No Commercial Value: Nigel Ayers Interviewed

Amelia Phillips speaks to Nigel Ayers, aka industrial musician Nocturnal Emissions about a lifetime of resistance

It’s a long way from London to Cornwall and the first few hours are a test of patience. Regardless of what time you leave, there’s no outwitting the Euston Road. After getting out of the capital, you idle along the M3 for a while. Then somewhere near Basingstoke, you join the A303, the solstitial route to Stonehenge, Glastonbury and the white horses of Wiltshire, which later directs you towards the moors and beaches of the South West.

In this mystic corner of England lives Nigel Ayers, aka Nocturnal Emissions, one of the most under-rated electronic artists to have emerged in punk’s aftermath. I’m not hamming it up. Why the reverence afforded to Coil, Throbbing Gristle and Nurse with Wound should so far have eluded Nigel is a mystery to me. He’s a master of sound, inherently DIY and has had an undeniable influence on modern ambient, noise and techno. “Every major musical movement in the past twenty years was all my fault,” he told The Sound Projector in 2000. “I am to blame for it all.” And if you’re going to be that facetious, you’d better have the talent to back it up.

So it’s with some excitement that I decline Nigel’s offer of a Skype interview in favour of meeting him at his home in Lostwithiel, where he has lived for twenty years following a move down from Tyneside. The village has a corner shop, enough pubs to keep you oiled and an escape route in the form of a train station. He shares his cottage with his wife Lesley and a family of surreal creations. Here in his study, there’s a handmade square guitar he’s ben working on and a Barbie-Furby sculpture, an embodiment of the Virgin’s Nipple. “I make all sorts of bits and bobs,” he says. He initially intended to retire here when he was old, he tells me. “Then I realised that I was never going to make any money, so I might as well be poor and miserable in Cornwall.”

Nocturnal Emissions was formed by Nigel, his brother Daniel and his friend Caroline K in the late 70s from the ashes of their former band, The Pump. They released Tissue Of Lies in 1980 on Sterile Records, Nigel’s now defunct record label (which also brought Maurizio Bianchi to our attention). The band were together until 1984. Since then, Nocturnal Emissions has been just Nigel, save for a few ad-hoc contributors. In the early 90s, Nigel also started releasing music under his own name, mostly circuit-bending sound art and collaborations, to give himself even more room to experiment. “Caroline used to say, before she died, ‘Why do you bother calling yourself Nocturnal Emissions? It’s just you sitting in different chairs?’ But people have multiple personalities, don’t they?”

Maybe this is why people have had so much trouble defining his sound. A whole load of obscure genres have been ascribed to him over the years. The tag that feels the flimsiest is also the one that’s stuck the fastest: industrial. A lot of genre names are disingenuous but there’s something particularly frustrating about this one, perhaps because it doesn’t really stand for anything sonically. “I’m totally fed up with industrial music now,” Nigel said in 83. “We’ve only really been linked with that because we use electronics. We’ve got no fascination with (the) Moors murderers and we’re not particularly interested in industry either.” While Nigel was involved in the industrial scene in a social capacity, it’s hard to know how his music qualifies.

If there is a theme or objective of Nocturnal Emissions, it’s to draw attention to systems of ideological control and undermine the structures of capitalism. They were the only band to play a gig in the midst of the Brixton riots of ’81. On the night of Thatcher’s re-election in ’83, they took over Brixton’s Ritzy Cinema and projected the ensuing TV announcement over their NSFW film, The Foetal Grave Of Progress. Nigel was a pioneer of the scratch video format. And even since swapping Brixton for Tyneside and subsequently the comfort of the English countryside, Nigel’s remained an energetic campaigner for political change.

