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A Quietus Interview

The Musical Osteopath: An Interview With Woebot
The Quietus , May 23rd, 2011 10:08

In a wide-ranging chat, Daniel Baker talks to Matthew Ingram - aka Woebot - about his new album Chunks

Simon Reynold's once described his role as both a critical analyst and unreconstructed proselytizer for jungle as that of the scholar-soldier. It's a common recurrence throughout cultural history; the wide eyed authority on sub-genre who acts as gatekeeper and guide for acolytes and the uninitiated alike, outlining rituals, teasing out submerged connections and possible socio-political readings whilst at the same time diving in. Neck deep in the culture, not simply a tourist. For a while there, it looked like one of Reynolds most notable contemporaries might be about to pull off that rarest of feats – the maintenance of distance between artistic and critical personae. Matthew Ingram's Woebot blog stood out amid the constantly evolving network of sites that make up the nameless online community that blossomed during the middle part of the last decade. It's a matrix of theorising, debate and discussion that is a broad enough church to foster the architecture and design inspired polemics of Owen Hatherley, the radical post cybernetics of K Punk and, more recently, the hypnotically in depth aesthetics of Rouges Foam.

Woebot's site and brief, glorious internet TV series were a good few years ahead of the curve. Ingram realized the potential of the music blog as the ideal tool with which to reconstruct outmoded takes on tired, traditionalised canons. Outwardly unassuming in style, there was an unfussy clarity to his writing. His majestic anti-list lists of his 100 favourite records and 100 favourite jazz LP's showcased an isntinctive grasp of the formally short yet intellectually vibrant sentence. In recent years though, he has decided to cross the floor of the house and start crafting his own music. From scholar-soldier to full on, real life artist, he finds himself in the curious position of having been influential before he even started producing tracks on his trusty MPC sampler.

Although he has now retired both the old blog and it's newer incarnation of Cybore, Ingram maintains a presence in the ferment of cultural criticism by way of Dissensus, his often revelatory forum. It's a beguiling arena in which some of the leading blogger/critics of post-rave writing can be found sounding off alongside the likes of you, me and Zomby. But on the strength of a couple of excellent mini CDs and two long players released since 2008, it is as a musician and sonic collagist that Ingram should now be chiefly known. Following his delightful repositioning of the guitar on last years Moanad, his latest effort Chunks retains an appealing modesty. This time round though, the preternatural junk shop techniques borrowed from hip hop and jungle craft a patchwork forever music. Using sounds culled exclusively from pre motorik blues based rock, psyche and metal it's one of this years most deceptively ambitious releases.

When The Quietus caught up with Ingram, he outlined the rationale behind Chunks and the broader implications of the mostly derisive jettisoning of that records source material as a rockist irrelevance.

On Jonny Mugwump's Resonance FM show recently you played this Krautrock record by Drosselbart. They are an interesting group because they are actually pretty unlike this automaton, clinical stereotype we have of German rock music from that era. It's got far more in common with blues rock than it does with Can. Punk and Krautrock are the twin elepehants in the room on Chunks. The interpretation of those musics in relation the the blues based grooves you are attempting to reclaim seems problematic.

Matthew Ingram: I suppose I'm intrigued by the way that musical history gets re-written.

Neu! were nothing but a whisper on the wind. To actually hear of a band like Neu! in the first place was a feat in itself. I had a tape with one Neu! track on it that my girlfiend's big brother made for her. Without exaggerating, I searched the world for Neu! records. I scoured the record shops of New York, Paris, Vienna, Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh and London for them. It took years of digging to find those three albums. Yet now, and thankfully I suppose, you have widely available Neu! box-sets. Neu! were like the ultimate boogie band. But you don't necessarily choose to always drink schnapps, you'll have a beer.

It's weird how the archly 'minimal' canon of groovy music has come to dominate people's perceptions. It's happened in exactly the same way with the 'out' post punk acts too; Detroit techno as well, I suppose. Part of me is suspicious that this 'emptied-out' music endorses the worst aspects of late capitalism. I'm not a socialist but the lack of character in music, while once it was extremely refreshing and bracing, sometimes seems to me of kin with globalism's strip-lit shopping malls. Of course the ultra-svelte Minimal House is probably the final manifestation of that.

