Interview With Andy Wilson, 2009
Stefan Bremer, of youdonthavetocallitmusic, interviews Andy Wilson in 2009
SB: When did you start RBE and why?
AW: RBE was a continuation of work I was doing anyway around that time (the early 1980s.) I originally released cassettes under my own name, only taking the name RBE later, but I consider those cassettes to be the first RBE recordings. I mean, there's no real difference between the work I did under my own name and the work as RBE at that point, it's the same ideas and approach. All of that work grew out of the fact that, influenced by Throbbing Gristle and the idea that you didn't need traditional musical skills to make music, I decided sometime around 1980 to start experimenting and recording myself. To some extent it really was just an experiment - to find out if I could do anything at all meaningful or interesting. I was playing with technology, trying to find a sound that reflected who I was at the time. Although I had no musical skills beyond some basic guitar playing (I'd been in a short-lived punk band) I was working as an electronics engineer and became interested in the possibility of using synthesisers and electronic processing. Some of the first equipment I used I either built myself (like the drum machine you hear on some of the earliest releases, whose weird sound is due mainly to the limitations of my electronic design skills then... but it's still a sound I like) or I made it from kits you could buy from specialist magazines or lone engineers in those days, if you knew where to look - you might order a kit for a ring modulator, for example, and you'd get back a circuit board and the necessary components with a diagram to explain how to put it all together, so you'd spend a few hours with a soldering iron making the circuit, and then a few days using it in various ways to see what sounds could be got from it. Gradually I created a little recording studio, with a four track recorder (one of the early TEAC machines – by coincidence I ended up fifteen years later working with the guy who designed them, Andy Bereza), a synthesiser and sequencer, and various other instruments, effects and control panels, and I started recording just to see what would happen.
SB: What were your musical influences at that time?
AW: It's hard to talk sensibly about influences because you absorb them in so many ways, and often the biggest influences are so fundamental that you can all too easily overlook them. I was definitely listening to a lot of Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire at the time. For me those groups (especially Throbbing Gristle) were showing how you might open certain doors. For my generation they changed ideas about how you can make music and even what counts as music. Their real influence was just in freeing me up to create music without feeling that I wasn't doing it properly. I started with what I could actually do with a synthesiser and other instruments and worked out how I could make music based on the ideas and skills I actually had - rather than trying to learn the skills I'd need in order to sound like someone else, which is how most people go about it. I had connections with Cabaret Voltaire since I'd run a little fanzine information service for them for a while. Chris Watson was the main man in Cabaret Voltaire in terms of their experimentalism (he too was an electronics engineer), and he did lots of technically interesting things with them before he left to join The Hafler Trio for a while and eventually became a sound and location recording artist (he's now one of the best known nature recording engineers in the world.) During those years Chris came to stay with me at my home on Portland, an island off the south coast on England, to record the foxes and other animals in the quarries on the island. His work with Cabaret Voltaire was an influence then, but his work with natural sound was an even bigger inspiration to me later, after RBE, when I've become much more interested in location recording and musique concret. But back then I was still mostly interested in synthesisers and purely electronic sound.
