Michael Valentine West Interview

(Birmingham, UK) Seagulls circling, with their plaintive cry in the air - even though Birmingham is miles and miles from the ocean - the canals are hidden now; fish n chip shops and a nineteenth century, red-brick hotel surrounded by destroyed buildings .. I've just returned to Paris after a month in the UK, the final days were spent in Birmingham. Here's an interview with Michael Valentine West - the electro-maniac/fractured jazz 'decomposer' (even though he fought against me labelling his music jazz) ..

Michael Valentine West is an eclectic artist who is deeply inspired by hip-hop in a way that is really fresh and unexpected. See, for example, this phenomenal tune 'Fake Gucci Watch' from his record No Head in the Helmet (Daddy Tank Records, 2012), released under his Suck Susan moniker - with its submerged beat and distorted hip-hop sensibility (totally punk-rock/gorgeous). 

Madeleine Byrne: I really, really liked your album - Code 17 Abstraction (Ana Ott, 2014) - especially ‘Kim M’ .. If you were to describe this record, what kinds of words would you use?

Michael Valentine West: Well, first, I would say, it’s not a jazz record - it’s definitely not a jazz record - there are elements that are informed by jazz, elements informed by glitch music, feedback - sonic feedback ...

MB: It’s not a jazz record, you say .. why? cause when I heard it, I thought it was definitely coming out of a jazz tradition.

MVW: It is and it isn’t - jazz can be a broad church, or it can be restrictive. One of the most famous supposed jazz musicians, always said that he hated the term 'jazz’ because it was too restrictive for what he was doing.

MB: Who was that?

MVW: It was Miles Davis, of course. I guess from late 60s to the early 70s when Miles Davis started adopting more electric instruments, everyone in the jazz community of the time saw it as heresy. I have studied jazz, know how to work out chord changes, but the idea was to create something that took all these elements and then became something else.

MB: When you’re thinking about these elements, they are informed by jazz but they aren’t jazz elements, is that it? Can you explain that for me? Is it in terms of timing, or the repetition of sounds, or ..

MVW: You just mentioned timing, one of the things that was really deliberate was making the music for the most part non-rigid. When I started recording all of it the idea was not to solely put the music on a time-line, so it felt more organic.

Basically with that particular track (‘Kim M’) I turned the click off, so what I was doing there was, rather than putting the time-line on a sequencer, I turned it off and then felt where it was. Instead of going 'one, two, three, four’ I then asked myself, 'where could the beat fall?’ It’s about trusting my instincts, rather than what the time-line was telling me.

MB: When you’re saying the click track, this is like a metronome?

MVW: Yeah, the click track is generally 4/4 - but the idea of quantising, or working with your sequencer of choice, when you play a part, or put bits in, you press quantise and it puts it all into perfect timing. What I decided with this record was that I didn’t want that at all, so that means that some of the music is quantised, a bit of it is dead-on, but for a fair amount of it it I was trying to make it feel of something more organic, something more like a band.

For example, a track like 'Springtime’ just up to the bit where it sounds like musique concrète - electronic breakdown and then it explodes into a kind of drum solo. Again the idea for the drum solo was not a real drummer it was programmed/samples and my thinking was I am cutting it up in a way that sounds like some kind of improvisation, rather than something that is rigidly stuck to a time-line.

What’s really interesting about other forms of music, for instance jazz is that it uses more complicated timings. I wanted to have those elements where you switch from 5/4, or 7/8 or something - just to break it all up and make it more interesting for people to listen to.

(With more traditional forms of music) it’s not like you’re wondering, 'where’s the drop?’ because the drop always comes on the 1 - we all know that and it’s no longer exciting, that’s what people expect. I guess there’s part of me that enjoys confounding people’s expectations in my music.

MB: This is why I referred to you as a fractured jazz 'decomposer’ because it’s the idea that you have those elements, but you’re saying is that there won’t be a sense of continuity or a sense of build-up, or momentum like you might find in a traditional jazz track, or release ...

MVW: That’s an interesting point, but you know, there actually is - in ‘Kim M’ (a build-up), for instance, after the clarinet solo in the longer version it just builds and builds and builds with the guitar and it also employs a weird trick where you’re using a non-traditional scale.

I was using micro-tuning so as the guitar layers build up and up and the rhythm builds up also, but it’s actually becoming denser to listen to and it’s almost uncomfortable and then there’s a breakdown: in the end it pays off.

I’m employing musical techniques, but they’re not the usual elements that people would use .. so there is a kind of essence of space-build-up and release, but it’s not in the traditional sense when people can say, 'ah here’s a solo ...’

