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A Quietus Interview

At The Brink Of Destruction: Ian William Craig Interviewed
John Doran , July 4th, 2016 07:17

John Doran speaks to one of tQ's favourite artists of recent years, the singer and tape manipulator, Ian William Craig

Portrait by Alex Waber

The end of year top 100 album chart can bring its own kind of multi-faceted and giddy mania with it. The sheer construction of this site’s annual aesthetic defining list is bad enough. Have we listened to enough LPs? Have we listened to enough Bandcamp albums? Have we listened to enough cassettes? Are we being tokenistic? Are we displaying deep enough listening across various genres? Are we being global enough? Are we being inclusive enough in other ways? Are we being wilfully perverse by ignoring this year’s consensus metal, indie and dance picks? How much of this music will we still find enjoyable in a year’s time? In ten year’s time? It is a recipe for mental disquiet, I can tell you.

After it is published however that should be it over and done with for another six months… but it never is. I often find myself hunched over a laptop in my tiny childhood bedroom, in my parents’ house in the outskirts of Liverpool, a few days after Christmas, thinking, “What did we miss?” I find myself right at the finishing line of the year, still checking out suggestions from our own comment feature or late published AOTY charts or from ILM’s massive list of end of year lists.

And it was in the last few days of 2014, in the grips of insomnia (amongst other things) brought on by problems with medication, I found myself, not slumped on a recliner dozing or watching Midsomer Murders with a plate of mince pies on my stomach but typing: “Best drone LP 2014” into Google, long after it would do the site any good.

The first result led me to the Anti-Gravity Bunny blog - the work of one Justin of Salem, Mass. who writes about relatively obscure drone, noise, black metal etc. and who sometimes reviews albums via the medium of haiku. He had a release by a Canadian singer - Ian William Craig’s A Turn Of Breath (Recital) - listed as his favourite release of the year.

I read the following, single, ridiculous yet ultimately very compelling sentence:

”Craig is trained as an opera singer, and he takes his incredible voice and fucks it up with some Basinski style tape madness, going over the top with an emotional rollercoaster, this dude sings so fucking sweetly if he collaborated with Julianna Barwick world peace would be inevitable, he sends it straight to the stratosphere, soaring euphoria, and then cracks it into a million pieces with decaying texture and warbled beauty, this is the sonic equivalent of a Turner painting, horror and melancholy in stormy waters amidst the sun shining bright with hope & purity on the fringe, crumbling crackling harmony turned inside out, bursting with life and on the edge of death, I feel absolutely fucking devastated listening to this, it’s the most heart-wrenching, overwhelming, fucked up, perfect, warm, somber, delicate, monster of a drone record, I know I tend to dramatize things when I get excited about a record but for real this is the best fucking thing you’ll hear all year, maybe for the next 5 years, I don’t know, it’s just a goddamn masterpiece.”

Importantly, my mum’s broadband signal was so contemptibly timid that I couldn’t listen to the track streaming with the review. The utter iniquity! Imagine not being able to instantaneously hear music the second you read about it!

On the long, rainy drive back to London the following day, a Friday, I read and re-read the blog post on my phone. I mean, imagine if Justin's review wasn’t just crazy hyperbole. Imagine if this album actually sounded like Anti-Gravity Bunny blog made out! I realised I had to get my hands on this record immediately. But there was a problem. Via the wonders of 4G I was able to ascertain that there wasn’t a single phyiscal copy of the 500 vinyl release on sale via a shop anywhere in the UK. I genuinely believed that there was no way I could wait for someone to post me a copy from America. Further digging revealed that one blogger in London who had been selling the record from his flat, still had his last copy for sale. I somehow managed to reassure him that I both needed to have it the very same day, as soon as humanly possible, and that, no, I wasn’t insane, just reconnecting with some old pleasures/needs I used to associate with music decades previously.

And when I finally got A Turn Of Breath back to my flat, I had time to play it once all the way through at a decent volume before my son went to bed. Justin, I decided, had been completely right. Typical. This album should have been in our end of year top ten - and we hadn’t even mentioned it.

