Actualise The Minimalism: An Interview With Thought Broadcast
, June 26th, 2014 07:53
Matthew Kent catches up with Ravi Binning to discuss the brilliantly stripped-back rhythmic machinations of his latest Thought Broadcast album Votive Zero, improvisation as a freeing tool, and the crucial distinctions between noise and techno
Photos by Alexandra Gorczynski
It might seem strange to have two debut albums, but Ravi Binning's Thought Broadcast project fully arrived in 2012 with a double header of LPs that - by chance, coincidence, competition, crossed wires or whatever - both purported to introduce us to the new artist at once. They did so with similarly exacting charm, even as their contents slipped and churned in different ways. In many ways the inseparability of Emergency Stairway on Editions Mego and the self-titled LP on Olde English Spelling Bee immediately indicated how rigorously conceived Thought Broadcast was from the outset, with Binning's releases as musical grimoires that fuse a constant improvisatory technique with trenchant belief in the systems of knackered machinery. Over these records (and others since, including a brilliant tape for Kiran Sande's Blackest Ever Black sub-label Krokodilo), he plots out deceptively simple formulas and rhythmic grids that are grotty and monochrome in equal measure. Constant frenetic motions are locked into methods of repetition, reduction and distortion.
One might immediately identify the sound as the simple descendant of early 80s industrial and tattered punk; obstinately lo-fidelity, obstinately obtuse, another new branch in the present tangled weave of re-employed reference. Records like Emergency Stairway certainly collect and consolidate disparate references to some of these past forms. There are threads of association, whether coded or explicit, tucked in the folds or squirrelled away in crafty titles to be discovered by those keen (or fervent) enough to excavate. These include lineages of noise, industrial, dub, and the kind of primeval electro essence of artists like DZ Lectric and Alexander Von Borsig and cult imprints like Das Cassetten Combinat and Vanity Records - perhaps even links to performative or visual artists like Hermann Nitsch flaying carcusses in one of his exsanguination ritual Aktions.
Thought Broadcast can easily and exquisitely be connected to a long lineage of improvisational, performative and experimental music. However, it's bringing these combinations into a contemporary context that connects Binning's project to new issues of our time. You could see these sonic projectiles as mirrors back onto this present reality. The term 'thought broadcasting' is of a common symptom of schizophrenia that can arrest or paralyse a sufferer with delusions that others are able to hear their innermost thoughts - and Binning's use of it hints towards current 'media identity schizophrenia'. His work does indeed often seem so loaded with a weight of information, desire or secrecy that the result feels overwhelemed and self-crippled. But at the same time Binning reserves the right to withhold himself from cross-examination around these themes and symbolic gestures, making their meaning non-concrete and tantalising.
That his new album Votive Zero continues to explore this, thematically, aesthetically and sonically, should come as no surprise. Binning's model arrived more-or-less fully formed with those first few records, and the new album continues its tightly focused trajectory. But as a major work it feels like the strongest and most penetrable of his releases to date. It's not as though much melody or some new softness has been introduced - this is still abrasive, extreme music, where tracks are twisted and skewed, spat from the machine. But the omnipresent sticky grey coating accrued from that process seems a little easier to scratch away this time around. And the sense of reward feels greater, as the music opens up new secrets on repeated listens. Remarkably this might be because they are the result of the Thought Broadcast process being even more radically stripped down.
With Votive Zero due any day on Editions Mego, and precious little channeled direct from the artist himself, the Quietus opened a conversation with Binning over email to try and find out a little about the project as a whole.
I think I want to start by asking how much mythologies and established genres feed into the project. I tend to find that contextual information or critical conjecture on Thought Broadcast will first be prefaced by a list of reference - the calls to specific avenues of noise, punk, early 80s industrial, etc. I wonder how much you do actually tend to look back as a way of informing your practice.
Ravi Binning: Reference lists make the work of experiencing a band or project thinkable for critics. But this mode of making sense of something ossifies the work and liquidates its presence into a sum of handy catch phrases. It collapses the possibility for a personal meaning into a routine profile. It prescribes art and music for quick consumption and even quicker digestion. Who could be surprised by the fact that this is a critical recourse in an age when you can wave the flag of nearly any cultural signifier without ever being held responsible for your actions? But people making guesses that Thought Broadcast has influences can give themselves a round of applause - I'm glad you're catching up!
