Chaos Before Integrity: Claude Speeed Interviewed

Scottish ambient producer Stuart Turner tells Laurie Tuffrey about Sun Czar Temple, his excellent debut EP on Planet Mu, released this week

Photograph courtesy of Linda Wagener

"I sat up late at night, thinking about you/ A dream world without sleep," sings Stuart Turner at the end of ‘Traumzeuge’, the opening track on Sun Czar Temple, his new EP as Claude Speeed. It’s a rare vocal turn from the producer, whose voice and that of singer LW only occasionally grace his output, but here, underpinned by spindly guitar arpeggios, it both lends the song the bare prettiness of the material on Mogwai’s Ten Rapid collection, and sites the listener in what feels like the appropriate moment of receiving the record, on the verge of rest, but pulled back by abiding disquiet.

The track’s first half, piano chords lapping out in distorted waves, is a good representation of where Turner’s music is at the moment: noise-laced ambient, riven with melody. Elsewhere on the EP, the rhythmic clashes of ‘Fret’ bring to mind Turner’s work in American Men, the prog-tinged, currently on-hiatus Glaswegian rock outfit, though ‘Dr. Liz Wilson’ and ‘R U Sorry?’ evolve the foundations he laid on his debut, last year’s My Skeleton. The former has synth lines spiralling in space, the latter monolithic chords piling up, both building to ragged crescendos coated in gauzey overdrive, though ‘R U Sorry?’ closes with aerated harp lines fading out, quelling the tumult. "I think it takes this very in-the-box, synthy, noisy track that’s gone before it and moves it into a much more physical space," says Turner. "I think it’s nice for it to be at the very end of the record, suggest the real world a bit more."

He began operating as Claude Speeed (named after the character in Grand Theft Auto 2) after making increasingly drumless tracks while American Men were still in action. After attending the Red Bull Music Academy in Madrid in 2011, Turner spent time travelling around India and southeast Asia, in the process picking up field recordings that would nestle in-between the synthscapes on My Skeleton. ‘Taj Mahal’ features the sounds of tourists walking around the titular mausoleum underlaying gossamer vocal loops and electric guitar strafing, while the genesis of ‘Some Other Guy’ lay in a trip to the Killing Fields in Cambodia. The record was also touched by the influence of minimalist – most notably on the urgent clarinet motif of ‘Tiger Woods’ – and ambient touchstones, which were picked up on his excellent FACT mix from last year, pulling Richard Skelton, CFCF, Tim Hecker and Brian Eno & Harold Budd among others into the tracklist.

Following My Skeleton‘s release on LuckyMe, Turner, now based in Berlin, has put out Sun Czar Temple on Planet Mu, the label run by electronic music luminary Mike Paradinas, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. After Turner remixed now-fellow Mu-ite Kuedo’s ‘Work, Live & Sleep In Collapsing Space’ he and Paradinas got to know one another, with the label boss now helping him sequence his next album, due later this year and set to continue on the EP’s dissonant bearing. "The more noise I can get away with and for the songs to still work, then that’s what I want to do basically," says Turner. For now, we discussed hard drive trawling, abandoning drums and manga set in space.

Could you tell me about how you put the EP together?

Stuart Turner: After making the album, I just wanted something that was a bit less tension between the fakeness of samples and stuff like that, orchestral samples and that sort of thing, and the computer-iness of what I’m doing, so from a production standpoint I was basically just interested in all the in-the-computer stuff that I felt before a certain duty to try and avoid. So like distortion: when something’s distorted beyond a certain point on a computer it’s really obviously computer-y, and I did that a bit on the album, but I basically just wanted to do that a lot, and for the synths to be very VST [Virtual Studio Technology], in-the-box sort of thing. Musically, to be honest, there was no plan, I just wrote quite a lot of songs for an album, and then somehow these ones were just different, they stood on their own, so I just asked Mike if I could make it an EP with the album coming later and he was into that.

I wanted to ask you about ‘Traumzeuge’ in particular. How did you piece that one together – it feels like it’s two distinct elements which meet in the middle?

ST: That’s basically what that is. One of it’s just piano with tons of distortion, I guess I was just trying to make some sort of… I definitely had something in mind, sort of My Bloody Valentine. This is the thing that was on my mind for all that stuff: somehow there was a way to make it into a rock song – not into a My Bloody Valentine, kind of 90s British rock song, but to make it into some sort of American post-rock sort of thing, or even a prog sort of thing. That’s originally where it went: it started with all this noise and then it went into guitar and drums and some sort of Kraut-meets-math rock thing, and then at some point all that stuff got deleted. There’s a bit of singing on it, so I just left the singing and basically deleted almost everything else. I was quite into that fractured structure – a slab of ‘A’ and a slab of ‘B’ and that’s it done.

I was reading you talking about digging through backed-up hard drives to find recordings that would be the genesis for a track. What’s that like as a process? I imagine, as much as the action of going and listening to sounds and thinking, "I could do something with this", is there a kind of emotional involvement there? Does it invite you to nostalgia or reflection?

ST: It’s a bit like a modern version of looking through a box that you found in the attic. ‘Cause what I used to do, not that I was making any music that was getting released, but when I was a lot younger I made lots of four-track recordings and kept the tapes in shoe boxes, and then later on, maybe if I wasn’t feeling particularly inspired to write something or maybe just out of curiosity or a mood thing, would just go through the boxes and listen to the tapes. There’s something quite nice about it – it’s a very managed exploration, because you’re exploring things that you did yourself, and you know there can’t be anything that’s an enormous surprise, [but] it gives me the opportunity to reevaluate what I’ve done, from a step removed.