Just as important to me as the Industrial / post-punk influences was some of the music I listened to as I was growing up in Coventry. I remember being impressed with the last bit of Bowie's John, I'm Only Dancing, where all you hear is modulated guitar feedback. I thought it was easily the best thing about that record – it's as if the music is breaking its way free of the tidy little pop song it's trapped by. Like plenty of other people I liked Eno's contribution to Roxy Music, especially the way he made playing an EMS synthesiser look so cool and expressive even when it was pretty abstract – in contrast with the Kraftwerk idea of technology as inherently cold and affectless which, of course, is interesting in it's own way. But the biggest influence in terms of sound came indirectly from my stepfather, who ran a small café which had a jukebox full of reggae records, which he used to give to me once they had been replaced on the jukebox. Because of that, and since reggae was so popular in Coventry anyway due to the city's big West Indian population (it's no coincidence that the ska revival group The Specials come from Coventry) I was surrounded by Jamaican music as a teenager. So as well as the contemporary industrial groups I was also really into the way Jamaican producers used the studio. I think that had a big influence on the sound I eventually made in terms of the prominence of rhythm and bass. Some of the RBE tracks sound obviously influenced by reggae, in terms of rhythm, but even the tracks that don't sound that way were still influenced by producers like Lee Perry. I also liked the way that Perry worked with basically popular, simple tunes and rhythms - I never liked the idea that electronic music should be deliberately difficult or obscure. I mean, I don't mind if it is really difficult in the sense of being so unusual that it's hard to get used to, but I always thought that it didn't have to set out to be that way. Anyway, in a lot of RBE recordings you can hear that the underlying idea is really simple - sometimes it's even a tune, but anyway it's always simple in some way. I never had a problem with that. Another big influence was the German band Faust - like Lee Perry they used the studio to the limit of what it could do, making music based on extreme technical manipulation and control. In some ways they have been the biggest influence on me over the years (I ended up writing a book about them a few years ago - Faust: Stretch Out Time.) Another influence quite specific to that time was Robert Fripp. I really liked the minimal approach he took with recordings like Let the Power Fall, and I especially liked his ideas about how a musician might work. I contacted him at the time and he offered to teach me to play the guitar, but then he cancelled the lessons just before they were due to start because King Crimson had taken off again and he wanted to spend his time on that: the track Song for Robert was recorded on the day that I got the letter from him cancelling our lessons. How all those influences meshed together is hard to say, but basically I was given confidence to make music by Throbbing Gristle, and the music I made blended that kind of Industrial attitude to sound with wider influences from Lee Perry, Kraftwerk, Faust and others. Then, the more I recorded and worked with sound, the more interested I became in modern music, listening to Terry Riley, Basil Kirchin and other experimentalists. Today I listen to other types of music too, but I usually come back sooner or later to Throbbing Gristle, Lee Perry and Faust.
SB: Were you part of the industrial scene in London (Throbbing Gristle, etc.) at that time?
AW: Not being based in London that would have been difficult. Of course I went to concerts by Throbbing Gristle and others working in similar territory (Non, Z'ev, Clock DVA, Cabaret Voltaire...) and I knew some of the people involved – I remember being at the Industrial Night Out at The Lyceum in London where all of those groups played in one evening, sitting on the mixing desk with the engineer Jack Balchin - but culturally the more important thing for me was the network of musicians created through the cassette scene: it was like an early internet in the way it suddenly connected you with people interested in similar ideas and let you find your way toward a direction that worked for you. First of all it allowed you to find an audience and get a reaction to your music, as well as hearing other people's music and reacting to that. I got involved because in the late 70s I'd published a pamphlet (Too Much) that wasn't much more than a listing of all the obscure punk and post punk groups I knew of and the towns they came from. It was reviewed in the NME and, since they also published my contact address, suddenly I had lots of people mailing me with information about themselves and their music, often sending me tapes. So I quickly connected with a range of interesting people, and as a result I was soon corresponding with Geoff Rushton and his magazine Stabmental (later Geoff became Jhon Balance of Coil), Colin Potter, Pete Becker of Eyeless in Gaza, and many others whose work interested me at the time. Listing those particular names gives you only a limited idea of what the cassette underground was like, as there were people recording music of every description and making and circulating their tapes to each other, across the usual boundaries of taste and market classifications. It was as if we were all involved in a huge but private conversation (as the traditional press didn't really talk about us at the time). Not only that, but it was a real underground that took up from the hints left by punk about creating and controlling your own work – not least of all the cost of recording, duplicating and distributing cassettes was a lot less than for vinyl, which made it all the more easy to really take control of what you were creating. Even if you had the cassettes produced by a professional duplication plant it was still a cheaper than producing vinyl. Of course some people thought of it just as a way of building an initial audience in order eventually to get 'promoted' to join the mainstream music industry – they saw it only as marketing - but for many of us it was about being able to do your own thing away from the media and the market. My early cassettes were made mostly to sell and exchange with the people I knew from that scene. Having such an outlet was great because it meant you could get on with working intensely on your own ideas and yet still have some kind of audience, since there were always going to be someone who welcomed what you did and wasn't going to reject you simply because you didn't sound like the mainstream. There was room to experiment and room to make mistakes.
