Destination – Void: An Interview With Roly Porter

Since his steel-plated dubstep duo Vex'd disbanded, Roly Porter has been exploring post-human wastelands, folk forms and sensual electronics. In advance of a London show next week, he speaks to Russell Cuzner about last year's debut album Aftertime and working in solitude

A little over a year ago, Roly Porter confounded expectations with the release of his debut solo album, Aftertime. Instead of showcasing the kind of mutant dubstep that his previous work, with Jamie Teasdale as Vex’d, had lavished on clubbers requiring more murk and muscle in their Friday night mix, Aftertime was devoid of beats, birthing an alien environment that willing listeners would be required to travel through internally. But, in braving these new worlds – populated by melancholic chamber anthems imprisoned within oppressive vectors of electronics – you find the bass frequencies and distorted ornamentations from Vex’d are still there, but they’ve now been liberated from the grid of a laptop sequencer to form futuristic atmospheres, embedded with memories of the past.

Indeed, his latest release, Fall Back, originally a commission from Aldeburgh Music’s Faster Than Sound festival, sees him collaborate once more with Cynthia Millar, a player of (amongst other things) the ondes martenot, a proto-synthesiser invented in 1928, in a four-part interpretation of a seventeenth century traditional Scottish folk song woven with Porter’s contemporary chasmic vibes.

Ahead of his London performance on the 10th December in support of Stars of the Lid, he spoke with the Quietus about the new release, how it originally led to Aftertime‘s conception, and the other influences from outside the world of music that steered him far away from the genre map.

How did Fall Back come to be formed?

Roly Porter: In Aldeburgh they run Faster Than Sound, I think they do four or three things per year maybe, and the point of it is to get together artists from very different worlds; they’re normally people who don’t know each other, in this case I obviously did ’cause it was the Ondes player who is also my aunt. It set the whole story for Aftertime as well, because it was through them [first] suggesting that we did this that I began to record her instrument and used it on Aftertime.

They gave us five days in the concert hall, which was an amazing place, with the sound system and anything we want – any of their instruments – and five days to come up with something and then you perform it on the fifth day. The space was incredible. It’s massive and wherever you were in the room the sound is almost identical, from the furthest corner to right at the front, it was bizarre. So, yeah, a good opportunity.

Did you have the idea to base it on the traditional Scottish folk song, ‘Henry Martin’?

RP: No, that was the final piece of the puzzle. Sitting up the night before, we started playing through some things that she [Millar] liked. The Dobro – that’s the lap steel guitar thing (although it’s not a lap steel) that the piece starts with – that’s geared to jaunty bluegrass, perky stuff that would be much, much more difficult to incorporate [laughs]. And then the ‘Henry Martin’ thing just stood out straight away – it’s got an, I dunno, Earth-esque vibe to it in my opinion.

The set was accompanied by incredible visuals from Rod Maclachlan – have your other performances involved his video work as well?

RP: That was the first time I’d met him. He actually lives in Bristol as well, he was recommended by them and since then we’ve worked together quite a few times. I’ve got two AV collaborations that I do: one with him and one with people in Berlin called MFO, and they’re both very different and both perfect in their own way.

But what Rod does really fits Aftertime, it’s completely organic and it’s real slow and dark, pretty much all black and white. For the Aftertime performance he did lots of rotating coal and stuff like that, but for the Fall Back performance he built this giant projector thing: its two massive lights shine on an object and then that’s projected through a lens and the screen was enormous, eight by ten I think. The objects were day-to-day objects like an iron, a pot of paint, a shopping bag from Tesco’s, stuff like that, but then there was just perfect definition ten metres tall on the screen. I don’t understand it, but it was amazing and kind of strange the objects that he chose. When he said “I’m going to use this bag of tangerines,” I was like “that’s not really the vibe” [laughs]. But then when it’s that tall and moving that slowly… there was a scrunched up ball of foil that was just incredible, we just sat in the dark, days before, looking at it for hours [laughs].

Fall Back ~ Roly Porter / Cynthia Millar / Rod Maclachlan @ Faster Than Sound, 2011 from Rod Maclachlan on Vimeo.

When I first heard Aftertime I was struck by how your focus seemed to have moved away from pattern-making (i.e. beats and tunes) to a more textural/sensual exploration – was this an intentional shift?

RP: Yeah, it was completely intentional and when it came to it was far easier than I anticipated. In fact the opposite, going back, which I’ve tried to do for various reasons with a couple of things I’m working on, has proved to be a lot, lot harder. Even to the extent of using the grid in Logic or whatever, and using loops that fit the time – everything is proving harder than that transition did.

So was it liberating initially to not worry about making patterns for the grid?

RP: Yeah, it was completely liberating, and designed to cure me of my leftover grump from trying to produce dance music. I didn’t anticipate releasing it, or that anyone would like it; it was kind of an exercise in falling in love again with writing music and listening to music even.

How, then, did the compositional process change – or did it change?

RP: I suppose the compositional process changed in that when I was just fleshing it out, getting ideas together, [I] basically did away with all synths and obviously there’s no drums – I got rid of all my drum machines and samplers and I used software samplers to build instruments – but it was mostly just audio processing and that was a much faster and much more satisfying way to work. Yeah – doing away with synths!

