Marcus Whale and Thomas William Interview each other, Mess and Noise, November 2014
MARCUS INTERVIEWING TOM
You've been living in Sydney, producing music for almost ten years now. How do you think the cultural landscape in this city has changed as it relates to you?
I think if I had to generalise about Sydney I'd say that it is very easily influenced. It is a very trend focused city, with a much less well defined endemic 'sound' or focus than other cities around the world. That's not necessarily a bad thing per se, because it means there isn't really an orthodoxy to conform to, or a discourse to define oneself with or against. But it is, I think, a very neo-liberal city. It's quite professional, there isn't so much space to just mess around and experiment because it's an expensive place to live, you have to be getting on with something or be supported in order for it to work, people are quite focused on outcomes and careers - which I think is something people miss when they talk about the 'cultural landscape' here. If you want to really be a DIY person and just do your thing, Sydney probably isn't the best place to be because you'll be spending upwards of a third of your income on rent, for me its closer to half. I'm not referring to anyone in particular here and of course there are lots of super interesting people here whos' work negates this type of pessimism, but these are some of my honest thoughts about the city as a whole.
I think it's a shame there's less participation in experimental and improvised music now than there was a few years ago - Sydney did have a really interesting scene for that type of thing at one point but it seems to have tapered off a little. There's definitely been a big rise in the popularity of electronic music just over the last 4 or 5 years - it's a semi rare occurrence to actually see a band, though that might just reflect my own habits and preferences, but then there aren't really 'clubs' either, so things sort of play out in this strange in between context, which might explain why the electronic music from Sydney that has become really popular is very light and derivative of music from elsewhere. If this was a different type of article I'd complain about local government and all the other reasons it's difficult for young people to start interesting things here, but there's plenty of other people doing that.
You started out making music by producing hip hop beats on MPC, but you're known for branching out
into a number of different avenues, such as a curator at the now-defunct Serial Space and as an academic in Sound at COFA. How do these activities, particularly your involvement with contemporary art, inform your output?
Yes I have always had some sort of involvement with art, though I've never exhibited as a visual artist per se. It's funny cause I'm one of not many people who cross over between the art and more club
friendly electronic music scenes in Sydney, they're quite separate things. I think the main thing that
comes with being involved with art, in relation to music, is an awareness of the semiotic complexity of
music. Music is commonly thought of as an immediate, sensual or emotional medium - that's changed
for me a little, particularly as I get older I've started to think about music or artworks in terms of
relational content more and how music can mobilize certain discourses, and can be a sort of repository
of societal hopes, fears and desires as well as a reflection of ideas. I've been reading this critic
Germano Celant recently, who had some very interesting ideas about the record as artwork, and the
way in which artists have used the distribution channels made available by the recording industry, in
the early 80s: http://www.ubu.com/papers/celant_artsound.html Having said that most of my music
has not been overtly conceptual, though my own musical practice has become more premeditated in
that I pursue particular frameworks, or quite limited sets of possibilities in each project in order to give
Much of your work is sample-based. How do you attribute your interest in these methodologies as a
producer? What is specific about your use of samples?
I think I started sampling initially because I really had no other way of making music that I could
maintain an interest in. My work has always been tied to sounds, finding sounds that are interesting and
listening to them over and over again and then building pieces around them. I have some training but I
never really embraced traditional, physical musicality - I think my musical engagement has always in a
sense been mediated in some way, and so it made sense to respond to that in my own music. Though I
have been making some things more recently that aren't sampled at all.
https://soundcloud.com/thomaswilliamsmith/sets/1t8kmtfkrs In terms of what's specific about it, that's
harder to say, you or someone else might be better placed to answer that. I think you could probably
draw a line through all the music I've made in terms of its textural qualities, I'm drawn to particular
textures, I used a lot of flute sounds at one point, and other even harmonic type sounds, because I
associate them with the colour red, there's some sort of mild synaesthesia thing going on there maybe.
