UK

Sarathy Korwar "More Arriving" (The Leaf Label) interview, published at DownBeat

A desire to reinterpret South Asian music traditions for the modern era courses through Sarathy Korwar’s music. The drummer’s Day To Day, a 2016 release on Ninja Tune, embedded recordings from the Sidi people of Ratanpur (descendants of East Africans who came to India as merchants, sailors and indentured servants beginning in the 7th century) in a soundtrack provided by London’s new jazz generation. And on last year’s My East Is Your West (Gearbox), Korwar’s UPAJ Collective sought to correct what the bandleader sees as spiritual jazz’s misappropriation of Indian classical music through live renditions of pieces by Alice Coltrane, Don Cherry and Pharaoh Sanders, among others.

“The mistake, or the problem with a lot of this kind of music is that a lot of jazz musicians back in the day—or even now, to be honest—think of the East as the repository of knowledge, where you can spend a week, learn a couple of scales, then come back and put it in your music,” Korwar said. “But these are musical traditions that take years to master and go back centuries.”

The percussionist recently spoke with DownBeat from London about More Arriving, his forthcoming album on The Leaf Label, and what pre-Brexit Britain feels like today.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Talk to me about the impetus for bringing together poets, Indian classical musicians and rappers, and London jazz players for your new album.

The album started with MCs in India and a general fascination with the growing hip-hop scene there. What engaged me was that it was starting in working-class neighborhoods. This is interesting, because the independent music scene in India has always been largely driven by upper-class forces; if you can afford a drum-kit, if you can afford rehearsal space ... .

Here, you have a bunch of kids working on beaten-up laptops, making their own sounds, rapping in their own languages, learning production and how to spit bars. The internet has completely revolutionized how much access everyone has to music. My idea was to go meet a few MCs and see if there was a possibility to collaborate with them.

The More Arriving album cover references late-’70s/early-’80s British South Asian activism. How do you locate yourself within that history and the music inspired by it?

The album is as much about being British Asian, as an Indian living in the UK, as being an Indian from India. Going back to that Asian Underground movement in the ’90s and 2000s, Asian Dub Foundation were like the brown Rage Against The Machine. Their music had a political message, tablas and Punjabi influences. The point of the album’s artwork is a message of resistance. Although it was a really bad time for South Asians in the UK then—and things are better now—there is a kind of resurgence of the far right happening. We feel like we’re in danger of going back to those times, with all the Islamophobic comments you hear in the media.

But what did exist then was this collective strength and solidarity among the South Asian community, which I don’t think exists in the UK now. Collective identity mattered. It’s recognizing that even if we all have a different identity as South Asians, as diasporic South Asians, there is strength in numbers and collective action is important, whether it’s in music or politics, for any kind of social change.

Shabaka Hutchings appeared on Day To Day, and you’ve recorded with him since. Danalogue, his bandmate in The Comet is Coming, is on More Arriving. So, can you describe your connection to London’s contemporary jazz scene?

What’s happening in London is a lot of young musicians not feeling shackled by the idea of what jazz is—or what jazz should sound like. Getting all these influences from grime, London breakbeat, jungle, drum-and-bass, Afrobeat, all these various influences that London has because of its diverse and multicultural nature. Making music that’s club friendly with a young audience base.

It’s become cool again; everyone is talking about it. People go to clubs; they go listen to jazz bands. But it’s jazz that makes you move. It’s no longer this idea of cocktail jazz, late-night quiet listening—which is great, ’cause this is the way I always understood jazz growing up, listening to Charlie Parker or Miles Davis. It was never about relaxing music. It was always about music that questioned things, music that was exciting.

In the past, you’ve mentioned Charles Lloyd as an inspiration, but in what way?

When you talk about problems in representing other cultures, one should look at Charles Lloyd as a good example of someone who’s done it right. The way he involves musicians from other traditions in his ensembles, he’s very egalitarian and respectful, and the resulting music is so unique. Another thing I really admire about him is that at this stage of his career, he’s still making amazing music, like Wayne Shorter. He’s constantly pushing his own boundaries and reinventing himself. His 2015 album, Wild Man Dance, is one of my favorite [contemporary] jazz albums.

He’s appeared with all the greats, but remains curious about music. I also love his playing; he can go from a straightahead jazz player to being so free with his playing and techniques as a multi-instrumentalist. But I think I admire him most as a music director, his collaborations and his way of putting bands together. It’s his vision that speaks to me.

How do you transfer this to work with your group, UPAJ Collective?

For me, it’s about collaborating with people and making sure that everyone is invested, everyone is being creatively inspired. I remember this quote [saying,] that musicians seek to create utopias or worlds they’d like to see within their own band. I’m trying to build this idea that human beings can interact on a very equal level within a band. It’s almost an anarchic sensibility of no pre-existing power structures; questioning all the power structures, like lead soloist/accompanist.

This is why I love playing in circles. Not a lot has been written about how you play on stage, the power dynamics, but it’s so important, the way we are positioned. Playing in a circle brings you back to the idea of communal music making, collaborative music making, facing other musicians while you are playing.

These are the things I value in music. DB

To read the interview on the DownBeat site, and hear some other Korwar tracks, please go here.

Creativity First: an essay on producer/composer Paul White

There’s something appropriate about the fact that producer/composer Paul White was born and still lives in London’s South (Lewisham); a part of the city brimming with immigrant voices, open-air markets selling fish, batteries and kitchen utensils, rich with Blakean echoes.

The great Romantic poet and mystic, William Blake (1757-1827) lived in Deptford, not so far from Lewisham. As a child, Blake would regularly go for six-mile walks in this untamed, bucolic part of the capital. At the age of four, it is said that Blake saw God’s head appear in a window and then as an eight-year-old on one of his walks in south London saw the prophet Ezekiel under a “tree filled with angels.” 

(Blake’s first biographer, Alexander Gilchrist writes: “Sauntering along, the boy looks up and sees a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars.”)

During one of our two phone conversations in August/September, Paul White often speaking in a very quiet voice, his sentences full of pauses, interspersed with bursts of enthusiasm, I asked if there was any significance in the fact that many of the samples used for his production work with Detroit MC Danny Brown came from English artists. “Do you feel that you’re drawn to a particular sound that comes from the UK,” I asked.

Paul White: “I don’t think so, not necessarily, it’s a feel. I’m drawn to something that is totally different: someone being themselves and experimenting, that’s what I can really relate to. Something so wild and so free, that’s how I try and create.” Then referring to his “Ain’t it funny” beat from Brown’s 2016 Atrocity Exhibition (Warp), he added: “It was just wild, so free and expressive. That was one of my most favourite beats. I was so chuffed that Danny picked it.”

For many, Paul White’s work is inextricably linked with “Danny” (Brown). Especially since White’s often startling production work on Atrocity Exhibition where he produced 10 of the 15 tracks radically re-imagined what a Hip-Hop record might sound like.

Throughout our conversations I sensed that White was keen to draw my attention to the vast eclecticism of his music, spanning as it does the high-energy machinations with Brown, but also the super-smooth soul of Golden Rules, the 80s pop inflection of his collaboration with Open Mike Eagle - Hella Personal Film Festival (Mello Music Group, 2014) and his current live-performance based solo works.

Being free to take risks is central to not only White’s practice, but also self-image as an artist, which coincides with a dislike of rigid categories. “I hate labels,” White told me. “Life can’t be explained in words, I know we have to use words to describe things, but I think this is why I talked about energy in the past.” He continued: “I like to live my life according to that idea, rather than thinking that everything is split into genres or putting things in boxes, as otherwise this inhibits you, stops you from going to other places.”

