I first discovered London’s An Trinse (aka Stephen McLaughlin) when he supported Sarah Davachi earlier this year. While both artists occupy that broad plain of electronic sculpture, Stephen’s set made for an interesting point of contrast. Sarah’s music expands like liquid poured on a flat surface, graceful and inevitable as it sweeps through space. Stephen works with friction and inhibition: the stifling of one sound at the hands of another, the fizz of serrated elements pressed together. As his performance came to a close, I was left nurturing a sense of unrest for a long time afterward, restless in my innate yearning for closure.
As I discovered in the interview with Stephen below, this gravitation toward sonic tension has roots in numerous places. We also discuss the cultivation of visceral energy, late night studio sessions, and the changing shape of Stephen’s original home city of Derry, Northern Ireland.
When I heard your set at Rye Wax back in August, I became immediately aware of the tension and uneasy expectation that resides within your music. Could you talk to me about where this interest in tension originates from? I understand that it’s partly based in the political and religious unrest of Derry in Northern Ireland, where you grew up. Are there any other reasons or influences that inform why tension is sonically interesting to you?
I’m glad someone is approaching from that angle. I was worrying that I was overplaying that a bit much. Tension between elements is especially important in time-based arts if you want to build anticipation of what’s around the corner. No one likes being anxious as a disposition (I have suffered badly in the past), but sometimes there needs to be a little bit of worry in there, so when something happens you really feel the release. I’m a big fan of horror films, and if it’s just constant mayhem it becomes cartoonish. The calm moments bleed into uneasy moments which in turn lead to the shocks we are there for. You need sidesteps and false bottoms.
I also work as a motion designer/video editor and have been scoring more of those recently, so this has very much informed how I try to create narratives within pieces. These usually have very short timeframes so I think I’m just expanding these ideas to a much larger scale.
When making ambient/drone based music, it’s very easy to create a sound that’s pleasing or visceral and then repeat ad-infinitum, but I think I just enjoy playing with people’s expectations more. Someone like Sarah Davachi, who I was playing with that night at Rye Wax, is an absolute master of this type of work but in lesser hands it can be dreary.
I understand that you took a few years away from concentrating on music. What did you turn your attention to during your time away? Were you aware of any differences in your relationship to sound when you decided to return to making music again?
The boring answer is a fiscal one. I moved to London around the financial crash and suddenly the Arts Council, which funded the earlier things I did in Manchester, got halved and my long term prospects looked dismal. So I figured if I spent a couple of years concentrating on design work, I could get a lifelong paycheck to fund the musical stuff later on. I also did live visuals at gigs and warehouse parties, and as that become more lucrative, I got to travel a bit with it and it funded the accumulation of a load of old synths.
During this period I consumed a hell of a lot of different types of music and discovered so much incredible stuff via the joys of music blogs, so I actually got to hear a lot of the stuff I’d been reading about from David Toop and co at The Wire over the years. Cafe Oto opened around this time too, so that became a focus for a lot of listening. I thought a lot about what I wanted to do exactly. I feel like I’m still creating the same type of sound but I understand more the why and how of it. I still DJed around town as well, so it was more that I treated music much more as a social thing and met a lot of good friends through it.
Your music feels both intricately crafted and very “present tense” – there’s something very volatile about it, in spite of the overall sense of sculptural deliberation. I’d love to know about the equipment and interfaces you use to make your music, and whether there are any means you use to ensure that your work retains its lively energy.
I think the main thing that maintains it is my own boredom threshold; or maybe more what I think the boredom threshold that a listener would allow me. I tend to record loads of different improvisations with synths and FX, and few things can create chaos better than the sheer feedback sizzle of electrons tumbling back on themselves. Often I’m just playing field recordings too loud through my mixer to tape, so it drops out and saturates in weird ways. I’ve got loads of bits I use, but what I can’t do without is my MFB-Nanozwerg, which is a great little monosynth you can filter things through. Sadly it has been on the blink for a while. It’s only slightly bigger than an FX pedal but is super loud and subby and can be totally feral when it lets loose. They are discontinued but they now do them as a modular, so it may be my entrance into that rabbit hole. I use a Technics KX 200 organ filtered with this a lot – it’s a 70s analog synth which weighs a ton but sounds fantastic. Also I use a Roland JX8P which is great for really melancholic pads and basses.
The improvisations then get fed into Ableton for processing and editing. I personally think it’s the most flexible and musical sequencer. As it’s the centre of the edit and the eventual live version, it feels a lot more comfortable in the transition. I use GRM Tools a lot as it adds those kind of grand electrocacoustic processes you would hear creaking out of the lab. I try not to use many obviously identifiable newer plugins for processing (other than some granular stuff). They’re exciting, but I like the idea that maybe the pieces could be from any time in the history of electronic music. I love D16 and Soundtoys plugins for similar reasons.
I think the most important thing in all this is allowing things to mature. There are pieces within my last EP that were created a decade before and have been through god knows how many iterations. I think before I decided that I would work in 15 minute pieces (ie side long), those two tracks were initially about eight. But I got to the core of what I wanted to say with each and recomposed. Once you have improvised a piece and it sounds good, I think the instinct is to just say, “that’s it” and move on, but I think it’s important to ask bigger questions than that when you are looking trying to say something, and more importantly, have the arrogance to assume that anyone should afford you the luxury of their attention.
