Squarepusher Interview – Brutal Sound
After bringing to a close his self-confessed ‘guitar-overload’ period, Tom Jenkinson (aka Squarepusher) goes back to basics with Damogen Furies, an album that signifies a return to his love of pure electronics and brutal sound manipulation Interviewing Tom Jenkinson is a special treat for any interviewer – clichés go out the window, response mechanisms become […]
After bringing to a close his self-confessed ‘guitar-overload’ period, Tom Jenkinson (aka Squarepusher) goes back to basics with Damogen Furies, an album that signifies a return to his love of pure electronics and brutal sound manipulation
Interviewing Tom Jenkinson is a special treat for any interviewer – clichés go out the window, response mechanisms become unfiltered, and as long as you have an inquiring mind, intellectualising about music is encouraged.
Stark honesty is the order of the day, and Jenkinson is not one to let you down. He’s a man who cares deeply about the music he makes and the process behind it, less so regarding the desire to infiltrate the personality behind the performer. For many artists of his ilk, interviews are an infrequent chore, and he initially greets with a look of suspicion.
But ultimately, Jenkinson is surprisingly easy to talk to, generous with his time and provides a fascinating, cerebral glimpse into the obsessive mind that resides behind 20 years of outlandishly inventive electronic music.
MusicTech: I read an interview in which you stated that you wanted to find out whether beats or bass lines could be catchy; did you ever find an answer?
Tom Jenkinson: I think what I was alluding to was: can you make music that is devoid of hooks, big melodies or ear worm? Can you make music without all those elements that’s appealing, memorable and compelling, and can you get those low-frequency background elements to grab people in the same way that a conventional melody line could do?
The answer is that you could make them, but in 50 years’ time I still might not really know because the history of music is the only thing that’s going to give us the answer. The experiment is an ongoing thing; provisionally I’d like to say ‘yeah, I think you can’.
MT: Your track My Red Hot Car seems to support the theory. I remember replaying those beats in my mind as I would a pop song…
TJ: Well if it works for you then it’s already shown that it can work. One thing I wouldn’t expect is for it to work universally of course, but if it can genuinely be said to have had that effect on a handful on people then that suggests it can work. I guess it gets a bit more blurry with the bass line because it’s using exactly the same materials that a melody does but it’s differentiated by the register.
The way I approach music, I tend to want to hear activity in the low registers – in the high end I tend to prefer stasis and continuum and feel less comfortable with busy activity in the treble register. I’ve always been intrigued by what happens behind the scenes and, traditionally, bass and drums. With popular music and beyond, those elements have been used as the foundation for the forefront elements like vocal lines and guitars. I think it comes with understanding how music’s made.
Tom didn’t supply a kit list but these shots of his studio reveal a few choice items, including his mixer plus an array of outboard…
MT: When did that all begin to unravel for you?
TJ: It’s intriguing because I remember my early forays into trying to understand how music was made and I didn’t have access or know anyone that understood these things either, so a lot of work was being done using my imagination. I really wanted to know about the cog wheels behind this thing that affected me and how they were working.
Music was steering me towards the obvious elements; it’s partly sold on the basis of the vocalist and their personality and image, so you’re always pointed at them, yet there are all these other elements that are potentially as significant, if not more. For me, it’s certainly to do with a sense of inquisitiveness about the workings of things; the bass and drums are the workings of a pop song, take them away and all the obvious bits are still there, but the music no longer has any life.
MT: The bass players that influenced you include Mick Karn and Pino Palladino, who both played very melodic chord structures…
TJ: I really loved [Karn’s] Japan actually; it was some of the first music I heard. Admittedly not all of it, but there were certain songs of theirs that I found very haunting, that almost scared me. As a six or seven-year-old, the music was scary but really compelling.
The Mick Karn element was quite important in the construction of that strange, sort of mysterious atmosphere. The fact that it was in the low registers but almost taking a lead line, again, that sort of topsy-turvy element has always been interesting to me.
These insider shots might not reveal everything in the sharpest detail, but that is very ‘Squarepusher’ if you think about it. What can you spot?
MT: You were originally a bass player, so what triggered off this journey into electronic music?
TJ: My early thinking about music wasn’t split up into acoustic and electronic. All those categories retroactively superimposed on my musical world, but when I was first recording things off the radio, records from jumble sales, or however I was accessing music, it didn’t come to me in a divided-up way. I had no access to music media, so I was approaching it in its totality; electronic music was as much a part of music as everything else.
To me, the things you use to make music are all fascinating. In the same way I didn’t define music into categories or styles, according to how it was made, I didn’t divide-up instruments – any instrument is interesting to me.
