Supersonic 2012: Nic Bullen Interviewed

From grindcore to field recording, Nic Bullen's sound art exists on a continuum. Toby Cook talks to the Napalm Death pioneer ahead of this weekend's Supersonic festival in Birmingham

“More should be made of Napalm Death… there should be a 40ft tall brass statue of Napalm Death, perhaps leaning against the wall of the Bullring, smoking massive brass cigarettes… if you add up the influence of not just Napalm Death but of Godflesh, Jesu, Techno Animal, Cathedral, Rise Above Records, Head Of David, Painkiller, Teeth Of Lions Rule The Divine and Scorn, then you are left with arguably the most ‘important’ leftfield or extreme band of the last 25 years.”

Although we said this in relation to Mick Harris’ performance as Scorn at last year’s Supersonic, it is undoubtedly true of all of the significant protagonists in Napalm Death’s formative years – arguably none more so than founder member Nicholas Bullen.

Although less audibly noticeable, perhaps, than Justin Broadrick, Lee Dorrian or Mick Harris, Bullen – who left Napalm Death before the recording of the B-side of their debut album, Scum, in 1986 to pursue more abstract musical ventures and concentrate on his philosophy degree – has, via art installations, films and explorations in sound and field recordings, continued to explore the extreme and the avant garde to an inspiring degree.

Ahead of his performance at this month’s upcoming Supersonic festival we caught up with him to get his thoughts on the festival, find out what we can expect from his set and discover what sort of music Napalm Death might have been producing had he remained with the group.

So Nic, what exactly is it that you’re presenting at Supersonic this year; what can people expect from it?

Nic Bullen: Well it’s predominately geared towards sound – the development of my electronic composition, which is what I focus on in the main – so I’ll be playing a 35 minute composition which has a loose base structure, but for the most part is live improvisation and processing. And that ties into the film which I’m going to show which is an excerpt of a much longer film called The Inverse Heliograph, which is predominately constructed from super 8 film, which is re-photographed, processed, overlaid and altered in terms of duration. Really it’s an audio-visual set I suppose.

A lot of the sounds you use and manipulate are from field recordings – how do you go about sourcing those? Are they all collected first hand?

NB: At present, for probably the last five years, I’ve focused almost exclusively on environmental recordings made within the immediate environ of my home; so that’s inside the house and the limits of the garden. That was partly in order to limit myself in terms of sound material and also to focus on extending my technique in terms of gaining more from very finite cells of material but it’s also because, in comparison to electronically generated music, field recordings have wide ranges of sound which you can’t predict; they have a lot of what you could call ‘imperfections’ and I’m interested in exploring those imperfections, it allows me to move one step away from the original source material, whereas if I write an electronic patch and generate it I do have some sort of sense of what it will be.

I tend to do a lot of recording whilst I’m out of the house too – I leave recorders running and then come back and take stock of the material. I think that one of the key things, for me, in using environmental material is that I’m very interested in using the sound around me – I haven’t worn headphones and listened to music when I’m outside and moving around for at least 20 to 25 years, I’m more interested in the sounds around me and I find that they’re most effective in teasing out different strands. So it ties in to that in terms of base material, sound material, but also a theme that I’ve developed through some of my other work is that I am very interested in the English pastoral tradition in general and what it says about how we live and the ways in which you can engage with that and possibly alter its meaning and the field recordings of my particular environment are particularly useful for that.

Do you find yourself sometimes, being in that mindset of having both ears open so to speak, that you’ll head out to get a pint of milk and you’ll hear a particular sound and think, “Shit! I wish I had my recorder with me!”? Is it sort of an occupational hazard?

NB: [laughs] I suppose that it is in a way; the world’s full of sounds and I would say that all of them are interesting and so it often happens when you’re moving, when you’re in different locations, you hear something and it would be nice to record it. I mean, I do tend to take a recorder with me in general – perhaps not so much if I’m just going to get a pint of milk as I might be more focussed on a cup of tea! But I do record a lot outside of the environ of my home, but I don’t particularly at this time use it as source material, I store it and I sometimes return to it to listen to. But at present I’m interested in taking very finite amounts of material and seeing what the possibilities are for extending that as widely as possible – for example what some of my set will include is a section that sounds like sine waves but is just field recordings that I’ve electronically processed and extended into sine tones – or something approximating sine tones.

You mentioned that your set was also going to include a portion of your film The Inverse Heliograph, can you tell us a little bit about that?

NB: The film itself is, again, predominately focussed on landscape and the pastoral, and on memory, so It’s all composed of Super 8 film that I’ve made because I had a super 8 camera in the 1970s. I’ve made Super 8 films all my life, for well over 30 years, but in general I don’t show them. I made them with some regularity and they’re for my own exploration really. But I was quite interested in, and I’d been talking to a lot of people about perhaps utilising them in some respect and I thought that this might be appropriate. So the source material is essentially my Super 8 films, and then what I tried to do through layering; through durational shifts, in terms of speed; through altering the image through re-focusing and cropping the frame; through the use of external filters and blockages to the projection beam, is to try, again, to shift and transform the content. Most of my work in terms of the visual arts and sound, and writing, is about using systems of communication and then attempting to use those systems against themselves to look for other avenues – to explore other possibilities for change through that.

All this is a very long way from anarcho-punk fanzines and Napalm Death; are you still influenced by, for want of a better word, ‘conventional’ bands or musicians? And does that early love of bands like Crass etc. still come through?