Also, I've never been super comfortable with putting together pre-prepared sample packs and presets
and things, I don't have a problem with other people doing that, and do it myself from time to time
when I just really need a particular sound, but I've always been very absorbed in this almost
ontological relationship with sounds themselves and wanted to channel something from particular
sounds in to my own work, whereas I don't have that same feeling about a generic sound.
Lately, you've folded a lot of music from Chicago into your sets, particularly from drill and bop rappers
who fetishise the sinewy, grotesque sound of autotuned vocals. What interests you about drill and what
do you think is at play in your use of it?
Yes I've been doing these sort of live chopped and screwed sets, where I loop and pitch down source
material taken from quite recent auto tuned rap. It's a pretty crunchy recording but there's an excerpt
from a live set here: https://soundcloud.com/thomaswilliamsmith/tmorimoto_live-excerpt_may2014
I think it started when you asked me to play at that Firstdraft party last year, in that it prompted me to
respond to the popular music that I was actually listening to. I find some auto-tuned rap music deeply
affecting; the machine voice, in perfect pitch but with all those gargling digital artefacts and strange
timing, it really gets me, and when you slow it down all this hidden content comes out and creates what
to me is a hyper-emotional, yet alienating soundscape. I think it's actually the most emotional stuff I've
ever done. So to answer your question directly, there's a certain amount of homage, and also an attempt
to extrapolate from a latent set of aesthetic possibilities in that music. I suppose I'm trying to point to
something I hear in that music that isn't otherwise audible or being explored.
In terms of drill specifically, I'm not sure there's really space here to address it properly, and there's
plenty of material out there on it. But suffice to say I enjoy it. If anyone doesn't know what drill or bop
is they might want to start here:
On a related note, here's some footage from the MCA recently where I did a set of this type:
http://instagram.com/p/tbtT0Nua1N/?modal=true I played through the sound system in the Audi they
have parked out the front of the museum during these Art Bar events they do there, where people come
and pay money to party in an arty sort of environment. I had an idea this performance might function as
institutional critique, I sampled a Rich Homie Quan track where he talks about how expensive his Audi
is and looped it ad nauseam. By foregrounding this one instance of commodity fetishism in rap, in the
context of a luxury vehicle parked outside an event at an art museum, I was trying to highlight the way
in which we ascribe value to different objects and confer social status on ourselves by owning them. I
wanted to flatten the distinction between art, and a more obvious commodity form like an Audi. The
marketing logic behind a sponsorship arrangement like this is that it's beneficial for Audi to be
associated with the air of exclusivity and social prestige that art institutions embody, whereas I was
trying to conceive of the relationship the other way round, and hint that art works function as a
repository of value in a manner quite similar to an expensive car. Art gets a free pass a lot of the time,
some pretty awful people sink their money into art because they think it makes them sophisticated and
more humane, whereas rap as a discourse is very open in its acknowledgement of materialism and
commodity fetishism, and I wanted to bring some of this sincerity to the occasion, to open some sort of
dialogue between the forms. Of course, any commentary I might have been attempting with the piece
was seamlessly absorbed by the institution, the Audi people loved it - it was a strange experience. I had
a discussion about this type of thing - the impossibility of effective critique, with a friend of mine
Hamishi Farah not long ago, his work deals with some similar ideas in an interesting way:
http://vimeo.com/110035343 This article here, though ostensibly about normcore (apologies) also gets
to some interesting points on this critique of critique idea, towards the end: http://www.e-
flux.com/journal/so-now-on-normcore/ I think it's difficult for most of us to actually say anything
coherent outside of language or culture, as in, we're all so ensconced in media and can't extricate
ourselves from a form of delusional anthropocentrism long enough to really see ourselves and what
we're doing in properly relative or objective terms - and this type of work, the live slowed down auto
tune thing in general, is in keeping with that in that it's really the by product of an attempt to come to
terms with the music I'm consuming and trying to look at it from different angles, and forge
relationships between the music and the world which spawned it. It's music about music to put it
crudely, which gets back to some of what I was talking about in response to the previous question
about art. Though I'm certainly aware that my engagement with this music, and my attempt to speak
back to it is potentially problematic, which I suppose is why I plan to only ever really do that stuff in a
live context as opposed to creating some sort of persona of my own around it.