What elevates Nocturnal Emissions, though, is the music’s wit. In that sense, their work sits quite cosily alongside that of Captain Beefheart. 1990’s Mouths Of Babes loops and distorts the gurgles of newborn babies on ‘Nnaearu’ and ‘Uhuhuhuh II’ until they are only just, slightly disturbingly, identifiable. 2000’s The World Turned Gingham by Hank and Slim (Hank being Nigel and Slim being Zoviet France’s Robin Storey) is, for me, a neglected masterpiece. An ode to Hank and Slim’s home in the hinterlands of Texas, it is simultaneously beautiful, poignant and funny. On track two, ’When Dust Settles’, a disarrangement of old country melodies is intercut with a segment from Cowboy Joe’s ‘Radio Ranch’, in which the host reads out a letter by someone from Leeds, England: “We are not actually cowboys,” he says, “but we really like the music you play, music that is very hard to get in England.”

On meeting Nigel, it looks like he’s become a bit of a hippy. He’s warm, spiritual and fascinated by the occult. He’s even written books on it. Still, that’s not to say he’s grown soft. When he’s not working his day job, he continues to experiment with music and art. And I’m pleased to hear, as he tops up our wine, that he’s still happy to take a pop at Throbbing Gristle.

I’ve got a confession to make. Genesis is from my hometown of Solihull, and maybe some of this is down to provincial pride, but I always thought Throbbing Gristle were pretty good. Why do you think they’re crap?

Nigel Ayers: Did I say that? [LAUGHS] Oh, it’s not fair to say that. I take that back. Everything they did, they did with a sense of occasion and with a high degree of sophistication. I think they just did too many records. They worked out a formula and just churned it out. It’s not the sort of thing I’d sit down and listen to.

What were you doing and how was it different?

NA: I wasn’t very sophisticated. But I’m not going to say anything bad about them. Chris and Cosey have always been very nice to me and Genesis… well, I don’t think he’s ever been particularly nice to me. Although I only ever met him once. My mate was a roadie with Psychic TV, actually. He gave me a load of vinyl. I wouldn’t say they’re crap but I will say that that stack of records has been sat in the loft gathering dust ever since.

What sort of stuff do you listen to?

NA: I listen to 60s and 70s dub a lot. King Tubby, Scratch Perry, that kind of thing. Reggae has always been a background influence throughout my life. Especially in Brixton, that was the centre of it. I like the endless remixes and feedback loops of things, so many versions of the same tune.

Do you pay much attention to new music?

NA: Do the Sleaford Mods count as modern?


NA: Then yes.

I guess most of the people who know you, know you for your music. But looking around this place, your visual art is just as important to you. How did you get into that?

NA: I was sort of messing about with a movie camera and thought I wouldn’t mind making experimental films. I like making things. I had no concept of doing it as a potential career, though. There were no careers in arts then. You might get a job as an art teacher but there was no money in art, certainly not in this country. But all the bands I liked went to art school and there were student grants in those days, so I decided to do a sculpture degree in Wiltshire. It was either that or a factory job. I piddled about doing that for three years. It was brilliant. Along the way, I was going to all the free festivals and getting into fights with the cops. I’d developed a real outsider mentality. After my degree, I thought, ‘How can I fit into normal life with the way my brain’s gone?’ But I ended up working on a petrol pump in Derbyshire.

How long did you last?

NA: Not long. I was introduced to Cabaret Voltaire in Sheffield and they asked me to come and record something in their studio. All I’d done at that point is buy myself one of these Korg MS10 synthesisers with all these knobs on and bits you plug in. Press a button, it makes a sound. That’s why I was invited to London, I think. Come down to London, bring your synth with you, play with us. When I got there, I kept bumping into all these people I’d met over the years so I thought, this is the place to be.

And that’s when you moved to Brixton?

NA: Yeah. It was nice. I opened this squat. Every year they’d evict us and every year we’d form a housing association and have these negotiations with Lambeth council. That just went on and on. There were still people living in the same building last year until they finally moved them out. We moved to this posh Georgian terrace squat in north London at one time. It had central heating and a washing machine and hot and cold running water and I had more studio space there than anywhere else I’ve lived. but I was forever mending things. I had to develop a lot of practical skills just to maintain a degree of civilised living. Well, civilised for a squat. If you compare it to the way some students tend to live, it was marginally better than that.

Let’s go back to how you first got into music. What was going on in electronic music in that period?

