Forever Moving On: An Interview with Richard Youngs
, August 24th, 2011 07:42
With a catalogue numbering in the hundreds, Richard Youngs joins the dots between Galaxie 500 and Pink Floyd, Jandek and Robbie Williams (no, really). ‘I’m still messing about, really,’ he tells David Peschek
It's easy to be bewildered by Richard Youngs' output: there's just so much of it. Before I'd ever really listened to his records I was, stupidly, put off by what seemed to me an unapproachably voluminous discography, by his reputation - as a magus of the avant-garde, or something. What I didn't realise was how much grace, magic (without a 'k') and melody I was missing. His new record for Jagjaguwar, Amplifying Host, is a hazy meditative drift that sounds less haphazard and more beautiful with every listen, building imperceptibly to a subtly euphoric climax. If subtle euphoria seems an unlikely construct, it's something Youngs specialises in, a quality you might call hymnal, and perhaps - if you were really moved to - even numinous.
There's something a bit daunting about attempting to interview someone with such a prodigious catalogue. I feel like I should apologise in advance for not being au fait with all of it.
Richard Youngs: That's OK. It would be a bit weird to be sitting opposite someone who was.
Do you have favourites?
RY: I'm still very fond of [unaccompanied vocal album] Summer Wanderer and Advent, the first music I made that I felt was my own.
You started making music when you were pretty young. Tell me about your childhood.
RY: I grew up outside Cambridge. I'm 45. My dad played oboe in an amateur orchestra for a while, and taught deaf children to play the recorder, which was an interesting thing. I don't to this day understand what was going on there. [My Dad's taste] was pretty mainstream classical with a bit of early choral thrown in. My mum's tastes were pretty much the same except later on, when I was a teenager, she began to like Simon & Garfunkel. But there was really nothing in the house that was out of the ordinary. I did have piano lessons; I had a very good first piano teacher who always encouraged me to mess around, and to play something I'd written. I was about six or seven, and my dad went to Australia for a bit, and I did this sort of blues about him going away which involved a lot of elbowing [of] deep bass clusters! Lord knows how that came to me as an idea... I do remember the teacher was very encouraging about that.
A school-friend had the first two Pink Floyd singles, 'Arnold Layne' and 'See Emily Play'. That was, I think, the first music I heard outside my parents' tastes. The middle section of 'See Emily Play' - at the time I could detect no tune in it whatsoever and I found it wildly exciting. I mean, it's deeply melodic really, if you listen to it, but at the time it was so unlike anything and I thought the songs were so great. To this day I have a total irrational love of Pink Floyd way beyond the Syd Barrett years, probably up to and including Meddle and Live at Pompeii. They kinda lost me when they started becoming a vehicle for Roger Waters' songwriting, when they stop being four guys making music. That stuck with me – that was my background.
You called the piece you wrote for your father a blues. Where did that come from?
RY: I'm calling it that in retrospect. I was feeling something about my dad going to Australia, he was going for six weeks which is a long time to a child.
It brought out something that was innate in you?
RY: Possibly. That's the first thing I can think back to me making.
I'm not asking you to say you were a prodigy…
RY: I don't think I was! I had piano and guitar lessons. Having said that, after the student teacher I had another teacher who had quite a different approach and I lost all interest. I was 10, 11. I never sat any exams. Nor with classical guitar. Again, I had a great first teacher who'd say 'Is there anything you want to play?' and I'd give him a record and he'd transcribe it, and I could play, say, 'Blackbird' by the Beatles. Then I got another teacher who said, 'You're plucking the strings wrong, we're gonna go back to basics.' That just killed the idea of that kind of guitar playing. But by that time I was playing around on tape-recorders, and music was something else: it was Cabaret Voltaire and Public Image.
You're how old at this point?
