Q&A: Squarepusher Talks Making Live-Sounding Music With Fake Instruments and Vice Versa
The electronic virtuoso also discusses his hyperactive sound: "It never feels extreme enough."
In his Squarepusher guise, 40-year-old Tom Jenkinson has spent two decades making some of the fastest, most chaotic electronic music extant, even while some of his contemporaries have mellowed somewhat. And between button-pushing he’s been known to add the impossibly knotty basslines with his own highly-calloused hands. Through his generous catalogue he’s given fans everything from his take on Miles Davis-style fusion (1998’s Music Is Rotted One Note), to big-beat and two-step pop (1999’s Go Plastic) and even post-Daft Punk house (2010’s Shobaleader One: d’Demonstrator). He’s done full live shows of solo bass and full-orchestral ensemble, as well as the skittering programmed minefields he’s best-known for. Jenkinson’s new album Damogen Furies is as noisy and propulsive as anything he’s done, and SPIN spoke with the prolific, self-described “punk” about his improvisational crafting methods, nonsensical song titles and fighting the temptation to sell a track to Nike.
Where does the title Damogen Furies come from?
“Furies,” I quite like the way it looks, the words and the style. Also, “furies” in Greek mythology were spirits which pursued and avenged crimes, so without wanting to overexpose or give you anymore explanatory detail there, let’s just say that I find that quite pleasing. “Damogen” is a word I invented. It sounds good. I like the arrangement of the words. It looks good. And it feels, pedantic or otherwise, completely appropriate for this music.
The word kind of scans as a combination of “damage” and “dungeon.”
Well, the “damage” part of course I was aware of, but I hadn’t thought of the “dungeon” thing. This is exactly what I love about using titles that are composed of composite words, or made-up words: it actually allows the listener to bring their own imagination into play. That for me is really exciting, to involve the listener, for them to engage their imagination.
Do you spend a lot of time coming up with your titles?
Generally they come to me quickly; I’ll deliberate over some more than others. Some tracks I find it very hard to find an appropriate set of words for them, and that’s typically when they’ll just get represented by the original working title, just a set of numbers and a time category. By and large I’ll come up with consecutive words just because of how they sound, how they look. You’re playing with meanings, but you’re also playing with the words’ look and the way they sound. There’s a number of different concerns which tend to rear their heads, but one of them is color.
I guess it interests me so much because the words are standing in for a lot of instrumental music. The idea of having to categorize them in some way, even if it’s a word that you made up, is very fascinating, just to get the feel of the track.
Yeah, for me it offers a gateway into that piece and if that gateway allows the listeners to be inspired and start considering an interpretation of that piece through the words of the title, then all is well and good.
I also wanted to know how you organize improvisational tracks for an album, how you know when you have the beginning and end of something rather than just a bunch of jams.
Well, it does vary from album to album, and over the 20-year period that I’ve been making records. I made an album, Solo Electric Bass 1, and that was a live performance and presented unedited on that album. On this current album, again actually, these pieces were written primarily to be played live. When I was writing these pieces I wasn’t thinking about an album at all; I was thinking about how much fun I would have playing these pieces of music at gigs. Then I was talking to some of the people I work with, at the label and so on, about putting together a tour and they had an idea of, “Why don’t we put it together as an album?” They sort of twisted my arm, so to speak.
It was very much an idea to be played live, because that’s not always the way my records work out. There’s another album at the other end of the scale, Music Is Rotted One Note. I wrote that in 1998, and that was absolutely a creature of the studio. There was never any intention or possibility that that was going to be played live.
It’s interesting because Music Is Rotted One Note is known as having so much live-sounding instrumentation on it.
There you go. Part of what I was playing with on that record was referencing live performance and generating it through playing instruments, while referencing the sound of an ensemble, trying to suggest the sorts of dynamics that are musically generated by the players’ performance. But it’s all actually done in a multi-track, stage-by-stage process and it’s all only played by one person.
A lot of your music seems to try and go to the extremes by both playing something live and programming something that seems almost unplayable and sort of racing those against each other. Have you ever thought of revisiting stuff from, let’s say, Music Is Rotted One Note with a full ensemble of live musicians?
It’s a wonderful idea; like all wonderful ideas, unfortunately, it comes down partly to budget considerations, and it’s getting harder and harder to make money in the music industry. I really have done my best to reject corporate association over the years, and it’s borderline impossible to find sponsorship that doesn’t have that, so let’s see if I can navigate those concerns and make something happen.
