Interview: Chaines

Photo by Bruce Atherton

The King is the debut full-length from Cee Haines (aka Chaines), and it’s  constantly questioning itself. The dimensions of space contract and expand in an organic, ventricular way; time loiters and becomes stagnant, or sprints forth with urgency; identity changes under observation, with the voice shifting in pitch and timbre, slipping from the serene to the despondent. The record is both a product of introspect and outward eruption, featuring tracks that centre on duets between guitar and transformed voice (“Mary”), and others that have the orchestral instruments clasping at the edges of cavernous spaces (“DOWN”). It’s an album that queries space and atmosphere – taking influence from the unease and strange beauty of Twin Peaks and Silent Hill 2 – with as much fervency as it queries its creator, searching through the contemplations on gender identity that exist within horror fiction. One eye facing in, the other facing out.  

It’s an incredible record. We conducted the below interview over WhatsApp, at a time when I was still finding my way around Haines’s exquisite, ever-shifting labyrinth of space, persona and orchestration. I’m still trying to process everything. The King comes out March 15th on Slip. Below, Cee Haines discuss sun-drenched cathedrals, computer game sonics and their work alongside the LCO.

Let’s start with the voice. I’m so struck by the various ways that you’ve treated and presented the voice on this record. Each voice feels like the transmission of a different character, or version of the self, or life circumstance. Could you tell me about how you thought about the voice on The King, and whether there were any particular sources that inspired the way you thought about it? A couple of tracks have a certain ASMR quality to them, for example.

One of the things that fed into this album a lot was Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula and my…spiritual (I guess?) connection with the fictional construct of Dracula in general. More recently it’s occurred to me that my connection to the character is linked to my transmasculine gender identity – and feeling sympathy for a character who (arguably and not traditionally) I have viewed as embodying some of the horror I felt having the feelings I have had.

I’ve watched a lot of videos of the Youtuber Contrapoints of late – and, as a trans woman, something they said was they have drawn a sense of power comfort from traditionally monstrous depictions of trans women, because there is something weirdly empowering in these figures. I also think of an interview with Sharon Needles and their love of horror – particularly problematic 80s flicks where the killer turns out to be gasp a girl with a dick?! Obviously that’s transphobic as hell, but what if you could also say that character is kind of relatable and badass? For me, characters like Dracula, The Hulk, and werewolves too to some extent, have been these kind of monstrous comforts, sympathetic anti-heroes.

For me, Dracula embodies an unbridled masculine fury/passion/obsession, with an element of bodily transformation that I think has always rung a gender note with me. It’s an intensely problematic reading, as are Contrapoint’s and Needles, but then that’s how you’re generally made to feel about transgender feelings.

The voices in “Eraserhead” and “For Your Own Good” have a Dracula-ism to them, in slightly different ways. For Your Own Good has the recurrence of “do not see me”, which is a line lifted from the Coppola movie. Dracula is in a man-wolf form drinking the blood from one of the girls, I think. Mina, the woman he’s come to England for, because she’s a reincarnation of his dead wife, sees him like this, and it’s implied that his words charm her into forgetting the incident. It’s a moment where it’s like, “no, you’re not ready/I’m not ready for you to see me in my entirety”.

That part of the film was the initial impetus for “For Your Own Good”. And yeah, I’m a huge fan of ASMR and close-miced vocals and talking. Something that was tantalising but also implied a kind of danger. The hissing texture of the voice was important to me in that track.

“Eraserhead” is a track where I spent a lot of time trying to get the vocals how I wanted them. My vocals there are very affected – I was thinking a bit, again, of Coppola’s Dracula when we first meet him: impossibly old and decrepit. Everything’s very back of the throat, too low, overly vibrato-ey. It’s a kind of older male alter ego who’s past it and falling apart.

“Mary” is the most overtly masculine-monstrous for me – bestial, inhuman, pathetic, possessive. Getting the right sound for that was very important to me, and oddly, something I managed to get with a Boss VE-5. I’d been struggling to write a song with that kind of voice that felt like it got across more than one layer of message – i.e., grrrr. That’s a voice I feel particularly vulnerable recording.