The whole fractured thing is the idea of doing it in a way that reflected trace memory. It’s obviously informed by stuff I’ve listened to, but I deliberately didn’t go back to anything similar to reference (before recording the album) ..

MB: Let’s talk about the traditional elements of jazz, where you have a build-up and a fall and a feeling of release, which provides a kind of pleasure for the listener, because they know what’s going to come and everyone claps, not always but it’s often the case in more traditional forms of jazz, is what you’re doing is that you are using those elements, but you’re shrinking them, so it’s very short, rather than having a leisurely build-up, like an extended bass solo, or something like this - it’s only 30 seconds, rather than 3 minutes?

MVW: I’m using a lot of elements, short elements .. it’s incredibly layered (...)

MB: Let’s focus in then and talk about the technique, it’s not a secret is it?

MVW: Yeah, no (laughs)

MB: I mean, is it about shrinking the intervals between elements; when you’re talking about layering, is it about how many samples you are using? Have you got dozens of samples, or just two or three repeated?

MVW: Dozens, dozens, dozens ..

MB: Well, that’s interesting to know about, for example ‘Slow Math’ - can we talk about that track? And again, talk to me about what kind of process - again if it’s not too secret - what kind of process you went through to make that track ...

MVW: OK, let me see.

MB: And the technology etc you were using ...

MVW: I was using Max MSP. I use a lot of elements in Max, I can record lots of elements - play and use patches so I can make new sound for music ...

MB: Where are you getting the sounds from?

MVW: Some of them I played, some of them are taken - for instance, a piano sample and put it through something called granular synthesis.

What granular synthesis does is it breaks a sound down into tiny micro grains and allows you to play that, it’s also a way to use Max extensions where you can take, for instance, a short choir sample - a vocal sample - and put it into a Max patch, play around with the parameters (...) say the sample is ten seconds long, you can record it for something that might last half an hour if you want to.

MB: So you turn it into a loop?

MVW: Not so much a loop, you turn it into a longer piece of audio and then you chop it up into smaller pieces, or use one chunk of it - you know there are various processes. Sometimes you just get royalty free samples, drum beats or a drum loop; tear it apart into individual pieces and then plot them on a time-line.

With 'Slow Math’ again my favourite part of that is a repeated trumpet refrain, which, if you listen to it you can hear that it changes time - it’s not actually on the beat every time; every time it comes around, it moves, it’s not the same time, but it gives the impression when listening to it that you are listening to the same theme.

MB: How does it change, what’s going on there?

MVW: The time changes ... If you put it on a time-line the trumpet is (sings the refrain) I kind of enjoy that because people are so used to listening to (clicks a beat) music which falls on the beat all the time. I like playing with things in an interesting way.

I mean this is something I’ve been learning from and really enjoy listening to someone like Atom TM. What he does sometimes is an incredibly complicated splurge of rhythm and then where the kickdrum would fall, he deliberately doesn’t put it on the 1 - there would be no quantise and he deliberately chooses not to put it there. Those things make me really excited in a kind of childish way (laughs).

MB: Can you think of a title of one of his tracks for me to listen to?

MVW: Yeah, there are dozens; if you can track it down, he did a remix of a Japanese artist called Bonnie Pink- she’s like a pop singer/songwriter and I think the original song is like a guitary pop ballad called 'A Little Communication', in tempo and he did this amazing thing, when I heard it, I thought this is what 21st century pop should sound like.

He plays around with the kickdrum and after the first chorus it just disappears into this whole 'I’m just doing my thing’ and then he goes back into the song, it’s a good minute and a half where he goes somewhere else with it and it’s that moment before you lose interest, before you give up on it, he brings it back.

MB: Have you listened to much ‘modern music’ I mean polyrhythmic music ... Or a composer like Stockhausen?

MVW: Oh yes, of course. A few years ago at the MAC in Birmingham they had a whole festival of Stockhausen and that shaped me because it’s the whole idea of working with sound; the whole idea of rather than sitting back and playing an instrument - guitar, keyboards, or bass ...- instead you start taking the idea of using sound or audio as music, that’s also something of interest because the idea of deconstructing what is a song.

I grew up with the idea that a song is lyric and melody, with an arrangement and then you go, 'what happens if I take away the bass-line?’ OK, you’ve got drums, keyboards, guitar .. and then you think, 'let’s take out the guitar and the keyboards’ so you’re left with drums and then you think, let’s take out the drums and replace them with ... (something else).

MB: What about Cage and people like that? How would you connect with John Cage?

MVW: I like the idea of piano and space, playing with frequencies, timing, space. You learn these things not necessarily intellectually, you get a feeling of it over time.

MB: What about the chance element? When you were saying before that you almost go with the feel an using words like organic, so it’s not about a set format for music and of course Cage was interested in chance, random elements coming in and noise .... and asking questions about ‘what is music?’

