The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

In Extremis

Chance Encounters & Exquisite Corpses: An Interview With Human Greed
Russell Cuzner , August 31st, 2011 09:25

Russell Cuzner chats to Human Greed's Michael Begg about fascinations with death and being inspired by a 5000 year old 'Sleeping Egyptian'

Michael Begg, along with childhood friend, Deryk Thomas (who's perhaps best known for his striking but perverse paintings for Swans' albums of the early nineties), has been releasing music as Human Greed since 2001. Their sound – rounded drones buffeted by washes of heavily effected electronic noise, the odd flicker of recognisable instruments - does have the smell of death about it. Or, perhaps more specifically, the sense of an indirect journey through the complex spectrum of emotions that relate to fate - from fear through to mourning, from solemn contemplation to consolation. Indeed, Michael Begg has admitted that he has a “profound, obsessive anxiety regarding ageing and death. Particularly my own ageing and death. For the duration of my conscious mind I have been unable to move beyond the wall of sadness.” So it's no surprise that Human Greed's sound can be intensely funereal, taking its willing listeners through decaying psychogeographies whose dramas unfold using the language of sound over words. And yet, the hand of fate was to guide their disturbing currents of emotive electronics into more refined pastures, thanks in part to a call from an admiring stranger that would significantly alter the course of Begg's work.

That stranger was Clodagh Simonds, whose own serendipitous journeys had taken her from the prog folk of her teenage band, Mellow Candle, through session work for the likes of Thin Lizzy and Mike Oldfield, into the murky waters of the mainstream music industry that eventually sent her sailing back to her roots in Ireland. In 2006, she recruited Begg while completing a trilogy of curious EPs as Fovea Hex that seductively blur the edges between traditional songcraft and sound art, drawing on the eclectic talents of a wide range of hand-picked players from Brian Eno and Robert Fripp to The Hafler Trio and Colin Potter of Nurse with Wound.

Joining Fovea Hex acted as a catalyst in expanding Human Greed's studio-bound experiments into compelling audio-visual performances, as well as connecting Begg with a network of musicians with whom to collaborate. This was first witnessed on Human Greed's 2008 album, Black Hill: Midnight at the Blighted Star, which shared its stage with Simonds, Antony & The Johnsons' Julia Kent and Current 93's David Tibet, among others. For the first time, Human Greed's amorphous reverberant layers were infused with harmonic, structured, neo-classical refrains, expertly coaxed from acoustic instruments. After the June release of the latest album, Fortress Longing - The Internal Campaign for the Safe and Complete Return of the Sleeping Egyptian to the Desert, The Quietus caught up with Begg to chat about collaborating with Simonds, live performance, and the ideas and concepts that inform his music.

What first led Clodagh Simonds to call you?

Michael Begg: MySpace. Simple as that. I got a message from Clodagh in my inbox one morning saying that she had found herself visiting the page each day to listen in. She sent me Bloom and Huge, and to my eternal embarrassment and shame I sold her, rather than gave her, Consolationand Pilgrim – with the excuse that my children needed new winter shoes.

MySpace looks set to die a bleak and lonely death but I will always be grateful to it for that introduction. As soon as I listened to Huge I made it my core business to get involved and began my relentless campaign. Next thing I know, I'm sitting with a bunch of Robert Fripp guitar parts, some field recordings of a train, and instructions to compose an ever shifting rhythm bed in the key of A-flat at 93bpm and 10/4 time for a song I was yet to hear. And so it began.

Compared to this work the new Fovea Hex album, Here Is Where We Used To Sing, feels more like a band than a solo project with choice collaborators. Did coming together to play a handful of live dates in 2008 affect the qualities of the new album?

MB: I think deeply cherished bonds of friendship were forged among the shifting cast of players through those delicious excursions – for me, at least! But I think the main impact was realising, at the time, just how difficult it was to transpose the EPs to a live setting.

Anticipating that there would likely be more live work, Clodagh made the conscious decision to work with much more clearly defined rhythms and song structures that would translate more easily to live performance. But in the end there is a whole posse of other factors that continue to make live work problematic for Fovea Hex, aside from the songs themselves. There is no real group, of course. All the tracks are produced with individually recorded and exported audio files and arranged by Clodagh with a pair of sharp scissors. The players are scattered all over the globe. It is not a kind economic climate that is currently disposed towards bringing everyone together with adequate rehearsal time, and none of us have any interest in hitting the road for months in the name of an economically viable tour. Clodagh would, I think, much rather find some way of releasing the work into the world and have reports of its progress sent back to her while she tends her garden. We have played for David Lynch in Paris, we have played in Spanish ballrooms and on top of Italian mountains – not to mention marquees in Ireland – and money continues to be lost rather than earned on such excursions.

