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A Quietus Interview

Listening With Your Feet: Boxcutter Interviewed
Rory Gibb , May 31st, 2011 11:29

Rory Gibb sits down with Boxcutter (AKA Barry Lynn) and, in an extensive interview, they talk about his musical development and the changing nature of the artist-critic relationship.

Although dance music is fundamentally an evolutionary entity, its development and lineage largely directed by the demands of the dancefloor, there are occasional outliers who seem to exist almost in a parallel state, sealed off from its relentless onward march. While their music remains designed for and functional within club environments, they appear to be immune to the pressures of dancefloor trends, instead pursuing their own individual development above all else. FaltyDL, with his heavily swung, nervy house/garage hybrids, is one good example; Planet Mu labelmate Barry Lynn, whose fourth album as Boxcutter, The Dissolve, is released this week, is another.

Originally most closely aligned with dubstep, Lynn's music has long been an entity unto itself. Rather than remaining content to work within the limiting confines of a single genre, it's instead exerted a strong gravitational pull onto other electronic styles, dragging them into its orbit. Debut album Oneiric and its follow up Glyphic retained many of the genre's recognisable signifiers, but the latter's scope had broadened considerably, veering from metallic, glitch-ridden jungle breaks to crystalline two-step (often within the same track). That trend has continued through his work, even as the different aspects of his sound have further integrated; the stylistically diverse The Dissolve feels like the logical next stage in his development. With it, Lynn has thrown aside tempo restrictions entirely, their absence allowing everything from astral boogie (the Brian Greene-featuring 'All Too Heavy'), shimmering, retro house ('Zabriskie Disco') and garage infused with Detroit spirit ('Moon Pupils) to the stammering drum machine funk of album highlight 'Allele'. The result is the most human sounding Boxcutter album yet, characteristically subtle in composition but crafted with lusher, less overtly mechanistic textures and a rhythmic sensibility that's almost organic in nature.

I suppose after a long period of working with real focus on your new record, putting it out there and allowing opinions to be formed on it must be quite an odd process.

Barry Lynn: Exactly. It's a good thing that it's being heard obviously, but it just makes me feel a bit strange. Sorry, you caught me at a bit of a weird moment! But it's been two years of work, really. I'm just at it all the time, I never think, 'Right, now's the time to make an album'. Maybe that's why people tell me that each track could be its own separate little thing. That's my approach to it, I just go heavy into one tune at a time and I'm not necessarily thinking in terms of a larger whole. So I suppose that could be damaging in terms of constructing a full-length LP, listeners seem to really want a conceptually solid, sonically similar effort. And if you don't provide them with that, you risk completely confusing them. I'm just mulling over the kind of feedback I've gotten – mainly the negative stuff!

When you get even a single negative review, that's always going to hit you much harder than any number of positive reviews.

BL: That's the way your brain's wired up anyway. I was watching a lecture on neuroscience, and the guy was saying that if you see someone you like on the street your brain gives a slight increase in activity: a positive thing. But if you see somebody you don't like you get this really massive change [in activity]. The two reactions are really out of sync with each other. It's the same thing with reviews – positive ones give you a mild 'that's nice', but a negative one… [laughs].

So do you feel like your albums aren't sonically cohesive things generally? They always feel coherent to me. And out of all the people who make music within the rough realm that you do, you've been far more consistent than many at putting out full-length albums as opposed to a drip-feed of singles.

BL: A lot of that I think comes from being involved with Planet Mu, Mike [Paradinas, Mu label boss] tends to make a lot of decisions about what appears and what doesn't. And a while back I think he just made the decision that I was blatantly an album artist. It's good in some ways because albums get more attention, but in other ways it takes longer, and you can end up going quiet for long spells like I did last year. And that's sort of damaging in terms of keeping bookings, the actual living off it business. Which is not interesting for a listener, but it's a factor I guess.

It all feeds into your approach I suppose, if you've got anything that affects the way you interact with it, it will have an effect on the way you interact with your own music.

