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Escape Velocity

We See You: CHAINES Interviewed
Lucia Udvardyova , October 17th, 2019 10:53

Lucia Udvardyova talks to the Oram Award-winning Manchester-based SHAPE artist about Donald Trump and developing a sound-based game for people with impaired sight

CHAINES (Cee Haines) is a composer and multi-instrumentalist based in Manchester in the UK, who writes surreal and fantastical electronica and electro-acoustic music. Their album, The King, was received with enthusiastic critical praise; it was ranked in FACT magazine’s top 25 albums of 2018’s first quarter, was made Boomkat’s album of the week, and this website's Reviews Editor, Robert Barry called it "vast in scope, rich in execution" when writing in The Wire.

Their live set uses tracks from the record as a springboard for solo, semi-improvised electro-acoustic performance, which the Guardian has called "a mesmeric collage of ecclesiastical beauty and creeping dread".

In addition to their solo electronic work, CHAINES has also worked extensively with the London Contemporary Orchestra. They are the recipient of the 2019 Oram Award.

Can you talk about your background and what led you to music?

CHAINES: My mum got me some electronic keyboard lessons when I was about six. It was the type where you have a backing track and automatic one-key-press chord accompaniments in the left hand. That was kind of the start of it all. As I got a bit older, I started to play the keyboard all the time, every day, writing little bits and pieces, playing tunes from chord books and 'comping along. I got a Yamaha keyboard with a light up display. If you pressed a bunch of keys simultaneously, it would give you an approximation of the chord, and that's basically how I taught myself music theory.

It's funny, I've had a pretty classical music education; I learned the flute, and much later on as a teen I learned the piano. When it comes to my actual understanding of how everything works, though, that's actually self taught. When I had to pass classical theory exams, I already knew how things worked, I just needed to call them by the correct fancy name. My folks were always very generous to me on the music front - I bought a cheap guitar off a friend, they bought me a student violin one year, they hired me a saxophone when I was about 17, so I've had lots of opportunity to teach myself how to play various instruments, I've been very fortunate indeed.

Your critically acclaimed album The King is a complex, melodic record, with baroque atmospheres, at times reminiscent of the great British tradition of uncanny music-makers like Scott Walker, Mica Levi or Vindicatrix (Mordant Music). Can you talk about the genesis and development of this cinematic record?

CH: It's oddly difficult to look back and try to piece together how the record came into existence. It's from a time in my life that now seems distant and hazy, and was not, altogether, a particularly happy time. 'DOWN' and 'Carpathia' were both commissions from the London Contemporary Orchestra and Union Chapel London before they were tracks on the album, so the development of those tracks has roots in instrumental music (although they both had electronic components from the start). 'Population 5120' was born out of the development of 'DOWN', it's from the same headspace, thinking about the strongly affective atmospheres of Silent Hill 2 and Twin Peaks.

I worked on and developed 'Eraserhead' for ages - about six months on and off. 'Airship' was the child of a track I attempted to write with a friend (which I ended up writing entirely, being an awful collaborator), which came from trying to conjure a dream-like, escapist kind of state. I can't remember what prompted 'For Your Own Good', although I think I wanted to do something with speech, and I think I easily ended up with the words. It took a while to record - speaking quickly is difficult!

'Mary' came because I knew I wanted to do something with a monstrous voice, and this guitar hook came up under my fingers and it needed to have something done with it. 'Knockturning' was the last track I wrote, and the ten days or two weeks in which it was written were absolute hell. I was so anxious and just wanted to be able to finish, so I could find some peace. As it is, I think it's one of the tracks I'm most proud of. It's funny how music survives time but the process behind it doesn't always do the same. I have these surviving totems of that time of my life, and I know the connections between them and the past intellectually, but the reality of how it was is a bit lost to me.

There's a track called 'Carpathia' on the album. Since I'm writing this from Central Europe, I was curious about the title and the track itself (and the inspiration for it). That track is very much a love letter to my notions about Dracula and Dracula's castle, a lot of which is inspired by Francis Ford Coppola's film Bram Stoker's Dracula.

