Uneasy Alliance: An Interview & Mix From El Kid

Bristol's Sam Kidel battles with his computer to create constantly evolving club tracks with a hand-played sensibility. He speaks to Rory Gibb about the "strange abstraction" of producing music on a screen, and has recorded us a mix

The six members of Bristol’s Young Echo collective started to attract attention last year. It was Sam Kidel, though, who covered the most ground individually, with a quartet of releases – two cassettes, two 12"s – that touched on crumbly house music and husky, sketchlike guitar compositions. All were suggestive of a eclectic and curatorial attitude, something shared with Young Echo’s other members (the collective is completed by Kahn, Vessel, Jabu and Zhou): as a group they present their musical tastes and own productions in a regular extended online radio show, which draws together dub, dubstep, house, noise and rock into surprisingly comfortable orbit around one another.

Like most of Young Echo’s members, Kidel cut his teeth playing in bands as a teenager, after having studied piano and guitar from a young age. Around the age of 16, he became interested in the dubstep tracks that were beginning to infect Bristol’s clubs at the time, and started to toy with producing similar music. He released one dubstep record, before losing interest, something he accounts to the gradual eroding away of the raw and exploratory aura of the genre’s early tracks. "My favourite Digital Mystikz tunes were those early ones, those that John Peel played, they’re brilliant," Kidel says. "They have a sort of experimental nature that comes to people doing something for the first time. They’re not people who I think were consciously trying to make experimental music, but just because of the fact that they hadn’t established what the rules were yet, they were really playing around with what could be done."

Last year, he emerged under the alias El Kid, channeling those interests into fuzzy-edged house tracks. ‘Le Corbusier’, one of our dance tracks of last year, moved slowly and clumsily, frequently sounding liable to trip over itself at any moment, but it was lent a lightness and grace by lilting piano figures that trickled through the mix. ‘Mud’, the highlight of last year’s Hypnosis EP, initially seems to match its name – its opening minute drags itself through waist-deep sludge – before gradually escalating to a buzzy climax of interlocked harmonies.

Alongside producing dance tracks Kidel makes process-driven music under his own name, following up last year’s String Loops, and has worked on soundtracks for film and theatre – last year he soundtracked a BBC documentary on artist Brian Clarke entitled Colouring Light: Brian Clarke – An Artist Apart, and recently he has worked on a soundtrack to a stage production by New York company The Private Theatre.

So with Kidel just having finished a degree in Brighton and about to move back to Bristol, the Quietus met up with him to discuss the importance of thinking critically when making music, and why working with a computer is a constant battle. He has recorded us a mix, gathering together a largely beatless selection of his own tracks and inspirations, which you can listen to and download below (for tracklist, see bottom of page).

So was there anything in particular that drew you to house music? With Actress there’s certainly that looseness that, say, early DMZ had.

Sam Kidel: Definitely, there’s a raw element to it, it doesn’t sound too sterile. There’s also an ambiguity whether it’s dance music or home listening, which I’m really drawn to – I was drawn to that in dubstep equally. It was always the really deep and spacious tunes that I was equally drawn to in dubstep. I found that in house, it was the raw sound that was being produced, and it was ambiguous as to where it lay.

You’ve obviously done house stuff, and then you’ve been doing the String Loops stuff, and soundtracks. Has that been a conscious decision to explore as many avenues as possible?

SK: It’s not been a conscious decision to try and keep my fingers in all the pies! But it’s just that at every point I’ve tried to make music that as much as possible represents what I’m excited by at that point. In the last 4 years I’ve been excited by a lot of different genres, and at the point that each record has come out, I’ve felt 100% behind each record that I’ve put out. I think that will slow down as I start to get a bit more experience.

I imagine that you don’t necessarily spend ages considering exactly where something’s going to go, that it just takes shape as it comes.

SK: I don’t know, I really think carefully about the sort of contexts that I’m going to make music for. I’m naturally quite a thinking kind of person, so it makes sense for me to really think about a project before I start it. Often it changes a lot in the process, but the context probably won’t change. I think a lot about context – where it’s going to be heard, how I’m going to get it out there. Especially when I’m making stuff for film, or to be played in clubs, or listened to at home, I think it’s important to separate them out in my head and approach them in different ways, because they offer different challenges.

But alongside that kind of structured process, I also just jam a lot with equipment. because I play guitar and keyboards I can improvise and record something for half an hour, and with those I have no idea about where they’re going to go eventually, so I build up a library of things I can use later.

Do you incorporate a lot of live recorded stuff?

