Isaac Newton & Mind-Altering Loops: Standard Planets Interviewed
, July 1st, 2011 11:34
Standard Planets tell us about science, krautrock and their debut album Providers Of Utopian Energy
"The interesting thing is that people never compare us to bands," muses Standard Planets’ vocalist, drummer and synth-manipulator Ben Webster, who comprises one third of the band along with Robert Tubb (guitar, vocals and laptop) and Ewan Fisher (bass, violin, synth and electronics). "They always imagine scenes in films, landscapes or personal experiences." And for those unfamiliar with Standard Planets, there is something undeniably visual about their epic soundscapes, which draw upon elements of krautrock, psyche and drone but without ever resorting to mere replication or imitation. The band formed in 2009, after Webster and Tubb left their old group Le Spiel to focus on their own project; later, Fisher answered an advertisement to be a housemate of Webster and – because they were "both riddled with anxiety and obsessed with music" – he became a natural fit to join the duo. Now, their debut album Providers Of Utopian Energy is in the can and should, fingers crossed, be released this year; next week, meanwhile, they’ll provide support for Quietus favourite Damo Suzuki at Café Oto (July 8). We caught up with Standard Planets to quiz them on Stephen Hawkins, physics, intellectualism in music and what constitutes the perfect utopia…
Hello Standard Planets. Could you please tell us the history behind the band?
Ben Webster: Well, Rob and I were in a four-piece band called Le Spiel. Two of the guys decided they wanted to make improv stuff so I asked Rob if he wanted start a band together that made actual songs. He wasn't sure at first because he was so busy with Cursor Miner stuff, but came round after a few days. We had a warehouse in Bow at the time and managed to fall out with all our other housemates, mainly because I was in the beginnings of a breakdown and they trashed some of our equipment and refused to replace it, and so spent most of our time hidden away in the back room of said warehouse to get away from them. This was the basis of Standard Planets, although at that point we were called Defo.
A few years later I moved into another warehouse just at the end of Brick Lane. Ewan randomly answered an ad for a new housemate and moved in. We got on really well, mainly because we're both riddled with anxiety and obsessed with music, and would spend evenings playing each other music we liked. Finally I asked him if he wanted to join the band in 2009 and he just fitted right in from the off.
Ewan Fisher: I met Ben first when I moved into a warehouse where he was living back in December 2008. Ben and Rob used to practice together there so I got my first taste of Standard Planets' sound then, usually whilst huddled up making my own music in my room, and enduring what was a particularly harsh winter. Ben and I pretty soon bonded over music and bad puns, and I got to know Rob around this time as well as a result. I had played with various bands before I moved to London and after a few months of hanging out, Ben asked if I'd like to join to help out with the live reproduction of the quite complex arrangements he and Rob had created in the studio. We had an intense 2 week prep for our first gig as a three-piece and it just went really well. We seemed to develop a good dynamic really quickly.
Your moniker is wholly appropriate for a band with such a wide-ranging scope of influences. Are Standard Planets a band with grand aspirations?
BW: I heard a story recently about a Dalston indie-punk band who wouldn't sell t-shirts or release anything apart from CDR's because they thought it'd be selling out. It's become almost a badge of honour do as much as possible to hide yourself away from anyone except your 'exclusive' circle of friends. In some ways, I can understand that it's a reaction to the over-commodification of music, but it just seems really childish and contrived in its aims as I really don't think this is why the whole indie-punk thing is going down that route. This attititude is totally summed up in an interview with Vivian Girls I saw about a year ago when they talked rather disparagingly about Co-Workers. I find all these hipster politics truly hilarious and nausiating, and it's clogging up large parts of east-London. Aspirations of having your music heard by as many people as possible is not something to ashamed of. We're just not scared of wanting what those guys are seceretly wishing for. It's part of the reason I moved away from London and I'm glad to be away from it to be honest.
