Xerox Techno: An Interview With Lee Gamble
, December 4th, 2012 04:39
With a pair of new releases on PAN, Lee Gamble has used his background in experimental computer music to create exquisite deconstructions of jungle & techno. In advance of his London show this weekend, he speaks to Angus Finlayson about eluding dancefloor fashions and youthful mystique
This year Bill Kouligas' label PAN, known for releasing challenging electronic music as indebted to the academic tradition as it is to underground pop and dance forms, has been generating a vast groundswell of interest from across the underground. The fact that the label has released some of the finest music of the year is one thing; more astonishing is the fact that it's gained such broad recognition for doing so.
Foremost among PAN's recent coups is Lee Gamble. The Birmingham-raised, London-based producer grew up in thrall to jungle, before an art school education and his own irrepressible intellectual curiosity sent him down more abstract paths. Since the early 2000s, Gamble has crafted dense, purist computer music for the Entr'acte label and others. But following on from 2009's Join Extensions LP and a 2010 cassette collaboration with Yutaka Makino, he's has undergone something of a reinvention. The results, only now emerging - the exquisite deconstructed jungle of Diversions 1994-1996 and, even better, the techno-indebted Dutch Tvashar Plumes album - represent a new approach for Gamble; an inspired syncretism of dance music forms and his past concerns that feels incredibly relevant to late 2012 without allowing even a wisp of faddishness to cling to it.
In telling his tale, Gamble comes across as a tireless innovator - somebody for whom shredding conventions is a default setting, not some once-in-a-career feat. But more importantly, Gamble's tale eerily encapsulates the dominant aesthetic collisions of our times: the dancefloor and its negative, nostalgia and iconoclasm, hi-fi precision and lo-fi impressionism. He tells it here, with supplementary musings on hypnagogia, youthful mystique and the primacy of copying - in the Xerox sense, that is.
So these two releases of yours have generated a huge amount of excitement lately.
Lee Gamble: I know, especially the first one [Diversions], although I didn't really spend that much time on it - nowhere near as much as Tvashar. I made it for a radio programme to start with. I was asked to do a DJ set and then kind of deconstruct it. So I thought, 'I'll go back to my old DJ sets on tape' - some of which were mine, some of which weren't. So I went through this old stash, nicking stuff. I sent it to Bill and he was like, 'Man, I really want to put this out'.
It's interesting how the two releases have such a totally different approach - although they do complement each other nicely.
LG: That's what I was surprised about, is how they do complement each other - that was completely accidental. But I've got tons more material.
From the Diversions project?
LG: Stuff like that, and loads more stuff like the album. It took me a month of narrowing it down just to get a cohesive album together. I've worked solidly since Join Extensions and the tape I did [Lee Gamble / Yutaka Makino], constantly trying to work out what I'm doing. So as a consequence I've ended up with tons of stuff. I'm doing an EP for Alter actually - Luke Younger [Helm]'s label - which should be out pretty soon. But yeah, I did think it was odd the way the [two releases] sat together quite well, because they are completely different. Diversions is something from my youth in a lot of ways. I never really made jungle when I was a teenager. I DJed it, but I never made it.
Diversions addresses ideas of memory, decay, loss. A lot of artists in the last five or 10 years have been working with those themes - the hauntology camp, Oneohtrix Point Never and the other hypnagogic guys. Do you follow that world?
LG: No. The Caretaker is huge, I've been a massive fan of him since the beginning, the V/Vm stuff, so that was undoubtedly an influence. But that was the only one. Some of it's nice - some of this blissed out, weird nostalgic pop that doesn't seem to have a time. I'm a big fan of Hype Williams, stuff like that. But generally, no. A friend said to me, 'You know [Diversions] will get boxed in with that kind of stuff'. But I'm not nostalgic about those days, I'm not bleary eyed about them. It's done, move on! I don't think about it in those terms. I wasn't sitting there, you know, crying making this stuff - not at all! To me it just seemed like a really obvious thing to do.
And the material's rich. I had thought about sampling [jungle] before. Some of the short pad sounds are beautiful, and of course they're from my youth, so they mean something for me too. So I'd always thought that if I was going to go get some pad sounds then that's where I'd go. But yeah, it certainly wasn't the main drive to have this looking back, 'Them were the days' thing. That's not like me! Unfortunately, I'm much more blunt than that.
So you came up through jungle.
