Interview: Graham Dunning

Photo by Julien Kerduff

If you’re currently unfamiliar with Graham Dunning’s “mechanical techno”, treat yourself to this demonstration video. Piece by piece, he crafts machines made out of records, modified tone arms, dangled contact mics, slinky-springs, pedal FX and other objects, using the rotary motion of the turntable (along with additional motors) to bring the constructions to life. The end product is a dance music of mechanical chain reaction, electronic pulse, gravity aided impact – an emulation of club music, albeit with digital quantising swapped out with the slips and falters of human calibration. There’s a powerful sense of propulsion to these creations, yet they also feel somewhat vulnerable and prone to mechanical collapse.

Dunning’s new album “Auxon” brings together several different configurations of the mechanical techno setup. With only the sound to go by, I’m left to imagine all of the elaborate spinning totem poles that bore each thumping, clacking, heaving construction. Below, Dunning and I discuss his entry into mechanical techno, the potential for collapse, and all of the wonderfully strange methods he uses to generate the album’s innumerable sonic intricacies.

What inspired you to start making mechanical techno in the first place?

I’d been experimenting with turntables and records for a number of years, and also have a background in home recording and electronic music production. Rhythm and drone have been key elements in much of what I make, and record players are naturally good sources for both. At the root of it is record crackle and earth hum. Mechanical techno wasn’t an idea that came out fully formed – it’s evolved over time out of a couple of other ongoing projects.

Music By The Metre is a project based on Situationist International member Giuseppe Pinot-Gallizio’s Industrial Painting: he would use mechanised processes to fill long rolls of canvas with abstract images, then cut them up to sell by the metre. My project was an audio analogue to that – setting up a machine to make abstract music, and filling spools of tape with it. The whole composition of the piece is in the building of the machine: different skipping records, tape loops, live mics out of the window, radio static, synth drone, effects pedals. Once it’s set up and running I don’t touch it – the audio is always the same but always changing too. I started with Music By The Metre in 2012, and later did a couple of live shows where I was mixing down the audio from these recordings as a live dub of the machine’s material. Mechanical techno is essentially a step along from this – a live dub of a built machine.

I’ve been running workshops in modifying records and making experimental music with record players since 2010, and also more open workshops on improvisation, noise and exploring sound. At one event I organised at my old studio I was playing around feeding sound from cut-up records into the inputs of an old analogue synth – I realised I could not only make use of the filter section but also trigger the oscillator, using the clicks and pops of the record to produce a sort of monophonic acid bassline. That got me started putting things together to make multiple rhythms from one platter. Later I saw Vinyl Terror & Horror’s tower of butchered records, which they use to make abstract, ambient and noise music, and realised I could use the same system for expanding my turntable-sequencer setup.

Does each track on Auxon represent a unique configuration of the mechanical techno setup? How long does each track take to put together?

Yes! That’s exactly how I work. Writing a new track begins by building the machine in a new way. Once it’s built I record a whole series of dubs, which could be a couple of minutes or over an hour long each. I record as much material as I can. It’s just a live mix to stereo – no multi-tracking or overdubs. I use the mixing board and effects as an instrument and improvise the compositions along with the machine. Then I don’t make any edits till later. When I know I’ve got to get a track or release ready I go into the mixdowns and cut out some bits, complete as tracks. Again, no edits or splicing, each track is a chunk taken from a mixdown.

The build of the machine varies but it’s normally between two and four hours. Sometimes it’s frustrating that by the end it sounds rubbish and I just have to start again. I try to go the long way round and experiment with things as I go, and not rely on stuff I’ve done before in other tracks. That might mean making a new modified record to do a certain job.

PHOTO BY JONATHAN WARING

PHOTO BY JONATHAN WARING

In what sort of environment are you creating/designing these pieces? I imagine it’d lend itself to being blasted through a set of big speakers while you’re generating it…

I tend to mix a lot on headphones actually – partly as I’ve always been based in art studios rather than music studios, so don’t want to be disturbing my neighbours. But partly so I get a full stereo picture – the textures and minutiae of the sounds are important to me and I often worry I’ll miss some of that when playing out through speakers.  That said I do like to blast the tracks a bit too, to make sure it sounds good out loud and through a sub. I played a DJ set recently in a club with a really nice soundsystem, and it was reassuring to hear that my tracks stood up to the other stuff I was playing. Either way I normally like to dance around a bit during a mixdown. It’s quite a physical process for me and I know if I’m dancing then something’s working.

