Residential Homesick Blues: The Residents – Metal, Meat & Bone

The Residents - Metal, Meat & Bone

It’s a bright, early Bay Area morning and Homer Flynn, the official spokesperson of The Residents, is sat in front of what looks like a monochrome vortex, a swirling pattern full of motion like a Bridget Riley painting infused with psychedelic properties. It has the effect of disorienting you, distracting you, and you feel yourself being drawn into its invisible centre. At its centre is Flynn and The Residents, a world of secrets, obfuscation, obscurity, myths and experimentation, and, like the gravitational pull of a black hole – or the arcana of The Residents – it’s impossible to resist.

The vortex is not designed to confuse or prompt speculation, or even evoke the colour scheme of The Residents’ infamous black tux / white shirt eyeball head era. It is mostly for practical purposes: Flynn, like the rest of the world, has been forced to spend lockdown communicating by video calls, and he’d gotten fed up of the boring backdrop of his office wall that he could see behind him whenever he connected to a call. “You know, I’m a visual guy,” he says in an accent rich with his Louisiana origins. Flynn is not only the spokesperson for the band, but also their principal designer, usually attributing his work as Pornographics, though it is rarely spelled the same way twice. He is both laconic and earnest, carrying a business-like efficiency but exuding a friendly warmth that might be best described as Southern hospitality, a trait that cuts through the impersonality of a Skype call.

“I thought I should have something more interesting behind me,” he continues, gesturing at the mesmerising spiral. “The Residents recently did a performance of their God In Three Persons album at the Museum Of Modern Art in New York. I did a lot of artwork for that, and I used various iterations of these weird spirals a lot in the artwork, so it seemed like it would be nice. It’s actually a piece of cloth. It’s a big piece of cloth that’s tacked up on the wall.”

Though it’s off-camera, Flynn is surrounded by The Residents’ rich archive. He indicates that there are filing cabinets in his office containing letters, documents and other artefacts, while his attic contains yet more. One day these will each be pored over and scrutinised in an attempt to make sense of this enduring group of artistic conceptualists, a unit whose anonymity has somehow – mostly, intentionally – been preserved, from their initial experiments in the 1960s to today.

It is the time of those early, tentative breaths of The Residents’ existence that is the focus of Metal, Meat & Bone – The Songs Of Dyin’ Dog. A collection of blues songs originally recorded in the early 1970s by a singer that only The Residents appear to have heard of, this is an album that returns them, metaphorically, to Louisiana from whence they made their journey to California in 1965.

The Residents, St. George's Church, Kemp Town, Brighton February 7 2019. Photo (c) Brightlightspix

The Residents, St. George’s Church, Kemp Town, Brighton February 7 2019. Photo (c) Brightlightspix

The Residents formed in Shreveport, Louisiana, so the story goes, in the early 1960s. Shreveport was founded the century before as a strategic trading town on the passage between the important Red River commercial waterway and Texas, a territory hewn forcibly from Mexico. The later discovery of rich stores of oil made Shreveport the centre of a modern-day goldrush as the big oil producing firms moved in, creating one of Louisiana’s mostly economically valuable and socially thriving locations.

The group of high school friends and musical auteurs that became known, serendipitously, as The Residents opted to follow the route of the original goldrush, initially decamping to San Mateo thanks to their truck breaking down, and then finally completing the extra twenty miles to San Francisco itself (which had been their destination all along) about seven years later. Where their ancestors might have been drawn to the Bay Area to pan for gold and make (and often squander) their fortunes, The Residents were drawn there for its free and easy lifestyle. This was the time of Beats, hippies, Kerouac, Ginsberg, the City Lights Bookstore, free love and the counter-culture; a city that was On The Road, yet squarely, and wilfully, off the grid.

One of the first people The Residents worked with, back in Shreveport, was fellow musician Roland Sheehan. “He was friends with The Residents, and was involved with them in the beginning when they first started experimenting,” explains Flynn. “He actually spent a summer with The Residents – I think it was maybe the summer of 1970 or something like that. When he drove from Louisiana to the Bay Area, he brought a lot of musical instruments with him. It was these instruments that The Residents started recording and experimenting with, and so he claims this territory of being there at the very beginning of the band.” The band reconnected with Sheehan after decades of not being in touch while making The Theory Of Obscurity, a 2015 documentary about The Residents.

Sheehan had performed in a local Dubach, Louisiana group called The Alliance, managed by departed Resident Hardy Fox. In fact, The Alliance’s garage rock cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Somewhere They Can’t Find Me’ features four individuals on its sleeve who, if you were minded to squint, could be the future Residents sans eyeballs. Or just four guys. Or maybe Sheehan didn’t just make a roadtrip to meet up with his old buddies in 1970 but stayed on in San Mateo. Or maybe these are just the sorts of thoughts that go through your mind with The Residents where everything feels like it might be part of a grand artistic conspiracy. Either way, Sheehan was part of The Residents’ early story.

“After he’d spent that summer with The Residents, Roland went back to Louisiana,” continues Flynn. “He got involved with a local albino blues musician called Alvin Snow who performed under the name Dyin’ Dog, and Roland put a band together for him.” The nascent band cut some demos, which sat, unreleased and mostly forgotten about in Louisiana.