“Population 5120” is kind of the odd one out, vocally. That’s one of a number of meditations on Twin Peaks and Silent Hill 2, about a venerated female treasure, whose loss has left behind misery. The vocals here are more of a reflection of environment and space, vast and empty. It was also a bit of an experiment to see how high I could sing. There’s a bit of Eraserhead about it when the vocals get low; these kind of sighing ghosts. I guess “For Your Own Good”, “Mary” and “Eraserhead” are all definite characters, and “Population 5120” is more about a place.

Picking up on your mentions of place and space, and carrying through into a couple of tracks we haven’t talked about yet. In my headphone listens to this record, I’ve really felt your manipulations of space, and how your sounds envelop it/recede within it. To pick up on two specific examples: the explosion of organs on “Knockturning” feels like a total overwhelm. Space fills up so quickly that I’m almost physically pushed out of it. On “DOWN”, the last portion of the piece is like a residue. Swirling ash or something. There’s a conscious emptiness to it. What role does space play for you on this record? Do you spend a lot of time thinking about how sound interacts with, or inhabits, the space around it, and what those spaces should feel like? 

Definitely! Thinking about what I’m trying to conjure in terms of time and space has been very important to me. “Knockturning” and “Carpathia” are, for me, different sides of the same coin. I wrote “Carpathia” first, and it turned into a kind of Dracula’s castle and forest at night time; at a time of danger and storm and wolves, a cavernous space of knives and dogs, and rain and wind. “Knockturning” was the last track written for the album, and I was keen to have something that was a counter to the dour nature of much of the rest of the record. It turned into a flip of Dracula’s castle; more of a sun-drenched cathedral / luxurious bath house, with running water and giggling crowds of demonic women.

Those organ blasts at the beginning of “Knockturning” are meant to be a very different start from the other tracks. I think the other tracks all have rather creeping starts. “Knockturning” was a track I wanted to fill with light and fresh air, so blasting the dust off the cathedral windows was the vibe I wanted.

“DOWN” was a commission from the London Contemporary Orchestra, and it was programmed with holy minimalism, so I wanted to write something that would fit in. It was massively inspired by the atmospheres of Twin Peaks and Silent Hill 2 – the mix of awe-inspiring American forest/mountains, of fog and cold, of something intangibly wrong on a basic level. That sound at the end of “DOWN” initially occurred to me as a way to make sure I hit the 10-minute mark the commission asked for, but I think that it also makes perfect sense, and I’m super in love with that sound. It makes it so the track kind of ends in fire.

“DOWN” had a video made by a guy called Pavel Samokhvalov for it’s first performance. Without saying I was thinking of forests in the fog, he made a video largely featuring massive forest trees.

Yeah, I think I’ve tried to illustrate time, space and situation quite a bit. I think it’s one reason why I can find the notion of performing live quite frustrating. I can be very specific when I know someone’s going to be listening on speakers or cans, but I think a lot of what I enjoy can get lost when acoustics get difficult. I want to give the listener an idea of where they are by making sure sounds and music exist in a place with an acoustic and weather and atmosphere.

Regarding the acoustics of live performance – I’ve watched footage of your work with the LCO at Printworks (which looked amazing!), and I know that you’ve had work performed at places like The Albert Hall and the Roundhouse as well. What’s it like conceiving music that operates on that scale – in terms of acoustics, but also in terms of working with an orchestra?

It’s difficult! The technical considerations are numerous, and I feel very lucky that I’ve had a number of pieces performed and facilitated by the LCO. “DOWN” was the first one and, to be honest, I don’t think I did a very good job in thinking about everything the piece required – lack of experience, sure, and it wasn’t like it was a complete disaster. Luckily, with each piece I’ve done for or involving them, I’ve been able to take what I’ve learned and try to eliminate the problems for the next occasion!

