Building an Iconic Sound: Squarepusher

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If there's one thing that will probably never vacate the world of electronic music, it's the scores of imitators ready at a moment's notice to ape the latest forward-thinking concept and blow it out and water it down until it becomes a limp, played-out, unfunny punchline. Frankly, we're sick of 'em. Which is why, for this music technology edition, we've decided to assemble a few of electronic music's trailblazers to tell us about what goes into creating a truly iconic sound. From dubstep stalwart Mala's punishing low-end to Cocteau Twins' heavenly guitar processing, we got the straight dope on how these innovators crafted their unique sonic signatures—and how they continue to move forward.

Since he began releasing music via the Warp and Rephlex labels in the mid-'90s, Squarepusher (a.k.a. Tom Jenkinson) has become inextricably linked to a large number of genres—like drum & bass, IDM, electronic-jazz fusion, and gabber, just for starters. Responsible for some of electronic music's canonical records—Hard Normal Daddy, Music is Rotted One Note, and Go Plastic among them—the UK-based musician/producer/auteur gradually carved a signature sound for himself, only to rethink it with his recent d'Demonstrator LP, a jazz-centric collaboration with "a bunch of kids" (his words, not ours) under the moniker Shobaleader One. We called up Jenkinson to see what else has changed.

XLR8R: You've said that Shobaleader One is the realization of a fantasy group hinted at on your Just a Souvenir album. How does the songwriting process work as a band since the whole thing stems from your ideas?
Tom Jenkinson: I wouldn't say it's markedly different. I'm basically making a rough outline of what I want to record prior to anyone arriving, and then playing it to people and seeing what they make of the parts and if they've got suggestions. It's sort of an extension of what I've always done in the past, but instead of me being the sole person that experiments with the parts and tries to modify the way they fit with other parts, I'm actually getting input from other people. The point is that I'm definitely not interested in using musicians as just an extension of a sequencer, where I tell them what to do and they produce a result. I don't really see much point in that because, with a certain amount of effort, you can program a sequencer to sound reasonably like a human being. Sadly or otherwise, you don't necessarily need people on board to convey the impression of music which is made by a human being. So what I'm keen to get from these people is a sense of their own take on the ideas, and hopefully, bit by bit, them bringing their ideas to the table.

What was some of the gear used on the d'Demonstrator album, as opposed to your recent solo records?
The main difference is the [mixing] console. It's the first time I've used something that [could be described as a] "professional" console. Until recently, I was using the Mackie 24-8 bus, which is a perfectly usable console. I'm now using the Euphonix CS3000 console. It seems to sound a bit clearer. If anyone thinks this record sounds quite a lot clearer than my older work, that might be a reason. As far as instruments, they're not necessarily instruments that I've not used on recordings before, but I've tried to develop new ways of processing them. Even though a sound is originally coming from an electric guitar, there's quite a lot of processing in between the guitar and the recording equipment, so you don't necessarily hear it as a guitar.

"Cryptic Motion"

Let's talk a little bit about early Squarepusher. Even the complexities of Go Plastic were attributed to using solely hardware. How did those machines help shape your sound?
Well, each machine determines, to an extent, what's done with it. Each machine that I was using in those days—as much as I would try to use it in an open-minded fashion, and try to keep reassessing and developing the way I used it—had a specific mode of operation. There's no way of getting away from that. Regarding Go Plastic, for example, the sequencing was done on a [Boss] DR-660 drum machine and a Yamaha QY700 sequencer. These things have their specific idiosyncrasies. Certain options are ruled out by using those, and other options are promoted. Certain things are harder to do than they would be on other machines, so you get guided away from some things and towards other options. In any case, you have the result of what happened. That, in a way, is the best articulation of how those different machines were making me operate as a composer, at the time.

You've been quoted as saying, "In order to prevent myself from being fully incorporated into any musical ghetto, I have to incorporate every musical ghetto into myself." How does that apply to Squarepusher today?
I must admit, hearing you say that now, that just sounds really pretentious. I think I had a point, but I think I might have been trying to phrase it in a way to just deliberately annoy people. Nowadays, I would say what I was trying to convey was something along the lines of '[I'm] trying to just keep mobile.' One of the problems of working in the music industry is that it's best for the companies you work for to market you in a quite simplistic fashion. What I've always tried to do is to keep those attributes fluid, which makes me quite an awkward proposition in terms of the marketing process. But that's exactly what I want to do. I want to stay relevant. I want to make things which people actually buy, but I don't want to be a slave to all of those processes. The one-dimensionality, which I perceive as being a convenient thing to people marketing music, I think is very damaging. So, I've gone on to try to be inexplicable. To try to incorporate so much into what I'm doing that it can't be summarized sensibly—that there is no way of getting down on paper exactly what Squarepusher is. And even if you've succeeded at one moment, next time, you're going to have to think about it again.

Shobaleader One's d'Demonstrator is out now on Warp