It’s quite a different thing to be playing live with the set up too. In a live setting I’m tweaking the sound for the room, the system, the audience. Making lots of little changes as it goes to make it sound as good as possible. I often think of Jeff Mills’ way of playing – his hands are like birds, making lots of small, fast movements, incremental improvements to the sound made very rapidly, rather than big sweeping gestures.

Is it obvious when a particular track is ready to put to tape, or is it tempting to keep stacking these pieces indefinitely? Are there any particular limitations to how complicated a track can become?

The limitations are what this project is all about really – I’m quite strict about it cos I feel that workarounds are where much of the creativity comes in. Physically I can’t really go above six or seven layers without it becoming unmanageably unstable. That’s more than I would ever really need, and often I find I’m taking things away in the final mix so it’s not too overcomplicated.

The way the machine works forces me to compose in a specific way, which keeps it interesting for me. For example, building from the bottom, the first layer is always a loop from a record, a rhythm from a modified record, or sending some audio to the synths or elsewhere. There’s a normal tone-arm already there on the record player so it’s a waste not to use it. I generally don’t bring the drum-triggers in till the top layer, as the dangling contact-mics don’t leave room to put anything else above them. So I have to write/build all the percussion, samples, melody etc. before the beats – the opposite way I would naturally compose if working with a step sequencer.

I learned to record on a four-track cassette, and one of the things I learned early on was that you need to get the beats down first so that the rest of the instruments have something to play to, otherwise it’s hard to keep time. I also read somewhere that bass frequencies are most likely to bleed across to other tracks so it’s best to get the bass down early too, so you can erase the bleed in the next pass when you record the rhythm guitar or whatever.

Having said that, the mechanical techno system is very flexible, and that’s the exciting thing about it. I can make a bass drum sound in lots of different ways, for example: triggered drum module, mechanically played speaker-as-drum, modified record with clicks/drops, triggered and gated analogue synth. How I choose to generate the bass drum either opens up or closes other options. So if I use a modified record for the bass drum I can use the drum-synth to generate tones for a bass line, but have less options to sample audio from a record for another layer.

There must be limitless variables that can affect the way each piece turns out. Have you discovered any surprising/unexpected means by which each machine can be adjusted to produce a different result?

I’m constantly looking out for unexpected things to make sounds, to introduce new things. It’s a genuinely electroacoustic project in that I can use almost any kind of sound source: sampled, acoustic, electronic, live, shaped noise. For me, any sound source is as valid as any other, it’s a nonhierarchical system. It’s also modular and holectic, so I can recombine in different ways each time.

On the album some of the more unusual sound sources include: radio static gated with a sidechain triggered noise gate as a snare drum; a slinky-spring used as a giant spring reverb; a contact-miked feather rhythmically plucked with rotating pegs; a track where all the delay sounds are from a reel-to-reel tape machine feeding back on itself; and on one track I rigged up a little secondary motor that would pull or push the tone arm into different grooves on the record, changing the sample played unpredictably with each rotation.

Recently I’ve been using ping-pong balls rolling about on the platter to add some less regimented triggering. Sometimes things come up that I’m not expecting, and I try to bring them into the recordings. I was working with some solenoids to play broken cymbals, and each time one was triggered it caused static clicks in a different input – of course these were in time with the rest of the loops so I could bring it into the mix. At one live show I was having a lot of trouble with low frequency feedback through the speaker-bass drum, but managed to tune it so it was giving a great dubby bassline. It was totally unexpected but really made the gig for me.

I’ve seen quite a few people talking about the organic movement of these pieces – the rhythms falter and slip in and out of time ever so slightly. There’s a clunkier, more visceral quality to this music in contrast to digitally quantised techno. Is that a particularly alluring aspect of this music for you?

