Squarepusher: Melody and Method
- Words: Mark Pytlik
Sadist. Self-saboteur. Shit disturber. Over the years, Tom Jenkinson has been called all of the above, sometimes by his beleaguered fans. Like a jazz drummer who refuses to lay in the pocket, his discography's 11-year arc has been winding and evasive; to the frustration of many, the Chelmsford, UK-born musician has made an art of dabbling in subgenres just long enough to prove his ability before moving on.
After siring a breakcore classic (1997's much-loved Big Loada EP), Jenkinson turned right back around and served up the knotted jazz-funk of Music Is Rotted One Note; later, he'd chase the delectably weird beats of 2001's Go Plastic with Ultravisitor's lustrous, six-stringed basslines and classical guitars.
After over a decade's worth of conditioning, you'd be forgiven for assuming Squarepusher's latest would mark yet another left turn, perhaps something more deeply rooted in one of his loves, like improvisational jazz or musique concrète. But the irony of the newly released Hello Everything (Warp) is that, if it does elicit surprise, it will be because it sounds exactly like everything he's ever done before.
This is certainly no bad thing. As evidenced by the title, Hello Everything represents Jenkinson's attempt to rectify his many signature sounds and song styles into a larger whole. The end result is one of the most magnanimous records of his career, but it's hardly a sign that his exploratory instincts are fading. As rigorously interested in process and intent as anyone making electronic music today, Jenkinson's pages-long email interview responses prove he's still as thoughtful and as hawkish about his work practices and philosophies as ever. And yet, in the same pages, there are hints that he's softened up a bit over time, and that he's perhaps less interested in agitating than he once was.
The biggest tip-off is the tunes. Spanning sprightly videogame electro-pop, booming breakcore, electro-acoustic jitterfunk, and yawning drone pieces, Hello Everything is the closest that Jenkinson has come to giving his listeners a career anthology. And where his late-'90s output saw him militantly resisting the temptation to "push the rousing melody button"–both in an effort to maintain artistic freedom and to "somehow critique the notion of satisfaction that is tied up with melodic resolution"–Hello Everything ranks among his most melodically accomplished records. It's a decision he made consciously, based on influence from an unlikely source. "I read a remark made by Brian Wilson in the sleeve notes to one of the numerous editions of Pet Sounds," he writes. "It said, roughly, that he wanted to assemble the sounds on his record such as to make the listener feel loved by them. Although I initially found the remark quite odd, it was also quite touching and stuck with me."
This wholehearted embrace of melody also allowed Jenkinson to stave off another of his creeping fears, that of disappearing into a dark wormhole of musical auteurism. Because he operates primarily in a genre where artists are celebrated for their programming prowess, the extent of Jenkinson's virtuoso musicianship is often overlooked. After sharing the bill with him at a Jimi Hendrix tribute show at London's Royal Festival Hall in June of last year, Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea declared Jenkinson "the best bass player in the world." The accolade likely means nothing to a man so divorced from outside input–he not only abstains from reading his own press and fan reviews, but also from collecting sales figures on any of his albums (so as not to be swayed by the results).
Nonetheless, Jenkinson acknowledges that he has "a preoccupation with a certain standard of excellence" when it comes to sheer technical ability. It's a preoccupation, he says, that has the potential to close as many doors as it opens. "Quite early on in my career as a musician' noticed a tendency for musicians who are highly skilled to end up playing in bands that are only really listened to by other musicians," he says. "It struck me as sad. Why would any musician want to be forced into a situation where the audience is mainly interested in their technical ability?"
Up until now, it's a problem he's handled strategically, by overpowering his playing with huge swaths of electronics. "I like to ridicule my bass-playing ability as much as I like to display it, and supplying brute electronic force seemed a good way to relativize the significance of highly developed guitar technique," he explains. "It is as if a man is portrayed standing next to a mountain." But perhaps inevitably, Jenkinson soon realized he was exploiting his programming fluency in much the same way: "It had become a new kind of virtuosity and I wanted to abandon it," he says.
So where to go from there? According to Jenkinson, the only logical way out of the labyrinth was back through the way he came, hence this record. "It's a no-holds-barred exposition of the sorts of things I had previously tried to find alternatives to," he admits. "Arrogantly or otherwise' am sure it will succeed. I hope this doesn't sound cynical, as this record is a more or less explicit attempt to compile an album for people, as opposed to investigating different principles of music. It is' suppose, a step down from the lofty intellectual ambitions of other works. People rather than principles."