BL: 100%. So the less time I spend in clubs because I haven't got bookings or whatever, that frees me to… Well, not exactly 'frees' me, because being in clubs and being focused like that is brilliant, it's a great thing to harness that inspiration and come home buzzing from somewhere, wanting to make something that you can play in the same environment. But if I'm not doing that, I'm flighty enough that I'll drift into stuff and just be as enthralled with that, and get heavily into that. [Making music] is really about what's going on with your life in general I suppose.

What I like about the new one is that there are a lot of different styles in it compared to your earlier work, and the music's got a distinctly organic feel to it. Is that something that's consciously happened, or do you think that's just a trait that's gradually emerged?

BL: It's about trying to keep it interesting for myself, to always keep setting goalposts ahead of what I've done. I think a while back, around the time of the first album, after I'd made a bit of money from music for the first time, I just thought I could buy a few bits of equipment that I never could afford. And I gradually just amassed more and more things I can play, basically. I'm not really using MIDI now at all. And because it's old stuff… Just from listening to certain records you get a taste for certain types of equipment. It's a cliché now to go after analogue equipment, dated shit, tapes. But it does have a sound, doesn't it?

It's got personality.

BL: And it's unpredictable, you literally play it and you sit punching at it, it's a physical thing. So I just drifted in that direction, and that forces you to record as opposed to sequencing or programming. And when you're recording you're obviously there just playing it. Rather than taking samples of old records or using just plug-ins and doing it all in the box, it feel like a more rewarding and more difficult thing. In terms of me making it difficult for myself, that's really such an indulgent, personal approach, I'm not sure whether that's what a listener wants from me or not.

I suppose that physical interaction might, in old-fashioned terms, be considered to be a more 'musical' way of writing music – actually playing an instrument rather than sequencing sourced samples.

BL: Maybe. Although it's hard, it's never really that clear-cut anyway, because you end up re-sampling your playing, and it all ends up digital anyway. So for me it's more about the sound sources, and I guess the actual composition itself. But it's weird - I remember the first time I heard a producer use that descriptor, that something was really 'musical'. And it just sounded so weird to me, the idea that you wouldn't approach something musically. Even really raw, atonal doom stuff, it's still musical to me, it's still pitches and intervals going on; whether or not you can neatly sum it up with diatonic harmony doesn't really matter. The rave riffs on that 'Factory Setting' track on the second side, they're just hit in with an analogue synth. Even though they sound really weird and atonal to me, I'm still riffing on it.

So do you think using analogue equipment has very much shaped your sound, over the course of the last few albums?

BL: It has, definitely. And I suppose in some ways it's brought out a more 'retro' sound. But having said that, the reason for that is that a lot of shiny, digital music didn't sound fresh to me at all, and especially when crossed with dubstep. [My music] got quite a lot of criticism for that, around the time of the first album, for sounding a bit overworked and using a lot of IDM production tricks and granular synthesis, stuff like that. And it did feel like a bit of a dated palette to me after a while. So it's not that modern equipment necessarily makes music sound fresher [laughs]. I guess it's really down to ideas more than equipment.

So was there anything you particularly wanted to achieve with the tracks you were making for this album? Did you decide you wanted to write tracks at a number of different tempos and in different styles, or did that just naturally end up being the result?

BL: I guess I wanted to properly represent the sounds I make with the kit I use, to get that analogue grit and feel to it. I think a lot of it came down to feel actually. I've had this thing about my beats and drums for a while, I'm paranoid that they're clunky and that they don't have enough funk, and I just worry that I'm not rhythmic enough. I've always had that, because I'm not a drummer – I can play a lot of stuff, but I can't sit behind a drum kit! So I've always had this paranoia that I don't ever really nail grooves well enough, so a lot of [this album] was trying to make amends for clunkier efforts in the past, and really get a sense of groove to it.