NA: There wasn’t any electronic music. It seems impossible to imagine because your phone can do all that stuff now. But there was so much difficulty and challenge and economic blight in the 70s. It was difficult to go out without getting your head kicked in. Television would finish at half past eleven and there were only three channels. It’s a completely different world now. It’s like another planet, the world that people who are 57-and-a-half grew up in.

What made you choose electronics over a guitar or the drums?

NA: I was really rubbish on the guitar and every other instrument but I thought, ‘This is the modern world. Machines can do this for me. You don’t have to do all these years of practicing’.

You don’t have to put in 10,000 hours and all that rubbish.

NA: No, you don’t have to do that. You tell a machine what to do and make them do it. Although I couldn’t get them to do exactly what I wanted to so I gravitated towards using tape. You could speed tapes up or slow them down. Then I got into very early sampling technology and layering sound because you couldn’t run the early electronic instruments together. You couldn’t sequence them or get them to play in time. Kraftwerk had to make their own instruments from scratch. There just weren’t the tools available. Those MS10s came out in about the late-70s. They had them in this shop in Sheffield. And there was another synth called the Wasp, a flat plasticky thing. I asked my mate which one I should get and he said, “Oh, you need the one that you put the jack plugs into”. I said, “Does that make it better?” and he said, “Oh, yeah”. He had no idea. We just went for the flashing lights and the bleeps.

Were you aware of any electronic musicians?

N: I guess Donna Summer’s ‘I feel Love’ was the first big electronic hit. That was in 77, if I remember rightly. Kraftwerk’s ‘Autobahn’ came out a few years earlier than that. Tangerine Dream were doing it around then too, but in a really crap way. Huge banks of synthesisers. They were virtuosos. In my mind, electronics needs to be in the hands of unskilled people – yobs and louts – rather than academics, because there’s something emotional happening. It’s something to do with our connection to technology, with the changes that are happening in the world and the idea that these are just the sounds of today or the sounds of tomorrow. That’s what drew me into that.

Were you into punk?

N: Yeah, I used to love the Clash. And the Sex Pistols. It was exciting and aggressive. I’d like to say popular music of that era was really bland but it wasn’t. Glam rock was really good as well. But with punk, the subject matter could be about everyday things, about the mundanity of everyday life. It could be oppositional to the way society is structured. I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s the way of getting a voice’. Music was a tremendous vector for that then. Self-publishing zines and cassettes went alongside that, really cheap approaches for spreading the word pre-internet. It seems like you’ve got more direct, effective ways of getting the message across now.

Were your political views a big part of your own desire to make music?

NA: I’d say so. At that time, there did seem to be a political impulse to create records. You had lots of small labels and bands playing three chords and the truth, there was that vibe going on. It was very much to do with the people you met when you went to these punk events rather than just about the music itself. It was stimulating company. But I also just wanted to make a record. They’re such lovely objects.

What was your first release?

NA: I started off making a single. But after doing the sums on it, I realised I could make a whole album for the same price and get my money back, whereas I’d have had to sell so many more singles to see a return. That was Tissue Of Lies, the first one, done through money saved up from a cleaning job.

How much did it cost you, do you remember?

NA: No, I don’t exactly. It seemed really expensive and I thought, these things aren’t selling. I think I was comparing myself to more successful people. In fact, it sold out very quickly. Somebody from Japan bought a load. I immediately put the money into doing another album and then put out some records by some other people as well.

And that was on Sterile Records?

NA: That was my first label, yeah. I became a label! Although it wasn’t very glamorous. We just had a room full of boxes and a rubber stamp to do the labelling. Then we’d go down the photocopier to make inserts for them. The typesetting was all done on these golf ball machines at small newspaper offices. It was all very handmade. The rubber stamps were great, I really liked doing that. Big piles of rubber stamps.

Songs Of Love And Revolution is one of the later releases on the label and it’s quite poppy. ‘Never Give Up’ could be ‘Wear Sunscreen’. It’s hard to know how much of it is a piss-take and how much is a genuine call to arms.

