Thursday, 22 November 2007

The Ambient Interviews #3 - Sketches For Albinos


I wish you could have seen this. I always loved trains (guilty pleasure), but this was something else. En route to Newcastle to see Amusement Parks play with You Slut! (in a venue that turned out to bear an unsettling similarity to the Phoenix Club), it’s dark as my creaking Intercity 125 chugs in, diverted to the south via Carlisle. I make my way to the end of the carriage and find a pull-down window on the door open, completely open, disregarded. Outside I find the gigantic suburbs of Newcastle crawling by, barely illuminated by oppressive yet inexplicably calming neon, piercing the gloom of the streets I can’t see. I hold my face as close to the gap as I can, the movement washing over my face. I’m listening to Sketches. I suppose nothing else would have fitted so serendipitously.

Something I hoped for (but, in all honesty, didn’t entirely expect) when I started this site was to not only discover things I previously wanted to know, but discover new things entirely.I must confess that, this year, I’m becoming acutely aware that the hype machine is starting to pass me by. I used to have my finger well and truly on the button, as it were – Victorian English Gents Club. I Was A Cub Scout. The Rifles. Captain. Kubichek!. Fields. Tick, tick, tick. These days, it’s not uncommon for me to wake up one nondescript morning to find that some vacuous, charmless obscenity (let’s for the sake of argument christen her ‘Nash Kate’) is shifting units at a rate which makes my toes bleed, and I am reminded that perhaps, there are better ways of doing this.

A breath of fresh air wafted into my inbox one morning as Matthew Collings, having read and generously liked the interview below with Amusement Parks On Fire, offered me a CD. I wasn’t a total stranger to Sketches, as it happens – Amusement Parks play the CD before they start their gigs, and I recalled an enveloping, widescreen sprawl of sound, bouncing around itself playfully without ever threatening to become intrusive. This turned out to be pretty accurate. ‘Red’ by Sketches is the sort of record which seems to defy my words. It just… it just doesn’t sound like anything else. All from one guy originally from a tiny village in
England, who ended up in Reykjavik via America? Clearly, this needed properly investigating.

It seems like you’ve been on quite a journey…

“I grew up in a tiny village in rural Suffolk called Brettenham. There were 100 people there, mostly retired, and no young people, just me and my brother. A childhood in my imagination. I was very lucky in that way. I would hang out in our attic, with my guitar and amp in the cold, because I was alone up there, playing everyday, searching for these 'secret chords' that made up great songs... by then I was convinced that great songs were made up of secret lush chords, that only great songwriters knew. The secret to songs was chords, and these contortious finger positions. It seems absurd now, but when I was 16 it made sense. It also explained why I couldn't write good songs... haha. But everything I do is based around chords full of contrasting and conflicting notes... I spent years playing and building up my own little armoury of chords and ideas on a guitar that I then translate over to other means.

Apparently what I play is all suspended 9th, 11ths, 17ths etc., but I know nothing about music theory and don’t want to, because it stops you genuinely exploring when you know how a system works. I don't know why this and this note works together and what to go to next, all I know is that it affects me emotionally and I have a tiny inkling of where I want to go next. Otherwise it's all unknown. So that was my legacy of growing up in the middle of nowhere. Also romanticising bands and films, soaking up every tiny details from videos, live gigs on TV, radio shows... my idea of a Friday night back then was watching Radiohead's ' Meeting People Is Easy' twice (which is still totally amazing). Then I went to uni in York. Then I moved to Iceland 3 years ago. That's when the magic really began...”

My journey with Red certainly wasn’t linear… I find there are some records where it is almost a disservice to conclude that one “enjoyed it”, “it was good”, rudimentary sentiments of the like. Like the best records, re-evaluation with Red is not optional, but almost obligatory to let it simmer, to let the slow burn release. On first listen I thought it was a very melancholy album indeed, perhaps leaning towards one specific emotion that seemed to undercut everything else on offer. Repeated listens, however, seemed to uncover more; more subtleties, far, far more complexity of intent. Some parts started to feel euphoric, intentional or not; the last minute of Jól, the opening of Lotta...

“I listened to most of Red last night for the first time in ages. There are some tracks that I don't really like anymore, or that don’t really grab me, but the whole thing is still very emotional. It's interesting that you say those are the euphoric ones... they are in places, but in general I think those two are very tragic and sad. The whole album is trying to be euphoric, but tragic. I find Daniel Likes Birds euphoric, in that arrangement, but I can play it another way, much slower, and then it sounds very very sad indeed.

Red was the music I made during the best year of my life. I experienced so many things, mostly euphoric, then turning vicious and tragic. The Hustler (the first track) is like that in that it's bright and euphoric in places but vicious and horrible, dissonant and quiet all over the place at times - because you can only go so far without crashing... and it's only a tiny step away from this intense joy I experienced at the time.