It wasn’t like there was software available to immediately access sound-making things. What’s going to be accessible when you’ve got not money? I used to make instruments, like basic drums. I remember putting a load of drawing pins in a biscuit tin and made a skin out of masking tape; it was like a snare drum.
MT: I had a ZX Spectrum and would write code to play little melodies. Did you do the same?
TJ: Precisely the same. Latterly on the Commodore 64, but earlier the first thing I had was a Vic 20, which was similar – a 6502 chip and loads less RAM, but it had a really cool sound.
The Vic chip had three square waves and the semblance of a white noise generator. It was basically a sample of white noise that you could pitch up and down – high pitches were cymbals, mid pitches for snares and low pitches for bass drums. So I’d make sequences by pitching it up and down to make a semblance of a drum pattern, again, all based on my idea of what a drum kit was like. I’ve got those recordings, one day I’ll release them, but I think the majority of the public would think, like, ‘why?’
MT: Some artists say music does not come from them, but through them – as if they’re acting as a conduit. Can you empathise with that statement?
TJ: No, I don’t buy into the conduit thing, because the next stage of that is talking about supernatural activity and being guided by otherworldly beings, which is just bullshit and doesn’t mean anything to me.
One thing I would say is that you don’t necessarily associate the creative activity with yourself because it’s not principally deliberate – music is not entirely the result of a rational decision-making process. This is one of the problems of having to talking about music. If you don’t have to talk about how it’s made the problem doesn’t arise, but because people ask how you did it, you reflect back.
A lot of the time you don’t quite know how, but sometimes it’s a wholly formed idea before you even go in the studio. There are different corners to the compositional process. For me, I’ll regularly have an idea before I even start, and it’s a question of almost translating it rather than coming up with it as I go along.
MT: If you can’t put your finger on the origins of the creative process, could you explain it as a backdrop of stored emotions?
TJ: That introduces the problem, and assumption, that what a listener felt when they listened to a piece of music is the same as the person who wrote it felt. I think the listener will tend to make the assumption that what they’re feeling is not only what the composer was feeling, but what they intended the listener to feel. I really don’t think the world’s that simple.
For example, if you reflect on your own experience, I’m sure you’ll find that one record on a given day sounds flat, yet there’ll be a different moment – when you think differently about the world – and suddenly it makes perfect sense and talks to you. It’s such a hall of mirrors that drawing anything resembling a straight line from a composer’s intentions to a listener’s experience is a hiding to nowhere. One thing I would say is that if you’re happy or sad, it tends to affect how quickly you work.
If I’m annoyed or not feeling so good about things I just blunder along, yet I’ve wrote some brutal, aggressive music when I’ve felt on top of the world. It’s not like I’m sitting there punching things in the studio and generating this aggressive, nightmarish soundscape. If you think about it on a world stage, some of the most happy and colourful, vibrant music comes from people who live in diabolical situations.
MT: I asked as there’s a track on Damogen Furies, Baltang Arg, where you brutally repeat the same note, which sounded to me like a writer trying to get something out of his system?
TJ: This is the beauty of it, that you can have that response – and who am I to tell you that you’re wrong. But I think it’s best looked at as fun, and you can imagine whatever you want.
Really, I’m just a cardboard cut-out image of the artist – a vessel of ideas that you fill up. I’m not being funny, but the person of me is probably not someone you’ll ever meet, and certainly never through my records. My records are a fantasy, I like making things up – I like imagining stuff, it’s got fuck all to do with my life in the sense of what I think about.
MT: So when you make music, the wants and needs of your listener do not enter your consciousness?
TJ: I suppose there are different listeners that we could talk about. In the case of being in the studio writing, the listener is me, and I think we should differentiate between the listener in that sense and the broader audience.
I see it as trying to do justice to those people and to not assume what they want to hear, because I think that’s patronising – treating them like sheep, as if they don’t have their own intelligence. I like to put things forward and let them make of it what they will; I don’t want to gear it to them or second guess their preferences and build it into the music.
Maybe some people can do that, but even if I could I wouldn’t because, for me, the best you’ve done is fulfilled some expectations, but you’re almost certainly shutting down the routes to new experience and new musical events. The Holy Grail is basically doing what you want and people liking it, and I’ll always do that – it doesn’t always work, but if it does everyone wins.
This was apparent to me long before I started having a career as a musician, but you can look at many examples of popular music where the image they created through their first few records also created a sense of notoriety and became a prison through which either the record label wouldn’t let them escape, or their own egotism, selfishness or desire to sustain the lifestyle it gave them, couldn’t break out of.
