NEU GESTALT ON THE LIGHT AND DARK SHOW WITH LAURA KERR
CASTLE RADIO (98.8FM): 24.06.2012
Laura Kerr: (Plays Toxicology)
LK: Good to see you again - How are you?
Les Scott: Oh, I’m a little later than I’d planned. I said that the album would be finished in a couple of months the last time that I was here – I was out by about a year.
LK: It takes time to perfect genius. [LS: Ha-ha ..erm well…] LK: I really like the album. You’ve got loads of interesting sounds and noises on it. Do you want to talk about Toxicology?
LS: Toxicology is the only collaborative track on the album and I made it with David Anderson. In fact, it started off with his piano piece and I built the rest of the structure of the song around about that. The more I worked on the album, the more I tried to make the album have sounds that were from, or sounded like, down here in Leith. It’s a bit of an ambient cliché to have the sound of waves, but what I was trying to get at the start of that was the sound of dark water against the docks and also to capture something of that rainy day feel that you often get down here.
LK: Is that why you called it Toxicology?
LS: Well, Toxicology changed so radically over the years that it now bears almost no resemblance at all to the original track. It has actually gone through a period of three-year detox. The original track was much more metallic and it has lost all of that. There was a review the other week by Greg Barbrick and he said that he thought that the title didn’t really go with the track and I thought well – you know – he’s right – I didn’t actually notice it changing over those years, but with each iteration it got further and further away from the title.
LK: Do you miss the original in a way? Or are you glad that it has changed as it went on?
LS: I hope that it improved as it went on. It has all sorts of different influences that came into it over that time. That rhythm loop is maybe a little strange in that, well, I was actually thinking of Linkin Park while I was doing that because Joe Hahn uses quite textural loops underneath bigger drum sounds and I often quite like what happens when you take an idea from one context and then put it into another – and of course Linkin Park is a quite a different context from the ambient stuff here.
LK: Yes [laughs] and how come it took you three years?
LS: I made a lot more music than I needed and I was trying to get the whole thing to sound similar so I took away some of the faster tracks – but I spent an awful lot of time just working on the detail of sounds. There have been a few other little reasons as to why it has been a bit later – first was that I had to send it back to be re-pressed because the artwork wasn’t right on the disk – and the second one was that it got lost last week. [laughs] The courier lost it on the way to the distributor. It was missing in the Midlands for 5 or 6 days. The label manager, Paul Croan, waited 5 days before he broke the news to me… [laughs] ..but mercifully it turned up the day after.
LK: Ah that was lucky! So for you it was only missing for a day.
LS: Ha-ha, well yes. For me there was only one day of tension instead of the six that he had.
LK: …and Paul mastered the album didn’t he?
LS: That’s right. Paul’s got a great pair of ears, I think – and on the work that he did on his own albums To Infinity and Shifting Sands there’s a real clarity in the sound that he has. I wanted him to polish the sound that I had as well as get a little more volume and add gloss generally. I would have been reluctant to trust anyone else to do it, but I felt that I was putting it into a very safe pair of hands with Paul.
LK: It is really good. It does sound really sharp and all the sounds just fit. Has it got a lot of layers in it as well?
LS: Yes. Oh God, it has a lot of layers… I build Akai sample disks as I go and – I’m trying to think – 30 disks.. 300 .. 400 – I maybe make around 400 samples for every track. That’s another one of the reasons that it takes so long – I end up not using a lot of them, but what tends to happen is that the samples start working with each other and the tracks develop organically rather than from prearranged plans.
LK: So do they kind of build themselves?
LS: Yes. They take a life of their own.
LK: …and how long does it take to make a track? Or does it vary?
LS: Oh a long time. …months often
LK: So you’re signed to Alex Tronic Records?
LS: Yes. This is my second album for Alex Tronic Records I know that Paul was here on the programme early in the year. [LK: January – the first show of the year] Well, he and Rebecca Croan went over to Ibiza last year and they did really well in the clubs over there and Rebecca, as you probably know, is another DJ. She works under the name Becky Bardot – and you’ve seen her work at Sin yourself. She’s so smooth on these transitions – she’s a really good DJ. ..and a full summer working all night in Ibiza has definitely honed her skills.
LK: They work really hard don’t they, Paul and Rebecca?
LS: They both work really hard. I thought that last year was a really good year for the label generally. They had the MetalTech album ‘Burn Your Planet’ which was really good – and Erik you’ll know. [LK: They’ve been on this show twice as well] Yes – they’re stalwarts – he has some lovely lyrics on that album – He’s “got the mobile number of the Beast.” He-he – you know the track is won, just from that line. [laughs] … and of course there was the Snakestyle album ‘World Radio’ and Paul followed through on his ‘Shifting Sands’ album with the ‘Electricals’ EP earlier this year so there’s been a lot out and – yes – we were talking about Keser off-air… I had a text from Kevan from Keser just before I came on and he says that the new Keser album is finished [LK: I played them last week – really good as well] LS: It is called ‘Audeamus’ – One reason that I’m managing to remember that is that it’s only one letter away from my school song which was ‘Gaudeamus’.