The story of Alvin Snow is the stuff that blues legends are made from. Abandoned by his parents, Snow was left for dead on the steps of a Mississipi orphanage, mercifully receiving the benefaction of a kindly group of nuns. From the off, the young Snow was an outsider, and in adolescence fell into drugs, crime – and music. He wound up in a Louisiana town where a kindly old lady, a certain Ms Lillian Underwood, took him under her wing and nurtured his nascent talent as a blues singer; later, a chance encounter on the street with the youthful Roland Sheehan led the talented, yet challenged, Snow to a local recording studio whereupon Sheehan and the studio’s owner gave him the Dyin’ Dog moniker. A showcase gig was booked at a local Dubach theatre, the Gem, for Snow’s 37th birthday in 1976 but by the date of the concert he’d mysteriously vanished, never to be heard from again.

The Residents themselves were drawn to the blues, despite their early experiments sounding nothing like that, being fashioned from tapeloops and a borderless approach to sonic technique. “The Residents grew up in blues territory, and always had a great affinity for it,” asserts Flynn on behalf of the band. “They were big fans of Bo Diddley, you know, even though he was more crossover, really, but he came from a blues tradition – he was one of the ones who took blues into rock ‘n’ roll. The Residents were also big Howlin’ Wolf fans. They just really appreciated the form, especially as it evolved from blues to R&B. It was music that they always wanted to explore, but just never got around to.” Anecdotally, Flynn says that there are many, many ideas that The Residents come up with, but that only a tiny fraction of those actually ever materialise. Given that they have released somewhere in the region of 75 albums, we think, the idea of all those notions that didn’t get recorded is staggering.

Despite a mutual connection in the form of Sheehan, none of The Residents came across Alvin Snow while they were in Louisiana. All attempts to Google him seem to return you to The Residents, making this a sort of meta-mystery in the story of the band, and leading you to pore over the pictures of Snow in the booklet for Metal, Meat & Bone to see if they’re faked. And then, just like with The Residents’ own story, you shrug, accept that it’s best to just accept that you’ll never know the complete truth about anything to do with the band, and enjoy the story, even though it does mean – in my case – that you might be asking questions that simply add to the story’s dubious legitimacy, almost like you’re the one creating the trail on The Residents’ behalf.

“Alvin was kind of the mysterious type,” says Flynn. “He eventually just disappeared, but Roland still had these demos. Roland had a conversation with one of The Residents, who still had this interest in doing a blues project, and Roland thought, ‘Well, you know, maybe I have something that might be interesting to them.’ When he mentioned it to them, he dismissed it. You know, it was a bunch of demos from the 1970s – who cares? But, at the same time, he ended up bringing them in, and playing them for The Residents, and they loved them. The whole project took off from that point.”

The Residents Presents Alvin Snow aka Dyin' Dog... or is it James Dean?

The Residents Present Alvin Snow aka Dyin’ Dog (2019). Any likeness to a famous James Dean photograph is purely coincidental.

Before recording Metal, Meat & Bone, the band issued the demos as a highly limited five 7-inch single box set on Germany’s Psychofon imprint in 2019. It looked and felt like a time capsule, the discs presented as large-centre singles with scrappy labels, the only concession to modernity being the coloured vinyl some editions of the demos were pressed on. Those raw Alvin Snow demos now form the second disc of Metal, Meat & Bone, rounded out by other demos that Sheehan discovered while rooting though the Gem Theatre in Dubach.

The first disc finds The Residents interpreting those original Alvin Snow demos, as well as adding extra tracks inspired by Dyin’ Dog’s music. The result is uniquely recognisable as the band, with churning electronics and an angry, almost confrontational edge. Guitars splinter and crack with commanding, stentorian energy and the songs are thrust into a sort of sinewy industrial post-modernism. You hear the distinctive sound of the blues but it is recast as a distinctly modern artform, mostly fronted with feisty, blistering power by The Singing Resident. (The Singing Resident has been known as Tyrone since 2017; prior to that he was known as Randy Rose, Roger ‘Bunny’ Hartley, Mr. Skull, Seymore Hodges, Mr. Red Eye, and The Enigmatic Foe; some have noted the similarities between The Singing Resident’s voice and that of Homer Flynn’s.) Elsewhere on the album are quieter, more reflective moments, sung in a harrowing, affecting style by an uncredited female vocalist, full of bleak drama and visceral narrative.

“The Residents have always enjoyed reinterpreting other music,” explains Flynn. “They’ve always enjoyed exploring other forms, but somehow they always come out Residential. They don’t come out like they started.” I comment on how well the electronic elements seem to suit blues songs, even though they maybe shouldn’t fit together so easily. “Well that’s good,” says Flynn in response. “That’s certainly what we like to hear. They wanted to see if they could make that work.” This is the business-like, third-person voice of Flynn, spokesperson for the band and de facto head of the Cryptic Corporation, the organisation that oversees The Residents’ various activities.

Typical of The Residents, Metal, Meat & Bone finds the group working with some of their coterie of collaborators, easily identifiable by having, for the most part, actual identities: Nolan Cook, Carla Fabrizio, Sivan Lioncub, Peter Whitehead and Rob Laufer. Added to the list of likeminded friends and relations for the album is Pixies’ Frank Black, himself a user of an identity-disguising pseudonym in the form of Black Francis. Black adds his distinctive, angry preacher voice to one of the album’s many highlights, the emphatic ‘Die! Die! Die!’.

I ask Flynn how it’s possible that The Residents manage to attract so many collaborators considering their reputation for being somehow inaccessible. Is it the case that people who share their weltanschauung just seem to gravitate toward them? “Well, actually I think that’s more the case,” he says. “Most of The Residents’ collaborations come about kind of organically, one way or another.