LG: Yeah, that was the first proper music which I'd say was my own. I was in my early teens when I started - I would listen from a distance, because I couldn't get into the clubs. I've got a lot of cousins who are four or five years older than me, so of course they would be playing it - not just jungle but house, rave. So there was this youthful mystique to it.
That's another thing with Diversions - someone emailed me lately with a list, like, 'What's this bit from, and this bit?' - and I genuinely haven't got a clue. I could guess at some, but I really don't care. At that time you'd get tapes passed around, and you'd have no idea what the tracks on them were. You couldn't go online, there was no way to find out. You could have this track rattling round your head for five years - maybe still now - and have no idea who'd made it. There's something really nice about that. I like crate digging, I like coming across stuff. So I guess with Diversions I was kind of doing the same thing - just going through, like 'What's this? Great chord! Right, next...' Everything's so there these days with the net, there's something nice about that anonymity.
How did you move from there into the more academic computer music world? Did you at some point reject jungle?
LG: I was really obsessively into jungle for two or three years. I used to go to Coventry a lot to see the guys in Bang-In-Tunes. Neil Trix and Doc Scott were part of that, Neil showed me how to make some tracks in the studio. But you know when you're young and you're really into something - I maybe just overdid it. I remember DJing once at Coventry University, quite a big thing, and trying to introduce - I don't remember what it was, some Autechre or something like that. And it was just not happening. People just wanted kick-snare-kick-snare. And I remember thinking, 'Hmm...' There was this absolutely manic propulsion of creativity in those years [in jungle] and then it started to feel restrictive. You got into that heavy stepper stuff, Ed Rush, it was great, but I was kind of done with it by then. So I think I got bored, and realised I needed to push and push, be able to break this stuff up. The momentum stopped, but I wanted to carry it on.
And then I left Birmingham, came to London. I had this need to feed my brain after school I think. So I delved into it all - the Fluxus stuff, Dada, a lot of art history that influenced music - Cornelius Cardew, Stockhausen, Xenakis. The Serialist stuff. I had no music training so a lot of this was attractive to me because, you know, Fluxus said you could use whatever instructions you wanted to make a piece of music. So I guess I went from one extreme to the other - like, 'There's rules here [in jungle], but then, wow, what's this!?'. I also got into noise music then - Merzbow, Masonna, Whitehouse, New Blockaders, all that lot.
This was early 2000s?
LG: Yeah, late 90s, early 2000s. It was a really fruitful time then, with Mille Plateaux, the Ritornell label, Mego, Touch - there was a lot of really good music out there. There was lot of the movement that I think jungle had lost - lots of new little genres springing up. So I guess it started there, and then for me - if I find Merzbow, I will end up at Xenakis pretty quick, because I'm just nosy [laughs]. That computer music stuff the, the Mego stuff, I really felt connected to that sound. I saw Hecker at Lovebytes in '99 I think it was, and that blew my head off. To have another little epiphany like what I perhaps had back in the day [with jungle] was important. So I just dived into it, spent ten-ish years really hammering it.
During that time did you follow what was going on in dance music?
LG: For sure. Like grime, I just loved it, if I'd been 15 years younger I would've been totally into grime! [laughs] Even when I was doing the brutal heavy computer music stuff and I played in a couple of places, people would say, 'I can hear some kind of rave [influence]' - and I really wasn't trying to make it that, if it was there, it was oblique and obtuse. But I guess it's going to flop out of you at some point. But if you listen to Xenakis it's hardcore as fuck anyway, it's well ravey. It depends on what ear you're lending to it I guess.
But in relation to making music, I kept it really pure. I don't know why - I'd have to see a shrink about it or something [laughs]. In Birmingham there was a thing I used to go to called BEAST - Birmingham ElectroAcoustic Sound Theatre - a very middle class, distant, academic thing. They used to have this incredible - I think it was a 64 or 72 speaker system, this unreal thing that a guy called Jonty Harrison built specifically for this space. But it really was so boring, most of it. These people who have a certain grade on an instrument, and they're on a PhD course and they've got this system and this teacher, then you sit down and listen to their music and it's like [despairing] 'Fucking hell, man... you're bowing a water bowl for 15 minutes and putting it through GRM tools...it's shit!' And I guess I thought, 'Fuck this, I want to have a go.'
It's interesting that you got into that rigorous mode of music-making without going through an institution. A lot of the stuff that comes out of those places is in a similar idiom to what you were doing, but perhaps lacks a certain something.