To what extent has incorporating recognisably acoustic instrumentation into Human Greed's work been as a consequence of your involvement with Fovea Hex, and how has this changed the way you and Deryk work in the studio?

MB: Undoubtedly it has had, and continues to have, a great effect on me. Though it is not immediately clear whether it is just the presence of acoustic instruments when working on Fovea Hex material, or whether it is a product of the endlessly rolling dialogue with Clodagh. It has certainly helped clarify in my mind that it has always been music, rather than sound, or noise, that I was aiming for.

I don't really want to talk too much more about the process from the Fovea Hex side of things – because it is not really my place to do so. But there are similarities with the other work, in as much as there comes a point where you have a lot of material scattered around like a very complicated jigsaw, and you set about this activity of trial and error, disappointment and revelation, through which the work slowly reveals itself, on its own terms and in its own time. It becomes a character in itself and the dialogue with the material proceeds on those terms. That is certainly, I think, the case with both Fovea Hex and Human Greed.

I tend to strive for sounds that don't sound obviously electronic or, you know, synthetic. And now, though with striking exceptions, I find I can do things with acoustic instruments to pull them the other way. So if you can imagine that there is a continuum from pure acoustic instrumentation on one side to synthesised electronic signal on the other, my interest is in the middle of that continuum – where the synthesis isn't obviously synthesised, and the instruments are no longer obviously instruments. The elements are playing outside of their common range and performing non-standard functions. The strings are doing the work of electronic sound beds, the electronics are coaxed into performing some of the tonal, melodic work.

I talk rather a lot – too much probably – about the importance of liminality – the highly sensitised territory wherein one thing is changing into another. It is this point of transformation, where everything is charged, sensitive and fragile, that I try to locate my themes, my sounds, and my writing. Cultures mark these liminal moments in life with symbolic events – bar mitzvah, wedding, wake, evensong, solstice. I mark them with recordings.

Working with Fovea Hex put you in touch with Colin Potter, whose working methods are presumably much closer to your own. Last year you teamed up to explore a more site-specific approach to sound named Fragile Pitches (an anagram of 'light, space, fire') that focussed on the church as a listening environment. Is the focus here solely on churches, or might other environments be explored in future?

MB: In an ideal world it would amount to a collection of events in the great cathedrals of Europe –and maybe on in St Patrick's on Manhattan Island! I would particularly want to do Albi in Southern France, which is the most extraordinary structure. And the original Dominican church in Toulouse, which has the most extraordinarily terrifying natural reverb – all those black and white tiles. Wow! But, realistically, that's not going to happen. Any location that presents a particularly resonant acoustic space and has a certain quality or gravity to it would serve the work well. I would sincerely love to think that we'll get to roll it out again in its full majesty, but the offers aren't exactly flooding in right now.

Human Greed strongly centres on, as you have put it, “stimulating a direct emotional response” often through “wordless narratives”. This has never felt stronger than on the latest album [Fortress Longing], which, unlike your previous albums, settles on just the one theme: the anxieties and acceptance of mortality. You've said this was sparked by a visit to The British Museum in 2009 when you stumbled across a display of a 5,000 year old corpse in The Egyptian Rooms. What is it about the juxtaposition of the exhibit in the museum and the ancient Egyptian's attitude to death that so strongly motivated you to set on the path that lead to Fortress Longing's narrative?

MB: Curious that I should take offence at you labelling him a '5,000 year old corpse'. He has been The Sleeping Egyptian to me for all this time. I think I should perhaps attempt to unpack some things here. It was not my intention to produce a single themed recording on the topic of death. It has been an unhealthy fixation of mine all my life, and it was the chance encounter with the Sleeping Egyptian that spontaneously hit me like a luminous revelation, and made me think that now was the time to tackle this particular black dog. The recording was merely some of the evidence, some of the things I did, whilst going through the process of addressing this anxiety. This time I have very consciously not controlled the input. I allowed the interior process, and the dialogue between pen and paper to lead me.

When I first saw the Sleeping Egyptian on the floor of the British Museum it was the first time I ever became aware of death as repose. Here, curled up like a little baby, surrounded by the things that he had made, crafted, loved, was a figure who had completed his journey and come full circle. I just found it incredibly moving and I found myself unaccountably pulled into some kind of paternal role. Here was a baby, far from home, curled up and cold on a floor in a strange land, with strangers gawping and taking pictures. I wanted to wrap him up, embrace him and comfort him. I wanted to take him home. From somewhere I got the idea if I could get him back under his blanket of sand this would force death out from the shadows into a place where I could defeat him. That became the campaign, the plan. I didn't even care in the slightest that it was clearly insane. I accepted that.

