photos by Wolfgang Mustain (courtesy Warp)
Interview by Jason Gross (January 1999)If there's a bigger mind-fuck in the world of drum and bass than Tom Jenkinson aka Squarepusher, I don't think I could bear to hear it. "Chin Hippy" and Big Loada were the sound of technology gone utterly bonkers, threatening to bust out of your speakers and come after you. If drum machines and sequencers were originally thought of as a means to create dance music, this was something you could only listen in awe to and wonder how your ear and brain could keep up. After upping the ante as high as it would go, Squarepusher then took a shocking detour with his latest CD Music Is Rotted One Note. Where before you heard echos of fusion in his melodies, here he abandoned all the fancy technology to make himself a one-man band that was ready to back up Miles (if he was still around). This left everyone wondering if Squarepusher was giving up the music that helped him make his mark. Not surprising, his fertile mind is bouncing all over the place (just like his music), going to a few new places you wouldn't expect.
Thanks to Jeremy J Graham and Jason McCollum for their help with this article.
PSF: Do you think that being a bassist and a drummer have helped you with the programming you do with your work?
Yeah, my drum programming especially is based on my knowledge of playing a drum kit. For the bass too, definitely. It was the first thing that I translated any sort of ideas through. It must have shaped it somehow. God knows how.
PSF: With your earlier work, you'd use very fast BPM's that almost seemed to go against what the mind and body can normally take in. Did you see it that way? How do you react to your own music?
I don't think that ever at any point it seemed too fast really. I think it was just a mirror of what I thought was normal at the time. It seemed like everything (else) wasn't fast enough. So it wasn't like my stuff wasn't too fast then. It was just perfectly natural. It didn't effect me in any weird way or anything.
PSF: So it was normal compared to what then?
Just the type of music that was around at the same time as I was writing. Some of it was wicked, definitely. But there was just one direction which I thought could be pushed that no one was pushing.
PSF: Was it something other than the BPM's that you were trying to push?
Yeah, I was trying to... maximize the whole emotion and impact as well as the physical and rhythmic impact. Just make it more of a head-fuck I think. I've always been into the head-fuck.
PSF: Like what?
Anything that's on the edge. I've always like really psychedelic music to some idea, when it's trying to achieve some head-fuck sort of thing in it. Where ever it's through a really subtle, melodic means or more of a rhythmic assault. But it's always attempting the same sort of feeling.
PSF: I know that you're a big fan of bop music like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. The rhythms obviously mean a lot to you but do you also get something from the soloing that was done in that music?
I think earlier on I did. But I don't really listen to much be-bop at all at the moment. When I was listening to that, it was primarily effecting the way I was playing bass guitar because I wasn't really writing any music at the time. It was about eight years ago. That's before I ever record anything- that's when I was just a bassist. But it's definitely contributed to the way I approach bass I suppose. And that may have influenced (later work) in turn. Definitely on the playing aspect.
PSF: With your latest CD (Music Is Rotted One Note), you seemed to go more in a direction of Miles Davis' work. Do you see it that way?
Definitely. I think in some way, it was my interpretation of a lot of stuff that's been really important to me. It was just time to react in certain ways. Obviously, there is that massive influence there.
One of the reasons that I headed in that direction as opposed to the more computer sequence-type stuff is because I was actually beginning to feel really limited using sequencers and samplers. I'm basically a musician. My history is really playing live- not writing or recording. I hadn't done that in such a long time. I was really beginning to yearn for the sort of unpredictability of the randomness of improvising with live instruments. I was just starting to choke. The sequencer is too square, too digital. I just wanted to get really fucking loose and just start again somehow. I was starting to feel really suffocated, using the sequencer.
PSF: You don't think that you'd go back and work that way again?
No, that doesn't mean that I'll never do it again. It's not the right thing for me at the moment. There's different stuff for me to learn at the moment.
PSF: What originally led you away from band music to work with this then?
I couldn't find a group that wanted to do what I wanted to do. No one was really up for it.
PSF: So what you're doing now is what you had hoped to do in the past?
I don't know. I don't have a conscious vision really. I just get into the studio and play. If I'm open minded enough hopefully, then whatever wants to come out, will come out. I don't plan stuff at all. I try to base it on a stream of consciousness type of thing really. I'm not into planning things at all. Not music. People often get fucked up by having really rigorous sort of plans and rules and stuff going on. 'Cause you could be ignoring so many little mistakes and weird sort of spontaneous things that occur when you just improvise.
