Squarepusher Q&A: A Chat With Electronic Music’s Own David Foster Wallace
Tom Jenkinson on video synthesizers, synaesthesia and self-indulgence
Seventeen years ago, Squarepusher (Tom Jenkinson) began his career as a breakbeat gadfly, chopping up jungle with Jaco Pastorius into a style known briefly as “drill ‘n’ bass” (or, better still, “weirdy-beardy”). Since then, across a dozen albums, he has established himself as one of electronic music’s least predictable musicians, capable of infectious 2-step garage, sepulchral ambient, molecular breakbeat science and even an entire album of solo electric bass. Fair-weather fans might snicker, “Spinal Tap Mark II performs Jazz Odyssey,” but anyone who really knows Squarepusher — a gauntlet he threw down with 2002’s Do You Know Squarepusher — recognizes that there’s a method to his madness.
Jenkinson is famous for meticulously constructed rhythms and audacious, even alienating, stylistic shifts, and both qualities are readily apparent in a conversation with him. He’s cordial, candid and 100 percent engaged, but I’ve never heard another musician speak in such analytical terms about his own work — terms that might sound cold, until you realize the extent to which his right-angled career is as conceptual as it is wildly expressionistic.
During our 40-minute conversation, I began to think of Jenkinson as electronic music’s very own David Foster Wallace: a virtuoso in rebellion against himself, deeply attuned to the minutiae of his craft and even more deeply concerned with the dialectic between artist and audience, potential and expectation, expression and implosion. His speech even comes to sound like a series of footnotes, riffing on the issue from every conceivable angle.
Squarepusher’s new album, Ufabulum, is a box of conundrums ribboned with riddles, even by his own standards. On its surface, it might be the most immediately gratifying record he’s done in a decade or more; oddly, though, he approached it as an almost mathematical exercise. And the album itself is, in a sense, incomplete: Jenkinson created the music along with his own computer-generated visuals; to get the full experience, you have to see the live show. (Jenkinson’s track-by-track notes, however, help illustrate his vision of EDM gone CGI — as well as opening a window onto his unusually vivid perspective.)
We talked about video synthesizers, synaesthesia and self-indulgence; read on for the full interview.
Hi Tom. You’re in São Paulo, are you debuting your new live show?
That’s very much what I was doing, the new live show. Which doesn’t actually include any old material.
Tell me some more about the show. It’s an audio-visual set, and you’ve designed your own video synthesizer — what exactly is a video synthesizer?
I termed it a video synthesizer; it’s just a rough way of referring to it. Part of the idea of using that term is that some of the ways in which it generates images are analogous to how a synthesizer generates sound — i.e. through mathematical functions which can be combined in various ways to generate patterns. It takes in information from the sound, so part of the sound from the show will be then inputted into the video synthesizer, and it will decode that into information which can then be used to control the images. It also takes in information in a much more simple, instructional form. I.e. you’ll go, “Now turn the screen red,” “Now move this object from this position to this position,” and so on, in the same way that you would output information to a musical instrument from a sequencer. Broadly speaking, the idea is to be able to generate images in real time, using certain forms of information, and those images can be changed in real time. In that respect, it’s quite clearly differentiated from playing a piece of video, which is obviously going to be the same every time you play it. The point about this is that I can have real-time control, so that at any given time, if the music changes, a parallel change also occurs in the images.
Are you using any pre-recorded video at all?
So it’s sort of like the difference between a sampler and a synthesizer, then.
That’s a reasonable analogy, yeah.
You have some incredibly descriptive imagery in your track notes to the album, which I love. You said of “Red in Blue” that the chord progression “suggested a kind of occult mist where objects would appear in mid-air and vanish again only to reappear elsewhere; the mist was dense, but fragile.” Are you synaesthetic?
Yes. But I don’t think that’s uncommon, is it? This is something that lots of people have.
What kind of relationships do you have between sound and other senses?
It’s always struck me that it has a kind of ad-hoc nature. It’s hard for me to predict in advance what sounds will give rise to what images. In that respect, my investigation into it is somewhat empirical. I’m trying to discover that. In the track notes, obviously I’ve given descriptions to try to form a little bit more of a context for the images that are being shown in the show. Nonetheless, it wasn’t always the case that the story came first. Sometimes the sound will evoke the story. Sometimes the story evokes the sound. It’s certainly never quite the same: Each time I embark on a new piece, the actual mechanism and structure of the way I go about it is subtly changed.
For example, the one you described, the objects coming and going in the mist, that was very much inspired by the sound. That was not an idea or an image which I had prior to starting work on the piece of music. It was very much the music which evoked this kind of image and idea. On the other hand, the “Dark Steering” track, where there’s a description that briefly describes this dream about missile tracers in the sky —
And then it morphs into a scene of flying through a library?
