Squarepusher – Pushing all the Right Buttons
In 2009 I went to Tom Jenkinson’s house to have a chat and drink tea. It was for a cover feature in Bass Guitar Magazine and followed one of his more oblique musical offerings, an album of solo bass guitar recordings. As ever the conversation was never going to be just about bass, or anything so specific as how he plays in his own virtuosically idiosyncratic way, but strayed into all manner of topics from improvisation, playing with Evan Parker, to his whole creative process. Jenkinson, a.k.a. Squarepusher, has since moved into far more extreme electronic with Ufabulum and his Music for Robots projects – but much of what we discussed here goes to the heart of his unique and single-minded creative process. This is a full transcript of our conversation. Everything seems to have evolved at the same time with you – be the bass playing, keyboard playing, and programming – how has that physical and mental process worked over the years?
TJ Well I suppose you’ve already answered it really in the sense that the process was simply a natural course of development really, if there is a governing principle in there at all – and I like to think that principles are things I can make use of rather than be governed by – but if there is one that I can’t really ever get away from it’s that I engage with things that seem interesting to me at the time. A slightly obtuse analogy may be if you think about the way air pressure moves around an eco system that there’s always equalisation happening. So if there’s a pressure drop so air will move from here then that causes another effect over here and so on, so there’s this continual movement if you like. In the same sort of way if I’ve spent three months developing pieces specifically for one instrument say, there’s creeping sensation (holding his hands to his head) that there’s so many other things to do, there’s so many things that I care about and it’s my strength as much as that as it’s a curse, because it means that I never feel that I’m up to date with myself. I’m always behind on what I think I could be doing really, as I said, if I’m concentrating on making pieces for the guitar there’s this sense that I’ve neglected computer programming or sequencing, or developing ideas for purely synthetic means of making music. It’s an odd one, calling it an equilibrium makes it sound as if it’s a very harmonious way to live but actually it’s quite… not stressful, but I think I’m doing quite a good job managing it; it’s a situation that has no ideal balance point.
Or a foreseeable end…
TJ Which artistically speaking is a good thing, it seems to be this self-propelling system and I often feel just like an observer of it rather than the protagonist. All the playing, programming and production on all my records is me thus far… I do strive, and I feel as if it’s yet to happen, but I am consciously trying to master this process. Master this process that seems to have me by the throat! (he smiles ruefully) Master this process where I’m trying to… I mean harmonious is a word few people would use to describe my music, but in so far as it’s at least reflecting my interests in a reasonably balanced way rather than something more like Go Plastic where it was really aggressively synthetic and utterly devoid of that.
Or the album Big Loader… Yeah absolutely although there are elements of instrumental playing rather than being a sort of purely synthetic record but at the time I certainly felt that was necessary step away from the attempt to make synthetic music sort of sound organic, like I tried to do on Hard Normal Daddy, I thought actually as much as that’s cool I really want to amplify how false it is really and synthetic and preconceived, make a virtue of the unnaturalness of it.
You’ve been heavily associated with dance music over the years but at your London Koko gig you began with a free improv jazz trio of sax, bass and drums – did that shock some of your fans?
TJ That little trio was part of that tour, to me it’s just an extension of that same process again working alone which I’ve done for the majority of my career but nonetheless I sometimes think… I like playing in groups, I don’t categorically hate other musicians at all! I like being able to swap ideas and I feel a little bit more relaxed in that context, like I’m not holding the whole thing up. Obviously that is a relief of some sort. But also there’s that thing I find fascinating about the way what people call ‘genres of music’, get split up and one of the negative ramifications seems to me that how people treat it as grounds for being condescending about other genres. It doesn’t really matter which one in which you find yourself situated in which can often unfortunately give rise to that sort of cliqueness and the sort of thing of well you know; “We’re inside, this is our gang, we feel quite comfortable and we’re happy and we’ve got a lot of people around us that agree with what we think – and we’re obviously right in some quite significant way! And those people over there, well crikey, they listen to that shitty dance music stuff…” And what tends to happen is from your ivory tower you look down and see all the negative things about all the other genres. But maybe instead of looking more to the horizon and thinking there are very positive things probably… I’m not saying you can equally divide up genres of music and each one has an equivalent amount of virtue attributable to it. But I think each approach has its virtues, and it’s really odd to be blind to that for someone who wants to call themselves in any way creative.