MT: Which is the case for the majority of artists…
TJ: Well that’s it, it’s endemic. I guess everyone will deal with it in their own way, but I’ve seen at close hand people who gradually run out of steam because they feel they’re not allowed to do things that are not encapsulated in that brand they’ve generated.
For me, you have to change and go with it, otherwise you’re going to rot away inside that concrete prison. But you’re fighting against the tendency of the industry, because the industry is only interested in short-term revenue – the big 1D, sum it up in three fucking sentences, stick-it-on-the-supermarket-shelf approach. What you gonna do? Everyone makes their own choice.
MT: Your music was heading in a more commercial direction – albeit not by most people’s standards – but Damogen seems to take a step back and focus very much on sound manipulation.
TJ: The quote you referred to earlier, where I was trying to figure out if I could make music where the bassline and the drums were the hooks; that relates back to what I was trying from about 1998 to 2005. After that I felt a pull towards songwriting, again not by most people’s standards, but with reference to what I’d done. I wouldn’t put it as ‘commercial’ and that’s not just being a snob.
I know what you’re saying, but as much as I’m fascinated by DSP and ripping sounds apart, smashing them together and seeing what happens – almost being as destructive as creative – I love a good tune; can’t deny it.
MT: Do you encourage that or shy away from it?
TJ: I will sometimes try and subvert that and push it away, and sometimes it comes to the fore, and if it comes to the fore I’m not so contrary that I’ll refuse to do it. If I think of a tune and it feels compelling I’ll write it, it’s not a big deal. I will employ concepts in my music and get fair use out of them, but I’m not going to be governed by them.
Again, it’s another form of self-imprisonment saying ‘I’m not allowed to do this’, and while I’ll do that to a point to explore ideas and things that are less obvious, at some point you think, ‘Man I’ve just thought of a killer melody’.
That came to the fore a few years ago, but that’s gone away now and I’ve been more and more wanting to start ripping things apart and shredding fucking sounds. To explain it you’d have to write the book of my life, and eventually who fucking cares? The music’s sitting there, that’s the important thing.
MT: How much of your music do you allow the machines to take over, as opposed to you being in full control?
TJ: My basic premise is… if I’ve got a tool I’ll try and understand it as deeply as a I can, but that doesn’t mean I’ll always use it with respect or in a sophisticated way.
For me, that doesn’t mean you become a prog wanker, you can be as punk as anyone, but you understand what the sonic manifestations can be. I’m not really a manual guy, I like to get stuck in and if something’s not apparent then I’ll refer to the manual, but part of the enjoyment of it is exploration and the manual gives the game away, if you like.
I have to say, I do think that we’re seeing a lot of music that is preset-driven. I guess sometimes the instrument has an architecture that will steer you around; it will present possibilities that are easier to do than others, but a lot of musicians seem to be demonstrators, because they’ve basically followed the path of least resistance with an instrument and are therefore exposing its principle characteristics.
That’s not something I’m keen to do, not out of egotism because promoting the instrument is of no interest to me, so I’m always trying to steal control back from it really. With some of the instruments I’ve used, people would be surprised about some of the results I’ve got out of them because they’re not designed to do certain things and yet, if you put your mind to it and really get to grips with how it’s built and not the manufacturer’s intentions, any machine will do a number of things above and beyond what the manufacturer intended. It’s just looking at it with an open mind, then those things become apparent.
MT: Do you still work from home and are you forever expanding your studio?
TJ: I hate the whole collection of gear thing. To me it’s another hiding to nowhere, thinking ‘if I get the CS80 I can really make beautiful music, but until then I’m not going to do anything’. I’ll just make music with anything, a mentality that was borne out of me having no access to musical instruments yet a burning desire to make music.
That still prevails to this day, so I don’t care, I’ll just use whatever’s there. On the last record I was using gear that I used on Go Plastic; the Yamaha FS1R and TX81, those synths formed the backbone of the last record.
MT: Do you mainly use hardware for sound generation and software for sequencing?
TJ: The single thing I tend to use for hardware is the Yahama QY700 sequencer, that’s the centre of my sync set up, and I’ll augment it with the computer if I need to. On this record, the only hardware element is the sequencer, everything else is done in software that I’ve worked on myself – it’s all self-developed. I’ve been working on that on and off for the last 15 years.
The first manifestations of it were on Do You Know Squarepusher in 2002, but this is the first record I’ve made entirely from patches that I’ve made up myself?
MT: Is that because software is not doing want you want it to do, or that you want a distinct sound?
TJ: As I got a more developed idea of how musical instruments work, my desire of what to do with them changed. I tended to think about making the instrument rather than trying to adapt or make do with something else.