Yeah, yeah. [Laughs] The idea started with the missile tracers, and then flying through the library came later. That was almost a response to the sound, whereas the initial starting point was these tracers. That was my initial reference point from which I started working on the sounds. As I say, on each given piece, the way it works is slightly different. But the point was to try and foster as coherent a relationship as I could between picture and sound. So that there was no sense of tokenism, there was no sense of it just being strapped on for the sake of it. There’s no sense of it being, like, trying to keep up with the Joneses, like, just because lots of people now use visuals at shows, I also felt obliged to do it, regardless of the fact that I may not have any good ideas. I’ll only do it if it feels like I’ve actually brought something to the experience of listening to the sound through the picture.
This is something I really don’t like, if I see this kind of tokenism, where people feel that they have to supply a visual component to their shows, but they didn’t necessarily have any real inspiration for it, they just went out and got some third-party guy to design it for them, who himself didn’t have much of a clue as to why or what these images should be doing. It’s an odd situation. I only would do it if I felt like the pictures bring something to the sound. I’m pretty confident that that’s the case for this project.
For someone to experience fully what you are trying to do with this record, do they really need to see the live show?
Well, that’s a very good point. Because obviously it brings up, in a quite stark fashion, the seeming contradiction between what I’m saying about these visuals being very close to the heart of the project, and yet, with the album, you don’t see them.
I suppose, given my initial considerations regarding how these images would be displayed, that that pretty much determined the course of how the project was then presented to the public. Basically, from the very outset, I had the idea that the images would be displayed on the LED mask that I wear on stage and on the rear LED panel which is situated behind me. Secondly, that LED would be the product I would use to transmit the images, because of the particular quality of light that it generates and the intensity that you can achieve with it, which I feel is something that’s not really possible to realize with projectors, for example. And thirdly, the scale: The absolute minimum size of the rear screen is five meters by three, which I see as being totally essential to realizing my aims, in terms of getting the intensity and the scale across.
So the compromise of releasing this in a format that the public can appreciate at home is obviously really difficult. That immediately throws away the scale and it throws away the intensity. If you were looking at this on a computer screen, I’m sorry, but it just doesn’t work. Obviously, there’s the option of doing this as a DVD, with all this stuff scaled down so that you could then watch it on a television or a computer, but that, for me, was such a strong disavowal of the initial ideas that I decided not to do it. And I thought that actually an audio album is better, and feels like a more satisfying thing to offer to the public, rather than this halfway house where the visuals are combined, but they don’t receive the correct kind of treatment. It’s quite a compromise, of course.
The other point is, I’ve striven to recreate some of the mental images this music brings about for me; that’s of course not to say that the public should see it like that. I could be quite happy for someone to have their own response to this, and for that response to be entirely different to my own. That’s what makes the album feel like a satisfying thing to offer to the public. You just leave it much more open-ended as to how they respond to it. The problem with the show, I suppose, is you’re somewhat railroading people into a particular kind of visual response to the music, and they may or may not agree with it. Whereas the album allows that scope, either to not have any kind of mental image, or to have your own personal one, which I’m more than happy to try to foster. Each one has its problems. There’s no perfect representation of this project. In any case, if you disagree with the images I’m putting up there, you can always shut your eyes.
Let’s talk more about the album. I like that it feels very much like a proper album, like a unit, a coherent piece. BuIt also feels like you went back to your roots a little bit.
I mean, we’re probably moving from the sort of territory which I’m comfortable to talk about into territory that I’m not so comfortable with. I see this as probably more your job than mine, to make those kinds of assessments. I don’t mean that in a rude fashion. I just mean, I’m very close with this. I’m concerned with it, as much as I am aesthetically as I am technically. There are numerous ways in which I’m concerned with this music that a listener just wouldn’t be. So I think that kind of assessment is really public domain. I don’t know what I can offer in that respect. I can certainly say the idea of trying to replicate something I’ve done in the past is quite offensive to me. Trying to recapture something I was doing 15 years ago, that’s certainly a long way from my intentions.
But I hear a sense of pleasure in this album that reminds me of, say, Feed Me Weird Things, much more than your recent releases.