The faltering and slipping is absolutely what it’s about for me. I’m not sure that organic is quite the right word, as I like to think there’s something a bit uncomfortable or disconcerting about it. A good friend said of one of my tracks that it feels like it’s about to collapse in on itself at any moment – that’s something I like, a kind of tension or danger. The machine might break down at any moment.

The drummer from Faust is someone who does this really well I think. I find him quite difficult to watch when they play live, it feels like he’s right on the edge of fucking it up all the time – a sloppy precision. It makes the sound seem to be driving and lurching and collapsing at the same time.

Having worked with the mechanical techno setup for a couple of years now I’m looking for ways to explore its possibilities – what are the things this instrument can do that others can’t? Pushing at the open edges. The normal way to improve a system is to make it more efficient and precise by degrees – this is something I feel I need to actively avoid. The fertile parts are where the decay is happening, the noise, broken down parts, dying matter.

PHOTO BY JULIEN KERDUFF

PHOTO BY JULIEN KERDUFF

It must be interesting to physicalise the compositional process like this. Has the opportunity to actually see compositional layering led you to think differently about process of composition in general?

I go back to something I read about Gordon Mumma, how he viewed the circuit boards required for his pieces as a part of the composition or score. That’s definitely how I see this project, like Music by the Metre before it: building the machine is making the composition. It’s something Hugh Davies wrote about too – the multiple roles of the sonic artist as instrument maker, composer and performer. These things always bleed into one another.

I’ve also learned a lot from developing the live show. I build the machine twice with different setups, leading to a flow through two compositions. The physical building of the tower forces the shape of the resulting sound. It doesn’t feel like I’m “performing” as much as I’m completing a task. Working through a process. This kind of task-as-score is something I’ve drawn from working with AAS.

What does your current setup look like compared to when you started doing this? Have you made any particular improvements/enhancements to make the creation process a little easier?

It’s developed a lot over time. I’m constantly making improvements but always aware not to make it too good, as I don’t want it to become slick or polished. A big one was getting a proper 1210, which I actually bought for using in a free improv setting more – my rationale being that if I’m using turntable as my main instrument I should get a “proper” one, rather than the cheapo things I was using before. I’ve later found that I really need the torque that the 1210 provides, to keep the machine turning. Sometimes I’ve borrowed a turntable for a gig and it’s been a cheaper model and really struggled to keep turning. Of course, that’s another challenging factor I can use to push against in the performance too.

Various single things I’ve developed have been more mechanical percussion including tambourine, shaker and snare drum; copper disk sequencer; solenoid triggers; some prime-number trigger records for alternative time signatures; a version of Gysin’s Dreammachine for controlling a light-synth. It’s a great system because I know any new development can be included easily.

Have you “mastered” mechanical techno by now, or is there still a lot to learn?

There’s still plenty more to do. I’m just starting to use the setup collaboratively: there’s a track with Justin Paton on the album, and I’ve done a tape with Left Hand Cuts Off The Right too. I’m planning to record with Leslie Deere and her newly-developed motion sensing audio setup soon. I’ve been talking to Tom Richards about developing some optical disk reading hardware too.

How are you approaching live performances at the moment? Are they all improvised? Is there a sense of risk to creating these machines in real time in front of an audience?

The live set has developed over time too. It’s half way between a demonstration and a performance. I introduce each layer one at a time, so the audience get an idea of what each one does. There’s a certain improvised aspect as I’m mixing it to the room and the system, shaping the sound and the effects as it goes. I build the tower twice in different combinations and it ends with a little light show from the rotating prisms.

It’s been really great playing in lots of different contexts – basement noise gigs, art galleries, university conferences, experimental concerts. From a posh hotel lobby to a squat rave in an anarchist camp in the south of Germany. The audience and the other performers on the bill, the atmosphere and the soundsystem totally change how I play and how it sounds.

There’s definitely a sense of risk, and that’s what keeps it exciting for me. Things break, feedback or change the way they work – I have to go along with that and try to make the sound come together. It’s like performing with another musician, almost.

Graham Dunning’s website – grahamdunning.com
Seagrave Records website – seagraverecords.com