“The connection to Frank Black came through Eric Drew Feldman,” he continues. “Eric is the prime producer with The Residents at this point – he’s really the architect of their sound. He has a longstanding relationship with Frank and he played with The Pixies on tour. It was right at the very beginning of the recording of the album, and they were looking for one or more guest people to come and do things, and as fate would have it, The Pixies played in San Francisco. They just happened to be in town. And so Eric got in touch with Frank and said, ‘Hey, do you want to do a vocal on The Residents’ album?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, sure, that sounds like fun.’ So, it really came about through Eric’s relationship with Frank. Frank did a fantastic job – he did a great job with that song.”

It is easy to break apart The Residents’ back catalogue into two convenient halves – the wildly experimental side wherein technology plays a huge role, and then the more song-based, story-telling side. In a way, Metal, Meat & Bone follows on from George & James (1984) and Stars & Hank Forever! (1986). On those albums, The Residents were recreating – in their own, inscrutable way – the music of George Gershwin, James Brown, the American folk music of Hank Williams and the marching band music of John Philip Sousa. These records were intended to form a series that would explore the American music tradition. Those two albums turned out to be the only albums in that series, suggesting that this became one of the ideas Flynn talked about that never got completed properly, or they enjoyed the idea of raising (and then thwarting) expectations. While they could have maybe gone about their interest in the blues through a straight reinterpretation of one of the artists whose music they admired, like they did on The American Composer’s Series, instead they opted for a different route, telling the story of an essentially unknown – or possibly unknowable – musician. And after all, who would want The Residents to do what you expect of them?

The Residents - Stars & Hank Forever!

The Residents – Stars & Hank Forever! – The American Composer’s Series Volume II (1986)

Years ago, Flynn was interviewed as one of the talking heads (talking eyes?) in The Eyes Scream, a 1991 pseudo-documentary and promo video best-of. He was featured alongside the departed Hardy Fox, later unmasked as Chuck Bobuck from The Residents’ Randy, Chuck and Bob phase upon his passing in 2018. In his interview, Flynn talks about the band’s constant efforts at “creating their own reality”.

Flynn returns to that notion as we finish our conversation about Metal, Meat & Bone. “At their core, in a way, I think The Residents are storytellers,” he says. “They love having a narrative to spin something around. Sometimes the narrative is more inherent, in the content, and sometimes the narrative is the container that the content goes into.

“Sometimes it’s a bit of both. And, with Metal, Meat & Bone, I think that’s definitely the case,” he concludes, leaning back in his office chair with a smile.

My eye is once again drawn to that swirling vortex behind him; it is a place of tall stories, semi-mythical characters, wonky, filtered versions of the truth and the weird, wonderfully indefinable – and continually fluctuating – centre of this enduring band’s idiosyncratic universe.

The Residents, St. George's Church, Kemp Town, Brighton February 7 2019. Photo (c) Brightlightspix

The Residents, St. George’s Church, Kemp Town, Brighton February 7 2019. Photo (c) Brightlightspix

Metal, Meat & Bone – The Songs Of Dyin’ Dog by The Residents is released July 10 2020 by MVD / Cherry Red.

With thanks to Matt and Andy.

Interview: Mat Smith.
Photos: Andy Sturmey (Brightlightspix)

Text (c) 2020 Documentary Evidence // Photos (c) 2019 Andy Sturmey

Olivia Speaks: Olivia Louvel On [Hepworth Resounds]

olivia

[Hepworth Resounds] is a two-part exploration of the work of sculptor Dame Barbara Hepworth (1903 – 1975) by voice artist Olivia Louvel. The first part, The Sculptor Speaks was broadcast by Resonance FM in January 2020 and is followed by SculptOr, released by Louvel’s Cat Werk Imprint label today.

Olivia spoke to Documentary Evidence about the origins of the project and what it as that resonated so much about Hepworth’s work – and voice.

I have always been fascinated by the interplay of voice and sculpture.

I recently researched the subject in The Sculpted Voice: An Exploration Of Voice In Sound Art. The first piece I made on Barbara Hepworth was ‘Studio’, which is now featured on the album SculptOr. For that I recorded sounds in the art and metal workshops at the University of Brighton.

I was familiar with her sculptures – she is an icon – but it’s only when I began to read her writings that things took a new turn, and I could see how I could compose with her words.

I work at the intersection of creation and documentation, often taking existing texts as a point of departure. Delving into her creative process, I could question my own creative process and relationship to sculpting sounds. I visited her Sculpture Garden in St Ives back in 2017 and then I went to the Wakefield museum too. Recently, I attended her exhibition at Musée Rodin, in Paris.

Voice is a material I enjoy manipulating. My practice is built upon a long-standing exploration of the voice, whether sung or spoken, and its manipulation through digital technology as a compositional method.

Largely I use digital tools which employ virtual methods of sculpting, I worked with Audiosculpt (Ircam) and GRM Tools (GRM-INA).

The starting point for [Hepworth Resounds] was her extensive body of writings, which paved the way for SculptOr, a suite of nine pieces available as digipak CD. So the project started with her words but then en route I began to play with a snippet of her voice for ‘Use Your Own Body’, the first track on the album, in which she says that “every sculpture must be touched”. I thought how wonderful it would be to work more with her voice, to touch her voice. And so the project evolved.

‘Must Carve A Stone’ by Olivia Louvel (dir. Paul Kendall)

During my research at the British Library, I discovered the existence of a 1961 tape called The Sculptor Speaks and I was able to obtain the digitised file thanks to Sophie Bowness, trustee of the Hepworth Estate.