I would say, in a much more flat-footed way, certainly the album was starting from different premises than the albums I’ve made in the last seven or eight years — one of the main things being not using any live instrumentation. In a technical sense, there is resonance with what you’re saying, because I actually returned to a certain method of making music which — disregarding the fact that I was also working on visuals, which makes it rather different — is not so far away from the techniques I used on, say, Go Plastic, from 11 years ago. There are certainly technical resonances. And of course, though the aesthetic ones may spring up in relation to those, I like to think that I’m not in any way producing a redundant offering, something which is basically a replica of something from before. If there’s a sense of resonance between this and earlier work, I’m perfectly happy for that to be there, but as I say, it’s more your job and the general public’s to explore that and investigate. I’m confident to talk about music in technical terms, in numerical terms, but I’m not necessarily so happy to talk about it in biographical terms, certainly when it comes to my own work.
I did want to talk to you about technique. I was struck that, at least on the surface, there are techniques that you were using in your very early records, particularly the rapid-fire beat-repeat effects. How are you constructing the music?
The central element of the sessions from this record was the sequencer. It’s a very, very, very programming-heavy album. Just information, information, information. It’s just lists and lists and lists of numbers going into the sequencer, and that controlling the various sound sources in the studio. It’s just a creature, a monster of control, if you like. One of the fundamental things that I set out to do, initially, is that there was going to be no live performance [of instruments on the record]. That’s a big deal. That means that there’s no manual manipulation of instruments, that it’s all coming from data. That lack of manual contact with the sound-making device is, for me, significant. I’ve spent such a long time working with music in that fashion. It’s a big thing for me. If you cut it out, that makes a significant impact on the session.
I’d say, as well, it’s been like a holiday, making this record. It’s so much easier when you don’t have to play instruments. If you imagine, over the years, the records that I’ve made that do feature live instruments, you’re moving from the perspective of a recording engineer to the perspective of a musician or a performer, and these two things are quite different. They’re quite distinct attitudes. They all have their own concerns and problems associated with them, which are not always particularly compatible. There’s the ego, as a performer, and there’s the love of the craft from the recording engineer, and also maybe from the producer’s perspective, it’s much more about trying to keep an overview. It doesn’t matter how much you enjoyed playing that; does it work in the piece of music? You’ve immediately got a tension springs up between the two. I can think, “Ah, I really enjoyed that, and it felt so good,” and it sounds great for me, and in the end, the producer side of me is saying, “Yeah, well, doesn’t matter. It just doesn’t work.” Then you have to throw it away. Crikey, that’s actually something I’ve gone out of my way to do. I love that challenge. But throwing that challenge away temporarily, setting it aside and going, “Right. I’m just the programmer. That’s it.” The perspectives of the programmer and the producer, I feel, are fairly consistent with each other. It’s easier to take a step back from it; there’s no integrity of performance. There is a craft to programming, but you don’t feel precious about what you’ve done. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, and you rewrite it.
It’s interesting, because there’s such a vogue right now for live jamming on hardware synthesizers, just letting the machines run, and editing later. Your approach on this album is really the opposite.
Absolutely. I’m trying to leave as little to chance as possible. In this instance, I’m not interested in what the machines can contribute. I’m trying to absolutely dominate them. I’m not trying to get their input. I don’t want it.
Earlier, you mentioned the ego involved in live performance. You used to be known for some pretty chaotic live performances — I seem to remember you downing a bottle of vodka at a show in San Francisco, many years ago.
Oh crikey, yeah. I mean, I’m 37 now. I’ve lived almost half my life, to an extent, in the public eye. Anyone will recognize that a person can change in significant ways in a 17-year period. Chaos — I’ve always been attracted to chaos. And there are dangers associated with chaos — musically, as much as there is personal risk associated with that. How can I put it? I look fondly on those days. It’s not quite as easy for me to down a bottle of vodka onstage anymore. Maybe because I’ve got this mask on my head.
As I say, chaos has always attracted me. It’s a funny thing. My describing the process of making this record as being an absolute creature of control and rational deliberation: I would absolutely say that. I think for some people that the effect on the listener would translate to being quite tedious, quite mechanical. But if I had any conviction that that was the case, I wouldn’t have released the record. What I’m trying to do is to foster as much control as I can, so I can actually generate as vivid and hallucinogenic and chaotic experience as I can, just for myself as a listener. You’ve got to remember that I’m also a listener, as much as I am a composer. One tries to please the other, and yet there are divergent interests.
Again, I want a certain thing as a listener, and, coming from the perspective of a composer, you have to confront certain limits. You have to say, actually, “This is what you want to hear, but tough shit.” To do that is either really far too difficult, or alternatively, doing this is redundant. I don’t want to do that anymore, I want to explore new methods. So the composer has his own attitude. I’m not saying I’m unique, of course, I think everyone who makes music is also a listener, in some fashion or another. But I’m just trying to be as aware as possible of the different needs of the two characters.