Ian William Craig’s primary instrument is his voice. He is a singer/ songwriter, albeit right at the boundaries of what this usually entails. Although initially a fan of expansive post rock by Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Stars Of The Lid, he has found illumination and inspiration more recently in the vocally manipulated, emotional resonance of James Blake. His secondary instrument is the tape deck, or rather a series of (often vintage, often dilapidated) reel to reel tape decks, which he uses to record himself and then build up a layered pattern of sound. His album from last year, A Cradle For The Wanting (which did end up on tQ’s albums of the year list) featured just his voice and tape manipulation although on other records he has used other instruments such as guitar, cello and synthesizer. He is very prolific and has released three albums this year already - a cassette called Zugzwang For Fostex on Patient Sounds Intl. and a vinyl LP called Meaning Turns To Whispers on Aguirre. The third, and most recent, Centres comes out on the Fat Cat imprint, 130701, today and is the culmination of four years' work and features most of his styles of tape experiment and working methods to date. It is probably the most useful way to get to know his work. (Although some of his earlier albums are still available digitally from his bandcamp page.)

You can listen to Centres via an embed in this feature below... unless your internet signal is as bad as my mum and dad's of course. In which case you may find yourself slipping into a bizarre world of mania, desire, desperation, pleading, frantic driving round London and then finally inculcation and release. As I will attest, strange things can happen to you once you come under the gravitational pull of this man's singular music.

Ian William Craig was born in Edmonton, Canada and now lives in Vancouver where he is a print media technician at the University Of British Columbia.

What sort of place was Edmonton when you were growing up?

Ian William Craig: When I moved away from Edmonton I felt like I was finished with the place. It’s pretty isolated both geographically and in terms of climate. The next largest city is Calgary and that is hundreds of kilometres away and the next city after that is even further away, so those two cities have this weird isolationist tone to them. So when I was growing up it was kind of nice because it’s got this really beautiful sense of community but in the winter the city’s weather is literally trying to kill you. People band together because of it. As I got older it started to feel a bit more provincial maybe? I don’t think that’s the case now, I think it was just my [teenage] angst coming to the fore.

I’ve picked up on the fact that you’ve used the words isolation and isolationism… is there any sense in which your music comes from isolationism. For the record I should say I do find it slightly weird talking about isolationism in an internet age but the word can work on lots of different levels.

IWC: Yeah, I agree. I feel like community is very important because we’re social creatures. The internet is an interesting phenomenon and a reflection of this but I would definitely identify as an introverted person. I don’t mean I don’t have a social bent to me but I really treasure being able to have my space. I don’t think I’ve ever done anything creative of any merit in the purview of other people. [There has always been] this sense of engaging with a community to fulfil a social need and then pulling back from it [to fulfil musical needs]. As soon as I pull back from it it’s kind of like getting into a warm bath. [Then] I can fiddle with the tape decks, twiddle nobs and so on. I guess when you say isolation it feels very finite and forced, it has a kind of eerie tone to it but I really revel in sense of space or a sense of separation. Because then you get to press against the threshold of it and then exciting things happen.

Are you part of any kind musical scene - in the loosest sense. Do you meet up with other musicians regularly to bounce ideas off them about… I don’t know… tape heads and splicing… or are you kind of out there on your own?

IWC: I would say I have a really rich community in the visual arts side of things. So I work at UBC [University Of British Columbia] and I run a printmaking studio for them. This gives me a great opportunity to engage with young artists and the faculty there. This is not to say there isn’t a musical community in Vancouver as well but there isn’t really the equivalent of Cafe Oto, say. There isn’t a focal point around which people can gather. It’s not that people aren’t interested… they just live in Vancouver! It’s hard to generate the momentum that this sort of thing needs.

You’ve been a singer for a long time and obviously on some of your albums, such as last year’s Cradle For The Wanting, your voice is the sole ‘instrument’. Do you see yourself as a vocalist, primarily?

IWC: Yeah, I think so. If I were to bullet point the things that I might be then that’s definitely one of the bigger things. Which is interesting because as you get older… I’ve noticed that my range has changed. It’s fascinating when you predicate one of your main things on the body.