The first part of
Crows, Lights [And Melody Loops] seems brighter to me, and then it turns on you later. I was obsessed with Godspeed at the time, and there's a track on Lift Your Skinny Fists, the 'second one', which is still part of track one because it's 20 minutes long, called Gathering Storm, that is so bright and hopeful for so long, then suddenly it turns on you and steals all your hope away. I guess I was trying to imitate that, and also to do more than one emotion in a track that is under 20 minutes... it's easy to do 'happy' or ' sad', but to do both at the same time is a real challenge - but also what you can actually experience (at least for me). One is never far from the other really. I mean, people's emotions don’t really run for such a long time in such a focused way, like 'I'm happy now and will be for the next week'. It's more about trying to capture that melancholy that sits under the surface, like a balancing threat to everything you do. I can be in a very very contented moment in life and pick up an instrument, and always this sad sound leaks out... I guess that’s what I use music for.”

This all seems a million miles from the now infamous video of Sigur Ros slouched around a radio talk show spluttering out one word answers with great reluctance.

“Sorry if all this is sounding either very silly, heavy handed or pretentious. I'm just trying to explain something that I haven’t really had the opportunity up until now to do really, in this way... and I'd rather try than do a Sigur in that video... remain uncomfortably silent...with yes no yes no”

If you fancy a good squirm, as it were, the mortifying video on question is here -

On the subject of Sigur, It seems to me that Sketches managed to walk a sword of sorts with Red. It doesn’t stray into territory of your typical "icy Icelandic", instrumental introductions (Jakobinarina anyone? Oh…). On the other hand, with tracks like Jól especially, there is something bolder than avoidance going on; it seems to be taking the cliché of the "twinkling piano like icicles" and, if you like, inverting it back on itself. Music For Airports with a lot more context. It sounds like what you might think would come from
Iceland, whilst at the same time managing to sound nothing like that at all...

“I think it's all about trying to avoid cliches. I love Sigur, and they've changed my life in various ways really, but to rip them off is pointless. I'm trying to synthesise my favourite bands together with this sense of... mystery, loss, hope, and this massive beauty I experienced when I was a kid in a choir. I listened to a piece we sang a lot when I was 13 maybe, called 'The Lamb' by John Tavener. It broke my heart. Sooo beautiful. And singing these things in a huge church every week had a big effect on me. My favourite day was Good Friday in the choir. There was this huge tragedy in the air, and silence. You would finish singing a piece written by a great composer to express the loss of the son of god to the world, then everyone would sit in silence as you walked from one end of the building to the other by candle light, which probably took about two minutes. That's very powerful. When I heard Sigur Ros for the first time when I was 17, it sounded like that to me, and I hear that in many bands... Godspeed, Stars Of The Lid, MBV, Joy Division... Steve Reich, Ligeti, Arvo Pärt. All this stuff is like coming home in some way.

A lot of my favourite music also is about similar emotions. My favourite painter is Mark Rothko and he said the only things worth expressing in art are romance, tragedy and death. Intense....hmmm... The Rothko room in the Tate Modern is like that... these deep reds and purples, in layers and layers of paint (I hate things that sound thin, I want them to sound thick and heavy like elephant skin, like those paintings look). He wanted people to go there and 'get sad'. There's a lot of music that does that too, and I'm trying to add to it I guess.

Iceland also feels like home in many ways, but there is no such thing as an 'Iceland sound' despite what people or journalists might think. The wealth of bands and genres in that place is mind-blowing, but there is the size of everything. Even in Reykjavik, even downtown, you see the sea and mountains at the end of every street almost, it just makes you feel like you are a tiny piece of nature and are free because you exist in this huge space in(to) which you can do anything. At least that's the way people seem to look at it - feed off isolation positively. Well, no-one's going to hear what I do anyway, so I'll do it for me. I can't possibly lose. I get that kind of attitude from 101 Reykjavik (the downtown area).

I love twinkling pianos, and Jól is like me trying to rip of
Vaka by Sigur I guess, subconsciously. But I want to distort and destroy these things too. Sometimes I think the most expressive thing in the world is noise, pure uncontrolled noise, like in some Sonic Youth tracks when the mad abstract guitar freakouts are more expressive than all the rest of the song. Or the fact that from there, they then go back into something digestable, almost rock, almost pop sometimes, and then back again (I love Tunic from Goo a lot...).

