Squarepusher

Interview | Artist

Published in SOS May 2011
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People + Opinion : Artists / Engineers / Producers / Programmers

One of the most influential British artists of the last two decades, Tom Jenkinson has pushed electronic music to its limits. In a rare interview, he pinpoints key moments in his career, and explains why musicianship still matters.

Paul Tingen

SquarepusherPhoto: Richard Ecclestone

Rewind to the early '80s, a time when compact cassette, vinyl, and analogue ruled. Now imagine giving a kid a portable compact cassette recorder. You would most likely put him or her under the strictest instructions to read the manual, only use the machine for its intended purpose, and avoid any actions that would risk damaging it. But one particular seven‑year‑old, growing up in 1982 in Chelmsford, had other ideas. Nearly 30 years on, he recalls:

"I was given this really cheap hand‑held cassette recorder made by some unknown brand that existed for a year or so, and that came with a small microphone. I was captivated by being able to record with it, but I also noticed a number of other things: if I walked around with the tape deck, the pitch would modulate, creating this almost drunken effect. If I put my fingers on the rollers while the cassette was playing, it would speed up the recording, and if I waved the microphone around, it altered the pitch of the recorded sound. I realised that what you're supposed to do with a piece of equipment was only a small subset of what you can actually do with it. And so the initial intention of the recorder, to capture speech and music, went completely out of the window. This is still one way of summarising my approach to things.”

Speaking is Tom Jenkinson, aka Squarepusher, whose gear‑ and ear‑warping methods have contributed to him becoming one of the UK's foremost electronic musicians and bass players. Jenkinson's work integrates elements of drum & bass, acid, breakcore, hip‑hop, jazz‑rock, musique concrète and others into a wild cocktail. He's touched all these bases, and more, over the course of 14 full‑length albums, plus countless EPs and other shorter releases. These include seminal discs such as Big Loada (EP, 1997), Feed Me Weird Things (1996), Hard Normal Daddy (1997), Go Plastic (2001), Ultravisitor (2004), Hello Everything (2006) and his most recent project, d'Demonstrator (2010), under the name Shobaleader One. All Squarepusher's albums were created by Jenkinson on his own, with only Shobaleader One purportedly being made by a band, and almost all have been released by the UK's most famous electronic music label, Warp — also home to fellow big‑name electronic music acts like Aphex Twin and Autechre.

Home Spun

Tom Jenkinson's living room: not your average home studio.Tom Jenkinson's living room: not your average home studio.

"The seeds of what has become my career were sown extremely early on, before I even bought a guitar,” continues Jenkinson. "Discovering recording technology was a big moment for me in my childhood. Then, when I was eight or nine, I developed an interest in radios and electronics, and discovered, for example, that by putting capacitors in series with parts of a circuit, I could filter the sound. At age 10, I bought an acoustic guitar, strummed some chords and had a couple of lessons, but a year later I decided that I wanted to play the bass guitar. That was such a cool instrument; it had a mystique about it. I couldn't quite work out what it did, but it seemed very important. At the time I found it hard to analyse music in its constituent elements, but looking back I think that I liked the idea of a foundational instrument that forms the link between the rhythmic and harmonic elements in music.

"To me, the bass is the instrument with the most scope, because if you play it sufficiently creatively, you can make it sound as if it's a lot of instruments at the same time. I practised my bass quite obsessively. It helped that, being aged 11, I didn't have a social life; there was nothing else to do. Sitting at home with my bass guitar and electronic gear was it. I had started collecting things and built my own radio, and soon afterwards also became interested in computer programming. Throughout my teenage years I developed a hobby of making my own recordings with whatever gear I could lay my hands on, often borrowed, including basses and effect pedals and tape recorders and electronic pieces of kit. I made lots of home‑spun experimental recordings that combined all these different elements. I never thought that something that I considered a little bit of fun in my spare time, albeit something I was entirely committed to, would end up being my career.”