With regards to the slightly gauche blues influence on rock, that was punk's true enemy, but when rock abandoned that slightly daft shaggy quality that was the first step towards the New World Order that we live in now. Kraftwerk, who I adore, do strike me as the ultimate Thatcherite group. And what was Thatcher's favourite track? 'Telstar', which couldn't be less bluesy, as well it being practically the prototype for all the cutting edge modern music of the past 30 years.

Woebot: Argos from Matthew Ingram on Vimeo.

That's interesting because your music seems to have evolved into a reclamation mission, teasing out the otherness of genres that are today either scoffed at or have become plain dull. On Moanad you were attempting to reclaim the guitar as a weapon for the artfully minded middle class white kid, separate it from this swaggering or twee notion of Indieness. What are the main qualities of the music you sample, tweak and reshape on Chunks that you were aiming to recontextualize?

MI: I picked up a lot of blues rock, progressive blues, early heavy metal, pub rock, psych soul, boogie, southern rock and cosmic rock records in the process of putting Chunks together. Records that were quite often extremely famous when they came out, but that no-one (literally) has even heard today. It's that paradox again, where everyone knows the Neu! records, but not the record that sold a million copies. Some of the discs I discovered I'd struggle to listen to them all the way through, but I found qualities in them which kept pushing me further on into the field. Somehow they were more interesting than the now withering established canon.

If there's one thing I'm trying to do it's to reconnect rock with groove. From about 1983, the rhythm section in rock became downplayed. People started to understand guitar music as being all about feedback and the music became all about harmonies and melodies. Blame The Buzzcocks and Sonic Youth. My approach is the same one that hip hop used to reconstitute 1970s funk for all those mid period hip hop albums, and I'm using the same tool the hip hoppers did - the MPC. The way I feel about working with a sampler is pretty much the same as I was saying with Moanad, which is that in some ways, it's impossible to make guitar music like this any more. There's that band The Black Keys I thought were quite interesting, but somehow they end up sounding 'faithful' - in the same way that Zepellin were precisely "unfaithful", therefore with the Akai it seems methodologically that's the way to go.

It feels a bit arrogant to say, 'Oh I just waded in there and took the good bits', because I have a lot of respect for the musicanship and the integrity of those musicians. I had a dream recently where I went up to Birmingham and I sneaked into Roy Wood's house. He didn't know I was there because I was invisible. Yeah, and I woke up and felt really bad about it. Says it all, really.

This leads me to another issue that I think is raised by the record. The eliciting of an instinctive emotion by music, as opposed to a more objectively critical one, saying there is nothing wrong, nothing we should feel guilty about when enjoying, say, a pub rock group like Dr Feelgood.

MI: No, definitely not! Of course not. I mean, the Feelgoods were pretty great. In particular, pub rock has a very bad rep. Pub rock was where UK bands kept with the blues based thing in the face of fashion really. But there's lots of great stuff, if you can get past the gagging reflex ... [laughs]. Like Wreckless Eric - very good stuff. Erm, Nick Lowe's first two LPs. I can't get with any other Costello, but I have a nagging respe't for My Aim Is True - 'Waiting for the End of the World" is pretty astonishing. I love the way he sings in a fake American accent, it's just brilliant. I mean, what a mad thing to do? The John Otway and Wild Willy Barrett stuff, even, I quite like.

For me, it all boils down to one's reaction to The Rolling Stones. Of course the Stones were kind of embarrassing, and muso types make all kinds of apologies and excuses for liking their music essentially as a way of attempting to rationalise their visceral response to them. So they might say that they were like an early Neptunes (not a bad argument) or point to Brian Jones' Jajouka thing etc. But the Stones, like the other great British blues bands - Black Sabbath, Led Zepellin and The Groundhogs - they took something that had been abandoned and made it their own. There's that interesting book by the African-American critic Nelson George on this, The Death of Rhythm And Blues where he endorses the white blues - Clapton and Johnny Winter in particular - but I believe the same applies.

If you were after a proper muso justification of The Stones, Beggars Banquet is your record. Everyone is comfortable with The Beatles contribution to avant-garde music: No.9 and music concrete, Paul playing the radiator at the AMM concert, Carnival of Light, George Martin and the inner space boffins at Abbey Road. But The Stones' equally magnificent innovations are a bit harder for non-musicians to get their head round because you have to understand something about the recording process.

