Tom Jenkinson – Squarepusher – forever strives to surprise.
His earliest records (the Rephlex-released Feed Me Weird Things and Music Is Rotted One Note in particular) are prime examples of the sort of hyperkinetic electronica that came to define Warp Records’ glory years. Throughout the Noughties, his output became increasingly diverse. Pic’n’mix selections Ultravisitor and Hello Everything really brought Jenkinson’s astonishingly virtuoso bass playing to the fore. 2010’s skewed ensemble effort Shobaleader One: d’Demonstrator showed Jenkinson navigating an idiosyncratic path between the acoustic and the digital.
Ahead of his performance at this years’ Dour Festival, Jenkinson returns this month with Ufabulum, arguably his most brazen release in almost a decade. If 2009’s Solo Electric Bass 1 saw Jenkinson showcasing his instrumental chops, Ufabulum hones in directly on sounds artificial and cybertronic. It’s a sleek digital fantasia, veering from convulsive d’n’b through to mangled boogie funk, all the while struck through with a bright ersatz gleam. FACT’s Joseph Morpurgo spoke to Jenkinson about LED masks and the importance of the ‘pop principle’.
“I’m still trying to catch up with ideas I had when I was a teenager.”
It struck me that there was some sort of through-line between Ufabulum and the Shobaleader One record. They both have quite similar artwork, and there’s this shared digital processing going on in both of them. How do you see the new record relating to its predecessor?
“It’s interesting you pick up on that. You’re actually the first person to have done so. I’m in agreement with you: there is actually a fair amount of shared ground, shall we say, between the two. It’s probably easier to talk about the differences, first of which being that there’s absolutely no instrumental playing – no instrumental live performance – on this record. And secondly, that, as you rightly say, there’s a shared focus in the artwork. This album is attempting to make a sort of development of what was being used in experimental form on Shobaleader One, i.e. the LED mask that features on the front cover.
“The concept of that is being used again, but actually it’s brought about a fundamental difference, not only between this album and Shobaleader, but also between this album and everything else I’ve ever made. What I’ve been doing is working on visual representations of the pieces as concurrent with working on the music itself, with the aim being to show those visual representations on that LED mask which is shown on the front cover of both of those records. So, I’d say that this album’s been quite wildly different, because I’ve been switching from music to visual mode and back and forth throughout the process. Rather than trying to do a load of visual interpretations at the end and tacking it all on, so to speak, I’ve been working on it at the same time as the music to try and afford as much coherence and as much of a link between the visual and the sonic aspects as I can.”
That’s interesting in light of the ‘Dark Steering’ video. Obviously it’s incredibly striking, and it’s a great example of a track that made an impression at the same time as the visuals made an impression – a complete, holistic, experience. Do you conceive of Ufabulum as something that, to be fully appreciated, has to be an audiovisual experience?
“It’s a very good point, because I’m talking about these visual representations, but the album of course doesn’t feature them apart from stills in the artwork. It did leave me with something of a quandary, because on the one hand I feel the visual interpretations are quite integral to the project. On the other hand, one of the principal ideas about the visual interpretations was how they were going to be displayed. As I mentioned earlier, one of the screens on which these images are going to be displayed is mounted to the mask thing which I wear on stage and can be seen in the artwork. But there’s also a large LED screen which is set up behind me again on stage. The point is that the LED format affords me a kind of intensity for the light, a very sort of bleak ‘strikingness’ to these pictorial representations.
“As much as I like the ‘Dark Steering’ video, that was the only compromise or concession I was willing to make in terms of making an audiovisual product that people could appreciate at home. I wasn’t ever going to make a DVD out of this, because once you show this stuff on a computer screen, it loses so much of its intensity. It really only comes to life for me on stage with that gear. On a television or computer screen, you’ve got this very flat, lifeless version of it. I decided that the audio album stands up for me in its own right, and then if you care about the visual interpretation, go to the show.”
“I’m a path of most resistance character. I like to explore and investigate and discover things.”
Although Ufabulum is a very rhythmically diverse record, there’s clearly a distinctive electronic timbre all the way through it. What attracted you that hyper-digital sound palette on this record?
“It didn’t appear to me fully formed, as it were. I did, at the outset of the project, have an idea to move away from a tendency I’ve been following for the last seven or eight years, which is to incorporate a large amount of instrumental playing into the music. From practical and aesthetic viewpoints, I wanted to change it. From the practical side, there’s a very peculiar nature to trying to be an engineer and performer at the same time, which is certainly what I was doing a fair amount of in that period. Switching from being the person who gets the sounds right to playing. I’ve cut that job out for myself and enjoy the challenge, but I really felt it was time to change. To change the whole method, get away from that live playing.
“There’s a peculiar character to music when it incorporates live playing. You can extrapolate from it, you can digitally process it, you can rip it up in a computer, what have you. But for me there’s always a particular type of character that it lends to a piece of music if it incorporates someone playing, rather than the musical material being sequenced or programmed. I suppose there’s a fair few considerations at play. Broadly speaking, it was really time to bring about change. I try not to let habits set in, and it felt like I was beginning to depend on that. The programming side of my work had taken a backseat, and it was just time to shake everything up.”
Were you listening to different stuff as you made that shift in approach?
