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A Quietus Interview

Sharing Interfaces: Mark Fell And Rian Treanor Interviewed
Adam Quarshie , November 26th, 2020 08:49

Father and son Mark Fell and Rian Treanor are both unique voices in electronic music and due to perform together at this year's Next Festival. Adam Quarshie speaks to the pair about what led them towards music and their new ideas for collaborative alternatives to streaming in the age of Covid

Rian Treanor

“When there’s no opportunity, or anything in your context that means anything to you, you’ve got to find your own sources of inspiration or entertainment”, says Rian Treanor, reflecting on the creative energy that can come from having limited resources at your disposal. He’s at home in Rotherham, with his dad, fellow musician Mark Fell, where the pair have been caring for Rian’s grandparents. “We’ve been in full-on, brutal lockdown. Ten months with no break”, says Fell, when I call them up over Zoom. But rather than feeling restricted by the weird circumstances that have engulfed all of our lives over the past year, they seem to have used the time to exchange ideas and explore new approaches.

An aptitude for problem-solving and an openness to exploring unorthodox approaches to sound has been a key element in both artists’ output. As part of SND with Mat Steel, Fell was instrumental in steering electronic music towards abstract, glitchy territories in the late 90s. Since then, he’s expanded into sound art and installation, amassing an enormous back catalogue of experimental sound works while also writing and lecturing extensively. His artistic practice has always been rooted in counterculture: he was heavily influenced by the early rave scene he encountered in Sheffield, as well as by the anarchist politics he delved into after witnessing the decimation of his community as part of the Thatcher government’s assault on organised labour during the 1980s.

Growing up surrounded by electronic music, and then going on to organise art events around Leeds and Sheffield, Treanor released his first full-length album Ataxia in 2019. With the release of File Under UK Metaplasm in October of this year - a disorienting, challenging but ultimately glorious record - he’s established himself as one of the most vital British electronic artists of his generation. Eschewing the music production tools that have come to dominate electronic music, both musicians instead compose most of their work using Max/MSP, a graphical programming language that allows users to design their own audio devices. Both are deeply committed to education as well as composition and performance: Treanor is often found teaching workshops to young people with no musical experience. He also recently completed a project in “a care home for artists” in Paris. I spoke to them about their influences and approach to music, as well as how they see musical performances developing in a post-Covid world.

To start off with, I was wondering if there was a musical memory that you both shared. For example, Rian - if you had a memory of Mark playing you a tune when you were younger?

Mark Fell: You grew up in a house where there were lots of different kinds of music.

Rian Treanor: Yeah, it was pretty constant. When I started buying records, I’d basically just look at your record collection and steal loads of different tracks to play. I remember I had these decks set up and a mixer, and you had this Nord…

MF: A Nord Micro Modular

RT: You said: try this synth out. I remember going through some patterns and one of them was a techno pattern. I didn’t realise that was the thing that you did. I thought you did this really weird obscure thing that nobody could possibly be into.

When you first started to hear your dad’s music, what did you think of it?

RT: I remember you and Mat [Steel] making SND stuff. I must have been about 10 or 12 and it sounded like you were making beats that were not complete. There were loads of spaces in between, it was all a bit disjointed and I’m like: do you not realise that this isn’t actually music?

MF: People still say that to me: good luck doing stuff like that! We were house and techno kids. House and techno happened in Britain in 87ish. You were born in 88. When you were six months old, we’d be having a party and you’d just be in a cardboard box in the corner. So I guess it’s difficult for you to pinpoint an early memory.

RT: I think this was my first go at making music: you sat me and my friend down on Cubase and we were drawing in all these dots, random midi patterns. And then for some reason we ended up presenting it at assembly in school. All these little eight year olds come walking in to Vivaldi or something and we were playing this completely messed up computer music.

MF: It was you and your best mate, Michael. And Michael got a cassette of it and gave it to the headteacher and he decided to play it.

RT: I really want to find that tape, I think it still exists somewhere.

