Autechre's interview with Мatt O'leary - March 2005

This interview was conducted via the phone on 31/03/05.

Matt O'Leary: Untitled seems to be a lot more urgent, with a lot more regular loops, which reminded me of the Autechre live experience, where you get more abrasive and bassy loops. Do you think that people will respond better to that kind of sound in a live environment, rather than the softer tracks off the earlier albums?
Sean Booth: It's more about the dynamics of the rig, and the space -- what you can do with the rig. I'm really into the physical sensation of rhythm and I really like repetition -- I think that's pretty obvious really. So in a live environment, it tends to be that we'll work more with the rig. It gives you strength in different areas to, say, a pair of headphones or a speaker set at home. You're dealing with completely different dynamic criteria, so yeah, that's basically where it comes from. There is this really obvious social leaning that we've got toward moving around, when we hear music -- I don't think anybody's not got that. Everybody's susceptible to rhythm really.
MOL: It's interesting to hear you say that it's obvious that you're into repetition -- on a lot of the tracks that you put out, it's not as obvious as it is on some as others, so you have to listen very closely and for a long time before you get a sense of this. The new stuff seems to be a lot closer, more driving and faster.
SB: I think it's very important to listen to it as one piece, and it's very important to listen to it on CD -- there's such quick transience between a lot of the sounds, they don't come through very well on MP3. That's down to our production taste, if you will -- it just doesn't reproduce very well on lesser formats. It comes across really well on CD. Listening to it as an album is also quite important, and it always has been to me. I know that in this day and age you can't expect people to do that, but I still do. I still have got pretty vast MP3 libraries, with literally just two tracks off peoples' albums, just my favourites, but a lot of the time I will just sit down and listen to an album, even though I don't like half of it. It's strange, but I think it's just that I'm that way inclined. It's the way I've grown up with music really. It's interesting, really. With our albums -- it's strange even trying to get a point of view. I'm a little bit too close to it, really.
MOL: On how your album's been received by the listening public?
SB: Well just how it is as an album, if you like. I guess with this one, there is some pretty bare-faced repetition going on. It's not like we're disguising that, do you know what I mean?
MOL: It must be very hard to get a sense of how people will view this in relation to how they themselves view your older stuff.
SB: Totally, it's impossible. It's even impossible with your mates. With someone you've never met, you've got no chance -- forget it.
MOL: Do you ever find yourself with the temptation to play some of the faster stuff to overturn the expectations of people who come along to hear something softer, like off the first album?
SB: No, not at all. This is the odd thing. Our live sets have always been more slamming, mainly down to the fact that when we first signed to Warp, they were picking all the softer tracks. Incunabula was a compilation, really, of a lot of the older material that we'd had, most of which is either surface layer or which was around. At the time, because Warp were putting out a lot more of the "home listening" stuff that we were doing, when we were doing it live we were playing in clubs -- nine out of ten of the bookings that we'd get were in clubs -- so we were doing club sets. Because we'd grown up doing that anyway, that's partly what we did. Originally Incunabula would have probably been half dance music, if we'd have been doing the compiling, but it was Warp, which is why it sounded the way it did. Amber was literally written in six months after Incunabula came out, really quickly, and at the same time we were writing loads of live stuff and touring loads of live stuff, part of which ended up on the Anti EP, and you could hear at the time that we were putting more of the up-for-it stuff out on EP, basically. It just made sense to do that at the time, but this time we've just let it slip. With EP7 we did the same thing -- approached it like an album, but as an EP, with an album mentality, saying "this thing's like an album" without really giving a shit about the criteria, whether a track's really correct for the format or not. But we've spent such a long time doing it -- there's literally four or five different periods of work in that album, just on its own, so it's actually quite difficult to talk about it as an album.
MOL: Moving on to something you said earlier about getting the feel for a rig in a place when you're playing live -- there's more of an emphasis, particularly on electronic artists, on the visuals that accompany the music. I think that the space in which you perform can be just as effective -- a friend of mine went to see you and said that you performed in total darkness, which was quite an immersive experience. Do you think that the way in which a venue looks, the space in which you play and what you can do with that are as important as the acoustic properties?