You must be tired of answering this question but it needs to be asked anyway - is it true that you’ve had operatic training but you’ve never actually sang opera?

IWC: Yeah, that’s the case, so I have had formal training with my voice both one on one with an instructor and by way of participating in the choral tradition in Edmonton. So it’s not a bald-faced lie but I would never go to the Faculty Of Music at UBC and say, ‘Hey! What’s up? I’m here for the lead role in Salome!’

Are there any roles in opera that you’ve daydreamed about singing?

IWC: Well, at this point the edges of my knowledge have been breached as I don’t know that much about the opera tradition. I would gravitate more toward the choral tradition. I really love The Song Of The Earth [Das Lied von der Erde] by Mahler. That would be fantastic to sing. A glorious romantic death would be perfect.

You say your register has shifted but your voice is more naked on the new album Centres than it has been on previous albums.

IWC: That’s interesting because I’ve been working on Centres for a very long time; it’s about four years’ worth of work, with the recording, rerecording and layering. So I guess it has multiple Ians on it at multiple layers of nakedness.

Is there any reason why Centres took so long to complete? After all you’re usually very prolific and fast-working?

IWC: I guess it was because this album was one of the first things I started working on. This one started out as more in the aspect of the expression of a singer/songwriter. I guess I worked on it for so long because I just didn’t know where it was going. And it was great for that reason. This record has touched down on most of the things I have been doing since I started taking music seriously. So it’s a bit of a theory of everything; but whether it functions as that or not is open to debate. It started out as a collection of songs and a canvas onto which I could throw ideas but then it just started billowing and rolling down the hill and collecting stuff like a giant rolling snowball.

I guess it makes a good primer for your work and that’s handy in a way because I’m guessing a lot of people are going to come to your work via this album. It’s on a bigger label with better distribution than before. As much as I like your previous albums on Recital they were hard to come by.

IWC: I hope so and I’m glad it reads that way.

Using this album as an example can you talk about process? What you start with… at what point do you add extra instrumentation… That kind of thing.

IWC: It’s a bit hard to describe that for this particular album as it has been worked on for such a long time. I’m not sure I can even really recall where they began in a lot of ways. But I can answer your question generally. I always come back to [the idea] of drawing and a sense of response to drawing. The reason I use the tape decks - not just because they’re beautiful machines that are really generous in the quality they impart to things - is they keep me from getting too precious about the material. They allow me a sense of improvisation with the material and sense of discovery I wouldn’t have been able to achieve on my own. They produce an element of chaos that I tend to revel in. The tape decks are an important part of the process because of the element of decay or the element of surprise they introduce. They make it necessary for me to respond to what is going on. This is something I learned in the printmaking studio. You’re not really part of the product, you’re just engaged with the process. You put a plate into the acid. Once it’s in the acid there is a chemical reaction happening and you can’t predict the result. You can be present with the plate from start to finish but there is an element of chance which is forever imbued on the print itself and you have to think in layers and in terms of what the print needs. And that is something I’ve really taken to heart in music, there are elements of chance, response and deterioration as this beautiful font of creativity... [LAUGHS] “Beautiful font of creativity”?! It must be before 8am… But [as an artist] you are taking something, bending it, ruining it, trying to layer something else on top of it and maybe then ruining that too. I guess I would see the different musical ideas as if they were on sheets of acetates and each acetate would go through some kind of ringer, and then I would stack them on top of each other and see how they layer and see the kind of shapes that emerge and then respond to those shapes.

How do you not get lost in the process. It must be hard to define when a track is finished and even worse, it being analog, there is presumably no way of back clicking or reverting to a back up or CTRL-Zing back out of a dead end.