Mark, you were talking about growing up in Rotherham in the 80s. Was there a music scene that you were a part of at that point or did you have to go to Sheffield?

MF: Well, I grew up on the border between Sheffield and Rotherham, which was the steel-working industrial corridor. So from outside my house I could get a bus, it was 20 minutes to the centre.

Sheffield in the 80s was quite an amazing place to be. In the early 80s you’ve got the Human League, Cabaret Voltaire, Clock DVA. Really interesting musical scene. I was 12, 13 going round the shops, buying that kind of stuff. I’d usually get my spending money on a Saturday, and I’d go into Shock Records every week. The guy who worked there was called Nick. He was really involved in the whole industrial music scene - Throbbing Gristle, Psychic TV, Chris and Cosey. I remember one day I went in, he said: “You really need to get this today.” It was a black cover with some white graphics on it. And it was Tackhead. It was part of that whole Adrian Sherwood movement. That was a really big step for me, learning about Adrian Sherwood.

What did your parents make of your musical obsessions?

MF: In the early 80s in Britain, it was a really horrible time, specifically the industrial bit that I lived in.

RT: Specifically the village you were from, right next to Orgreave [The site of the Battle of Orgreave, a pivotal confrontation between miners and police that took place at the height of the 1984 Miners’ Strike].

MF: Yeah I grew up literally a kilometre from where all that happened. My dad, who was a steelworker, was made unemployed. All of his family were steelworkers, they all lost their jobs. It was carnage basically. Everyone in the school was on free school meals. Through my older brother, books started appearing in the house. The Manifesto Of The Communist Party, The Tibetan Book Of The Dead, some weird thing by R.D. Laing. I was a little kid and picked those up and thought, 'Wow, this really makes sense, there’s actually grown ups out there who are alright.'

I became really politicised and completely dropped out. I didn’t want anything of normal society. When you’re in that situation, you can find it soul-destroying, you don’t feel you belong, there’s no future and so on. But with me, I was just really into literature and electronic music. Nothing mattered as long as I had that. That was the beginning, and I’m still like that!

We were a quite typical working-class family in many ways. But what I realise now is that I had a very tolerant upbringing. Very liberal. It was an environment that nurtured debate and discussion, so I was lucky in that respect.

Mark Fell

Rian, I’m wondering what it was like for you growing up in the same area but a couple of decades later. What were the influences that were shaping your life at that point?

RT: I was lucky growing up in that we had a good group of friends. They were all into quite alternative stuff, whether it be skating or graffiti or really weird music. Rotherham’s a small town, with not loads going on. We just spent all our time trying to find the weirdest music we could possibly get our hands on. Loads of my friends were in bands but I was never bothered about that until I found records and decks and then thought - actually I’m really into music.

I was reading in an article that you used to go to loads of raves in the Peak District?

RT: They were my first gigs really, because I was always the youngest one out of our friends so I could never enter any clubs. Any opportunity we could, we’d just put all the money we had together to get a taxi to the middle of nowhere, go to a gig, and be stranded there for the weekend. It was all just full on techno and looking back it was not that interesting music, but as an experience it was pretty mind-blowing.

Another thing I’m interested in is the fact that you both have a visual arts background. You both studied fine art and then gravitated towards quite experimental electronic music. I’m interested in how that came about.

MF: I started off studying graphic design because I was really interested in publishing and print and fanzines. Then I ended up studying philosophy. I went to this art school in Sheffield - which was really one of the best art schools at the time - to study time-based media. I studied experimental film and video and it was a very politically grounded course.

What I wanted to do was experiment with sound as part of the course, but what I realised after about a year and a half is that it was really pointless trying to do that because the tutors just had no understanding of what I was trying to do. I was interested in techno and house music and dance music culture but I wanted to make something like that but weirder.

You’ve spoken in the past about limitations - limiting yourself to a couple of bits of kit or a couple of compositional approaches. Is that something you still adhere to?

MF: Yeah, the reason I started with that is because as a kid, I could only afford one synthesizer at a time. Consequently, my way of working was really in-depth exploration of what a synthesizer does. It’s a very simple methodology but that’s what makes sense to me.