EF: Musically speaking I suppose we are trying to create something quite grandiose and intense. In terms of ambition to be heard and enjoyed by others, I agree with Ben. We’d all like to be heard by more people, as many as possible in fact. Every musician/ artist has their own internal motivational ratio of this, versus making music just for the love of it, and that’s fine. Personally, I just want to make something that I am truly happy with, push my own limits, and keep on learning. If I do that, then I feel confident that others will want to hear what I/we produce as well. At this point ego becomes irrelevant because you are not playing to people in order to feel validated in what you do because you already feel that way for yourself.
RT: Bad music that's heard by a lot of people is a failure, but good music that's heard by no-one also fails. The ultimate goal of any endeavour should be the betterment of the lot of all living beings. Anything less is pointless. Music can raise people, their mood, their connections with others, their awareness. Everything can be done better.
Are we correct in saying that space and philosophy play a key part in your work? Both in terms of sound and lyrically as well? Why are these concepts of interest to you, and what do you feel you can express through them?
BW: There's a quote by one of the guys from Cluster, I think, where he says that he didn't want to make music that sounded either British or American so he headed for the stars; I think it's the same for us. I also think that there's an interconnectivity within our universe that we've got too far away from in our everyday perception of the world around us. If, for example, you look at the structure of an atom then it's loosely the same as our solar system i.e sun = nucleas, planets = particles, and scientific models resemble a huge amount of the way in which we interact with each other as either humanity as a whole or a small group of people, metaphorically or otherwise.
I'm not saying I adhere to Newton's ideas of us living in a purely mechanistic world, but I think it's far less disparate and chaotic than people are willing to comprehend. And, no, I'm not religious. We like exploring this interconnectivity lyrically and using scientific models as metaphors for human experience, that much is true. I'm not an intellectual; I'm not that bright; some would say half-educated, but I do think about these things a lot. Rob studied phillosophy and physics, and owns part of Mars, and I know Ewan reads a hell of a lot.
EF: They are themes we are all interested in, yes. For me, they involve concepts that I struggle most of the time to even begin to wrap my brain around, but I enjoy exploring that feeling. Did you know that if you took a teaspoons worth of material from a neutron star and brought it to earth, under earths gravity that amount of material would weight about the same as Mt. Everest due to its density? Anyway, these things are quite simply just interests, and what does any artist or musician do but process basic human ideas and feelings though the interests they have, finding analogies and drawing abstract likenesses? There are an infinite number of ideas and metaphors to express normal human things, all of which equally valid.
RT: It's a fun activity trying to imagine the world as it really is, the forces and waves, the vastness of space, the bent space of gravity - it's somehow comforting to know that's all out there on another level while we're stressing out about insignificant nonsense down here. I'm studying music signal processing at the moment and it's amazing how much beautiful maths is present in sound waves and music. Why would humans have evolved to sense this and find it connects with them in a deep way, and even makes them move about in ridiculous ways? Possibly it all points to something deep.
In light of that, do you think there is ever a danger in over intellectualising music in this way? For example, I know you’re currently working on a track called ’The Polite Incumbant’ which is about religion and consciousness, which sounds pretty heavy…
BW: Going back to what I said before, we are very selfish with our music in the sense that we write about what we think about and what interests us, and don't really care about showing the world a reflection of itself or making stuff that anyone else is going to particularly find easy to listen to. We're also not really interested in writing about being authentic, partying, taking drugs and acting as if we're in some 90's slacker movie, which seems to be somewhat of a current obsession with bands at the moment. That said, we do have a song called 'Tramadol', but that's not about taking drugs recreationally. If Rob or Ewan came to me with a three-hour noise piece about their pet mouse then we'd explore it as we have no boundaries or rules musically. Nothing is off limits. I never really listen to lyrics anyway, apart from Scott Walker and The Fall. For me the question of intelligence and music is one that should be left well alone.
EF: I think there is certainly a danger of over intellectualizing music, but that doesn’t concern me with what Standard Planets do. What I mean is that if it’s contrived to appear intelligent, then that is not good. But the uncensored approach we take is more just about allowing ideas to flow rather than being intellectual. Similarly you can contrive music to imply you are more working class than you are, take more drugs than you do, have a bigger capacity for love than you in fact do, all of which would be equally as bad as trying to be clever in your music. But if you just create, and what comes out is an honest reflection of what you are about, then I see no problem with the outcome. At the same time not everyone is going to want to listen to that, but that life.
