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In Extremis

A Protected Sound: An Interview With Dalglish
Joseph Burnett , November 27th, 2013 05:46

Joseph Burnett speaks to enigmatic electronic musician Chris Douglas about his new album on PAN, creating his own protected sound world, and working with Mike Banks and James Stinson

Photo by Traianos Pakioufakis

Chris Douglas is one of the most enigmatic, progressive and emotionally arresting producer/composers currently operating around electronic music's fringes. After an eventful youth that saw him host seminal parties in his native San Francisco before taking up root in Detroit - where he worked with and learned from such luminaries as Underground Resistance's Mike Banks and Drexciya's James Stinson, and established his O.S.T. project - he moved to Berlin in 2003. He has since written a series of unexpected, mysterious and affecting albums that twist and reimagine electronic music in enigmatic yet moving ways.

Douglas has operated under a variety of names such as Rook, Scald Rougish and Dalglish, with the latter rising to prominence when his 2011 album Benacah Drann Deachd drew considerable praise. This month sees the release of Dalglish's much-anticipated third album, Niaiw Ot Vile, which sees Douglas make his debut on Bill Kouligas' increasingly renowned PAN label. The album marks a clear progression from its predecessor - a beautifully nebulous collection of outsider electronics mapping out new territories that touch on techno, musique concrète and the avant garde.

The Quietus caught up with the elusive Douglas to discuss the new album and his remarkable career.

Could you please give me a bit of background on the genesis of Niaiw Ot Vile? It seems to be quite a step forward from Benacah Drann Deachd. Would you agree?

Chris Douglas: It's definitely that, and I think it's also more spacious. The thing is, Benacah Drann Deachd was a compilation of tracks from 2001-2011, so I guess those would be different times of composing as well. The recent tracks were done over the last year, only a few of them are older. There's been a bit of progress over eleven years! I'm constantly trying to find new ways and messing around with new things. I get bored very easily, so couldn't do the same trick on every album. Within the last few years, I've definitely gone further into doing that, and have especially got more gear, because I came here [to Berlin] and had mostly software, so that helps with the palettes.

Dalglish 'Oidhche' (PAN 45) from PAN on Vimeo.

Speaking of palettes, I love the combination of electronic and acoustic sounds on Niaiw Ot Vile. Was it a challenge to create and assemble?

CD: Hmm… Not necessarily, but I have a different approach [pauses]...

For example, am I right in hearing prepared piano in there?

CD: There was an actual piano in there. I did one take, recording for about an hour or so, which I edited down and then did some processing with an analogue reverb device. I played with the pitch a little bit, but wanted it to be as identifiable as a piano as I could, but also as spacious as possible with the reverb. The piano was very out of tune, so it had to be manipulated, and the notes sustained to sound ok.

Are your tracks improvised, or do you compose each one?

CD: It depends. Sometimes I'll do things as a one-off, and then for others I have a massive library of stuff that I recorded before, and then process to make new compositions out of them. I spend a lot of time just recording and processing things, which sit for a while and then eventually become tracks. But sometimes they're just one-off jams.

On Benacah Drann Deachd, I could still detect remnants of your background in ambient techno, but Niaiw Ot Vile is altogether more experimental. Were you aiming for something more complex and genre-defying?

CD: You can just say BBD. [laughs] I think most tracks on BDD were quite old by the time it was released, so I'm sure a lot of the past influences were still intact, but with the new one, I wanted to put together an album that displayed all my time until now. In my mind, I wanted to make something contemporary, and that would reach more people with PAN than the last 22 years of work. I think it could be easy to say "Yeah, everyone's into noise", but I wanted to show that could be done in a more compositional and musical way, to make it more a more fluid experience whilst still having the diversity of sounds.

It reminds me of the time I saw you at The Vortex in London about two years ago…

CD: Oh yes, the Jonny Mugwump [Exotic Pylon] night. I think [Niaiw Ot Vile] has tracks that I worked on more, whereas BDD was more a series of spontaneous creations and sketches. I came to Berlin in 2003, and have since been writing music all day, doing tracks, editing them.

At the same time, there is nothing cold or purely synthetic about your music. It's very emotionally resonant. Would you agree with that interpretation?

CD: I would hope so, that's my intention. Definitely. It's hard to do that in electronics. It's easy to just play a synth and get a sequencer going and make it robotic. But you can also make it feel a bit more human as well. Since I started making music, I've tried to stay away from having the obvious electronic presence, even if using digital-sounding sounds.