The software I created is not always related to really flash audio stuff, a lot of it’s on the control side – being able to switch between certain kinds of parameters and modulating them without having to reload a preset, or making that real-time control as smooth as possible. All of these things drive me towards wanting to make my own stuff, and as I go on, the only instruments that I want to use are acoustic, not software or digital-based instruments.
MT: Is the software you’ve created intuitive?
TJ: Sadly not. I’m sure you have a very good understanding of these things but if I showed it to you right now, you’d be looking at it going, ‘what’s that?’. It’s not designed to be user friendly; I know what it does because I made it. It’s laid out in a way that makes sense, but everything’s abbreviated; it wouldn’t be a nice thing to use if you weren’t me. So from the sequencer onwards it’s now all my stuff, from sound generation to processing to mixing.
MT: That surprises me. I imagined you to be hands on and enjoy the physicality of working with hardware rather than click-mouse approach?
TJ: I dunno, bear in mind the musical inputs are still going through the hardware sequencer, so there is the physical aspect of that. The tweaking of sounds I am doing with a mouse, but I do sometimes set up a MIDI controller and there are moments when I want to bust out the hardware and go mad with all the faders, but a lot of the time I tend to veer towards brute data programming. Don’t get me wrong, there is a spontaneity in putting that data together, but the final form has an extremely chiselled, artificialness to it.
MT: What about mixing, do you do that in the box?
TJ: I tend to do it as I’m going along. With the writing process, I’ll just get a rough mix together and tweak it a bit for the final mix down. The mix down is almost in the track. As a really basic example, I’ll build an EQ volume control into the instrument – so I’ll just kind of set all the gains then do all the volume balancing as I’m going through, and if it needs a bit more bottom end I’ll just turn up all the bass. It’s all automated as I go along – it’s just a data thing, you just change the parameters.
MT: How much data are we talking?
TJ: It varies, you’d be quite surprised. In terms of the actual tracks, it’s less than you’d imagine. Bear in mind it wasn’t ever boiled down to stems, it was just a live take played on the sequencer and that’s it; no edits, no stems generated, no piece-by-piece construction, it’s all a live, all-in-one take.
The thing that fascinates me is more about making a small amount of instruments sound like a lot of instruments, so that sometimes what you thought was a synth is also doing the drums. I’m stretching things about so that instruments are swapping roles and augmenting each other to build sounds as if they’re made out of hundreds of different things.
MT: Do technical problems still infuriate you, like latency for example?
TJ: I don’t know if latency was ever a problem, I’ve always managed – there’s always a work around. I guess technology has got better, but I don’t look at things in terms of problems, I look at them in terms of, ‘right, how am I going to make it work?’. I don’t think sit back and think, ‘There’s a problem, fuck it’. I’ll just fix it and then it’ll be fine.
Years ago, trying to do live DSP on a guitar, you’d go through the computer and back out, so there’d be the latency of the soundcard times two, because you’re going in and back out again, plus whatever’s happening in the software – but you can just play ahead of what you hear, even if it’s not immediately natural.
MT: Does technology still excite you; are you always on the lookout for new gear?
TJ: I’m not a gear head really. I’ve spent so much time with it that, to me, it’s just about using it. I don’t necessarily see a connection between a new instrument and new sound. You look at a lot of electronic music now, yeah it’s all new software but it sounds like fucking clockwork crap.
I understand there are obviously new instruments coming out that reveal new possibilities, but I’ll still look at a four-string bass guitar and think there are infinite possibilities that I haven’t explored. I think that getting obsessed with gear is a bit dangerous. I know a lot of people that have done it and I think you can end up throwing away a lot of energy trying to find a new instrument; nine times out of ten, just use the old one.
MT: In the early 80s technology did make things sound brand new, is that possible at all now?
TJ: That’s a very interesting question, but I think the core thing that I will always come back to is the excitement of composition. However much I’m fascinated by and how much time I’ve spent experimenting with sound, timbre and sonic characteristics, it’s always secondary to the core rhythmic and harmonic activity.
Sometimes I just want to sit there and play a guitar. I’m interested and fascinated by technology and how developments bring different possibilities to bear, but I think the danger is the emperor’s new clothes thing, whereby ‘I’ve got a new instrument so I’ve done something new’ – well not necessarily.
The history of popular music is littered with examples of the flash new trend, but in 20 years’ time it’s just crap, vacuous gimmickry, but the thing that doesn’t erode is great writing. So we can make more sound frequencies available, brilliant! Sounds to me like it would just be adding loads more treble, but
I like bass