A One-Man Malfunctioning Orchestra: Alexander Tucker Interviewed

As he releases his most electronic solo album to date, Alexander Tucker discusses sci-fi and horror influences, hating the guitar, and never being "folk" in the first place. Words by JR Moores. Portraits by Dom Garwood

Alexander Tucker debuts his new album live in London on September 26 at The Quietus Social. Support from Gentle Stranger and Karl D’Silva, with a Paper Dollhouse DJ set and playback of David Bowie’s Low in full. Tickets here

"I’m all electronic now. I’ve got trainers again," Alexander Tucker recently announced to his romantic partner. Indeed, much has changed visually, sonically, personally, and footwear-wise since the musician and comic-book artist first made waves in the 2000s with his experimental, often acoustic-based solo records and beardy wizard-like appearance.

Once eager to look like a member of Black Sabbath or The Allman Brothers, Tucker is now clean shaven, short-haired, and has started wearing trainers for the first time in "absolutely years and years". As for his music, there isn’t even any guitar on his futuro-trippy new album, Guild Of The Asbestos Weaver. Well, no electric or acoustic guitars anyway. There is some bass guitar on it, but it’s been run through various effects pedals and oscillators to make it sound deeper, more synthetic, and barely recognisable as an ordinary organic instrument.

As with his work with Daniel O’Sullivan in Grumbling Fur, Tucker’s solo material has become significantly more electronic of late. But before you start throwing cabbages and shouting "Judas!" at him like you did when Bob Dylan put down his acoustic halfway through a gig in 1966, there are threads that run through Tucker’s earlier music to the present day. His love of repetitive yet constantly changing soundscapes, for example. His vocals too, both earthy and fragile, and the multi-interpretable imagery of his lyrics.

In terms of uncovering fresh compositional methods and experimenting with instruments he hasn’t yet mastered, Tucker’s latest material harks back to his very first solo album, even though the two don’t sound anything alike. His 2004 debut remains one of Tucker’s own favourites because it captured that moment when he was still working out how to play and didn’t yet understand how to record properly. "I had very little musical knowledge at that point," he remembers fondly. "I really love that record. It wouldn’t have sounded the same if I had waited until I’d figured out a bit more stuff with music."

Besides, he insists, he never truly considered himself "a guitar person". Nor was he particularly interested in the folk scene, traditional or "wyrd", which may come as a surprise to some fans of his earlier releases. "It was around that time when there was a lot of folk stuff in the underground. In the mainstream as well, I guess. I got lumped in with that. I’ve never been a fan of English folk and everything that comes with that. All that imagery. Morris dancers and what have you. The idea of combining finger-plucking with weird electronics and strings and just throwing everything together, that came more from bands like Faust. I know it’s like ‘NEWS FLASH SHOCKER: ARTIST DISLIKES GENRES THEY’VE BEEN THROWN IN WITH’ but it was never my intention to make folk music. I was influenced by people like John Fahey. I felt he was another person who was making this hybrid music, but using these traditional modes.

"I always liked the idea of something being uncovered, like digging up some mechanism from the past that plays this rudimentary music that’s between electronic and acoustic. With the new album, there’s a lot of cello on there which I’m recording, then re-recording into the sampler, and putting through filters and things, and creating these massive rhythms out of it. I’ve had this idea for a long time of an orchestra that’s malfunctioning. Or, a transmission of an orchestra that’s coming in and out of phase, covered in static. The transmission keeps coming and going, and it’s super bright and weird-sounding. There’s the grain of the cello and the grain of the filters and the synth. They seem to like each other somehow. As the listener, I like not knowing where the source begins and where the electronics that are affecting it begin, so it becomes this one hybrid sound."

As for the guitar which is presumably now gathering dust in the corner, Tucker says he never enjoyed playing it in standard tuning and only ever liked the instrument when it sounded like something else. "Like when I laminated a bunch of layers on top of each other," he says. "When I first started playing, I had some classical guitar lessons and absolutely hated it. I traded that in for an electric guitar and a little practice amp, and the first thing I did was lay the guitar on top of the amp and turn everything up. I wound the whammy bar in and played with the feedback, riding the waves of noise. I wanted it to be more akin to painting or drawing, where you’re just making marks and getting these effects that almost seem like they’re out of your control. I never enjoyed ‘playing’ electric guitar. I enjoyed wringing sounds out of it and smacking it around. With Grumbling Fur, I used the EBow with it. Once again, that’s like turning it into a synth or turning it into a frequency generator. That’s a lot of fun. I’ve never been into makes or models of guitars. I get bored of that really quickly."

Among Tucker’s continued fascinations are the fantasy, horror, and sci-fi genres, which all feed into both his visual and musical output. The songs on the new record have been conceived with the short stories of writers like HP Lovecraft and Philip K Dick in mind. "It’s probably the closest that I have to a concept album, in a sense, but I always leave things incredibly open-ended," he says. There are improvised lyrics, strange ideas plucked out of the atmosphere, and phrases lifted from or inspired by movies, literature, and comic books. "It was really freeing, in a way, to think I’d just put in imagery from Alan Moore comics or from sci-fi or horror or surrealism, and to play with that. Alongside that, there’s stuff that could purport to be possibly emotional; everyday references to a relationship or something. That also ties into my love of Blade Runner, where you’ve got all this emotional, human stuff going on at the same time as being surrounded by all of this incredible technology and the leaps and jumps in information and the world looking incredibly different." 