If I was to sit down and play the guitar and record what I’m doing, I have no idea if I’m going to like it later; sometimes it’s very satisfying to play something and then later on, I realise that it’s not satisfying to actually listen to. It’s really easy to accidentally conflate those things and maybe forget that later on I’m not actually going to enjoy it and if I’m not going to enjoy it, I sort of assume that other people won’t either. There’s something quite nice about scrolling through millions of WAVs and mp3s and having this kind of outsider’s perspective on what it is. In Kerala, they have these things, it’s called the Theyyam. All of the temples in a village or town each have a god and people dress up like these gods, and then they march to a big temple. There’s an element of theatre about it and telling stories about the different gods. I recorded loads of stuff from one of those, and felt like this was a really meaningful thing – when I listened to the recordings, I do get a sense of that, but they sound absolutely awful, I’ll never use them for anything! For me, it’s really useful to get that separation basically. I like the journey into the past on the hard drive and to get a practical change of perspective is good as well.

Moving out of American Men, when did you hit on ambient as a genre you wanted to work in?

ST: Straightaway, because I was writing songs that had lots of drums in them, and then was like: "This is fucking stupid." The songs that have drums in them should be American Men songs and then the ones that don’t have any drums in them… it felt a bit like, we had really good drummers, and it just felt dumb for me to write an American Men song with no drums in it. And then for the converse to be true as well. It’s dreadfully unartistic, but I think it was a sensible decision somehow, and then ended up just sticking with it. ‘Ambien Rave’ [from last year’s LuckyMe Advent Calendar] is a good example: see if you try and put drums in that, it’s really, really hard, it almost stops working, it stops being interesting with drums in it. And it’s hard for me to tell to what extent that’s because I’m shit at drums, because when it’s rock drums, I feel really at home with them, I feel like I can always do that, but if I was going to do drums that are more at home in electronic music, the only thing I feel really at home with is 90s – I don’t want to say IDM, but I’ll say it anyway, IDM. So with ‘Ambien Rave’, drums just don’t fit, because there’s so many synths there that fill so much of the frequency spectrum, that there’s just no room anymore. I think I’ve just got used to that luxury, not having to worry about, "Yeah, but where are the drums going to go?" In the same way, if you write with no singing, you don’t need to worry about freeing up space, like where’s the vocal going to go? So it allows for a certain free approach to the composition.

Did you experiment with putting beats underneath the tracks?

ST: Yeah. I had a track on an Irish label called All City, they did a compilation in 2013 called Amada, and I had a track on that [‘Crushed Rave’] that had drums on it, but even then it started out as being sort of – I nearly said proper techno, but that’s bullshit, it wasn’t proper techno – having a certain techno vibe and kind of a pretty blatant ‘British person living in Berlin, I go to Berghain’ sort of vibe, basically slightly embarrassing. Then I boiled it down to the point where it just had a hi-hat implied by some white noise and a kick drum. But I don’t think it’s danceable, I think it would be faintly ridiculous in a club. I think it would make much more sense as imagining a club but actually listening to it on headphones. And I think I’m happy with that as a territory. And drums to that extent, where it starts to go out of my zone of interest is where they’re meant to be functional.

You were talking about in one interview instrumental music’s invitation for listeners to impart a meaning for themselves onto tracks. Is that something that’s a bit more possible in ambient music, because I guess there’s a perception that it may not have a particular emotion attached to it as much as another form of music, because there’s a hazy, shifting element to it. Is that right or is that a misguided notion?

ST: I suppose it depends, because it comes back to this idea of ambient being defined by what it’s not rather than what it is. I think that you definitely get… ambient certainly divides into different categories, you get very chillout-y, very New Age-y things in one area or even things that are quite spacey, like that first Oneohtrix Point Never compilation, the Rifts one, and a lot of that just very much sounds like space. It just sounds like a manga set in space. I can totally imagine that those songs were about the loneliness of suburbia or something even much more banal. Basically it’s a thing of, if you don’t have a very identifiable tempo, because there’s no drums in something, that takes away one indicator of what this song was supposed to be. And you take away the human voice and specifically lyrics, and that’s another indicator of what it’s supposed to mean, so I think it does just give you latitude – I don’t think that it’s necessarily fair to assume that there wasn’t a specific emotion behind it, I just think that it’s often difficult to identify what that emotion might have been. So it’s just leaving that room for interpretation I suppose.

I was out in the remote west coast of Ireland and listening to your EP over new year, and found it really resonating there; it was interesting to hear how the music functions differently depending on the setting you’re in. Was that a factor in creating it? It struck me that you were moving around quite a lot for My Skeleton, were you more static for Sun Czar Temple?

ST: If I think about the location that I attach to the songs, it’s the very small bedroom that had to double as a really bad-sounding studio that I made it in. I’ve had a bit of a realignment of words like ‘nostalgia’ and ‘escapism’. I think when I was younger, they had some positive aspects to them, and now they both strike me as fundamentally negative things. I get the impression that critical opinion has shifted that way and that’s just rubbing off on me, I don’t think it’s any particular insight of mine, but there’s definitely an element of escapism to those tracks. Being somewhere where, like, the heating didn’t work, so it was not horrendous, but quite cold, and I didn’t have anywhere to go in the day. Being a bit cold and dark and purposeless basically. So for me there was a certain amount of escapism in just changing the physics of the room by making music in there. So that’s basically it. I definitely wasn’t thinking about making something which could mould itself, I wasn’t trying to make something which could just fill the space that it’s listened to in, but it makes sense to me that I didn’t have anywhere particular in mind that I was trying to escape to, but there’s definitely a sense of escapism in the writing.

Sun Czar Temple is out now on Planet Mu

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today