SB: Yes, they're the same thing as well. There's a real fine line between the way it looks and the way it sounds, and the more you learn about acoustics, the more you realise that as soon as you walk into a space you know how it's going to sound. It's strange -- you can tell with your eyes shut what kind of space you're in. Sound has always been of interest to me because it envelops you in a way that you can't feel with your eyes. We're always front-facing, because of our nature, and ears somehow manage to pick up everything. Obviously there's filtering going on inside because of what you want to know from the sound that surrounds you, but a lot of the time those filters are informed by what's going into your eyes, so if you can minimise that input then you're giving people more space to move around. When we go up, we're not giving people anything to look at, unless you like seeing two blokes operate machines. It's a sound event, basically.
MOL: Do you think that for people being inside an impressive space is enough of a visual stimulus in itself?
SB: I don't really care about them having a visual stimulus, to be honest. I'm not interested in what the visual stimulus is, beyond our capabilities at least. You can't design every single venue that you play in -- I mean that would be ideal, wouldn't it?
MOL: But you can choose venues, according to what they look like and how you think they will sound.
SB: When we used to go out, we used to go to quite derelict spaces, because most of the parties that we used to go to were free, and they were in old warehouse buildings with no dressing at all, and people would dress down to go out as well. I guess with the darkness thing, a lot of the places that we used to go to were really dark, and they'd just play acid all night, so you'd just be in there listening to mental acid tunes that you didn't know the names of, literally one every couple of minutes for five or six hours. An amazing experience, but really disorientating -- odd, placeless, but really kind of important at the same time. I really like the idea of being in a space where something's actually happening -- that's why we're still out there with machines and not playing sound files. It gives me more of a sense that there's something afoot.
MOL: You do get a lot of electronic musicians putting their music to visuals when performing live, and also collaborating with filmmakers and animators for DVDs -- are you looking to do any more DVD work like you have in the past?
SB: It's possible. We worked with Alex [Alexander Rutterford], because Alex is a top boy, he knows exactly what he's doing, and it's likely that we will do some more work with him but I don't know whether or not it will be presented as a DVD. It might just be something that exists in a space. We've been talking about various ideas and situations, but things are quite liquid and he's doing his own thing, so... We haven't got any plans to work with anybody else, and the stuff that we did with him couldn't be realtime. We can't work on that level -- the technology is nowhere near. We wanted to produce something that was high quality, and we figured that that meant sacrifices, not being able to take it out there and do it with a VJ. Because we took a non-realtime approach we let him be an animator, effectively, and he's come out with something that we consider is better. There's shitloads of kids using computers to do realtime in terms of graphics, and I can see exactly what they're doing -- I even build my own little video apps in my spare time, and I'm not an amateur either. I don't know, a lot of what I see to me seems pretty weak.
MOL: So you're more difficult to impress now you know what's going on?
SB: Yeah, basically.
MOL: Something you said a minute ago about being out there with machines and not using sound files struck a chord, while we're still talking about performing. If you are doing a live performance and taking sounds, looping them and adding to them, it's more of a spontaneous thing. Do you like the spontaneity of that, so you can take a track and just twist it into something completely different?
SB: Yeah, it depends what methods you use. Sometimes we're just playing back sequences -- you can affect the sequence, ie edit the data on the fly, and we can also change the way that the sounds are, and we've got the ability to generate loads of patterns, according to set rules, and the rules will be specified by a load of phrases.
MOL: Kind of like you did with MiniDisc, where you can put tracks on random and repeat?
SB: Yes, but we wouldn't be using random. What I mean is that the rhythms will literally be generated according to the rules set -- so it would be like whether or not a snare occurs here or there, and how many snares you get in a row is set by a number of phases, which we then basically play, and adjust, to guide it if you like. That's one way we've done it in the past. We're not doing it that way this time -- we're using similar techniques but we're using more hardware to do it. We're not using any software at the moment, which is actually quite nice -- not to have a computer on all the time.
MOL: It's a lot more hands-on than just clicking around.
SB: Yeah, definitely. I mean, I stand up a lot these days, I'll do tracks standing up, not realising what I'm doing. The unit's all set up for me to be sitting down, my speakers are in the wrong place, but I'll still be standing up because there's a better buzz.