First time we did “DOWN”, I had overestimated the tech at the venue, and the instruments didn’t get the processing they needed to fit into the track’s atmosphere. So then, I know I need to make dead sure I have or can definitely borrow kit. Also, you need at least double the rehearsal time for the piece – and in the venue, ideally. Also, the perpetual difficulty is I’m usually in the performance, which is not the best spot to listen from. But gathering these various lessons, I feel I know how to make things smoother. Also, the LCO have been super adaptable and their sound guy, Simon Hendry, might just be a literal wizard. He’s immensely knowledgeable and super nice.

More and more, I’m trying to make sure that when working with orchestral forces, I use their timbral identities for what they are, or, if they are going to be manipulated, I can be sure that the manipulation will work live and won’t be too dodgy. Certain instruments are very easy to process live – like flutes, because they use a simple mic and the sounds comes from the same place all the time, so they can be played quietly and you don’t get loads of “dry” sound.

When I’m composing I’ll manipulate sound files, but I have to be conscious of whether the resulting transformation will actually resemble the live sound. Like, clarinets are gorgeous, but playing them into a mic is tricky cos the sound comes out of various points on the body, so to get a very consistent volume, you would ideally mic the thing at different points, but that’s fiddly and expensive and impractical. And that’s not even thinking about the venue building, the sound system at the venue, where the audience are etc. There will always be something near impossible to account for. But I think we get better and better.

That Printworks show was insane. I managed to fudge a few buttons myself, I think…I think the large-scale ensembles capture a grandeur I find difficult to achieve solo. I’m a big fan of texture, and recreating that on your own feels…boring.

Oh yeah? Any thoughts on why that is?

I think I feel frustrated I can’t play a number of instruments myself at the same time! I don’t have a great relationship with playing my own stuff. I enjoy playing other people’s things, and I enjoy playing with other people. I feel with my stuff I write it more with the final recording in mind, like you’d make a film or a video game; fixing a thing in time and feeling like you can rely upon it. But I do my best to make sure the instrumentalists feel as comfortable as possible with what I’m after from them, though.

I wanted to ask about how you write this material actually. There’s a constellatory (is that a word? Constellation-esque?) feel to the way that these sounds are connected and work with each other, which often obfuscates the fact that they crafted and “built up”. They just all exist together, which is beautiful. You mentioned there that you write with the final recording in mind; what does the journey look like, from that initial idea to the realisation of it? How do you work out how to start building upon that idea? 

Aw, thanks! It’s very important to me that the sounds make a certain sense existing alongside each other without being meh. It’s weird, the writing process – almost without fail, the way in which things get strung together is something I find hard to recall. As in, I have a solid idea of the things I bear in mind, but the point at which things slide into place is more of an intuitive blur.

I think it’s important for me to have a solid idea of what I want the piece to achieve from almost the outset. That way, I can make sure everything feels focused, that everything serves a purpose in the narrative. The micro has motivation (the sounds themselves, the smaller gestures, the stylistic features) and the macro has purpose (if I start calm and get angrier; if the structure is more traditional or referencing style or not; if the timbres stay the same, or if they change in some way). I need a really strong sense of what I’m trying to make a listener feel, otherwise I don’t feel that the music’s persuasive, and I get bored writing it. Often, there’s a wrestling between what initially I want to convey, and then what I discover a track is conveying. Then the decision is: do I try and wrestle what I’ve got back into what I’m trying to do/scrap what I’ve got and start again, or decide I prefer what the music is suggesting and run with that instead?

I guess I don’t often limit myself when it comes to sound. I like the freedom to throw in whatever I like whenever I like. I’m not someone who goes, “I’m writing a track for guitar and voice, so that’s all I can include”. I’m more likely to say, “I want to write a track which is largely guitar and voice, but something’s going to turn weird at some point, in order to convey…such and such”. I feel lazy if I just write for instruments sounding like their usual selves or in a setting that doesn’t set them off in an interesting way. I have a hard time writing for sounds I can’t manipulate or instruments that don’t have a flexible or very ridiculous identity. Where are the surprises?

