Features I by I 06.06.13

Brum Punch: FACT meets Napalm Death and Scorn legend Nicholas Bullen

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“I’m a man who lacks ambition,” declares Nic Bullen over the phone from his home in the south side of Birmingham.

It’s fair to suppose that he doesn’t mean a lack of creative ambition: on the contrary, he has consistently and committedly pushed the boundaries of his artistic practice since leaving Napalm Death, the band he co-founded at the tender age of 13, midway through the recording of its debut album. No, when Bullen says “ambition” he means it in a pejorative sense: the thirst for fame, commercial success, critical approbation.

Having begun as a Crass-influenced punk band, the early line-up of Napalm Death pioneered grindcore – an extreme, high-velocity variant of metal informed by hardcore, industrial and noise. But when Bullen realised that grindcore was the end of the journey, not merely a staging-post, and that other members of the group were content to simply shore up its position as godhead of the genre it had just created – he jumped ship without hesitation, pursuing university studies in English literature and philosophy before collaborating with another Napalm fugitive, Mick Harris, as Scorn.

The Harris-Bullen configuration of Scorn experimented furiously across three albums, numerous 12”s and compilation appearances, incorporating elements of dub, breakbeat, dark ambient and electro-acoustic music into their dense, paranoid, meticulously wrought studio creations. Post-rock, post-industrial, illbient and Isolationism (after the title of the Virgin comp on which they appeared alongside the likes of Main, Aphex Twin and Thomas Köner) were all tags affixed to Scorn’s music by fans and media, but there was nothing generic about their early work; it demanded, and still does demand, to be appreciated on its own terms.

Even while heavily engaged with Scorn, Bullen found time to explore techno abstraction with Tim Wright’s Germ and his own Umbilical Limbo project, and recorded two long-form pieces for a split album with Bill Laswell on Sub Rosa (1994’s Bass Terror). The last Scorn album to feature Bullen, Evanescence, was also released in 1994. The following years were marred by personal problems and a prolonged absence from music, but having completed a degree in computer science Bullen became visible again in 2003, performing as part of Black Galaxy, and making his first incursions into the fine art world (it’s safe to say that Bullen is the only grindcore progenitor to have been profiled in Artforum).

Having been privately obsessed with musique concrète, acousmatic and tape music since the early 90s, Bullen’s has positioned the main body of his solo work in the past decade within that tradition, or better to say continuum. He takes field recordings in his home, garden and surrounding environs, and patiently subjects them to various digital and analogue manipulations over time; the resulting music is at once expansive and inward-looking, rooted in the personal, the domestic, the everyday. Although he has been creating this music in solitude, for his own pleasure, with no intention to release it, Type Records recently succeeded in convincing him to excerpt 40 minutes of material for a new LP entitled Component Fixations, his debut solo full-length under his own name.

FACT’s Peter Nix took the opportunity to speak to Bullen at length about the origins of Component Fixations, his parallel interests in Super 8 film, his pursuit of stasis and the vertical character of sound.

“I’m more interested in development that occurs vertically rather than horizontally.”

Component Fixations is effectively your debut solo album, but it arrives some 30 years into your career. What took you so long, and why now? 

I’ve been making the recordings for a long time, really. I consistently record and write pieces. For a long time I said to myself that I wouldn’t make records as such – I’ve never really been happy with the records that I’ve made before, and I felt that because I wasn’t looking to music as a means of generating an income, there was no need to actually release anything. I would just do it [make music], and that would be enough – which it is. But I met John Twells from Type when we were doing a concert together in Prague; we got on very well, and he suggested that I do a record for him. And I dissembled on that for quite some time [laughs]…

The pieces on it I’ve been reworking for about four years. They’re all generated from a very small number of cells of sound which were recorded around my house and garden. I deliberately decided to limit the amount of sound sources that I was dealing with when I was making a composition, because it forces me to explore different ways of utilising the same sound. The particular realisations that appear on the record were completed last year, at which point I sent them off to John for release.

You say you’ve “never really been happy” with the records that you’ve made before. In what way?