IWC: Oh yeah, I totally know what you mean. And in fact one of the first times I used the decks I made a mistake and then in my brain I immediately thought, ‘Command Z… Come on, command Z…’ We’re totally now in this era of multiple ideas and being able to backtrack on everything. Throwing the songs through the ringer is kind of liberating in a lot of ways because it’s a way of deprogramming that or introducing risk to the work, which I think is super important for a creative process. But as far as why it took four years [to make Centres]? I think I did relate to it as a canvas onto which I could throw ideas onto. A lot of the processes I discovered by manipulating things on Centres ended up on A Turn Of Breath or A Cradle For The Wanting and they got finished first because of the deadline imposed on them. So you get to a point where you have to say, ‘Yeah, it ends here!’ I wouldn’t have put them out if I didn’t think they could stand on their own but there does come a point where you have to push them out of the nest and if the label is saying, ‘Yeah, you should push them out of the nest now!’ it is time. Centres is my sketch book in a lot of ways. I guess with knowing if something is finished or not you do have a sense of it but it is also totally arbitrary. I’m sure I would have worked on this for another four years if I didn’t have to throw it out into the world.

Can I ask what the Autotune-like effect on ‘Contain (Astoria)’ is?

IWC: Sure, that was part of the original recording process. I originally recorded four or five songs working with an engineer called Marek Joseph, who also owned the studio and he offered to mix a couple of things for me. At first I was quite shocked when I heard the result. I guess I’m a little self-conscious about it. I was worried about it getting along with the other elements of the record but maybe I left it in for sentimental reasons. But yeah, it is quite different and I either think, ‘Wow, I should do everything like this!’ Or I think, ‘I should never do anything like that again!’

I think it’s great to be honest. It’s certainly unexpected but it does fit in once the shock has subsided.

IWC: Yeah… he’s a genius!

You’ll have to forgive me, I’m quite an uncultured man, but I often see your name has this modern classical tag applied to it and most of the modern classical stuff I’ve come into contact with such as Nils Frahm or Nico Muhly is just not the sort of music I’m into. It seems pusillanimous to me. Now with your music there is a distinct duality to it with one side of it being very dynamic, very raw and very weird and not at all smooth or suitable for being, say, background music in high end bars or commercial galleries.

IWC: Modern classical is a tricky buzz word. It’s kind of like post rock. It’s a nebulous term around which a bunch of unsavoury things have begun to gather. It’s kind of like when shiny new condo building springs up downtown and you think, ‘What is this for? I think there are people inside but I can’t be sure. What does this building do? What purpose does it serve the community?’ But maybe I’m being too harsh. I think modern classical is a bit of a placeholder for certain types of music. I guess I kind of find it flattering in some ways that I’ve been put in this category, because it’s a category that resists categorisation. I guess what I endeavour to do is to have a relationship with the process and having a relationship with that process is a delightful honour and just seeing something sprout from nothing is so engaging to me. Sometimes what comes out is beautiful, sometimes what comes out is shocking but one of the things I’m most proud of is I feel like I’ve stuck to my guns over what the music is, I know I’m in a privileged position and I haven’t had to worry about getting commissions. I’ve got a nice stable place to make things from and I like that people have difficulty classifying what comes out of that process. The unclassifiability of what I do means I’m doing a good job making the compositions what they need to be and [means I’m] not worrying about where I stack up against Nico Muhly [LAUGHS].

Is there a battle going on between the more structured, classically trained elements of your music and the more unstructured, psychedelic and noise elements of what you do?

IWC: Yeah, because I just want to do everything! There are a lot of glorious conversations in which to participate. Especially now. There is so much you can immerse yourself in. It’s haunting, lovely and suffocating all at once! Yeah, there is a tension there and it’s because I want to do everything. I use music as a way to try and understand some of those conversations. To me it’s quite obvious how they connect but I find the tension really interesting.

Do you find that this musical conflict acts as a metaphor for other areas of your life?

IWC: Yeah, for better or for worse… [LAUGHS] It’s quite disarming making a composition that sounds like the inside of your own head. Nothing is settled in my frame of reference, everything is open to interpretation. Actually it was quite stunning, learning that not everyone’s head works this way. The music I make definitely [represents] my world view or my view of the universe in a very pragmatic way, this is definitely the sound of me processing things. Which is very shocking to be able to have a tangible aspect of one’s reality be out in the world like that.

On some of the tracks such as ‘A Slight Grip A Gentle Hold’ you have manipulated or disintegrated your own voice so much that it’s almost like the listener is no longer hearing a human voice any more. Something that is clearly organic and alive but alien sounding. A bit like when Chris Watson records an animal and it ends up sounding like something from a science fiction movie. Is there a point you’re trying to take the human voice beyond?