I know the album is dedicated to Wai Cheng. How important a figure in your life and music was he?

CD: Wai was extremely important in opening me up to different, non-established and experimental musics in the San Francisco Bay Area, since the late 90s, with his labels Isolate and Dyslexic Response, putting out people who would never have had the chance to do so, because at that time San Francisco was dominated by disco and house. He put out the first Venetian Snares album proper, printf, which was a very important album of its time. Wai had a record store in Berkeley that sold releases by like-minded people. He was relentless, and rightfully bitter about the state of music, so when we met, we instantly became close. He was very important to me and my music, and booked me at the Bohemia club in the late 90s by saying "Hey, I know you, you're O.S.T., you're the shit!" [laughs]. He looked like a goth kid. I was excited, because nothing I did went along with whatever was popular then. He was planning to put out the Dalglish album Ideom around the time he passed, so it eventually came out on Record Label Records.

I'm very curious about the album and track titles. They're very enigmatic, as on previous releases. Are they in Gaelic? Can you perhaps shed some light on their meaning?

CD: The title of the album was me imagining that no matter how bad a place you are in life, or being alive, it's probably better to be alive than to be nowhere [chuckles]. Nowhere can only be real when you cease to exist. No matter how bad things are, nowhere isn't anywhere you want to be. This is where Wai and a few people who were influential to me are, so it's a reference to being nowhere but not wanting to be there, and I feel I need to protect their lives as much as I can by being somewhere… Which still might feel like nowhere [laughs]. Some of the track titles are Gaelic, and others are references to where I was when they were composed; they're names of villages in Brandenburg where I spent time alone, isolated and just wrote music and took really long walks through the forest. There was a piano there, and that ended up on 'Ciaradh'.

As well as Dalglish, you have recorded under a number of names, such as Scald Rougish and O.S.T. Do you consider them all to be starkly different projects?

CD: I'm not sure about that! O.S.T got swallowed up with the internet and original soundtracks and Korean TV shows and stuff like that. So it was better to take a name that was at least some broken ex-football player… And now a shit manager [laughs]. It's not actually much of a reference to him, to be honest, I just decided on the name in 2000 or something.

O.S.T. was the first thing I started doing, and it was just about exploring sound and synthesis with analogue gear and digital effects, trying to get more than the basic sound out of them. Dalglish got more sophisticated, possibly. I also had Rook, which was more straight-ahead percussive, but fucked up. Dalglish kind of cements them in the middle, with the atmospheres of O.S.T., without the massive percussiveness of Rook. I wanted to settle in the middle with Dalglish.

Some writers wanted to interpret a lot of meaning to the name, referencing the past and memory and so on…

CD: I guess with BDD, it was a documentation of ten or eleven years of work, and the theme was "Farewell cursed decade", so that was indeed a reference to time and bad memories. This whole nostalgia thing is interesting, but I also think it can be played up too much as well. It's like having an obvious title: it influences people to feel that, because you told them what it is instead of letting them feel it for themselves, which is why my song titles are so different. I think song titles throughout history have been contrived and done too much.

The album comes wrapped in gorgeous artwork that seems to resonate with the shadowy, ethereal feel of your music. Did you have any input on the design?

CD: It was done by Ian Liddle, who did Benacah. He's a British artist who's really talented but doesn't get enough work, so I try to get him stuff. Apparently, it's some kind of inverted photographs layered on top of each other. I think the depth he created with that went really well with the music. Bill [Kouligas] did the PVC sleeve, as usual, but the art was all Ian. I've known him for ten years, since I moved here.

Could you please give me a bit of background on yourself? How did you get into electronic music? I hear you used to throw parties in San Francisco when only a teenager. That must have been something!

CD: Originally, it was through Jake Smith, who did stuff on Subtropic. I was living in a warehouse in downtown San Francisco, and he had gifs that he set sequenced with drum machines and sequencers. That was my first experience with sequencing. I would use his sequences and rearrange them, so that's how it started. Then I met Jonah Sharp and started experimenting with his gear. My first gear was an [Alesis] HR-16 and a Juno 106… I had taken keyboard lessons, but nothing production-wise. I've always been into music. I was raised by my grandparents, but my sister was always taking me to shows and stuff.

In Detroit, you worked with two legendary figures in Mike Banks and James Stinson. What was that like? Stinson was a very enigmatic figure, who rarely collaborated with anyone outside Drexciya. What was he like to work with?