SB: Why did you choose that name and why did you later release items under your real name?
AW: The history of the name RBE is suitably foolish and inconsequential. I'd already recorded under my own name, but then one day I was planning a concert in Weymouth and, since I was going to use recordings of whispering voices that I'd found, I had myself billed as The Raudive Bunker Experiment after a track by Throbbing Gristle which takes it's name from the experiments by Konstantin Raudive to record the voices of the dead. After that, in future performances I'd either be billed with the initials R.B.E or I might think up a group name that used that acronym - for example, I once played an evening of improvisations with local musicians to an unsuspecting audience who had come to see The Rhythm and Blues Experience. I liked the idea that the name 'RBE' was an empty slot into which I could insert the meaning I liked best at any particular time. I wouldn't read too much into the idea of RBE as a coherent project – really the work just grew out of whatever I was doing musically at that time. Many years later, when I started recording again, my interests and intentions had changed a lot from those early years so I didn't think it useful to revive the RBE name, even if there night have been some advantage in emphasising the continuity with the early work.
Also, although I usually worked alone in those days I also occasionally tried to work with other people for all sorts of reasons - either because I simply liked what they did and wanted to incorporate something of it into my work, or sometimes because I wanted to be challenged by the problems of working with someone who took a different approach to me - so the name 'RBE' came to cover both my solo work as well as any collaborations I initiated. A few tracks were recorded with my friends Blu Tobin and Idle Rich (of The International Megastars) - they lived back in Coventry so we collaborated by sending each other recordings what the other side would then edit and add to (a few of the tracks on Age of Reason were created this way.)
I worked a lot with a Weymouth musician, Pete MacDonnell, who became a good friend. Pete didn't know an awful lot about electronic music when we first met but he had a PhD in composition and music theory so he was able to teach me a lot from so-called classical music about other ways that sounds could be arranged and organised. When we first met Pete was writing music for brass bands - which he often did pretty quickly through the simple trick of reversing Beatles melodies and then orchestrating around the resulting tune. I thought that was funny and interesting, and soon we were working on a piece of music together that he'd been commissioned to write for a dance troupe: I talked him into recording a piece of electronic music with me rather than submitting a score. I never saw the work performed, and the music has since been lost, but it was an early attempt at making some of the heavily rhythmic sounds that I used more and more as time went by (created by sequencing the filters on a Korg MS20 synthesiser while passing noise through them.) I also performed live with Pete on at least one occasion, at The Rock Hotel in Weymouth, where he improvised various keyboard parts as well as building up and then dismantling a huge chord using slips of paper tucked into his keyboard to hold the keys down: so he could start with a note in the centre of the keyboard and then slowly add notes on either side until the chord covered the entire range of the keyboard, then he removed the slips one at a time to slowly reduce the chord again to nothing (on the track King Ubu.)
Others I worked with at different times included local electronic musician John Christopher - at least we played an improvised electronic performance in a club one evening. Mark Weavers appears on the track A Knot, which was the B side of the Industrial Estate album, playing a zither I'd set up with a series of electronic treatments. He also played a bass on the original studio recording, but that was gone in the final mix other than the very final note on the recording. Sarah Washington was a constant presence at concerts and in the studio. In recent years she has started working as a sound artist in various settings, often with her partner Knut Aufermann.