I can listen to all of them and pick out what I would perceive as glaring errors or misjudgements, and I think in part that influenced me for quite a long time to not release recordings. I just felt freer by not releasing recordings. I like to record and work through material and when I feel like it’s finished, I’m already thinking about the next thing I’m going to do, and often have already begun to do it in tandem. So it seems much more organic just to keep recording and moving forwards. The problem with a record is that once it’s released, it’s set in amber. It’s hard to go back to address anything that you feel could have worked a little more effectively.

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On the face of it Component Fixations occupies a very different musical realm to, say, Napalm Death’s Scum or early Scorn. How would you say it relates to your previous projects, and what would you say is the common thread that runs through all your disparate work?

The common thread is an interest in new strategies of engaging with both the material and the wider world. Napalm Death was informed as much by Power Electronics as Punk or Heavy Metal (for example, the middle section of Sacrificed on the Scum album was intended to reference the ‘walls of noise’ of Throbbing Gristle and Ramleh’s attack of sound). Just as the Power Electronics I made in 1984 operated in a realm where the agitated and active meets the laminar, so Napalm Death moved – through velocity and abrasion – towards a form of stasis which I think also characterises Scorn, where the creativity operated within a seemingly endless but closed space. These elements all have their place within my compositional approach.

It could all be seen as an extension of Modernism – an interest in material, process, abstraction, re-presentation, and so on. A desire to explore and move forward, ultimately in the hope of reaching some form of understanding.

Obviously my approach has changed since my beginnings, when I was a pre-teenager. Back then I was inclined to put recordings into more traditional song-structures, with a linear and probably quite obvious progression. But as I got a little bit older I realised that in all forms of music I’m more interested in development that occurs vertically rather than horizontally. I’m more interested in the way that the sound ‘moves’ in stasis. Even though my pieces have a lot of activity, agitated activity, my compositional approach is generally towards a form of stasis, within which I’m looking for activity that doesn’t disrupt that stasis. I’m also looking for ways of composing that don’t follow the traditional norms that have been passed through the bulk of music that I’ve heard in the west.

Can you tell us more specifically what went into the recording and arranging of the music that features on Component Fixations? What’s the balance of intuition and intention in this work?  

Well, to some extent I follow the sounds themselves. I usually have an idea that I want to explore to begin with, but as I start to process the sounds they tend to lead me off in other directions, and they suggest structures in themselves. I start with the recordings, and I listen through to them, and start to isolate elements in them that I find interesting. And then I tend to edit them on the fly, if you will, sculpt them slightly in terms of beginning and end points. Then I start to process them. I have a few processing techniques that I’m particularly fond of: things like ring modulation. I like generating sounds that have a certain metallic quality to them, and that occurs often through software plugins, which again I work with a limited amount of, so that I’m able to explore them as much as I possibly can, both on their own and in combination with others.

Initial sounds I will begin to process digitally; then as a piece starts to take shape I often process them in analogue form as well – in that I send them out of the computer, sometimes to 8-track tape, sometimes to cassette tape, through analogue effects units, home-built circuits, or a semi-modular synthesizer, that sort of thing, and then back into the PC. It’s at this point that they start to reveal themselves a lot more to me. Maybe I’ll start to generate ‘shapes’ from then. And then I start looking at combinations of sounds, how they work together, and then that might lead to further processing. And then when I’ve finally got the bank of sounds I want to work with, I tend to put them into a structure, and then start to work on that structure – looking at things like stereo placement, how the sounds appear.”

The press release for Component Fixations mentions the influence of “electronic artists of the 1960s” on your work. Is this a long-standing area of interest?

[laughs] Yes, that is a genuine statement. If you could see the hundred or so records that are lined up next to my stereo, you’d see that they’re almost exclusively works of tape music and electronic composition. As with most of my interests, I came to musique concrète and tape music through a process of referential connectivity.