The writing journey tends to go; sounds and intention, then experimentation/improvisation, then analysis, repeat, lose faith, everything’s crap, you’ll never write anything decent again, get over a hump, oh, that’s what it needed, oh, that’s good. I find writing very tiring, really. I want to make things that are great, and it can get to a point where I ask so much of every tiny component that everything is terrible and I lose all perspective. And I try to pour as much of my personality into it as I can. I want to do a thing justice, and want it to communicate so much that I think it can be easy to demand far too much in the creation stage. The number of times I’ve felt so low because I feel things aren’t falling into place…

But there’s usually a turning point where I can see what the thing is as a whole; where I find what the overall structure is going to be, when I figure out what’s special about the ending, when I know what the surprise is going to be. I think there’s a degree of pressure because my music is the one place in my life where I get to be a bit of a dictator (in a good way). A lot of gender expression, emotional expression and likewise goes into the music in a less compromising fashion than it does in my day-to-day life. I’ve often been inclined to be someone who doesn’t rock the boat, who’s always very accommodating and never makes anyone feel too uncomfortable. Music is where I try to tell a truth; try to be honest; try to not shy away from something painful.

I can’t help but noticing that Twin Peaks and Silent Hill seem to be recurrent reference points for you. Last year I finally got round to watching Twin Peaks (all of it, including the new series) after enjoying Lynch’s films for years and having it recommended by friends over and over again. It blew me away and I still think about it all the time. I was always fascinated by Silent Hill as a child but was never brave enough to play horror games. I guess you’ve touched on this a little bit, what is it that makes these so important to you? And are there any other works that play a similar sort of role?

Man, you know, after reading your question, I’ve actually gone back and got out the Twin Peaks DVDs because it’s been quite a while since I last saw it. I’ve seen the first season twice, and the second season once. I’ve still got to get around to the new series, and I think I’m gonna go all the way from the beginning again.

I think both Twin Peaks and Silent Hill 2 do a number of important things amazingly, namely:

  1. The sense of time and place is rock solid. You can’t mistake these places for anywhere else. It’s almost like they’re emotions as much as places, distinct and powerful.
  2. You have to know what’s going on. The way the story is told to you, you know that you’re apprehensive, you know you’re in danger, you know there’s something larger than you that can’t be controlled…but you have to keep playing/watching, because your curiosity is so peaked there is no alternative.
  3. They both have amazing music.

I still remember with Twin Peaks, it was the end of the first episode that did it for me. I don’t know if there’s a way this could be recounted without spoiling it for anyone. From what I can remember, the first episode has set up a number of the characters, and there’s a deep, overwhelming sadness established for a number of characters at the news of Laura’s death – too real, unwieldy, threatening. The last thing that happens is Laura’s mum (I think) has seen someone/something in the house – we don’t know what – and she screams her absolute lungs out whilst the camera cuts to a hand pulling a necklace out of the ground in the pitch black, lit by a torch. It slapped me out of nowhere and it was so stark, and so confusing. That was a serious moment for me.

Twin Peaks has such a mastery of pacing and of building these very particular feelings, I find it hard to talk about cos I end up gushing! I remember when I first heard the music, I thought to myself, “man, this is very dated”. Super cheesy 80s style synth stuff. But then, as I watched more, I realised that it was actually genius. It is cheesy – it’s so laden with sentiment it threatens to overflow – and as you keep hearing this sentimental music with the most uncanny and unnerving scenarios, it becomes an emotional trigger. It’s brilliant. Everything is somehow too close, too much, and it’s just delicious.

And man, I’ve not actually played Silent Hill 2 since 2010. That was one of my first experiences of playing a video game, I’m pretty sure. I wanted to play it because I was a big fan of the critic Ben Yahtzee Crowshaw, who does the series Zero Punctuation. I think I first started watching his stuff in 2008. I’d never really thought about video games as interesting art before, and he waxed lyrical about Silent Hill 2 so I wanted to try it. My partner had the game and a PS2, so lent them both to me and I played it. And holy shit. It’s hard to describe why not getting constantly attacked by monsters is brilliant. The town of Silent Hill is just so goddam empty, and I swear, I was seeing shapes in the poorly rendered fog. It’s a weirdly enticing place to be, nerve wracking and uncomfortable, yet somehow also, calming and beautiful? And the town and story are steeped in symbolism in a way that’s immensely enticing and makes you want to carry on. There were so many points where I was like, “maaaaaan, I don’t want to go back, but I have to know”.