I could play everything on
Red on an acoustic guitar, but it wouldn't mean anything because we’ve all heard that a million times. I want to claim the process as my own, shape my ideas into a special shape and colour so they are more personal. I mean, if you hear a band that has just ripped off, say, Sigur Ros's bowed guitar sound, or Boards Of Canada's lush melodies plus hiphop beats, you’re like... “aaah rubbish”... because it's not them playing, it's Jonsi or BOC, and a mere imitation of them. Nothing like that can even be truly personal, I think. Besides, I believe that people genuinely want to hear something new and original (not that I'm claiming that's what I'm doing so far). like in Walk The Line when the record producer says to Johnny Cash 'I've heard that song played that way a million times... I want to hear the song you'd play if you were dying at the side of the road, with only enough time for one song to sing, to tell God what you felt about your time on this earth'. “

How difficult was it learning Icelandic? I tried to learn Danish and have made so much non-progress it's actually pathetic...

“I didn't find it that difficult, but only because I had to learn and I was surrounded with it everyday. Being musical helps you do all the weird sounds and roll your rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr's. But to speak it perfectly would probably take me 5-10 years. We'll see. Nothing to be afraid of.”

What do you make of America? I've been twice and have done outrageously touristy things in New York and LA but I really have nothing but praise for it. People who actually seem to have character and enthusiasm about them, some terrific iconography... did I fall squarely into the tourist trap with this?

America... have you read 'America' by Allen Ginsberg? That's very funny and poignant. But yeah, there is an amazing kindness and decency to many Americans and the country itself is also beautiful. They have always had an idiotic government though that is not interested in educating people or providing for them, unless they are already rich and privileged or somehow kick and squirm their way there. It's also interesting talking to bands who tour across the States and say, there are just parts of this country where the people who are interested in you are such a minority that it's almost not worth bothering. Instead they love country, the bible, and George Bush. I like America. It's mad but I like it that way. I mean I live in Iceland, and you have to been pretty nuts to stay there.”

My interpretations of the songs, as it turns out, are sometimes wildly at odds with the intent. Timo Átti Afmaeli í Dag, the closing track, is what I took to be a rather difficult, harrowing track. It's almost like one is being thrown deep into someone's world, a scratchy, overlayed phone call distracting from the piano buried beneath it - you're almost obligated to listen; the piano line ceases to register. Is it a bit more innocent than I'm making it sound?

“That was actually a present to by best friend for his birthday. The title is in Icelandic and means 'It was Timo's birthday today'. The voice is one of our friends talking about him and what he was like in school in Germany. It was meant in an innocent way, a song to him and also to the girl who read those things... as some funny recollection. I was in an intense mood recently and heard it and that track struck me like it was made for a funeral or wake; that this person was dead and gone and these were memories of him.

I guess I'm always trying to make things innocent and people think they are harrowing, or vice versa. But I never want to make anything that simply is 'innocent', because what makes it innocent is the threat around the corner ready to take that innocence away. You're innocent when that hasn't come yet, but it cannot exist without it. You love someone but are still scared that one day they will leave, or die, and I think that's what makes these moments so intense and powerful. In the same way, something can be utterly devastating or tragic but unless you see it positively you will never truly get over it or be rid of it. Maybe that's philosophising it too much.”

Crows, Lights And Melody Loops - percussion is mixed in with strumming of an acoustic, you can hardly tell which is which, each part floating in and out depending on your concentration... whilst not exactly the same, I'm reminded of Sometimes by MBV - jarring, edgy. Immediately a piece that stands out…

“Yes, I love MBV and Sometimes a lot. I always end up coming back to them and am looking forward to seeing them play live next year... like I say, a lot of what I do is about these jarring contrasts, because I think they are everywhere really. If Sometimes was just an acoustic guitar, then it would be a good song, and would be very nice. But when that same lush acoustic guitar part is played hugely and violently and loudly through god knows how much amplification, then it takes on so many other qualities that it never had before and suddenly makes it a great song. Kevin Shields came up with that 'glide guitar' sound when he was 25. He'd been playing guitar for 10 years and he wondered what the hell he'd been doing the rest of the time. That's what we all love him for, that ability to take a song to another ethereal level that we'd not heard before. He could have done Ecstasy or Strawberry Wine all his life but we'd never have been talking about him now.

I love it when things get all mashed up. I love combining things and chewing them up with a laptop to bring on something new. i was heavily into this Boards Of Canada 'Twosim' sound too - of battered tapes, where things naturally stick together or become imperceptible because the tape's been used a million times... a lot of my stuff is recorded using an old dictaphone on tapes I've reused a hundred times.”

What do you make of the whole MBV reunion anyway? As unspeakably excited as I am (4 nights in a row in London, might not be able to hear too well/at all afterwards...), I'm almost nervous about confronting all the myths, all the things I've read, all the stories face to face... music becoming legend. Rare, I think...