What follows is an analysis of White’s musical aesthetic (layering, a love for untamed, natural sound and interest in musical tension) and also a lesson Madlib "taught" him. 

White shares his recollections of working with Yasiin Bey, Freddie Gibbs, Golden Rules partner, Eric Biddines and Danny Brown. (Open Mike Eagle and Guilty Simpson are also important, but escape inclusion because of limited space). When speaking with me, White was particularly enthusiastic about the project he was then in the final stages of mixing, although he was unable to share any of the tracks. Expected to come out early next year, he says that it is his most personal release yet.

Earlier, I suggested a link with Blake. With Paul White being from my point of view an extremely English artist; but this “Englishness” must be one that allows for the High Romantic/psychedelic swoon of getting lost in the moment, see his love of Ambient music, alongside the deep influence of African artists, from the east, west and south.

 

I.

“My first exploration of electronic music on my own was totally Ambient. I’m a mood-based person and fascinated by people, why we feel the way we feel. Music stirs such deep feelings in us, so this is my place: feelings, emotions, psychology and deep atmospheres and worlds you can create that can totally change your mind-space.”

— Paul White, interview with the author

In February this year, on the 25th anniversary of Aphex Twin’s Ambient Works 85-92  an article published in FACT asked White to describe the importance of the album on his development as an artist. White explained how as a 16/17 year-old into Nirvana, Rage Against the Machine, Smashing Pumpkins, Wu-Tang, his first reaction was, “Wow, what is this?!”

“I couldn’t get over the first two tracks [‘Xtal’ and ‘Tha’]. I listened to those two tracks relentlessly. I had a tape and back then you’d make a whole side of a tape with just a song, record it over and over. I think I did that with the first two tracks from this album. It’s not that the rest of the album wasn’t good, but these two tracks were so good I had to keep going back to them. This is also the time when I started experimenting with going out, discovering acid, and this album was the most perfect soundtrack for it. You couldn’t get any better comedown music.”
Before that I’d just been writing songs on guitar and piano. A lot of the music I wrote then was Ambient based, it was all atmospheres. I wasn’t writing Hip-Hop yet. I started writing trance and happy hardcore with another guy I’d met at the BRIT School but stuff I did on my own was all trying to be like Aphex Twin, like that first album: tons of pads and lush drawn out notes, MIDI beats going off in the background. I loved drum and bass and I could hear that in his music. And there were also breakbeats, which I understood from Hip-Hop. I bought my first synth and sampler at the time too.

Listening to Paul White’s work, I noticed how he often used “layering” in his music, across different genres. How a single note would appear at a certain point and just rest there, to create depth and intensify the mood. Within Hip-Hop production – and Soul and Jazz … - individual sounds have an essentially dynamic quality: repeating, interacting, changing form.

In White’s music you find a single note – or series of sounds that have a unified effect - just resting there. This seemed to go against expectations, this stillness in the music separate from everything else and intrigued me.

In the interview with FACT White explained how Aphex Twin introduced him to the importance of atmosphere, of creating “worlds for people to go into.” Not only that there was something about the music that sounded “British in a sense. I couldn’t pinpoint how but it felt like it was from your home … It felt like home, really warm.”  

 

MB: “Thinking about this idea of layering in music then, where a sound is brought in and kept there for an extended period. I see it visually, almost as if the sound were like a stream of light. If you think of the song “Get your head around this” (feat. Trim, Watch the Ants EP, One-Handed Music, 2013)

the song construction is quite formal, conventional and then on the hook you have a sound, or to be more accurate a layer of sound/s that adds enormous depth.

Paul White: In terms of layering, I love harmonies; I love atmospheres.  I think you’re right it comes from Ambient music where you can develop different themes. Layering can intensify emotions and feelings and make things richer; then you can add themes and subtract themes. You can add more atmosphere, subtract atmosphere. A lot of things work on a subconscious level when you are creating music, I think. You go into this weird zone you’re not even quite conscious of, then suddenly you come back and think, Wow, where did I just go? Maybe layering is part of that journey.

I’m fascinated by sound. The layering part of it just comes from that, the different feelings and textures you can create from that. In my studio, I’ve got quite a few different toys that can produce different sounds and that’s important to me, to have different colours, different palettes.

MB: When looking closely at song construction, I often notice that at say 30 second or one-minute intervals a Hip-Hop producer brings in a new sound, or sample, it’s similar to a classic Jazz composition or a Pop song. I was thinking the layering effect may have a similar significance for you, it adds intensity, but also is part of how you build your songs.  

Paul White: Sure, sure, yeah. I like song-based music, even though I’ve written beats over the years, the layering thing reflects where I come from which is writing songs with a guitar. I love song structures, and this is one thing I’ve been getting into more recently, trying to write songs again. It’s all about taking yourself on a journey and hopefully taking listeners on a journey. Some of my favourite music is Prog-Rock and Jazz and Jazz-Fusion, long pieces running anything from three minutes to 20 minutes. What I like about Prog is that you get all these different aspects of music in one song.

This is what has drawn me to sampling and this comes from Krautrock as well, all the different sections you get in a song. Probably my favourite band ever is Weather Report, again they go everywhere they take you in so many different directions, largely because you’ve got all these different instrumentalists - a whole band. Maybe subconsciously I’m trying to be as many different people as I can even though it’s just me. I can be the drummer, play the guitar and match the feeling, even though I don’t have a band.

MB: It’s interesting this focus on different elements, when you have one instrument, or element that’s exposed. Sampling or sample-based music is all about this, isn’t it?

Paul White: It’s funny you say that, I’m just mixing my album, my solo album. A lot of problems I’ve had in the past is mixing engineers wanting everything to sound quite smooth, but I love sound jumping out and leaping out. It’s taken a couple of weeks working with this mixing engineer for him to really get that that’s what works best for my music. I love things poking out, I love something kind of odd to just jump out at you and grab your attention. It all probably relates to life, without sounding too corny, some things jolt you, life is never just smooth.

Hopefully my music can then reflect a more genuine experience. The music I love reflects genuine life experience, you can hear something of the musicians’ life and their journey and their souls in the tracks. I’m a big fan of things jumping out, I don’t like things to be too smooth. That’s where you find the excitement.

I’m quite an extreme person. I did quite a lot of extreme sports as a kid. Even though I’m quite calm on the surface, I’m quite a high-energy person; so, I think comes from deep down, this aspect of my personality probably.

MB: I’d like to focus in on some things you’ve said there, as much of it really connects with me. For example, I really love the materiality of Hip-Hop. The producers I respect understand that sound doesn’t have to be made even. There’s something political, I think and interesting about this as well. Let’s focus in on this idea that you mentioned of sound jumping out at you, can you think of one of your Hip-Hop tracks that reflects this? This idea of not taming the sound.

Paul White: I mean, I just got to shout out Madlib for that. Madlib is a massive influence on my beats and his music to me was never smooth; things would jump out, there’d be this angular style. Nothing was smooth, he’d have these wild sounds that would leap out, so his music would sound totally alive. He didn’t try to do smooth mixes either. He showed a lot of producers that you didn’t have to have a glossy, shiny studio like Dr Dre. You can write these really raw, gritty songs that you not spend too much time on it.