NA: We were buying lots of equipment at the time and seemed to have naturally acquired some skill over the years so I thought, ‘Let’s make some pop music.’ I’ve always done things that are humorous and take the piss out of myself, I suppose. It was a funny old year when that was happening. The Miners’ Strike was on and there were riots down our street in Brixton. I was convinced there was going to be a revolution. But it would probably have been quite unpleasant. All these old punks and hippies preaching revolution, I don’t think we were really prepared to live with the consequences. If we actually had a revolution in this country, it would be like Iraq or something, or Syria. But we were having horrible times with Thatcher. All we could do in that sort of milieu was imagine what the alternative would be like.

I hear you are still fighting the good fight, though. Didn’t you organise a march during the Iraq War?

NA: Yeah, we formed a Stop The War group in Bodmin when it was all brewing up, just a bunch of school teachers and school kids and that. We used to demonstrate all the time. The kids were marching out of their lessons, marching down Bodmin. It was absolutely brilliant. It wasn’t just in Bodmin, either. We were always up London or Exeter or Truro or something marching against the flipping war. I made a bunch of placards of Blair and Bush as war criminals merged together at one point and handed them out to all the school kids. We marched around London with them. The press used to call me a cultural terrorist. I’m not a bloody cultural terrorist – I’m a bloody artist!

Well, you did get Maradona to wear it…

NA: That was so funny. A design company I was working with in Portland were putting together a download of anti-war graphics and invited me to contribute. I gave them the war criminal ones and forgot all about it for a couple of years. Then one Sunday morning, I woke up and there was old Maradona on the front page of the newspaper wearing it. He was with Hugo Chavez at this huge rally in South America. The image cropped up again not too long later, during a campaign to arrest Blair during the Chilcot Enquiry. They used it in a demonstration against Blair’s book signing. Somebody actually did a citizens arrest on Blair that day. She didn’t have the power to take him away but she did win a few hundred quid for attempting it. A few people have tried. But you’d have to get it through the international courts which is a hell of a prosecution job. Plus, his wife’s a lawyer and he’s got very powerful friends.

Are you involved in anything politically right now?

NA: Lately it’s been more about the NHS. It’s being sold down the river. I’m working there now and I can see it being sold off for private concerns. They’re selling off a really valuable national asset.

Do you ever feel like you’re banging your head against a brick wall?

NA: Sometimes. There’s been such a widening of the division between the 99 per cent and the one per cent in the past few decades. But it goes both ways. Change can happen in a very positive way, it’s happened in my lifetime. Gay equality would have been unthinkable in the 80s, that’s a very recent change. Now you’ve got the Tory party backing gay marriage. I do feel very positive about things.

Have you ever had aspirations to make what you do into something bigger? Or has it always been a case of doing what you do, and if people like it then they like it?

NA: Autonomy is really important to what I do and it always has been. There was a time when I was living in London in the early 80s and techno music was becoming a bigger thing. I found myself getting drawn into that and the electro-pop a bit. But fashions come and go. Right now I’m getting all this interest for recordings I made thirty years ago. Why the stuff before I really learned my craft? It’s rubbish. I listen back to it and think, ‘Oh, you know, you tried. You gave it a go.’ I’m very much an experimenter and have to follow my own curiosity or it doesn’t really make any sense to me. I get bored after six weeks of doing something and I’m on to something else. For some artists, the downside of success and popularity seems to be that they get trapped doing one thing, turning out the same kind of paintings over and over. It becomes a production line.

I guess you know from when you were younger that you could have gone along with a genre to court success, but I suppose that’s a predictable way of going about your career.

NA: The way Hollywood infects the imagination is something that I’ve set about trying to avoid and opposing. The American dream isn’t my reality. There’s a manipulation of emotion across this hugely racially and socially divided country. Apart from wars, the biggest export from the USA is the entertainment industry. I don’t want to be part of that. Graeme Revell, who I used to know when he was in SPK, now does soundtracks in Hollywood. He sort of went into music with a commercial plan and he’s become mega rich. That’s fine for him but it isn’t the way I want to function.