MVW: This is it. I work on my own and sometimes you can feel you are micromanaging your shit too much, so I then think, let’s pull up a program, there is a whole body of work that I’ve done using online flash toys, which is a just a website with flash based sound toys you can download, play with and record audio from that and then you’ve got two choices you can either stay with exactly what you’ve got or you can play with it further and sometimes you take three seconds from a five minute piece and you think to yourself that can be the basis of something.

You don’t need to intellectualise why, it’s just at that given moment, it resonates with you.

MB: Just to finish on the album, let’s talk about 'Schmidt x’ can you let me know what was going on there?

MVW: It’s a big rush, it’s like imagine ... there was a fantastic album that was released many years ago and it was full of one hundred short tracks and the idea was to play them at random, I like the idea of where the intro starts it sounds like someone skipping on a CD player, that was deliberate, but again if you listen to it that sound is the rhythm.

Then there’s playback, electric piano (on that track as well). I think I must have played the piano and then I chopped it up into small pieces and then again it’s a kind of take on a live jazz jam, but you’re jamming with yourself almost. That has to be the feel, I wanted it to sound like some crazy shit from Mars, or something.

It was an amalgamation of a mix of stuff I’d started recording four or five years ago and it was just in a folder that when time came, I took ideas from there - cut and paste almost, but paying attention to the way the rhythm feels rather than being on a timeline.

The idea was something coming together slowly and then at some point it’s right there - it starts really loose, almost goes into a traditional format and then towards the end it falls apart. That’s the idea: disintegration; integration/disintegration.

MB: Just before we move on from the record, the tech ...

MVW: I used a hell of a lot of Max Msp, I’m a big fan of reaktor-donated instruments for music because you can build your own modules, now I’m kind of quite lazy in one respect because I tend not to build my own modules, but there are tons of them where you sit down and edit from prebuilt modules and sit down record, jam for hours on end.

What I tend to do is play in Reaktor - play with an instrument for an hour, record it, do that over and over again, save it in a folder. Get up the next morning and then go, okay what’s good, what’s bad, delete everything you think isn’t any good, then with what’s good you put it in the Max Msp, there’s also ...

MB: So it’s all sampled, then the whole record? But didn’t you say the other day, you were using some instruments too?

MVW: Yeah, it’s almost like self-sampling, you create the parts ...

MB: In terms of the process generally you create the sounds/music yourself and then you’re sampling what you’ve created ....

MVW: Yes, but I won’t say every single element - sometimes you’re pulling samples from anywhere, then you abuse those samples as well (laughs). It’s a complete mixture of things and because it’s all computer-based mostly, as in playing instruments - I mean, it’s not a real electric piano, it’s much easier to use a plug-in, which is a virtual instrument so you record yourself playing electric piano and you either keep it as it is, or think, can I do something else with it? It’s all about how it sounds in the big picture.

Or perhaps you take a patch in Max, maybe you use the same piano sound you just edited, through it into Max and see what it does, use it as a pad beneath it - so you’re kind of working in a way that’s almost like a collage - audio/sonic collages, but this is about the whole idea of space, because it’s not just about the sound, it’s about the way the sound travels through the

I was very conscious of the idea of trying to make something that moved around as you listened to it, so it would be a good listen on a good pair of speakers and a very interesting listen on headphones. It was about using space that goes from behind of you, beside you.

MB: You’ve referred to some of your music as being a kind of hip-hop; thinking in the big picture, how is your way of working different to a 'standard' hip-hop producer? In terms of technology, for example ...

MVW: In terms of technology, there is no difference. It’s the same technology, it’s just how you choose to use it.

I don’t tend to sample very famous beats, ever. I don’t tend to sample famous records - not that I have anything against anyone who does, as I enjoy it myself sometimes, the more obscure the better. I’d never describe what I do as 'making beats’ I like the idea of playing with the idea.

Sometimes also it’s a different way of looking at source material. My source material is not like a lot of hip-hop perhaps as it’s not traditionally sourced from 70s funk, or jazz, or disco material ... (...)

I’m interested in the idea of synthesis, again the idea of sound as being music, rather than here’s a piece of music I’ve sampled - you find the sound, you put it through a frequency shifter, for instance, kind of rip out any kind of original sound - say for instance a drum beat and put it through a frequency shifter and it’s no longer a drum beat, now it’s a slew of high frequency noises.

When you do that you think it could work on its own, or you take a drum beat ... you take something out of genre, for example an electro beat, you take that and chop it up as well.

MB: What about layering as well, multiple samples being layered ...