I've never been interested in work that doesn't emerge from some sense of first hand engagement with the past or the material remains of the dead. But then again, I don't really consider the influences you mention as past, because I encountered them in my own lifetime. Ultimately, I make sounds in Thought Broadcast that I myself want to hear. There are definitely records that I hold onto dearly as sources of inspiration though, but these are amulets and not fetishes. My experience with these forms of music that you mention was never virtual - it's a product of what I grew up with, what were living modes of expression. In terms of situating them as historic movements, though, which is to your question: the modes of refusal that older units insisted upon may not reflect the current situation. But the spirit that drove their tactics ought to be admired and their methodologies reproduced to certain degrees. Historic punk and so-called industrial bands were dealing with a similar, but somewhat different, set of problems than Thought Broadcast is now. We have separate traumas.
What are these different problems you are grappling with then that potentially distinguish your work as relevant to the "current situation"?
RB: Thought Broadcast is relevant to the current situation because it was born of, and therefore exists within, the current situation. As sound, music has little do with this. But the objects, images and words that emerge from the personal process of the project, even the mode in which they are set in to the world, surely reflect what I find in reality that drives me to the action of creating. They mostly relate to a sense of psychosexual chaos, the limits of a body, slavery to language, the hijacking of affect, and the right to remain silent about my identity. These impressions are somewhat consonant with age-old issues of the underground. However, they have reached different heights in the present and are filtered through my mostly solitary work.
So the stance you detail is not about a suppression of identity in order to be wilfully annoying or difficult, but rather a reflection and subversion of a growing trend towards a constant need for validation and explanation. For spilling every detail in every channel as early and fully as possible. I've heard arguments that it brings you 'closer' to the work in some way, but in my experience it becomes shallower and disinteresting instead.
RB: I find freedom in humble, anonymous process. So Thought Broadcast isn't fetishising anonymity as a concept - though it may be invested in charting the possibility of it. The music I respected most was partly anonymous or marked by a real sense of absence and distance from the source. There is a power inherent to this self-erasure and I am certainly inspired by how making a bad copy can render someone invisible. But in addition, it seems to me that even in the recent past, artists and musicians weren't so distracted by the mirror or by the impulse to connect. The work itself was consuming enough. Now, the work is so besides itself that humility in process may be a quaint notion.
Today, it's probably true that things are produced now with their critical reception already calculated. Constant validation and explanation keep this petting zoo open. To this world, Thought Broadcast releases are dead on arrival. The model of circulation for my work is still bound to a trading network that has been in place for decades, so I would not even say it is particularly extraordinary in that respect. It comes from a culture of the purloined letter; where the only way to ever know a person might be through a tape here or a seven-inch there or the absence thereof passed down through word of mouth - all of which may reach you like an ex-voto carving. This music existed and will continue to exist regardless of validation.
Are performances as Thought Broadcast happening regularly? I know in the past you've spoken about wanting to explore what's possible with performative sound and "event".
RB: There will be shows this summer in the US and in Europe, with the release of the new LP happening on 16 July in Manhattan. There have been a few Thought Broadcast shows already. One took place at Opratheque in Providence, Rhode Island last summer. Few people were there but this sort of show is the blood of the project. It was thrilling because it was unclear whether or not it even happened, if it even counted as a show. Sometimes it takes a while for the light to come on. There is a culture now of wide invitation, easy archiving, predictable documentation, live streams. Music happens, shows happen, experience is totally determined and fixed because you can so quickly hit the return button. Experience itself is experienced. Thought Broadcast stands against this and demands to set up the conditions for its visibility on its own terms.
I'm still working on the live side of things. I will say that when executed properly, performed events contain the potential of having no conclusion. There's an aspect of secrecy in their transmission, and this is a factor about which many people who might not have been there can complain, for probably many reasons that don't really concern me. Instead, what does concern me is the pulse, the sense that it has to be done anyway, even if there are just a few viewers in attendance. Thought Broadcast exists under no other pretence than the fact that it has to be done anyway. But to go back to the other point: the real explosion occurs when something first witnessed by a few people goes on to be heard by hundreds, and so on. In terms of their direct sonic intensity and dangerous transmission potential, old bootlegs are a central source of inspiration, even a model, for the recording style of Thought Broadcast.
How key is improvisational technique to you?
