Features I by I 18.09.13

Passover: how experimental electronics veteran Scanner is reinventing the work of Joy Division

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Robin Rimbaud – best known by his nom de guerre Scanner – gets around.

There’s Rimbaud’s extensive musical work as Scanner, which runs to over 30 albums for imprints like Sub Rosa, Room40 and Earache. There’s his multimedia artwork, based around pilfered phone signals and wayward radio signals. There’s his commercial work as sound designer, building sounds for everything from alarm clocks to ambient music for morgues. There’s his soundtrack and sound design work. There’s…as he puts it, he’s “somebody who’s incredibly restless.”

Over 25-years-plus of musical activity, he’s never ventured into the sort of territory he’s currently ploughing with the Live_Transmission project. Live_Transmission sees Rimbaud turn his hand to much less arcane material – the work of post-punk forebears Joy Division. Working with the Heritage Orchestra – who collaborated with Aphex Twin on last year’s “remote controlled orchestra” project – Rimbaud has created a series of impressionistic reimaginings of material from across the storied Northern band’s career.

Following 2012 performances in Brighton and Sydney, Live_Transmission is now heading out on tour throughout the Autumn. We caught up with Scanner midway through some painting and decorating – “it’s a completely empty vacuous white cloud space” – to talk about the project, working with The Haxan Cloak, and being at once “completely invisible” and “ridiculously large scale.”


“English music touches on this certain melancholia.”


There’s obviously a lot of thematic correspondence between Joy Division’s work and your own – “transmission”, “dance to the radio”, etc. etc. – but beyond those thematic ideas, is there any firmer common ground between your respective work?

It’s a good question – no one’s asked me that, I have to say. It’s a very good start! I think more than anything, I suppose, it’s an aspect of – not to sound too dramatic – a relatively dystopian approach to the world. This kind of rather concrete, haunting, slightly aching inner-city atmosphere. Because my work is often quite melancholic, it’s quite emotive. The Joy Division albums, there’s only two of them – and that’s the great thing about Joy Division I suppose, there’s not that must material to work with – and it still retains that slightly timeless but also haunting nature. And my work in some way echoes that quite dark…I mean, if you were to describe a colour, you’d always describe Joy Division as black and white, and mine as relatively grey [ laughs]. There isn’t really any sense of yellow or any other brighter colours, unfortunately, whether you want it or not.

I thought about this recently actually, in terms of English music. If you look at English music, it’s quite lyrical. If you look at Scottish music, it’s often quite celebratory, and Welsh traditional folk music is about songs of celebration, but English music touches on this certain melancholia. So you have singers like Nick Drake, and these kind of characters, and John Dowland from the 16th century from classical music…there’s a certain melancholy in the water almost, actually, and I think Joy Division certainly resonate around that, and my work, certainly – echoes of the city, and also of a melancholia.



In terms of taking that sound and that feel, and turning it into the project that you’re currently working with, what was your role in proceedings working with the orchestra?

It’s a strangely responsible position, in that often with my own work, I’m the starting block and the finishing block – I’m there at both parts of the game. Whereas here, I had the full responsibility – rather intimidating – of actually setting this in motion in terms of the actual sound. So I wrote a number of pieces as very rough sketches, and mostly I did this based on memory. I thought, “Rather than listen back in the traditional way to a Joy Division track and try to recreate it, let me try and think how I can break it down to how my memory has changed it.” So essentially I wrote about half a dozen pieces, passed them onto the orchestrator, a guy called Tom Trapp, and he’s a very capable guy at basically taking other music and then rescoring it.

I’m not so good with traditional notes, as probably lots of musicians aren’t, so in a sense I began as an engine – I put these pieces together and passed them onto him, and he scored them for the orchestra, and then we all met up. Then there were moments where I thought, “No, this is too hooked on classics, let’s got away from there…”, and actually put me back to where I originally started. It’s rather like taking a photocopy, minus the original, and then it kind of gets exploded and looped into with the orchestra. So parts of mine really reverberate, and parts are really expanded on with the orchestration, so even during the performance, I remain the engine. Some pieces are completely driven by me, and then everybody joins in. And at other points, I introduce these long extended textures – very symphonic, abstract electronic sounds that float through the rest of the orchestra, and so it sort of goes both ways. That’s how it sort of came together, and how it all emerged, and it was all quite a natural thing, I have to say. I’d say the most scary thing and the most intimidating moment was actually just starting and sitting in my studio and thinking, “Where do I start? And how do i stop people hating me?” [laughs]

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I can imagine that fear might have been compounded by the fact that Joy Division’s records are very stark and minimal, and use the studio as an instrument. Did that present dilemmas and problems in terms of converting it into a large scale orchestral project for a live setting? On paper, they’re very different.

