“I kind of perversely find it fascinating to try to play with no feeling, with no human idiosyncrasies.”
Concerning the (approximate) metric ton of over-caffeinated Beatport stars who have entered the electronic music community in recent years, each and every one of them, consciously or not, has Tom “Squarepusher” Jenkinson to thank. One of the pioneers of the genre (alongside fellow Warp Records artist Aphex Twin), Jenkinson took electronic music into unprecedented territory in the late ’90s, conquering with his astounding, jazz-inspired drum ‘n’ bass that remains as intricate as it does frantic.
His latest full-length release, Ufabulum (released May 15 via Warp), serves as a return to form for the seasoned vet, as Jenkinson once again finds himself amongst the glitch-y mayhem he helped popularize. We recently got a rare opportunity to chat with the UK legend about his dazzling new live show, his (self-taught) instrumentalist roots, and the electronic scene today.
Your tour in support of Ufabulum has certainly upped your use of visual techniques and imagery. What was the most important aspect, to you, in their design?
Tom Jenkinson: I suppose the most important detail of it is the images themselves; the content, some people would put it. The way in which they’re displayed is secondary to that, although still quite important, and is factored into the creation of those images. But nevertheless, the images themselves are the things that are most important to me.
Is there a particular characteristic you associate with the album? I know a lot of fans and critics were saying it was a return to form, stylistically.
TJ: I suppose I tried to put it in the most mundane terms, really. I think to offer interpretations and opinions as to whether this is referring or relating to my earlier work is more the work of a journalist or a listener. I would simply say that I was trying to get away from the tendency, which is being developed in my work as of late, of using live instrumentation as the primary sound source in my work. Particularly in the last few records, it’s come to be the dominate sound, and I wanted to change that.
On a very day-to-day level, I was quite fed up with having to play instruments all the time. Any live instrument or performer would agree that in order to actually do a performance relatively well, you have to have a regard of discipline regarding your playing, and keep practicing, and maintain a standard that is appropriate to the kind of music you want to play. And that, quite often for what I want to do, is pretty demanding. It sounds ridiculous, but yeah, I wanted a holiday from all that effort and stress.
Being a tech-savvy multi-instrumentalist gives you a unique slant on the creation process. A lot of electronic musicians today are just familiar with the software and the technology. What’s your take on these two schools of thought?
TJ: I think it all has its roots in my initial approach to trying to make music, which is basically to try to get [a] hold of whatever instruments [and] technology I could. In those days, I didn’t make any distinctions whatsoever.
It was simply broadening my ways, the ways available to me to make music, to record music.
But as I’ve [gotten] older and slightly more sophisticated in my usage of these things, inevitably you start to classify things into groups. And the broader classification, as you’re saying, I suppose, is between instruments/the associated playing with those instruments, and the recording technology and incorporating more of those electro-sound making devices. But obviously there’s a middle-ground. For example: a synthesizer—where you play it, but you also have very direct control of the sonic character of what you’re playing.
I think the more you know, the better you’re disposed to be able to do what you want to do. The less you know, the more you’re railroaded into certain decisions. It doesn’t mean you’re gonna make bad music. I’m not making any direct connection between the quality of what you do and what you know, but for me, I just feel free to be able to realize my ideas with that stored knowledge available. I think, not just in music, but as a human being in general, if you’re better prepared for situations as a whole, the more knowledge you have.
I suppose in some way, it’s like one of the points the punks were making against dinosaur rockers in the ’70s … wielding all this knowledge at the audience was alienating them and creating this horrible progressive rock experience.
While I sort of agree in the names of what punks were saying, I think that just because you have knowledge, doesn’t mean you need to wield it at people at all costs. It doesn’t mean you’re using your music making as an opportunity to show knowledge. It just means that that music making is freer, and you can operate in a more fluid fashion.
I think the best musicians and players are the ones that don’t flaunt their knowledge and use what they need to get their points out as well as possible.
When you incorporate live bass into your shows, I’d say it’s kind of like a unification of all the things you say you stand for.
TJ: I don’t know, I’d be a bit uncomfortable to say I stand for anything in particular. I do see what you mean. It actually does feel satisfying to try and actually explore what unity potentially exists between these two worlds, because I’ve never actually had a snobbish technique regarding making music. Whatever technique is appropriate to the piece is fine by me. If that’s programming, fine. If that’s playing, fine.
Lots of the kids I grew up with who were instrumental players used to frown on making music with drum machines, [saying] it was like cheating, or it was like fake music. And I never quite got that. At the same time, [I was] listening to music that was made by a programmer or synthesizer and stuff, and it moved me.
And I thought, if in the end the music is moving me and it’s an enjoyable experience, I find it hard to say it was made in an illegitimate or connoisseur inferior fashion. And actually it feels immensely satisfying to try to bring these worlds together.