The tracks’ titles are all planets or stars from Frank Herbert’s science fiction epic, Dune. Did you have that or another narrative in mind when you were creating it?

RP: Yeah, I had a sci-fi narrative in mind but I had written all the tunes before I decided on their names. And the reason I’ve chosen them, other than the fact that I love Dune, isn’t because it’s specifically a homage to that universe, but because I felt that what I’ve always tried to do, what I think every album should do, is be a coherent thing, a solid unit, not just a collection of A-sides or whatever. And it’s hard to find twelve names of similar items all from one work or universe or whatever, so that’s what it portrays: that it’s a single universe and they’re all equal elements of it.

Are you into science fiction, generally, or just a few choice pickings?

RP: Well, I’m picky about it [laughs], I only like possible human futures, I’m not interested in weird animals or adventure sci-fi. Things like the Foundation series by Asimov, which is a future political history but spanning an insane length of time, are great.

I got into a bad habit of only emotionally engaging with really extreme situations, things like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road – why am I connecting with this guy and his kid more just because the whole world’s died? [laughs] But there’s something about extreme future stuff that does enhance my personal engagement with things.

I expect you’ve encountered descriptions of Aftertime as ‘dystopian’. Is that a kind of impression you were seeking?

RP: Well, there’s many ways to interpret the word, but I had a vision of it literally being set after the time of people, partially again as an exercise in withdrawing from genre, I wanted it to have an un-human thing as opposed to a dystopian future where things have changed… This is an attempt to evade genre, so a time after human-time was what I was shooting for.

You’ve mentioned before that you’re quite fond of the soundtrack of David Lynch’s film of Dune?

RP: [Laughs] Yeah, although actually there’s some real clangers on it.

It is odd – isn’t it Toto [US FM rock band] with one Brian Eno piece?

RP: Yeah, I’ve never been able to gauge where [Eno] starts and finishes and how much Toto are responsible for but as a kid, the first time I heard the main Dune theme, that just sums up sci-fi for me – loved it, absolutely loved it! But some of it is pure trash. [laughs]

Would you be interested at all in the world of soundtracks?

RP: Yeah, I have actually done two this year. I got approached by a production company called Big Talk, which has done all those Simon Pegg films, to do a horror film and I finished that a couple of months ago. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do and I really hope to do it again, and obviously there’s not going to be a huge number of films that are suitable for the soundworld that I was doing. Why I didn’t get to do Prometheus I don’t know. [laughs]

Prior to Aftertime, you distanced yourself from music for a couple of years, becoming a carpenter and a father. What lead to that hiatus?

RP: Dubstep becoming so shit was the problem. To be a bit more clear, not becoming shit but, once again, another musical genre becoming something that wasn’t for me. Not that I want to be like a moany old man but it just began to dilute and there was just no place for any of the electronic music that I was hearing in my life.

So, I withdrew to just listening to blues basically, and classical, anything that had been written – significantly – before I was born. I’d stopped going to see electronic music in a club environment and that made it difficult to chart the progress of people who were still doing relatively interesting things, which in retrospect I can see, like Hyperdub carried on releasing great music, Loefah setting up Swamp 81… I’m not saying that the whole world went to shit, but I just felt my time was up.

Live at MUTEK, with visuals by MFO (Photo by Caroline Hayeur)

When I first heard Vex’d at a Planet Mu night at Electrowerkz I hadn’t properly grasped what ‘grime’ or ‘dubstep’ signified and so without recourse to those tags you sounded to me like a blend of dub reggae, jungle and the murkier end of hip-hop, like Wu-Tang, Def Jux say, with, crucially, this industrial noise element as well – a bit like, say, Scorn or Techno Animal. But then you got tagged with the ‘grime’ or ‘dubstep’ label which I later understood…

RP: But it made no sense even at the time, it was frustrating even then. Those Electrowerkz parties – I think we did two of them – they were an absolutely perfect example of where we wanted to be positioned. The first one we played, Frog Pocket, the first guy on the night, was playing violin, looper pedals, that kind of thing, there was Tim Exile doing his naked dancing -about thing, Venetian Snares, us, so that was really great to be positioned there. We just never had as much fun at straight dubstep events, let’s say, as we did there.

I think part of the problem is the incessant tagging and sub-tagging that goes on…

It’s also that you start hearing production techniques used more than once, which is fine – in jungle there was the ‘sound’, so like Metalheadz’s sound – but that for me now is of no possible interest. I don’t want to hear the same kind of music from ten at night ’til six in the morning because I don’t take pills – that actually requires quite a lot of actual production [laughs], that requires hundreds of people to write the exact same type of music in order to create that event. But I can’t see anybody wanting to go to an industrial/classical noise all-nighter. [laughs]

I’d be up for it, but I take your point. How about the carpentry side – did you find any parallels with that and music?

RP: It was a really good break from it. It’s called timber-framing so it’s building big oak structures. For a period I didn’t even have a laptop and after work we did axe throwing and I played with a chainsaw a lot and I was outside throughout the whole year, so it was a really brilliant break from music.