RB: This technique is central. It gives you an unconscious ability to float in and out of forms, engaging some, and sketching and executing from other kinds of memory traces. It's also a dangerous place where the coordinates for a total loss of control can be mapped. When I was growing up in music, your ability to improvise or jam was what made or broke you. Growing up, I always admired free jazz musicians. The presence of chance, how you react to it, is the essence of the skill. I'm not driven by an obsession or fetish for music equipment or by any kind of virtuosity with regard to playing. This is not how I work. I'm not an electronic craftsman. The presence of chance is the key thing that makes Thought Broadcast totally separate from techno music. Improvising with really minimal set ups allows all the wounds to show - most tracks on Votive Zero were high points from months of attempting to get the most out of just two channels. My process is about getting the impression across immediately, like an encaustic effigy painted on wood rather than a clean, mimetic image on a screen.
So improvisation is the key difference between Thought Broadcast and techno. Is it one of the only differences? Techno, like noise, often has that certain libidinal energy to it - and I'd argue that Votive Zero particularly balances the scale between the pull of rhythm and the push of noise.
RB: I am not sure I can comment much about this as techno is not something I know much about. Thought Broadcast takes sonic inspiration from many groups that techno may have looked to for influence. However, techno and noise have nothing to do with each other. Noise does not possess the coordinates or fixed gestures of a genre. Instead it chooses who its prisoners will be and takes them on its own terms. When I was growing up, noise was all about freedom and the personal. Noise is the practice of an artist while techno is more so the craft of a producer, it seems. The practice of noise for me was mostly a personal act, a gathering. Techno exists as always ready for you. Its power comes readymade for experience like an impersonal sexual encounter - which is different from both romance and the general force of eroticism. So, the biggest difference for me may be in the lack of other criteria for techno. The culture of noise always seemed the most immediate expressive venue for me when I was growing up - it was a site for perpetual sonic and aesthetic shift, and perhaps this was its only rule. Its method of circulation was very private and personal and this forced the music to exist beside itself for better or worse. As to the new work, Thought Broadcast has always been rhythmic, so Votive Zero is nothing new in this respect.
Is there a progression - logical or otherwise - to your releases beyond simple chronology? Is there anything central to Votive Zero that allows it to stand apart from Emergency Stairway and the O.E.S.B. LP?
RB: Conceptually speaking, no, there is no progress - although the practice surrounding Thought Broadcast changes as I change. The Olde English Spelling Bee LP was recorded in 2010 but did not appear until virtually the same month as Emergency Stairway, which was recorded in the March/April months of 2012. Between these releases, Thought Broadcast is almost two entirely different projects. The self-titled LP was a personal counterfeit, the product of a 23 year-old's sense of anonymous freedom. That record was lost for a while. Emergency Stairway is a more nuanced but wilder record. The machines had been worked to my liking and worn in at that point. Thought Broadcast was strategic enough to draw the lines of the scene before lighting the match. Votive Zero is more nomadic than the others. It was recorded between a lot of places with very little. Certain tracks were blown open and made maximal so change could occur at very small levels. Maybe it sounds half finished at parts, as most of my favourite records do. Something else must complete it. Things were stripped down to two channels on most tracks - which was a denuding risk. Thought Broadcast finally actualised the minimalism it had been chasing all along. Beyond that, it's the product of two years - it felt more like the work of an itinerant labourer as opposed to that of a rapid-fire producer.
Why is the physicality of the delivery of the sound so vital to it? I mean, when discussing Votive Zero before this interview you insisted that the record opens up to the listener most when on wax - and I admit the power of the music mutates when it's on a tape or on vinyl compared to when it's an MP3… but it's had to put a finger on why that's the case exactly.
RB: Records assume a lot of imaginative associations for me and the process of Thought Broadcast reflects them. So, to my mind, my releases exist between lots of things - sound system dubplates, counterfeit objects, votive documents, even raw, anonymous material and so on. That's if you want to apply some sort of sculptural objectivity to it, I guess. But records emerge from personal worlds as much as they create worlds for a person. They have a wild power to interrupt or mark moments in a life, and even change the course of it. This doesn't really exist for digital files or at least, they do not hold the capacity for real spontaneity. Cassettes, records, even CDs have the ability to be lost and rediscovered, circulated and planted, held like relics or used to create a scenario. I absolutely envision Thought Broadcast records as objects in the world.