RY: Early teens. I remember seeing Public Image doing 'Death Disco' on Top Of The Pops and again I could detect no tune in it! It's just a racket but it's glorious – but now it sounds deeply musical. I was maybe 13. A few years later I heard Cabaret Voltaire's 'Voice of America' on John Peel, that was mindblowing for a similar kind of reason. It was a whole new soundworld. Before that, I was mucking around with two tape recorders. I'd got this jumble sale reel-to-reel and you could change the speed, and that was pretty exciting.
There's two, in some ways quite different, strands of English music coming together here. Something psychedelic with something much more…
RY: Hard-edged? But then again Pink Floyd… I don't know. Maybe what I like in them now is different from what I liked then. Back then it was the shock of the new – now it's a familiar friend.
And those early records still sound pretty amazing.
RY: I think so. To me anyway. I'll be at home and put on Atom Heart Mother or something and it's great. I fact I did that the other day.
This is making me think of how much John Lydon loved Van Der Graaf Generator…
RY: Oh, I love Van Der Graaf Generator! I saw them play when they'd reformed a few years ago and they were fantastic.
And actually, maybe what unites all that music, whether it's prog or punk, is progressive impulse.
RY: I think so, yes. I've never really been so much into yer 1-2-3-4 biff/bam rock. Though I like the Stooges – now, in my later years, I can see where they were at.
How did you start experimenting with tape machines?
RY: I got a cheap cassette recorder and one of those really cheap Tandy mics, and found if you put it inside your guitar and shoved it into the cassette machine, it sounded like you had an electric guitar when you didn't. Then you get a friend's one and you can [he says this with tremendous emphasis] overdub. It's very primitive but it's great. It seemed a wildly exciting thing to do. On the reel-to-reel, you could speed it up so you sounded really proficient, or slow it down so it sounded really doomy.
You've had people you've collaborated with over a long period of time, often in duos (Kawabata Makoto of Acid Mothers Temple, Simon Wickham-Smith, Alex Neilson amongst others), but you've never really had a band.
RY: No. When I was a teenager I drifted in and out of a couple of line-ups, involving about six people [in different combinations].
It's a particularly weird psychology…
RY: [It's probably my] social ineptitude. One to one's maybe far better than dealing with a crowd of people.
The groupthink of a band can be pretty fucked up - maybe it's the opposite of social ineptitude?
RY: Oh no, I'm pretty socially inept! There are great bands obviously, with very special chemistry. You do wonder about the dynamics of great bands.
I was once in a trio with Bill Wells and Katrina Pastel, we had a couple of rehearsals, and then I think Bill slipped in the bath or something, and [by the time it came to reforming] I felt I'd done the bass bit. He was on lead, I was on bass, which was a bit of a role reversal. Also, I did a couple of rehearsals with Sushil K Dade [of Future Pilot AKA], me, Bill and Sushil and a couple of sax players as well.
You played in Jandek's band, with Alex Neilson on drums. What was that like?
RY: It was great. I remember Barry Esson who was creating Instal, calling me and saying, 'I'm going to ask you something and whatever your answer is you can't tell anyone: would you like to play bass for Jandek?' And I said, 'Bloody hell, yes!' I would normally say no to playing bass for someone. The whole idea of being rung up on Wednesday and asked, do you want to play bass for Jandek on Sunday, is so otherworldly. [He was] very clear what he wanted. Alex [Neilsen] and I just tried to go with the situation.
What do you even call what Jandek does? It's pretty much sui generis.
RY: Yeah. [It comes] out of nowhere, really. What do you say? 'It sounds like Beefheart' or something? Where do you start?
Talking about how little you play with other people leads me on to the incredible sense of space in your music.
RY: I try to make things denser, but they just sound better when there's space. They get mushy when there's too much density. Having said that, there are also great bands who are very dense. Even if you're only overdubbing yourself, you can get seduced into adding just a bit more – then go away for a few days, strip it back and think, that's way more refreshing.
[With great excitement] The new record's [Amplifying Host] got a drummer on it! The first Jagjaguwar record with someone else on it.
I love the way you say that, like it's Live At Leeds, or something.
