, then look for distribution.
“Working with Beggar’s Banquet here in the States is really good because at least it means there’s a full support network with distribution and everything, moral support and press support – which is really what you need when you work with any label.
“The biggest problem ever, whether you write, do music, art, photography… it’s about distribution of materials.
There’s nothing worse than working on projects and then you just can’t get a hold of them. So for me, I grew tired after years of people saying, ‘Wow, I’m interested in your work. Have you released any records?’ And I think, ‘Oh my god, there’s about eight albums if you’re willing to dig through the racks.’ And that doesn’t seem fair. “It’s fine if you live in a city like New York or London. We’re pretty spoiled with the accessibility. If you live anywhere else, it’s very difficult – that’s partly the point. “Also, the point of it is I hear an awful lot of music I think should be heard by more people. Demos I get sent, or collaborations. With the label, we issue three to four artist-led records a year, and then a series of EPs, which are very strange – everything from DJs working with classical music to classical musicians and singers working with pop bands or rock bands. Whatever. Completely free range . It’s not going to be electronic pollution from fringes and things like that, radiators humming, but a whole host of different records.
“The first record was called ‘Future Pilot AKA,’ which was an artist who used to be in the Soup Dragons. It’s him collaborating with Alan Vega from Suicide, Conershop, Andy Weatherall the DJ, a whole bunch of people. It’s a completely shape-shifting record. We wanted that to be the first release because the label isn’t about a theme. It’s about just trying to move forward somewhere, or sideways, or whatever.’
Have you considered doing on-line music distribution?
‘Not yet. Obviously it will be one consideration with the label. I think it’s really important. I’ve got friends I correspond with in places like Australia and South Africa, and it’s just so difficult for them to actually get a hold of the material. It could be a good opportunity, and to be able to do mail order as well.
“I want to set lots of what I might call just a vinyl-edition projects. I’m doing a project called Auto Pilota. It’s a series of EPs with different artists. They’re just going to be pressed on 7-inch singles, and like every three months one will come out. Just a modest little series, going out to the people who might be interested in it.’
Does the business side of you running a label ever get in the way of actually making your own music?
‘Yeah, it does understandably take an element away, but I’m working with a team. It’s not just me, which is the important thing. There’s a really good support team here [in America], and back in London I share an office with a woman. We work together on the label. It’s OK. “I do spend a lot of my life, though, doing paperwork. But a lot of that is with the commission work I do: I have to fill out application forms, write out ideas, go to meetings. Half my life seems to be spent going to meetings. But it’s part of the work you take on. It’s a responsibility of the profession.’
How does your commission work usually come about?
‘Generally, most of them come to me. I’m a magnet for the weirdest projects ever. They generally come to me: 90 percent of them do, and the other 10 percent are things I’m interested in and I approach people sayin, ‘Well how do you think this might work?’
“Usually it has sort of a domino effect: You line them all up, and one knocks into the next one and acts as a catalyst for the next. “I was a professor at Liverpool University last year. I was a visiting professor, and having done that, someone heard me at the university give a talk and asked me to do a project. So I did this project called ‘Surface Noise,’ where I recorded the sounds of Liverpool and made them into this project and then did it in London. And that moved forward to something else and so one. “I just won this award called the Imaginarium 1999 Award, which is a big digital art prize in England, which means not only do I get some money to make a project, but I have an exhibition in the ICA in October. That’s really exciting – perhaps something else will come out of that.
“But I’m not a pushy kind of person. I have enough to work on, and I’m interested in working on projects to their full extent. I do my best to support anyone who comes to me, like if a student comes to me and says, ‘Can you make music for my film?’ If I can do it, I’ll do it. It’s not about money.’
How do you decide what projects you want to take on?
‘A lot of the work that I’m interested in is connected with the public at large. They’re not projects that go out to a specialized audience. I run a lot of workshops and do lectures at least once a month, trying to act again as some sort of catalyst. Try to kick-start them into something or talk about ideas. “At the moment I’ve been working with an Asian theater company, doing the soundtrack to this play. One of the actresses in the company approached me separately and said, ‘I’m a dancer> I want to do this choreographic piece.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, sure. Let’s try to do something.’ It’s a minimal budget, but it’s important to do it.
“At the end of the day, I’m not working in the commercial music field, and I don’t need to consider those aspects. Yes, of course I’ve got to make a living, but I think it’s important that you inside are happy with what you do. These projects satisfy me, and I like it because it’s not about disguising what you do within a kind of post-modern text or anything. They’re about accessibility. A record is one thing, but lots of the projects I do are about working with the public.
“The big project I’m doing for the science museum in London, a big sound project, is about the general public to me. Two million people pass through there a year. You know it’s kids, grannies, mothers. That’s very important to me, opening the doors.’
Are you aware of anyone who’s been inspired by you and taken elements of your work into new directions?
‘It must happen. I couldn’t actually name names. If I could I wouldn’t name names anyway. I’m sure that’s happened. “When I’ve worked with music people, what they’ve done eventually is just start to strip things away. I’m a complete mimnalist with sound; I’m always removing things. When I’ve worked with people I know I’ve had that influence. “Just because you’ve got a 24-track studio does not mean necessarily that you should have 24 tracks playing. You could just have two, and it could work perfectly well.
“In Europe, there’s a whole stream of electronic music coming out that’s completely stripped down.’
You’re famous for using sounds picked up on a radio scanner. At what point in the creative process are those integrated into tour music?
‘To be honest, it’s about 75-percent improvised. What the scanner does, like any sort of radio device, is pull down these kind of indiscriminate signals. It basically gives you access to a palette of sounds that you or I would not otherwise have access to.
“As we talk to each other now, we’re surrounded by radio waves. I’m quite romantic in my way, and I love this idea of being able to access those sounds, draw them into a point in time via a live concert or studio and throw them onto the record.
“When I’m making a record, I always leave the scanner online and I always use a microphone live and leave it outside the window. They run constantly, and sometimes I mix them in, sometimes I don’t. They’re always there, and often you hear tiny parts when it breaks. “On the second track on the CD, you have this long string piece about seven minutes long, but it begins with all these strange noises. But they are, in fact, all just voices, all just scanned voices that have been completely processed. That again is taking the voices and taking it a stage further, trying to do something with them, trying to use the voices themselves as a form of sound language.’
How long have you been doing music?
‘Since about the age of 13 or 14. I started messing around with tape recorders.’
Do you have any formal training?
‘I was forced to play the piano when I was 10 and 11 by my mother – you’re too young to make those kind of decisions by yourself. I was put into different competitions, and I remember winning a bar of chocolate in one of them because I was really bad.
“But I convinced myself psychologically that I was the winner, but I really don’t think I was. I remember crying afterwards. But I got a bar of chocolate. What the hell? What else could a 10-year-old boy expect? A record contact? But that’s the only training I had.
“Now, I don’t really mind, I work to the best of my abilities, and I try the best on my records. I cannot make great statements about them. They’re really representative of what Mr. Scanner does at the moment. And if people don’t like them, that’s fine, really. It’s not the end of the world, but I certainly try my best on them.’See all interviews →