At a formal level, though, Thought Broadcast exists in analog form because it must age in order for the true sound to unfold. I visualise and imagine how certain tones are going to inscribe themselves onto the vinyl or the tape, and how dust is going to make a tone burn or melt with time. I am not a sound engineer or producer, but every track on Votive Zero was made with these considerations close in mind. Records and tapes set forth different productive challenges. Thought Broadcast releases are absolutely sequenced according to the medium and its demands. Clicking mp3s can never match the different dynamics that a cassette or an LP performs in its unfolding, not to mention come close to translating material textures. This is not a matter of some quaint, object fetishism. These are real artistic problems whose answers move things forward.
Digital versus analog debates bore me - it is not even a question for me as to which makes sound more immediate, which makes the tradition of creating electronic music so immediate in reality. I am 27 now but I somehow eluded being raised on mp3. I didn't grow up with downloading, finding out about music through the computer, and so on. Records are, and always were, very real and physical for me, personally transmitted, traded, and made. First hand experience always comes first - I am not convinced otherwise. So, I don't take mp3s seriously as means to ends. If you're serious about your work, then prove it on vinyl. Throw your life away in order to make a material statement. There is serious conviction required to engage with the risk of putting something material out there that no one hears, as opposed to producing an instant release whose reception is already calculated and planned. The digital levels the playing field, which can be liberating but simultaneously relativises artistic time and dedication. The digital places the old gods on the same page as beginners.
How much does visual work direct the energy of your improvisation and identity as a musician? For one thing it's rare to find an artist with such a consistent approach to cover art and visual accompaniment in releases that are spread across a relatively wide network of labels, friends etc. For another, I know of certain visual artists that you've explicitly connoted in the past (Hermann Nitsch, Günter Brus, John Duncan, Dieter Roth) - which each tend to dilute the line between visual and performative or sound art.
RB: The visual and the verbal aspects are integral to the project. The freedom I found in noise was that it allowed me to experiment in processes beyond sound. I could express other personal things without feeling the need to learn the proper mode of playing or mastering whatever equipment. Beyond this, it also made the work of a band into a process of collage. On a visual level, I've always collected things that show the possibility and manifestation of the violent, physical trace and its reproduction in copies. This later developed into a broader obsession with images of imprints and absences, surveillance, screen spaces and their returns, hieroglyphic architecture and so on. So, Thought Broadcast is definitely an experiment in a personal, material assemblage.
To your other point, my work in Thought Broadcast and the artists you mentioned may only be connected in terms of practice rather than product or message. We differ in our preoccupations, and I cannot speak for what they do. I actually don't connect to a lot of their work at all and feel a pretty sharp distance from their context. I witnessed a Nitsch action when I was younger and it made an impression in some regards to be sure - but I also felt a lot of distance from being at the event. What these artists did show me, however, was how to see a given medium and its surface as a space of potential for the most immediate tactile imprint or traumatic moment. Each artist you mention has left us with very immediate documents.
Since it's become clear that the project has often been a matter of harnessing your experiences, how much has personal geography influenced you? Has living in San Francisco & Brooklyn - and people or encounters there - directed your approach or interests particularly?
RB: Experiences of inner-city life and the phantasms of architecture have always fuelled my imagination with Thought Broadcast. I've always seen the process as a sort of negative impression of the urban - not negative in terms of affect, but negative as in letting the space in which I exist, its material remains, and so on, imprint themselves. The project was officially born in New York City but definitely reflected memories I had coming of age in Baltimore. Baltimore is among the most crime-ridden places in America, with vegetation actually growing out of its abandoned buildings. The houses are kept alive by the transition of constantly becoming nothing. I left there when I was 22. New York City on the other hand is a place where everything is becoming something - though a feeling of trauma keeps everyone ordered and estranged from each other. San Francisco, finally, is where death itself doesn't even exist - there isn't a single burial ground within the city limits. But nothing is really alive either. This all may sound rather caustic but it is essential in understanding the dynamic of these places.
Of course, many invigorating encounters have pushed Thought Broadcast forward through the past few years. These personal encounters are mostly with artists and musicians older than I am. I do this in part for them.
Where from here?
RB: I don't have any plans with Thought Broadcast other than to continue the process. Other projects of mine from both the past and the present will be finally seeing wider release in the future.
Thought Broadcast's new album Votive Zero is out now via Editions Mego