RY: It's a breakthrough, a whole new concept! The record was sort of made and I decided it needed some drums on it. I just like Damon's drumming. I discovered Galaxie 500 retrospectively, first through playing with Damon and Naomi and knowing them as people. They were playing in Glasgow, and Stephen Pastel said I think you'd be a good support. And we kept in touch. Last time they were here, at some point after a show we were having a semi-drunken conversation - Damon just loves to drum, and he said, 'I'll be your drummer.' And then he said, 'When's the tour?' So there was a sort of UK tour, four dates.
When we came to play those songs, they were quite different, playing them in the same room.
You used not to like playing live, but you're doing it more now?
RY: Yeah, 10 or 15 times a year. I'm quite into it now. It's a totally different thing to making a record. You've got to make a connection, there's no point being there [otherwise]. There's almost a Mr. Showbiz element to me now – I've done quizzes and auctions! Singalongs! A bit of between song banter always helps as well.
You don't get that with Jandek, do you?
RY: Er, no. I do like to do the Robbie Williams thing occasionally.
You are joking…
RY: No! I did it in Denmark recently, pointed the microphone at the audience and got them singing along. A very simple refrain – I got them singing along, set the microphone in the stand, walked out of the room. Then I came back in, congratulated them and carried on with my set.
You toured with Damon and Naomi in New Zealand last year?
RY: Yes, I was very lucky. I loved the place. Inspired by the trip, I recorded this album Long White Cloud on a four-track reel-to-reel, and despite the technology it sounds nothing like my favourite New Zealand artists. It's coming out through the Grapefruit Record Club.
It seems funny that Damon is playing on a song called 'This Is The Music' – the closing track on Amplifying Host - given that the final Galaxie 500 album is This is Our Music. And if you listen to that song in a bit of a reverie, it does sound a little like Galaxie.
RY: It was one of the lines, and it just seemed so appropriate since he was on it. The full line is 'This is the music of exultation,' but yes. I sent it to Damon and he said something like, 'That sounds like a chord progression I would have come up with.' I don't know how serious he was when he said that.
I'll let you into a secret: all the chord progressions for that album were randomly determined. I bypassed any decision-making and just drew random chords and strung them together. Wrote down - G sharp minor, E7. There were a couple of outtakes, more [to do with] my performance than the un-usability of the chord progression. 'Holding On To The Sea', you could listen to that and think he's making it up as he goes along, but I went with it, I stuck with it. I thought, I'm going to try and make sense of this.
I was wondering about your compositional techniques…
RY: That was a strange one, that's the first time I've ever done that. It's also the first time in about 20 years I've used standard guitar tuning. The first time since Advent, which was done in a particular tuning that I liked – it was pretty random at the time, but I liked it so much I stuck with it for twenty years.
What made you revert?
RY: Because I didn't know how to play G sharp minor in that tuning. It wasn't chord-based, I had to go back to something where I could identify the chords. Oh, also, all the tempos were randomly generated. I used a random number generator to set the beats per minute. [That's] the first time I've used click tracks as well. 'This Is The Music' I had to play at half speed, because it came up so fast. I tried to totally bypass any decision-making.
Was it freeing, working like that?
RY: Paradoxically, yes. I'd come up with something and think, oh, I'll just go with it, not try and invest too much in it at this stage. And in the end, it's quite a mellow mainstream record to my ears. Maybe, maybe not. I'm maybe not the best person to ask either.
It's not difficult.
RY: I don't think so.
It's – horrible word – 'nice' to listen to.
RY: It's very gentle. It's not threatening. [laughter] There's good threatening and bad threatening.
I'm not gonna ask you what things are 'about'….
RY: I don't know what sometimes things are about. It's about sitting in a room and trying to make sense of random tempos and random chord progressions, maybe that's all it's about.
Either as a listener or a musician?
If you generated the chords and tempos randomly, what about the words?