I suppose I always had an interest in that approach to sound even before I knew what it was. From being a child of the 1970s and watching television – being exposed to the Radiophonic Workshop, and the sounds of concrète on children’s programmes like Rainbow. In my teens I continued to encounter strands of interesting programming on UK television channels that showcased new approaches to sound (and to the moving image): programmes like The Eleventh Hour, Ghosts in the Machine and Alter Image, leading on to Midnight Underground in the early 1990s.

I was also inspired by the tape cut-ups of the early Industrial music artists – Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire, and especially the early releases of Nurse With Wound and other artists on the United Dairies label, like Roger Doyle. And the spirit of exploration in the the DIY cassette tape culture of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s: in particular releases by The Door And The Window and tapes like Map’s The Electronic Sylvia Plath.

“You had a real mix of people as well – down in Moseley and Balsall Heath you’d have big enclaves of rastas, punks and hippies; these things would all mingle together.”

And these led you back to the pioneers of the 60s?

I think my interest began to really develop when I discovered electro-acoustic music at the end of the 1980s. More modern composers of electro-acoustic music, initially. Recordings from the ‘80s mainly, by people like Trevor Wishart and Andrew Lewis. This was in part thanks to the BEAST (Birmingham Electro-Acoustic Sound Theatre), who would do weekend concerts with their diffusion system of speakers, and to the purchase of second-hand records – for example, on one particularly rewarding visit to These Records in London in 1990 I came across Trevor Wishart’s Red Bird and Beach Singularity, and Michael Prime’s Fructification. The release of the Acousmatrix series (on BVHASST) and the Electroclips compilation (on Empreintes DIGTALes) in 1990 helped cement my fascination.

My nature is that I’m quite voracious in following up references, so I began to explore and obviously work backwards – and as I worked backwards I realised that I was perhaps more in tune with the 1960s works than the modern works. The modern works seemed to be in a particular idiom both in terms of the structure and the sound of the productions which, though interesting, I found a little…lacking in low-fidelity for my taste. The 1960s work seemed to be a little freer, and there’s a certain quality of dullness and distance to some of the sounds in that work which intrigues me a great deal.

Any composers or recordings from that era which are particularly important you?

Composers whose work I regularly return to include Herbert Eimert (particularly Epitpah fur Aikichi Kubomaya for its use of the human voice), Toru Takemitsu (his tape works of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, particularly Sky, Horse and Death for its use of space), Iannis Xenakis (Orient Occident for the shifting sound field and tonal palette), Ake Hodell (The Djurgarden Ferry across the Styx) and then on a little bit later to works by people like Arne Nordheim (Solitaire). Robert Normandeau, Gottfried Michael Koenig, Andrew Lewis, Francois Bayle and – of course – Bernard Parmegiani. The Obscure Tape Music from Japan series of CDs (on Omega Point) has also been a very fertile ground for listening.

I’m very much interested in the use of the human voice as material in the work of artists such as Hildegard Westerkamp, Lily Greenham, Alice Shields and Jocy de Oliveira, along with the laminar works exploring the tone and drone by Else Marie Pade, Daphne Oram, Pietro Grossi and Alan R. Splet.

The Scorn albums actually have a range of samples from electroacoustic works woven into the mix (along with the more immediately recognisable samples which were designed to be association triggers).

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You’ve spoken before about your preoccupation with the English Pastoral tradition. Where does this preoccupation and stem from, and how does your work relate to, or interrogate, notions of the Pastoral?

It stems from my feeling that, in contrast to the widely held view that the Pastoral (in the arts and literature) represents a conservative position, the Pastoral holds the potential for change and liberation. Beyond the rigid definition imposed on it by the dominant culture, the Pastoral speaks to me of the possibility for an autonomous space outside of the wider culture, one which is influenced by creativity without the sanction of culture, the fertile monolith of landscape and notions of space  – similar, in essence, to the visions of Arcadia propounded by the political Left, from The Diggers to Zerzan. In this sense it’s somewhat Janus-faced, representing both the formal expression of the traditional and a means of engaging with and removing oneself from it.

