Super Fury Animal: Squarepusher Interviewed

Nick Hutchings goes head to head with bass master and future facing musician Tom Jenkinson aka Squarepusher over his new album, Damogen Furies. All pictures courtesy of Tim Saccenti

As I enter the fashionable and functional Shoreditch hotel suite booked by Warp Records, Tom Jenkinson, the playful producer and ingénue, points at the Jedi style dressing gown on the wall and asks, “Which one of us is wearing this, then?”

He then proceeds to take an acoustic guitar hanging adjacently and tells me he will strum a tune while making meaningful eye contact as we talk about upcoming record Damogen Furies his fourteenth album as alter ego Squarepusher.

If this suggests a level of familiarity, it could be because on the escalator journey we had already reminisced about the last time we met, some eighteen years previously. Back then Tom wasn’t in a robe, but he did have a straitjacket to hand, propped up, as he was, on a hospital bed in a disused ward of the Northwick Park Hospital. He was there not for health reasons but for the filming of a music video for ‘Come On My Selector’ taken from the Big Loada EP for an American release on Trent Reznor’s label.

I had been invited to film the director Chris Cunningham as he brought the song to life in a way that was part Stanley Kubrick and part live action Manga cartoon. In a break from watching an oversized security guard being high-kicked by a little girl in a corridor I had a chance to chat to Jenkinson.

As a prank Cunningham asked me to slip in a question for Jenkinson that he knew would garner a volatile reaction. Tom reminded me of this incident: “The question was something along the lines of ‘Is your music the expression of supressed childhood urges?’ something like that. Like a psychoanalytical thing”.

Cunningham was right, Tom’s reply, caught on camera was “Don’t you know anything you prick?!” I was shocked, and I was sure that I too was the butt of the sardonic director’s wit. Apparently not. He thought my bedside manner had left something to be desired.

“The funny thing was I had thought ‘I really like this guy. He’s pretty sound, he’s a nice chap’. And then this question came out at the end and I was ‘Fuck you!’”.

Cunningham asked for the rushes and used the soundbite as a cutaway in the video. The security guard is seen distracted by a monitor with an MTV interview with Squarepusher. I’ve been post-synched with a Japanese voice, the subtitles suggesting the question was “How do you play all the instruments at once?” Tom’s real life angry response elicits a guffaw from the guard.

“I’d love to see it again. Unfortunately the question isn’t featured but Chris featured my response to it which is quite angry sort of fuck off. We were both set up. Chris is such a practical joker.”

Since the caricatured computer game bleep and breakbeat of Big Loada Squarepusher has sidestepped categorisation swerving from the music concrete of Music Is Rotted One Note to Eastern mysticism on Budakhan Mindphone. Then came future funk with stand-out hit ‘My Red Hot Car’ on Go Plastic to rubbery slap-bass and bleeps on Just A Souvenir. That’s not to mention wearing a love for jazz on his raglan shirt sleeves with Solo Electric Bass or wearing a heavyweight helmet of LED lights on stadium epic album Ufabulum.

I nearly endure a reprise of the prick insult all this time later today in Shoreditch when I venture that the vocal line in ‘Come On My Selector’ says “Come to fucking daddy” thinking this was a nod to Chris Cunningham’s previous celebrated video for Warp label-mate Aphex Twin.

Tom retorts: “The line is “I’m the fucking daddy." That was all in the tune long before I met Chris. Well actually ‘Come To Daddy’ by Aphex came after that I hasten to add."

It is merely a false start though as we get to chatting about our respective Thames Estuary upbringings and I ask what happened after our bedside fracas at the hospital.

What happened after Big Loada?

Tom Jenkinson: At the time of Big Loada it was becoming apparent to me that there was an idea of Squarepusher coalescing in the minds of journalists and people I encountered at shows. They had identified in me some principal characteristics, like a shopping list of pretty high speed breaks and references to jazz and computer games.

Stereotyping and generating brands around musicians I think contributes to their eventual demise. It’s not in tune with how a human being operates. They learn, they change, and their opinions vary from one to another. You’re a story, you’re always in constant development. It was inappropriate that I got characterised in this one dimensional manner and the contrarian in me objected to it quite strongly.

So what happened next was Music Is Rotted One Note which to anyone’s ears is something of a departure to Big Loada. It’s not like I was trying to tip the whole thing completely upside down. It’s not like I’m doing this just to fuck everyone off. At the same time I thought if this endeavour is worth anything it will withstand this shock. Let’s see what happens. Test it to destruction if you like.

Let’s face it, I’m never going to make a country record. I’m not saying it’s pure contrarianism, it was focusing on something that’s some way distant from Big Loada. That meant switching off the computer game references, the breaks, the sequencing etc. So Music Is Rotted One Note was referring to some of my interests in jazz.

I’m bloody glad I did it. You could look at it as a fork at that point. I could either go on to be ‘Big Loada TM’ and become a nice predictable brand that does what it says on the tin. I’ve no doubt there’s money to be made from doing that but for me it seemed much less inviting than seeing if I could sustain my presence in the public eye by doing what the fuck I want.