RY: Made up on the spot, mostly. I do have a notebook which I often carry round, with bits and bobs in it. Maybe a straight phrase here and there. But when it comes to doing a song, I'll string things together. ['This Is The Music'] I wrote down before I did it, but the second chorus I did differently in error and kept it. Certainly the side one tracks, 'Furrows Again' and 'Too Strong For The Power', I possibly had five words in front of me. Normally I prepare a bit. Sometimes busking it on the spot can really work, sometimes it doesn't.
Do you like the highwireishness?
RY: I'm a pretty slapdash kind of guy. It's just a personality trait, how I do things. [Beyond The Valley Of] Ultrahits was the nearest I've come to crafting something. It possibly caught me at a peculiar time when I was in the zone to try something. If I tried it now, I might get three songs in and think, sod this.
Do you have a short attention span?
RY: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. Terrible. Especially when it comes to DIY! 'That'll do'. Must do something about that. Definitely.
First thought – best thought?
RY: Yes. Recording a rough version of something and then thinking, must have a better go at that? [brilliantly dismissive sigh] No, that's not my style. Or if it is, I have another go and think 'that's so boring now'.
Can we talk about ...Ultrahits? A completely unexpected album of quite fully arranged, ecstatic pop songs. Well, comparatively pop.
RY: That's a whole different thing.
It's quite 80s…
RY: It's bizarrely 80s in the end. That wasn't deliberate, I was just making pop music. It's quite housey, to my ears. The drum sounds. Again, what do I know [laughter]
In reminds me of The Waterboys, This Is The Sea, in some ways…
RY: I can sort of hear the Pet Shop Boys and New Order in it. The sort of pop bands I like.
I've been thinking that the way you record and release music is about as far from the 'normal' album/tour cycle that most artists on conventional labels are bound or bind themselves into. Your records are recordings in the most literal sense, snapshots of the music as it pours out.
RY: Though they get put out by a label who will…
Some of them don't.
RY: Yes, some do, some don't. Jagjag[uwar] would be the most professional of any label I deal with. I've just started [my own label] again. I've just made an LP that'll only be available from me at concerts. I'm looking into other ways of doing this, but it won't be available from shops and distributors. It's basically a 12” vinyl record inside a cloth No Fans bag, it's good – well, it's nice, a very odd package. The idea is you come to see me live and get a bag to take [the record] home in. And it's kind of strange music on it, it could only be [on my label] No Fans. Jagjag have a profile that no other label I have is on. [They have] Dinosaur Jr, Black Mountain.
Bon Iver was top five on both sides of the Atlantic.
RY: Okkervil River [#32 US, #66 UK]. I'm possibly their art project! They've been incredibly loyal, they're incredibly great people. They always do such a great job – nice artwork, nice pressings
When you say the upcoming No Fans LP is 'strange'…
RY: I mean quite odd, yes. It's called Stormcrash. It's kind of two side-long medleys each about 12-14 minutes long, about 14 song-stroke-instrumentals on it, throughout there's this insane sped-up distorted electric guitar solo – so you could view it as two sort of extended guitar solos with chanting, and random synth interruptions. It's definitely a No Fans record: some of the smaller labels I deal with would probably be up for it, but I wanted it to be a No Fans thing.
Why had you stopped doing No Fans?
RY: I did a few CDRs for a while, but I worry about CDRs' longevity – how they're going to play in five years time. They do tend to crack up. Let's face facts, they're on the way out, no one buys them anymore with filesharing.
There's that great Momus line: 'Clutching my forgotten discs in their forgotten format.'
RY: Yeah, I understand that. I just didn't have the money or the inclination to [keep doing] it [myself]. Initially, No Fans was a statement of fact! I had no fans and had to put out my own records. Now, that isn't a statement of fact and I wanted to see what that was like again, and to maybe make the kind of thing which wasn't easy to get again, because my stuff wasn't easy to get [at the beginning].
Do you subscribe to the theory that the harder a thing is to get, the more we value it?