You’ve commented elsewhere about reverse elitism in music where writers/critics will use one genre of music to put down another genre…
TJ To me it’s almost a political strand to what I’m doing if that’s not too obtuse a way of putting it, i.e. through trying to identify certain common strands about genres which are in general, seen as if not diametrically opposed, then certainly very different then to try and sort of tease out common strands and present them in contexts in which they are maybe not generally presented. Thus people are open to them in some way that they generally aren’t. That was very much the notion behind bringing some of my free improv mates along. The thing is I think ‘Bloody hell, these people are so fucking talented!’ they have so many really interesting ideas and in a scene that has got type cast as a sort of old beardy thing that is really taking its generation with it – from that really came to life in the late (John) Coltrane era along with Albert Ayler, Pharaoh Sanders and so on – and things which grew out of that on the European side like the (Dave) Holland bass stuff and Evan Parker. I’m not an expert on this but sadly to me it seems like this music is taking its generation with it.
You mean the scene today is not finding a new young audience…
TJ Essentially yeah, and when I’ve been to their gigs you get the odd curious student, maybe someone our age (mid-thirties) who’s sufficiently committed to not care that he’s going to some sort of rubbish back room in a pub to hear some music and doesn’t set any stall by the way in which it’s presented. Which is very deadpan and very unromantic, with no fanfares blazing about it in the way it’s presented in the way it’s a very grass roots kind of here it is, take it or leave it kind of thing. And yet it’s some of the most exciting musical events I’ve been to. It sounds a bit messianic, I don’t mean it to be, but I’m sure this [music] has got things about it that a wider audience can appreciate. That was really part of that notion of bringing those chaps along [on the tour]. I would try and inject it with a bit more bottom end aggression because I think one of things other audiences find tricky about it is that it’s quite a top heavy sort of music.
It’s quite ethereal isn’t it?
TJ Yeah that’s right, almost pastoral and I mean I tried to inject a bit of bottom line convincing-ness to it but to me that’s almost just a matter of EQ-ing what’s already there, sort of changing the balance of it.
So in light of that how did Evan Parker become part of your solo bass shows?
TJ Well I’ve admired Evan’s work for a long time and in relation to what I was doing which was highly composed, highly structured – and I’m sure Evan wouldn’t shy away from calling his own music that – but what I mean is but structured in a way where I knew exactly what I was going to play before the gig. Every note was specified in advance, whereas I don’t think Evan would say that about what he was doing. So I did see a fundamental difference between the two. So I thought well to present them together struck me as interesting and then to bring it together at the end, trying to sort of strike a middle ground between what he did and what I did. The fact is we had never played [together] before which is another kind of comedy thing to do. It’s a bit of a now or never thing; you’ve got to stand there and we’ve never actually played together… I mean I know his work, and think he’s vaguely acquainted with mine because apparently his son’s quite into my stuff. But other than that foreknowledge we prepared nothing whatsoever.
Did you even speak before the gig?
TJ No well the whole thing sort of betrays my interest in conceptual ways of working, to set rules up maybe not unlike a John Cage type approach, we actually specified rules and then allow the music to develop from the rules. The rule was ‘We’re not going to discuss it’. The rule is we just start playing. And it was great fun. Then we did the one in Paris as well, and I think we moved on a stage for that one. He’s just generally very nice and he’s one of those people that you just have to shut up and listen to because he’s immensely experienced, very knowledgeable and actually a very charismatic person.
That was the first time I’d heard him play solo and it was pretty amazing.
TJ Well it’s very different, that’s the interesting thing about him even though he’s… a criticism I would level at some of the people associated with that scene is that they’re so free they are almost trapped. Because there’s an odd sort of oxymoronic problem in there somewhere, because you can literally do anything, the lack of rules almost becomes a restriction – it’s a very hard thing to navigate I think – and when I’ve worked with those people I generally try and introduce some sort of concept just to keep it away from some of the more stereotyped outcomes of that sort of music. I mean to me total freedom is just an impossibility.