I've always said I'm trying to make music that you listen to on your feet, that's the way I make it most of the time, so it kind of kills me in a lot of ways when it comes out and people say 'this is obviously IDM', or 'home listening music', all those sort of tags. The new one's getting a lot of IDM references and I really don't understand it at this stage.

It could just be lazy journalism.

BL: It does astonish me how clunky people are with their genres and descriptors and stuff. I was talking to a friend about this the other night – did you read that Simon Reynolds article about Not Not Fun [in the latest issue of Wire]?

Yeah, it was a really interesting piece I thought.

BL: The idea that musicians now are thinking and talking like critics, almost more than critics are. The idea that if you ask them what's inspiring them they move straight to historical precedents, and it's very well-researched. That kind of approach, it's not like building on a half-idea that just comes out. It's funny, because reading reviews, I wonder about journalists that often don't really recognize signifiers and tempos.

It's interesting that you mention that article, because I've been talking to a friend lately about that exact same point, the 'artist as critic' idea. It's part of the effect the internet's had on how people interact with music – both the way they listen to it and the way they make it.

BL: 100%. It's crazy. When I was growing up, through the 90s as a teenager, and people like David Holmes and Primal Scream were really big in Northern Ireland, their approach was always – what would you call it? – 'record collector rock'. People who knew about and would talk about this extremely obscure, odd music, and a lot of their own identity came from being connoisseurs of old music. DJ Shadow as well. And it feels like that's almost a worthless thing to have now. It's funny, because I always thought that was a strong approach to take, to be historically clued-up and to know and reference good stuff in a tasteful way. It just feels now that every reference is there for anyone at any time, and it's all instantly trackable, the histories of the ideas you're playing with.

I wonder whether it's that which also leads to what you were talking about before – journalists, for example, using quite clunky language and references – because people have access to almost everything, but that doesn't mean they necessarily understand the process through which it came to be. So you've got people writing about, say, a dubstep record, it in a way that doesn't quite ring true to a reader who's versed in it.

BL: Totally. It's disappointing because I feel like music now is so micro-niche, [so] I feel like journalism should respond to that by being even more specialist, and even more niche. There's no point to it otherwise, because it's not selling in any sort of numbers, it's not even being repeatedly listened to by that many people. I often feel like the only journalism that's worthwhile assumes that the reader is the most discerning, clued-up person possible, and really speaks to that type of person. And likewise, I have that approach when making it – just assuming that people have the same kind of knowledge that I have, and can see how things connect in a more abstract way. It's not wanting to patronise the listener, and if I have one good idea not giving them ten shades of it and calling that an album. I feel like people can deal with more than that – I can deal with more than that, so I shouldn't belittle anyone who might come across my efforts!

Do you think that might be one reason why people throw the IDM tag at you – because you incorporate a lot of different ideas at any given time, rather than sticking rigidly to one tried-and-tested formula?

BL: When you think IDM you're probably thinking of four or five big music makers, who all change genre regularly. Well, maybe apart from Autechre, who have their techno aesthetic, B-boy business, but people like Vibert and everyone else, they're known for moving around. Even Luke Vibert I don't think is 'IDM' though!

IDM is such an odd term though, it's essentially meaningless.

BL: When I first discovered it, it meant everything from Venetian Snares to Boards Of Canada! It's a similar sort of thing I suppose to 'post-dubstep', or whatever's happening now, where there maybe were a few big records a few years ago and scene leaders and so on, but it's all just fragmented so much and spread out.

What do you make of the the whole 'post-dubstep' thing, and the state of that scene as a whole? I really dislike the term, as it's far too general and is used to encompass everything from house to straightforward dubstep.

BL: When I was at BLOC Weekend, it was all just house music, really. Maybe it was just the acts I caught…

The prevailing musical atmosphere does very much seem to be shifting towards house.

BL: It's weird. I can't really get with it to be honest, coming from Belfast, where house is all you'll hear [when you're out]. Well techno as well obviously, but especially that in-between area, tech-housey stuff. 4/4 beats, obviously there's tons of good stuff, but I can never fully feel like that's the be all and end all. That's what drew me into dubstep, the non-4/4 rhythmic dicey-ness of it.