I think really good horror invites you in. It doesn’t push you away. I’m not someone who enjoys spectacle horror, and I don’t fundamentally super enjoy being anxious or scared. What I like about good horror is being wrong footed and deeply affected. And Silent Hill 2 is deeply lonely as a game. Whenever you find another character, there’s this amazing sense of relief, and I think that’s something it uses well, because the other humans are not stable people, you’re all fucked. But, even if things get confrontational, it’s still somehow a balm. The dive into the weirdness is so gradual that a solid sense of reality just slips away.

Without spoiling it, there’s a theme of masculine guilt and violence which permeates in a manner that’s very subtle, and invites a lot of questions. Like, all the monsters have feminine features, except for one, which is a completely terrifying motherfucker. And you wonder what’s reality – is your avatar, a character called James, just losing it? And the music is amazing. Very distinctive, atmospheric music. It goes between more conventional and industrial, grinding noise, it works amazingly.

Other works that hold a similar place for me… There are other games which have stuck on quite a deep level – which I think games are particularly well set to do. I think those examples have stuck with me because I’m a massive fan of uncanny and surreal, but there are others which have still influenced a lot of my thinking. Shadow of the Colossus was another PS2 game I played at around the same time as SH2 (another Crowshaw favourite I wanted to try) and the scale involved in that, the sense of place and the natural beauty – yup. I think that has made me think about how you do grandiosity and what that might mean.

FEZ also, amazing music. The game uses quite a particular mechanic impacting how you navigate the world, and the music is what I’d describe as high fidelity 8-bit – Disasterpiece’s speciality. Again, everything is so particular – it’s a place that’s completely charming and huge and colourful and you want to get lost there. Also, Bastion and the music for that (Darren Korb).

I think Twin Peaks and SH2 in particular manage to balance things that upend reality whilst also being places you’d like to be. Perhaps SH2 to a slightly lesser extent, but even that has a calm vibe that’s kind of enticing. Twin Peaks puts you greatly on edge, but Dale Cooper is totally goals. I think they both are examples of fiction so emotive and layered they might as well be real places. Ha, there’s that theme of time and place coming up again.

It does make me think sometimes of how much mainstream film/television/games suffer from not giving their sound/music people lots of time to luxuriate just a wee bit –  to come up with something really tailor made. At least, that’s the impression I get. You want your film/game to have a really particular identity? You can’t ignore how they sound. Generic sounding films/games have to work very hard to make up for the lack of good sound.

I’m with you there. Totally agree with what you’re saying about that Twin Peaks soundtrack too. There are those qualities of the soundtrack that press into you deeper each time, and I’ve always enjoyed soundtracks that are mindful of how to use techniques like that – structural qualities that unfold over the course of hours and hours of experience. Speaking of which, what other music have you been listening to recently? 

Hmmm, good question. Lately, not a huge amount, I must confess, been feeling very drained on a musical front. Seems to be a thing that happens from time to time. But when I have put things on, I’ve been having Darren Korb’s soundtrack to Bastion a lot. Great sound track, this odd mix of country guitar, middle Eastern, electronica, folk. He does a grand job for Supergiant games. Also the Machinarium soundtrack by Tomáš Dvořák. Very textural and spacious OST. All the music from Amanita Design is awesome, quirky and absurd. Was recently playing Samarost 3 on my phone before it got a bit fiddly, and that was gorgeous on the ears.

Dean Blunt’s Black Metal is perpetually great. YouTube compilations of Debussy piano music are also great. And was listening to a lot of Lorn not that long ago; just good ole straightforward, great sounding, hooky, dark electronica.

Amazing. I still listen to that Dean Blunt album all the time. Have you seen him live at all?

It’s so good. No, I’ve seen snippets on YouTube, but never in the flesh.