“Not really. My listening habits are to a large extent dictated by what I’m doing in the studio, in the sense that if I’m working for ten, twelve, fourteen hours a day on music, I don’t tend to want to listen to more music once I leave the studio . I was a voracious listener as a kid and a teenager, but since I’ve been given the opportunity to record music, that pattern has been quite altered. I’m still trying to catch up with ideas I had when I was that age. I’m not searching for inspiration, put it that way.”
“Throughout my career, I’ve had an ongoing argument with myself about melody.”
There are lots of moments on the record – that ringtone or modem bleep in ‘Unreal Square’, or those approximations of motor engine sounds all the way through – where it seems you weren’t just making an electronic record, but that you were making a very exuberantly electronic record.
“Yeah, like making a virtue of the electronic nature rather than it just being tools. You’re actually using the very character of those instruments, making a big deal of it. I think that’s very much what I was doing, quite right.”
I saw in the lead-up to the album you described the record as “very melodic, very aggressive”. Was it a deliberate compositional strategy to try and do something simultaneously soft and harsh at the same time?
“It’s funny, because you say things in these press releases. Actually, that came out of a conversation with someone at Warp Records, and lo and behold it turns up on the press release, and now I’m paying the price of saying it. I say those things as a sort of shorthand to people that I know, with the understanding that it’s like, ‘obviously I’m talking in extremely broad terms’. They have a meaning, but it’s a quite imprecise one. It’s just a signpost, nothing more. But I suppose I said it, and there was some motive for that.
“It’s not just this record – I think I’ve always been fascinated by that combination. If I was to look back, I could pull out tracks from Feed Me Weird Things, Big Loada, which represent broadly speaking that sort of outlook. It’s always been a feature. Part of that is that I’ve got a longstanding love of music that rhythmically is extremely complex, but melodically quite simple. I find lots of varied activity in the high frequency range quite irritating, and conversely find it fascinating in the bass region of the spectrum. I can’t explain it any further than that. That’s just simply my instinctive response, or my learned response to the world of sound we find around us. Goodness knows how it turned out like that.”
“There’s nothing wrong, in itself, with a piece of music becoming popular.”
I mention that quote – taking into account that things get lost along the way – because the album struck me as one of your most melodic. There are some exceptionally pretty moments that segue into quite visceral moments. Were you attempting to do something more melodic than you’re used to?
“Throughout my career, I’ve had an ongoing argument with myself about melody. I think melody – particularly when that melody is articulated by a vocalist, but even if it isn’t – the melody, the top line as it were, tends to be…and I hate to generalise…I feel it seems to me that the melody is the doorway into a piece of music for lots of people. Particularly if that melody is articulated by a vocalist. To that end, given that I seem to have some sort of a knack for writing melodies, it almost seems like it’s a little bit too easy. ‘Oh, I’ve got to slam a melody on top of it’, and suddenly you’ve got a catchy, listenable piece of music. It bugs me that it’s that easy. I’m a path of most resistance character. I like to explore and investigate and discover things.
“Once you’ve cracked that, it can become a formula. A formula certainly is apparent once you start investigating things in that way. So consequently, lots of the time, I’ve tried to push melody out of my work. Certain albums feature very little or no overt melody line. I’ve tried to see whether you can make a bassline catchy, whether you can make drums catchy – whether there are other doorways other than the melody. Of course, there are. But it remains one of those things: there’s a degree of satisfaction when you put something together with a catchy melody. It’s pop. It’s the pop principle.
“Although, if I was forced to, I would describe myself as fundamentally interested in experiments in music, and I would also say that I’m not against those experiments becoming popular. I think a lot of people in more leftfield areas of music actually equate popularity with being crass. And, conversely, being unpopular with being good or cool. And I think both of those statements are bullshit. I think there’s nothing wrong, in itself, with a piece of music becoming popular. I suppose what is the case is that quite regularly things which are all over the place (and which you hear on the radio) are maybe towards the crass end of the spectrum.”
“I’m not excusing myself by saying it’s an experiment.”
That seems like a helpful way of looking at it.
I noticed a real sense of grandeur in Ufabulum…
“Oh, really? That’s quite interesting.”
A grandeur and stateliness to it. ‘Melodramatic’ would be the wrong word, but there are a lot of big synth tones and melodies, plus track titles like ‘Stadium Ice’. I’m sure tongue is in cheek to some degree there.
“I think it’s an area which I’m not afraid to try and investigate. It’s partly from childhood experiences – hearing music on the radio that, by virtue of the way that audio’s treated before it’s broadcast, actually gives music a peculiar kind of size. I dare say there are elements that are down to spectral processing, but also dynamics processing which accentuates and brings forth the sonic character in the music, which on the record is slightly less apparent.
“There’s always a funny thing about the sense of magnitude in music. You’re never so far away from pomposity. This is something which I’m aware of. It’s tricky, because I adore some music which treads intelligently just the right side of that line, but it’s not easy, actually. And consequently quite fascinating to try. If you fuck it up, and it ends up a bit overblown – and, as you say, ‘melodramatic’ – well, y’know. I’m not excusing myself by saying it’s an experiment. If, at the end of the day, a piece of my music is judged to be shit, that’s just tough for me.”
Squarepusher plays at this years’ Dour Festival in Belgium from 12th to 15th July.