But there’s sort of a conflict, because these two methods are heading in a sort of—they just require different mental outlooks. This is one of the things I was finding tiresome regarding making records of late; actually trying to shift my mentality between using the equipment and being more like a recording engineer, then switching back to being an instrumental player—it’s quite tough. I think if you pull it off, it’s (in my personal opinion) the Holy Grail if you can explore that middle-ground between what avenues instruments make available and what avenues programming makes available. There’s actually a fail-safe in my set, if I lose power, then I’m just on my bass.
Not a bad back-up plan. I remember Brian Transeau losing power at a gig a couple years back, and he just started improvising classical piano to keep it going.
TJ: It’s kind of the same thing as what you’re saying. And actually the funny thing is that working so much with programming-based means of making music actually does affect the way you use instruments, and vice versa. There’s sort of a feedback which is quite interesting to explore through those two worlds. My experience in using devices you have to program to make music, [which] is one of the strands that is brought out in my playing, is to try to play like a machine. And honestly, a lot of people would say that is exactly what you shouldn’t do. I kind of perversely find it fascinating to try to play with no feeling, with no human idiosyncrasies. Of course, you can’t avoid it. But nevertheless, these kinds of things are interesting experiments to me if nothing else.
You actually have to approach it in the sense of, why not try it, because nobody can actually tell you what the outcome is. My experience with that is quite extensive, where I would try to explain ideas to people very early on when I was still trying to work with bands to make music, and they would say, “Well that would never work, that won’t sound good, it will be crap.” And it’s like, “Well, I don’t know, but I want to try it. If it does work it’s gonna be amazing.” And actually my career is partly a recording of those attempts to see which ideas that work on paper actually do. Of course, it’s anyone’s opinions to whether they work, but I wouldn’t put it out on a record, unless it wouldn’t do, I suppose.
What do you think about this surge of popularity in electronic music over the last couple of years?
TJ: I mean, it’s a fascinating thing, but I actually think that in a way, you’re going to be in a better place to answer that. I’m coming from the inside of the situation, and trying to keep things moving, [exploring] new tangents. What the public makes of it and what the popularity of it is a long way down my list of concerns. I don’t mean that to try to sound completely independent of the audience or to have a completely blasé attitude, but simply, your best bet as an artist is to concentrate on what you want to do and to not deliberately try to fit in with what is currently popular. I don’t monitor these things particularly closely. And I think particularly in America—maybe in Europe, I’m not so sure it’s had that same kind of surge—
but certainly in America, it’s quite extraordinary.
But yeah—you’re the guy with the overview. I’m really caught up with the very fine details of what I’m doing and what I’m trying to get out there, and that may not play into this surge in popularity. But, popularity is not my problem [Laughs]. It’s in the sense that—I’m self-sufficient, and that’s my aim, and that’s the way I aim to stay. So, part of self-sufficiency is selling enough records so you can keep going, but also not being [so] concerned about how many records you’re selling so that it starts dictating what you do, artistically.
What do you think of the new electronic artists you have heard?
TJ: I think that there’s a pop sensibility in what lots of people are doing, which was a lot less evident in what people were doing in the ’90s. There was quite a self-consciously experimental and aggressive outlook, which has come to be replaced by a much more audience-friendly aesthetic.
I’m not making a valid judgment on that, personally, but that’s how it appears to me. I’m aware of what people are doing, but it’s really not my problem, I suppose. I’m always trying to catch up with my own ideas, as much as fragments of what’s happening out there will come to influence me. I’m not going to deny that, of course. But still, I’m always racing to catch up with the ideas I’ve come up with, so, in a sense, it troubles me if too much of what’s going on in the outside world gets in, because it means I’m getting distracted. I’m not making any valued distinction between what I’m doing and how it relates to other people’s works, but I feel that my strongest suit is to follow my own ideas as in as committed fashion as possible.
I started making music in the era when nobody was into it, so that really has given me a self-sufficient approach, which nowadays, a lot of kids don’t have, because it’s massive, as you say.
And not just in terms of the music itself, but also the tools with which to make the music are everywhere. You can set up an electronic music studio for nothing. When I started making music, it was impossible. The equipment was very expensive, hard to find, and not very easy to use. There wasn’t a great big scene of people discussing how to use those things; you kind of had to make it up as you went along. And I think there’s a legacy of that in my attitude. I felt embattled in those days. [In] electronic music now, there’s nothing controversial about it whatsoever. There’s still a legacy of how it used to be in my attitude today, which [is that] I tend to view the outside world as a quite hostile place [Laughs], and I still follow my ideas very, very aggressively.
TJ: What’s the name of the artist?
TJ: No—I mean, nothing I could say about it in public, no. [Laughs] But in all honesty, what can I say? Nothing.
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