The spirit of Big Loada lives on even though the actual character and aesthetics are very different. The mentality behind is it is the same. That record was simply a snapshot of two years of my musical development. Of course my musical development had been going on ever since I can remember. Since I was sentient.

Were you ever classically trained in playing the bass?

TJ: No that’s a myth and one I’m not particularly keen on actually. If I’d have had the opportunity for such a thing it would have been a privilege. I was utterly self taught.

But there was music around since you were a child?

TJ: It wasn’t a musical household but music was played a lot. My father had a phase of having jukeboxes all over the house. He was a music lover but he was also into musical machinery. Not instruments, he was never interested in playing particularly but there would be these odd objects, like valve amplifiers being dismantled on the kitchen table. My mum wasn’t massively keen on that, but it was part of the environment.

Here we are eighteen years later with Damogen Furies and you still know it’s a Squarepusher record…

TJ: That’s the peculiar thing, I’ve never been about trying to promote a brand of Squarepusher. I’ve never been keen on that idea that these are the character traits that I’ve got to stick with and amplify and keep pushing forward and pushing on the public. I’m really happy to throw it all away and start each record with a blank slate but I concede you’ve got a point, there are things I can’t get rid of, no matter how hard I try.

With recent records like Shobaleader One and Ufabulum you used LED triggered masks. How important is the visual side of the music?

TJ: There’s a really rough and relatively consistent hierarchy of concerns. My musical interests come first and principally my fascination with how notes and rhythms interlock. Then comes the technical side like programming, instruments and designing instruments. Next is production and mixing and beyond that I start to care less. One of the more distant concerns is with the visual interpretation of the music. I find it fascinating but I don’t always particularly get involved with it. There was a phase of touring where I would just do gigs in the dark. I’d try and turn every single light off in the venue.

I couldn’t turn off the fire exits obviously, there are limits, but I’d do my best to make it a completely dark environment. That of course embodies a very stark aesthetic on its own, but what I wasn’t doing was supplying any positive visual content.

With the Shobaleader thing and more overtly still with Ufabulum there was a very distinct attempt to integrate what I saw as imagery which is strongly corrected by the music; directly stimulated by it.

What are you going to do when you play Damogen Furies live?

TJ: Part of the difficulty surrounding the last live outing was that the technology was all being set up and controlled by me. I was using a software set up that I designed and because nobody else understood it I also had to maintain it. It was ridiculous. We were carting three quarters of a tonne’s worth of gear around the world. In the end I was turning down loads of gigs because the freight bill was so massive. It was very 70s like an Emerson, Lake & Palmer kind of vibe. Not that I’m trying to associate myself with ELP but when it all turned up it was quite funny.

I love the craft of it as much as the bigger, higher aesthetic and conceptual concerns I love learning how it works and the nuts and bolts. There’s a very basic form of enjoyment which is to do with building, putting things together and seeing what happens when you do that.

However it was just stressful. I always had one eye on whether the equipment was still running and what I was going to do if it wasn’t. And because some of it was home made it was a bit shaky or adapted from other things.

The whole thing was a bit Heath Robinson so it was very demanding and this time out I’ve assigned video duties to another chap – a video designer. I’ve given him a brief. It’s all live generated stuff which to my mind it has to be, just as the music is being sequenced and generated

The new album was recorded all in single takes. Do you sit down at the beginning of each album and set yourself creative limitations?

TJ: It’s something that has sprung from the nature of how the music has been constructed. Its utilising a software set up that I’ve designed myself. What happens in the studio is technically the same thing that happens on the stage. In the past I had to make quite brutal adaptations of the material to make it work on stage. I don’t always like doing that because sometimes you’re shaving away the things that you actually quite like about them, the spontaneity of it. If it literally requires a 96 channel desk and 22 units of rack gear that is beyond me live, it’s just not feasible. The idea of this new set up was to get away from having so much kit. Being software it’s all being run inside computers so it’s slightly easier to carry around.

So live performance is important then?

TJ: Oh yeah. Before anything anyone thought of as Squarepusher happened I did eight or nine years of playing gigs round Essex and East Anglia as part of a band. Principally bass, sometimes drums. A lot of my grounding as a musician comes from that experience and playing live is inherent in it. If someone said in one of those situations “Oh we’d love keyboards on this track but we can’t afford it, or we can’t find a player or whatever practical reason, we’ll just stick a tape on in the background”, you’d be laughed off. It’d be a case of “You are joking? That’s just fucking pathetic, you can’t do that” but with the world of electronic music it becomes much more blurry.

For example on this, quite frankly what I did on the studio is what I’ll be doing on stage which is running a sequencer and doing some live tweaks. With the new set up if I just press play on the sequencer and record it, you’ve got roughly a bit for bit version of what will be happening on stage. Yes it’s all being generated live, yes I’ve got the flexibility to change it live but actually the differences between that and when you’d have a group playing are quite significant.

