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Escape Velocity

Travels In Non-Space: An Interview With Time Attendant
Ed Gillett , April 1st, 2014 04:46

Ed Gillett meets up with the South London-based electronic musician and painter to discuss uniting sounds from across time, this year's Treacherous Orb EP, and a desire to "cover everything in a layer of soil"

Drifting between fleeting evocations of different places and times, the music South London musician and painter Paul Snowdon creates as Time Attendant can be tricky to grasp at first. Historical references are stacked up on top of each other to disorientating effect, melding contemporary electronics with Radiophonic tape experiments, the heavy fug of the industrial revolution, and medieval ritual. Malevolent drones swarm across the stereo field; solemn voices describe figures from heraldic imagery ("Head of falcon, and curved shot… animal head, with sun disc"); sequencers splutter into life, their uneven rhythms overlapping haphazardly; faint smudges of melody or field recordings are glimpsed, before being lost in the haze. In the video for 'Wisteria Of Albion', armoured knights ride and fight across foggy, desolate fields, the images saturated with false colours until they overload into abstraction. Somehow, these disparate and strange parts coalesce into something rich, beguiling and deeply human.

Snowdon's first official release was the Tournaments EP, released on Jonny Mugwump's Exotic Pylon label in 2012. Its sinister washes of sound evoke an England lost to the past, and the notion of chivalry not as a polite set of behaviours, but a raw code of honour mapped out in violence and dirt. The accompanying liner notes by Kek-w of Hacker Farm are titled Medievalism In Modern Electronic Music, and describe a time when "the Old eventually reconfigures itself into an Exotic Misremembered New... One day, very soon, Acid House will seem as fabulously alien and unknowable to us as, say, 13th century Muslim Alchemy."

Tournaments was followed by the Treacherous Orb EP, released this year on Vancouver-based label More Than Human. Described as "an archival recording from the future… invoking macrocosmic awe and microscopic terror", it adds a space-age sheen to Snowdon's roughly-hewn electronics, with nods to techno in its skittering rhythms and pulses.

With the debut Time Attendant album, titled Bloodhounds, set for release later this year on Exotic Pylon, the Quietus sat down with Paul to discuss fox hunting, improvisation, and why he wants to "cover everything in a layer of soil".

One of the first things which struck me about your music is the way it messes with time: some aspects sound archaic or referential, and then others are ultra-modern. Is that something you play with deliberately?

Paul Snowdon: It is, yeah. I suppose it's mainly because of the instruments I'm using - I've got a mostly analogue set-up, because I didn't want to use computers to make my music, I wanted a hands-on approach, and I wanted that dirt to be in there, you know, that grittiness. I think it's just a benefit of being honest to the instruments you're using, and not trying to do with it what you could do much more easily on a computer.

It's important that it sounds contemporary, or at least as contemporary as I want to make it sound, but I do also want it to sound like someone's putting it together in front of you, so it's almost like you can see the joins. It's similar to making collage or something like that, so it's rough round the edges. But then I suppose I'm varnishing it, making it a bit shinier.

You've obviously referenced techniques for visual art - is your process for making music similar to your approach to painting?

PS: It's the same world really, the painting and the music. It's about shapes, forms and composition: you can relate the shapes in the painting to the music, I often visualise specific sounds as having a very particular shape, and relate the hues of the colour to the quality of the sound, whether they look and sound tarnished and muted or solid and bright. I can't read music, so I often think of music in terms of visual forms, that kind of synaesthetic thing.

But yeah, the general environment that the music and painting both exist in, it's the same place, a kind of non-space that exists between the infrastructures of life. I'll generally start work on the cover art once I'm about halfway through writing the album, once I know roughly what I want the concept of the album to be, and then the visual and musical sides kind of play off each other from there. The Treacherous Orb EP happened quickly, and I had this painting Rossmann Dial, painted in 2006, hanging in my flat whilst I was making the music; I showed it to Gareth Moses of More Than Human and he agreed that it was the perfect image for the EP.

So the two feed into each other?

PS: Absolutely. I actually make art materials for a living as well: varnishes, painting mediums, paint, gilding materials, that sort of thing. The company I work for are more than two hundred years old, they used to sell materials to Whistler, JMW Turner, Francis Bacon, the Pre-Raphaelites, and other old British artists - even Winston Churchill was a customer. I think that sense of history is why I enjoy the work so much, everything just fits together with the stuff I'm interested in.

A lot of the field recordings on the records are things I've recorded at work - machinery or people in the warehouse. I just switch on the recorder and see what happens. 'Iridium Watcher' off the Treacherous Orb EP has a five minute sound recording running right through it, of me opening up the factory in the morning, turning on the heating and the mixing machines before making a cup of coffee. It gave the track a sense of someone pottering about waiting for something, in this case an iridium flare. On other occasions when my work colleagues realise I'm recording they'll begin to make rhythmic sounds with their machinery, which I find both hilarious and profound.

I was going to ask about the way you use recordings. How do they factor in?

PS: Well, they help contextualise the other sounds. I want there to be a human element to contrast with the machine noises of what the instruments are doing. Most of the sounds are mechanical, and I definitely emphasise that, but I'll maybe combine a field recording to play off the synthetic nature of the stuff around it, or contrast with what's going on elsewhere. Recently, as I've become more adept at designing sounds, I've begun to mimic the sounds in field recordings with electronic sounds. Superimposing one on top of the other: a train attendant's whistle with a high pitched sine wave, for instance.