On a much more personal level, there’s something in the Pastoral which speaks to me of notions of the domestic and the intimate, two areas which I’m strongly drawn to. I’m located within a landscape which man has seemingly tamed – the Pastoral – but which also has a breadth and deep geological timeframe which is almost unknowable – the Sublime. Within the domestic setting, I have an intimate relationship to this landscape which is physical and psychological and consequently has an influence upon my [creative] processes – for example, plumbing the compost heap with hydrophones [for Component Fixations]. This intermingling of the macro and the micro position is mirrored in my approach to composition, which seeks to represent intimate moments and explorations with wider expansions into other spaces.

The notion of retreat and return inherent in the Pastoral also forms a correlative to memory. I have an ongoing project which documents via sound the locations of visual icons of the English landscape tradition in painting (named Where Man Is Not after a quote by [William] Hazlitt). This sense of memory traces corresponds on another level to my interaction with the surrounding environment – the city of Birmingham and the immediate agricultural environs. There’s a close connection in Birmingham between city and countryside: neither is far from the other, and there’s much traffic between the two. I could encapsulate this in a single image of the boundary district of Maypole, to the south of the city, where on one side of the road are towerblocks and on the other side are grazing cows. This seems to me important to explore…it feels richer than the romanticisation of the city and the industrial which is common currency in the culture of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and which sometimes makes me think of a form of Stockholm Syndrome…

Component Fixations’ cover art is a still from your own film, The Inverse Heliograph. Are you film and sound work closely connected?

The Inverse Heliograph relates very strongly to the music on the Component Fixations record. Like the music it’s very personal, in that it’s exclusively made from Super 8 films that I’ve made myself, of my life, and also of similar films that have been bequeathed to me through the family, of family life. And so everything within is composed from these memory triggers – or false-memory-triggers in the case of those that occurred before I was born. In terms of production it’s similar too, in that it’s about recombining, transmuting, transforming and looking for a way of taking those initial elements and changing them to something else.

I also think that The Inverse Heliograph engages once again with the notions of the Pastoral that I have: often those films are made in the wider environment that relates to me. It’s an ongoing work, much like the pieces of sound that I’ve made; it lasts, at its longest form, for around five and a half or six hours. And each time I do a performance using the film, I do a new version of a small segment of it, so it continually evolves and has feedback into it.

In terms of film in general, I’m very interested in transmutation – taking images and then re-presenting them and acting upon them in order to turn them into something which is new, and exploring what they can do. For me, Super 8 film works best for that, because of its physical properties physically and the ways that you can manipulate the film as it moves from the projector – in terms of re-focussing, cropping, putting objects in front of the projector beam, using different coloured gels that may shift the focus…

I’d like to return to Napalm Death [pictured above aged 15] briefly. Much is made, quite rightly, of the diverse musical experiments and endeavours that yourself, Justin Broadrick and Mick Harris pursued upon leaving the band, and have pursued ever since. I wondered why, given that you all clearly had a frame of reference beyond punk and metal, you felt you couldn’t pursue these new directions within the band?

Once the group started to move down a certain pathway, I think that it perhaps narrowed – for focus. To really focus on an idea. And somehow that focus can exclude other ideas. When I left Napalm Death, part of my frustration was with that limitation. I wanted to explore whether we could expand into utilising dub as well, for example, but at the time the response was quite negative to that [laughs]. I think perhaps as well…when you’re young and you’re interacting with people, you make more compromises, and paradoxically, when you’re older it’s probably easier to compromise but at the same time you perhaps work in a way that means that you don’t have to compromise.

So yes, people went off and did other things that they wanted to do. I know that when Mick [Harris] asked me to do Scorn with him, it was after he’d suggested exploring other things in Napalm Death that the rest of them didn’t feel were suitable. So he wanted to set up something else which expanded the parameters, really. And very quickly we worked through exercising a certain form of aggressive guitar music into more dub and beat-influenced areas, and that was ideal for me – the further we went along the more we were entering into that sort of zone of stasis. Stripping the songs down. Much more interesting from my point of view.

What happened post-Scorn?