Our collaboration began in, I think, 2009, when we worked on a soundtrack to a short film together.
We were known for being very dense, droney and noisy back then, but our most recent live sets have
been a lot more percussive and, I'd say, crisp. Why do you think our strategies changed over that time?
Yeah that's true, I think there's probably been some sort of movement in electronic music towards
functionalism, and a certain rhythmic accessibility. So perhaps we've moved along with that, I'm not
sure. I suppose I felt some of the strategies I was employing had sort of played out in terms of what I
could do with them. There are only so many layers, and so many octaves one can fit into a stereo
signal, and so it became more productive to start taking layers away - though I still wouldn't say I've
done anything particularly minimal. I still really enjoy drones and density, and have been
experimenting with it in some of my live sets in a more improvised way. Also, I don't know how you
feel about this but in terms of our collaboration at a certain point I realise we could actually have a lot
of fun playing live and that the rhythmic element was really a vehicle for that.
The last full Thomas William release, Deccan Technicolour, was released three years ago. You've since
released quite a lot of music on the internet, spanning reinterpretations of John Cage scores, no input
improvisations, Chief Keef edits and even video tributes to French New Wave cinema. What can we
expect from the Thomas William project in the future, and will we see another official release?
Yes, I'm aware that my output is potentially a little incoherent or confusing for the casual listener. It's
kind of all over the place. I've made a whole bunch of music that could have constituted releases, but I
either decided I wasn't happy with it, or the label arrangements fell through, or various things got in the
way of really pursuing a decent release, or perhaps it's just not really suitable for that mode of
dispersal. I've also been working on some tracks with Hamish from Cliques, I'm involved in a couple
of other collaborations including the Alaska Orchestra who're just about to record a Glenn Branca
piece which was specifically commissioned for the group, I'm doing some more curatorial work for
Firstdraft gallery, and am chipping away at a PhD which I started in March. I'm also doing a 12"
through Plastic World in January, so I'm working on that at the moment. I'm not really sure about
future releases, there's a pretty serious backlog of material on my hard drive so maybe I'll just put it all
on the internet or something.
TOM INTERVIEWING MARCUS
You've been around in Sydney for almost as long [as me], I first met you when you were 16 (18?)! I was immediately interested in your music back then because it seemed so informed and developed for someone that age. What are some of the stages your solo work has been through since then, sonically and in terms of technique and process? I've always been intrigued by your methods because they seem quite unfussy, which is a little unusual in electronic music.. I've even described you as 'based' before..
I think I find myself with quite particular aims when I'm working with sound - back when we first met, I was interested in quite long form, sort-of-drone music, but with that piercing granulated sound that might be remembered as permeating every track I made for several years, particularly on Broken English (http://hellosquare.bandcamp.com/album/broken-english). My interests have changed a lot since then, but I think what is consistent is perhaps that I'm not much of a tweaker or twiddler. When I sit down to work on music, I usually have to have quite a clear idea of what I want something to sound like, even if it's going to be something partly improvised. I'm perhaps guilty of being unambitious in my process, there's ironically not very much experimentation. What's changed, I think, is that I'm a lot more interested in making music with physical impact not least through my prevailing interest in smashing up high production pop music into little bits.
You're involved in more projects than we have space for here - are Collarbones, Black Vanilla and Scissor Lock the major ones? You've done some performance pieces in an art context too. How do you think of these projects as being different from one another? why do you need to maintain such a broad focus? and do you have any new projects planned for the future?