I did a night drive to “Grade” the other day and it was just the most incredible thing.

Aw man, my partner and I were driving at sunset on the motorway to that just the other day! Perfect for a night drive though. The feeeeels…

So as well as the record coming out, what else is on the horizon?

So, Galya Bisengalieva (violinist) of the LCO is recording a track I wrote for her, for violin and electronics. She’s a sweety and is doing a whole bunch of pieces for violin and electronics, so I think it should be good! It’s in a much sillier vein than anything on The King – I’m trying to relax a bit with music writing. It’s always in danger of tipping over into something that takes forever and makes me hate myself, so I’m trying to capture some more levity in both the music and the approach…whilst still having stringent standards.

Beyond that, I’m not sure. Definitely finding myself in a burnout period – judging by history it won’t last forever, but in the meantime I’m searching/waiting for something to grab my attention. I’ve been looking at the game engine Unity and doing a bit of learning on that. I would love to make a game – which I need to stop saying and actually do. I’d love to do the music for a game. I’ve done it once in a game jam and it was super interesting. I have some ideas for a new project, but it’ll be balancing scope and realism, so to speak.

I would be interested to make some really, really weird audio porn. I know that sounds silly initially, but I think it could be a really interesting challenge. I’ve seen a number of artists of late like Mykki Blanco, Dorian Wood and Arca encorporate very explicit themes/aesthetic. Would be interesting to try to just go full Deviant Art in audio format. Managing to do it with some profundity (I have been particuarly struck by Arca’s sexual but weirdly surreal videos) is powerful.

That’s a premise/format I’d never even contemplated before. I’ve been meaning to dig into Arca actually, and that’s definitely spurred me to get on with it. So would that be in reference to Arca’s work with Kanda?

Possibly? I’m thinking of the video for “Reverie”, where Arca is wearing these stilts. Also enjoyed some Dorian Wood of late. Very positive to see some exploration of non cis-het-normatively-pretty sexuality.

Cee, this has been great. Is there anything we haven’t covered that you think it’s key to talk about? Or any final thoughts or anything?

Thanks dude, I’ve really enjoyed this! As for anything key we haven’t covered – at the time of making the record, playing about with genre and genre reference was a big thing for me. I think that’s just the way of things though – trying to pull genre around feels like a thing that we see more and more. I guess it’s always the way of things? The further I get from this record the more it seems like a natural concern. Something I will always be thinking about, much like I’ll be thinking about structure, timbre etc.

To be honest, it sounds kinda basic, but I’d just like people to say hey and tell me if they found the record interesting. Obviously this isn’t a unique plea by any stretch, but I’d just like, anyone who’d like to, feel like they can say hi about the music. I’ve put so much into it and sometimes I feel like I don’t know if anyone’s listened. Not that anyone is obliged to listen, but it’s fun to make friends. 🙂

Of course! Where should I direct people to do that?

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, SoundCloud? Those are the CHAINES accounts – I won’t friend strangers with my personal account, but I’d probably try to redirect someone to the right place if they found me. I get quite lonely with the music sometimes. I’m my own worst enemy with it, so I’m trying to take opportunities to…be less lonely.

Do you have any thoughts on why that is? I‘ve definitely felt that too after a big project. I put that down to not being able to communicate the full extent of the experience from my side. There’s a discordance there. Or does it originate from somewhere different for you? 

I think I can relate to that, definitely. It’s something very personal and very taxing, so the degree of suffering versus reciprocation can feel very off. That’s not necessarily fair on the listener mind – so many pieces I love that mean a lot to me, and I don’t necessarily shout about them to the degree I feel for them. I think also I am at the beginning of chilling out regards…ownership, perhaps? Like, collaboration is something I find hard, because it tends to go one of two ways: either I am entirely accommodating of other musicians and my efforts go to propping their ideas…or I’m a bit of a dictator. I think true collaboration is super hard though, and I don’t see accommodating other musicians as a bad thing at all. I’m just not sure how much of me is in there. Or perhaps the part of me that worries about control and perfection is quite significant!