On my last album [2012’s Ufabulum], we worked on an orchestral interpretation of that record. For me, that qualifies as something along the lines of what you’re talking about. I mean to play an album like that live. It was based on programming. It was about “Let’s make this as mechanical, as digital as possible.” For me, breaking that out into the world of orchestras was the really fascinating thing, because it started like this utterly digital creature. The orchestral version brought a different light to those pieces; certainly I think it lead me to a much deeper understanding of those instruments and certainly some surprises.
Do you get a lot of offers for your music to be used in commercial ads?
I’ve had loads over the years, but you know what the criminal thing is? You don’t get any credit for the things you turn down; you don’t get any kudos for not doing them. People just don’t know and that’s that. I’ve got offered a nice commercial deal that I turned down but no one knows about that. All you’ll ever get is flack for the one that you might consider doing.
Although I feel like it would be incredibly subversive in 2015 to have a Squarepusher song in a Nike commercial. Plus the people who would be exposed to music that they’re probably not familiar with.
That’s the interesting grey area of this kind of consideration. You’re absolutely right: for whatever you lose in self-respect by associating yourself with a massive corporate brand, there are gains like being exposed to people who almost certainly never encounter that music. It’s not cut and dry, my imperative principle, as I’m sure a lot of people who are involved in the punk movement itself would raise an eyebrow at me calling myself punk because equally people call me a virtuoso and all kinds of stuff.
Your music is probably a lot faster than a lot of music that’s still considered “punk.” Is it more difficult to relearn hyper-fast songs after you’ve already put them together, to replicate them accurately for the live show?
Usually there’s some bass element which comes to the fore and does the thing that we call a solo, anything resembling that, and it’s almost always being done in an improvisation mode. It doesn’t feel appropriate for me to generate what I did 15 years ago; I mean really, when I’m playing older pieces at shows I’m going as far as I can in making concessions appropriate to the tendencies of the entertainment industry. My instinct is to go out there and play a load of new music, but experience tells me you can bookend that with a couple of old ones, just something that people can draw off a little more easily. If I go to a show, I don’t want to hear old music, I want to hear new music.
You have a unique perspective as an electronic musician who plays live instruments. Detractors of electronic music will complain someone’s just pushing a button or say, “Oh, it’s all pre-programmed.” Do you feel electronic musicians should be more actively playing things on stage?
No, I don’t. There are any number of ways in which music can be presented and performed, and music is all the more healthy for that diversity. I don’t think there’s one way of doing it which is superior; the multitude of approaches helps us have a healthy music environment. I’m always going to have my own particular leaning for instrumental elements in live shows because that’s my roots. Even the most puritanical guitar player who would say, “Oh, yeah electronic music is bullshit,” doubtless they’re going to be using some effect pedals.
That snobbery is something I’ve battled with, and in the end forms the backbone of what I do, trying to explore the confluence of electronics and technology and performance, like on [1997’s] Hard Normal Daddy. That record was almost born out of that very idea of trying to make music which had a reference, making a nod to jazz and fusion. This music was completely saturated with the notion of instrumental virtuosity and the dedication of the musician’s integrity and commitment, which you associate with that music.
What happens to that music when a sequencer, computer, or drum machine plays it, or it has a sample? Does it fall apart? Does our respect for it dwindle if it’s made in a way which it seems to be in opposition to live performance? I’m not saying I’ve got an answer to that, that record represents an experiment in people’s responses because it’s taking away the rug from under the feet of the jazz idea by making it happen through a computers instead of performance. The experiment is ongoing, because as new people come to that record, they’ll respond to it in their own idiosyncratic way. One time I was working with an exceptionally good drummer and he said he loved that record.
Do you think of your own music as extreme?
It never feels extreme enough. For me, the interest lies in negotiating the boundary between extreme and being coherent. It’s most compelling and most interesting when you’ve still got just enough time to comprehend it. When you just can’t process anymore, it just becomes sort of an unintelligible kind of mess, but it’s the point before that happens I find interesting compositionally.
Keeping it teetering on the brink.
Precisely. Anyone can go out there and make fucking massive racket. I’m not against that either, but for me it becomes much more compelling when that’s a racket you can dig into.