The Sculptor Speaks is a 1961 recording of Barbara Hepworth’s voice, illuminating her creative process. Recorded by Hepworth herself in her studio in St Ives, the tape’s initial purpose was for a recorded talk to accompany slides for the British Council. I am creating for it a new sound environment, effectively re-sounding the tape; re-sounding as in bringing a new resonance, a new context to the object, an object which had been neglected, just waiting for a new status. So we could say that SculptOr is based on words, and The Sculptor Speaks is based on the direct carving of her voice. Both objects together form [Hepworth Resounds].

The Sculptor Speaks, as a first iteration, was premiered on Resonance FM on 10th of January 2020, celebrating her date of birth. From this stereo version, I plan to bring her voice in the space – in the context of a multi-speaker diffusion – so the audience can experience the physicality of her voice, discover this rich oral material and acquire a new sensorial perspective on her legacy.

Interview: Mat Smith

SculptOr by Olivia Louvel is released February 7 2020 by Cat Werk Imprint. Buy Sculptor here.

(c) 2020 Olivia Louvel for Documentary Evidence

MixBus With Kevin Paul

On January 10 2020, producer Kevin Paul begins a series of podcast interviews with fellow studio stalwarts including fellow former Konk resident Dave Eringa and other names familiar to Mute collectors such as Dave Bascombe, Flood, Danny Briottet, Pascal Gabriel and Gareth Jones.

“It came out of listening to podcasts about the recording studio and music production,” explains Kevin. “I could hardly find anyone talking about people from the UK. I thought, ‘I know a few people, so I’ll call them and ask if they want to speak to me and if I get 5/6 then I’ll start a series.’ Incredibly, everyone said ‘Yes’ and I thought ‘Oh my god, I’d better get going!”

Key to the format of the podcast is a relaxed, accessible tone distinct from similar podcasts which go heavy on technical detail. “It’s just me and my guest talking informally about their career and their approach to music,” continues Kevin. “It’s designed to let the guest just talk openly about whatever they want, really. There’s plenty of people who do super technical podcasts already and they do that very well. I’m hoping anyone interested in how records are made can enjoy my podcasts.”

Kevin is himself no stranger to Mute, having worked on countless records for the label between 1992 and 2012. His association with the label began with work on the Pro-gross Three remix of Nitzer Ebb’s ‘Ascend’ and Phil Kelsey’s expansive remix of ‘Take A Chance On Me’ from Erasure’s chart-topping ABBA-Esque EP. “I ended up at Mute through my time at Konk studios,” he recalls. “‘Ascend’ was actually the first record I’m credited on so carries a special place in my career. Mute was such a creative place to be that there are too many highlights to list: I worked with pretty much every artist on Mute and its subsidiaries at one point, including The KLF, Appliance, and Paul Smith’s Blast First. I mixed Goldfrapp’s first album, Lovely Head. I met and worked with Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds and David Bowie, who spent time at Worldwide Studios recording some of his Hours… album, and I worked on the 5.1 remixes of the Depeche Mode back catalogue. That’s just a few of the things I’m really proud of.”

Nitzer Ebb – Ascend (cdmute145, 1992) featuring Kevin Paul’s first credit (track 2).

Kevin’s series arrives at a time where the ease with which artists can make music without relying on expensive studio time potentially puts the traditional roles of producer, mixer and engineer under threat. Nevertheless, he still sees the value that a good quality studio team can provide. “Studio people are there to help artists make the best music they can make, in whatever form that takes,” he says. “In order to achieve that, we must do whatever that entails.”

The KP MixBus podcasts will be available from January 10 2020 on your favourite podcast app on iOS and Android, and from www.kpmixbus.com. The first in the series finds Kevin chatting with Catherine Marks (St. Vincent, Local Natives, Wolf Alice, White Lies, PJ Harvey, Frank Turner and many others).

(c) 2019 Documentary Evidence

It’s A Wonderful Serious Of Snakes

Every Christmas I sit down to watch It’s A Wonderful Life, normally accompanied by two sleeping cats and usually while my family is off doing something else. I’ve tried to encourage them to watch it with me, but Freya just insists that it’s “boring” and Seren says she’ll happily watch it but makes that teenage face that basically says “I’d rather be doing anything”.

For the first hour or so I find myself offering an alternative soundtrack to Dimitri Tiomkin’s score with the Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds track ‘Wonderful Life’ that opens 2002’s Nocturama. You can probably see why. As far as I can tell, Cave’s song takes no inspiration whatsoever from Frank Capra’s classic movie, instead being a rumination on some sort of love affair taking place in secret and its uncertain chorus suggesting that life isn’t necessarily wonderful unless you’ve found a way to locate its meaning. But that doesn’t stop me humming that song to myself on repeat while the film’s George Bailey, like Job in the Old Testament, seems to be continually deviated away from his intended path through life while his brother Harry gets all the breaks.

This year, for reasons I can’t quite fathom, I found myself paying more attention to the script than I have in previous years. In the scene where Harry arrived back in Bedford Falls from college, bringing with him his wife Ruth, I caught a snatch of dialogue that seemed vaguely familiar.

RUTH: Harry’s a genius at research. My father fell in love with him.

– It’s A Wonderful Life by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra & Jo Swerling, 1946

It took me a while to figure out where I’d heard the last two lines before. After a bit of maddening rewinding, replaying and memory bank scouring, I finally twigged the similarity to a pairing from Wire’s ‘A Serious Of Snakes’, whose seemingly nonsensical lyrics I once asked Colin Newman about only to be told with a shrug, “I dunno – ask Graham Lewis.”