Jenkinson's obsessive approach to playing the bass guitar has led him to become one of the world's most technically able bass players, his jazz‑influenced phrasing and choice of notes often in stark juxtaposition with the futuristic electronic music elements and hyper‑modern rhythms in his music.A distinguishing feature of Jenkinson's music is its blend of electronica with virtuouso electric bass playing.A distinguishing feature of Jenkinson's music is its blend of electronica with virtuouso electric bass playing. His bass guitar virtuosity also threw him a challenge, because the possession of serious chops is not always admired in the British music scene. Hence the widely circulated but quite untrue story that his father was a jazz drummer, which Jenkinson now admits that he "made that up when I was 20. I wanted to back myself up so that my commitment to instrumental prowess had some background and sense of tradition. It's a challenge to combat the attitudes prevalent in the media against people who have taken a long time to develop their instrumental skill, and I felt that it was handy to have some kind of justification and say that I was following a tradition. Many people in the British media are petrified of instrumental skill. There's some justification, because it's part of rejecting the sins of before 1976, and virtuosity continues to have its pitfalls, for example in the Berklee School of Music mentality, which is really just about technique. From my end, I've tried to subtly make a case for virtuosity, without falling into the traps. It's hard to have a nuanced approach when people have such an antagonistic approach against one particular way of making music, but that's what I've tried to do. I was aware of the dangers, and it's a critical point for me. But today I'm a lot more comfortable and don't really care what people say anymore. And I do think that what I'm doing is simply continuing a lineage of music, like, for example, the electric music of Miles Davis.”

Outside Looking In

The inner contradiction in Jenkinson's claim to be part of a musical tradition is that he developed his musical outlook in relative isolation. He's self‑taught in all aspects of his creativity — playing bass, electronics, composition, recording — and outside influences didn't affect him much until he started playing in local bands in his mid‑teens. "When I started playing the bass, in 1986, the world of virtuoso musicians was unknown to me. I didn't start playing bass because I wanted to be like Jaco Pastorius, or any of the great UK bass players of the day, like Percy Jones, John Giblin, Mick Karn or Pino Palladino. Although I was developing quite a wide range of musical knowledge, I didn't know anything about the biographical information of the bands and the players in it. They were just names on cassettes. It's still the way I approach music. I've only ever read three biographies of musicians in my life, yours [Miles Beyond, about the electric music of Miles Davis, PT], being one of them.

"The mentality behind playing in bands and doing my experiments at home was distinctly different. Making music at home was for fun and to educate myself, without having an aim in mind. Being in a band was always to do with getting signed, wanting girls to like us, wanting to do gigs, and so on. Even the good bands I was in were dominated by extra‑musical concerns. Another challenge for me was that the best local musicians I grew up with and that I looked up to as my idols had a very negative view of electronic music and drum machines. They saw them as the antithesis of the virtuoso, master instrument player. I was swept along with this for a while, thinking that having bad‑ass chops was the only worthwhile thing, but thankfully I was not permanently diverted away from my interest in electronics and music technology. I heard electronic pieces of music that really moved me — the LFO track 'LFO' stands out as a landmark — and the incongruity with people around me saying that electronic music was bullshit led me to really reassess some of the views I had inherited from them.

"By the late 1980s, there was a hell of a lot of interesting electronic music around, and not just academic stuff, but also dance music, whether it was electro or acid house. In the end I thought, 'Fuck it, being a good musician is its own reward, and if you're lucky enough to have good taste, that helps.' A lot of great players don't know what to do with their chops and sometimes they don't even like music. Their virtuosity is purely for self‑promotion, and it becomes a scholastic affair, with the only people listening to them being other musicians. I played with some very good drummers, which gave me a privileged insight into how rhythms can be put together. But in the end there's no necessary relationship between quality of music and quality of musicianship, and I began to see that having chops, yet at the same time being able to be in touch with the bigger musical sphere was and remains a really interesting juxtaposition. It's a really interesting zone that I still like to inhabit.”

During Jenkinson's teenage years, these dialogues took place mainly inside his head. But the release of his first EP, Crot, in 1994, when he was 19, and particularly the success of the rave track 'Road To Reedham', from his Big Loada EP, brought a wider audience into the equation. The bass player elaborates: "When I was a teenager, I was in a process of continual reassessment. I did not want to be manufacturing a simulacrum of things that I already knew, I wanted to challenge myself, I wanted to see if I could change my own perceptions. This was a purely internal process until I had the opportunity to release records, and there was some degree of — often hard to interpret — feedback coming back. But I continued to challenge myself to remain interested in the possibilities that are available. At the same time, it was critical for me to not just be preaching to the converted. Something that nauseates me is when people just repeat their moments of glory to be able to continue their career and calculate how they can get the biggest audience. They become a frozen copy of the things they have done in the past and conservatism creeps in. It actually makes me feel physically sick. It is something I wouldn't be able to do. I feel like I'm rotting inside if I am not learning. It is like poison.”