LK: and so you’ve got a frame of reference for it. There’s a lot going on for Alex Tronic Records at the moment. I’m about to play Aerial Eleven – do you want to talk a little about why you thought this one might be good to play.
LS: I really wanted this one played because it shows the shakuhachi more.
LK: Do you want to say a little about a shakuhachi?
LS: It’s a Japanese wooden end-blown flute and they can be quite tricky to play when you start. When I bought my first one, I was looking around on the internet for some instruction and I came across some instructions that said ‘How to get a sound out of your shakuhachi without fainting’. So then I saw that I knew that it probably wasn’t going to be quite as easy as I had imagined.
LK: [laughs] Did it take a while to learn?
LS: It was actually a little bit faster than you might imagine. The hardest thing with it is actually getting a note out of it in the first place. Once you get over the getting a sound out of the thing, playing it is relatively easy compared to other instruments.
LK: (plays Aerial Eleven followed by Storm Sister)
LK: Do you want to tell us a little bit about the track that I’ve just played?
LS: Storm Sister was a track from quite a long time ago when I was still called just Gestalt. Before I came to make ambient music, I spent a while making drum and bass. .. We were just talking off-air about the oriental influence that I’ve had over the years and the person speaking there is Masami Dederichs, a Japanese person who did the translation for the track as well as the spoken vocal on it. I’ve had an oriental influence since a very early age. My uncle was stationed with the RAF in Singapore and he had brought singles back from Singapore that were oriental pop songs from the sixties. So some of the earliest music to which I ever listened was that – and I think that it must have just stuck over the years.
When I made that drum and bass album (Anti-matter) it was before I had signed to a proper label but I had managed to release it through something called Peoplesound. It was just a web-based, produced-by-order type of thing. They worked on the same basis as Lulu do books, whereby when somebody makes an order, they make the product. It was the first opportunity that I had to get a CD out at all. Obviously it’s much better now with a really good label like Alex Tronic Records.
I suppose ending up now with the shakuhachi is all part of the same thing. As I was just mentioning to you earlier off air – the first shakuhachi I got actually exploded on me – I got one from eBay and it wasn’t terribly expensive – I was still trying to get the basic notes out of it and suddenly it let out this almighty bang which almost threw me across the room in shock. I looked at it and it had cracked all the way down the side. Once I got used to the idea I thought ‘I wonder if it still makes a sound’, so I tried it again and this time it made an even louder bang and it split right through the mouthpiece – the utaguchi. There’s more than one way of looking at that and I tend to think it perhaps committed ritual suicide because it had simply just had it with me trying to play it that day. But anyway, I stuck with it – I got a different one – and the shakuhachi became a signature sound on the album. I was always trying to process it a little so that it didn’t quite have an acoustic sound – and so that it still sat with the electronic feel. I actually stole the title Aerial Eleven – which you played before Storm Sister – from a punk band. The person with whom I collaborated on the track Tantallon that you played the last time that I was on your show – Rebecca Sharp – It was her band, and I stole the band title. [laughs] Taking something again from a totally different context. I thought the name could sound quite ambient.
LK: Yes. It sounds a bit more like ambient than a punk band.
LK: [After playing Sheltering Skies] Do you want to say a bit about Sheltering Skies?
LS: I started to play a lot of fretless bass on this track and, when I put it down at first, it made the track sound more conventional. So, what I eventually did was that I only left the harmonics from the bass and all the high, keening noises that you hear throughout it are actually my sliding fretless bass harmonics up and down. I was looking for a variety of different ways on the album to stretch the palette that I had used on Altered Carbon.
LK: It’s a lot different to Altered Carbon, isn’t it?
LS: Well, yes – One of the things that took a long time was that I was trying to give it a completely different aesthetic – and that was also the reason that I ended up making many more tracks than I’d intended – so I was basically just trying to find a new sound rather than repeat myself.
LK: Yes it’s a bit lighter – I think that Altered Carbon was a little bit darker.
LS: Right – well I tend to use little disciplines when I make music. For instance, once for a year I didn’t allow myself to touch a piano because I do find that using a piano you can fix almost anything. Whenever you get into a problem you can use a piano to get yourself out. So what I did for a year was to use no piano so that I had to find other ways to get out of difficulty. There were a few similar disciplines involved in making Weightless Hours. One of them was that I forced myself out of habitual keys. There are a couple of tracks on it that are in C major – and I normally never touch the key because of the lighter sound – so basically what I was doing was trying to see how dark I could make C.