Well, when I left Scorn, I’d realised that I didn’t want to be a professional musician – all of the things that come with it I found problematic. So I made a conscious decision to pursue my life in other directions, whilst simultaneously retaining an interest in composing. So during that 10 year period I essentially just composed, and I didn’t do anything with [what I composed]. I had no intention of playing live either; I would only do it if someone I liked or respected or asked me to. I try to keep it like that even now: I don’t really have any presence on the web, or any real means of contacting myself in general, simply because it’s allowed me to focus on the composing.

Speaking of live, you presented some material from Component Fixations at the Supersonic festival last year. How did it translate into performance?

What I tend to do for live concerts is essentially do a performance which is a combination of an acousmatic playback and improvisation. Leading up to the performance I’ll take strands from existing recordings – almost as randomly as I can – and then I make new versions of them where I strip out a lot of the sounds to create an acousmatic skeleton, if you will, that I can play back, which then allows me to improvise in response to it in the live context. It keeps it somewhat fresh for myself, and interesting, and it means that every concert I do is different, rather than repeating the same structure, the same formula, each time. I want to give myself an element of surprise if I can, and then hopefully that will lead to a strong interaction with the material. And I also use essentially analogue equipment in order to do it, rather than a laptop; I tend to play back through a mixing desk and use outboard effects units to process sound live.

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When performing music like this, presumably the setting – the specifics of the room, the PA, the placement of stage and crowd – all impact upon it?

Fidelity’s quite important, because although a lot of the sounds themselves are what you might call degraded – they may have been recorded with dictaphones or very cheap hand-held tape recorders – once they’ve been processed I’m trying to make them resonate as much as possible, so I really want the frequencies to shine through as clearly as they can – I’m especially partial to piercing high-end frequencies, although I do like to make sure that they’ll have some fidelity when they’re sent through the system. I’m also interested in the way that they’ll interact with the performance space; I’m more inclined to prefer enclosed spaces, smaller spaces, where it can be a little bit more immersive. I often don’t play with any kind of foldback on stage in terms of monitoring, I like to try to hear it through the room.

You’re based in Birmingham and, to my knowledge, always have been. What’s your relationship to the city and what hold does it have over you?

I’ve spent most of my adult life in Birmingham with a few sojourns elsewhere, yes. I find it’s a very easy city to live in – in terms of day-to-day living. There’s a lot to do, and yet there’s no particular pressure to do anything. I’m a man who generally lacks ambition [laughs]. The only criteria I’ve ever really had for my life is, is it making me happy? And I find that I’m very happy here. It’s a good place to live in. It’s very conducive to the spirit. It allows me to focus on the things that I’m interested in, which is really the interior life that I have. I’m not particularly interested in outside sensation, so I never felt the need to move to anywhere else. I also like the fact that within less than 20 minutes I can be in woodlands, and hill ranges [laughs].

I like the slow pace of Birmingham. There’s a lot of very interesting people here doing very interesting things. And I’ve known many of them for 30 years. In the area that I live in, in the south side of the city, there’s a certain village quality to it – in that if I walk up the local high street I’ll probably meet seven or eight people I know. And it’s very easy to connect with people – a five minute walk and you’re connected, doing something interesting. So it’s very conducive [to creativity].

You mentioned earlier that you first met [Type label boss] John Twells in Prague, but he’s actually from your part of the world, isn’t he? Had you not crossed paths before?

I’m not really the sort of person who introduces myself to other people [laughs]. When John first began Type, he used to put on a night of electronic music called Default, in a bar about a mile down the road from where I live. And I used to go to that night, not knowing the people at all, just going to listen to the music and enjoy it. So we never met until we were together in Prague, some time ago. We’d been in the same room in Birmingham but we’d never made contact as such. It was enough for me just to go and listen to the music.

It never fails to astonish me how much radical and distinctive music has come out of Birmingham and the Midlands since the early 80s, particularly in the electronic realm. Is there something in the water?

