Interview: Alexander Tucker

How was your first experience of Supersonic, back in 2006?

Well it was good…although I don’t know if you remember, but I turned up with my guitar and was going to play a set with that, and my battery had died in my pickup. Obviously I’d been really looking forward to playing Supersonic as I love the festival. The sound guy ran off and tried to get my these batteries – those little circular watch batteries, which are not so easy to get – but time was ticking away, and so I just said to the audience “look – I’m going to have to improvise”.

So I had my mandolin, vocal mic and all my effects, and that entire set was just completely improvised. It was actually quite liberating in a way, as that’s what I’d been doing for years and years before I started making structured songs and compositions – I used to just turn up with effects and bits and pieces, and just built something out of that. So it was a bit scary after thinking that I was just going to be playing this set of songs, to then be thrown into the light like that! But after I got off stage, quite knackered from the experience of improvising on the fly, my friend came up to me and said, “that was great – probably one of the best sets I’ve seen you play”. Good to know I can just turn up and play if I need to!

Was it easy to get straight back into the improvising mind-set, seeing as you weren’t prepared for it?

Well it’s a huge part of what I do when I’m alone at home, and I still improvise in group situations. And it’s essentially how I first started to do music. I mean, I was singing in bands before that, and that was all structured, but I’m talking about when I first started using instruments and electronics and things. So it’s still a huge part of what I do, and a huge part of where I source the material that then becomes structured songs. It’s all still born from improvisation.

I guess the fact that you had to react so spontaneously to the situation gave the audience an insight to the construction process behind your music.

Exactly. For me, a huge part of music is the process. That’s what’s exciting for me.

So how is your 2011 performance going to differ?

Well for most of the shows I’ve been doing recently, I’ve mostly just had electronics and vocals. So I’ve got some pre-recorded things that I’m re-processing through effects pedals, and bouncing down onto loopers…it’s still song-based, but they’re quite stretched out, and there’s quite a lot of improvisation going on around set modes that I’m working with.

Does it sound anything like the stuff you’ve done on record?

Well yeah…I guess it’s closest to the more abstract droney things I’ve done. I always like to keep things moving. I was thinking today about this new record I’m getting together for Thrill Jockey soon, and going “so it’s got to be like the last record, Dorwytch…”. But then I thought, “no, it shouldn’t be”, you know? It should be the opposite of that – sprawling psychedelic electronics or something, not finger-plucked songs and repetitious cello. It should be something else. Once again – the process, and where that takes me, is a huge part of it. 

It sounds as though there’s a real intention about the direction you take with your music. Was Dorwytch always envisaged as something quite different from the previous records?

Definitely. I wanted it to be a bit more orchestral, and a bit more “contemporary classical” in that sense. Even with the other records, I’m always imagining the invisible band that’s around me, but this one was more about wanting to get that full band sound.

Would you ever consider roping in a few people to realise those songs on Dorwytch?

Well I do play my songs live with other people. I haven’t done versions of the songs where I’ve said “you’re playing this, and you’re playing that”…it’s still been a bit more improvised, even though the songs are set. I would have had some loops going, and other musicians are playing alongside those.

It is something that I would like to do, but for me to fully realise the sound, it would have to be quite a large band setup. In a way, the reason I started doing solo stuff was to get away from the whole politics of bands, sonically and emotionally. Playing live is a sort of compromise. I’m sort of meeting my ideas half way, and trying them out in that sense. Recently I’ve just been in the mood for turning up with a guitar and just playing rather straight chord changes and singing…I like to always keep it moving round. At the moment I’m just really enjoying D.Iing electronics straight into a big system, and making massive sonic things like that.

I imagine it’s going to be quite a surprise for those who have entered your music via Dorwytch and Portal and the like, but no doubt the audience will also be interested in seeing how you take your music into new places.

Yeah, certainly. And that’s something that I really like when I go and see people play. Sometimes I might be disappointed that they didn’t play things I wanted to, but never to the extent that I’ve thought the gig was a write-off or anything like that. I always like to see other musicians thinking about what their process and their music.

Speaking of other musicians – are there any other bands over the Supersonic weekend that you’re planning to see?

Definitely, yeah. Circle and Pharoah Overlord – same band really, but they’re both amazing. Bardo Pond of course…I’ve been a massive fan, and they’re good friends as well. I love Tony Conrad as well. They’re the four main ones I’ve noticed when I’ve looked at the list. But I’m sure something will surprise me on the day. I mean, I didn’t really know anything about Harvey Milk until Supersonic 2008, and they completely floored me. That’s why Supersonic is so great – you know everything’s in a certain genre, or connected to certain things, but at the same time, you don’t really know what you’re going to get.

Going onto the new Grumbling Fur album. That was sourced from just a day of improvisation, is that correct?

That’s right, yeah. We brought all of our gear down to Corsica studios, and just set up and had a good jam through some ideas. And then Daniel O’Sullivan and Antti Uusimaki took it into the studio to re-configure it, and invited me back in to add some more vocal parts and to muck in on some of the editing.

How was the collaboration itself? Did you all click quite naturally?

Yeah, it did. It always takes a while to get things going, as with any creative process. But once we’d all settled down, it was fantastic. Everyone’s a great performer and improviser – David Smith’s an incredible drummer, Daniel O’Sullivan’s such a great multi-instrumentalist, and Jussi is obviously amazing. I think Circle had just recently released a more improvised album called Miljard…it’s some really mellow ambient improvisation, so Jussi had already been in that frame of mind I guess. We had a great day, and I’m really pleased with how it turned out.

One thing I did notice is that there’s a sort of ascension in the first half, with warbly ambient beginnings rising into the more structured jams of “Bears Wandering Into Milky Chapel”. Was that reflective of the narrative present in the actual improvisation?

Well the actual experience was more based around the jams. We did do some quieter pieces, and others that just built up and built up…Dan would probably be able to tell you better than I would, about the processing it all went through and stuff. But the jams were pretty much as you hear them on the record. Then there were other things that we worked on top of and made into songs. I mean, “Orb Of The Woods” goes into this 4/4 techno beat, and that’s more of a studio design thing. But there’s still always the presence of what we actually did on the day.

Is there any sense of compromise in the fact that you had to whittle down a day of improvisation into an hour of material? Do you feel that any of its essence was lost?

Oh no, not at all. We just took the best things we did and left them as they are, and just worked on the bits that needed a bit more of a boost. It’s really nice to have that raw material, and thinking about what we can do with it.

So what can we expect in the near future in terms of new material?

There’s quite a few things that didn’t make it onto Dorwytch that I’ve got to finish off, and a few bits that are the basis of my recent live performances. I’m also doing a side project with a guy called Daniel Beban from New Zealand. We released a record last August on Thrill Jockey, which involved making tape loops on old reel-to-reel machines, and using studio and dub techniques…it’s a rather dark, phantom world that we create. I’m really excited about that. And then obviously I’m working on the next Alexander Tucker thing, so yeah – it’s all go.

Supersonic Festival website – http://www.supersonicfestival.com/

Alexander Tucker’s website – http://www.alexandertucker.org

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