Another local musician I spent time with was Kevin Martin, later of God, Techno Animal, and more recently known as a dubstep and grime producer for his work as The Bug. Although we played in bands with overlapping members we never played or recorded together - though I remember the two of us going off on an early morning expedition together to collect magic mushrooms together from the fields around town. At the time Kevin was just learning to play his first saxophone. He hadn't yet developed his heavyweight, miserabilist Industrial persona, and came across instead as a very shy and likeable young student. It's not impossible that he absorbed some influence from my use at that time of dub in a heavily electronic setting, as that's what a lot of his most recent work sounds like, though he may have very different ideas about that.
The other factor that made a difference was the local independent record shop, Handsome Dicks, owned and run by two local characters, Chris Stoodley and Jerry Jopson, who were really serious music fans from the days when that, rather than having trained as an accountant, was what qualified you to run a record shop. They went out of their way to support the younger musicians in the area, from the hard core punk bands of the time right through to what I was doing. They organised concerts and supported local musicians generally. If you were interested in a an unusual recording they'd try to find it for you. Most of all, their shop was the place to hang out if you wanted to hear new music and meet people with interests outside of mainstream rock. I remember that Stoods was a big Residents fan, and Jerry was always really interested in my work. Anyway, it was the kind of shop that was still possible thirty years ago, helping weld musical communities together, but which has since been wiped out by the internet.
SB: What happened after your last release with the name RBE/Andy Wilson?
AW: I took a decision in the early 80s, not long after Industrial Estate was released, to stop making music. More accurately, I became more interested in other things for a while. On the one hand I was looking for new contacts and new situations to work in. Geoff Rushton / Jhon Balance mentioned to me that Psychic TV (or was it Coil - I don't remember exactly) were looking for someone to help with the technical side of their work, and I considered moving to London to get that job. At the same time I had an offer from Section 25 to try recording with them in the north of England. Then there was talk with Eyeless in Gaza about contributing to an album of instrumentals they were planning (eventually released as Pale Hands I Love So Well.) So, I had all of those opportunities that I could have pursued - but I decided instead to study philosophy. It's true that for a while I carried on recording occasionally - making a cassette album in 1983, The Awakening of a Great City, which has since been lost. The music there was a lot more abstract than anything I'd done previously, mostly because I was working exclusively with tape recorders, making music without any other instruments, but instead using huge feedback loops to generate noise (something that has since become rather common.) I played some one-off concerts over the next few years but slowly became less involved with making music, though I still spent most of my time listening to it when I could.
Actually, the first thing I did after deciding to take a break from music was write a thesis on Dada, Futurism and Industrial Music. The thesis itself was the idea that soon "children will go to school whistling music, the original of which was created entirely electronically". When I was writing the thesis I assumed that this development would be a good thing, since new electronic technologies would create vastly expanded techniques for musicians to work with. What I didn't understand, and what became obvious almost as soon as I'd finished the thesis, was that this advance in technology might actually be a step backwards, because the new (digital) technologies that emerged were really rather primitive and limiting compared the supposedly cruder analogue technologies they started to replace.
Nevertheless, for nearly fifteen years now I've been working with computers, mostly doing multimedia programming projects of various kinds, both professionally and in my own time, and one of my first projects after a long time was creating the program SoundRaider, which took the stray sound files it found at random on your computer and processed them using algorithms I designed to stretch and mix the sounds together to make a continuous stream of evolving music. Before then I wasn't much interested in computers as music machines because they were too underpowered to work effectively with sound as such. Instead (unless you had vast amounts of money to spend, or could get your hands on the equipment in a few academic music departments or broadcast studios) they forced you to work with a combination of samples (pre-prepared sounds) and triggers (sequencers), which really narrowed down the range of electronic music being made compared to the earlier period, when people were supposedly using more 'primitive' equipment which nevertheless allowed them much more freedom of expression. Basically, the backwardness of digital technology produced almost twenty years of (to me) rather boring beat/dance based music. Of course if you were really good it was possible to work against the grain of the technology (The Aphex Twin managed it), but it was a struggle, and was not something I was especially interested in doing. But when I realised sometime in the late 90s that at last the domestic personal computer had become powerful enough to work directly with sound, I wrote SoundRaider and my interest in using computers to make music really started to take off.