I think the Midlands in general tends to get overlooked, and dismissed. And as a result I feel that there probably isn’t the peer pressure that you may in get other places to conform to a particular line. In the 1980s the people that I knew would go to blues parties to listen to dub, they’d go to metal concerts or punk concerts, they’d go to indie concerts or psychedelic clubnights. We had power electronics concerts here – Whitehouse and Ramleh – in the ‘80s. There was a whole range of sounds. And then later on we had the House of God, with people like Tony Surgeon, you know, and of course bands like Pram and Broadcast doing interesting things. And these different groupings would all intermingle, with a certain degree of fluidity, I think because there was nothing to prove, really. You could just take part in these things and engage with them for what they are, and as a result I think that people became very focussed on exploring what it is that they wanted to do.

One other factor is geography. Probably the three key areas where a lot of people that are being creative would live, were essentially on the same road leading out of the city, one area after the another, and people would move easily between those areas. So it’s inevitable that people would meet either by accident, by introduction, socially, at concerts, at art exhibitions, whatever…it’s rather different to other cities where there may be say, 10 or 12 different centres of activity, some of which are separated by an hour and a half journey.

I always had an interest in that approach to sound even before I knew what it was…being exposed to the Radiophonic Workshop, and the sounds of concrète on Rainbow

What are the three areas?

Traditionally it would be Moseley, which is almost the beginning of the suburbs. Then on one side of it, towards the city, you’ve got Balsall Heath, which would be classed as the inner city, and then on the other side of Moseley you’ve got King’s Heath, which is moving towards the edge of the city. And everybody I’ve ever known has lived in these areas. If you caught the bus from King’s Heath it’s 20 minutes into the city centre, and you pass from King’s Heath through Moseley and Balsall Heath. It’s now Digbeth as well, which funnily enough is on that same track…[laughs]…this almost direct line out of the city centre that almost everyone seems to live on, and there also have been venues and club spaces and things like that along that line for a long time.

You had a real mix of people as well – down in Moseley and Balsall Heath you’d have big enclaves of rastas, punks and hippies; these things would all mingle together. It was hippies that played me the Organisation Tone Float album, and Kluster, and things like that. And then obviously listening to stuff with rastas – dub and especially 80s dancehall. A good scene to be in. It’s that kind of thing that makes you think, well, what exactly am I supposed to be missing? I can walk down to Moseley to Cannon Hill park and there in the arts centre they’ll have a weekend of electro-acoustic concerts – three concerts a day, across three days – and then I can walk out of that concert and walk up to the local pub and see a bunch of people then go off to a blues party.  I think it’s a really good place for creativity, because you can enter in and out of it, and have a degree of solitude in order to pursue things as well.

Can you tell us about any other current or forthcoming projects you’re working on?

Well I’m working on more electronic pieces, and film, as always. I’ve just spent some time recording some new sounds, doing things like leaving the recorder on when I leave the house – removing myself as much as I can from decisions on the sounds. So I’m working on some more pieces because I’m feeling that there’s more to be done, and I hope that I may have suitable material for another album at some point. In the interim, I’m working on a project called Shining Fields, which combines semi-modular synths, harmonium and ebowed autoharp with free drumming and saxophone. Hopefully we’ll begin to play live later this year.

I do quite a lot of art pieces; I have a piece in the forthcoming exhibition Altars of Madness in Luxembourg, and am working on pieces for other exhibitions. I’ve found in general that some of the more extreme aspects of what I do – those which could possibly be categorised as Noise – I’ve removed from that particular field of exploration. So I’ve been using [Noise elements] more in my performances in art galleries, based around my voice, and I suppose they could probably be characterised as quite harsh and abrasive.

I also play in some more conventional bands. Backwards are similar to a late 1970s No Wave sound but with sluggish tempos, and Rainbow Grave explores the more primitive end of punk with minimal note patterns and neanderthal rhythms. I’ve recently been given a Lomokino camera which shoots onto 35mm that can then be telecined, so I’m beginning to explore its potential as a source for moving image material. There always seems to be something new and worthwhile to explore.

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