Actually, no major issues, but what I tried to remain was quite reductionist, in a way. Because, as you say, if you were to introduce an orchestra, you could just make these pieces into the most kind of symphonic but emotionless works. I think what we’ve done, and what Tom Trapp and the orchestra themselves have done, is actually step back, in a way. It’s highly charged, and quite sort of epic and mesmeric in its way, and yet retains very much the semblance of Joy Division records, which, often with the Martin Hannett reductions, are often very austere, very kind of bright. In a sense, where I’m talking from now would be ther perfect space to record the drums, for example – a very live echo-y room.

So we retained as much as possible. Things haven’t been embellished too much, thats what we’ve avoided doing, so there aren’t new lines written, there aren’t things taken to a very different level. So I think it pays great respect, which is very important, to the original work of Joy Division, but at the same time also cuts through it and offers something very new. And the other thing its, it’s very easy, as lots of people have done over the years, to make cover versions of Joy Division. You can type it in in online, and you’ll instantly find endless videos of people doing ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, or ‘Decades’, or whatever , in all kinds of various ways – often atrocious, and often amazing. But we tried, in our way, to step aside from that, and remain reverent to the original material, and yet see how it could be interpreted today, and how it could still be treated with great respect, but still find a new voice in it.


“You have to tread carefully, but you still have to take risks.”


It’s curious you talk about these reams of reinterpretations that history has thrown up – just today, Faber have announced that they’re republishing Ian Curtis’ writings in book form.The spirit in which you’ve proceeded in this project is very clear, but I wondered if you detected a degree of cynicism in the way such a slim catalogue has been plundered so often by so many different interests.

In some ways, I try and remain positive and think, “Isn’t that a great thing?”. That somebody with such a limited catalogue can prove to be such a phenomenal influence. I think that’s really crucial to remember. And yet at the same time, it’s extremely easy to make bad cover versions. Not only Joy Division, but of most music, you know? And it certainly needs to be done in the right spirit, and – I say this without sounding ageist – I lived through Joy Division. I was at school when Ian Curtis…I remember, literally it was just before my 16th birthday, and he died, and actually in the same week my own father died. So I still remember this really resonant difficult period for me as a teenager, and teenage years, as we all know, aren’t exactly easy.

So I kind of lived through it in some sense, and i think that’s also invaluable to the project, because the other guys in it are actually younger. And much as Joy Division means something to them, it doesn’t mean the same as it does to me. I’m somebody who bought fanzines going back to the 80s with Joy Division in it that I still have in my archive, and all kinds of bootlegs i’ve collected over the years. So it think it would be quite straightforward to make very direct cover versions – and that’s something we’ve clearly avoided.

Joy Division fans – and you’d evidently describe yourself as one too – tend to be relatively die-hard, devotional. How have they responded to the project so far?

So far, nobody’s thrown anything at me! Certainly, I think it’s an absolutely valid point, which is: you have to tread carefully, but you still have to take risks. If we were to project where Joy Division would be today, we know where New Order went to, and we know the kind of pop discovery they made and how well they succeeded with that. It’s impossible to say where they would be today, but in some ways i’d like to think this project projects where they would be. And therefore I would like to think that their admirers, their listeners, their fans, would actually understand that what this is is a very respectful approach to their canon, that their body of work. It’s not done in any way to kind of damage it – it’s more to enhance it and share it, because large audiences don’t often get to hear these songs, especially in this way. But at the same time, of course you are going to have die-hard fans who are going to hate it. Of course, you can never please everybody. We’re not making this to controversial – it’s just so important that it happened, and we had to make it happen now, because it’s something that came from the heart, in a sense.

There’s a weird mirror-image going on: at the same time that you’ve been unveiling this project, Peter Hook’s been doing his live thing…

[chuckles] Absolutely.

…wheeling out the albums, end-to-end, and it seems these are two polar opposite approaches operating simultaneously.

Of course. It’s curious isn’t it? I noticed that just after we did the premiere down in Brighton last year at the festival. He’d been doing this kind of global tour, replaying all the old Joy Division tracks, and I’m not sure how that’s being perceived. I’m not sure whether the die-hard fans are both cynical or enthusiastic – it’s difficult to say, because clearly it’s not Joy Division. We aren’t Joy Division, we’re completely outside of that. He is still one quarter of Joy Division, so he’s got every right to do that, of course he has. But I’m yet to see or hear any of it, actually, so I’m most curious to know what it’s like.

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Live_Transmission isn’t your only attempt to reconfigure older work in a live context this year. You mentioned John Dowland earlier, and you worked with The Haxan Cloak on a project with his work. How did that come about?

It’s funny, really – much of my career has been basically avoiding the usual direction that one has to follow, i.e. the one thing I’ve never really had is a record label, a manager, a touring agent, anything like that. What I’m drawn to are opportunities to take music to new audiences, and see what can happen.