RT: I agree, I think you've over intellectualised music if it's not connecting with people, or if you need to read a book to tell you why it's good at all. The bottom line is that it should sound great, but once you've got it there then you can add other concepts on top and go as high falutin' as you like. As long as you have that solid base. But of course sometimes just being immensely stupid can create good music too.
One of The Quietus’s favourite figures is Professor Stephen Hawkins. Who do you consider to be the most influential and important scientists? And as an aside, did you know that Stephen Hawkins couldn’t read until he was eight?
BW: Isaac Newton's got to be the daddy. Rob's probably the best person to answer this question.
EF: Didn’t know that, no! Good fact. Euclid with his Elements was pretty important, from what I can make out.
RT: Emmy Noether - well underrated. Look her up on Wikipedia. Or if you want a brief explanation she proved that any symmetry of space time has an associated conservation law (You've covered this before in The Quietus right?) For instance the fact that if you do something in Barking (for example) it will have exactly the same outcome as if you did it in Delhi means that momentum is always conserved - leading to all the laws of motion we know and love. Bad ass but true! But she couldn't ride a bike until she was 27.
Your debut album, Providers Of Utopian Energy, is going to be out this year. What can you tell us about the album? What would Utopia look like for Standard Planets?
BW: We haven't actually got a label yet. Over the last month we've had quite a few people from labels say they like it and are coming to see us over the net few months, but nothing signed, so this album could just sit on our hard-drives gathering dust. Hopefully not though. The album was written, played, produced, mixed, arranged and recorded by Rob and I over the last three years in various warehouses and bedrooms. The only problems have been recording drums as we don't really have a huge amount of mics, and warehouse spaces tend to make things sound a bit boxey. We just want to release it and see what happens. The only aspiration we have is that it raises enough money for our pirate ship.
You leave the biggest question of the whole interview to the last. For me, to visualise utopia in its entirity is impossible because the idea of a utopia is contradictory in many ways. I would say that since the mid to late 1970's the idea of progression to a greater good and a shared vision of a utopian ideal has been lost, and I think that has a lot to do with the fact that capitalism as an economic base has gone reletively unchallenged by any realistic alternative since then. We want people to get back to believing, contributing and progressing towards a common utopian ideal. I lived and worked on a farm for six months up until three months ago, did nothing but teach employment skills to adults with learning disabilities, grew what I ate and made music; that's as close to utopia as I've ever come.
EF: Most of what exists as our current/as yet officially unreleased album, was recorded prior to my joining the band so I missed a lot of that. We’ve been working into a lot more in our little home studios over recent months though, adding to it and tweaking what was already there though. Between the setups Rob and I have, despite being quite technologically modest, we are able to make and capture the sounds we want without having to shell out for expensive studio time. It seems to me that it's just not worth it for many bands these days to bust their bank balances in that way, when so much can be done at home. The restraints of having just eight hours at a studio to lay down all your tracks and get them mixed before your money runs out would be a creative struggle for me… You have infinite freedom to be creative and explore ideas working at home to your own schedule. In this way, we are very lucky, but then so is any musician these days who owns a laptop, soundcard and a bit of software. Drums can be tricky, but never an insurmountable problem.
Ideas of Utopia? It guess it would be less about some stable plateau of communal perfection, but more about a world there was a genuine common societal goal, selflessness, choice for everyone, along with constant positive development of some kind.. Theoretically appealing, and also completely and absurdly practically impossible.
RT: The process of 'home studio' recording is something I've always loved. And it is the future - the idea of a 'studio recording budget' is going the way of the dinosoars. It would be nice to have a building full of tasty vintage gear but I imagine you'd just constantly be fixing it.
Utopia is a nice cup of tea, some chocolate biscuits and a mind-altering loop....
To buy tickets for Standard Planets and Damo Suzuki at Cafe Oto, click here.