The multi-instrumentalist and producer, whose brilliant new album Biophila was released last month, talks to Soundblab about his day job working with 'hard to reach' kids, the sounds that inspire him and why dubstep is "South London folk music"
Some of the music on Biophila feels very urban and claustrophobic, such as 'Chalybeate' and some feels spacious and almost bucolic, such as 'Last Child in the Woods'. Do you have environments you think about or that influence you when making music?
Yeah - my big thing is this interface between urban and pastoral worlds. I was born and live in South London and pretty much always have done but need to spend regular time in the country. In fact I have an incredibly beautiful garden here but the mainline into Clapham Junction is at the bottom of it so my life is spent around that interface of birdsong and big train noise. I enjoy the pastoral world but in many ways I like the more elemental aspects of it - crashing waves, granite hills, though a wood filled with birdsong takes a bit of beating. I chose the title Biophilia because of that dichotomy really and my need to engage with green spaces.
Who are your musical inspirations? To what degree are you inspired by other artists?
I'm inspired by the whole world of sound - as much by the hum of fridge as by great song and also pretty much the whole world of music. I love old folk songs, early music - Tallis, Palestrini, 20th century composers - Stockhausen, Varese, urban musics - Public Enemy, Tine Tempah at the moment - Neil Young never fails to move me nor Johnny Cash at his best - but I dont see the influence. Kate Bush, The Temptations, Kraftwerk, Autechre, Joker, Herbie Hancock . I grew up on reggae and left-field prog so I guess King Tubby and early Soft Machine are big influences.
You've collaborated with a some legendary artists. Do you have a 'wish list' of people you'd still like to work with?
Its always been a matter of chance with this really - I got sacked by Ludus and ran into Nico's new manager the next day and he asked me to join a new band then through her met Cale. David Thomas (Pere Ubu) and I shared a manager briefly who asked me to dep for trumpeter Andy Diagram on a short tour (I dont play trumpet) and David's view that an electro-percussionist could replace a trumpeter really appealed. No wish list really - too late for Delia Derbyshire or Nick Drake, I guess.
How does the creative process of working on your own music differ from collaborations? Is one easier than the other?
I think collabs are in some ways easier - you don't have to torture yourself to test ideas - someone else does that for you but on the other hand there's always more tension in a collab which can be good or bad. I like that lack of compromise in working alone but love what happens when you work with someone else who inevitably hears the world differently. Alone it's not really about bouncing ideas, more about starting a process and seeing it through to the bitter end, but throwing ideas into a pot and not being precious about where they go is very liberating.
It's different according to who you work with - with Nico, she was so otherworldly that we'd improvise ideas and then let her do her thing if she liked it whereas David Thomas is very pro-active and clear in his responses without being directive. I've just finished an album with Mark Beesley from Rothko and that just had a straightforward creative flow.
How do you choose your collaborators?
They have to be great and relentlessly creative - and have a unique 'voice' in whatever they do. I have turned down some amazing chances including working with some real heroes because it didn't feel right.
Do you make an effort to keep up with new music? How much are you consciously influenced by genres such as dubstep and 2-step?
I love music - its no effort to keep up but I am very lucky. One of my day jobs is making music with so called 'hard to reach' young people and they are always giving me mp3s of the latest producer or spitter. Frankly, I was on grime from the very beginning!
What I love about dubstep is that it has opened the doors and ears to a wider spectrum of electronic music than any of its predecessors, and of course it's our South London folk music. What I find really strange is people who only listen to music made when they were young - there's always been great and shit music and what's going on today contains some great stuff.
What music are you into right now? What would you recommend Soundblab readers check out?
He doesn't need my props, but James Blake really is amazing and I love that whole Flying Lotus, Rusty thing too. Also in London and elsewhere at the moment is the most fruitful and creative underground scene I've ever known - I'd suggest people check out any of the dozens of experimental nights running in Stokie, Brixton and other places like Plymouth, Winchester, Cumbria, Brighton, where the boundaries between sound, art and music, experimental and dance musics, song and improv are all being challenged and you can hear all sorts of fusions performed by really passionate musicians who'll never make a bean probably.
How did you get started making music and what were your first musical loves?
I've always made music - I was a really good boy soprano as a kid and have probably sung every day of my life. We always had a piano too and I remember as a tiny kid banging and scraping the inside strings. My mother's side were all musicians - my grandfather was a choir master and organist while my dad's side were scrap metal wheeler dealers - so I guess that where the post-industrial sounds come from. I loved Scottish folk, then 60s pop like Donovan and The Kinks followed by psychedelia which hinted at so much I didn't understand and of course Doctor Who. I also share with a love of 'Sputnik' by The Tornadoes with Thatcher I'm sorry to say (Gagarin may actually be thinking of The Tornadoes 1962 number one single 'Telstar', which Thatcher named as her favourite tune - Ed). I started playing drums at 11 after my headmistress at school told me I was 'too musical' to be a drummer!!
How do you balance your music making with your job as GEO label curator? Do the two compliment each other or is it hard to fit both in?
Running Geo is really just an extension of making music - I just wanted the simplicity of being able to put out what I wanted without relying on others - this way whatever goes wrong is my fault and that's fine. I have wasted so much time waiting for labels to make up their mind or get their shit together that I just thought I'd get on with it so I did. My main day job is running music sessions with kids with disabilities or 'hard to reach' and that really helps to balance my creating - you're forced to grow and adapt on a daily basis and constantly recharged by the power of music.
What's next for you?
Well, we've just finished the Low Bias album - that's me and Mark Beesley. It's sounding fantastic and I've written some riffs and am inputting to the next Pere Ubu album. (I'm) about to start the second Roshi ft Pars Radio album following the acclaimed Iranian EP we did during the winter and as ever a lot of irons in the fire. I'm also mulling over an 'Of and By' album of mixes I've either done for others or they've done of me - this could include Muslim Gauze, Pere Ubu, Rothko, Robert Logan, Youth and loads more so I'm very tempted even though its' looking backwards a bit, which I don't like to do - the future is always a more interesting place than the past.
Biophila is out now on GEO Records