Jon Hassell tribute
Matthew Jones of Warp Records
interview by Jason Gross
PSF: Jon hadn't put out a record in some years before the final two albums. How did you get in touch with him and help him set up a label?
MJ: My main job is looking after catalogue projects for Warp Records, including their own 30+ years of releases, but also a number of labels that Warp helps out with in some capacity. Partly via Warp releasing new work by Brian Eno, we came to look after All Saints Records, which released some of Eno's '90's work, as well as some albums by artists that he collaborated with over the years such as John Cale, Harold Budd, Laraaji and of course, Jon.
I first made contact with Jon in 2013 when Warp's deal with All Saints started, as their catalogue contains his City: Works Of Fiction album. Most musicians will engage to a greater or lesser extent in these conversations as you're dealing with part of their legacy, but Jon's type of communication was at a different level and our correspondence soon became a sprawling thread, talking in books, films, art, philosophy, politics and other subjects. I frequently felt out of my depth in such exchanges, lacking Jon's wide education and lived experience. He was a Zelig-like figure who had interconnected with an enormous range of 20th century art and music as I'm sure has been noted elsewhere in these tribute pieces.
Once we'd put out the City reissue, which Jon was very hands on with and ended up turning into a 3 disc set, he started talking about other recordings he was working on and bits of his catalogue that he owned directly that he wanted to find a home for. He came to London in 2015 for a concert so we had the opportunity to meet in person. He came to the Warp office and played us some pieces from what became Listening To Pictures, which just blew us away. Later that year, we set up the Ndeya label as a home for his music, with Warp providing the back end infrastructure. The label name 'Ndeya' is a reference to the cherished times he spent with his close friend Mati Klarwein at his house in Deya, Majorca.
PSF: For Listening to Pictures, how did you work with him to produce the album, including choosing musicians and the material?
MJ: Other musicians involved with the recording process such as Rick Cox and John von Seggern are better placed to comment on some of this than me: the ensemble of players and recorded performances were already "in the can" as it were, before I came on board.
My main role was helping Jon to sift through the large amount of new material he had accumulated, and try and shape it into edits and a sequence that worked as an album. That was a fairly long process, and then I oversaw the mastering and artwork and helped to shepherd the project into a releasable state. Jon was very detail orientated and precise about what he wanted, and also changed his perspective on the recordings a number of times during the various stages of production. I think he was somewhat perplexed by the amount of control Warp let him have over all the creative aspects - he mentioned to me a few times that he was used to working with labels such as ECM where the label itself was a lot more heavy-handed about leading the creative! I think he liked the fact we allowed him so much say in everything, but it also probably took a bit longer than it could have, due to each aspect being really poured over. I'm satisfied that the two pentimento records were eventually realised exactly as Jon wanted them.
PSF: How was the process for making/recording Seeing Through Sound similar or different from the previous album? RC: So Listening To Pictures was actually originally cut as a double album with a lot of the material that ended up on Seeing Through Sound on it, but when Jon got the test pressing and sat down and listened to it, he felt it didn't work and decided to go back to the drawing board. He'd gone off a few of the tracks and felt it lacked a bit of coherence.
At the point that Listening To Pictures was subsequently released as a single LP in 2018, the intention was to release some of the material we cut out as a follow up digital EP, like 3 or 4 tracks, further down the line. Once we got round to digging back into the music though, Jon re-edited a few things, and we realised there was enough material for another album.
"Fearless" was a new one that wasn't in contention for the first volume and was clearly a killer opening track. The missing piece of the puzzle was "Timeless," which had appeared in slightly different form on a compilation Tresor put out, and Jon was initially reluctant to put on Seeing Through Sound. He came round to it though, and it added a nice symmetry to the set, bookended by those two 8-minute pieces, and meant that both volumes in the 'Pentimento' series were 8 tracks per album, 4 tracks on each side of vinyl.
Incidentally, it was also Jon's decision to retain the integrity of the original single LP sides on the Vernal Equinox reissue, even though we might have got a slightly better cut by issuing it as a double - he had definitely conceived of that album as two sides of music and wanted the listening experience to be the same for the new edition.
For the process of pulling both 'pentimento' albums together, Brian Eno is owed some credit for giving Jon encouragement at an important stage - particularly his very positive feedback about the track "Unknown Wish," which nearly got ditched. Also Britton Powell, who was involved at one point and helped with the mastering and sequencing process.
PSF: Was he planning further albums in the 'pentimento' series? Did any recordings begin for that?
MJ: I don't think there would have been another 'pentimento' album per se, but there was definitely a ton of material Jon had amassed with the musicians he was playing with in the last few years of his life that he wanted to go through and revisit. It's really sad that he didn't get an opportunity to do that. The whole editing and re-sampling and sequencing stage was such a huge part of Jon's creative process, pretty much from his first record from what I can fathom. He was a big fan of the work Teo Macero did with Miles Davis in the '70's, chopping these monolithic live jams into new shapes. Although Jon never mentioned dub reggae specifically, I sometimes thought his approach mirrored that of some Jamaican music, where the same backing track is repeatedly re-versioned and over-dubbed and mutated, something that was intrinsic in Jon's application of the painterly 'pentimento' concept to the way that he produced music.
PSF: When I interviewed him last year, he mentioned that there was a lot of archival material that he was going through- was he planning to release any of that?
MJ: Yes, there were some projects we'd discussed that he definitely wanted to see the light of day, including a record release of his early electronic installation piece Solid State, some wonderful outtakes from his time working with Farafina from Burkina Faso, and a unique choral work called In Tsegihi. I'm hoping that we're able to realise all of these projects on Ndeya over the next few years and we're talking to Jon's family regularly about the best way to go about this.
PSF: Other than the book, are there any other projects he was planning?
MJ: As well as Atmospherics, he had been working on a more wide-ranging book called The North And South Of You. A kind of Jon Hassell art manifesto is the best way I can describe it. A long-time friend and colleague of Jon's is still working on editing that, so hopefully that will also see publication at some point.
See the rest of our 2nd part of our Jon Hassell tribute
Also see the 1st part of our Jon Hassell tribute, with additional interviews and more
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