It’s creativity first, that’s what I love about someone like Madlib. You can just throw ideas down. It’s not about making it sound smooth, or perfect – and my music sounded better for it, sounded better off raw. Madlib made me feel okay about doing that. I think he has influenced a lot of people in this regard, letting people feel that it’s okay to go wild. He taught me that for sure.”

 

To understand White’s capacity for reinvention, listen to this original and remix of the Golden Rules’ tune “Never Die” – the first version of the track appeared on their debut release Golden Ticket (Lex Records, 2015)

And then the remix, which features Freddie Gibbs, alongside Eric Biddines and Yasiin Bey (this remix is off-the-wall monstrous-sublime).

MB: “The original and remix of “Never Die,” I’ve spent a lot of time listening to them and thinking about how different they are to each other, can you speak on this?  

Paul White: (pauses) The initial one was quite quick there is no real meaningful story behind that … It’s got this great guy on it Jamie Woon – an amazing British composer and singer, we got him to sing the chorus on that. I felt to me a straight-up, smooth old school Hip-Hop beat.

At that time, I was trying to experiment with live performance and experimentation, so the remix was a challenge for me. I took the sample and played around with the vocal. Music is often about challenges for me. I said to myself to play the music around the vocal so took a lot of instruments and played some keys over the top and remember feeling quite pleased, thinking this is going to work, this experimenting with something that’s half Hip-Hop, half live. “Never die” is quite rare, as it’s in-between: the old me and the new me. It reflects a certain time.

I remember trying to make sure I got it right. Once you’ve got the basic groove and the harmonies right, I just experiment with it. There’s never any end goal ever (laughs). Music is a sacred place where I don’t feel pressures, I can be totally in the moment.

MB: The first one as you say is a kind of classic Soul-based Hip-Hop track and the remix is this epic piece of music. I haven’t heard many Hip-Hop tracks like this, with the orchestration and all the elements, it’s amazingly different.

Paul White: I need to listen to it again, I’ll get it on Soundcloud, I haven’t listened to it for a while. It’s all about being epic, the original one was never one of my favourites as it’s a bit too straight-forward, I never really like things that are too straightforward; I’m glad I did it, but preferred the remix. Just found it now … (he starts to play the song).

I’m going to listen to it, oh yeah, the crazy drums – the Djembe.

MB: Towards the end, it becomes quite strange.

Paul White: Oh yeah, and I sang on it as well. I forgot about that.

MB: It’s really got that layering of sound thing happening. I don’t think it’s ironic, but it’s really over the top.

Paul White: Yeah, it’s true it’s out there. Yeah, the Djembe was a big part of it that’s the Djembe I got in Gambia. That’s an important part of it and the slightly jazzy piano. It’s a mix of everything; my love of Jazz, my love of Hip-Hop rhythm, my love of African rhythm and then at the end. It’s insane, which I quite like.

MB: It’s appealing because you’ve got these huge stars on it and the music is just going nuts.

Paul White: Sure.

MB: You talk about the playful aspect, but it’s kind of funny in a way. It has a quality of freedom about it. In the original it’s very respectful of the MCs, they’re very central and then the remix it’s something else.

Paul White: Listening to it now, I see what you mean. Music must be free, that’s probably the most important word. Music needs to be free, untamed. I find it very hard to stick to briefs, if I must do something, it won’t work (laughs).

MB: Thinking about the MCs now, Eric (Biddines from Golden Rules) is interesting. I like the sound of his voice. He’s got a very different sound.

Paul White: Yeah, yeah.

MB: Could you just talk about your experience working with him and then Yasiin Bey and Freddie Gibbs, who was added to the remix?

Paul White: Eric is half of Golden Rules, obviously. He’s one of the best guys ever, I really like him, just as a person. He’s like me, I think. He’s playful, he ticks all the boxes for me. He’s an amazing lyricist, his lyric-writing is just great. His delivery is fun and free. He can rap, he can sing. We’re like kindred spirits, I think. He’s one of the guys I’ve met over the years that it feels incredible natural working with.

Yasiin Bey, we recorded him in a studio in London. He was great, he was really professional, just got in the booth, I think we did about three takes. He did a great job, came in and he left.

We sent over the song to see if he liked it and he did. It was one of those landmark experiences to see him nodding his head and loving the beat. What was really nice was his question, who is the other guy rapping? This was really big of him, as I could tell Eric you know Mos Def was asking who you were. That contact with Yasiin came through management, as did Freddie Gibbs.

(Freddie Gibbs) was supposed to be on the album, but he delivered the verse a bit late. We decided it’d be better on a remix anyway because the rest of the album isn’t like him, so thought it’d be perfect to have his verse on the remix. It’s the only song I’ve done with three MCs on it, it was nice to have the three different sections to play with, musically. It’s probably why the song is a bit manic, a bit crazy as it’s three different people, with three different backdrops and then you squeeze me in in the chorus and then at the end. So, it’s like you’ve got four personalities in that one song (laughs).”

 

III.

MB: Can you talk about the tech you use to create these distinctive atmospheres you’re speaking about?

Paul White: It can be anything, you can use anything. You can use what you’ve got in a free, open, crazy way. I’ve got enough things to make it playful. I’ve got enough tools to enable me to try anything I want, effects or plug-ins on Pro Tools. It’s about not being tame with it, about really pushing things in unconventional ways. There’s a good and a bad side to the way I write. It’s so spontaneous. I don’t learn things, maybe I do subconsciously, but I don’t deliberately learn things at work to then repeat them ever. I never, ever have.

Every time you start you’re coming from a start of play.  As long as you approach it in that fun, experimental way, it really doesn’t matter what you use.

MB: Do you use a lot of compression?

Paul White: I used to a lot. I think a lot of people do. If you compress things a lot it makes it sound better and crushes all the sounds together, so you don’t have to spend so much time mixing and balancing the sounds, cause when you compress everything really hard it balances everything by itself. It can be really creative, but I’m trying to use it less and less and less now.

Bruce Swedien who mixed all the biggest Michael Jackson records (to read more on his career, working with Quincy Jones and mixing Jackson’s Thriller have a look at this article). He mixed everybody. He always talks about how he hates compression. The person who made arguably the best-sounding record of all time says he hates compression because it levels everything out. There is a real danger of losing natural life. My goal is to never, ever use compression – that is my goal, but as long as it’s used in a creative way, you can create sonic textures from compression …

MB: Does it dull the quality of the sounds?

Paul White: For instance, if you’ve got a whole drum-kit what sounds great about it is the life and the loud peak of the kick-drum, but a lot of the effect might be really subtle, because the drum sounds are so short. Often people would be surprised by how many records you listen to and the kick-drum is so loud that they’re not noticing, but it creates a hell of a lot of energy because the sounds are so short. If you compress that you’re going to kill that attack and energy, you’re going to make it quieter.

You’ve got to be really careful about getting rid of signs of life in your music by using compression. But again, I’m a massive fan of no rules, you can do anything with anything.

MB: How about quantizing?

Paul White: No, I never quantize, never. I hate quantizing. In all of my beats, I don’t use metronomes. I don’t use grids. I don’t use quantizers: nothing. I hate grids, I hate any kind of time reference telling me to keep to a time, I don’t do that. I’ve only started doing this a tiny, tiny bit recently when recording live drums, simply because it can be convenient when recording into a computer, but no for the beats and everything else, no.