Return To Melody

The above are strong words from the former Chelmsford man, and he's the first to admit that it doesn't necessarily make for the most stable and financially lucrative career path. With almost every album release, Jenkinson has defied expectations and come up with something that has stretched his own imagination and that of his audience, whether it was the breakbeat of Big Loada, the one man jazz‑concrète of Music Is Rotted One Note, the drum & bass and signal processing of Go Plastic, the aural dreamscapes of Just A Souvenir (2008) or the bizarre, left‑field R&B of d'Demonstrator, complete with heavily processed vocals. In recent years his early tendency for very confrontational, non‑melodic experiments has given way to a more prominent role for relatively traditional melody and harmony. Jenkinson shares some of the ins and outs of the 17‑year obstacle course that led him to this point, beginning with the first obstacle he had to surmount, which was how to marry the man, ie. his bass and occasional guitar playing, with his machines.

"Playing bass alongside those really fast, totally quantised, really digital sound sources — and I mean digital in an aesthetic sense, rather than literally referring to digital audio — was quite unpleasant in the beginning. It was horrible, because when you play with a drummer or a band the tempos will modulate, and unless you program that ebb and flow or set up an algorithm to emulate it, the electronics will just plough ahead, and won't listen to you. It's a one‑way collaboration. It was so hideous, so alien that I was asking myself why I was doing it, but eventually I found that when I could pull it off, it was really compelling. I set about different ways of combining the two, and would often play something quite harmonious on the bass and create electronic parts that would combat and almost try to contradict this. In my mind I was setting up a dialogue in which each instrument would question the other to the point of being a danger, perhaps even an enemy of the other. You can do that in a very token way, and people have sometimes turned this juxtaposition into an incongruity, to the point of musical comedy. Most of these manifestations are tacky and pretty unfunny and therefore many people rule the juxtaposition approach out as a basis for composition. But I think that if that kind of juxtaposition is done intelligently, it can be incredibly informative and lead one to reassess one's instruments.”

As a result of, paradoxically, one very successful early track with a strong melodic hook that appeared on Big Loada, Jenkinson embarked on a challenging, counter‑intuitive journey with regards to melody. He recalls: "I made 'Journey To Reedham' in 1996, and I remember the first time I played it during a rave: the crowd went bananas! I concluded from that kind of experience that if you have a knack for writing catchy melodies you can immediately appeal to people. I appear to have that knack, and I could go into the studio now and take an hour to create another barnstorming rave track that everyone will love. But certainly at the time I felt that that was too easy. I really did not want to become a one‑trick pony. It appeared that an overtly catchy melody line allows a piece of music to communicate with people, and I started to experiment to see whether, if I took that melody line away, I could get the other instrument to make up for the lack of overt melody. I tried to create quasi‑melodies in the interactions between the rhythm section and the other instruments, for example.

"I never ruled out melody completely, but I did go to great lengths to take away the element on which people normally hang their hats, and to see if I could recreate it in other ways. I wondered, would it be possible to create a sequence of low‑register sounds with sharp transients that would be catchy? Could I make bass lines that were catchy? Is it possible to make beats that are catchy? Are there other ways than overt melodies to make people latch onto a track in an instantaneous way? So in a way I was doing research. I was using a lot of foggy, jazz‑influenced harmony and electro‑acoustic sounds, thinking that this maybe offered a different way of doing things. On Go Plastic, I approached the question from the angle of digital processing, and wondered whether there was a way of making that so visceral, so aggressive, so exciting, of injecting so much adrenaline into the music that it was possible to do away with melody. Could the music still communicate, and if not in the same way, could it at least offer a parallel way of doing things?”