He’s a genius in research / I simply fell in love.

– A Serious Of Snakes by Wire from Snakedrill (1986). Lyrics by Graham Lewis.

Surely this was no coincidence?

Taking Colin’s advice from over twenty years ago, I asked Graham if the key to unlocking the secrets held in that song’s lyrics required you to scour through black and white films, and at first that seemed to be the case – he told me that the line about losing a ship at the very end of the song was derived from the Jack Hawkins film The Cruel Sea (1953) – but elsewhere in the song you hear a raft of insults offered by barman Tony ‘Skibb O’D’Oak’ from Lewis’ local boozer, The Royal Oak, in Vauxhall with the lines “you tulip, you pea-brained earwig, you punk, you silver tongued snake”. “It’s a classic Gysin-esque cut-up collage,” offered Lewis, matter-of-factly.

Just as it seemed the song’s meaning – if there indeed was one – was going to elude me further, Graham unexpectedly brought it back round to the time of year with which It’s A Wonderful Life is synonymous. “‘A Serious Of Snakes’ was my stab at a Christmas lyric,” he volunteers, suddenly making the lines “baby returns, baby kills Mary and Joseph” make a whole lot more sense.

Look closely and you can see references to Joseph’s carpentry, the Christmas Eve tradition of midnight mass, various other familiar (though obfuscated) subjects from the New Testament, along with other tangential topics like the creation of Israel. The Snakedrill EP was released in November 1986, right on cue for the clamour to grab the coveted number one chart slot, only to be thwarted that year by a re-release of Jackie Wikson’s ‘Reet Petite’ – which isn’t even remotely festive.

And so there you have it – ‘A Serious Of Snakes’, the unlikeliest of Christmas songs, buried deep within an artsy, obliquely crafted series of seemingly inconsequential non sequiturs and riddle-like lyrics. It really is a wonderful life.

The full lyrics from ‘A Serious Of Snakes’ are available at pinkflag.com

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2019 Documentary Evidence

Spirits In The Forest: Depeche Mode’s Complex Fan Culture (Clash feature, 2019)

Anton Corbijn‘s new film about Depeche Mode fans, Spirits In The Forest, is released in cinemas for one night only on Thursday November 21.

Ahead of its release I wrote a feature for Clash anticipating Corbijn’s film through two previous films – D.A. Pennebaker‘s seminal road movie 101 and the never-officially-released Our Hobby Is Depeche Mode, directed by Nick Abrahams and Jeremy Deller – as well as my own personal experiences of being a fan of this enduring Mute group.

Read the Clash feature here. Read my review of Our Hobby Is Depeche Mode here.

(c) 2019 Documentary Evidence for Clash

Alessandro Cortini (Clash feature, 2019)

“I was moving around Berlin a lot when I was listening to works in progress for this album. I realised that I was maxing out on the volume, and after briefly thinking about the damage that I might be causing to my ears, I also realised that I’ve never really found myself making stuff that loud before. I remember doing that as a kid – I’d push the cheap, crappy headphones against my ears to get more bass while I was listening to the version of Duran Duran’s ‘Save A Prayer’ from ‘Arena’ which I used to play over and over.”

Alessandro Cortini (Clash interview with Mat Smith, September 2019)

VOLUME MASSIMO, the new album from Alessandro Cortini and his first for Mute, is released tomorrow.

Ahead of its release, I spoke to Alessandro for Clash about his love of vintage synths, pressing headphones against your ears to get more bass and the enduring influence of guitarist Steve Vai.

Read the interview at the Clash website here.

(c) 2019 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Clash

Suicide (Clash feature, 2019)

Suicide on the Bowery.

It was my absolute honour and privilege to talk to Martin Rev for Clash about the making of the first Suicide album. Released in 1977, Suicide was a shock to the system for anyone expecting New York’s punk music to conform to any particular mould.

The roots of Suicide go right back to a pre-punk Manhattan of the late Sixties and early Seventies, years of hard slog of playing gigs in art galleries before the likes of Max’s Kansas City and CBGB had embraced the burgeoning punk scene that Suicide were at the centre of. It is a story of friendship, pivotal decisions over how a band should be presented, Elodie Lauten’s Farfisa and a rhythm machine made by a manufacturer more used to very different industries; of chance events, label rejection, the occasionally violent reaction of fans, and an album whose status has only become more legendary in the forty years since it was originally released.

Suicide was reissued by BMG / Mute earlier in July as a special edition red vinyl LP, forming part of their Art Of The Album series.

My interview with Martin Rev, with additional contributions from the album’s producer Craig Leon, can be found here.

(c) 2019 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Clash

Interview: Stubbleman’s Pascal Gabriel on the making of ‘Mountains And Plains’

Pascal Gabriel – Stubbleman. (c) Pippa Ungar

“I had a plan, and that plan was simply to be inspired,” begins Pascal Gabriel. “I wouldn’t say I was jaded, but I was certainly feeling bored of pop, and bored of the tricks I’d learned. I wanted to unlearn all of that.”

For Gabriel to confess such a disdain for pop music at first sounds like he’s biting the very hand that has fed him for the best part of thirty years. From his pioneering work with samplers on tracks like ‘Theme From S’Express’ by S’Express and ‘Beat Dis’ by Bomb The Bass, Gabriel went on to write and produce countless pop hits, from Debbie Harry to Kylie Minogue to Will Young to Dido, and a cursory glance through the record collections of anyone who bought into pop music over the past three decades is highly likely to yield more than one Gabriel songwriting credit.