The record takes its title from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. First published in 1953, Bradbury’s tale of book burning in a future America has retained its relevance, not least in the current climate where experts are chastised, "fake news" is manipulated, and right-wing extremism is on the rise once again. "Years ago, I remember reading that line about The Guild Of The Asbestos Weaver and I thought it was fucking amazing," says Tucker. "It’s like a riff or something! It’s an amazing turn of phrase. Initially, I hadn’t really focused on the fact that that term was talking about these people at the end of the book who are these resistance fighters. They’re the guild who are going to stamp out the flames and bring the knowledge forward again. When I first read it, I thought of the guild as being part of the totalitarian regime, like the fascists. I was thinking about asbestos as poison and they were wrapping society up in this fibrous mesh where nobody can breathe and nothing can grow. I always like that with my things, when they have a dual meaning, even though it was a misreading to begin with. I remember a friend saying to me, ‘Don’t use [the word] asbestos. It makes me feel horrible.’ But that’s great!"

Tucker’s passion for sci-fi and horror dates back to an early age when his parents weren’t always overly keen on his consumption of such material. "The video nasties of my youth were the things that the media was saying were causing people to kill other people, or were causing other problems in society, whereas today we’re talking about the obsession with online gaming or social media. Horror was the taboo, so I obviously wanted to see all that stuff." The young Tucker would forage in second-hand shops for books about horror movies. He was also eager to catch any of the old Universal horror flicks that the newly launched Channel 4 happened to be airing, be they vampire, Frankenstein or werewolf-based.

"My mum had wanted us to start going to church around that time," Tucker remembers. "I used to get her to record these films for me and then I’d go to church and have my brain filled with all this really intense stuff. A lot of religious imagery is obviously kind of horror-based. Then I’d go back home and watch these horror movies. So, I had this weird thing going on between attending church and all this intense imagery and watching these early horrors. I probably saw The Omen around that time as well. As a kid, I was obsessed with that passage in Saint John’s Book Of Revelation. I would always read that over and over. It’s giant five-headed monsters or whatever, coming out of the ocean. How fucking cool is that? It’s that fascination between fear and wonderment at the same time."

For gnarlier horror delights Tucker had to go over the road, to the home of an older friend whose parents had a more liberal attitude towards BBFC age restrictions. They didn’t mind getting hold of 18-rated videos for their son. "So, I’d go over to his house and just scare the shit out of myself watching Salem’s Lot and An American Werewolf In London. I remember getting a bit obsessed with it all, and terrified at the same time. I was also really obsessed with the horror magazine Fangoria, which was really hard to get. I saw adverts for it in the back of other magazines. I went to Maidstone with my dad one day and they had this newsagents that had a lot of quite good Marvel and DC comics that I couldn’t get locally. They had a Fangoria with articles on Evil Dead 2, the first Hellraiser, Rawhead Rex, and all this stuff. I absolutely treasured this issue."

Before that, Tucker’s two favourite films had been Clash Of The Titans and Ralph Bakshi’s Lord Of The Rings. He was also into Dungeons & Dragons. Well, sort of. He bought some of the D&D products even though he didn’t know anybody in the local area with whom he could play it. He was also intimidated by the fact that a lot of the game was maths-based. Like quite a few others who have been drawn to D&D, Tucker basically just fell in love with the artwork. Then came comics: "When I got into Alan Moore, that was just ‘Oh god’. These incredible atmospheres and incredible ways of telling stories, moving around the past, present, and future tenses. Especially the Swamp Thing comics. They’re so psychedelic. That’s another one where there’s all this emotional, human stuff next to all this completely fantastical, crazy shit that’s going on."

The related soundtracks from such genres continue to have an impact on Tucker’s own music. Twice a month, he will listen to Vangelis’ atmospheric score for Blade Runner. "That is such an emotive soundtrack," he says. "I don’t know what happened in cinema [recently] where they just had to drain the soundtracks of anything that might actually make you feel something. Even really great soundtracks now seem to have this sort of flatness so that it doesn’t lead you too far into the film. The use of music all the way through Blade Runner is really subtle, and then when it is to the fore it’s just so amazing. That scene where Deckard is sitting in his apartment and he’s leaning on the piano, hitting one key, and there’s that beautiful piano piece playing with these gorgeous drones. It’s so great. It just sums up all those melancholic moments when you’re just sitting looking at the rain out of the window, thinking about whatever’s going on with you. It’s brilliant."

To be honest, Tucker doesn’t give the impression that he spends too much of his time motionlessly staring out of the window or mournfully prodding a single piano key, however partial he may be to a nice bit of transcendental repetition. If Guild Of The Asbestos Weaver is anything to go by, Tucker seems more restless than ever before, artistically speaking. He’s always trying out new methods, fiddling with unfamiliar instruments and equipment, altering his techniques, stringently avoiding the ploughing of one single furrow. He’s continuing to scare himself, perhaps, with the creative process rather than a VHS copy of some gory Clive Barker adaptation. He won’t allow himself to get too comfortable, for therein complacency lies. As for his shiny new trainers, they’re "comfy as fuck", Tucker insists. For the time being, at least.

Guild Of The Asbestos Weaver is out now on Thrill Jockey. Alexander Tucker headlines the next Quietus Social event on 26th September. Tickets here

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