I usually go through extremely long processes because I never use a metronome. You’ve got a button you can tap, depending on how fast you’re doing it that will say roughly the BPM and then you’ve got a four-bar loop, most people set up a metronome (he sings the rhythm) to know where the one is every time, I never know that, so I’d hit record and play the live drums and pray that when it looped back round it’d stay in time perfectly. I must admit it often takes me loads of goes to get that initial groove right, but I always found it so much funkier and life-like this way.

Music has to be a total representation of life, otherwise I don’t see the point, so using grids and metronomes, I don’t believe in any of that.

MB: I remember that some people judged RZA for not quantizing his beats, I’m not sure if that was something distinctive about him back in the ‘90s. Is this considered to be a maverick thing to do these days?

Paul White: I think the beat thing got really funny for a while. Again, I don’t want to come across like a dickhead, because I could offend people with what I’m going to say but it became so cool to have these loose beats, to have these unquantized beats so what people would do, and again there’s nothing wrong with it, but they would record a beat and quantize it and then they’d manually on the screen shift things in and out to make it sound out of time. It’s kind of cool, but I never understood why you’d spend all that time shifting things about, but that’s just me. Each to their own.

Some people produced great results like that, I know Dilla did that. It can be amazing. For me, I want to get a creative idea out and then move on very, very quickly. It’s a funny one when people spend a lot of time trying to make it sound out of time, what’s the point? Just play it out of time.

MB: I remember seeing a comment below your video about the quality of the post-production. It’s interesting because you constantly refer to your preference for performance, for live music – being spontaneous – but at the same time there is this great care when it comes to the final stages. Have you anything to share in terms of your approach to the post-production process?

Paul White: (pauses) It has to be the right journey. I like to keep it interesting. The journey has to be right. A lot of the post-production is making sure that every sound that pops out has meaning and is there for the right reasons. This new album, I’m really trying to make sure that the mix is right in that regard. I write the initial idea quite quickly and then spend time making sure that every sound represents a feeling and journey perfectly.”   

 

*** 

MB: "What about the tension in all this, though? There are all these moods and atmosphere in your work and then you’ve got the drum sound often hidden away almost. In Hip-Hop, traditionally it’s been all about the drum sounds; the drums are so central. What do you think about this bringing a kind of tension to your work?

Paul White: I think tension in music is a really important part of it. Music theory talks about this a lot, tension and release. Different intervals in music, say if you’re playing the piano – moving from C to E, you’re moving up a third, and different intervals between notes create a certain tension. Music is all about reflecting human emotion, tension is an important part of this, just like the release is as well. I think I’ve often focussed more on the tension than the release (laughs).

That’s probably why me and Danny Brown get on so well. We don’t resolve. Like a lot of Classical Music, there’ll be a journey you start somewhere and come back. I don’t think you can always come back, so I just go off. It’s all about excitement and stimulation.

Everybody wants to be non-offensive, that’s one of my most hated terms for music, “non-offensive.” I can’t stand that.

MB: It’s something I’ve noticed across your different records and projects, this interesting placement of the different sounds, say for the drum sound it’s never or rarely a dominant boom bap sound ever, maybe I’m wrong here.

Paul White: No, you’re right.

MB: Often the high treble sounds are privileged. This creates a strange psychological space, it’s very interesting to me.

Paul White: It’s really something I don’t think about; it’s a very natural thing. Often when I listen to my mixes, yeah, I will have things balanced in maybe different ways that’s not the conventional mix of sound. It’s not intentional, it’s just the way my ears work. Maybe I’ve got really strange ears (laughs) the way I hear sound.

Part of the magic is recording sound, the song-writing process, playing instruments, exploring melody and different sonic effects and then you’ve got the beautiful world of arranging it all, that’s one of my favourite parts if not my favourite. I think this way of listening definitely comes from my Ambient days, listening to Aphex and Brian Eno and Boards of Canada.

Atmosphere is the most important thing, I mean I love beats and I love drums, but I want to take you on a dream journey more than you grit your face up and go, Ah this is a tough beat. It’s much more important for me to take people on a journey. It’s lovely constructing worlds inside a computer and as I say, it’s all very natural. I’ll just zone out into another world, put things together and not think about it too much.

 

MB: You know I was reading the fan comments below the video for ‘When it rain’ by Danny Brown and the listeners were picking up the link with Ambient music, they were talking about him signing to Warp and these sorts of things. Can you make that link between the two now with the track, it has some interesting samples in it too.

Paul White: I think that’s the biggest connection. The sample I used was from a woman called Delia Derbyshire, who was a really incredible, incredible electronic experimentalist, music pioneer who worked at the BBC Radiophonic workshop. I can guarantee that Aphex Twin would have been interested in those guys.

I see these artists as having the same lineage, in that they are all really, really interested in experimenting with, pushing electronic sound. Delia Derbyshire was manipulating reel-to-reel tape, slowing things down, doing every kind of sound manipulation you can imagine and that was exactly what Aphex Twin was doing, doing all this incredible sound manipulation. I’m nowhere near as in-depth, they are on a genius level of sound manipulation. I wouldn’t have the patience, but I definitely see the lineage between those two.

There’s also a raw energy about it and that’s where I fit in. I mean, I love that raw energy as well, I get attracted to that sonic atmosphere and landscape, but that was probably a beat I wrote in about fifteen minutes, I immediately got attracted to it, whacked it into a drum machine. I wrote it very, very quickly, about four years ago and then Danny picked it. I’ve sent Danny hundreds and hundreds of beats, now it might run into the thousands, some of those beats I might have given him years ago and then during the album process he’ll go back and start listening to them. That was one of my favourites, I was really pleased that he picked that one.

MB: It’s a stunning song. One of the fans referred to it as ‘aggressive belly-dancing music’ I thought that was cute.

Paul White: (laughs) It’s always fascinating to see how people take to your work. I think that is one of the most beautiful things. I’d never want to say to anybody: no, no, the music was about this and this was the background and it’s about this thing, as if putting it into a box. I think that is what is so beautiful about music and art, people interpret it how they want and take it into their lives. I think that is almost the most magic part about music. I don’t think anybody is ever wrong, I’d never argue with an interpretation.

MB: Madlib used the same sample on "Real" from Piñata (Madlib Invazion, 2014) did you know about this, did it have any impact on your work?

Paul White: No, as I said I made that beat years before the Madlib record even came out, maybe he made it on the same day (adds emphasis) and I never even knew (laughs). I made that beat maybe five or six years ago, probably around 2003. I was a bit disappointed but not surprised when I heard Freddie Gibbs doing it with Madlib, because it’s an amazing sample. If anyone is going to muck around with it, it would be Madlib (laughs). It’s cool we’re on the same path. We like the same stuff.”

 

IV.

African New Wave

In 2014, Paul White released Shaker Notes an idiosyncratic album infused with musical influences from the African continent, but making it all seem natural within the electro context. To read more about this, check out White’s selection of five African albums that influenced this project, published in Stamp the Wax

MB: How does your unusual placement of drums connect with your interest in the music of different African artists, is there any link there?

Paul White: My dad has always played a lot of African music, we played it a lot around the house. And one of the first festivals I went to as a kid was WOMAD. One of my fondest memories as a kid was going to this festival with him and seeing all of these incredible musicians from all over the world, but the music that struck me the most were these master African drummers that would come over. There’d be a stage of about 20 of these artists and it’d just blow my mind - the energy of it all.