One of the more dispiriting things I think about endless touring is hearing the same piece of music over and over again and I end up feeling like a fraud.

My plan is if you come to the shows in the first run of dates the versions you’ll hear live are quite close to the record. But because I can set this up identically afterwards in a hotel room I can actually work when I’m on the move. The aim is that all the pieces will have had substantial remixes and different parts added and subtracted. The whole album is evolving as I go. So by the end of the tour it will be a different live experience.

It feels like Damogen Furies has the same intensity of Ufabulum, what’s the spirit behind it this time?

TJ: Other than the new recording set up, one of the other more conceptual reasons for attempting to do this, is that I’m quite sick of how music technology is creating a degree of uniformity in electronic music. So it’s a stand against that. I’m trying to fly the flag for the days of electronic music where people who are making it are also building the gear because that was what was happening in the very early days of electronic music. And that spirit is one of the things that really appeals to me about electronic music so I’m putting this forward as a way to keep that.

Your song titles on this album when I say them out loud some of them sound rude, like ‘Kontenjazz’ for example…

TJ: You know ‘Konten’ is the Dutch word for arse. Make of that what you will…

‘Ex-Jack Knifes’ is the way I read ‘Exjag Nives’…

TJ: Basically this company called Jagex commissioned me to make some music for them for a computer game, and then they cancelled the contract and they didn’t pay me a fucking penny. They completely stitched me up. That was basically a piece of music that was initially headed for that project so it’s Ex Jag, so it’s from Jagex, and Nives, i.e. fuck you, sticking the knife in.

Some of the titles are just sounds that I like others have distinct references like, the Baltang thing from ‘Baltang Ort’ and ‘Baltang Arg’. My partner is from Latvia and in the summer I was staying over there doing some of the programming and writing. Her family, by virtue of the Soviet system was given a beach house on the Baltic coast, which has got to be one of my most favourite places on earth. The Baltic thing is basically an angry piece of music written on the Baltic. In that way it’s a simple formula to generate a title but it’s not always like that. It’s just sometimes a word that feels good.

All the titles look quite intriguing…

TJ: That’s a really good observation because it’s partly how these words sound and if you’re making up words you’re obviously putting a word forward that has no established meaning in terms of what it actually signifies.

In terms of sonics and phonetics it can form a link that way but also letters and combinations of letters have an aesthetic look. Particularly if it’s a language you don’t understand and you’re not concerned with the meanings of the words, your impression comes from how the words look, particularly if the language uses different characters. Like Kanji, the Japanese script – I find that fascinating. I’m not able to read it, I can’t understand it, but the aesthetic comes home strongly.

What does Damogen Furies mean?

TJ: In Greek mythology Furies were spirits of vengeance that pursue people that have committed crimes that have gone unpunished, there’s something about that I quite like without wanting to over explain it. There’s something appealing about it. Damogen comes from an old drum & bass record where there’s a hip hop sample I can’t remember exactly who, where I think he’s saying “Damage him” or “Damage Them” but it sounded like “Damogen” – I thought I’ve got to use that.

I thought it was a ninja tribe…

TJ: I’ll alight upon words because I think they suggest any number of things. Of course there are things I don’t want them to suggest but you’ve just pulled one out of the bag that I’ve never thought of. But it just speaks to that term.

I thought that because you have had elements of Eastern culture in some of your previous records…

TJ: That’s not what it was, but on Budakhan Mindphone some of the instruments on that were Balinese, Gamelan instruments. We used rendang drums. I didn’t mention that at the time, as I didn’t want to try and borrow kudos from Indonesian culture. I was trying to get a fresh perspective on these instruments. I’m not doing a Paul Simon Gracelands and stealing all this African music and not give anyone any credit.

I still love the opening song ‘Iambic 5 Poetry’ from Budakhan Mindphone it’s one of my favourites. A lot of your album openers are epic, on this one ‘Stor Eiglass’ and on Ufabulum ’4001’ they’re massive and euphoric…

TJ: One of those things that I find hard to dispose of is my attitude to album sequencing, the layout of the pieces.

I suppose the mentality is broadly a Trojan horse sort of attitude where the opener is the gateway, for luring people in. By the end of the end of the record I want to be smashing them round the head with something they completely didn’t expect.

I want to change peoples’ minds about music, I want to bring the really brutal experimental stuff to peoples’ attention.

On this one I’ve deliberately forced myself into putting forward a different spin on that. On the vinyl version of Damogen Furies it’s sequenced in reverse to the CD or download, so it starts with the last track and goes backwards through the album so it ends on ‘Stor Eiglass’. Rather than starting with the big one with your hands in the air and then descending into a journey that’s psychologically demanding I thought why not start the album the other way round, so you start off with this gruelling experience and then the sunshine comes out at the end.

There’s something in that.

TJ: We’ll see…

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