NB: I see all the sound I listen to as part of a continuum that comes through that. In terms of abrasive sound it seems logical to move beyond the format of the traditional ‘song’ – which essentially anarchist punk and trash and hardcore still deal with – into the realm of pure sound; to me they sit on a continuum and in the same way I feel that anarchist punk is a form of folk music, of folk expression, so too is Super 8 film because it was the home gauge that anybody could potentially have access to and make and I also find that links into the DIY aesthetics of tape culture and fanzine production – they seem to be part of one large continuum that doesn’t really have a stopping point. So in terms of the music I make, in the broadest sense, and perhaps in some slightly different areas, it still follows back to that and informs it, whilst on a personal level I still listen to a lot of that music along with everything else I’m interested in, whether it’s dub or post punk or modern classical or acousmatic or hard soul – whatever form of music really.

It’s interesting that you spoke there about music being a continuum; with Supersonic one of the greatest things about it, for me, is that although you may not have heard of half of the artists on the bill you’ll invariably – usually by accident or word or mouth – come across someone doing something amazing. It’s so important that festivals like that exist isn’t it.

NB: It definitely is – as you say, one of the pleasures is that you can, by chance, find something really interesting and exciting that really inspires you. Often festivals, in general, will tend to have leaders in their field – quite rightly so – but sometimes it can make for slightly dull programming, in terms of you think: ‘Well, I’m going to this festival do I need to go to that one in two months’ time because there are very similar artists playing and there isn’t much of a shift?’ But what I really like about Supersonic – and there are other festivals like Tusk and Colour Out Of Space in Britain that do a similar thing – is that they have a really wide range of artists to select from, because their tastes are much more eclectic, and as a result you do get those fascinating, unexpected moments; which I think is great. I mean, at Supersonic you can go from Drunk In Hell, for some heavy hitting guitars, to some more gentle explorations of acoustic instruments to acousmatic, modern electronic music in the space of an hour.

If we could just talk now about Napalm Death a little, one of the things I find really interesting about Napalm is that if you look at some of the former members – for example yourself, Justin Broadrick, Mick Harris, Lee Dorian – the array and the depth of forward thinking music that has been produced by or involved you four is actually pretty staggering. Why do you think that is? Were there any early of it indications back in your Napalm days?

NB: Well I think that, certainly if we take Mick, Justin and myself, we weren’t particularly bound by any genre as you often are when you’re a young person, a teenager; we’d already been exposed to a lot of different music because we all began listening to music at a very young age and in a sense we’re the children of John Peel – we were exposed to everything across the spectrum, from rock & roll to punk to experimental music to more pop orientated stuff to rockabilly to dub to electronics, and we were interested in all of those things. So I think what’s happened is, as you’ll see with all of those people, is that different areas get explored and the perhaps returned to and re-envisioned. And, y’know, I was always sure at the time that the rest of the people in the group would go on to do a lot of music, a lot of different kind of music, because we weren’t genre fans as such, trapped in one genre, we were interested in every genre we could find something interesting in.

Although perhaps not via grindcore are you ever tempted to revisit the more extreme end of the spectrum?

NB: There’s part of me that’s interested, I’m sometimes tempted to do a more traditional band, I mean, I do play in a few bands – because my key focus is live performances, rather than recordings – and, yeah, there’s part of me that’s interested in that. But, if we’re talking about pushing towards the extremities of sound, the electronic music I make is far more extreme – both in terms of sonics, the content and the structure. I sometimes feel that I’d like to see grindcore become even more mutated and move away from song structures, which is suppose other types of music do.

It’s funny that you say that – I remember interviewing Lee Dorian a few years ago and talking about the Napalm days and he said that in the end one of the reasons that he left was due to the musical direction – he had this idea of keeping the raw acerbity of it but doing away with a lot of the structure and adding this almost Swans-esque dirge; I think that would have sounded fucking great! Well, it would have sounded awful, but by design, if you know what I mean?

NB: Yeah, I think it would have. I mean, we kind of flirted with approaching the kind of atonal, post punk of early Swans on some of our earlier demos and obviously people have explored it since – and I think it would have been fascinating. When I left I felt there was a danger of adhering to a format, which on the one hand gives an artist a very defined sound but on the other is very limiting in terms of creativity. I actually wanted to add in dub, I really wanted to really dub everything out and that’s why it seemed logical to say yes when Mick Harris asked me to do Scorn because I was interested in that kind of exploration of duration of space in sound.

Does it still surprise you that subsequently Napalm and grindcore became so popular? I mean, Napalm once made the cover of NME, which in a certain way seems to go against the original ethos of the band doesn’t it?

NB: I can’t speak for the people who’ve been involved in the band since I left, obviously, but for me having a career and success wasn’t ever really something I had considered – I just wanted to express myself and explore being creative. I knew when I was leaving Napalm that they were going to be very popular, I’d seen it shift in terms of the underground, how it had gone from being pretty much universally disliked to being very lauded and praised, and I knew that was inevitably going to extend further. For me personally I felt it could slightly be a trap – but I can’t really speak for the other members of the group at the time or since, because everybody has different reasons for being creative.

Nic Bullen plays this year’s Supersonic festival in Birmingham between the 19th and the 21st of October. Nic also has a yet-to-be-titled album due for release in the New Year via Type Records

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