I used to love Baaba Maal, Ali Farka Touré … I’ve actually got African heritage as well, my great-grandad was from Sierra Leone, so my granddad was Black, his family came from Sierra Leone. I don’t know if that’s part of it, somehow to be drawn to this music.

MB: In some ways, I’d say this is a key element in terms of your work, across the records – this influence. I feel a bit uncomfortable saying ‘African’ - is it primarily West African, say Malian or music from elsewhere, from Nigeria? Is there a particular kind of African music that you’re drawn to?

Paul White: Well, I love Malian music, but no I just connect with music I like, it doesn’t matter where it’s from.  But I’ve still got loads of family from Sierra Leone, so I guess most of the music I’ve listened to is from West Africa.

I actually got lucky and went to Gambia a couple of years ago, my ex-girlfriend was there for a little while and I had a really magic opportunity of studying for a week with a master Djembe player who made his own drums. I had an amazing time with him. I’ve always loved rhythm, my Dad is a drummer – not professionally, but as a hobby, he used to play in a couple of bands when I was a kid. There was always rhythm being tapped around the house. I find rhythm very natural, when I get on a drum-kit, I find it the most natural thing.

Maybe it is for all of us, I mean as children everybody taps and hits things; there’s rhythm everywhere, but there is a deep spiritual aspect to it. A lot of African music is about dance, this is something I really noticed in Gambia as well. It was all and one the same thing. In every drum group there is a dance group. One of the first things this guy taught me was the signal of how to start and to stop, to indicate to the dancers what was going to happen.

It’s not coming from any kind of ‘making money’ place it’s coming from a beautiful spiritual place.

MB: Talk to me a bit more about this experience in Gambia, is there any concrete connection you can make with the music you made after this visit?

Paul White: Well, I brought back a big Djembe (laughs), number one. The guy made me my own massive, amazing Djembe, so that’s in my studio and have been used on many recordings since. It was the experience and the spirit that I brought back mainly. It’s this pure, joyous spiritual connection with music and the Earth and the spirit, really; it was a good reminder to get out of this Western world that is just so money-driven.

It just felt magic for me personally to be in Africa, I’ve been to Morocco previously, but this is a very different Africa. It was very special for me to be so close to Sierra Leone, I really wanted to go. It felt quite natural for me being there, the spirit and the energy of the people felt so lovely. Just playing with that guy was pretty special because he immediately saw my passion for music pretty quickly and we went through most of the stuff he wanted to teach me very, very fast and he actually started to teach me some of the local music from the tribe where he came from, his individual tribal rhythm he played that was personal to them. And that just felt incredibly special. The whole trip was incredibly, incredibly inspiring. We drummed until the sun went down and there’d be nine, or ten children dancing around.

All these kids playing around and jumping around, it was a magic experience. I’ll never forget it. It reminds you of what music is about. I’ll always think back to that time I had there."

 

(Coda:

Paul White: “It was when I was about 19 or 20 when I started to really buy records that was when I moved on from my song-writing-Ambient-Trance phase, doing things all at the same time and started to really dedicate myself to making beats and sampling. I sold all my synths and bought an MPC and spent hundreds and hundreds of pounds on records and really, really started digging which I think is an amazing musical education.

That’s the great thing about Hip-Hop, people can get critical about sampling but if you’re going out digging for records, I can’t think of a better musical education cause you’re buying every kind of genre. As soon as you start digging you get inspired by music from all over the world.

I was just looking for samples, I wasn’t even looking for great songs. Most of the music was rubbish, but there often was a great sample, or a great sound. I really value that education, which is buying every genre and just feeling it. I’d mix a Turkish sample with a Bollywood sample with a funk sample with a Prog-Rock sample, all in one song. 

You’ll hear that a lot in my album, The Strange Dreams of Paul White from 2009, I used to delight in chopping up music from all over the world and putting it together so there were all these currents and emotions across all these different genres and you can feel it. This is something that Hip-Hop taught me, that is what Hip-Hop is for me; it’s all genres, it’s Country music and Folk music, it’s Jazz and Funk and Rock music, Latin music – everything.

MB: When you’re listening to these records are you listening for specific sounds, or are you listening for qualities, what is the process like when choosing which element to sample?

Paul White: It’s probably about the emotion in the playing. It’ll either be the emotion in the playing, or something about the sonic quality itself, it could be anything from sampling a kick-drum to the whole guitar part. You're listening to an old 70s record with all these effects you just don’t hear nowadays from an analogue mixing desk, for example. It’s often a mix of the two.

I try not to look for loops, often what I do is write the drums first, I’d never just sit down from scratch and just listen to a record and try and find the best part, even though I have done this. I usually sit down first and pull the record out and chop up different drum hits and make a drum pattern first and then listen to records with my drums playing in the background. I’d never ever listen to a record and go, oh I’m going to take this and then build on that. I like to have an element of me first and then start building on top of it.

Music is magical in that sense, you can hear it when someone plays a guitar part with so much passion, or listening to a synth part it makes me think what was that person going through that day, did they just get married, did they just get a divorce? Was their child born the night before? You can feel that in the music, that’s what attracts me, I think.

MB: I liked it when you said that ‘it’s the emotion in the playing’ that brings us back to your passion for live performance, doesn’t it?

Paul White: Yeah, sure.

MB: It’s something very personal.

Paul White: Yeah, totally, yeah).   

Tom Withers (Klute/The Stupids) Interview 

Two years before his death from heroin, I walked into my uncle’s room (I was ten years old at the time). He usually had his door locked but that day it was left ajar and I could hear this song pulsing from inside the bedroom. 

When I walked in he was lying in bed, mouth open and eyes staring at the ceiling while this song was throbbing in the background. I said hello and a few seconds later his bloodshot eyes rolled slowly over to me and he rasped out something back at me. It scared me at the time so I ran out crying, and my dad told me my uncle was just sick that day. I saw him a few hours later, and he was back to his mellow self and apologized for scaring me. 

Well, sure enough, two years later he overdosed and passed away. Sometimes when I visit my grandmother’s house, I sit on the couch by the stairs, and I can still hear this song growling from his now-empty room. Such a beautiful song, one of the strange but gentle gifts my uncle left me before he passed... before heroin used him up.”

— AliKarimi comment on Youtube posted on a 1972 live recording of 'Use me' by Bill Withers

Late last year, I came across two tracks by Klute (Tom Withers) that made me think that Drum and Bass (DnB); the genre of music I had previously not given much thought to might not be so mono-dimensional after all. (To be more accurate, a friend emailed them to me when trying to wake me up, sell the genre to me; it wasn't a random occurrence). These two Klute tracks 'We are all dying' and 'Come back to me' - released on Soul:/r in 2006. 

Even now, after having listened to this music countless times, it still strikes me as a remarkably fresh: at once a combination of precision-force, carried along by the beat, and lush sentiment; the same (uneasy) combination you might find in a track by Wire re-imagined for the new century - even though Colin Newman's delivery would forever remain flat, unemotional compared to the splintered, soulful female voices found in Klute's music. 

What immediately stands out is the way the music is constructed, just like a perfect three minute pop/punk song and this is what really interests me ; the organisational intelligence that betrays the composer's hybrid origins. 

'We are all dying' starts with a moody affect, rain-like prompting  connections with B&W film noir ...

and then the beat kicks in at around 20 seconds, one minute later it drops, with this burst of intensity as a listener you gain some kind of comfort, reinforced by the arrival of the vocals at two minutes and then, finally, three minutes after the original shift there is some kind of resolution. And that repetition of the single note, providing as it were some kind of spine, is a marker of real originality. 