And while Jenkinson will no doubt find new sources of tension to provide the static charge for his next records, he appears to be reveling in the sense of placidity that's come from this closet cleaning. "If I have come out on the other side of something, it is the need to set up such highly charged sonic battles," he says. "I'm trying to let off the reins [and] let all the sounds play together instead of fight. Maybe this is Brian Wilson's fault!"
Squarepusher has developed a reputation as a ruthless break chopper, so it's surprising to hear a relatively untouched amen break ringing out on "Hello Meow," the first track from Hello Everything. We asked Squarepusher what message he hoped this would convey (especially to some of his more hardcore fans), and he broke it down for us.
"The reason that the amen break is untouched on that track is that it didn't need to be processed or chopped up in order to make the track work as a whole. My principal heritage as a musician is from playing bass in various groups as a teenager–this left me with the sense that it is only worth playing what is necessary to make the piece as a whole hang together. No matter what the musical terrain–whether it is electronic, jazz-based, or electro-acoustic–unnecessary musical information is the first mistake that an insensitive musician will make. What that illustrates is that you are not confident in what you have played and thus feel obliged to keep rephrasing it. It is wise to let silence speak, which is, of course, necessary to form the contrast with non-silent musical events.
"As far as what anyone would think about me leaving the break untouched, who cares? Nonetheless, I understand your point–it is clear that a lot of people interested in electronic music have a 'box-ticking' mentality, whereby a track has to fulfill certain material criteria to be worthy of attention. I see this as a grave problem. For me, it is traceable back to a commodity-oriented society that has only specifications and statistics as its tools to discern value. Maybe this is appropriate to cars, golf clubs or sex aids, but I maintain that music will never entirely yield to this reductive approach.
"One of my attitudes is to try to make music that invalidates the categories imposed by the box-ticking process. I sensed this a long time ago, which is one of the reasons I tried to deliberately divide opinion on my work with Music Is Rotted One Note. I like to keep playing this game by putting together albums that will hopefully frustrate any listener who is only interested in having their own aural agenda fulfilled. I demand more of my audience than that. I demand that the listener pays critical attention not only to my ideas, but also their own. Ultimately' don't care about being a good artist; it is much more significant to me to try to get a few people to address how manufactured and lazy our attitudes to music are. Maybe my methods are crude but, if nothing else, it illustrates that I have a high estimation of my listeners.
"I am the first to admit the usefulness of categories in music. They are bound up in our entire approach to the world. Anyone who dreams of music without categorical boundaries is missing the fact that rules are what make the game playable. In a world of pure contemplation, categories may fall away, but that it is not a world where music can exist, depending as it does on contrasts, negated as such by pure sameness. It seems sensible to see the category as a touchstone–a venerable source of the accumulated experiences of others–but also to make forays beyond it; refer but not defer."
The gear that plays a starring role in Hello Everything.
Historically, Jenkinson has been loath to talk about his recording gear, not out of a fear of people mimicking his sound, but out of a disdain for the culture of gearhounds, and the value system it reinforces. Recently, though, he's had a change of heart. "This [silence] reinforces a stupid traditional notion of the artist as a genius in supreme control of his tools," he says. "Instead' started to consider that the equipment has a role, significant in the sense that it determines not only the nature of the sounds used, but the way in which they are organized." With that in mind, here are a few pieces that played a big part in Hello Everything.
Eventide Orville + DSP4000
"These are pretty much my favorite hardware sound-processing units. Although these units are primarily built for signal processing, my favorite thing to do with them is to build sound-generating tools with them. The system is set up for building algorithms using the various classes of modules including mathematical, interface, control process, dynamics, etc."
Bass guitar with MIDI pickup
"Most of what sounds like sequenced synths on this and other records are actually being controlled from a bass guitar with a MIDI pickup. This system is flawed in that it always takes a few cycles of the note for the converter to identify the frequency. At the bottom end of a bass, that delay can approach one-tenth of a second. In addition to this, the converter is not always accurate in its rendering of a sequence of notes. In particular, it will quite often produce incorrect notes that are harmonically related, most often 5ths or octaves. Sometimes it simply makes notes up from trying to encode sympathetic string vibrations. All in all, really careful setting up is required–it can be made to behave itself."
Music Man bass
"I have an old Music Man four-string bass, which I often use for live shows, and it features on a few tracks on this album. It has two humbucker pickups, which are configurable in various ways and thus have a bigger range of sounds than the typical Stingray [bass]. It is great for gigs as it has such a punchy sound, but can be difficult to tame in the studio. Part of the problem is getting very lively sounds from instruments such as this to sit well with sounds from computers. Thus, a lot of effort on my part is made getting the computers to sound as aggressive as possible to fit in with the live instruments."
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