Hard Work

Eventually, Jenkinson came to the conclusion that there was no definitive answer to his question. He now regards himself as "quite naive” in his "admittedly imperfect phase of ruling out melody”, and eventually returned to using more traditional and overt melody and harmony. It's a development that echoes the development of 20th Century classical music, though Jenkinson admits that "I don't think my knowledge of Western classical music at that time was sufficient to know that I was making a parallel transition. And of course, all that difficult, austere post‑war music is now finding its way into more popular music forms, albeit in a watered‑down form. People use Stockhausen in electronic dance music, and someone like Tod Dockstader, who was totally obscure, is now a name that people in certain circles are aware of. So all that difficult music has become part of a palette that people dip into. As for my own development, at some stage I started getting the impression that my music was beginning to be seen as an academic effort and was increasingly appropriated by musical academia. That was a compliment, and it reflected my commitment to make what, at least at the time, I felt were bold experimental moves in electronic music. But at the same time I felt that it was a sign of me entering my own zone of scholasticism, of academic self‑referentiality. Basically I was beginning to stare up my own ass. Plus there was again the danger of preaching only to the converted. So I wanted to shake things up and make music in a more spontaneous, almost flippant way, and less like I was in a laboratory.”

Jenkinson's development is not quite as linear as his words here suggest. 'My Red Hot Car', from one of his supposedly more difficult and experimental albums, Go Plastic, features an early instance of the bassist singing through a vocoder, is extremely catchy, and came close to being a Top 40 hit. The more recent general direction of Jenkinson's music towards more immediacy, fun and spontaneity and away from wilful contrariness is nonetheless obvious, beginning with Ultravisitor, which swung wildly from one extreme to another, and culminating last year in Shobaleader One and d'Demonstrator, much of which sounds like a direct extension of 'My Red Hot Car'.

Jenkinson: "The track '50 Cycles' on Ultravisitor is a monster that took me a month to make. I used the Vegas software, made by Sonic Foundry at the time, to assemble literally thousands of edited pieces of audio, and it became something of monstrous complexity. I wanted cutting‑edge digital signal processing and I wanted the most awkward, difficult, angular sounds. Then the next day it was like: 'I can't stand this any more, I need something simple, something enriching.' I wanted music that immediately made me feel good. That's how the acoustic guitar track 'Andrei' came about. On that album, the dialogue between these two directions started to get really tense. Since the album after that, Hello Everything, I've been making music that's been more accessible, more joyous, and less hard work.”

Jumble Sale Studio

There certainly is a more immediately melodic thread running through Hello Everything, Just A Souvenir and d'Demonstrator, but that's not to say that there's not much on these three albums that isn't weird and pretty far out by most people's standards. All these albums, as well as Go Plastic and Do You Know Squarepusher (2002) were recorded at the Essex location Jenkinson moved to in 2001, after living in London for over a decade. Ten years on, Jenkinson is still in the same rural location, where he spends as much of his time programming his beloved Eventide Orville box in a his slightly dilapidated living room, complete with what looks like an old '80s stereo tower as his only playback system.

One result of the boundary‑pushing attitude to gear that Jenkinson developed early in his life is that he's not interested in shiny surfaces and collecting state‑of‑the‑art stuff. He likes to get under the bonnet of whatever he stumbles upon and operates with a "jumble sale mentality”, not caring whether something is unglamorous or cheap. His studio is on the ground floor, and consists of a live room, at the moment filled mostly with his regular live drummer Alex Thomas's kit, and the actual studio, where pride of place goes to a huge, almost wall‑to‑wall Euphonix CS3000 desk.Drummer Alex Thomas's kit is temporarily resident in Jenkinson's live room.Drummer Alex Thomas's kit is temporarily resident in Jenkinson's live room. Both rooms are linked by a corridor that's full with flightcases and the computing bits for the Euphonix as well as a Lexicon 480L reverb.