Did you feel with the solo bass project that it was something you had to get out your system? TJ I suppose so yeah. There was that handful of shows where I restricted myself to just those pieces but as significantly, certainly in terms of what the audience expect of me, it was as significant that I deliberately abandoned any electronics, any processing, any ‘synthetic’ means of making music, basically any electronic assistance other than amplification. Because when purists crap on about “we’re just getting back to basics”, it’s like yeah, but you’re still using all manner of circuitry that’s involved in an amplifier, and even in the guitar itself. But as far as I could do without professing any purist leanings, it was a very paired down set up. And there are various kinds of reasons for that one of which was that – harking back to that weather analogy – at the time where I specifically concentrated on writing those pieces because I felt I’d spent so much time with electronic assistance, and even though my playing on various instruments has been introduced to the recordings over the years in various amounts still I felt that it hadn’t been introduced in a context where people could unequivocally be able to say “oh yeah, that’s someone playing a guitar”. Because if I’m honest that’s something I’m quite happy with about those early records is that you have t be a very diligent listener to actually figure out yeah that’s actually being played, there’s no way you could have programmed that! I’ve always liked that ambiguity; either playing like a robot or programming like a human being, trying to make each one go to the other’s territory. But in this context let’s just see what I can do with the guitar on its own. But keep it out of that stereotypical ‘demonstration’ type approach, that unfortunately a lot of guitar and bass music kind of falls into, where it almost becomes like “Here’s my card” (Tom holds up an imaginary business card). Sort of ‘here’s what I can do’. I wanted to make compositions with integrity – and that sounds totally cheesy and I’ll laugh at myself if you quote me on that – but there’s got to be humour in there and I hope there is in that as there is everything else. But to make music that’s stood up without being deliberately too show off-y but also trying to prevent it from falling in that niche of guitar music thus making it inaccessible to anyone else, other than people who are already players.
You also challenged your audience’s expectations – playing a purely instrumental gig in a prestigious concert venue – must have been quite a different experience for your more hardcore drum and bass fans?
TJ Well I knew that would happen, I knew there would be, amongst other people, kids there who just want to essentially hear some jam hammer drum and bass, some nosebleed dance music, which I have been associated with over the years. What’s especially interesting about somewhere like the Queen Elizabeth Hall is that there’s a very obvious code of conduct that even the most extroverted ravers feel obliged to observe. It’s not that I want people to behave themselves and be like “Shut up man, and listen to me!” But in a way it’s quite interesting to take my music out of that club environment where everyone is generally having a few beers, shouting and talking, and there’s a general hubbub. So that’s one quite clean way of getting out of that and leaving those expectations behind about what they are going to hear, it’s like you get in this environment and it’s like what’s going to happen? That for me was the beauty of doing those shows and obviously now it can’t ever be repeated. They’ve been done, the record’s going to come out and that element of surprise can no longer be there, but hopefully what will happen in the future I suppose is an appreciation of the pieces for their integral musical merit rather than the fact they were so different to what anyone was expecting to hear that night.
What were your feelings before you went on stage – knowing that you wouldn’t have your usual stage rig to hide behind?
TJ Yeah, it’s odd because when I started working on the compositions I thought at some point I’m going to perform these and it’s going to be terrifying because I’m used to having these props around me and if something goes wrong then something else can stand in. Quite often actually the solo bass elements of my live shows from years ago were due to bits of equipment going wrong! You know so something has gone wrong, or something has crashed, something’s broken, a lead’s fallen out here… so it’s like “Oh right!...” Diddle-diddle-diddle! (Laughs) There is actually a piece which is an example of that on Ultravisitor, which is called ‘C Town Smash’, the C stands for Chicago. And we were recording the show and the computer just folded and everyone just thought it was part of the show, so I was like what are we going to do? So I just laid into the guitar for a bit and that’s very much the way I’m used to working. I’ve got these various routes and various options, things to keep it varied on the night. But again as much as that’s a perfectly valid way to work I thought I want to clear all that out and if it goes wrong it goes wrong. And there’s a certain purity to it and actually before I went on I felt less worried than I expected to because apart from everything else there wasn’t actually half as many bits of equipment on stage, the guitar is a comparatively reliable piece of equipment, there’s not really a lot to it electronically speaking. The chances of the circuitry going wrong are pretty much nil. Although I did have that with a pickup on my Musicman on tour earlier in the year, just one pickup stopped working, nothing visibly wrong with it, and I’ve never had that before and one pickup just died, really quite odd. But that’s really rare, much rarer than computers crashing. So on purely technical means, there was a lot less stress involved; I’ve practiced, the guitar is basically going to work. So in a way it was quite refreshing, so it was quite nice. And to be performing without those masks that all the electronics afford me – I’m not saying I don’t like them, and I think it’s a valid way to work – but you are also blurred between ‘what’s he doing and what’s the electronics doing?’ and ‘what did he program?’ and ‘what’s happening that he’s not responsible for?’ I think there’s always that kind of speculation that goes on with electronic music performances. Which gives it a very different atmosphere, a quite speculative atmosphere. Which makes people a bit more aloof, a bit more reticent to get involved because ‘I might be being ripped off here – he could be checking his emails for all I know!’ Whereas when you’ve got a guitar in your hands, alright it could be a tape but it’s not likely, especially when you fuck up! (laughs) Like planning a fuck up – that’s a new one!