So how did that first come about? How did you first start making music, and how did you start making dubstep?

BL: I've been making music since about 1998, and it was really hip-hop, DJ Shadow and sample-based stuff that drew me in. I got a cheap PC and was just learning to use samples. But with dubstep, I had two friends in Belfast who used to DJ all sorts of 130-140bpm stuff that they were big into. A lot like what's big now, actually, people like early Benga and Horsepower Productions. All that stuff that was a similar tempo, everything from straight 808s to garage, and even the earliest halfstep tracks. They tipped me off, and I was just hearing stuff [myself] as well, there was a website called Garage Pressure that used to post clips of Toasty and people like that. And Mike [Paradinas] was talking about it in interviews, and had charts on the Planet Mu website.

So how did you actually get involved with Planet Mu in the first instance?

BL: I'd actually been sending them really dodgy drill'n'bass-y tracks from about 2001-2002, and it was actually once Hotflush picked me up that Mike started paying attention properly. So that really got me on Mike's radar, and my first album was released in early 2006.

You've had quite a long-running relationship with the label. What was it that drew you to keep working with one another? Within these circles it's common for artists to flit between labels a lot.

BL: I think it's the fact that I'm putting albums together, and I can't really do it on my own. I'm always drip-feeding tracks over to Mike, and getting his perspective on it, and by that stage it would be too hard to then reconfigure everything I'm working on and give it to someone else. He hears it first, and then we start chatting about stuff. To be honest, I'm probably going to try a few new labels shortly just for the change though, just for boring music industry reasons it's probably good to move around sometimes. The longer you do something, people build up as many negative prejudices against the name as positive ones. It's strange, the whole psychology of record labels. I've seen producers give a couple of tracks to a random label and have them proclaimed their greatest ever, just because it's on a particular imprint.

Certain labels do seem to carry that weight, this idea that they can do no wrong.

BL: There has been quite a hegemony, a dominance. And ultimately as an artist it's really constricting and depressing. Well, not quite depressing, but it's something that it's not worth paying attention to, and I feel like if you were to try and start chasing someone else's aesthetic, by the time you'd catch up you'd be years late, probably. I do see some younger producers aiming for something that's going on right now, and it's already sounding stale to me. And that's such a shallow approach, so I try to stay away from that. But then it's hard to filter it out, because I'm buying records and reading press, as everyone else is.

So you're still exposed to the same critical consensuses.

BL: And I'm susceptible to it as well. I think that's down to the way journalism's going as well, because you don't go looking for criticism for the most part, you're probably often just looking for a download link, and if you come across a few words that enforce that it's worth clicking on then all the better [laughs]. It's a pity, because really negative press is interesting. It's obviously really hurtful as an artist, but it makes for a more interesting discourse a lot of the time.

I suppose that's perhaps tied to an older style of journalism, pre-internet/filesharing, where it was about criticism and about convincing people it was worth investing time and money in a record, rather than giving it a quick play- through on the net.

BL: That's what Simon Reynolds was saying in his piece on Altered Zones and the indie blogosphere. His point was this it's always positive, any coverage you get on any of those blogs, because they'll generally only write about things they like. But that gets tiring, that fanzine sort of business where you're constantly being hit with 'amazing, amazing, amazing…'

It's been interesting to see that over the time you've been on Planet Mu, there have been a few people who've gotten involved with the label who also seem to be on a similar wavelength to yourself – in terms of sound, attitude, aesthetic. I think the one that springs to mind for me is FaltyDL, he's not necessarily approaching music from exactly the same angle but he seems to be quite nicely aligned with what you're doing.