Could you tell me about the environment in which you make your music? Is there a particular space, time of day or mood that you find to be most conducive to working with sound?
Ive been thinking a lot about this recently as I’ve been surveying what I’ve done in the last year since I finished Corpses From The North, and I’m not really into the majority of what I’ve done. I got offered a studio share a few months before CFTN was finished, which was great as I had somewhere I could do the final mixes loud – as I say, the meat of them was done over quiet and partly edited at home, so it was having somewhere I could really think. I had the place from 6pm till morning, so I could really put the hours in without distraction from the outside world (and also tidy my bedroom of wires). The room itself was fantastic. It was apparently Andy Weatherall’s studio during Screamadelica and the guys had a massive vintage Amek desk, loads of great mics and incredible interfaces, but I struggled to experiment with new stuff there once I had the EP done and dusted. My work life had just got really busy, so I was generally getting there straight off a job and not really in the mood for ambient introspection, so I would just stick on a drum beat and noodle on synths all night over a few beers. I got into the idea of trying to improve my actual musicianship and understanding of melody/structure, but I guess the results of that haven’t really fitted under the An Trinse umbrella.
That place closed and I moved another great place where I had the same problem, but I think I really just work better with a small mixer and a table full of synths and pedals and a slightly less busy work life. I find creativity dries up once the meter is running, so it’s important to come up with a more flexible solution. That said, I have loads of recordings that might make sense after a gestation period and a load of techno stuff that I might release under a different name. I should know by now that, much as I create a lot of work, my rate of finishing those is glacial.
How do you find the transposition of your music from the studio to the stage, and to what extent does this change in environment affect your relationship with this music (if at all)?
It’s something which is in flux and there are a few different iterations depending on circumstance. Cafe Oto is a five-minute taxi from mine so I can drag a big mixer and some synths for something a bit more involved while I pump six channels of audio from Ableton. I have been wanting to produce something quite close to the last EP as I worked pretty hard on the structure, so there has been a much more rehearsed performance than I did in the past. Other times, if there’s a bit more travel involved, I will just work in Ableton with a few controllers and have a lot more going within the software. This has actually made me a bit more adventurous live as you’ve got the luxury of everything there on a screen. A table full of knobs in the dark gets confusing fast.
I’m thinking of what to do next. I feel a period of synth experimentation is coming up so maybe I’ll get more open to that again. Or maybe I’ll go mad-digital. I used to improvise on stage with just a laptop and Max/Audiomulch a decade ago and would like to gain that confidence again.
I’ve seen you describe your music as dealing with “the uneasy atmospheres and silences left in the Irish psyche in the aftermath of colonial and religious repression”, and asking whether “it’s better to disavow these sentiments to exist day to day or confront them head on in search some kind of resolution.” This sounds like a question to which no answer will conveniently present itself, but I’m curious as to whether your thoughts on this query have changed over the years.
It has definitely changed. One can dwell on these things as an expat, as when it comes down to it, you haven’t that luxury when it is your day-to-day reality. To be honest I barely recognise Derry from where I grew up. There is so much positivity and art/music everywhere in the aftermath of the 2012 capital of culture, but at the same time there is the spectre of Brexit torpedoing the economy on both sides of the border, and a fear amongst people about an impartial government with the DUP worming themselves into a Tory No. 10.
On the plus side, there are a new wave of socially conscious voices in unionism, such as Sophie Long, who can maybe lead toward a place beyond single issue politicians trying to fill their own pockets with public money while pushing draconian social policy, and see that Westminster has the same contempt for them as all the working people of the UK. It’s been a funny year with the DUP creeping its way across the water. It really drove home how little people in England know about the situation at home. There had always been a “one side is bad as the other” attitude, and I suppose rightly so given the IRA caused a lot of chaos on the mainland up until the 90s. Everyone I spoke to the morning after the election was elated with the various coalition policies, and as the day went on I had to explain exactly who these people were. It kind of dawned on everyone the level of anger and bigotry that exists beyond the catholic/protestant divide.
What records have you been listening to recently?
Ive been trying to open up my listening a bit more as I had got to a stage where I was doing an eight-hour session every week then listening back to things I was doing a lot, and it was becoming a bit of a shitty feedback loop where, other than when at live shows, I only wanted to listen to spoken word podcasts the rest of the time so definitely having a break where I realign myself. When music feels like work, you need to stop what you are doing and look around.
At the moment I’m really enjoying new Rainforest Spiritual Enslavement record which I was lucky to see live at Unsound last week. Ive always loved Dom Fernow, so it’s always exciting when he completely sidesteps your expectation. It must be the least noisy thing he has done – it’s almost like a Balearic Holger Czukay record but stretched as far as it can go. Also Puce Mary, Gas, Mats Gustafsson, Laurel Halo and Jlin were fantastic. It’s easy to go art-blind during such a week of great music, but looking back there was so much stuff that inspired me through the bout of flu I was suffering with.
What’s next for you and your music?
Next I will be getting the home experimentation den back up and running, fixing some stuff and buying some stuff. I feel as though I’m in a bit of a transitional phase with it, so we will see what pops out the other side. I might have some techno coming out under another name. I was feeling a bit overwhelmed about it recently but now I’m excited about what to do next.