Your performance retained a lot of raw energy and had a very edgy organic feel to it as well and that’s really important.
TJ Yeah for me it is, for me a human being s an inherently imperfect thing, to try to hide that away is possibly quite interesting in itself but probably doomed to failure actually, but some of the results of that something gets lost. Something like accessibility it feels like it’s nothing to do with people any more this is actually almost more robotic than a drum machine.
Dizzy Gillespie once said ‘don’t let a few wrong notes get in the way of a good vibing solo…”
TJ Yeah I agree – I had to fight with myself a little bit because there’s no way the renditions are perfect but that’s important, it’s an important part it really. And the adrenalin on the night gave something quite different to the live performance than if I’d made a recording of a rehearsal. I played the pieces a bit faster and certainly much more aggressively and the set is actually a bit shorter in temporal terms than it ought to have been. But it makes me laugh, it’s like ‘oh well, fuck it’. (laughs)
Ultravisitor is one of my favourite of your recent albums.
TJ Yeah? Whenever I think of that album I think of it as a very extravagant mess. I wouldn’t lie to you about it, I don’t dislike it and at the time it was about as concise as I could have made it, that was with cutting bits out. But that record still ended up eighty minutes long and somewhat all over the place. So it does surprise me when people say they like it.
But then ‘Just a Souvenir’ is a much more accessible slightly conceptual album in terms of you playing in an imaginary band situation.
TJ Yeah but let’s face it a concept album is certainly not a particularly fashionable thing to do and I hasten to add I think it’s only conceptual in very minimal terms, there’s no overblown, half-baked take on Eastern Mysticism! I like to see it as a conceptual album free of those trappings, just to imagine my ideal band with a sort of rock orientation. It has taken me a lot of time before I can actually… (pauses) You know rock has been a big no, no for me for such a long time because I was swamped in rock music for my entire teenage years, in terms of the bands I played with, and most of the musicians I knew. Much as I tried to branch out it seemed to follow me around to an extent.
You’ve always retained a strong element of improvisation in your music, why is this?
TJ It’s just such an important thing, I’ve got no choice really, I feel – and as much as a cliché though it is – but what can initially appear to be some sort of mistake can give rise to some interesting, that may be obtuse and hard to implement but nonetheless interesting, ideas. Sort of clashing harmonies, the sort of notes that people generally don’t want to hear next to each other and maybe they got there by mistake because you lost your way in a piece of improvisation but it’s actually on repetition… and that’s the odd thing about improvisation is that when it’s recorded definition-ally speaking becomes ambiguous. Because what might have started as an improvised recording you might then in the recording process go back to recreate it; you actually might learn an improvisation. And certainly for live performance in recreating those ‘solos’ you might actually just pick it apart and learn it. So in that sense the world of improvisation does blur into composition it’s more readily immortalised in my music maybe and quite obviously in jazz. And I suppose some musicians make a bigger point about the fact that their music incorporates improvisation but I think improvisation is present in all music. To an extent someone who has experimented with an instrument will go this type of tonality with these type of notes, you have to actually get in there with the instrument to know, and if you didn’t do that I imagine where would your knowledge be coming from? It would be coming from some sort of music school, or someone would have taught you, and without that hands-on experience you’re in perilous territory really.
Pop music may well be born out of improvised chords and melodies but it’s hard to hear that process in the end result.
TJ Exactly, especially once you’ve taken that improvised sequence and repeat it, that principle hallmark of improvisation i.e. it was a one off thing, gets lost. But that’s not to say that sequence wasn’t improvised in the first place, it’s just that you’ve kind of hidden it away. Hidden away its genesis in the fact you’ve repeated it. But to me, like many other things in music, it’s a big grey area and probably a lot of people are improvisers without really knowing it. Or even identifying what they are doing as having that aspect. To me it’s like a musician for all seasons needs to be able to improvise. And you know a jazzer who may be a little too stuck in his niche might kind of point the finger at classical music and say, “those fuckers they don’t know how to improvise…” but that’s not really true. If you were to say look at Bach and the great composers of organ music were often church musicians who would have to improvise and there you have quite a clear example where improvised work would evolve into set pieces as it were. I’m pretty sure Bach was well known for being an improviser.
Your programmed stuff seems to maintain a fluid almost organic element to it.