Some time after that I joined Simon Crab in the group Bourbonese Qualk, after the death of their guitarist Miles Miles. We performed a number of concerts around Europe as a duo, and once with original Qualk drummer Steven Tanza. The two of us were using computers exclusively, writing our own programs using the SuperCollider language. We also made studio recordings but they were never released as Crab and I could never quite bring our two different concepts of music together - he was interested in the subtleties of rhythm while I was increasingly interested only in very abstract noise composition. My interest in recording really took off again after I first heard the music of the Romanians Iancu Dumitrescu and Ana-Maria Avram, who sound like nothing you've ever heard before. My music today doesn't follow them in any way, but I was inspired by the intense textures they brought to their music - great sweeping sounds, careful use of quiet along with noise, and incredible precision that they create through careful scoring, using a group of close musicians they have worked with for many years, as well as through using computer processing and sophisticated mic'ing of their instruments. There is no way I could make music like that, which depends on years of careful training, but it made me really think about music again. As a result I became interested in the possibilities of making and using field recordings - the noises of nature and industrial and urban environments - which I then learned to treat on the computer using processors I build in software. That approach lets me use sound in the studio the way a painter uses paint - carefully combining materials, mixing it, erasing and starting again until I have created sounds whose texture and details comes entirely from the world around, but which I can bend into the shapes and forms I want to hear.
With that in mind I started a new project, originally alongside Crab, as sunseastar, which was entirely based on location recordings made either by me or along with Crab. By the time it came to release the album Fjaerland (2007) I had taken over most of the project myself. Crab and I still go location recording together, but sunseastar is now essentially my solo project. My most recent release, The Grand Erector, is an album made entirely of snippets of recordings (of music, nature, locations) submitted to me by friends. The materials I was given were then radically processed on the computer before being edited back together into a series of compositions. It's a really interesting way to work because you are so constrained by what is given to you and you have to work entirely within the bounds set by other people - but I've found that that is really liberating in another way, since I know exactly where I'm starting from. Since releasing that album I have performed live a few times as The Grand Erector.
Just recently I created the project Infinity with the group K-Space (with Tim Hodgkinson, originally of Henry Cow, Ken Hyder and a Siberian shaman, Gendos Chamzyryn), where I wrote a program so that every time you played the release it remixed the tracks. In fact it's more than a remix – each track is given a completely new interpretation every time it's played.
SB: Some tracks (Blue Mix, Song for Robert, etc.) are included on two different tapes. Do both contain the same versions, or are they slightly different?
AW: They are the same versions, I believe... it is probably the Dub Flack tape that has the repeated tracks, as this was actually a bootleg. As it happens this was a very nice bootleg indeed, with better presentation quality than my own releases, I think, but a bootleg all the same – the guys who did it just took some tracks from a demo tape I'd sent them and released them. Calling it a bootleg probably gives the wrong idea – I don't want to imply that I was anything other than pleased when I discovered that someone was recirculating my music.
SB: How was Mark Weavers involved in RBE?
AW: As far as I remember, Mark only ever played on one RBE track (A Knot). I listed him as a full member of RBE when I made the album because at the time I had plans to work with him again on a permanent basis, and for him to become a full contributing member, but for various reasons we never did work together again, so it's better not to list him as a member of RBE as such but to credit him where he did play. His biggest contribution was to pay for the production of the Industrial Estate LP – like good punk rock children we wanted to manufacture and distribute the record ourselves. As it happened we never managed to do that properly. We pressed 500 copies of the album and sold them ourselves by mail order. Some copies were taken by Rough Trade and sold through their distribution network. Curiously, we sold far more copies through a single German record shop. I forget what the shop was called or even what town it was in, but for a while they would order a batch of records, sell them within a week or so then order yet another batch, and so on until they have got through a huge number (from our point of view.) I never did find out why it was that one particular shop should be able to sell so many copies when we ourselves could only sell them one at a time through the post.