A couple of years ago, Spitalfields Festival in London approached me, and asked if I would be interested in curating a season. And i thought, well, this is a chance to be incredibly selfish and support the works of younger artists who haven’t really had the breakthrough. I mean, I’ve been doing this for now for 20 years. I was familiar with Bobby [Krlic]’s work, and I was familiar with Elizabeth [Walling, aka Gazelle Twin], her work, and also a guy, Valgeir Sigurðsson, a producer who has a record label called Bedroom Community over in Iceland. The next project I’m doing early next year is actually producing a big show with him based around John Dowland, so it’s a big show.


“What I’m drawn to are opportunities to take music to new audiences, and see what can happen.”


I met up with Bobby, and said, “Would you be interested in taking the work of John Downland…” – music that I would argue was a kind of early starter for British minimalism. I don’t know if you know the music, it’s exquisite, but again its very melancholic. It’s a really simple tune, it just gets played round and round again in the most remarkable way, with really weird tunings and everything. It’s a phenomenal piece of music. But it’s really reductionist, it really takes the most minimal means to have the most maximal effect. And I said to Bobby, “Look, I put full trust in you, I’d like you to take these themes and expand upon them and see what you find exciting. And then he premiered a new work alongside a new work I put together also based on Dowland. So we put these both on at the Spitalfields festival, and both terrified and amused the audience. I think Bobby terrified them more that I did. If you’ve seen any Haxan Cloak shows, they certainly are very physical to say the least, and I think some of the elderly audience thought there was a train going underneath and they’d better leave the building. So we got him, and then Gazelle Twin, she also made a series of installations – I invited her – and then she went on to curate a whole series of events around Spitalfields, searching for unknown places in the streets. It was a really good show.

Bobby’s done really, really well, and deservedly so, and you guys have certainly supported him. And there are artists who are always coming through who need backing, who need support, and when there’s strong enough work like that, it needs every moment it gets, because it’s certainly not mainstream, and the mainstream radio and publications aren’t going to come anywhere near lots of the work that any of us are doing. I’m always looking for possibilities for putting this stuff on. For example, later this year at the BFI in December, I’m putting on a series of performances alongside Demdike Stare. There’s something very special coming up with all kinds of new commissions, which is really exciting – some really good names, actually, with new works. So again, it’s another way of taking stuff and reinterpreting and offering up a taste to other artists, and then I can connect with them or perform with them, or do whatever we want.

So much of your output over your career seems to have depended on collaboration, or reappropriation, or reinterpretation… I was wondering if you had any thoughts about the conventional – and i’d argue, persistent – Romantic notion of the artist as a soothsayer, an autonomous force producing work, as opposed to a figure operating in relation to other inputs.

I hadn’t thought about it actually, it’s a good point. I have a nice percentage of work which is original – I score films and I score animations and pieces in museums – all original works – and then I have another strand, which is my re-interprations. I’m working on a Purcell project at the moment for the Sydney festival, and that’s equally taking the music from somebody several hundred years ago and rewriting it in a way. But I think in some ways it’s a more honest and direct link to an original – so often we talk about influences, you can listen to a record and you can say, “This artist is really influenced by…” and you can list four names or something. Whereas I’m also going directly to the source and saying, “Actually, I’m very influenced by…and in fact, I’m just going to work with these people exclusively for this work.” I can’t deny that Joy Division were a phenomenal force in my own upbringing and my history – would it not be more honest to myself just to work with their music for this project? And that’s what I’ve done – I kind of reinterpret, rescore, rework.


“I do these projects which are completely invisible, and then I do things which are so ridiculously large scale.”


At the same time, I’ll be honest, working with other people is a way of making sure people don’t look at me. I’ve tried to work out ways to avoid being on a stage, which is why I work in collaboration, because it means that people can be looking at them and not at me. Even with this project with The Heritage Orchestra, there’s enough people that people don’t have to know what I look like, and I can feel more comfortable like that. But I’m always interested just in the simple possibilities, and I think the past offers us just as many possibilities as the future does, and I think if we can look back and reinterpret and rethink things that perhaps people don’t know, and reintroduce them, and educate them, then that’s a very positive thing. Quite a Miss World speech there!

I’m wiping away the tears. You’ve mentioned the Purcell project, the Dowland, the BFI – but what other projects have you got on the go that we can look forward to?

I’ve got all sorts of adventures. I’ve got one very strange one coming up at the Zygote Festival in Sleaford, and it’s a large outdoor spectacular with fireworks, acrobatics and these sort of things. And one of the biggest projects I’m working on at the moment is a huge London performance, probably at the Tower Of London – probably over a week in about 18 months time, so that’s a massive undertaking. I do these projects which are completely invisible, and then I do things which are so ridiculously large scale. But it’s always shifting all over the place. I’m somebody who’s incredibly restless, and I can’t do the traditional thing of releasing a record and touring and just playing shows, I find it incredibly unrewarding. So I’m always looking for ways of escaping that, and thankfully i seem to find enough methods to keep escaping.

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