SK: All the time. Because I think about all the things I do in a very structured way, I’m really conscious of how a computer makes you make music. And quite often I feel like, because I have this idea in my head of where it’s going to go and I get it into the computer quite quickly, the longer I spend on it, the further away it gets from where I wanted it to be. It loses this kind of spontaneous energy the longer you spend on it.

The answer to that I’ve built up is to incorporate as much improvised stuff [as possible]. Even if it’s just a couple of seconds, you can feel there’s a spontaneous gesture in there. For example, ‘Le Courbusier’ has a lot of piano sounds in it, and the gestures that happened when bringing those in, creates the kind of spontaneity that I find it hard to achieve when just using a computer. [Computers] really structure the way you make music, and they make a lot of assumptions about the way you want it to sound. Limitations are a good thing in one sense, but I think it’s also important to be aware of them, and be aware of what they try to make you do.

I’ve always been put off by the visual component of music production, I don’t like arranging things on screen.

SK: It’s very easy to slip into it, though, if you produce every day. It’s really easy to lose sight that that’s a weird process – to lay things out horizontally in this timeline, as if time could be represented as a line. It’s weird, it’s a strange abstraction, it does things to music that you wouldn’t do if you weren’t given that.

Was that something you found odd when you first moved into music production?

SK: I guess that helped me be critical of it, because I’d been making music in different ways for so long before that, it did strike me as odd at the time. But I was also really excited by making electronic music, I was 16 or so, so it didn’t really hit me at that point that I was going to be losing something significant from that. It only came after a couple of years of really working with that, and thinking critically about what it does to the process of making music, that I started to be able to counter it.

Your music doesn’t feel particularly set in stone. It’s quite supple as dance music goes.

SK: That’s good. That’s what I try and aim for. It’s a constant battle, it feels like the computer is always trying to force these loops on you, and you end up just fighting it at every opportunity. One of the biggest challenges of making electronic music is fighting that rigidity, for me.

To a certain extent that feels perhaps like something you and the other guys in Young Echo share. None of you seem particularly happy about sticking to particularly rigid structures.

SK: We’ve all grown up being in bands, so maybe that is the connection – that we’ve all made music before that, and we like that thing with live music, that nothing ever sounds the same twice. I think it’s important to build that into electronic music, because it offers a much more rich experience for the listener.

Tell me about String Loops. What was the thinking behind that?

SK: It was actually composed at the same time as the soundtrack. The soundtrack for the film was a very specific brief, and with soundtracks to films, I feel like you have to set your ego to the side, and do what’s right for the subject of the film. The subject of this film is Brian Clarke, who is an immensely positive guy, he’s got this amazingly positive philosophy. I tried to absorb that as much as possible. It’s not my natural way of making music, I’m much more into melancholy, so that process of getting into something which wasn’t my usual format, meant that alongside it I was writing this really different stuff that was much more about what I was into at the time.

I [also] had quite a clear idea of how I wanted to construct it in terms of technique. I’ve been thinking more in the last couple of years about how making visual art can influence the way people make music. I think it’s an important interrelation, and people have done some amazing things by taking innovations that were in art into musical practice. So one of the things I’d been thinking about is that with artists there’s a massive thing about process. Maybe experimental music has that, but not other forms, so I was trying to bring that into my work. The actual process was improvisations on guitar, I’d record long improvisations and cut millisecond long chunks out, and reform it on the computer. So it was kind of an aim to capture that ambiguity between spontaneous performance and something I spent hours and hours making into an immersive experience.

I’ve been working on another piece that will be released under the name Sam Kidel, and I’ve been sort of collecting ideas for a composing process as I’ve been doing my degree. Again, its working with a very specific set of aims, and I’ve even got some visual images that provoke the sort of mood I’m trying to create as well. Hopefully having that sort of stuff will help me write the thing quite quickly.

Sam Kidel – Mix for the Quietus


Eli Keszler – Cymbal, Bass Drum, Clarinet

Pierre Schaeffer – Cinq Etudes de Bruits: Etude Violette

Jabu – Lost

Sam Kidel – String Loops

REI & El Kid – Radial Sheaves

Bellows – Untitled

Sam Kidel – Id

Vessel – Ephemeral, sometimes (a response to ‘Eternities, never’ by Sam Kidel)

Sam Kidel – Untitled

Delia Derbyshire – The Delian Mode

El Kid – Deconstruct (Zhou remix)

Philus (Mika Vainio) – Kuvio 3 & Greg Davis – Minimal

Sonic Youth – Hungara

Cleared – When the Ground is Close

Sam Kidel – Untitled

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