Maybe people take it for granted, or maybe they're not properly aware, but what electric guitarists do is mic their amplifiers. It's a pretty weird process if you think about it. So the science becomes all about what kind of pickups are on the guitar to sense the signal of the reverberating strings, what kind of amplifier, what kind of microphone, how you mic it, and then how to factor in the reverberation of the studio. And with Beggars Banquet they and Jimmy Miller took that and pushed it in insane directions. So for instance Keith Richards would record, not an electric guitar, but an acoustic guitar with a tiny portable tape recorder but pump the recording levels right up so the recording distorted in tape saturation. That's a genius shortcut which circumvents the standard process to electrification, but obviously yields a totally different sound. He'd also pile up six or seven identical performances on an acoustic guitar so the sound thickened and it acquired a chorus effect - again it sounds not unlike an electric guitar but... yeah. And of course, Led Zepellin were also about this.

Even Clapton, there's that amazing tune 'Slunky' (try the Delaney Bramlett mix) - I mean, I'm not making the case for this kind of music as a guilty pleasure, it's frequently more interesting than bloke with laptop.

I suppose that brings us back to the problematic legacy of punk. And a certain strand of post punk too. Listening to how out there and strange groove based rock can sound, especially when it's reformatted in the way that you have managed, you remember that there was actually a fair deal of experimentation going on in this stuff. But people tend to ignore that because, well, it's just seen as daft boogie music these days...

MI: Indeed it was experimental, but it was never boring enough for that to be its central drive.

A lot of this music has a transatlantic quality and that's obviously why it became a pariah in the punk era as well. I used to find that problematic but recently I've just thought... hell yeah! What we Brits forget about America is that America is not the same entity as England - America was where all the world's dreamers went. at its very core, it's polyglot. Its identity is chimerical. I doubt many Americans in the 1970s complained that The Rolling Stones were singing with American accents! Their culture was up for grabs.

That's one of the reasons I've always been slightly uncomfortable about people saying that there is a need to react against the blues. It seems like a lot of interpretations of punk would always focus on the most reductively white elements without noting that people like The Stooges swung...satanically, dumbly maybe, but they did. Why do you think this element of the music became so frowned upon?

MI: Partly it's a legacy of the 1980s inkies attacks on Rockism. Rockism, as I'm sure people know, was the pejorative description of everything that they felt was sincere, predominantly male, rootsy, driven by auteurs. It's not a mode which is exclusively attached to rock music. Dissensus, the forum that I run, is notorious for taking a Rockist angle on dance music. But rock music of that era was eternally tarred by the description. We forget that punk was non-groovy by design. Then the post punk artists tried to find some way to invoke the mode without seeming dated, by an engagement with reggae, krautrock and afrobeat - but really the break had been made.

Of course, there's a whole swathe of sad old men just like me who identify with this era - though maybe less so these days... Record Collector is carrying a huge feature on Krautrock this month. But why did people stop being funky? Cocaine has played a role, and the sex industries probably as well, but also I think there's a massive dearth of both love and intensity of emotion in the West these days. I'm not religious, but as a culture Islam is probably right to be as suspicious of us as it is.

There are certainly people in underground music scenes who still think that way. One of the most common complaints I hear from them, usually in relation to hypnagogic pop or hauntology, is that people are losing their critical radars - that there really are certain types of sounds (gaudy synths, guitar solos, earnest vocals, new age ambience etc) that are aesthetically undesirable to revisit. But certainly artistically speaking there is a climate now that seems more conducive to the reevaluation and rehabilitation of the formerly frowned upon than ever before.

MI: I'm a bit wary about being used as a stick to beat hypnagogic pop and hauntology over the head with, actually. There's lots of things from those fields that I like, and I suppose what I'm doing unquestionably bears relationship to it. Like Ariel Pink and Rangers, or The Focus Group and Moon Wiring Club.

Without wanting to get too autobiographical, I will always remember my first day at Camberwell Art School Foundation course. All the other students turned in these magnificent, messy, expressionistic paintings and I did this picture in clear colours, which was terribly neat and literal, and I was so embarrassed. I was actually ashamed of myself.

