mon 22/07/2024

10 Questions for Musician Squarepusher | reviews, news & interviews

10 Questions for Musician Squarepusher

10 Questions for Musician Squarepusher

Electronica supremo talks of dreams, criticism, counterculture, Brighton and much else

A somewhat Dickensian Tom Jenkinson faces his public

Squarepusher, AKA Tom Jenkinson (b. 1975) is a groundbreaking electronic musician. Growing up in Essex, he first came to prominence in the mid-Nineties alongside Aphex Twin, with whom he worked extensively, amid a milieu of post-rave experimentalists exploring the wilder fringes of club-based sounds. Signing to Warp Records in 1995 he has maintained a position at the forefront of electronica, releasing 16 albums, the latest being Damogen Furies.

His output has always been untrammelled by fads or trends and, while he’s often returned to a core jazz-funk flavour, his music has tapped into everything from avant-classical to Gamelan to drill’n’bass nastiness.

Squarepusher will be performing a show at the Brighton Festival on Friday May 8, supported by the bassbin-devastating duo Sherwood & Pinch. Looking forward to that event, he talks us through his thoughts on a wide variety of subjects.

THOMAS H GREEN: Do you give a flying one about the critical response to your music?

SQUAREPUSHER: With professional critics the broad answer is, no, it doesn’t seem worthwhile taking any notice, but there’s a lot of fine gradations on this topic. I don’t sit around reading my own press  that’s a hiding to nothing but, on the other hand, by virtue of taking up a position on stage you’re opening yourself up for criticism. Put yourself in my position and imagine what reading about yourself is going to do to you. I can honestly say I’ve not read anything about myself in the press for over a decade. The little bits I did read before that simply complicated my response to my work and made me start to think twice about what I was doing, so I don’t know what merit that has.

Your 2008 album Just A Souvenir was based around a dream – what was the last dream you had that impacted in reality?

Every night is an example of that. My mood when I wake up is profoundly affected by what I’ve been dreaming about, which can be any number of bizarre things, some of which are quite frightening and some of which are very pleasant. My favourite is to wake up laughing  that’s one of my favourite experiences.

Who's currently screwing around with consensus reality in interesting ways?

Slavoj Žižek. He's one of my favourite writers. Without wanting to sound egotistical, you’ve just summed up my job pretty well there. Crikey, yeah, if there’s one thing I think I’m doing it’s that. One way I can frame my music is it’s a form of protest and those protests are against a number of different issues over the years but always some form of protest. Call that screwing around if you like!

Does the counter culture any longer exist?

We’re witnessing an era where companies, corporations, have become extremely adept at adopting forms of resistance and supporting them, which has the broad effect of taking away their sting. It’s hard to imagine now the effect the Sex Pistols had in the late Seventies, the uproar caused in the media and with members of the establishment. I’m not saying its impossible to do radical things but the counterculture’s presence has become extremely complicated by the fact corporations broadly support subversive activity.

How has the live show you’re bringing to Brighton progressed from the last time audiences saw you?

I’m still using my body as a canvas, as it were. On the last tour I used to use a helmet with an LED panel build into it, one of the ideas being that I can display images that present themselves to my mind’s eye when I’m listening to music or writing it. Another strand which is followed through by my current show is that I object to the tendency of the music industry to generate cults of personality around artists. The general tendency seems to be to boil down an artist into an image and a few descriptive tag lines, making them easier to sell, to put that container of margarine on the shelf and put a price tag on it. I try as best I can to resist those tendencies. I want to obliterate my image. I don’t want to be looked at or scrutinised. My urge is to run away from that particular aspect of my work. It’s not possible completely so I steer a middle path where I turn my body into a way of displaying images  so that aspect has developed.

Do you ever get recognised in public?

It has happened and when it does I find it profoundly alarming, so I’ve taken steps to get away from that where I can. Where I have most control of presenting my music is onstage. That’s the part where I have close to 100% control of what happens. It wouldn’t be so odd being approached in public if it didn’t come with a set of assumptions as to what I’m like as a person. Quite often what I experience is a person talking to a set of assumptions based on interviews and their own imagination so they’re not talking to me as a person. I’ve quite literally said this sentence to people who’ve come up to me in quite a confrontational manner: look I’m not a vending machine  talk to me. When you meet someone you’re taking stock of their attributes, noticing their responses to questions, and so on, building up a picture of their personality piece by piece. That’s all I expect of anyone I meet. When that process is turned into a peculiar transaction, the result of which is a foregone conclusion from the other person's perspective, it’s quite frightening.

What does Brighton mean to you?

It has a Green MP which is massively to its credit. Environmental issues should be at the forefront of any political debate. It’s a prerequisite of all our existences. I don’t understand why people aren’t more concerned about it. It’s terrifying. Above and beyond that, I spent a lot of time there as friends moved there after university. I’ve certainly had a great time there. It’s a great town, a wonderful place.

When a song is sparse, bare, unpopulated like, say “I Fulcrum” from your 2004 album Ultravisitor, how do you know that there’s enough there?

The same way I know there’s enough there in a very complicated piece of music. The piece attains a form of balance which it doesn’t attain when there’s a different amount of information there. It's when the piece answers to its own criteria.

Your song titles are famously bizarre. For example, there are tunes on the new album called "D Frozent Aac" and "Exjag Nives". Do you never fancy calling a song, “I Love You, Baby” or something, just to be perverse?

I wouldn’t rule it out. Look, you may not want to take this at face value, but I have written a handful of love songs. They don’t always have words but that’s not to say the sentiment isn’t floating around in there somewhere. Part of my ethos is to try and not rule things out in advance.

You have expressed an interest in the ethical dimensions to a musician's practice...

Yes, I’m interested in whether it’s appropriate to think about that. I try to use packaging on CDs that has a lower environmental impact than the standard jewel case. That’s a humdrum example. What about bandleaders who habitually mistreated their bands? Superstars who got what they got mainly because of how harshly they treated their bands? It’s a peculiar thing because the musical result is exceptional but the route by which it was achieved is abominable. I personally work alone mainly because I would not consider treating other people the way I treat myself. The obvious contradiction lurking behind that is why do I deserve that treatment?

So creating music is a torturous process for you?

[Laughs] Well, it varies. If it was purely torturous, even someone as hard-headed as myself would eventually give up. I’d be exaggerating to say it was purely torturous. There are moments of inexpressible joy peppered amongst the torturous times.

Did you ever think that rave culture would turn into a giant frat party in the US with all its cultural signifiers neutralised and emasculated?

Good question! I have to say “no”. Personally I would have been quite shocked if you told me that was going to happen ten years ago. For me, although rave culture is wrapped up with a lot of hedonism, it’s also wrapped up with activism, some form of resistance against cultural norms and the authorities associated with those. The transformation of electronic music to its current state in America is fascinating and quite frightening. I’m going to America a few times this year and I’m going to do my damnedest to remind them what it’s supposed to be about. Or, rather, what I think it’s supposed to be about. It’s not fair to point the finger at America. There’s a smug professionalism that’s engulfed electronic music across the board. A subtle wave of conservatism has washed gently across electronic music over the last five years. One of the things the new record smashes against is that. In earlier days of electronica that was something I was intimately involved with, taking a stand against the mainstream world of music, and I still think it’s worth fighting against.

Overleaf: Listen to "Stor Eiglass" from Damogen Furies

We’re witnessing an era where companies, corporations, have become extremely adept at adopting forms of resistance and supporting them, which has the broad effect of taking away their sting

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