Then that extended into formalised approaches. I just did some voice-based work for an artist in London. I developed these systems where I get the narrator to read the text in different ways, and then my editing process was to take the syllable out [of] the middle, get the end and then rearrange those according to some kind of permutation, so you get these weird hybrid words.

RT: Often with making a track, if you’ve got one element that is the core idea, if that’s not working, just adding extra things to it isn’t going to resolve it. How do you boil the idea down into its core component? If you listen to old acid music, it’s a drum machine and one synth. If I can make a drum pattern and one synth line, that’s what I’m aiming for. If I have to add any more than that I feel like it’s not worked.

Another thing I was interested in is that you both use Max/MSP, which is obviously quite a graphic way of working with sound. How did you both come to that and do you use it in the same way or do you approach it in different ways?

MF: I think we use it in quite a similar way actually.

RT: I got into it through the stuff that you’re doing. I know loads of music that’s made in Max/MSP and thought, that’s something inconceivably complex that I won’t ever be able to wrap my head around. But it was actually a lot easier than I expected. It’s made from small components that are simple to understand on their own. Joining them together in different ways is what can become really complex.

MF: I got it because I’d been working with synthesizers and when computers came out, I didn’t enjoy working in those environments. Everything I made sounded terrible. [When Max/MSP came out], it just seemed so perfect. The first things I’d try and make were drum machines, so I’d make something like an 808 interface and then I’d think, well how can I change it? How can I add functions to it that you didn’t have on the original?

Rian, for your latest album File Under UK Metaplasm, you went to Uganda before you made it. Could you talk a bit about how that influenced your production, because I know there’s the whole Singeli thing happening out in Tanzania and the whole Nyege Nyege thing in Uganda. How did that shape or change what you were working on?

RT: I was over there doing this residency. I was there for about a month and there were maybe 20 people coming and going, working together in different combinations. It was all really full on. Everyone was making things as fast as possible. I remember I DJ’d one night and put together these tracks we were all making, completely improvised, and ended up playing things like 200bpm.

Singeli, and loads of stuff that Nyege Nyege are putting out, you can’t help listening to that and not be influenced by it. All the Singeli guys are playing off virtual DJ and doing on the fly remixes of quite traditional music. It reminded me of some of the things that I was trying out when I first started making music. I would take drum & bass records and put them in Traktor or Battery and chop them up. I just thought they were failed experiments but actually looking back they’re alright.

It really is the most intense and interesting music scene that I’ve ever been in contact with. Nyege Nyege are bringing people from all over Africa. It’s giving a lot of people opportunities to actually make ends meet with their work.

Am I right in thinking you guys were going to collaborate on a project next year?

RT: We’re working on stuff in lockdown - a few projects.

MF: Lockdown happened, no one could travel and do music. Every festival asked, ‘Can you do something and stream it?’ We both really don’t like streaming. I can’t think of anything more boring.

RT: As a listener or a performer.

MF: Streaming is a really bad replacement for the venue that you can’t get to. So we were thinking, what are the alternatives? We came up with this idea of sharing interfaces. Imagine people around the world could be logged on to a central server somewhere. We make a MAX patch that connects to a central server and shares data, so we can all share the same interface.

And people can access it remotely?

MF: Yeah. So you could be doing the drum grid. I could see here what changes you were making. We started to experiment with this and it presented a lot of technical issues. But we got support from Cycling ’74 who make Max/MSP. We developed this thing and then we realised it was really brilliant!

RT: There were lots of ways it could be implemented but it led to other opportunities that we’d never thought of before, whether that be remote collaborations, or a listener downloading a patch that functions like a player, so we send patterns and information to that player and they can listen to it in full hi-fi definition.

MF: So there’s no streaming, there’s no sound compression. The computer’s actually making the sound.

RT: One thing that I think is really interesting about is that it’s not trying to create a live performance that people will dance to. We can make new systems that give people more interaction with the thing they’re doing, so it’s more of a participatory work.