Woebot: Roger from Matthew Ingram on Vimeo.

That reminds me, I'm glad you flagged up your use of techniques most commonly associated with hip hop because I think that's a major part of the records appeal. What kind of practice have you developed with the MPC? It seems to me that some of Chunks most striking passages, the bits that really gouge out the weirdness of some of the source material are the unexpected tweaks you drop in at certain moments.

MI: The real charm with sampling are things like the mismatch in tunings, the jump cuts between source material and the unique grain of each element: its own individual recording technique, its recorded sound (right down to the crackle and pop off the record) basically the stamp of 'Zeit'. In many ways they're the inconveniences in the way of creating something coherent. That tension between coherency and incoherency is the fulcrum in sampling music.

I spend a huge amount amount of time stitching things together. Often for a single two minute track, I will have half an hour of tiny bits and bobs loaded in and it can be a real wrench discarding stuff that is gold, but that just won't bend into shape. I reckon only about a tenth of my source material I'm able to use in the end. It does take a long, long time. Chunks took about 10 solid months in which time I also pulled apart my studio and rebuilt it from the ground up.

Some people can get quite uptight about the notion of subjectivising things too much. There is an idea that sampling can become a corrective tool whereby a source is refracted through the prism of your own prejudices. It's not something I think is applicable to your music at all but it is a part of a wider discussion I suppose...

MI: Of course I know what you mean, but at the end of the day, when anyone is making music it does become about choices. So for instance, a synth person might wade through a thousand patches looking for that patch which they like. Equally, and this has really surprised me, when you're playing the guitar you work through chords and you'll go 'Hmm, E minor, hmm I like that chord, ooh Major 7ths they're really nice, D Minor 7th - yuk, that's ghastly'. So the same thing applies to tunings as well.

The corrective thing as well, when people go to an Osteopath, they'll get their spine pushed back into shape. I sort of think my approach to music is a bit like that - not very catchy though, is it? 'The Musical Osteopath'!

There is something about that approach that reminds me of jungle. Obviously the music itself is something quite different altogether but as someone who is renowned for a love and documentation of British bass music culture, some of that must seep into your approach?

MI: Absolutely - but I guess it's a bit like your unfashionable uncle in his loon pants accidentally making something vaguely jungle-ish. Of course the MPC had a big role in jungle, because a lot of the junglists were frustrated hip hoppers. SUAD for instance, whether they used an MPC or not, it might have been the Emu SP-1200 (a similar hardware sampler) or indeed even if they used Cubase, they were making 'fast hip hop' - that's how they saw it.

The MPC actually has a great secret history of English eccentricism because it was part-engineered by David Cockerell, the same genius who developed the EMS products like the VCS3 and the Synthi-100 as well as the Electro Harmonix Small Stone Phaser - one of the completely essential guitar pedals. So in using it I like to think I'm not totally off the beaten track.

This brings us full circle because your learning to play the guitar right? How's that going and are you hoping to eventually make music using only live instrumentation? The potential move from sample based stuff to an actual guitar is interesting in that a lot of the most stridently anti-groove, anti-rock of post punk groups would see electronics as a kind of musical purity and gravitate towards them...

MI: It's going pretty well. The amp on the cover is mine actually, one I picked up where you live, Glasgow. Glasgow has a privileged relationship with rock. I think the more I've got into making music, from having just been someone standing at the sidelines for a very long time, the more I've sensed that the barriers set up around instruments and how that maps on to genres are pretty flimsy. The guitar for instance, more than electronic music, is about the recording process. So while you might think that working with Soft Synths in a DAW places you in a more lofty, structural, analytical relationship with your material but it isn't so at all. I've come to think as working with the MPC as being quite like another recording device in the chain - like a guitar pickup.

I'm pretty hesitant to go entirely down the live instrumentation route, actually. That would be terribly boring. If I use more instruments than I currently do then I'll just be sampling them and feeding them through the same workflow. On the last LP for instance, I sampled a lot of acoustic guitar lines and then fed them through guitar pedals - it's magic how something like a bit of Julian Bream or John Fahey, a bit of delicate acoustic strumming, suddenly sounds like monstrous rock music.

Woebot's Chunks LP is available now from boomkat.com.

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