MOL: In an old interview, you mentioned that you're a fan of architecture and you specifically mentioned Santiago Calatrava.
SB: He's fucking mainstream now.
MOL: So you're not a fan of his anymore?
SB: He's seriously mainstream. Not that he's any less of an artist, because he's getting the most money projects now. His shit's still amazing, I still think he's a genius. There have been others as well. Felix Candela is another big one for me. Basically people who've tried to work with structure in a new way. Gaudi, even. Gaudi's arches are just fucking genius.
MOL: Are you into "blob" architecture?
SB: Yes. Well, some of it is really nasty-looking -- I think that the main reason is that's it's almost more like a showcase for technology rather than being an artistic expression.
There's something really hands-off about Calatrava's stuff, because he's really referencing nature in such a brutal way, he's literally creating skeletons. There's something about his stuff that really rings true to me -- I don't know why, but it just feels correct. It's almost like being inside a whale or something. Whereas a lot of people are now taking the basic structural ideas, realising that you don't need that much structure in order to be able to create a large space -- you can do it with minimal materials and good maths, which is very much what Calatrava's about -- engineering, effectively. You can use that principle to create these really stupidly grotesque spaces, and yeah, I don't like a lot of the new forms, to be honest -- it's not that it weakens me or anything though. I saw one thing fairly recently, I can't even remember where it was, but it was wooden -- I think it might have even been in an airport -- and it was kind of all multi-layered. I don't know if you’ve seen the thing that I'm referring to.
MOL: No, I haven't.
SB: It's also like that Gateway in China, it's like a flower, but you can only see it from one angle -- that's genius, it's amazing.
MOL: What about architects like Zaha Hadid that have not actually built many buildings, how do you feel about them?
SB: Yeah, her stuff's pretty good, and Lebbeus Woods. Woods is probably my favourite out of all of them, just because his stuff is so mental. I like Hadid's stuff aesthetically, but there's a big difference between the buildings and the paintings for me. The paintings really do it for me, but the buildings -- I don't know, it's like a bad realisation. It's like she's franchised it out to someone -- I know she's responsible for it, but it just doesn't feel like the painting, you know? If she made buildings that were that good, I'd be well into her stuff. Because I saw Calatrava such a long time ago, and I am a bit of a fan of his, I judge everything by that now. Some of his bridges and stuff do feel like her drawings, they've got that kind of hyper-exaggerated perspective feel, because he really likes to stretch structure out.
MOL: How about collaborating with architects?
SB: I don't know, it would be tricky, wouldn't it? I mean, can you imagine trying to find somebody? I've heard that Calatrava bases a lot of his work on music, but I'm sure it's not the kind of music that we make. You've got to find somebody who can understand what you're about, first. That would be really tricky.
MOL: Would you see the music as a jumping-off point for the design, or for the design to work around music?
SB: I don't think it's necessarily either, it's just form that exists. If Calatrava is inspired by music, then he must have heard some music that did something to him. I don't understand what it was about the music, or about rhythm or whatever he's into, but he's managed to articulate something that's speaking to me. That's where I'd like to leave it, leave the music out there -- if people can come across it and it sparks something, then that's good, but it's much better for me if it's something that can't be put into words.
MOL: How much of your emotional selves do you put into your music?
SB: I'd say quite a lot. It's funny because I read reviews and they will contradict what I'm going to say, but I feel as if there's happy bits, sad bits, funny bits, angry bits. I think it's really like that -- they are like diary entries, these tracks.
MOL: I'd have to agree with you there. I find it hard to understand that people say that the music is difficult to relate to, because to me it seems as if there is a lot of sentiment in there. When you say it's like a diary entry, it's impossible for the listening public to appreciate exactly what sentiments there are in there, going into it, but we can take our own sentiments out of it.
SB: Yeah, true. I'm not going to start labelling it so that people can know exactly what I'm trying to say, either, because a lot of the time you don't really have much say in it. You're just sitting there doing a track, and how you're feeling is just coming out in it. If you're doing what you want to do, that's how it's going to be, basically.