'Come back to me' is even more dramatic in its structure, with the sudden fall at 1 min 20 ... 

where the music is pushed along by a driving force, after an opening where all the elements start at the same level. Any listener of pop/punk music automatically understands on a gut-level how this shift works, how here in this moment there is a universal logic that somehow makes sense. 

In the end, what I like best about 'Come back to me' is the way the beat is unstable, mercurial. Often DnB uses the beat in a lazy way, it seems to me, as an immediate way to provide intensity; here, Klute plays around with it - bringing it forward, or doubling it up; for it then at other times to recede, or even completely disappear. 

All this fits with the assessment of  the US DJ/producer, Mister Shifter who said that in Klute's music you find a 'signature blend of beauty, sadness, playfulness and euphoria'. Klute's music evokes a mix of emotional imprints that keep moving. 

Madeleine Byrne: 'The reason why I really liked this music was I could hear a construction behind it, not unlike a classic punk song, or even something from the 1950s. It reminded me of something like Julie London, or something where you can hear the orchestration, the different sections of the track ... 

Tom Withers (Klute): My formative years as a musician were based around what I heard from my two older sisters. I was around what was coming out from behind their bedroom doors, what they were playing in their bedrooms. One, or if not both of them, was into Burt Bacharach and quite orchestrated, hyper-songwriting based music ... 

MB: That's why I was thinking 'lounge music' and mentioned Julie London, it's the kind of artificial pop music aspect to it ... 

TW: I'm quite a big fan of orchestrated, symphonic music; I suppose what I ended up was liking a lot of what is called 'sunshine pop' - you know, the Beach Boys, very symphonic, hyper-layered, melancholic melodies and stuff like that. In that respect, in terms of how I approach making DnB it's very musician-based and that's kind of led me to having a space of my own really, as I've ended up with this almost idiosyncratic style, drawing on the ghost of these crazy influences and stuff, concentrating more on that than dance-floor symmetry; a lot of people sit down and study exact frequencies and the timing and the arrangements that will have impact on a dance-floor, whereas I've always been more inspired by the musicality of it and replicating what is going on inside my head. 

Something like 'We are all dying/Come back to me' I specifically remember it coming out of a quite heavy bout of listening to The Carpenters, rather than it being punk-rock inspired.' 

In a 2005 interview with the site Resident Adviser Withers talked about his album, No One’s Listening Anymore:  

'I think I just wanted to build on the last one,' Withers says. 'I can’t say that with any album I do specifically, ‘this is what I’ve wanted to do’, they’re just building on the one before. I think that’s the way No One’s Listening Anymore is certainly. I’ve done a lot more concentrating on songs this time, which is what I said last time, but I’ve even more done it this time. There’s a lot more singing and there’s a lot more song-based structures.'

Song-based structures. When I spoke with Withers he disagreed with the notion that his 'computer-based music' built on his experience as a drummer in the punk/hardcore group, The Stupids; or that he consciously drew on his knowledge of other forms of music as a professional musician. 

In August this year in an interview with Louder than War, John Maher, the original drummer with the Buzzcocks referred to his interest in Klute's music ....

“What else do you listen to for pleasure?

I don’t actively search out new music. I occasionally stumble across something I like on BBC Radio 6 or whatever station I can pick up when I’m on a long distance drive. In the workshop I stream D’n’B radio much of the time. I’m a big fan of Klute (Tom Withers). When I first started travelling between Manchester and the Isle of Harris, Klute provided the soundtrack for many long road trips. I have all sorts of good associations when I listen back to Casual Bodies and Fear of People. Tom used to be a drummer in a punk band. I’m sure that sense of rhythm is what gives his particular brand of drum and bass more depth than most. I’ve been following him since the late ‘90s. He’s never put a foot wrong. Being a fan, I wore my Commercial Suicide tee-shirt (Klute’s label), when Buzzcocks played at Manchester Apollo in 2012.”

— Nostalgia For An Age Yet To Come: ex-Buzzcocks current Penetration drummer John Maher interviewed by Ged Babey, 'Louder than War' August 2015

MB: I saw that the original drummer from the Buzzcocks, John Maher, said that he was a big fan of yours, you must have been pretty happy to have read that, yeah ?

TW: It was pretty bizarre. A few years ago somebody sent me a link to a video of the Buzzcocks playing and he said, 'Look at the drummer's T-shirt' and he was wearing a Commercial Suicide - Withers' record label - T-shirt and I just thought at the time, oh it'll be one of their new members, maybe a DnB fan, or whatever, I didn't really think too much about it. It never occurred to me that it was the original guy, I mean I've been listening to the Buzzcocks since I was about 10 or 12 years old. And Maher has always kind of stood out for me as quite a good drummer because he's got this quite sort of fast pace to his drumming, a lot of stuff happening in the hi-hats, I've always seen his playing as kind of a slapdash feeling. I was always conscious of the drumming in the Buzzcocks. I listened to the Buzzcocks quite a lot actually, so when a friend of mine sent me a link to that recent interview I was quite blown away that he specifically talked about me, cause you know I can reflect on that from my perspective when someone asks what I've been listening to and you know to pick something to talk about is something that means something, rather than just chucking out something, that's caught your attention in the last couple of weeks. It's very flattering; yeah, I was very pleased. 

MB: I loved the way he talked about your music providing the soundtrack for various (car) journeys in his life; the music obviously means quite a lot to  him ...

TW: Yeah, I have met people through the years that something I've done or written has helped them through something difficult, it's been there for the soundtrack for a big part of their life and it's a strange thing to relate to really because I'm completely removed from that situation. Because it's music that I've made - it's obviously a big part of my life, but for a completely different reason. It's amazing information, but I don't know what to do with it (laughs).

MB: He (John Maher) said that the fact that you are a drummer probably gives your DnB more 'depth' - what do you think about that; do you think your experience as a professional musician, as someone who has had the experience of playing live, do you think that affects the way you create DnB ? 

TW: (pauses) I think it possibly has to do with the individual style that I've got, that just might be who I am as a person; in the same respect that drumming and punk rock as got this, oh I don't know, it's a very uncomposed style. It almost feels that I'm conducting with drums, it's like I'm playing the drums as if I were playing guitar, if you can imagine how someone strums a guitar - you move along with the main tune and riff and rhythm - I think that it's partially do with drumming, but it might also have to do with my own personal style of music-making, because it's largely untaught. I had a few drum lessons from a punk rocker when I was about 12 years-old, but that was about it. Everything else I've just sort of picked up by myself, or off mates or whatever. 

It's always been centered around being intuitive and that's the way I relate to music with software, even though I often come up against brick walls with software because a lot of it is completely counter-intuitive. 

(..) It's very immediate playing drums, that's the way I enjoy music for things to be immediate, as opposed to painstaking, theoretical stuff, like Stockhausen or something like that would do my nut in basically even though some of it's quite nice to listen to. A lot of my work is non-theoretical a lot of the time. 

MB: You've just used the word 'intuitive' I'm wondering if you could explore that a bit more ...

TW: Intuitive, I think, is being able to do things without much conscious thought. You can pick up an instrument and you can do something with it; you might take a long time to master it, but you can pick up a drumstick and pretty much do something with it, but it's not always the same with software it can become a bit counter-intuitive in the respect that it becomes overladen with features and functions and stuff like that as opposed to something you pick up and immediately express yourself. 

MB: But can you think of some technology that is intuitive for you ? 