If that’s the Pascal Gabriel you think you know, his album Mountains And Plains – released last month by the legendary Belgian Crammed Discs imprint under his Stubbleman alias – represents an altogether unexpected proposition. Stubbleman was the nickname that the staff at Gabriel’s future wife Pippa Ungar’s Carnevale restaurant gave the unshaven patron that would generally turn up each day for breakfast, lunch and dinner, evidently smitten by the owner. It immediately suggests something entirely distinct from Gabriel’s work in the pop field; something much more experimental; something altogether hairier.

Mountains And Plains is a quietly euphoric instrumental travelogue written by Gabriel while journeying across America from New York State to California. Its eleven geographically-informed pieces slot neatly into an electronically-infused modern classical canon, while also sounding only ever of themselves. They veer from wide-eyed wonder at America’s bountiful natural beauty to the ceaseless, intoxicating hum of downtown Los Angeles, containing musical gestures that are simultaneously serene and violent.

It is, in essence, the sound of a producer letting go of his inhibitions and moving in a new and rewarding direction.

Gabriel and his wife started their road-trip from the east coast of America to its most westerly points in October 2016. In among their luggage were two Brompton fold-up bicycles for exploring, a MacBook loaded with software synths, a small keyboard, a portable digital recorder and microphone (known as the Hairy Guys) and a playlist of eclectic music influenced by the trip they were taking.

At the start of the trip, the idea for what became Mountains And Plains hadn’t yet presented itself; the only thing Gabriel knew was that he wanted to do something that took him many thousands of miles away from his pop background. “I’d always loved American music,” he says. “Things like Memphis-based soul, stuff from New Orleans, jazz music and so on. I thought the trip would recharge my batteries and maybe something good would come out of it. As it progressed, I realised it was really working, and lots of great things were starting to emerge. Suddenly I had this little seed of an idea, and it got watered and it grew as the trip progressed. Just after we got to Central Texas, and then by the time we got to New Mexico, I had loads and loads of ideas.”

The concept that emerged was simple, but highly disciplined: using the Hairy Guys – a Sony PCM-M10 recorder with a Sony ECM-MS957 microphone, each equipped with a rumble-reducing windshield – Gabriel would capture the sounds of the natural environment in whatever places they’d been to that day and then write music in response to what he’d seen and heard. “We’d arrive somewhere, we’d have dinner and we’d probably be a little bit tired from the driving. We’d just hang out in town, walk round, and then I’d go home and faff around for an hour or maybe more. If an idea came to me, I’d work on that a bit more, and then if it didn’t I’d just go to bed. Generally, I would try and find an upright piano to play and sample, if there was one, really just to get an idea going. They were all sketches, basically. They weren’t finished pieces, but the melodies, the basic construction and the arrangements, were all written while we were on the road.”

Gabriel never really struggled with the composer’s equivalent of writer’s block. “It’s definitely easier to write if you experience a lot of incredible views and panoramas,” he reflects. “That’s probably why maybe some of the New Mexican and southern Coloradan days were so inspiring, because the vistas were just so incredible. In contrast, Texas is a bit flat and boring. I had to make musical decisions about what was working and what wasn’t working, regardless of the places that I loved. Some places I loved more than others. I mean, Memphis was an incredible place, I really loved it, but no piece made it from Memphis.

“It was scary at the same time as being liberating,” he admits. “For pretty much all of my musical career I’d been working with someone else, so I’d be able to turn to that person in the studio and go, ‘What do you think?’, and you’d get feedback and encouragement back. But with this project I was having a conversation with myself. I’d go, ‘What do you think Pasc?’ and sometimes I wouldn’t know the answer. Back when I still smoked, that’s the point where I’d have gone and had a cigarette and tried to figure the song out, but because I don’t smoke anymore, when I was making this album there was lots of cups of tea and walking around the block. It was a bit like Magritte: every morning, his wife would make him a lunchbox of sandwiches, and he’d go out of his front door, walk round the block, come back to his front door and go upstairs to where his studio was in the attic, and he’d do exactly the opposite in the evening. I did that a few times when I was writing this album, because I wanted to have the cigarette break, just without the cigarette.”

Aside from having someone to turn to and bounce ideas off, Gabriel admits that producing the tracks at his studios in London and France also presented unique challenges. “It was a bit more difficult, because, as a producer and a pop writer, I was very much inclined to think, ‘Let’s go really big. Let’s go Sigur Rós on this and bring on the strings!’ I realised that I needed to set myself parameters. With any project I’ve worked on, I always write down what I call the Ten Commandments – the rules of the project. It’ll be things like staying minimal, using short reverbs, smooth bass and so on. I like to think that it stops me from getting lost. I can break those rules, and that’s okay, because I’m breaking them with intent. It just limits your framework, which I think creates a kind of coherence to the work.” His Commandments for what became Mountains And Plains included phrases like ‘purposefully unrefined’, ‘minimal dynamic shifts’, ‘frame a place and a moment’, ‘sound as a memory’ and ‘say much with very little’; in aggregate, those rules have given the album the fragile, transcendent, impressionistic tone it possesses.

One manifestation of those parameters Gabriel wrote for himself was that the album would not use strings, even though their inclusion would have perhaps been entirely logical. “I love strings, and I think that there’s wonderful, wonderful music made with strings, but I just didn’t want any on this album, because I thought it would be too easy,” he confesses. “When you use strings they glue everything together, and I just wanted space. And if I didn’t want the space, I didn’t want strings to be there – I wanted something else to be there.”