I have a rough idea when I walk into a studio though. Sometimes I think that I want to do something strictly basic, really simple. Just with a few chords. But I won't have anything more than two or three sentences in my head. That kind of evaporates once I start playing and then it goes off in whatever direction. I can come out with something pretty close to what I wanted to do. Other times, the track is nowhere near... you just couldn't have imagined it when you started.
PSF: Do you find that you're happy with the end result nevertheless?
I'm always pleased with my work. Absolutely.
PSF: Since you're talking about the creative process, I was wondering how you find inspiration and get your ideas?
From anything really. It can be just be from waking up and it's a really nice day. That could be enough to just you going. It's just anything. Talking to someone on the phone, seeing something on the telly, seeing something at a shop. Often, it's hearing music- that gets you going. But it's not exclusively that at all. Maybe a film or something.
PSF: You talked about band music before and wanting to do that now. Are you ready to tour with a band now?
No, not quite but it's getting there. I've got some musicians now. So hopefully something will be happening towards the end of the year or middle of the year.
PSF: What kind of sound are you looking for in your band?
I'm not really willng to say actually. I don't think it can be said.
PSF: Could you talk about your upcoming release, Budakhan Mindphone?
It's an extension... it's the next step from the last album as I suppose every record is. I started using a sampler again on this again. I've got a MIDI pick-up for my bass. I'm starting to play all the melodies with kind of keyboard sound but playing it from the bass guitar. Since it's my first instrument, it makes sense to try and record like that. Use that as sort of a trigger. So I've been playing sort of a keyboard sounds and samples and shit off the bass. It's more electronic sounding again. It's not as organic. It's more... rough sounding, aggressive.
PSF: When you released Rotted, where you conscious that you were messing around with peoples' expectations of what your music is like?
Oh yeah. Although I didn't think so at the time, it was pretty BIG step. Doing something like that, quite radically changing your approach to sound in one go, could leave you high and dry. It's happened before where people have changed direction and then everyone's stopped liking their music.
PSF: How do you think you fared?
I think it's fine. The reactions to it have been good or even a bit better.
PSF: You moved out of London recently. Do you think it's helpful to be out of a big city like that?
Oh yeah. I find that it's far better for working. It's just a different atmosphere than the city. Less distractions maybe.
PSF: You've worked with Richard James (Aphex Twin) and seem to admire his work a lot. What appeals to you about his music?
It's just his approach. I've always admired his approach to sound. His attitude is pretty good, I reckon. He's doing his own thing, I think. You can't take that away from him. I just always thought his approach was always very inspiring. There's a lot of energy to it.
PSF: Do you think you've learned something from his work?
Absolutely. Yeah. Very much so. He's one of my major influences, I'd say. Harmonically yes but also in his approach and his attitude. To a certain extent though- there are certain things that I don't agree with.
PSF: You've also spoken about your love of LFO, Underground Resistance and Carl Craig. Do you think that your early work at least might have been some kind of extension of what they were doing?
Definitely Carl Craig. Stuff like LFO and all the more obviously electronic-sounding stuff is a bit farther away. But Carl Craig had a really... weird organic sound. It had this really warm, rich tone that was like a '70's record or a well-recorded jazz record. That sort of vibe is still going on in my music, I reckon. There's one track by Galaxy that's one of my favorite tunes of all time. The vibe of that tune is just like 'yeah!' Inspiring.
PSF: Nowadays, how do you look back at your earlier work like Feed Me Weird Things and Hard Normal Daddy?
I really like it still but it's already beginning to sound a bit... It sort of reminds me of being a bit younger in a way. It's a bit more (of a) naive approach, a bit more fresh. The sound as well. I've gotten better production in some sort of way, I reckon. I still REALLY like it. I like my stuff 'cause I only ever end up with tracks that I really, really like. It always appeals to me. There's only about four tracks that I've done which I don't really like. The rest of them I like. They remind me of different eras and different vibes.
PSF: Do you think the overall music concepts that you had then are still a part of your work though?
Yeah, I think so. The basic things running through all the tracks is still present now. Like the attitude towards sound is not particularly different really.
PSF: Thinking back to your first few records, do you see a change or progression going on?
Absolutely. It was just becoming more and more complicated basically. More and more detail gradually creeping in. Trying to intensify the experience I suppose in a sort of one dimension way. Taking the view that more detail is more head-fuck. But now I've seen that it's not necessarily true at all. More space can also be equally sort of harrowing, I think.
PSF: Less is more sometimes.