The Euphonix comes as a bit of a surprise, as it is a piece of kit that ticks all the wrong boxes, from Jenkinson's point of view at least, in that it's shiny and expensive and most likely was not bought at a jumble sale. Also expensive and arguably shiny are two Eventide Orvilles and one Eventide DSP4000, arguably Jenkinson's most important boxes. The rest of the gear conforms more to his slightly Luddite, avoid‑glamorous‑kit perspective. It's a ragtag collection of stuff, and there's no discernible overall 'vintage' rationale behind the collection as a whole. The most significant pieces are a Roland TR909, TB303, SH101, V‑Synth XT and V‑Bass 99, Neve 1073 mic pre, AKG BX15 spring reverb, TC Electronics D2 delay, DBX 1066, a self‑made mechanical reverb,Tom Jenkinson's custom‑made spring reverb: "The reverb uses four pairs of Accutronics type 1, 4, 8 and 9 springs. The stereo input stages incorporate a soft-clip circuit, high shelving EQ and spring selectors that send the input to a given pair of springs. There are four output stages to which the springs can be assigned. Each output stage has signal invert, volume and pan controls. The springs can be used in parallel or series, where one spring signal is fed into another. The circuit grounding uses star topology. It was used extensively on the album Hello Everything, in conjunction with my AKG BX15 and BX20 reverbs. It is clearly audible at the starts of 'Bubble Life', 'Circlewave' and 'Plotinus'.”Tom Jenkinson's custom‑made spring reverb: "The reverb uses four pairs of Accutronics type 1, 4, 8 and 9 springs. The stereo input stages incorporate a soft-clip circuit, high shelving EQ and spring selectors that send the input to a given pair of springs. There are four output stages to which the springs can be assigned. Each output stage has signal invert, volume and pan controls. The springs can be used in parallel or series, where one spring signal is fed into another. The circuit grounding uses star topology. It was used extensively on the album Hello Everything, in conjunction with my AKG BX15 and BX20 reverbs. It is clearly audible at the starts of 'Bubble Life', 'Circlewave' and 'Plotinus'.” Axon AX100 MIDI bass module, MOTU 24I/O audio interface, Dynaudio Acoustics M1 monitors, Yamaha CS80, TX81Z and FS1R synths and QY700 sequencer. A huge amount of gear has also been and gone, like the Yamaha VSS80 8‑bit toy keyboard sampler shown in some late '90s television footage of Jenkinson.

"I made my first records using the Boss DR660, which was a bit of a non‑event in the history of drum machines. It just happened to be the one I could afford at the time and that had a reasonable range of sounds on it and that could do MIDI sequencing. But it was phenomenally limited. To this day, nobody believes that the tracks on Big Loada were a single pass of me sequencing my Akai S950 from my DR660. Yeah, at some stage I had that cheap Yamaha keyboard, which was pushing the limit. It cost 20p in a jumble sale, and it had keys and an output, so I reckoned that it should have at least one song in it. All that kind of stuff is gone now. I used to be very hard‑headed and said: 'You use your brain to make music, not your wallet, so I can make music with anything. If you're using your wallet exclusively, you're fucked!' I still love it when people realise great musical ideas on extremely limited equipment. I personally didn't make much of it in the press at the time, because I thought: 'Who cares what I make music with? If my music doesn't stand up on its own, I don't want to prop it up with talking about any technological innovation that may have occurred during the making of it.'”

The Nuts & Bolts

Regarding the sound sources that are currently in his studio, Jenkinson remarks, "I have used the Roland VB99 on my records in the past, but it's a cheesy, idiot‑proof piece of gear, and it's hard to get into the nuts and bolts of it. These days I really object to being locked out of the key parameters of a piece of gear, but the VB99 was quite useful for a while. I did use the TB303 on the Shobaleader album, the very deep bass synth comes from that, and the drums on that album were programmed in the TR909.As well as unusual and custom‑built gear, Tom Jenkinson retains some of the staple instruments of '90s dance music, among them a Roland TB303.As well as unusual and custom‑built gear, Tom Jenkinson retains some of the staple instruments of '90s dance music, among them a Roland TB303. I unearthed the 909 and was surprised by how good the straight‑out‑of‑the‑box sounds sounded on my monitors. Their sonic muscularity reminds me of heavy metal and R&B, and those are two of the main influences that exist on the Shobaleader record.

"I've had the 101 forever, but didn't use it on the record, though it is on some of the stuff I'm currently working on. The old monosynths are very charming, but I have used them to such a degree that there's not much more in them for me. From a philosophical standpoint I'd like to say that there's no limit, but in practical terms I do get bored with things. My current synths are all stuff that I've built myself in software, augmented with the FS1R and the TX81Z, which is a rackmounted version of a lower‑spec DX7. I recently bought the Yamaha CS80, and in doing so went completely against my own principles, because it is extremely expensive and extremely limited. It's the sort of synth that collectors are into, ie. people who traffic instruments and don't play them. I never wanted to spend thousands of pounds on an analogue synth that can do stuff that I can write in a computer in a day.A recent addition that goes against Jenkinson's usual principles is his vintage Yamaha CS80 polysynth.A recent addition that goes against Jenkinson's usual principles is his vintage Yamaha CS80 polysynth. But I like to sometimes go against my principles, to stretch myself.”