MOL: I guess if you're really wanting to let people know how you're feeling then you'd put lyrics on it...
SB: Well, not necessarily, they probably know from the music to be honest. If I was thinking "I'm going to put lyrics on this" then that would have to be contrived. There'd have to be a level of me considering the way that the melody was going to flow and the way that the words were going to be spelt out. It's possible that I'd just have the instinct just to be lyrical, but I've tried and failed -- it's not my thing, basically, I just let other people do that...
MOL: The relationship between your sentiment and the emotions that the listener will extract from it themselves is quite interesting. Every time a person listens, they will be taking something out of it, so it's almost as if the song is being played in a different way each time, because people listen to it in different ways.
SB: Hopefully, yeah. I think it always happens with music, all people respond differently to different pieces and to different circumstances. I like that -- I like to find out what the differences are.
MOL: Being at the forefront of electronic music, what do you think of the progression of music so far? We've gone from very crude instruments, to classical instruments, to bands and now to people using machines and computers to make music -- you don't necessarily have to have live instrumental accompaniment. The way you perform will always have an element of live instrumentation, because you like to be very hands-on with the machines...
SB: It's tricky to try and define live instruments. Have you ever tried? Is a drum machine plugged into a rig a live instrument?
MOL: It depends on what you're doing with the drum machine.
SB: If you press play on it, and then start to mess around with the levels and the sounds and the pitches on an old 606, bringing the kick drum in and out and the hi-hats in and out, is that live?
MOL: Personally, I'd say yes, but that's the kind of thing that I like -- if someone's standing up there, even just using decks and a reverb unit, the way in which they use that reverb to control the crowd is almost like using a live instrument.
SB: Yes.
MOL: It's a different skill to playing a guitar, but it's still a skill.
SB:. Yes, it's out there. It's all just the tools that are available. You grow up in the world, everybody grows up in the world with different tools.
MOL: Absolutely.
SB: There are obviously going to be kids in the future who are using tools which are well different to the shit that we're using, and good luck to them.
MOL: Is that one of the ways in which it could evolve? Changing the kind of instruments that we use live gives a lot more of a skilled performance element to electronic music than just putting a sound file together painstakingly, and then playing it on your computer.
SB: Well, I feel sorry for those people, because if the crowd aren't feeling it, then what are they going to do? They've literally just got to stand there and go through with it. If you're doing a mixing set or if you're into dub, then I can be feeling that -- if you've got it multi-tracked and you can decide when elements are going to be coming in, or if you can affect the track, the course and the variance, then yes, but if you're literally just playing sound files then... unless you're DJing, and you're cutting it up and mixing it with other sound files, personally I'd just rather not turn up. I'd rather just stay at home and watch telly.
MOL: And see if you can beam it in over broadband or something.
SB: [laughs] Yeah, what would be the point? There's so little interaction with the crowd, you might as well not even fucking be there.
MOL: Future Sound of London did something similar a few years back, didn't they?
SB: Well, that's more interesting, because they're actually messing around live, mixing shit in live but via an ISDN connection. I was quite into that. I listened to the early ones they did for Colin Dale on Kiss FM, these were in 1991 or 1992. They were fucking mint, actually. I had a mate down there who was taping them all for us. They were really good. They made a bit of an impression on us, because we were doing a lot of pirate radio at the time, and our sets went well mongy after hearing what they did. I was well into their stuff. We followed them for a while, actually, because one of them went to the same college as me. I kept an eye on what they'd been doing -- when we saw them coming back up with Future Sound of London, after Humanoid, it was ace.
MOL: What are the ways in which electronic musicians can innovate outside of new software and new computers?
SB: It's funny -- we usually just buy two or three, two usually, pieces of kit a year. I feel sometimes like I'm a bit slow, because I talk to a lot of other electronic musicians who've got way more equipment than me, and way more knowledge, it would appear, about the equipment and what it's capable of technically. But then their music doesn't reflect it as much as I would like, if you like. We've done it with very little equipment. When we started out, when we did Incunabula, we had fuck all. One sampler, a little four-track, an Atari getting on towards tri-rep and stuff. Amber was done on nothing -- a 202, a Juno, a sampler and a couple of sequencers, and a Korg MS-10, with a lot of routing, and reconfiguring and messing about.