MVW: For me it’s not about multiple layers of samples, but multiple layers of audio that may be a pad sound, which is not created out of a keyboard, but has been created out of nothing -  the feedback of something and then put into Max ...

MB: So just noise as a sound?

MVW: Yeah, I love noise - noise is a wonderful thing when used correctly; it’s the idea of how far can you get when take just found sounds, or created sounds and then turning it into music. (...) You’re throwing yourself into something that you’re not familiar with and you trust your instincts to create something that feels good.

MB: Now talk to me about glitch, how that connects with your work? Or micro-editing, I like this idea of these tiny, tiny cuts ... Is this just on this record, or more generally in your work?

MVW: There’s a fair bit of it in my work. It’s become easier over the years because there are more effects that do it for you, back in the day there were people doing it by hand, so you’d slice smaller and smaller pieces of audio and doing it by hand. Now you can just get a plug-in to do it, but I enjoy the idea of destroying straightforward rhythmical structure. Again, it’s something that can be taken too far perhaps. It’s too easy sometimes to throw a whole bunch of effects on something and say, there you go.

MB: You call some part of your work, hip-hop, right? Like your work under the name Suck Susan is hip-hop, how is it hip-hop?

MVW: (pauses) Because it was born out of my love for hip-hop, I remember the stuff that I first really got attached to, which was this incredibly basic, minimalist stuff - a guy with a drum machine, two decks and a couple of effects.

That was just amazing, people like DJ Red Alert for instance - New York shows on the radio, just amazing, I’m just talking, raw, raw ... no effects to kind of paraphrase De La Soul, one of my favourite records by them, 'Stakes is high’ - my favourite line is 'RnB bitches over bullshit tracks’ and it’s just like, yeah none of that, just make it completely raw. It’s just the idea of really making it basic, but looking forward.

I started listening to DJ Red Alert in the 90s and at that time in England I was hugely into the early Mo'wax output - that stuff was just amazing; they had such a great run for about five years, releasing the most amazing records. They were really cool because the idea of tempo, again, because hip-hop was then, as it used to be was a kind of set tempo - nothing slower than maybe about 100 and then you’ve got something like Mo'wax going down to 70. This was the first music that I had heard that was thinking about movements - the track didn’t have to be the same thing all along, it would go off somewhere - have something different in the middle and then end differently: Howie B, Major Force in Japan and then DJ Krush.

I just loved the way it stripped away everything, it’s got the purity - the bare essence and so in some ways the memory of this music was informing what I was trying to do with the first Suck Susan album.

MB: Okay, so it’s born out of your love for hip-hop, incredibly basic, minimalist ... But obviously the sound quality is different because that’s a different era and now you’ve got different technology ....

MVW: Back then you’re looking at maybe 12-bit samplers and now my favourite hardware sampler is AKAI S950, there’s just something about it - it’s got a whopping huge 2.5 meg, it’s fully expanded ... It’s mono and there’s a magic about it. I also have an AKAI S1000, it’s got 16 megabytes memory, it’s stereo - the newer model but when I bought it it was no way
as much fun as the 950. It’s like mining for gold using old technology.

I have a friend who would use an AKAI S700, now you used floppies, with the 950 to save memory you can sample internally to give you half the bandwidth. If you kept on going it would turn into ghost music, but with the S950 there’d be a flash on the screen saying, enough already. With the S700, you could keep reducing the bandwidth forever until the sound disappeared and then you kept on going and it started to produce these incredibly strange harmonics ....

MB: And that’s what you wanted ...

MVW: It’s fantastic. My friend actually produced a whole album called ‘Nothing’ because all they did was sample silence and process silence.

MB: That sounds really interesting. Just to finish up with this hip-hop connection, it’s inspired by the simplicity of hip-hop, the sounds of the artists you liked in the early 90s. What about the delivery, the sound of your voice, the way that you do it ..

MVW: There are no vocals, or if there is it’s just sampled. The idea behind it is that it is in the true tradition of instrumental hip-hop because .. - whether or not you want to get into a discussion about rap vs hip-hop - well, for me there is a distinction, you’ve got rap, you’ve got hip-hop and you’ve got turntablism. And the idea was to combine hip-hop and a bit of turntablism, but looking forward.

Without trying to lay a huge concept on it, it’s like what would it sound like if it took a different turn, let’s say that didn’t happen and that didn’t happen at some point and this did - just so you experiment with it, so you’re playing with basic beats and then you’re layering them as a track in 'Fantastic Damage' for instance, which is just a huge piece of distortion.

My idea was that I can imagine some kid driving along in a car playing this, in the future, listening to this beat and this noise; it’s like stacked noise that’s been re-sampled to an inch of its life (...) with this music, it’s the idea of creating and sculpting a world.