CD: I was doing parties in San Francisco with The Spacetime Collective and Jonah Sharp, and we brought out Richie Hawtin. He suggested I come out to Detroit, and I took him up on the offer. Before that, I was working in a record store, and we had a record by Perceptrons, who were also Teste, the guys who did 'The Wipe', and this sounded completely different and experimental. So I called them on the phone and said "Hey, I think you'll like the kind of music I'm making" and just played them what I was doing over the phone and they liked it and invited me up.

Working with Mike and James was pretty extreme, because I was about 16 or 17 at the time. I went there especially for the music, and went to Submerge, which was around the corner from where I was living. Mike was really open, which was strange because I'd heard all these stories about him being this very militant, closed-down guy who doesn't really like white people, but he picked me up in his old Ford van, and he drove me around Detroit, showing me people who were getting affected by chemicals from the refineries and all these desolate areas. We started hanging out, and through him I met James. He was an intense guy, very direct. James was definitely a mentor to me, because we used to hang out all the time. He would just talk to me all the time, basically about being down. "Either you're down or you're shit, dawg!" [laughs]. I listened to all his things after that, and he had it right. He was preparing himself and myself for what was would happen. You really have to stay detached from everything, because if you don't, it's going to do your head in. I've suffered from that, paying attention to things too much. It's not good for you.

Do you feel that your own music carries an influence from Stinson and the Detroit scene?

CD: Not directly. Of course I love Drexciya, all those songs. They're great. But definitely the mentality, and the protection of yourself and your sound. That really stuck with me. Like I said, James was a mentor to me. I would listen to him for hours.

You've been based in Berlin since the early 2000s. What brought you to Europe? Do you find the scene in Berlin differs significantly from those in California and Detroit?

CD: I don't think I'm part of anything anymore. When I was younger, it was interesting… I said I was raised by my grandparents, but my sister was actually my mother, and my grandparents weren't my parents. I've been alone since I was 16, when my grandfather died, so I was a fucked-up misfit left on the planet going to all-night parties because it was something to do. From that, I got involved in DJing and doing parties, and it was a scene still. Dare I say it, an underground scene, even. I don't know what's going on anymore. I think it's become a corporate circus, I don't have any relation to anything. I hate clubs. It doesn't have anything to do with what I do. And my music has definitely evolved as well, which is what I think you should be doing. If anything, I'm kind of an old-fashioned Scottish drinker, y'know [laughs]. I'm mostly in pubs, and even that is getting annoying because people are getting too over-zealous, but I can be happy in an old man's pub. I don't care to be around people my age or even younger.

Was that what brought you to Berlin, then?

CD: What, the drinking? [laughs] The thing is, I never had a choice to be here. I came by accident, to be honest. Sean and Rob of Autechre invited me to perform at ATP in Camber Sands in 2003, because I've known them since 95 or 96, and every now and then they throw me a gig… It was going to be Japan, originally, but it ended up being Pontin's at Camber Sands! I was doing everything to get [O.S.T album] Seimlste out, I really hustled, so I was planning to be gone from San Francisco for four months, then came to visit people in Paris and Berlin, and I just got stuck here. I had a place for a year and thought "OK, I'll do that, a year's fine", and it turned into eleven years! [laughs] I haven't been home since I left.

I imagine the music you make as Dalglish must be a challenge to reproduce on stage. Do you have to approach things differently when performing live?

CD: It depends. Sometimes I can play bits and parts of songs. When I play, which is very rare, I'm not sure people are out there waiting for hits [laughs], so I can just go out and play what I want. I use certain patches for one hits, and loops, then some sequencing from MIDI, with effects, synths and routing, so it's more spontaneous. I have some part that I know I can put in, and then I just branch them together by improvising.

Do you plan to tour in support of Niaiw Ot Vile? Will we get a chance to see you perform in London?

CD: I would like to, but there's no offers! I don't know what's going on, but I'm actually going to Copenhagen tomorrow for some shows. A friend used some tracks from [Scald Rougish album] Bardachd for a documentary, so I'm going to get to go to the Copenhagen Film Festival.

Do you have any further forthcoming releases, as Dalglish or under a different moniker?

CD: I work every day, even if it doesn't really do anything. I've got thousands of tracks… There will be another release, maybe in February; I'm going to do something for Andrea Parker, as a Dalglish album. I'm really into Touchin' Bass, and she wants to put out some unreleased O.S.T. and Rook tracks from the 90s, so that will actually be two albums on that label. There will also be a new Seaes album, another project I have for all the homeless, unreleased tracks. There will be a four CD album for that.

Dalglish's Niaiw Ot Vile is out this week via PAN