MOL: Trial and error.
SB: Basically, yeah, totally. The new stuff's still the same. We're naive, really, and it takes us six months to a year to get anything that we really like out of a bit of kit. We have to really use it. It's why it's quite hard for us to collaborate -- I've been in other people's studios and I find it quite dizzying, the amount of new stuff I'd have to learn in order to get anything good, or what I think is something good out of it.
MOL: Apart from FSOL, who have you followed in the past in terms of influences?
SB: Thousands of people. 808 State were the first local ones -- when Newbuild came out, that was pretty trippy, very different to all other acid. It was really like the best acid tunes that had been coming out, the later ones. Some of the later Pierre [DJ Pierre] ones, where the acid was really drippy, they'd really got into that and how disturbing and disorientating it is, and they'd really pushed and pushed that -- even the production was disorientating. That was a pretty high point, but there had just been millions before that. Mantronix, all the early Marley Marl stuff, all the Shante 12"s, the b-sides and dub versions were just unbelievable. All Mantronix tracks, his b-sides, his dub tracks, his soul versions, all that early electro. It probably goes back to about '83 or '84 when I first heard electro.
MOL: The way that Kurtis Mantronik used to slice up samples and beats was/is incredible.
SB: Yeah, he’s mint. Mantronik was probably the biggest influence when me and Rob met, he was the one person who we'd both decided was the daddy. We were like, "fucking hell, how amazing is that?" We'd spend ages doing little pause-button edits, trying to better him and make his tracks more complex. I've got loads of Mantronix remixes on tape, that we'd done back then [laughs].
MOL: What about now? What styles are you listening to?
SB: I don't know, really. Mostly our own stuff. Everything. It's so hard -- I still listen to all kinds of styles, but not a great deal of new stuff, because I haven't heard that much new stuff that I've liked. A lot of if sounds quite thin for some reason. Everyone's just using computers. It's gone a bit weird. Some people really know how to use them, though, but a lot of people don't really know what they're doing.
MOL: Is there anyone you'd like to remix, or have remix your work?
SB: Hmm, that's a really tricky one. In terms of getting people to remix our stuff, there probably is a little list, but I don't know if I could just say it... Jack Dangers [Meat Beat Manifesto] would be quite good, and Mark Stewart. He's probably top of the list. Trevor Horn, that would be quite funny. Basically, people who I think have done some mad remixes, like Francois Kevorkian -- that would be a bit of a laugh. People who have consistently rated highly as good remixers. Mantronik, even I don't know what he might do, although I've heard some of his recent stuff... it's not very good.
MOL: He's gone very housey, hasnt he.
SB: And it's the wrong kind of house, as well. The kind of house I liked was acid, and really empty Chicago house like Knuckles. Apart from that it was New York, like Todd Terry, all the cut-up hip-hop style sample-based house. For me, that's the real deal, and Mantronik doing that kind of New York house, and doing it the way it sounds now, just sounds wrong to me. But, y'know, whatever. I'm showing my age now...
MOL: What about people you'd like to remix?
SB: Not many, really. We just do whatever, but if somebody asks and we think it'll be good, we'll do it. I haven't got a wish list or anything. For the Earth remix we just did, I really did want to do that, and it was really hands-off and really lush to do, because I've always just wanted to slightly change the way that the track sounds, and we got to do it, which is such a coup for us. But at the moment, I don't really know what I'd like to do. I wouldn't mind having a go at that Phantomas soundtrack album, I think I could do some mad stuff with that, because I reckon that's pushing something... I could remix loads of stuff. Some old Confessor records would be quite good. Confessor were ace, the most ridiculous metal band. I tend to like stuff that there's not usually much of a chance of me getting my hands on, you know. Remixing guitar records is quite a laugh. I have got a passing interest in guitar tracks and recording because I learnt a lot of that in college.
Matt O'Leary became interested in electronic music at the age of ten, when he found a taped copy of Bomb the Bass' debut album in a sleeping bag in a Cub Scout hut. He is a writer, web producer and journalist, and lives and works in London. His favourite colour is blue.

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