IWC: Yeah. So on Cradle For The Wanting, one of my stipulations was that it was just going to be a capella. Or the only ‘instrument’ was just going to be my voice. So for that album for sure one of the things that governed it wasn’t necessarily push the voice in the way someone like Mike Patton might because of the sheer amount of sounds the vocalist can utter or the power of the voice itself but more in the manipulation of it revealing a hidden or innate aspect of my own sensibilities. And so it was really neat to be able to see how far that could go. I think it was also one of the reasons why it was a revelation to be able to hear the Autotune on ‘Contain (Astoria)’ because it was this crystalline expression of the human voice as opposed to the tape decks which [produce something] a bit more sonorous or with a magical quality. So the Autotune is super harsh, parsed and calculated. It’s neat to hear those two worlds collide. It’s neat hearing those hidden aspects being revealed.

Are you interested in vocal manipulation at the more digital end of things, so I’m talking about people like Katie Gately or Holly Herndon?

IWC: Yeah. I don’t know Katie Gately’s work but I enjoy Holly Herndon a lot. Just as you were asking that the spectre of James Blake appeared in my mind. I have to admit his first album was something that blew me away. How he manipulated the voice. The digital crunching that he was doing.

Do you obsess over the surface noise of your music like someone such as Burial does?

IWC: I definitely see that as a big instrument. I guess it’s unfair of me to say that on Cradle Of The Wanting the human voice was the only instrument as the static or the nominal sound that tape decks make in the wild [should be regarded as instruments as well]. The nature of recording with tape decks, the actual noise they make, oh man! That just does it for me! I can sit and listen to those purr and undulate for hours. And I do literally do that for hours and days on end. It’s an instrument just like everything else and I feel like I have to credit these guys for their musical contribution.

I have an apartment at the moment which is just filled full of tape decks that are in different states of repair. They’re all different, they all bring a different flavour. They all have a different voice and I do obsess over this quite a bit.

How does it work when you play live?

IWC: A lot of the ideas that have ended up on records have been created in a live setting. I’ll bring a tape deck right to the brink of destruction or non-functionality and play with it at that point just to create an element of risk. A lot of the performances raise the question, ‘What’s going to happen?’ This is kind of harrowing in a lot of ways but it also definitely helps the creative process in a lot of ways as well. So I guess I would go into a performance with an idea of beats, or things that I would like to hit or particular melodic ideas that I would have surface from time to time, and feed those into the decks and see what they do with it and then respond accordingly. So I will either harmonise with it or layer something on top, it’s kind of built on a sense of improvisation and intuition but with an idea in mind about a melodic space I’d like to create. I think one of the challenges of this tour coming up is twofold. The first is getting all of those [tape recorders] packed into a suitcase so I’m using smaller decks and I’ve started using cassettes instead of reel to reel tape because of the size of them but it’s still going to be on rickety machines at the borders of functionality. And the second is that because on Centres a lot of the music is more recognisably song based, being able to express something more controlled in that environment is going to be a challenge.

I didn’t need to speak to you to know that this music is very important to you. You can tell simply by listening to it. But I did want to ask you if the music played some kind of spiritual or ritual role in your life or as some kind of analogue of spirituality.

IWC: Yeah, it does. I guess it would be spiritual in the sense that it helps me understand what is going on. I’m one of those people who requires the external creative process to reflect the internal processing. So it’s been really important to me to have something in the world to respond to for my own benefit. I didn’t know that the inside of my head sounded like that until the song told me that it did. And there’s a ritualistic aspect to it as well, a meditative procedure that happens. I’m kind of pushing against the boundaries of what I can do and the boundaries of my own patience and that has been very fulfilling. There has been a necessity to the creative process in my life and I think in the past few years it has taken a musical bent. I’m not sure what the future holds but it fulfils my need to understand the world and understand what is going on.

Centres is out today via 130701. Ian William Craig plays live at Supernormal Festival and at Bristol, Bradford, London and Glasgow this August