TW: Well, you can pick up a synthesiser keyboard that has lots of knobs and sliders on it, so you can immediately plug that in and start hitting the keys; turning knobs and making weird and crazy sounds and you can explore that without having to understand anything. I think a lot of software, like computers where they have virtual interpretations of so-called real instruments, it becomes quite menu-based so you've got to start delving in deeper and for me it immediately becomes counter-intuitive, very quickly subconsciously I feel quite blocked by it. That's what I mean by intuitive versus counter-intuitive. 

MB: I understand. In an interview you said that the two forms of music you do are quite separate, you said that when you came back to writing songs after a decade, I think it was, of working purely in DnB it felt quite strange because you'd become quite used to working alone with technology, is that something you really believe ? 

I mean, we've just been talking about the music being 'intuitive', but do you really believe that the two forms of music - the punk and the DnB - are quite separate for you ?

TW: (pauses) I don't know. That is something that I have experienced ... yeah, actually I think they are for me; just thinking about it, I need to write some songs for the band and I haven't and that's because I've been concentrating on computer-music at the moment, that might be for some other deeply complex personal reasons, I don't know, but yeah for me they are different things, really: computer-based, repetitive and essentially looped music and I think, you can view a lot of music as basically that you repeat lines of a verse and then you go into a chorus and then it's apparently quite symmetrical in the way it's arranged, but it's not really. I think when you're working on things on a computer, it's laid out in grids and things become basically mathematical, that's the way computers relate to things. In that respect, I do think they are quite different. 

MB: You know like you said before, ('We are all dying/'Come back to me') are like classic Burt Bacharach songs or any of those classics like 'Cry me a River' ...  So tell me a bit more about what your sisters were listening to and what era is was, the 80s, I guess.                              

TW: That would have been in 1980, that's when I started - that's when I became indentified with music. My parents encouraged us all to listen to music and encouraged my sisters to play various instruments, because I was the youngest and the only boy I was left to my own devices until the late 1970s when I started to want to play pots and pans and want to be like Ringo Starr. My ears really turned when I started hearing my sisters play punk and this would have probably been around 77, cause they went out and bought Never Mind the Bollocks and one track in particular 'No More Heroes' by the Stranglers that was life-changing for me. 

MB: Can you tell me why it was life-changing for you ? 

TW: I guess, I don't know (pauses) for me now that era Stranglers is just really rambunctious, I don't know there's something aggressively confronting about their sound. I just remember seeing them on the Top of the Pops, playing the song just the attitude and the little bit of danger behind them. Their bass player Jean-Jacques Burnel had an outstanding bass sound, just seeing him on the stage with his black leather jacket, sneering and stuff like that, it wasn't just this sort of plastic punk thing. It wasn't childish. There was something mature about it. They are one of my all-time favourites, a classic Stranglers line-up still deeply into it, even after all these years. 

So I got dragged through punk, but they were listening to all kinds of stuff - one sister was listening to Tangerine Dream, Pink Floyd, and my other sister was listening to disco and she was the one was listening to the Burt Bacharach; just all kinds of different stuff, whether it was Stevie Wonder, or 'easy listening'. Once I took off with punk rock in 1980, I didn't listen to anything else until about 1987, really when 87/88 when punk became completely redundant to me - over a period of six months - when bands like Sonic Youth started coming around, which has no appeal for me whatsoever. 

(With Sonic Youth) it was a strange introduction of retro-ism to something that I had always thought was forward-thinking, part of that was very focussed on American hardcore which is a suburban revolution really. It's quite a different rebellious base compared to English punk, which started as an arthouse movement and then moved into a street thing. Come 88 I started a mad journey of listening to all kinds of stuff, classic rock and terrible guitar virtuoso Heavy Metal. 

MB: I read somewhere that you were listening to Joe Satriani and I thought 'that's an admission' no?

TW: (laughs) Yes, it was one of those things that even if I dug out those records I wouldn't (laughs) don't know, saying that I still appreciate Van Halen and stuff like that, I don't know ... The first couple of Van Halen records are quite good really. 

MB: (trying to be nice) I mean yeah the sound is great, I can appreciate the way the albums are produced ...   

TW: Yeah, yeah. It's a different thing to Joe Satriani. Joe Satriani and Vinny Moore, Yngwie Malmsteen and stuff like that, well, it's hideous music, really, but then I was spat out the other side with the electronic, or rave music, by which time I wouldn't say left my sisters behind but I'd gotten into my own thing. 

“For me, I’ve always “been a punk”. It did indeed feel like a return to the music after a decade of total immersion into dance/rave music culture in the early 90’s. Punk attitude in its base form goes far beyond the template that’s generally set out for it: Leather jackets, distorted guitar, Sex Pistols, Maximum Rock ‘n Roll etc. Rave culture originally felt very punk in its wreckless freedom of expression and ultra DIY attitude. Apart from that, yes, I desire punk rock, it is my wife.”

— Tom Withers, 'Stupids Interview' Crossfire April 4 2014

MB: Tell me about Ipswich in the 70s and early 80s, what kind of place was it ?

TW: Ipswich was quite a good place in a funny way, it's a suburban town but it always had a vigorous music scene, back in the 60s, Brian Eno went to art college in Ipswich before he went off to bigger and greater things (...) During the late 70s it became quite an active punk scene, quite a big stop for touring bands; everyone from the Clash, Siouxsie and the Banshees - basically everyone - came through here, I think even the Sex Pistols were booked to play here, but that tour got cancelled. 

By the time I started socialising with people in the town in 80/81 there was quite a big punk scene here. The main band being the Addicts, they are probably bigger now than they ever were; quite a popular band, so eventually with the people around here I got a band together that ended up being the Stupids. 

MB: Could you describe the success (Tom Withers' band) the Stupids had now, looking back, the fact that you were on the cover of NME and Sounds, very big magazines; how would you describe the success of the Stupids at that time ?

TW: It was very strange, really, because to look back on it now it seems all kind of inconsequential and would be extremely easy to not notice really because it came down to a period of 9 to 12 months. We were basically a high school punk band, we were quite good at what we did, the first album in particular was really good and I think that at the time in the UK there was anything like that it was all quite ploddy, miserable what they call UK 82 punk rock, which is very politicised and miserable and then along we came, very young playing really fast. It felt like a bit of electricity for those who were into it. 

So very quickly John Peel got a hold of it and started playing it. In those days it was like your instant ticket to whatever, as soon as Peel played it it was a complete stamp of approval, it just meant that you're good (laughs). There is a real sense of trust about John Peel as he had very wild and eclectic tastes; he didn't play rubbish, he didn't play anything with any kind of agenda behind it, he didn't have an ego. He didn't decide I'm going to break these guys, I like these guys, they're great. 

TW: From that initial interest from John Peel, I think we did three or four (John Peel) sessions in the end from that we kind of got a record deal with a more progressive label, who employed a publicist. We were just these kids and had a meeting with this guy giving us ideas, the process of the next nine months it just seemed to snowball, it was nuts and completely without any hype, no engineering or anything. It was the right place at the right time, we were into skateboarding, genuinely at the same time that was blowing up to being a fashionable thing. 

Cause we were young we were getting interest from Smash Hits and the poppy side of things, so we had a centre-spread in Smash Hits and the next thing is a journalist saying, did you know Bowie is talking about you ? There's an interview with Bowie in Rolling Stone where he talks about us, what are your tips, David, well my son has told me about this band called the Stupids (laughs).