LK: ..and you use quite a lot of different instruments on the album as well.
LS: Yes – as well as fretless bass and shakuhachi there’s also a little bit of guitar. Two of the tracks have bowed-in guitar. Once again I was trying to make it not sound too much like a traditional instrument – and I was trying to make it sit more easily within electronic music. I still really wanted it to feel like an electronic album but I wanted these extra textures and a bit more warmth and life into it.
LS: Yes – that’s right.
LK: I want to talk about the album cover as well because it’s really nice. You took pictures of your sculptures – did you make some of the sculptures especially for the album?
LS: No, the sculptures were already made. I’ve made sculptures for years although I haven’t made any for quite a while. Yet another reason that the album was so long to make was how long it took me to make the sleeve. I do feel that if someone is going to go to the trouble of buying a hard copy of an album, it should feel worthwhile when they open it, so I put an awful lot of effort into it. To be honest, if someone said to me that if a musician had designed his own cover I’d generally think ‘oh, no’ but I do have a little bit of a background in design. I studied architecture at Edinburgh College of Art rather than art, but I used to do illustration when I was at Art College for things like Festival programmes – and I did science fiction illustration for a while as well.
LK: I do really like the album cover – and that’s what drew me to Altered Carbon was actually the cover. Maybe it sounds a bit superficial but that’s partly why I listened to it in the first place.
LS: Ha-ha, fine – so long as it works. One of the reasons that I used the sculptures in the sleeve was that I was trying to say a little about where the music was made. These are things that are in my flat and studio so, visually, that tells something about where it’s made. There are also photographs that are all taken down in Leith. A lot of the ideas for the album came on my morning walk. Every weekday morning I walk two or three miles down here from the centre of town.
LK: That’s a long walk
LS: I actually miss it on the days when I don’t do it. I walk along the Water of Leith for the second half of the walk and so the feel of the place has tended to influence the album. I’ve also been recording the birds and sounds on the water – sounds in the docks – anything that I could that reinforced ideas of where it’s about, where it’s conceived and where it’s made.
LK: Is that what drew you to the water?
LS: The whole idea came to me one day when – I tend to listen to roughs on my headphones when I’m walking about – and I was out at lunchtime one day walking around the docks down here in Leith and I was playing a rough of an early track on which I was working -‘Sub Rosa’ which is probably one of the most meditative tracks on the album. I was walking around the docks thinking ‘this actually sounds as if what has happened is that the mood of the docks has seeped into the music.’ There seemed to be a natural affinity between the two things and I thought ‘okay – let’s make that more so – let’s make that what this is going to be about.’ The last time I was here at your studio – remembering the album was three years in the making – I had just finished a track called ‘Winter’ and the whole idea of Winter was that there had been a very long period when the ice had been there over the Water of Leith and the whole feel of the track is about that ice moving on top of the water.
LK: That was one of the first tracks that you did for it wasn’t it, because I think that I got that track a year or two ago.
LS: It wasn’t so much the first track that I did for it – I had been working on a few before that – but I had just finished it in time for the programme. In fact, I’d decided that I wanted a new track before I came on and it was straight off the presses hours before… minutes almost before I got here. Ha-ha.
LK: Where can you get the album?
LS: From Amazon, Play et cetera – also downloads from iTunes, Beatport – all the online places. It has good distribution worldwide thanks to Arabesque. Getting a hard copy in Edinburgh can be a more difficult proposition.*
LK: Thank you for coming – Neu Gestalt.
LS: Thank you – nice to be here.
(LK closes with Cold Wave)
(*Mea culpa: Should have remembered that Avalanche in Edinburgh tends to stock Alex Tronic Records. LS)
As someone who has gained a lot of pleasure from the sleeve notes of others in the past, the preparation of the notes for Altered Carbon was as important to me as creating the music itself. I modestly hoped that the notes might not only give some interesting insight into processes, but that they would also add something otherwise intransmissible to the act of listening to the music. My sleeve notes are not available with downloads, so I have provided them here for those who have the download version of Altered Carbon or anyone who might have a passing interest ….without necessarily liking the music.
ALTERED CARBON: SLEEVE NOTES
CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING: In 1993, Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty of the K Foundation launched their Anti-Turner prize with £40,000 to be given to the ‘Worst Artist in Britain’. The winner of the 1993 £20,000 Turner Prize, Rachel Whiteread, also won the K Foundation’s award. The fact that the K-Foundation prize is exactly twice the value of the official Turner Prize is, I would say, an inspired, beautiful and very funny idea.