The core instruments in Jenkinson's studios are, in addition to his basses — the most frequently used being his Zoot and Warwick six‑strings and his Westone fretless — his Yamaha QY700 sequencer and, of course, his collection of Eventide Harmonizer boxes. "I started using Eventide equipment in 1999, when I bought the DSP4000, and I'm still finding new things to do with that and with the Orville. I write my own algorithms, mostly in a PC‑based editor. The vocoder sound on my vocals on the Shobaleader record was done with the Orville, in which I programmed a 24‑band patch, which had a reasonable coherence.If it's possible to single out one piece of gear as being crucial to Jenkinson's way of working, it's the Eventide Orville multi‑effects unit. If it's possible to single out one piece of gear as being crucial to Jenkinson's way of working, it's the Eventide Orville multi‑effects unit. I also used the Orville for the bass distortion on the record. I wanted to have unified tone for the album, so I developed some specific software patches to do the processing on the bass. The bass distortion on the track 'Megazine' was done with an old‑school 110V Morley Wah pedal and an Orville distortion patch based on a curve, X/Y‑mapping module. On the track 'Abstract Lover', I created a bass effect patch doing pitch‑shifting in the Orville and then going into a frequency divider/distortion patch in [Native Instruments'] Reaktor software. The QY700 is my main sequencer.Jenkinson seems to prefer having a desk at the centre of his studio, a role which is currently occupied by a Euphonix CS3000.Jenkinson seems to prefer having a desk at the centre of his studio, a role which is currently occupied by a Euphonix CS3000. I much prefer it to using software‑based sequencers. The latter just make my brain shut down. When the graphical information is too vivid, it makes it harder to retain the information in my memory, and one critical thing about making music is to have a real‑time virtual image of the studio operating in your head, so you can make your choices very quickly. Looking at the gear all the time and every time having to work out how you're going to do something slows you down and shuts down your imagination.”

Old School

Jenkinson seems reluctant to make any recording medium indispensable to his studio, especially a DAW, and in addition to his large desk, he also still uses a tape recorder. He says, "I got the Euphonix just before starting the Shobaleader record. Before that I had a Mackie 28:8, which was getting a little worn out.Tom Jenkinson much prefers to work with hardware sequencers, and specifically his Yamaha QY700.Tom Jenkinson much prefers to work with hardware sequencers, and specifically his Yamaha QY700. The Euphonix is digitally controlled analogue, so it gives me the best of both worlds, and does add some character to the sound, in the summing and EQs. As for recording, I used tape recorders exclusively until 2001. I first had a Fostex M80 quarter‑inch eight‑track, and in the late '90s I obtained a half‑inch Tascam MSR16. I still use that, though it's being repaired at the moment. I have to say that I'm not obsessive about it. Recording to tape, or to a computer‑based multitrack, is a means to an end. I mix and match now. I've used Sonic Foundry's Vegas, and more recently Nuendo, but I don't endorse or recommend them. There's no love in it for me, they really are just tools.

"Having said that, it's still more convenient to use multitracking software, and the reality is that my tape recorder is not here. The majority of the Shobaleader record was done in Nuendo, but I try to do as little in a computer‑based multitrack as possible. I just use it to record and organise the music. '50 Cycles' was me pushing digital multitracks to the limit, but in what I'm doing of late, it's just a tape recorder with no personality. There's always the issue of latency when you record into the computer. If my signal goes through the Eventide and then into the soundcard and then into Reaktor, and back out again, I doubt that I get less than 15ms latency. So you're playing ahead, and then the software will account for latency, but it may be shifting things too much. It's endless. Another deliberate restriction is that I try to use the software with a tape‑recorder mentality. I don't do hundreds of takes and then compile. You may get something technically perfect, but it won't have any soul. I'm old school, I don't mind mistakes.”