Do you feel successful?

NA: I think the success is that I stuck at it, that’s where the success lies. I put in the work over the years. As far as any recognition outside of that is concerned, I don’t think you’ve got any control over that really. I appreciate it when I don’t have to work for a living. If I get a thousand quid for a sound-track on something I made years ago then I appreciate that. But it’s very difficult for me to create a career structure around that. I don’t think I’ve got the right sort of personality for it. I’m serially obsessive, I suppose. I have ongoing obsessions that reach a burnout point and that’s just how my life cycles. For me, the point of art and music is to enhance your life. It makes your experience richer, it brings people together. It’s nice when you sell stuff but there are many other ways of making a living. At the moment, I’ve got a day job. What I do creatively isn’t driven by any profit motive.

What exactly is it you do for the NHS?

NA: Yeah, I’m doing an IT job for the health service.

That sounds like a decent enough job.

NA: Well, it’s a job, isn’t it. I think it’s good. It brings a different understanding into what I do. You get this understanding from another side of life rather than just doing the same thing over and over, which is what can happen when you’re in one industry. And I like doing something different. For a while, I was doing these sound libraries, recording original sounds and then working on them in the studio. It was an alright job but I don’t want to do it all the time. It’s not sustainable.

Do you feel as though you’ve always been a bit counter-culture?

NA: Yeah, I’m afraid so.

In the past, it sounds as though the emergence of new technologies and a collective political disenchantment were the impetus for what you were doing. As far as your music goes now, what’s influencing it?

NA: I certainly feel that new musical languages are developing. I think part of that is because of the nature of recorded sound. Say you’re making a record – you design it in a certain way. It has to be a certain length and there are hisses and scratches and jumps on it, and then it wears out. Whereas when you design something for CD, you’ve got a really clear sound. Every hiss on a CD has a meaning or an intentionality to it. And then you get into the digital realms. An MP3 can go on forever, it doesn’t have to be a particular length. But there’s a bitrate to it, there’s only a narrow spectrum of sound you can work with. What inspires me is exploring that. Then there are the different ways we respond to sound, what can be done with sound, what you can hear. If your eyesight was as acute as your hearing, you could see a candle on the moon – the fellow testing my ears told me that. I made an appointment to have my ears tested because I couldn’t hear a thing. I thought, ‘Oh god, I’m going deaf.’ It turned out that I had a cold. I yawned on the morning of my appointment and everything went loud again. But I went along anyway. They told me I had better than average hearing for a man of my age, so I was pleased about that.

Have you ever done any work with sound therapy?

NA: There is one thing that I did which I’m really proud of. I was working in a psychiatric ward where they did these podcasts on mental health. They got Martin Clunes down for one when he was in Cornwall filming Doc Martin. There was a studio on the ward, which they rented out to a college when they weren’t using it to record the podcasts. That brought some money into the social inclusion fund so they bought some guitars, a few amps and a drum kit for the patients to use. And be-cause I was the only person who actually had a studio background, I was called in to work with them. So these patients formed this band, just playing standard things like ‘Wild Thing’ and writing a few of their own songs. And they were really good musicians. They were performing to 120 people within three weeks. These were people who had been institutionalised for decades, these were guys who just didn’t get out of bed.

What was wrong with them before?

NA: I can’t tell you anything about that because of confidentiality. But the amazing thing was that they bloody cured themselves, they all got better. I saw one of them about four months ago out and about in the community, chatting away he was. When I first met him, he never talked to anybody. He never came out of his room. But the studio – along with an art resource and gardening project that were making people well – has been demolished now.

It does feel as though the significance of the arts is continually underplayed, particularly by the current governing powers. It seems terribly short-sighted.

NA: I think at some stage, kids are told not to be creative anymore and just to conform. But there’s a healing power in music and being creative in general. It’s something you’ve got to do. It’s something I’ve got to do, anyway. It keeps me alive.

For more on Nocturnal emissions click here and for more on Nigel Ayers click here

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