So, is working in isolation easier or more difficult?

RP: Oh, it’s definitely easier. The only difficulty is confidence, knowing what you’re doing. The Subtext label – there’s not many of them there – we’re close friends but we have a brutal regime of appraising each others work, so that’s fine, I know whether I’m doing crap thanks to them. But I do think it’s a lonely old game [laughs]. It’s good fun to be on the road doing shows with a friend – I’d love to be in a metal band on the road, that’s a dream!

What metal do you like? Do you listen to much?

RP: Yeah, I do listen to a lot of metal. I’ve been listening to more, I dread to call it this, what do people call post-metal, like Locrian?

What that kind of black-metal with avant-garde classical elements?

RP: Yeah, ambient folk-based doom stuff. Or, just Slayer!

You mentioned Subtext – do you see yourself as part of a local-based scene with [fellow Subtext artists and Bristol residents] Emptyset and Paul Jebanasam?

RP: Yeah, his album is going to be really amazing, I’m really looking forward to it. Certainly it’s a nice local thing, but I’m certainly not part of what I’d call a Bristol scene. So far, the Subtext thing is a really nice, contained unit.

Yeah, you do seem to share elements, like wayward dark tones and textures but at the same time you’ve all got – albeit now heavily veiled – a background in club-based music as well.

RP: Yeah, the Subtext nights – we did a launch event for Aftertime and a launch event for Emptyset’s Demiurge album in a church and that was me, Emptyset and Paul Jebanasam playing – it was really varied but definitely a coherent vibe.

Do you perhaps see that vibe extend beyond Bristol, I’m thinking perhaps Blackest Ever Black’s similarly small roster with Raime, Regis, Vatican Shadow and even Cut Hands. I know it’s always tempting to try and anoint a scene…

RP: I feel like there is some evil force at work trying to put a scene together [laughs]. Maybe it’s you lot, there is something coming together. I can see all of the music you’ve just listed, and everything that I do or am interested in doing, all becoming more coherent without becoming damaged, but I can also see the opposite happening. When I do tunes that have a quantised element it’s normally a very, very slow, single bass pulse which is similar in a way to Raime. I can’t really see a mega-slow techno scene occurring, we all have one beat every sixteen bars and that’s what draws us together because there’s so much room to do everything else [and] that’s not quite a coherent enough thing to be a genre.

So until that fixed element – like in dubstep everyone’s doing their own thing, then the halfstep thing happened and that became an anchor point for other people – I can’t really see yet what that anchor point would be to tie these artists together, and I’m certainly in no rush for that to happen. But the Blackest Ever Black nights for example, which unfortunately I’ve missed, have such really, really varied artists, from British Murder Boys, Cut Hands, Raime – that is a kind of coherent thing and it is an exciting thing, definitely. Just as long as there’s no name for it. [laughs]

You’re in the studio today – what are you working on?

RP: I wrote a party tune, a rave tune [laughs]. It’s weird, after saying I’ve spent so long trying to get away from it. Me and Paul Jebanasam are trying to write a Subtext choral thing and it’s proven quite difficult, so I thought I needed a bit of time off and wrote an odd 130bpm dance tune. I should probably get back to work.

Is that going to see the light of day?

RP: No, I doubt it very much, but it was good fun. I’m trying to write the choral piece, I think that’s the next step, but it’s a bit of a struggle.

When might we see the fruits of that?

RP: It’ll be early next year. But what I want to do, similar to Fall Back, I want the final mix to be a live recording – not for the album to be a live album, but for that to be the final stage of the mix process. It’ll be four parts in four different locations. About three days after I’d mastered Aftertime we did this show in a church in Bristol and I recorded that and I was much, much happier with the recording in the church, it would’ve taken a lot more work but it just made me think there was an actual mix process to choose different buildings or spaces that you have an interest in and use that as your final mixdown.

Are there some specific places you’d particularly like to explore in those terms?

RP: Yeah, but they’re proving difficult [laughs]. In Bristol there’s a place underneath Clifton called the Clifton Rocks Railway which was a funicular railway and – I shouldn’t tell you, as someone else is going to do it now – but during the Second World War the BBC were encamped [there] under millions of tons of poured concrete so that when the whole world was destroyed they could continue broadcasting. The kind of places with that kind of vibe, something specific to it, a story, but also to have interesting acoustics and one that won’t fall down as well before we start playing.

You’ve got a gig coming up in London supporting Stars of the Lid – that’s in a church isn’t it?

RP: Yeah, I haven’t actually been to that church. I’m looking forward to that show because I like Stars of the Lid, obviously, and I’m a bit worried that I’ll be brutally noisy in comparison but I’m sure that the variation will do everyone some good. So I won’t be playing for long, there won’t be any material from Aftertime, it’ll all be new material more or less, it’ll just be me, no visuals and no accompanying musicians.

Roly Porter plays live at St John At Hackney Church, London, in support of Stars Of The Lid next Monday, 10th December. Tickets are available here. Both Aftertime and Fall Back are out now on Subtext.

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