It turned into this crazy thing and I suppose because we were completely unenterprising or have no aspirations, we weren't anticipating this, it went as quickly as it came basically. There was no plan behind it; no operation behind it, as quickly as the press became interested as quickly they became disinterested. I think we were disinterested in it by late 88, I'd lost interest in punk rock so it came to it's own natural conclusion really. Funny old time. 

MB: You talk about it being punk music, but isn't it more power-pop Descendents, Californian type music ?

TW: With the Stupids, I'd say we were straight up hardcore, really. It's not as poppy as the Descendents, saying that the first Descendents album was very much a call to arms for me, it was one of the first punk records that genuinely spoke to me lyrically. I don't know if you know Milo goes to college but that song, 'I'm not a loser' that was the first time lyrics that actually applied to me rather than being some kind of abstract whatever. I didn't understand what 'God save the Queen' meant at the time when I was a kid; stuff like the Descendents really spoke to me, being middle-class and from suburbia. That was the real driving force, much more than the Sex Pistols or the Stranglers; it was much more of a driving force that propelled me to feel like I can do this, I've got something to say. 

MB: And it's a young guys's music too, I mean the Stranglers are fantastic but if you're fifteen years old, it's kind of distant, no ?

TW: Well, the Stranglers were college students, they are quite intellectual, so I didn't know who Leon Trotsky was, it sounded nice the way he sang it, but I had no idea who that was when I was 10 years old (laughs). It was very highbrow a lot of their lyrical stuff. I think the Stranglers were always quite grown-up, they were angry grown-ups really. 

MB: You've talked about punk as being 'your wife' in an interview and how you 'desire' it, is that a sentiment you still hold onto as punk being central to your sense of self as a musician/artist ?

TW: Definitely - as a human being, yeah; it taught me, or it resonates with me and my nature, questioning things, the sense that you can do what you want to do without permission or whatever. Saying that, punk as a movement now is in that sense quite redundant because like everything it has developed its predictable format and punk has become a label and a fashion. I guess it always was, but there was some kind of progression with it, an attitude of community behind it. Whereas I don't think, a lot of punk is related to from a retrospective angle. I think a lot of things are now. 

MB: I really liked your story of Ian MacKaye, from Fugazi/Minor Threat, going to a Stupids gig, where he was completely shocked by the audience's response - he was so shocked because the audience was so aggressive, was that true ?

TW: Yes, yeah that is true (laughs) yeah, Ian.

MB: He is very serious about that, he doesn't like that disrespect. I was wondering if that whole DC scene was an inspiration for you perhaps when you decided to set up your own record company, Commercial Suicide Records in 2001 were you inspired by example of Dischord ?

TW: Yeah, yeah massively. Dischord is really, I think it's probably more than any other label because, well, I think DC music in terms of American hardcore resonated with me more than any other scene. From very early on I developed a penpal friendship with people over there, who came over to visit around 1983/1984. I think in 1985 I went over to visit there during what they call Revolution Summer, I don't know if it was through exposure to it, or that they are one of the few labels that have maintained their position really and not got any smaller and just stuck what they believe in for no reason other than that's simply what they believe in, not because it's some sort of stance, or a political position, just that this is what they do, I believe in that, I don't believe Dischord was a business, it was a way to release music by people they like, or respect. That is the way I relate to things on my label, Commercial Suicide, it's not about being the biggest or the greatest, it's just a means to release my music and music by other people I like and respect.

In that respect, Ian MacKaye/Jeff Nelson it's quite admirable operation, really - never backing down from what they want and having never sold out. It's very inspirational in that respect, yeah. 

MB: Maybe just to finish, I thought we could talk about some more recent music- 'We are the ones' ... and I think it's on a compilation called 'Commercial Suicide is Painless' ...

TW: Yeah (laughs)

MB: When listening to that I wrote down a few words, or phrases one was 'controlled repetition' and 'pop elements' but it also had a real punk feel for me, just wondering if you could talk about that track for me a bit, please.       

TW: 'We are the ones' (pauses) you know that's a hard one for me to remember because it's one of the oldest tracks I did, and I've done four or five different versions of it (laughs) it's a kind of strange track that keeps recurring for one reason or another; I've done three versions of my own and then Ulterior Motive did a remix, so there are four different versions of it. 

The words, 'We are the ones' are words I spoke into a microphone, I think it had some kind of bearing on, I think it was somewhat space-oriented, rather than community-based DnB (laughs) I don't know it's come to represent something else with me (laughs). I think there's something in that track, there's always been something in it that has propelled me to do more with it - approach it from different angles, for absolutely no reason, I don't know why; it's just one of those tracks (laughs).

MB: The compilation itself is a range of different artists, are they contemporaries of yours, or ...

TW: Yeah, everything on Commercial Suicide is Painless came out on the label that year so it's literally a compendium of what came out in 2013, I always liked the title because it was the theme from M.A.S.H (laughs) but I don't think anyone caught that. 

MB: Your most recent release is 'Savage Circle' on Metalheadz is that correct ?

TW: Yes. 

MB: Talk to me a little about this record, what were you trying to do with this one ?

TW: (pauses) When I release things it's very difficult for me to form a realisation of what it is or why things happen because it's in some ways quite chaotic, because there are different people involved. Then it takes me a bit of time to stand back and work out the meaning, or the relevance of things; that certainly happens with a lot of lyrics for the Stupids as well, I come back a year after writing them and say, I had absolutely no idea that the song was actually about that or this. It's about gaining some perspective on something that was quite a subconscious process. 

'Savage Circle' it is what it is. For me, the track 'Just what you're feeling' I never quite understood why I called it that but it for me now is a complete standout track, and I've really fallen in love with that track because before it was that's okay, but now it's a real special one for me.

TW: It's an ep I'm really proud of. It's a little bit more abstract and layered than a lot of other DnB is at the moment and in the contemporary DnB scene I think that it is needed; it is slightly abstract style. 

MB: Just to finish, talk a bit more about what you mean by 'abstract' because I found it was an intense record and had a real punch to it, so when I hear the word abstract it sounds intellectual, what do you mean by abstract ?

TW: Well, it's (pauses) DnB is most of what is coming out, week in week out, is stripped back and clean and very focussed, just stripped back, whereas my stuff is (pauses) using an analogy of a painter that throws paint onto a canvas as compared to someone sitting there with a fine brush, painstakingly making sure that every single stroke is the correct one in the right place, in the right colour and stuff like that. 

To me, I've grown my imagined picture - out of layering different stuff so from that perspective I feel it's comparatively, within the realm of DnB, abstract. When you listen to things at different times you can hear different tones coming out in different places. This is what keeps me interested, the sonic complexity; but then someone else's experience might be - as you say - seeing it as quite punchy, or whatever. 

MB: If you're making an analogy to a painter, it's like a Jackson Pollock or something. It's got an intensity, but still a lot of depth and contrast. 

TW: Yeah, yeah, I guess. My sister is the artist, so I'm relating to it on that level as an outsider, but yeah I suppose having grown up around her and her art and the way she is with it, she always wants to explore different techniques, it's that kind of you know smudging and ending up with something beautiful. 

( MB: Was this the sister who was listening to Burt Bacharach, or listening to punk ?

TW: (pauses) This was the sister who was more Tangerine Dream-y, but went to art college with the Raincoats, so I suppose she was coming from a punk rock scene too). 

Michael Valentine West Interview

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.

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