BL: Drew's a chum. I'm really into his music, it's got soul, and rhythm. If you meet him, and you see him dancing to tracks, it explains so much about why his music sounds that way! The way his shoulders move, he has this funk about him. Coming back to what I was saying about how I feel my beats are clunky, I'm really jealous of people like that, who have this natural rhythm about themselves. [Jokingly] I hate them! I love his music though, he makes some brilliant stuff. He's been sending me tracks for a long time, and he used to send me about three a day, he's so prolific. It's the way he's working as well, it's all done with samplers.

I can be faster with samplers, but [in my music] it's about wanting to make my own sounds, play stuff, and actually get into recording. It's a much slower and more deliberate direction. I think [sampling] helps with getting a dancefloor edge though, if you sample a massive breakbeat or a kickdrum or something. It gives your track that level of physicality, through borrowing someone else's engineering. Which I've done a lot in the past, but not so much on this record.

But when you play live it does still have real physical immediacy to it. How do you go about reworking your music into something that operates in a more direct dancefloor way for a live set? It does sound quite different live, I think, it feels like it's been pulled apart and put back together again.

BL: It's really just loops, so I've got five loop samplers just triggering at the same time. I'll drop in eight bar loops - sometimes they're not the full track, they'll be missing the bassline or something - and I'm just trying to get a blend of those, a locked groove set basically, using filters and delays to smooth the edges. It requires a really nicely set up PA that's not too harsh in the midrange. I often find that my stuff's really intricate, and if the PA can't really handle that it spoils the flow for me quite a lot.

It's all just done off a computer as this stage. And I'll also muck around with instruments if I get the right gig, so I save the full 'live' tag for that. It's trying to keep it to mostly my music and trying to reconfigure it, I suppose.

Do you have much lined up in terms of gigs in the near future?

BL: I've got a few things, I'm never that busy. It's always just about enough.

It's interesting, because it seems like compared to a lot of people who've been producing dubstep-ish music within the scene for as long as you have, you've ended up staying under the radar far more, staying…

BL: Broke. [laughs]. I don't think I could have cashed in, to be honest, I really don't think I was ever really central enough. Maybe for a few months in 2005 or 2006, if I could have stuck with the moody 140bpm halfstep stuff that was really well produced and well textured. If I was still doing that by now I would probably be… bored as fuck [laughs]! I just think it would be so fucking strange if in 2011 you bought a record by me and it actually sounded like that. I don't know why people are even bringing [debut album] Oneiric up in reviews of this new one, it was about six years ago or something. Is [staying the same] consistent, or is it just not having any sense of where you can push things? That's my defensive take on it anyway!

Well, there are always trends and fads, even within comparatively underground scenes, so even if one specific sound attracts massive crowds for a while, it's not going to stay like that forever. It's of a specific time. And then things evolve again.

BL: I played a gig recently, where there was a load of brostep [wobbly, jump-up dubstep] on the line-up. And it's just trance music really, like the stuff from around the late 90s that had humungous kickdrum rolls: big room music, with these huge signifiers that the breakdown's coming, the drop's coming, really obvious sounds. It just works on that level though, you look out at the crowd and everyone's moshing together, it just has this effect. I don't know though, is it being elitist to say you don't want your stuff to have that mentality?

I think it's being interested in doing something that's representative of yourself rather than representative of the people you might be making it for.

BL: It's like mass psychology, having everyone in a room together. If you risk doing even a few things that aren't entirely functional, it's almost enough to just ruin the whole thing. It just makes a few people less interested, and that's enough, the drop won't get the reaction it would have, had it been really spelled out.

There was an interesting article on The Quietus recently about that same obviousness infecting chart pop music as well.

BL: The Soar! Absolutely. It reminds me of football dynamics, everyone watching the same thing, responding in the same way with their arms in the air. Simon Reynolds also mentions in Energy Flash about the similarities between a rave and a football match. But that thing about the Soar and pop choruses, it's just that whole assembly line thing, where popstars feel completely vacuous and assembled with demographics in mind. Music now is being constructed with its whole arrangement geared towards the goosebump moment that doesn't actually give you goosebumps, because it's too contrived.