Griffith Park. (c) Pippa Ungar

Nevertheless, true to his mantra that rules can also be broken, Gabriel did add a string passage to ‘Griffith Park’, named for the landmark observatory building on Mount Hollywood that looks down on Los Angeles, a site beloved by film directors, and an important backdrop for James Dean’s Rebel Without A Cause. A frantic string arrangement was added to the track, designed to evoke the waking LA dawn visible from the observatory’s commanding – yet tranquil – vantage point, but in the end Gabriel reverted to his firm desire to leave the strings out. “There’s probably as much music on the album that you can hear as there was that was rejected,” he explains.

During the course of the road-trip, Gabriel accumulated some forty sketches, a testament to how excited he was by what he was experiencing each day. Sometimes his Hairy Guy recordings would feature in the tracks with prominence; on other occasions they’d be processed, stretched and altered, providing a kind of imperceptible resonance alongside Gabriel’s synths, guitars or toy drums. “On each piece they were a little bit fiddled with,” he says. “I would generally filter the rumble, otherwise you’d get this droning sound which is pretty annoying on recordings of the waves, for instance. On ‘Piety Wharf’, which is the last track on the album, it was a mixture of both processed and unprocessed field recordings from an area of New Orleans that we really liked. There’s birds, which were some of the field recordings that were there, and there’s also a kind of sound that’s also the atmosphere slowed down and stretched a lot to make the length of a recognisable note. I synced that up to the piano part, so then it’s almost like a ghost piano part behind the piano. I think it gives that melody a kind of underwater quality.”

Fourteen of the forty tracks were mixed by Gabriel with his friend Gareth Jones, but only eleven feature on Mountains And Plains. Gabriel remains unconvinced as to what he should do with the remaining mixed and unmixed pieces, namely whether they should be given away as free tracks after an unspecified period of time has elapsed, or simply left gathering digital dust on his hard drive, never seeing the light of day. “I don’t like to go back too much,” he muses. “The ones I rejected – they bore me already. It’s hard to kill your babies, but for me they devalued the others, even though some of them were more complex, or more grand, than the ones we kept. For instance, ‘Great River Road’, recorded along the Mississippi, is three chords repeated at different intervals, but it has something about it that’s special. And the others just didn’t quite have that.”

Mountains And Plains navigates us through some of America’s most incredible landscapes, along the dramatic Californian coast, through the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, across the unforgiving barren plains of Texas and beyond, following paths cut by America’s earliest inhabitants and new roads built to replace older ones which are left unused, abandoned and hauntingly visible from the modern freeways. Each piece was accompanied by suggested reading material that Gabriel had used when he began researching his road-trip – the poem that appends Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur (‘Sea: Sounds Of The Pacific Ocean At Big Sur’), socio-geographic maps by Rebecca Solnit, books of Ansel Adams photography, books on trains in America. Alongside the sounds he had recorded and the images he accumulated, these books added another evocative input to the moods of these pieces.

At times those moods can be uplifting, at others there seems to be a certain disappointment in the tone that Gabriel presents. “I’m quite a melancholic person,” he explains, “but I find joy in melancholy as well. I am genuinely a positive person, and I don’t revel in the past. As with everyone, some things upset me and some things touch me, but I always try to think that there is redemption, that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Life isn’t an easy ride for most people, especially in some of the poorest parts of America that we visited, like Alabama. I’ve only just started to analyse it now, but if I go back to my pop work, things like the Peach album, there wasn’t that many tracks that were completely euphoric. There’s always been a little bit of a questioning quality, and I think it’s the same in this project.”

“My guideline for making music is ‘Do I like it or not?’,” he continues. “In the past I’ve worked with people who say ‘Would the A&R guy like this?’ or ‘Would the record label like this?’ or ‘Will the publisher like this?’ I can’t do that. I’ve never been very good at doing that. I can’t work by formula. I just work by feeling. That’s my compass when I’m making music.”

Stubbleman – studio with cat. (c) Pippa Ungar

Pascal Gabriel will perform the tracks from Mountains And Plains at London’s Purcell Rooms on November 20, with support from Simon Fisher Turner. Not a seasoned live performer, Gabriel was faced with a difficult decision over how to present the Stubbleman tracks. “I didn’t want people to look at me too much, and so I didn’t just want to go onstage with a keyboard and a laptop. But on the other hand, to perform these pieces like they are on the album, I’d need six or seven musicians, maybe even more. I obviously physically can’t play everything myself at once.”

Instead, Gabriel alighted upon a novel idea, but one that, perhaps more than anything else, illustrates his firm commitment to the Stubbleman project and its music. “I’d heard about this guy in Berlin who designed little MIDI-to-voltage boxes,” he explains. “The boxes fire up little electric motors, and that pulls a hammer down. You give it a little impulse, it pulls the hammer down, and it’ll hit whatever instrument you attach to it.”

Gabriel spent most of summer 2018 in his shed in France building a number of instruments using these motors, each one housed in an old-fashioned hard trunk Globe Trotter suitcase, which will play alongside himself, a bassist and other musicians at the Purcell Room show. “I’m quite good at DIY,” he says, modestly. “I enjoyed making them. I bought a job lot of piano hammers from the States to get me started with a first set of vibraphones, and then I decided to make another set, this time with xylophones.” Because of their construction, and the space available to him within the Purcell Rooms, the instruments can be spread out across the stage, rather than being confined to a specific place. The result is nothing short of a theatrical, visually interesting means of presenting Mountains And Plains, somewhere between the primitive punch-card automated music of Victorian fairgrounds and the elaborate, often audacious work of Luigi Russolo’s Futurists.