I couldn't do it alone, and so the idea of a small army grew. I recruited Federico Garcia Lorca, Bernadette Soubirous, Thoth, Lord of the Moon, and a nameless, sexless lamb. In the internal campaign we lift The Sleeping Egyptian from the floor of the British Museum and return him to Deshret, to the desert. Once there, we begin making the most ferocious noise that we can in order that – like a tiger chased by pots and pans from the jungle – we can chase death out of the shadows and end this liminal transformation from life to death. Seems reasonable, no?”

Since then, you began to amass a wide range of personal arcana from Ballard's The Atrocity Exhibition through Leonard Cohen's The Book of Longing to the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca, that all in some way informed the album - and yet they are not mentioned on the album or its sleeve. How important are these references to the listening of the album compared to its development?

MB: Personal arcana seems a little overwrought. I was simply reading a lot of books at the time, all simultaneously, in the hope that the cross fertilisation of sources would yield interesting juxtapositions. I did enjoy The Atrocity Exhibition immensely but preferred Cocaine Nights in particular, because of that sense of time being forcibly brought to a standstill using architecture, violence and routine. And Cohen's Book of Longing, since you mention that one by name, is a lovely book, but it doesn't exert the same control over me like [Cohen's] The Energy Of Slaves, or [Cohen album] Death Of A Ladies' Man. The latter in particular was hugely influential in the way that it allowed three or four iterations of each work, in order to allow the full flood of opposing voices inside a single heart to be heard.

There was just such a flood of material I read through at the time. The wonderful biography of Phil Spector by Mick Brown taught me all I needed to know about preparing a room to capture a wall of sound. Foucault's Madness & Civilisation. Walter Benjamin, Jared Diamond, E. M. Cioran, three or four different Books of the Dead, Hillier's study of Arvo Pärt, Burroughs' Western Lands (of course!) and Christopher Hitchens (timely, or what?). All the stories that I read to my sons at night. I revisited all of the Kafka short stories that warmed my adolescence, and found that all the paper had become brittle and yellow and I had to order new copies of everything – and that became as important an input as the reading of the text itself. I have outlived the very paper of the books that formed who I am. Ovid fuelled the exploration of transformation… I am not doing justice to the list. It goes on and on. I don't recall much more than a fraction – and who can say what the effect of each work was, perhaps none? The overall impact is the recording itself, I suppose. You don't need any of this to enjoy the record, I hope. This is just the clothing that I brought about myself during the period in time in which the recordings were made. Everything spills into everything else. It's all connected.

And, following your experience with Fragile Pitches, how has place as a compositional ingredient affected Fortress Longing?

MB: With Fragile Pitches we were composing a work with a view to making it work in a specific kind of location. With Fortress Longing it was more to do with the impact of different locations on me, and consequently the recording itself. In the time of putting the work together I spent time in Athens, Heraklion, Andalucía, Frankfurt, Antwerp, London, Ile de Re, and one or two of the fishing villages in Fife. I picked up a lot of source recordings on a handheld digital recorder, and even processed some of the files in a succession of hotel rooms. You see, I came to think of each of my records as a scrapbook. Each recording hits me hard as soon as it begins playing with very powerful nostalgia – for sake of a better word - for the particular point in time during which it was recorded. I really wanted to open up on that, and so for Fortress Longing the whole family are involved, the sounds of seashell chandeliers in holiday homes, the sounds of particular hotel windows opening, priests practising their prayers in lonely churches whilst the local birds screamed at sunset, the French nursery rhymes on mechanical merry go rounds in France, and so on. I was very consciously putting together something consonant with the universal image of an old man tickling his memory by opening his photograph albums, his yellow clippings, his boat tickets…

Is it fair to say, then, that the absence of a traditional score, as such, has partly influenced your working methods, where the concept and the exploration behind it becomes the score, ultimately dictating some of the raw materials and patterns you incorporate?

MB: Yes, I think that sounds fair. The score cannot exist beforehand because the work evolves, and I question what the emerging work says, and I argue with it, I take up the good fight and I respond. Then the work, as it grows can make a more solid defence. And then, of course, I get the outside opinions, the words of friends, the submitted contributions, and everything shifts again.