Are you interested in the culture of sampling as a discipline in itself? A lot of your music carries that feeling of historical reflection, but does that extend to cultural re-appropriation as well?

PS: There aren't any samples in my music, no - it's just something which doesn't sit right with me. I don't want to use other people's sounds, I want to have created the music, or captured the moment myself. Even though people recontextualising samples is a form of creation again, I suppose I want the feeling of having invented each sound, if you like.

Iridium Watcher by Time Attendant - taken from 'Treacherous Orb' EP (More Than Human) from More Than Human on Vimeo.

I definitely get that sense of craftsmanship from your music; that idea of a learned trade with a feeling of heritage and workmanship behind it.

PS: Yeah, absolutely. That's maybe… well, I've had a working class upbringing, and I want there to be some kind of toil to it, I want that to show in the finished work. It's an old fashioned notion I know, but I really enjoy the process of refining things and making everything sound or look as good as it can within a very limited palette. How we make things is much more important to me than what we make.

On that idea of class identity: do you think of your music as expressing a political stance at all?

PS: In some ways it is, but it's not like I'm making a comment on anything, it's just there, you know. For Bloodhounds, I did a lot of field recordings from hunt gatherings, fox hunting. Obviously that's a pretty controversial subject to a lot of people, but I grew up around that sort of thing, I grew up in a small town so that was kind of normal to me. Even though I had nothing to do with any of it, I could see it all the time, and it wasn't until I moved away that I thought "Ah, that's quite an interesting part of English history and I should have a bit of that in there". It seems like a different world in some way, it's interesting just to document it, or just observe it really. It's important. I mean, I enjoy the whole ceremony of all these things, but I've no desire to actually take part in them.

That idea of a fading or otherworldy English history seems to be a really interesting area for electronic music at the moment.

PS: Yeah, I can't avoid it, I wish I could to be honest because so many people are doing that now, it seems like every new electronic act has this British mystical thing going on. But it really interests me, all that sort of thing. Twenty years ago I drove round England with an archaeologist, visiting all the usual sites of spiritual interest: Glastonbury Tor, Stonehenge, Wookey Hole, Avebury Stone Circle, various conical mounds, wells and crop circles, so it's a long standing interest that definitely informs my idea of Englishness.

I don't know, maybe in the future I'd like to go in the opposite direction, do a completely ambient album or something really minimal. I've been trying to make more minimal stuff but it's incredibly difficult. If you're doing something really minimal, everything's got to be really perfect, it has to have a real finesse to it. Someone like Mika Vainio, his minimal electronic stuff I just think is genius, I'd love to move towards something like that.

Do you think there's a trade-off between that very precise, technical approach - I guess I'm thinking of other people like Monolake in addition to Mika Vainio - and that sense of grittiness you've mentioned?

PS: I don't know. I love Monolake by the way, I've got loads of his stuff. I don't like much techno but I do like him, and people like Arovane. But yeah, I wouldn't necessarily want that same cleanness; even if it's minimal I still want to cover everything in a layer of soil!

I've got the basis of my sound worked out now, I think, so it's really just moving about within that, and looking at what I can accomplish with the tools I have. If I can go from noise to techno to something more minimal using the same equipment, then that's alright by me. I think it's more about changing the emphasis of each release. Tournaments, Bloodhounds and Treacherous Orb are all different in that sense. Treacherous Orb is more concentrated on small close-up sounds, Bloodhounds on the landscape in which everything happens and Tournaments is more emotionally charged.

I know you generally lean towards improvised performances for your live sets; does that factor into your writing process as well?

PS: Yeah they definitely feed into each other. If I'm writing stuff I'll generally start by improvising something. I'll listen back and record over it, and I'll do that two or three times until I get a general ten minutes of audio that are useable. I've got a four-track recorder, so I'll record the main sounds on one track, then have other tracks for a drum machine, field recordings and other stuff. Then I'll do a bit of editing, I find when you're improvising you need at least ten minutes to get the spirit of what the track needs to be, and that's usually condensed down to a five minute track for the final version.

And do you use a similar approach when you're performing?

PS: Well, that's the difficult thing with doing the live stuff... obviously I need to practise, but if the set-up is completely different and unexpected each time you come to it, then things get complicated! Deciding when to hit an effects pedal or alter the phasing speed of a sound isn't always about listening: muscle memory can play a big part in those decisions, so I always try to lay out my set-up as I have it at home, which isn't always possible. So the live performances are kind of like practised improvised pieces; as long as the equipment's the same each time, and I choose the sounds that I want to use, then those sounds can appear in different orders and have something more fluid about them.

I remember reading that you were in metal bands when you were younger, and that you wanted to create the same sense of dread from those performances in your music now. Is that still an important thing for you?

PS: I think it's there in the music, but I suppose there's only a residue of it left... there's a darkness to the stuff I make, but I'm not that interested in specifically exploring it any more. It's something I've moved on from, but it's still there, you know? I like that. I learnt how to structure songs in those metal bands, and I think I still write in a similar way: long intros, silent breaks, then everything coming in all at once before fading away gradually.

Time Attendant's Treacherous Orb EP is out now via More Than Human