I think that the art world needs the K Foundation to question what it will and I absolutely love what they do .. but, on the other hand, I also admire Rachel Whiteread’s work a great deal. It often touches me.
I can fully understand why a cast of a mattress lying slumped against a wall could underwhelm visitors to a gallery.. but the mattress that I once saw at the Museum of Modern Art here in Edinburgh was something special – it was that on which the artist’s father died… and so the subtle indentations became a negative image; a ghostly form of portraiture – and the knowledge of this context provided a real emotional connection to the work for me, and also a better understanding of it. I was interested by the way that it was absolutely necessary to read her words in order to appreciate the work at all.
I tend to hope that, sometimes and to some extent at least, a knowledge of the way in which music has been made can provide something of a similar changed quality of experience… and it is that simple hope that brings me to describe in words some of my approaches to the making of this music. My second reason for these words is simply and honestly that I think sleeve notes have become a lost art in recent times; they’re something that I have often enjoyed when found in the past, and I humbly hope to provide something of that interest myself.
MAGPIES: The magpies in the gardens outside of my music room window have, more than once here, been severely detuned to create a sound that, to me, is not unlike the passing of distant trains. I particularly enjoy making sounds that tell something of a story about where my music is made as well as being of the kind that can also suggest a new place – an imaginary landscape.
OL’ BLUE EYES: Narrowly avoiding copyright infringement, I recorded only the crackles in the gaps between tracks on my stepfather’s Frank Sinatra albums. In my humble opinion, the thicker, older, more brittle vinyl definitely produces a much higher quality set of crackles. I find these crackles incredibly versatile in the range of sounds that they have produced for me in mutation after mutation. Some of them are detuned to a subterranean thrum – others provide the lightest surface texture or often fragmentary rhythmic elements of a wide variety of kinds from brisk percussive to slow attack sounds. For me, the crackle samples are not only a sign that Ol’ Blue Eyes is back but also, now, happy trace element memories of my stepfather, John, who died during the making of Altered Carbon.
WAVE SNARES: One day, I found a really nice old hip-hop snare sample with a lot of grit in the sound. When I significantly detuned the snare, it began to sound remarkably, to my ears at least, like the sound of waves. The idea of using natural wave sounds in themselves is perhaps deeply clichéd and unappealing to many – but I find the knowledge that the wave sounds on within reach are actually a snare brings a different level of interest once known.
BATTERY TUBE REVERB: Like many people, the first time that I got my hands on a hardware sampler I hit everything in sight and sampled it. Some of my best samples ever were made in those first few weeks. Experiments, for instance, where I dropped batteries down tubes produced reverberating hits that I still use to this day. What this made me realise was the unique qualities possible through using home made sounds and I’ve always kept that enthusiasm fresh for making my own since.
ATOMISED HIP-HOP: The collection of pieces here do not range far from 100bpm, and it’s no accident that this is a hip-hop tempo. This music is, though, nowhere near anything that I imagine anyone else would relate to hip-hop very much. Even to me, it sounds almost entirely derived from different European traditions – and a love of the spaces in sparse Japanese music such as in some of the work by Somei Satoh – but there are definitely shared roots. What I am often trying to do is to atomise and relocate various elements of hip-hop. Many of these pieces have been far fuller mid-process and the hip-hop links far more obvious. However, I reduce and further reduce multiple layers of parts, stripping away quite complex layers until only tiny fragments of each layer remain. The beats become sparser, the sub-bass infrequent and keyboard parts often get cut back until I have the two notes or the one note that I really want. As with my processed crackles, hip-hop scratches often become deep low-end growls, scrapes and thrums.
One of the things that I like about hip-hop is the way that a few key samples, working together, can so often determine the chemistry of a song. I like hip-hop’s archaeological approach to digging through the crates and curating the finds. The way that I work too is mainly through the curation of samples. There are certain types of sounds towards which I am always drawn, and what I do is less composition than simply organizing groups of sounds – then trying to find out what a group of sounds wish to do together naturally; letting the sounds find their own chemistry.
ALTERED CARBON: The period of making Altered Carbon also saw the death of two friends, Stewart and Jack, and my 20 year old cat, Yin. The title thus has an association to me of these losses. I tried to find a zen-like mood, accepting the way of life’s natural processes in some of the pieces, quietly wistful and contemplative, grateful of the lives that were rather than mournful for what cannot be changed.
NEU[E] GESTALT: I changed my working name from Gestalt to Neu Gestalt a few years ago to differentiate myself from a Japanese band of the same name, whose existence I discovered unfortunately late (and others appeared later). I have corrupted the spelling of neue gestalt- but I like the shape; it’s less likely to be replicated again; and, since adopting it, people often write to me using Neu as a first name – which was an unforseen useage – I always smile at that.