We have sat on occasion to consider how we might draft a score in retrospect – and this is actually still a project that interests me. Where texts, instruments, settings, locations of source file recordings etc are all offered as a document that would act as a textual representation of the work. There would be a lot of work in it, but I am currently entering that blissful little period at the close of an immense project, where I am not quite sure what is going to happen next and all things seem possible. So, who knows?

A preference for the language of sound over syntax as a means of expression was guided by your observation that words' power to connect as intended was severely waning. And yet, on your third album, Black Hill and particularly in Human Greed's live incarnation as well as on Fortress Longing, your faith in words seems to be restoring. Is this perhaps due in some way to the significant increase in collaborative work over the same period?

MB: I think there were lots of factors. I think I actually began to find my voice. The self-imposed pressures that used to pollute me every time I lifted a pen somehow resolved over time. A new respect for the form emerged, and I came to accept that I would write at certain times, always in locations far from home, and that the activity was related to composing spells, and shifting something inside, making the thing true. I came to love in a way that I had never experienced when I was writing full time - the full process of opening a page, holding the pen, waiting and then dissolving as the words came. And when I come out with those very occasional lines that hold weight and grace, I feel a satisfaction now that is quite unique.

What is it about Norman MacCaig's poem Recipe, that lead you to perform it as an unaccompanied recital at the end of Human Greed's most recent performances?

MB: It just seems right on so many levels. MacCaig taught my father at primary school, you know? He was an Edinburgh man, like myself. He hated mankind, but loved people. I can relate to that too. I have a vague memory of just collapsing into floods of tears when I came upon Recipe many years ago. It is a piece of work that very purposefully defeats itself. It uses words to articulate the very limitation and inadequacy of words in particular situations; There are words with no meaning, words like consolation, words like goodbye. It wasn't a conscious decision to close shows with it. It happened by accident when we were performing at a sound art festival. There were around five acts on before us and the electronica was becoming so stifling, so relentless, so damned earnest, that I figured the only thing to do was to pull down all the faders, get up, much to Deryk's surprise, and recite Recipe. I have it pasted in to the same notebook that contains the various drafts of the Fortress Longing texts, you see – so although I have it memorised, I could read it from the page and nail it straight.

Before Human Greed played live you toyed with the idea but expressed concern for an audience confronted by just two chaps sat behind laptops. You have overcome this by working with video artists such as Neil McLauchlan and Krzysztof Pawlik as well as using your voice. Can you see a time when other musicians, perhaps those you invite into your recordings, will share the Human Greed stage?

MB: Yes, very much. It may surprise you to consider that over 80% of Fortress Longing could be played as an ensemble piece. There is actually very little in the way of processed electronics in there, comparatively speaking. However, it's never likely to happen as the costs would be prohibitive; the destruction of a grand piano, somewhere in the region of 15 players, and a great deal of exotic instruments. Maybe in the next world.

I have had various discussions with Julia Kent about doing something but the happy collisions haven't favoured us as yet. A lovely woman called LeeDVD - who contributed to a track we offered to Richo at Lumberton for his Autumn Blood compilation - joined us on stage in Warsaw and that worked really well. It was a bit Peters and Lee with sadistic undercurrents. But it did get me thinking, just for a second, that Human Greed could potentially be quite sexy. Ha!

My interest in the live shows, and I am still a million miles from getting close to it – is effectively to disappear. For the room to become aural liquid in which the sounds and voices float and no-one is quite sure what is happening, or where the night is going, or why they are suddenly shedding tears.

However abstracted, your work betrays a highly sensitive attitude towards the tragedies and trials of modern life, from blogged observations pitying children who seem 'fucked from birth' to your piece Dalkeith's Next Top Model's sympathy for the poor as they're seduced by a shallow celebrity culture and its unattainable riches flaunted by reality TV. Has this sensitivity become more acute since you became a father, or have the positive experiences of fatherhood served to lighten your outlook?

MB: I really don't know any more if it can be called sensitivity. I just seemed to be tuned to vibrate at that particular frequency of bitter disappointment, dismay, horror and sorrow at the details. I am of an age now, my wife is keen to tell me, that the amount of rage and grief I absorb and chew on is probably damaging to my heart. And I do confess that there have been times particularly in the last exhausting year of pulling this all together where I have found my mind wandering into areas of depression that were new and alarming, and consequently I have had to try and make conscious adjustments to my behaviour to – how should one say – maintain a healthy perspective. 
Having kids does change absolutely everything, let there be no doubt. Whether they lighten the load or not is questionable – and the little fuckers do make you old as much as they keep you young – and they cost so much money - but while their soft innocence, total lack of self awareness and absolute trust exist, there is at least something to cherish and to serve in the name of.