RY: Not necessarily. But I do remember as a teenager the excitement of tracking something down, that maybe you'd heard on John Peel. It involved a trip to London, maybe to some fairly specialist record stores - and then is it going to live up to everything I've invested in it, cos I've only heard one track out of a crappy transistor radio under the bedcovers… Is it going to change my life as much as I'm hoping it will? Sometime you'd go really off the deep end. Maybe the cover looked so damn good, and you blow what was really quite a lot of money. You'd think, let's do it, let's risk it.
A 12” sleeve is a canvas. Do you like the physical business of handling and listening to records?
RY: Oh absolutely. I've got a nice turntable. If I'm in the living room I'll put on a record. I rarely put on a CD. CDs you maybe put on in the kitchen if you're cooking. Background!
There's a Robert Wyatt album – Cuckooland, I think - that has a silence half way through the CD designed specifically so you can put a cup of tea on…
RY: There is something psychologically right about twenty minutes of music, get up, turn it over. There was an age when people would try to cram so much onto a CD. You'd get a CD and put it in and it would say '74 minutes' and your heart would sink. Whereas if it said 38 minutes, you'd think 'I can deal with that'.
Amplifying Host clocks in at a shave past 37 minutes.
RY: I think alarm bells start to ring if you can't fit it on to one side of a C-90. That's what I grew up with – you could make a tape with two albums and that's probably stuck with me.
Given your output, are you a good self-archivist?
RY: I don't even have copies of everything. There are a few compilations I don't have. I think probably all the vinyl and the CDs which are full albums I do have copies of, though I don't file them alphabetically, so if someone came round and said 'Can I hear that?', it might take a while.
Aren't boys meant to file records alphabetically?
RY: I work in a library. I don't like to take my work home! I'm not anal retentive enough. You'd be forever admiring your handiwork and not moving on if you were archiving yourself like that. I mean, when I get a new record [of mine] I shove a copy in the record racks, and listen to it to check the pressing, and that the right music's on it. [But] I don't dwell on it. I think there are people who are near-on completists. Just move on. Forever moving on.
Are you conscious of amassing a body of work?
RY: Not a great deal. Before I started releasing stuff I made a lot of one-off cassettes, I used to fire them off to my friend Neil Campbell, he was in Vibracathedral Orchestra, we've known each other for years. He had a little suitcase he used to out all these cassettes in, but he's even more slapdash than me, probably when it comes to archiving. But for some bizarre reason he was, for a while, an archivist. He's moving house at the moment – so I don't know if he's kept them. He did this cassette release a while back where he blanked cassettes and then put something on them, so I don't know if he used any of mine!
The social function of music seems very important to you. Particularly when you were a teenager…
RY: Oh yes, very. Often it's all you've got, it's very defining.
So, the body of work…
RY: It was ridiculous to think of that as a teenager. A body of work was something Stockhausen had. I was just messing around. Still am really.
Can you plot any sort of development through the releases?
RY: I think there are phases.
But nothing linear?
RY: [Horrified] No way! I don't think life is linear in that way. It goes back to having a short attention span. If you're like that, I don't know how linear life can be! Some things are linear – you get older. I just don't think that way.
It's often said there's something very English about your music.
RY: Allegedly. I guess a lot of my tastes in music are English. Pink Floyd.
RY: Yes. Having said that, I don't just like English music.
As someone that's lived in Glasgow for…
RY: Almost half my life.
What's special about the Glasgow music scene for you?
RY: There's a real strand of no bullshit, which I love. You can't be up your own arse, or you'll be found out. You can't be fluffy. There's a history of people doing their own thing – there's a reason there was a period when so many bands came out of Glasgow. The mystery that is Bellshill!
Is there any particular Glaswegian or Scottish music you love?
RY: There are some Teenage Fanclub songs I love. John Martyn when he was good, third album onwards, until it doesn't work any more. There's a clip on YouTube from the One World album, with Danny Thompson on bass and a djembe player and this great fuzzy guitar… Solid Air is great, but Bless the Weather is better. The Associates – they had that string of hits, but before that they had those singles that were compiled into Fourth Drawer Down.