TJ With programming I’ve always tried to cultivate a stream of consciousness, though that’s a cheesy term, but to try to program in the way that I play, or on which one plays, i.e. not sort of sitting there chugging out ‘shall I put that there? Or shall I put that there? No, delete…go back,’ and this horrible, turgid sort of artefact emerges from this laboured tedious process, you can hear the boredom in it. That’s something that I wanted to remove from programmed music, I’m not saying it’s always there for me in all programmed music I’d heard before and the people that I very much admire manage to kind of do that in other ways. But I wanted to do it, with the amount of information that I was putting into sequencing - i.e. fucking loads – it had to be done really quickly in order to not become tedious. You’re talking sequences of eight bars that will have literally hundreds of processes going on. There will be all kinds of Midi commands that you won’t necessarily hear in an obvious sense but they will be issuing instructions to various devices. There will be notes underneath notes, which again you don’t hear because they are more of the order of instructional rather than musical information but you’ve got this stratum, these various strata of information and you need to be able to get that down before you start hating being a musician. That entails doing it very, very quickly, so it just seemed to be the sensible way to do it in order to get that achieved.
Are you talking specifically about drum parts or other musical events?
TJ It’s everything. Because again one of the things I liked about, and sill like about, that domain of music making is that the two can very easily bleed into one another. Just to give you a kind of straightforward example is when you put drum hits so close together they actually create a frequency. If you imagine you’ve got a hundred drum hits per second you’ve got a 100 Hertz frequency so you’ve actually got a ‘note’ in the bass register, rather than something you hear as individual drum hits and that’s just one way of looking at it, that was just one of things I was really intrigued as to how the world of rhythm can blend into the world of melody. Again there are large areas that are particularly facilitated by electronic means of making music.
It’s a very high level of detail…
TJ Quite and I can understand why a lot of musicians wouldn’t want to because, if you’re honest with yourself there are so many options available, there’s so many ways in which things can be done it’s quite apt to produce a state of option paralysis in a lot of people, like “I’ve got no idea what to do…” You can only really get focused, you can only really get moving on a piece of music if you deliberately push loads of options out the way. I do that but I’m still trying to keep as many open as possible without it actually thwarting my working process.
Is there any one thing that determines how a song comes into being and what determines whether it’s simple or complex?
TJ Well it’s a question that needs to be asked, but in the end ambiguity what you’ll end with in the answer I could give you a description of the purely technical means of how it was done but what people really want to know is why you did it, that’s what’s intriguing is actually the mental processes behind it but we’re only really talking about processes which are again identifiable to a certain degree as there are aspects to it that irrational to a certain degree and not apt to be described. I’m not for a minute though trying to attribute anything to otherworldly powers because that’s something of a conceit as I see it, as I see people saying ‘I open myself up and become a channel’, I don’t endorse that view. I don’t endorse that view whatsoever, I’m really quite keen to say that I don’t think anyone else is doing it but it’s just that I’m not… I’m more of an authority on myself than anyone else is but I’m not going to pretend that I fully understand why I’m doing it. There are things which just literally appear in my head, it’s almost has the characteristics of humour like thing that are juxtapositions which are by virtue of their unfamiliarity, like right and wrong at the same time, but you are quickly moving away from the domain of things that can written down. I’m not trying to avoid the question I’m just trying to answer it honestly. You can break down things to do with your influences, if I had the time I could list every single piece of music I’ve ever heard, it’s possible to do that because it is a finite list. But what I couldn’t give you is ways in which that music has appeared to me over time and also the ways in which those pieces of music have been compared and juxtaposed in my mentality and therefore produced. And what I couldn’t do is quantify my own input, people as it were of a leaning towards cultural conditioning being the majority of a person’s character would probably by that token diminish the concept of originality, you are really just the sum of your influences. I’m of a mind to say there is just some other element which is irrational, which is generally what’s referred to as inspiration. Which is in the end the thing which makes it interesting because if I was actually just churning out combinations of my influences I’m sure we’d be talking about something which could easily be done by a machine let alone anyone else. It’s the thing that actually gives it the twist is that irrationality. Basically having time for yourself, having time for your idiosyncrasies really, just being able to sit back and go: ‘you know what I like this, and I like that as well, but I don’t really like that about it, let’s try and put it together’. Inevitably something will go wrong, something will get missed out in the process and something gets added in which you didn’t initially see in the mix but it’s just by virtue of your fallibility that it gets put in. It’s that degree of imperfection that makes the whole thing interesting.