Real Talk: Tim Exile

"I had an alternative vision for what music could be: improvised, spontaneous and adapting to each unique scenario."
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Tim Exile-Pipes1801

Real Talk is a series of artist-penned essays that appears on XLR8R from time to time; this installment's scribe is producer Tim Exile. Born Tim Shaw, the producer is ambitious, restless and inquisitive—traits that are clearly evident in the music he's made. He long been something of an exploratory genre-hopper, with a kinetic output that has taken in, at times, sounds that veer close to drum & bass, IDM, electro-pop, breakcore and lots more, often delivered with a degree of theatricality that few of his knob-twiddling peers can match. Since his 2009 Warp Records long-player, Listening Tree, Exile's been quiet on the release front, but don't take that as a sign that his burning curiosity has ebbed. He's simply refocused his energies, spending his time crafting new modes of musical production—and to that end, he's forged a set-up he calls the Flow Machine, along with a trio of performance-orientated tools developed for Native Instruments called the Finger, the Mouth and Flesh, the last of which just hit the shops just last month. Below, Exile fills us in on the Flow Machine, and his attempts to liberate the act of music making.

Since my last album, Listening Tree, came out six years ago, I’ve been working on building new instruments for performing electronic music. I’ve always thought of electronic music as the perfect musical form for spontaneous performance, if only we could invent the right instruments—so that’s what I’ve been trying to do. The Flow Machine is at the center of it all. It’s an all-in-one integrated performance instrument—a studio in a box—but with the studio bit taken out. That’s to say, anything that has anything to do with recording, or producing, or generally having to hit stop to tweak something, has gone. Hence the name Flow Machine: Everything happens in the flow of time.

So after ten years working mainly in the world of music, I’ve spent the last six years working mostly in the world of technology. When I started my first instrument-building experiments about 15 years ago, my energy came from the same place my track-making energy came from—and the things I created went into the same pot in my own mind. I was just a guy following his creative flow wherever it took him, whether it was a track or an instrument. The instruments would feed into the productions, and the productions would feed into the performances I did with the instruments. The "‘products" of this process that I could earn a living from were records (hardly a living) and live shows (still hardly, but just about).

But somehow the universe has a way of making things complicated—well to be fair, I have a way of making things complicated—and eventually things got to a point where I could no longer do both things to the extent I wanted.

2009 was the pivotal year. Listening Tree was released on Warp Records, a much more sizable operation than I was used to—and I teamed up with Native Instruments, another pretty sizable operation, to release my first plugin, the Finger. The two years leading up to that were packed with intense work making the album and developing the new Flow Machine, out of which the technology for the Finger appeared. The idea was that the Flow Machine would be the instrument I’d use for the Listening Tree live shows. I wanted the live shows to be a blend between performances of the tracks I’d written for the album, and improvisation on the Flow Machine.

"I wanted to master the act of improvisation—to be completely free on stage, free from the shackles of repertoire, back catalog and the need to meet the expectations of people who came to see me play by performing tracks I’d made that people recognize."

With hindsight I can see that I didn’t realize the implications of the contradiction I was getting stuck into. On the one hand, I wanted to release a polished album and play the music-industry game—the showcases, the press days, the ongoing touring to perform tracks from the album live. On the other hand, I wanted to master the act of improvisation—to be completely free on stage, free from the shackles of repertoire, back catalog and the need to meet the expectations of people who came to see me play by performing tracks I’d made that people recognize.

I felt this contradiction most acutely on stage. For about two years on a weekly basis, I was doing performances woven from a patchwork of karaoke-style playback of tracks from the album, interspersed with sections of pure from-scratch improvisation. I think it probably came over better than how it seemed in my head, but internally it felt like I was being ripped apart.

One of the most memorable and enjoyable gigs of that year was in a dark Danish warehouse, where somehow I threw off my shackles, didn’t play a single track from the album and improvised the whole hour. The moment was blessed by angels—I’d never felt as connected to an audience before. By the end of the year I knew where my heart really lay. I had an alternative vision for what music could be: improvised, spontaneous and adapting to each unique scenario. I knew that I wouldn’t be satisfied just making music in the traditional ways. As a matter of conviction, I had to explore this new way of making music.

And so began this next phase of exploration. It was a bit of an into-the-void moment. My vision for how I want to create music is as much a technical one as a musical one, and it needs to be approached from both angles and in both industries. Doing that has turned out to be tricky, to say the least. The infrastructure of the music industry just isn’t designed for the act of improvising; it’s fueled by creations that can be pinned down, replicated, packaged up and distributed, whether that’s through recordings or live renditions of those recordings. Conversely the music-tech industry isn’t really cut out for people who have an artistic vision behind the technology they’re creating; it needs technology that’s versatile and capable of being a platform for a multitude of artistic visions.

Either way, to follow my dream, I need to do figure out a way of doing both to some extent. In reality, the technology has received the vast majority of my attention in the last few years, mainly because developing tech is a huge amount of work. The time needed to create technology that’s anywhere near ready for personal use—let alone public release—is in a different league from music-making. It’s years rather than months. The Flow Machine has become such a behemoth that it takes months to implement a single feature properly—and when it comes to creating commercially available technology such as the Finger, the Mouth or my latest release with Native Instruments, Flesh, there’s a whole other level of stuff to think about —interface design, marketing, video production and so on.

Ironically, the quagmire of hours spent coding, building, prototyping, throwing it all away and starting again has accidentally reinforced my commitment to improvisation. Since my time has been taken up with the monumental effort of building there’s been little left for music-making, so whatever happens in that small remainder is golden—and if I can make 30 minutes of music in 30 minutes, so much the better. Being able to do this with the Flow Machine has been what’s kept my hope and enthusiasm alive these last few ye

"As a species, we’re so much more musically creative than we have the chance to express."

And this has really got me dreaming about the future of music for all of us. I still feel that as a species, we’re so much more musically creative than we have the chance to express. Music making is still largely a non–real-time pursuit. We plan our tracks on timelines and execute them with the space bar, which puts many people off. We’re heading in a very good direction—the music-tech industry has made leaps and bounds in the last five years,with innovative and accessible instruments launching regularly—but I still believe there’s a long way to go.

Imagine if we were all able to have a fulfilling, meaningful, musically creative experience in real-time from start to end, in just 30 minutes. This would liberate music-making in a revolutionary way. There are many things that keep me awake at night, but this particular thought is, hands down, my favorite—and my devotion to making it a reality is unstinting.

Tim Exile plays the Littlebig Xxxmasparty at Badehaus Szimpla Musiksalon, Berlin on Thursday, December 17.