It's insane that music, wonderfully extreme.
RY: Yes. 'Tell Me Easter's On Friday', that's a great song.
How would you define the quality of Englishness in music?
RY: I dunno. It's strange, cos you can say something sounds very American, very Japanese, very New Zealand.
Amplifying Host is being billed as very Paris, Texas. Probably because it's drifty and slide-y.
RY: Just cos the guitar goes 'dannnnnnng' – but hey, doesn't the Pink Floyd guitar go 'dannnnnnng'? I guess I sing in an English accent, but the instrumental part…? Well, it's not twelve-bar blues, that wouldn't sound English.
Does the English mystic tradition mean anything to you?
RY: Possibly. I know what you mean, but do I hold it dear? I think as a teenager you always hope to be a lot more profound than you actually were, and I think there's maybe a bit of that still in me. I'm actually quite shallow. I really [still] just piddling around a bit, and having fun. Maybe my fun is more mature [now]. I don't know how mystical I am, you know? I'm really very down to earth.
There is definitely something transcendent, or a sense of the ecstatic, in a lot of your music.
RY: I think you also make a case for it being really pretty bloody-minded. I think Autumn Response is pretty bloody-minded. In terms of having an idea and sticking with it.
In terms of the delay on the vocal?
RY: It wasn't delay, it was multiple performances, overlaid, regardless of if they're out of sync. I think a lot of people thought it was delay. I just recorded the song two or three time and just went with it, and maybe I chopped bits here and there to make it make sense.
I love that record – it was the first album of yours I fell in love with, and because of that I tend to play it people with an evangelical glint in my eye, and it freaks them out. I find that record really divides people.
RY: Oh, it's really polarising.
So much 'experimental music' is dreary, incredibly male in the most drab way, chromatically dull…
RY: Cold, unemotional, I know exactly what you mean.
And your stuff is not like that at all.
RY: I've got in touch with my feminine side! It's very human, hopefully.
In the sense that it's not simply an intellectual exercise, which a lot of that music is?
RY: Can be.
One of the few things I could it compare to would be Arthur Russell.
RY: I love his stuff.
Can we talk about Autumn Response?
RY: Half of it was recorded before my son was born, and half after. I spent a lot of time recording the stuff before, and the stuff after I did in an afternoon flat, and I defy anyone to tell the difference. I can't even remember myself now. I don't know if the editing process came about 'cos I was sleep-deprived off my nut, and had lost all sense of what made sense, and I just thought, 'that sounds great!', listening to it in the middle of the night.
Through making records for Jagjag I rediscovered my love of song. They always get my song records. Having said that, I have sometimes felt when I've sent them something that I'm going out on a limb. But they've never turned me down on anything, so my instincts must be right!
My hunch is that if you do whatever you want, rather than try to play some kind of game, that it actually serves you better in the long run – in terms of career, not just personal satisfaction.
The film-maker Derek Jarman said an artist should just plant their flag somewhere and hope people join them.
RY: Oh, absolutely. And if you plant it in the wrong place, or backed the wrong horse or whatever the metaphor is, then so be it – you've done what you wanted to do, and not thought, well, if I stick with this one thing it could be my meal-ticket.
What's the longest period you've gone without committing something to tape? Is there a compulsion to it?
RY: There is a compulsion. Obviously now you can do everything at home, but I couldn't always do that. There was a while in Glasgow where I had no recording facilities and I had to go back to my dad's place where I had a set-up, which involved a trip down to England, to do that. So maybe a few months would go by without doing something.
And would you get…
RY: Angsty? Probably, yeah! And then I wasn't spending enough time with my dad…
Is it fairly constant?
RY: [If] the place is empty, and I'll fire stuff up and see what comes. Sometimes you don't have any ideas. But usually I'll think, 'I wonder what would happen if I did that?'