Welcome to Magazine Sixty, Steve. Can you talk us through your musical journey beginning with the sounds which first inspired you, until now and the music you currently produce?
Like many people, I got into ‘alternative’ electronic music via Radiohead’s ‘Kid A’ when I was 16, which opened my ears to Warp Records and beyond. Some of those early forays really baffled my ears – I remember finding Autechre’s ‘Amber’ incomprehensible at first, but it’s now one of my comfort albums when I need headspace. At that time I was making really naff dance music using eJay and it was only after university that I started properly exploring more abstract electronica and ambient. It took 10 years of dipping in and out of composing to find a sound I was actually happy with – I pretty much gave up for a few years until we bought our first house which has a lovely attic space, and then suddenly everything seemed to click into place.
In terms of influences my sound is all over the place! I’m really interested in artists who blur the line between rhythm and melody – on the ambient side, the Alva Noto & Ryuichi Sakamoto collaborations are my biggest inspiration, alongside folks like Biosphere and Susumu Yokota where they’re notionally ambient records are often full of percussive elements.
Displacement Activity Vol. 2 has just been released on See Blue Audio. How did your relationship with the label come about?
I got to know Matthew, who runs the label, via Thomas Ragsdale who I plucked up the courage to go and chat with after he opened for Haiku Salut a couple of years back. One of the lovely things over the last couple of years has been getting to know folks in the indie electronica scene, particularly in the north of England. Everyone is really lovely and like-minded! I really liked the first release on See Blue Audio by Gabriel Slick and it seemed like a great fit for my more ‘contemplative’ work.
Tell us about the cover photograph and what the location means to you?
The cover photograph is a bay near Belfast and it’s by Matthew so I can’t take any credit. I really like the aesthetic and how the images of the sea tie the label’s releases together but I can’t claim a personal connection to that particular location!
Can you talk us through how you produced one of the tracks from the album, including any favourite software/ hardware you use?
Everything I produce is in FL Studio using virtual software and a midi keyboard – I’m intrigued by hardware but also slightly intimidated by it! The closing track, ‘It’s All I Ever Had’ makes heavy use of probably my two favourite bits of effects software, Crystallizer by Soundtoys and Fabfilter Saturn, and one of my favourite synths, Sakura, which models string instruments. The basis of the track is a fairly mournful, simple piano melody (I can play it, so it has to be simple!), which gets gradually pulled apart and reconfigured through the effects. Crystallizer splices out snippets of the piano and then reverses them before playing them back and then cutting them up further, while Saturn distorts the results more and more as the track progresses before the entire thing is bitcrushed into nothing. A lot of my composing is done in snatched moments or (prior to covid) while travelling for work, so I often find myself without a keyboard and constrained to contorting, dismantling, and reconfiguring whatever melodies I have to hand into slowly evolving soundscapes.
What inspires you most: sounds, words or images? And who are your most important influences from each of those fields?
Sounds and concepts are what inspire me. I remember reading an interview with Carsten Nicolai (Alva Noto) once who said he often started his compositions from a real or imagined scene, almost like a movie set. I love that idea, but my mind’s eye is bordeline non-functional! My wife always finds it really strange that I don’t ‘see’ the characters and places in books in my head as I read – I love reading, I just… conceptualise it rather than see it in my head. The two Displacement Activity volumes to date were composed while my wife was pregnant with our first baby (who is about to have her first birthday!) and I was thinking a lot about how our baby was experiencing our world from this totally different perspective as she developed. That’s really the core theme of the music – this idea of looking back in on where we are from a different perspective, hence the title, ‘Displacement Activity’, which is taken (as are quite a few titles from my back-catalogue!) from my main source of word-based inspiration, the science fiction works of Iain M Banks.
You have also recently released a solo album, Unreality for the label you co-founded (Disintegration State) which sees you explore other avenues of music. How do you feel about the way nostalgia works in music and about the current creative state of play in electronic production?
Most of my output on Disintegration State, including ‘Unreality’, is the product of a nostalgia for a past I didn’t experience. My favourite period of electronic music is the mid-to-late 90s when there was such a pervading sense of playfulness in the work of folks like Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, Wagon Christ, mu-ziq, Plaid, and so on. I only discovered that music a decade after its heyday and now I’m finally making that music another 10 or so years after that! Maybe its time will come for a retrowave-style re-imagining and I’ll be ahead of the curve… The creative state of electronic music is both inspiring and overwhelming – I feel like I could fill my entire listening time with new releases from folks I know in the northern UK scene alone! It’s saturated, but the output is of such high quality that it seems churlish to complain!
How do you think music culture, and more broadly the nature of society, will change as result of Covid-19?
I worry for the music industry at most levels. As we all know, touring is hugely important for so many artists given what streaming has done to sales. I hope that it inspires people to support local artists and venues when they have the opportunity again – we’re already seeing the indie scene come together through events like the Bandcamp Days, fundraising compilations, and the like. I suppose I hope that folks outside of the bubble learn more about what music needs in order for to be financially viable outside of the upper echelons. It’s hard to imagine any sizeable events will be happening in the short-term, and I’m missing live music massively!
More generally, this situation highlights inequalities in society which should have been apparent to many more people for a long time now. It’s interesting and saddening that the real spark for outrage in the UK has not been the tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths, but the notion that one political figure in particular has flouted lockdown rules and is not being punished. People who have only ever known relative privilege are suddenly being confronted by the truth that their lives and liberties are, and always have been, less important than those who have the most privilege and power. I really hope that this breeds a degree of empathy to the plights of the less fortunate – the front-line workers, immigrants, and those who face institutional discrimination. The only good that can come from this is that it shifts us closer to real positive change. I’ll get off my soapbox now!
More generally, how do you feel about the way electronic music is supported/ nurtured in the music press? What are your thoughts on Streaming from an artist’s perspective, and about the way people now connect through ‘social media’?
I think the more ‘niche’ coverage is excellent and heartwarming – sites like your own inject so much passion into covering music that they love, ranging from the stars of our scene down to, well, folks like me! Similarly, podcasters and local radio shows like Monday Graveyard or Kites & Pylons are helping to pull together this lovely community. Folks like that are putting huge effort into curation and description and it’s wonderful to see. On the flipside, there feels like there is something more gatekeeper-like about some of the bigger players, perhaps tying in with an emphasis on club culture and the need to be a DJ, not just a producer. I occasionally think the surest sign I’ve ‘made it’ would be if someone felt it was worth their time to write a negative review of my work!
Streaming is a tricky topic to unpack… I genuinely don’t think that Disintegration State would have made headway as a label without the low barrier to entry that something like Spotify provides for a listener. Of course, I write from a position of privilege here where music is a ‘hobby’ rather than something I am trying to make a career of. The distribution of revenue is all wrong, and it feels like there’s a need for collective action to redress that imbalance
Social media is probably my single most important ‘tool’ as an artist. It helps connect the electronica scenes, both locally and globally. I particularly like Twitter and interacting with similar artists and listeners – it helps that everyone seems pretty like-minded given the capacity for toxicity on that medium!
And finally. Can you tell us about any forthcoming plans you have?
I have so many plans! The huge change in my life has been working out how to balance parenthood with work, other relationships, music, and climbing (my other main passion). I’ve been ‘field recording’ our daughter since she was born and have a nearly-finished album based around samples of her… I think it’s enjoyable alongside the novelty value but I’ve lost all sense of perspective really! I’m working on volume 3 for Displacement Activity alongside some more classic electronica for Disintegration State, then I’d like to explore some more glacial ambience where I resist the urge to add percussion… My musical plans tend to evolve against my will though, so who knows what any of it will sound like in the end!