Dracula talks with great fondness of the Transylvanian landscape and Carpathian mountains, and in my mind they took on a kind of life and power of their own. I wanted the track to be going from inside the castle to outside, to inside to outside, where you're finally chased by wolves, and then... do you find sanctuary in a cathedral? I guess it's easy to romanticise a place if you live so far away and have never been there! That being said, forests make me feel something deeply... spiritual, I guess...wherever they are in the world. Forests are dope. We should have more forests.

You've also collaborated with the London Contemporary Orchestra. Can you talk about this collaboration?

CH: I've written a bunch of stuff for the London Contemporary Orchestra since 'DOWN', but that was the first major ensemble piece. It was a massive learning curve for me! That might have been the first thing I ever did that was a larger instrumental ensemble with electronics. Yes, I learned a lot from that experience - and have been very grateful that the LCO are a supportive bunch, cos yeah, there was a lot of practical stuff that I've now learned is best done differently.

Without going too far into it, I've come to the opinion that the more you can get the instrumentalists to do live (as opposed to pre-done playback), the better. It's always a tricky balance, because unless I play the instrument myself, I can't test it out with effects to see how it'll behave, so it's tempting to give as much to the computer playback as possible, but it's not nearly as rewarding (or easy!) as doing it live.

In one interview you were very reflective and even critical of your own work. How do you as an artist come to terms with and reflect on your own work?

CH: For me, it's kind of hard to imagine a world in which I'm not very critical of my own work, and I guess I'm like that as a person. The deeper you can dive into the heart of what you're trying to do, the more you can understand what you want. Then you learn how to make the strongest version of what you want, and the work becomes more potent and concentrated. When things click, it's invigorating. It's a difficult balance, however, because for me it's easy for things to tip over into a place where you're so critical that nothing's ever good enough and it's super depressing. The prospect of writing music is something I can actually find quite daunting these days. As time goes on, I'm trying to go easier on myself. I think having a life outside of music is very important - something - anything - that can help give you a break and some perspective. More recently I've enjoyed drawing, and I enjoy playing Dungeons and Dragons with my partner and friends.

You are based in Manchester. Can you talk about the city's creative/music scene vis-a-vis the looming Brexit and arts funding?

CH: I've found the electronic music scene in Manchester to be super friendly and supportive. They're a wonderful bunch of humans. Everyone's very forthcoming and enthused, even if I myself can be a bit of a hermit. I would not be in the position I'm in now if it weren't for support from Brighter Sound and the people I've met through their residencies and courses. They're a treasure and I would highly recommend them.

As for Brexit, it's just a bit of a nightmare. I don't even know how to talk about it really, its scope for disaster goes way beyond music. I don't want England to become a shoddy outpost of Trump's America, which is what I think this is all pointing in the direction of. Yeah, I'm trying to order my thoughts about the whole thing, but really, my inner monologue is going, "AAARRRGGGHHH!"

What are you currently working on?

CH: Currently, I'm working on developing a game that's largely sound-based. A game that someone with a severe visual impairment could get the same level of satisfaction out of playing as a sighted person. I worked for some time with a composer who doesn't have sight, and you'd think in this day and age there would be more available in music technology for people who can't see, but there isn't. I guess it's because it's not a big enough demographic to influence the market. I'm not an engineer, so I'm not able to address larger questions of accessibility, but the idea of making something that relies on sound was a cool notion.

You have received the prestigious Oram Award, inspired by Daphne Oram and recognising emerging female and non-binary artists working with music and sound.

CH: Yeah, it's been really nice to win an Oram. I was initially worried that the awards would misgender me and/or make it easy to incorrectly assume I'm cisgender (I'm transgender, non-binary and leaning towards trans-masc), but their language has become more inclusive since I raised my concerns with the Award's producer. There's a lot of transphobia in the UK media, so it's difficult not to be paranoid about these things. As a non-binary person (my pronouns are they/them), who's still awaiting/raising money for gender-confirming treatment, I've got psychological and financial pressures on me that make putting energy and resources into music pretty difficult. I am also someone who is perceived, and has throughout my life been perceived to be, a woman, and been treated accordingly. So the award is a nice boost to my morale, because yeah, my situation has often felt quite hopeless. I often feel like I have to choose between my health and my musical career, so this feels good - it's like being told, "We know you're still here, we see you!"

CHAINES is part of SHAPE platform for innovative music and audiovisual art, supported by the EU's Creative Europe programme