To hear Jenkinson call himself "old school” may come as a surprise to those that view him as the epitome of 21st Century experimental music. But the whole point of Squarepusher is, of course, the creative tension that comes from the juxtaposition of old and new, of serious bass chops and musical sensibility with the latest developments in electronics and composition. Squarepusher's most recent effort, d'Demonstrator, which sounds like a delirious American R&B band pushing the boundaries so far as to be in danger of being dropped by their label's 'squares', is a point in case.

On the Squarepusher web site, Jenkinson states that the album's "basic premise at the outset was 'space pop' — a utopian pop music hallucination”. Jenkinson also claims that the album's "overall aim is to articulate my music through the medium of a band.” And so Shobaleader One ostensibly features two guitarists, a keyboard player and a drummer, in addition to Jenkinson on bass and vocals. The band members hide behind obscure pseudonyms such as Strobe Nazard and Sten t'Mech, and a number of commentators have inferred that it really is just all Jenkinson himself. When asked, he's not saying much, other than stating that he has indeed assembled a band and plans to tour with it in the near future. He also hints that the new smaterial he's working on at the moment will be "rather less accessible again”, thereby once again wrong‑footing any attempt to categorise or predict his musical direction.

He concludes, aptly: "I don't want people to get bogged down in one‑dimensional interpretations of my music. To me, if music has any value, it should survive various interpretations. It's one reason why I have avoided using lyrics in the past, and when I do use them, as on d'Demonstrator, I obscure their meanings. Lyrics tend to nail down the song, and I don't see that as a good place for my music to be. I want it to live beyond a time and a place.”  .

What's In A Name?

While other electronic music acts tend to use obscure, abstract and/or unintelligible song titles, Squarepusher's titles are often evocative. Tom Jenkinson explains that "usually the titles are oblique references to associations that the music evokes in me, such as places or colours or concepts or, rarely, people”. And he gives a few examples:

  • 'Greenways Trajectory' (Go Plastic): "Greenways is a walkway near Stratford in East London.”
  • 'Orient Orange' (Hello Everything): "This piece evoked a strong sense of... orange.”
  • 'Kronecker King' (Hello Everything): "A Kronecker delta is the name for a hypothetical infinitely short sound, approximations of which are used to generate impulse‑responses of filters and so on. The track had snare sounds cut really short by tape editing — so it's a matter of concept association, I suppose.”
  • 'Andrei' (Ultravisitor): "A reference to the great Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky.”

The Amen Break

The five‑second solo that drummer Gregory C Coleman performed in 1969 on the song 'Amen, Brother' with soul band the Winstons must surely rank as the most‑used sample in the history of music. It is perhaps the only sample out of which a whole genre sprang, in this case drum & bass. Tom Jenkinson explains how he came to be a very frequent user of the Amen break: "I first heard it being used in the Mantronix track 'King Of The Beats', and I just thought: 'Fucking hell, that is heavy!' I was 15‑16. Then, the same break started getting used in the early '90s in the early rave, breakbeat stuff. Then, of course, it became the main break in jungle or drum & bass. So for me it has these maybe slightly rose‑tinted associations of happy musical times. I can loop to it for 20 minutes and feel in heaven. I'm not going to say anything stupid, like it's perfect, but the way that the drummer does the ghosting, the timing of the ghosting, the sound of his kit, the way it is recorded, the vinyl — it was only released on a vinyl seven‑inch — everything works. You can pitch it up, down, stretch it, reverse it, it does everything. The Amen break is very sonically rich, very spectrally dense. There is a lot you can pull out of it, whereas some other beats offer maybe just one or two songs, and you don't want to hear it again.

"I could be accused of laziness in having used it so often, and I have actually repeatedly said to myself: 'I'm not using it any more.' I recall saying that as far back as 1998, when I did Music Is Rotted One Note. Then later I found myself thinking: 'Mmm, mmm, I need that sound.' It is like a drum machine. The degrees of freedom are maybe not as extensive, but it has scope, it has reference points, just like a TR909 has a reference point: it was the mainstay in all the late‑'80s Chicago house and Euro techno in the '90s. The Amen break has its own references, and if you are happy to abuse them, all well and good. Nowadays I am not as happy to make those references, and since Hello Everything I officially don't use the Amen break anymore.”


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