I was reading an old Pitchfork by Dominique Leone, where he wrote that Ultravisitor sounded like “the work of someone more in love with himself than his audience.”
A lot of critics seem to have an idea of you being a self-indulgent producer — that you’re defying and even frustrating your listener’s expectations. How do you feel about that? First of all, any musician that’s not self indulgent, I can’t imagine that they’d be any good, to be honest. Any musician that puts himself primarily at the service of his audience is likely to quite rapidly become a self-repeating machine. With audiences, there’s always a tension. Audiences, particularly at gigs, tend to want to hear the favorites, and if you’re not careful, as I see it, and I certainly feel that I’ve observed it in looking at other people’s careers, you can get fenced into an area that the audience wants you in. And if you don’t do that, then you risk losing them. This is something that I’ve tried to get away from as much as I can. Don’t feel for a minute that I don’t respect the audience. What I’m doing is a mark of respect, in the sense that I’m doing exactly what I always did. I never disavowed the principles which have dictated my work and dictated me becoming known in the first place. What I feel is actually the wrong thing to do is when a musician gets known, having done what they’ve done out of love and having fun and enjoying themselves, gets known for it and then switches tack and thinks, “If I’m going to continue to be loved and respected by my audience, I have to repeat, I have to keep referring to this moment of glory.” And it becomes a prison. It becomes a thing which restricts their future activity and consequently dries up their enthusiasm for their work. And kaput: End of their career.
The funny thing is that an audience can also detect this. There’s always this tension where you’re trying to create the creative process afresh, to give yourself the best chance of giving something to your audience that they’re really going to love, and actually show them something new. And that entails sometimes pissing them off. Because to give yourself the chance to do it, you have to keep everything open, you have the creative process fluid, you have to keep the idea of what you are as a musician open-ended, in order that you will have the chance in the future of making something that they will love as much as they did the first thing you did, but also for that to be different to it. Is that clear? Because this is quite an important point for me. And I realize that a lot of people think I’m self-indulgent and that that’s a bad thing. I would say: Yes, I am self-indulgent, but it’s a good thing.
Let me ask you a biographical question related to this. When you were younger, did you have a fan-based relationship with certain artists that led you to think this way? Were you ever disappointed by one of your idols?
When I was a teenager, I played in various bands, local bands that were trying to get signed, trying to get known and get out there and establish a career for themselves. I looked at this more as an observer — in these groups, I was not playing my own music, they were not my own pieces. I was more, I suppose, just a bass player, in those days. And typically a lot younger than the people I was playing with. So I saw this process at fairly close quarters, but nonetheless I had nothing really personally at stake. It seemed to me that these bands were desperately trying to get known. And in order to do that, they would really try to calculate what people wanted to hear, and then try to deliver it. It seemed to me that that actually really negated lots of creative possibilities. And when I say creative possibilities, I mean things that can ultimately be rewarding for the fucking audience. I don’t just mean things that are enjoyable to play for the musicians that leave the audience cold. I mean things that can actually bring life and vigor to the fucking scene. I remember trying to contribute ideas—”Why don’t we try this, why don’t we try that? That could be interesting; that could be a new way to articulate this music”—and my ideas were often received in a quite abruptly dismissive way. Like, “No, that’s not what people want to hear.” But actually, you’re making a lot of assumptions about what people want to hear. Why don’t we concentrate on what we want to hear, and see if people join in, see if they come along with us, so to speak? But that didn’t really ever happen.
I’ve had so much experience with this tendency to try to predict and placate audiences. I thought actually, well, I’m just going to see what can be done when you follow your own interests. Because then, if you win an audience, you’ve won on every level. You’ve satisfied yourself, you’ve satisfied them. If I try and predict the audience, I might well satisfy them, but I’ve got no guarantee. And I certainly won’t have satisfied myself. Every time I make a record I throw everything at risk. I stake everything on it. Because I think, if I win, then I’ve got the best situation I could be in. And what rational human being would not want to be in the best possible situation? I’m just trying to fucking get to that. And I don’t have an interest in frustrating people, but it is sometimes a byproduct of this process. But I’m confident that an attentive listener, even if they don’t agree with the aesthetic decisions, will detect commitment and passion in what I’ve done. And that should be sufficient to keep interested in what I do next. But you know, I’m speculating. I really am. There’s no manual for this. Lots of people would summarize my outlook, as you rightly say, as being self-indulgent, and dismiss it. That’s up to them. I’m trying to make things which transmit as much love and life to people as I can. Sometimes, by doing that, you actually frustrate people, because you’ve switched tack. But I switch tack in order to keep alive, to keep the chance of making that perfect record possible.