SB: So Mark wasn't involved in any of the other recordings that you made under the name RBE?
AW: No, his sum total contribution was that single bass note and the playing of the zither on A Knot. All other RBE recordings are by me alone except for the collaborations I mentioned before. Those collaborations were almost always occasional, with the exception of Pete MacDonnell, who I worked with in several contexts - he plays keyboards on King Ubu and other tracks recorded at the same concert, as well as co-authoring the long piece for the ballet company. I'm still in touch with Pete and meet up with him once in a while.
SB: Do you like colourful artwork?
AW: Yes, very much. I didn't like it back then, and it wasn't part of the original (strictly black and white) cover. I think that I was aiming then for a Samizdat, photocopied look that emphasised the home-brew nature of the production. But I think that was a mistake, as it gives a wrong idea about the music. The more colourful, the better - I don't like the unnecessarily 'heavy industrial' design connotations of some of the music of that time - though I admit that I dabbled with it pretty outrageously.
SB: What were your intentions when choosing the artwork?
AW: Always I wanted to use other people's ideas to give clues to my own, in the way that you can triangulate a ship at sea by using radio receivers in different places, you can perhaps work out some of the ideas and intentions behind my music by looking for visual and conceptual clues in the artwork . It was a kind of intellectual collaging, so to speak. I still think in that way today - contrasting and omparing the ideas that influenced me, colliding and counterpoising them, using them simply as clues to what I was thinking when recording the music. I would never have expected most people who bought the tapes to get all of the references in the artwork or the titles, but I wanted it all to be fairly obvious to those who did get the references. And anyway, images have objective meaning quite separate from the ideas of the person who is doing the looking.
Unearthing Gradiva was the title of an essay by Freud about the (fictional) case of an archaeologist who is fascinated by a bas relief he sees of the woman, Gradiva. The cover image of an embryo was supposed to imply the same idea of 'nascent development', the beginning of the process of 'uncovering' the unconscious, which one day might give birth to a living entity.
Age of Reason is the title of a novel by Sartre, part of his Roads to Freedom trilogy. The picture of the boy was originally the logo for an Irish fanzine (Vox) I liked the image because it seemed to me that the goggles symbolised a technical control of nature (as they look like the goggles used by a welder or someone using power tools, or a pilot), and they seemed incongruous on the small boy (in reality, of course, they are just ordinary swimming goggles.) It struck that it embodied the idea of mankind being too immature yet to 'get to grips' with the technical world he created. It's a sort of private joke at my own expense - on the one hand, hinting that I might not myself be ready to properly use the technology I depended on when recording (that I was also a small boy, playing 'out of his depth'.) At the same time the whole proposition pokes fun at myself by over-dramatising the situation. I mean, the title is a bit 'grim'. I never did like Sartre.
Music or the Pork Trade? Is stolen from the title of an essay by Eric Satie. At the time I was very struck by his anti-romantic music, which showed a different attitude to music - more human-sized (some of the simple, short tracks on that cassette and on Dub Flack were directly inspired by some of his music. Of course they don't sound at all similar but they share the idea of something formally simple but with a kind of humorous elegance.) So the dadaist picture of the gears seemed appropriate as it also implied a rejection of 'high art' in favour of anti-art. The original picture is Alarm Clock (Reveille Matin) by Francois Picabia, from the cover of issue 4-5 of the original Dada magazine). I like the idea of 'alarm clock' too - a wake up call.
SB: I once saw a copy of your LP including a booklet. Was that originally released together with the LP?
AW: The booklet was originally created to accompany a cassette I made in, I think, 1983 - The Awakening of a Great City (another stolen title – it's the name of a piece performed, I think, by the futurist composer Marinetti.) This is the work I mentioned earlier, created entirely from huge delay lines. I was recording this while I was at college. The cassette was never properly released, and all of the original copies have now been lost. One page of the booklet reproduces the leaflet that accompanied Industrial Estate, and some spare copies of the booklet ended up in a few remaining copies of the album.