Stubbleman – live rehearsal, April 2018. (c) Pippa Ungar

Talking to Pascal Gabriel and being caught up in his enthusiastic interest for this entirely new direction, it would be tempting to think that he’d throw himself headlong into other road-trips across other countries, repeating the approach taken on Mountains And Plains. Nothing could be further from reality right now. A return to pop writing and production isn’t on the cards, however.

Instead, he has taken his enthusiasm for road cycling and used that as the basis for his next project. Titled 1:46:43, his next Stubbleman album will be an auditory evocation of his best time on the punishing Mont Ventoux in Provence. “It’s very selfish,” he laughs. “It’s not a bad time. It’s an acceptable time. I’d like to beat 1:45 but I’m not sure I’ll do it this year.”

Not for Gabriel, however, the twee concept album approach taken by Kraftwerk on Tour De France Soundtracks; instead, he used the various statistics about his performance recorded by his on-bike computer – heart rate, cadence, gradient and speed – and converted that data into four modular synth sequences derived from the length of his climb to the end of the route up Ventoux.

“You could do it on any mountain, really,” he says. “Like the US road trip Pippa and I did, it’s another journey. With this, you really push yourself to the limit, and every corner becomes an entire state, if you compare it to my current album. Essentially it’s going to be made up of different events along the climb that inspired me differently, and themes that reoccur through the whole thing – for example, something that evokes the feeling of your legs being completely dead and like you can’t go on! I can write themes for those kinds of feelings and then bring them in at different points.

“To me, it’s the same way as how Max Richter’s Sleep is made up of lots of different elements,” he continues. “It’s not a single piece. For example, there’s a few times on the climb up Ventoux where you have these very sharp turns, and I can write for those events, and allow them to repeat at different points during the whole piece.” I’m treated to a brief snippet of this work in progress as our interview concludes; at this early stage the first gestures of what will become 1:46:43 are inextricably recognisable as being Gabriel’s work, but are entirely different to the album he’s just released.

Mountains And Plains, the forthcoming live show and his new work all find Pascal Gabriel enthused and enlivened in a way that he recognises he hasn’t been for some years. “I’m really fired up right now,” he agrees. “I’m mixing different artforms and I find that really interesting after years of observing other people doing interesting things in other places from the pop world I was in.

“When I first came to London in the late 70s I mixed with lots of people from St. Martin’s College Of Art,” he recalls. “I always loved the free thinking they brought. I came from a small town in Belgium and when I came to London and I hung around with them, it was like everything was possible. They were great artists that went on to do many, many brilliant things. I’ve always wanted to do something more artistic, but, over time, pop became my raison d’etre. So what I’m working on right now is a very, very liberating thing for me.”

Mountains And Plains by Stubbleman is out now on Crammed Discs and can be purchased from the Stubbleman website. Tickets for the Stubbleman and Simon Fisher Turner show at the Purcell Rooms on November 20 2019 can be purchased from the EFG London Jazz Festival website.

Stubbleman is published by Mute Song.

All photos used with the permission of Pascal Gabriel and Pippa Ungar.

Documentary Evidence album review: here

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2019 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Electronic Sound 53 – including my Mute STUMM433 feature

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The latest issue of Electronic Sound is now available in the usual high street retailers and as a bundle with an exclusive 7″ from their website. This issue has a primary focus on Berlin, featuring conversations with Alexander Hacke from Einstürzende Neubaten, Mick Harvey, Simon Bonney and others who recall the vibrant creative melting pot that the divided city represented in the late 70s and early 80s. The accompany 7″ features Berlin legends Malaria! while Gudrun Gut from band offers her take on sometime Berlin resident David Bowie’s ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ on the B-side.

My major contribution to issue 53 was a feature on John Cage’s seminal composition 4’33” and the incoming Mute STUMM433 project. For this feature I interviewed K Á R Y Y N, Daniel Miller, Simon Fisher Turner, Irmin Schmidt, Laibach, Pink Grease and Maps, each of whom explained how they approached their performance of Cage’s distinctive piece – where they recorded it, and what instrument they didn’t play. Each of the 58 versions on STUMM433 is wildly different from the next, each one includes its own individual story and accompanying visual, and only one of the inclusions is actually silent – just as Cage would have wanted.

This feature involved me diving back into Cage’s Silence book – something I’d first tackled in my late teens when I found a copy in my local library and studying the score. One took much longer than the other. It also awoke in me an interest in Zen after reading about Cage’s following of these ascetic Buddhist principles.

Elsewhere in this issue I reviewed Colours. Reflect. Time. Loss. by Maps; the score to Marnie by Bernard Herrmann; David Tibbet and Andrew Lisle’s debut Nodding God album; the latest Blow collaboration on Front & Follow by Polypores and Field Lines Cartographer; and a fantastic new Buchla-based concept album by Simon James.

(c) Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Electronic Sound

Maps (Clash feature, 2019)

Six years on from James Chapman‘s last solo LP and his 2016 onDeadWaves project with Mute labelmate Polly Scattergood, Maps returns with the brilliant Colours. Reflect. Time. Loss. on May 10th 2019.

The album takes the signature Maps sound down bold new pathways, finding him collaborating with Erasure collaborators Echo Collective, live drummers and additional vocalists.

Ahead of its release, it was an honour and pleasure to speak to James for Clash about strings, synths and… SodaStream. You can read the interview here.

(c) 2019 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Clash