Yeah, that's right. But I think at that time, I was just sort of on that 1-D sort of thing, trying to make things more and more mental in the most obvious way possible. Cramming as much detail as you can. I think it came to a point where it simply didn't seem worth going any further. For me, I think Big Loada was the definitive breakbeat record. From there, I couldn't... that was just IT in my opinion. It was time to start from the bottom up again.
PSF: Early on, there was some battling go on for you with different record companies (Ninja Tune, Warp, Rephlex). Did that put a lot of pressure on you?
It was a bit weird. There'll all pretty good people really. It didn't seem like a battle. It was just unfortunate that it can get that sort of vibe. R&S was asking about me too but I didn't sign with them because they're a pretty shit label. I went with Warp because I was more into their music really. I've never really been that much of a fan of Ninja Tune. They're nice people but I don't really like the music they do.
PSF: You've done with some work with Talvin Singh. What are your thoughts about his work?
I haven't recorded with him. I just played with him a few times. I don't like his music that much really. I really like his tabla playing and improvising with him. We've had some really good occasions of doing that. I don't actually like the music that he's released to be honest. It's alright but...
PSF: You once said 'any geezer can make a drum and bass record.' In your eyes, how can you keep the music fresh nowadays?
We need to continually re-invent the approach. The thing is, people have been using the same approach now for quite some years, which is basically keys, bass and a sampler. In some ways, there's going to have to be an injection of new ideas somehow. The older ideas are rendering more and more bland music. When it was kicking off in '93 and '94, it was all pretty fucking wicked. But now, it's gone pretty dry and been stripped down.
I'm not that much of a fan of minimalist music and it has gone pretty minimalist. But I think there's room with in that sort of tempo range to bring back the fucking energy basically. I reckon that's what I'm doing now. I'm going into writing music at that tempo. There's a couple of tracks on the new record which is sort of using similar sort of rhythms as the drum and bass tracks but playing it all live. It's a new approach to it. That's the way things are going for me at the moment. Going back into that sort of territory but fucking taking a whole set of instruments with me basically, in that drum and bass territory.
PSF: Techno's broken down into a whole minutia of styles. Are there any particular ones that you find interesting now?
The Chain Reaction and Basic Channel stuff. I've been well into that for the last couple of years. That's been really good. Axis, still well into (Jeff) Mills I reckon. He's mental. Also, Mad Mike still doing wicked stuff. It's drying out in a sort of way. The vibe IS disappearing. Dunno, it's weird. It's not quite as inspiring as the older stuff I reckon.
There is actually some alright drum and bass at the moment, like coming out of London. There's definitely room for improvement. Hopefully, it's turning around again and becoming a bit more...
PSF: It's still a relatively young style of music so it's bound to go through all kinds of bumps and changes.
Absolutely but things move faster these days. Five years in this decade is not the same as five years in any other decade. Things are changing a lot more quickly now.
PSF: How does that effect you? How do you stay on top of this then?
I don't know that the best way to approach it is to try and keep up. When you're doing that, you're setting yourself into a one-dimensional sort of race basically. I don't think that's good for music. I think that just breeds a lot of copying and a big bland spectrum of similar sounding music. I think the best way is to forget about racing people and just find territory that's fresh. The only way to find that territory is trying to keep your mind constantly open. That's the only way that you're ever going to see the sort of signs of where to go.
PSF: That's true. If you always try to keep up with things, you can't win in the end.
PSF: I've seen that fans tend to examine and re-examine your work a lot. Do you find that to be a burden?
Not really. I don't take that much notice of it to be honest so that's why I get around it. I don't know how many records I'm selling. I chose not to bother with that shit.
PSF: That's probably for the best. People can get pretty fanatic about this.
It's pretty scary. Very scary. Imagine, it's just your own thing and that's all it is. It's not from the Gods, it's just these things that you've done. For people to be treating it like a religious object, it's like... fucking ridiculous. It's unhealthy. It's a head-fuck but it's the sort of head-fuck I chose not to have really. (laughs)
PSF: It's a BAD head-fuck.
Yeah! A bad one. Well, it's sort of flattering but it's really weird as well.
PSF: Other than the Budakhan Mindphone release and getting a band together, what other plans do you have?
Get a gamelan orchestra going. I've had an interest in that for quite some time. We've got a lot of gamelan instruments over now so hopefully, we'll be able to set that up.
PSF: Would it be without drum tracks or sequencers?
Just playing. Me and Autechre can do that hopefully. I've started learning about it really. It's good, it's amazing. Also, I want someone to give me a contract to do a whole soundtrack for a film. It's good because I can visualize it when I listen to it.
See some of Tom's favorite music
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