Yes, those three are the main ones, not to mention this new music you and I have made! Every one of these projects feels fundamentally separated to me, I actually find it difficult to understand how people can do just one thing. I read that FKA Twigs was working on her music for four years before she started releasing it! That sort of thing would be torture for me, I have so many things I'd like to attempt and as I commit something to recording, it seems like something else would be more interesting. This is one reason why making Collarbones records is such a difficult thing for me - there's always an enormously long (for me) process and by the time things are released, on a conceptual level they're up to two years old! And there's so much baggage associated with a project once you've been doing it for a while, and a weight of expectation and identification. I've really enjoyed working on my solo album, which I'll talk about a bit later, because I'm shaping everything in the first instance - there's no previous work under my own name to react to. That feeling of virginity is really an amazing inspiration for making music.
Not many people seem to come out of the Conservatorium with your level of open mindedness and syncretism.. In what ways does your training as a composer continue to effect your work? how does it enable you? and do you think it has ever had a limiting or constricting effect on what you're willing or able to produce?
I don't think a lot about my training as a composer, though I think it has influenced me a lot in particular with the way I think about the affect of what I do, as well as a broader cultural context for what is being attempted. It's quite reactionary in a way - I'm not interested in the ideology of music's "purity" or "abstraction", I want to make things that participate in the world and carry its weight. I have definitely benefitted from the training in terms of opening my listening and writing to the broad possibilities of what music can do and be, and also on a more technical level with things like orchestration. But ultimately it's been a quite complementary influence in my life, rather than being either dominating or completely irrelevant.
You have a very deep engagement with pop music, and the heightened emotional states of teen drama and pop culture, what is it about Degrassi and Justin Bieber that interests you?
I think my interest in those particular elements of pop culture has waned a little in recent times, but I think I'm interested in the way that things like pop music can explode into the most fantastical and extreme of dramas, particularly when disseminated through the vastness of the internet. I think there's also this melancholy nostalgia for what I can only describe as an authentic experience - mediation has fatigued us emotionally so much that pop music and teen drama is transformative and cathartic in its ability to conjure the affect of sincerity. There's something profound to me in the chase for an affect - the "feels" - that doesn't have resonance beyond itself. It's kind of a horrible, shallow and hedonistic way to live, but in terms of momentary experience, its power can be overwhelming. Degrassi has great writers, is researched well and formulaic in a satisfying way, like it's a game. I think it's a very wholesome influence on the world. There should be more TV shows like it.
On a related note, some of your work engages with ideas around and fame and celebrity, can you talk about why that interests you?
I find that the cult of celebrity is an incredibly dynamic pillar through modern capitalist society throughout the work and activates a number of mythologies and fantasies at the centre of the human experience in this day and age. I think it also extends in a kind of continuity across the ages too - there is always a function to considering people as elevated, as like gods. I'm also kind of into the mundanity of what celebrity is in the internet age, that our desire for narrative has extended to such extreme extents that fanbases colonise the entire everyday lives of the objects of their devotion. I'm also interested in the level to which such detail, such intrusiveness creates a kind of fiction of the everyday. This is particularly relevant to this recent trend of youtube vloggers as celebrities - their vlogs are supposedly confessional moments of authenticity, but of course when 3 million people subscribe to you, how much of you can you really reveal before it becomes completely out of control? Thank god no one knows Troye Sivan's home address.
You're currently working on a solo album under your own name, can you talk about that? Does it have a particular concept behind it? and when will it be done?
The album i'm working on is an ethnography and origin story for myself, in Australia, of a kind. I'm singing lead vocals on all the tracks. A lot of it regards a kind of reimagining of Australian convict history from a kind of queer, gay male perspective, as well as some songs regarding the function of amnesia around the frontier wars and other atrocities perpetrated by white colonisers in Australia. It's a chance for me to try and fuse a lot of my musical interests too - I've arranged a bunch of parts for horns and strings, which sit alongside these quite stark and hard electronic instrumentals. With Collarbones, Black Vanilla, Scissor Lock, there's always been a kind of prescribed direction informed by the "idea" of the project. With this album I can really explore a bunch of things quite ambitiously and not worry about what people are going to think at the end of it, and it's probably the most fulfilling writing experience I've had. Nigel Yang from HTRK is helping produce it, which has been very productive, and a useful learning curve for both of us.