Performance in general is like: you go to an event, someone’s on a stage and you’re observing from a distance. There’s something really wrong with that. Streaming just amplifies that to the nth degree. I don’t want someone to watch me making music on a computer. I want somebody to be either listening or engaging with the systems that I’m working with. I guess we were both thinking about connecting people in some way that’s not just social media.

MF: We’re all physically isolated to a large extent, but then we’re all connected using technology. But the technologies that we’re using are these completely toxic social media platforms - Facebook, Twitter - all these things that I think are actually really damaging. What’s the thing on Netflix?

The Social Dilemma?

RT: One thing that was interesting [coming] from that, it was saying that all our communications are fundamentally evolving out of manipulation.

MF: We just thought, what’s a different way of connecting people? I got into this idea of ambient togetherness. It’s not like you’re directly together for a purpose. You might be sat in a room and someone’s sat over there, and you’re aware of them. There’s a kind of togetherness, but it’s ambient togetherness. How could you have this ambient togetherness in an online situation?

I did a workshop with various people all over the world. We did this MAX patch thing where we shared the interface. It was four different interlocking patterns and when we started using it, it was chaos. I said, 'Everyone slow down. Let’s follow this rule now where there can only ever be three events in any one rhythmic grid.’ So people were thinking more carefully about what they put where. As soon as we agreed on this procedure, the whole activity took on a different feeling. You became aware of other people carefully navigating this same place as you. And it became a really nice experience.

RT: What kind of systems can you build that facilitate those types of interactions, not just people being bombarded by activity? It makes these algorithmic structures that form a sort of communication.

MF: It’s kind of like game-like procedures. Games are meaningful because of the rules that you follow. We’re learning a lot from that.

I was wondering if there are any other artists that you’ve noticed doing really interesting or experimental stuff recently?

MF: There’s Gretchen…

RT: From Guttersnipe. Doing some electronic stuff that’s brilliant.

MF: What’s her artist name?

RT: I don’t know how to pronounce it.

MF: One of the best things I’ve heard in years is this guy Tom Mudd. He’s based up in Edinburgh. He did a release, that trumpet synthesis stuff. It’s like a supercomputer running this complex physical modelling.

RT: A friend of mine who I work with, Nakul Krishnamurthy, he’s just got his first solo release out on Cafe Oto’s label. I think that’s coming out in the next week or so.

You both collaborated with him before, right?

MF: Yeah we met him in India. We were on a British Council research trip.

RT: What he’s interested in is using elements of Carnatic music, Indian classical music. Indian classical music is really rule-based and very culturally conservative in some respects, but he’s trying to use components of that and do extended processes based around those. He’s doing something really unique.

MF: Obviously there have been a lot of Western artists that have gone to India, in the 60s for example, and transformed their practice by being close to the rules and systems in Indian music. What’s interesting is that Nakul is coming the opposite way round. He’s into sound art and electronic music, creating that kind of dialogue but from the other side

Do you have any other predictions for what direction musical performance is going to go in a post-lockdown world?

MF: The only way to answer that question is by doing it. When you think about problem solving, you think: there’s this problem, where do I want to get to? If we think really hard, we’ll find a way of getting there.

What i’d like to see is more community based projects that are not about celebrity and stardom, but about access. In the town where we live, there’s a lot of social deprivation and loads of incredibly creative kids. Something like 120 languages are spoken within 500 metres of where we live. But none of those people are ever going to get round to filling in a form. That’s the problem, it’s all based around filling in bloody forms.

RT: I’ve had to do it for 15 years and it just destroys me.

MF: I never apply for anything because I can’t be bothered with these stupid forms.

RT: Some of the most talented people that I know have either ended up not being able to pursue what they’re doing or been cut off from it in various ways.

MF: So my key message for this article is: funding is brilliant but it needs to go to the people that matter. Because this town is full of brilliant people who’ll never seen any of that funding. That’s the travesty.

Rian Treanor and Mark Fell perform together as part of Next Festival this weekend. File Under UK Metaplasm is out now on Planet Mu records