LG: I think so. A good friend of mine did a PhD in that sort of thing and I spoke to her a lot about it. There's this very rigid... it comes from [musique] concrete and it's very respectful of that history, which is fine. But it gets to a point where it's like, 'Ok, we're fine here, we've got our discipline, we've got our modes of composition. Let's not fuck it up, let's not break it.' It happened in jungle, it happens here - I'm just like, 'What? Carry on breaking it!' It's happening now, in house music - you put on the radio and it's just shit 90s house. Nothing ironic about it, it's just boring.
So you were in this tunnel-vision headspace for a while. Why did you decide to come out of that?
LG: Well, the Join Extensions record, it might not sound it but it was just... a hellish thing, it was really hard to make. Also, early computers, you could fuck 'em up, you could really wrestle with these things - they felt malleable. I bought a new computer recently and it's so powerful you can't really do that. And also, in the past I'd hear Hecker and think, 'What kind of synthesis is that?' So I'd start looking into it. But then that sound gets common - people write UGens in SuperCollider and Max[/MSP] for it, they write a program for it - and suddenly you can just do it. And then what's the point? For me the whole point of those records was like, 'How the hell am I going to appropriate this stuff without having access to the same programs, engineers, code?' Same as Tvashar in a way, it was about making a copy of something, copying in the Xerox sense of the word as opposed to intellectual copying. So I got to the point [with computer music] where I enjoyed hardly any of it. And dance music started to get interesting again for me a few years ago.
What kind of things?
LG: [thinks] The house sort of thing, people like Kassem Mosse, Actress, and acid house had a bit of a resurgence. I came across Jamal Moss' stuff on MySpace - he had about 30 friends on there at the time. And these tracks, I was like, 'What the fuck! That sounds absolutely beaten up, is this old or...?' Again, the intrigue. So I started to think, 'There's something I can cling on to here'. And then personally there were three or four things that happened in my life over two years that were big, huge things to me. So I just thought, 'Fuck it - it's time to start having a bit of fun'. So yeah, I felt it, but maybe noticing a few other heads out there helped. Because the only other thing before that [fusing computer music and dance music] was this really horrible click-housey shit, microhouse - just horrible, horrible.
The album's been described as more accessible than your past work. I wondered how you felt about that? Do you agree?
LG: Yeah, it's good man. I don't want to compromise any experimental angle, but sonically I didn't want [Tvashar] to be as difficult - because some of the earlier stuff is difficult to listen to, and I appreciate that. So with this new stuff I was concerned that it be something people would want to put on. I was chatting to a few mates one night, Bill [Kouligas] and a few other a people, and I said "I don't care if it sounds pompous, I want to try and make something that will last". It may sound arrogant, and I may not even fucking achieve it, but I have to go in there with that, and make something that people will want to go back to. That's why it's all so scuzzy and fucked, because if the kickdrums are too clean then it's aimed at a dancefloor. And a dancefloor is momentary, it's latched onto fashion.
At that time I was going through some of my favourite records thinking, 'I have to think in these terms'. Req['s] One and Frequency Jams, A Guy Called Gerald's Black Secret Technology, Tri Repetae [by Autechre]. Those are timeless records. Not that I'm aligning my own record with that, but it doesn't matter what year it is, they still sound amazing. And the one thing they all have in common is that to me they sound like a copy of something. Req - it isn't hip hop. You could never play a track off Black Secret Technology in a club at the time. It sounded tiny, it sounded like it was recorded in a matchbox, compared to the ferocity of Dillinja or something. So in a sense the Tvashar record is that: it has all the elements [of a techno record], but it's not the actual thing.
There's a lot of music like that around at the moment - music that uses the tools of techno or house, but to some other end.
LG: Yeah I don't think this is unusual at all. I think it's completely obviously going to happen. If you think back to, I don't know, [mid 20th century] electroacoustic pieces, most of the composers would've grown up with the canon of modern classical music. Kids my age and younger grew up on dance music. I didn't grow up on modern classical music, my stuff was dance. So when you have a new generation of people who want to start experimenting, changing the shape of a genre, it seems perfectly natural for them to do that with dance music tropes. There has been a big surge in it recently - but yeah, of course, why wouldn't it happen?
Lee Gamble DJs and plays live at Stoke Newington's Waiting Room this Saturday, 8th December, alongside Konx-Om-Pax and Heatsick. For more information and tickets, click here.