“I like the idea of seeing them, although I have no ticket yet... but it seems strange to see considering Shields has consistently refused to do it for 10 years. Maybe he's finally skint. I heard that the Jesus and Mary Chain and Slint reunions were not that hot, so I don't know. If I had a ticket I would go for sure. I want to go... although I expect that these gigs will clear up no myths. No-one will still know how Kevin Shields gets that sound or know whether people will really puke because of the volume or too many beers. But it's good because more people will get into MBV which is a beautiful experience. But there is something about a myth that makes that a band much more appealing, that you will never see them live, and that this record is as close as you'll ever be to them.

It's like that with me an Godspeed. I was not interested in them when they were around, and although they are technically on ' indefinte hiatus', and have not broken up, they'll never play again, so we just have those amazing records. It makes it more personal, because you'll never share it with a huge group of people you don't know. It's like that with gigs when there are 10 people there. I've see some awesome gigs like that. Unforgettable ones, probably the best ones actually. Like when a friend and I would go and see all the indie bands of the day from the NME at uni, and there would be no-one there but we'd know all the songs. There were only 20 people at Autechre. I'd like these gigs to be like that; amazing with 20 people, rather than average with 200.”

My musical epiphanies have nearly always taken place in the live setting, as opposed to on record. I can safely assert that there have been 90 minute sets where my life was simply not the same afterwards. The White Stripes on the Elephant tour, the first time I saw Mew. Stuff like that. I am told that live music is, if not irrelevant, then peripheral for a lot of people. Well, I don’t understand those people. Not a jot….

“I've seen a lot of great live bands or gigs. That Autechre gig was incredible, like the music being torn apart and re-pieced in unknown ways... Primal Scream, Spiritualized, Sigur Ros, Ben Frost, Múm in an Opera House, Ghostigital, Explosions In The Sky, Fennesz, Hot Chip, Interpol in a tent at Rreading before the album in 30 degrees, then like being transported to -30 in New York instantaneously....

I have this fantasy about entering a room and seeing a band on stage playing instruments I recognise, but the sound I hear being totally unlike that, huge and new and alien but beautiful at the same time. That's never happened but a lot of life experiences have really made me totally reappraise a band, or an album, by the gig breathing new life into something. And there is a magic moment about seeing a band you know nothing about and them totally blowing you away from a stage rather than a record. There’s an amazing power to something that you can suddenly dance to or that touches you and you can see where it's coming from... I guess it's kind of magical and yet human at the same time, whereas a record is just magic...You can't hide in a live context either. You have to be confident, helps you cut away lots of crap and focus. And these days it's easy to get a perfect take with all the tools at your disposal... also the idea of going somewhere you've never been and people know your music is pretty amazing really, or that people are willing to turn up to see you.”

So how to go about the challenge of converting Sketches into the live setting?

“The live shows will be with laptop, mixer and then between 3 and 6 guitarists. I'm trying to sort it out so it doesn't matter how many people actually play, because the tour that I'm doing is not with a band, but with the people I know in the area and other bands on the bill that night who are interested in joining in. I like the idea of turning up at a gig and not necessarily knowing who will play with me, and they don't know exactly what they will play. Although it's not improvised. I'm arranging songs that I'd written and recorded entirely alone and then pulling them apart to play live, and doing it in a way that other musicians can contribute but yet what they play is simple and powerful, so they can turn up, have it explained and just go for it; enjoy the moment and the setup. It'll be very minimal, each guitarist playing a simple set of notes or chords for an extended time (between 5-10 minutes) which are brought together spontaneously to create a thick layered sound. So people constantly play even when they are not heard through the mixer.

This is all inspired by a similar thing my friend Ben Frost did with a piece called '6 Guitars'. Every guitarist played a different chord for 30mins, which when put together at various times under Ben's control through the laptop, creating this massive, menacing sound or just using sounds from the laptop directly. Sometimes you would not hear yourself, as a player, for 10 minutes and then you'd suddenly be part of sometime huge... in this looping hypnotic way, where the fact that you were playing was totally irrelevant. It was as if you were just moving along and filling a colour into a painting beyond your control but still part of you. Playing this piece was amazing, a totally inspiring experience. So I'm trying to take that idea in a direction sideways, breaking that idea down into shorter 'songs' and in a more harmonic way.

But most things I come up with start on a guitar. It's the only instrument I can really play well. But the way I look at it is more like a child than a decent guitarist... like, what happens if I do this, or stick this there, or pull this apart, or just play this and not that or retune this or play it with a stick or piece of metal. I love chords, and I hate solos. I'm that type of guitarist I guess. And sometimes I just want the tone of it, not the chord or note or whatever and use a laptop to tear everything apart so what I've played is just luscious texture. About 80% of what you hear on an Albinos record is guitars in one way or another.”

Sketches For Albinos’ UK tour starts in Leeds on the 15th December. I wouldn’t be so hot on missing it, if I was you. Sometimes things are just different. They just are.


Anonymous said...

This a really excellent site, you have got me interested in Sketches. I hope you keep this up


Ed said...

Need moar- MOAR.