Your performance supporting Keith Fullerton Whitman at Arnolfini was the first time I’ve seen you play. Before your set, you mentioned that it’s important for you to do a talk prior to playing. Why is that?
I think it’s a reaction to quite a lot of electronic gigs that I’ve attended…I come from a “band” background and that’s what I’m generally into, so I tend to appreciate some sort of reaching out to the audience. Although modular synths are becoming a bit more commonplace, they’re still pretty bewildering devices. In your review, you mentioned that my off-the-cuff talk was quite levelling, and in some ways, that’s the point; the work behind designing these modules is not rocket science but it is pretty involved and complex, so when I’m playing I try to step away from the overly technical side. I guess that comes through in my presentation at the beginning of shows.
You’ve previously run a few workshops on making small electronic instruments. Are people often surprised at how easy it is to grasp?
In the workshops, it’s very much a case of: “Follow these steps – I’ve laid it out for you, and you will be able to put it together absolutely fine – you don’t need to fully understand how it works!”. There’s the technical sharing of how to solder, and with a few bits of important information it all becomes very easy.
There are also these mental barriers that can happen in anything; say, with exercise or something like that. It requires something to overcome the mental block of “I’d like to do that”, and sometimes you just need a gentle push before you go “oh, why was that even a block before?”
There’s a slight technical edge to your own background, but by the sounds of things you’ve adopted more of a DIY approach on the whole.
Yeah; a lot of learning by doing and making mistakes. What brought me to Bristol was to study Music Systems Engineering up at the University of the West of England, and that was very much maths and electronics: basically an engineering course relating itself to music to try and get more people involved. I’d never done any electronics before and had come from a very musical background. Rather than do music performance, I thought it’d be good to do something technical, so that’s what took me to it. I can do the maths if I’m in practice – they give you formulas and as long as you’re not too hasty and plug the numbers in, you should get the right answer – but solving stuff by maths didn’t seem to have a feel to it. Sometimes they’d mention filters or something like that, and I’d wonder how that would relate to classic synth filters. You know, how do you dial in resonance and that sort of thing?
So my way into electronics was more through finding simple circuits online and in books, and then experimenting. There’s quite a few facets to doing it: how to get the circuits to work, putting it into a box to make some sort of instrument interface…it’s very easy to get carried away with “I could do this and that”. Through experience I now know that although it’s very easy to come up with exciting ideas, translating them into even just a rough circuit idea is quite a big jump. And then to see it through to a prototype and iron out any problems…ideas are easy, but making something to sell and replicate is a lot more difficult.
I’m just finishing off a revision of the PT Delay that I originally made in 2011. I thought, “I’ll just make a few little changes” and I’ve ended doing 12 different prototypes or something like that. Tweaking things and getting it right takes a long time, and there are actually quite a few other different ways I could have done things – manual controls etc – but you just have to limit the scope at times.
So a lot of it is about limiting your ideas to what’s practical and possible I guess.
There are a lot of different practicalities; you’ve got to think about how things are manufactured. That’s one of the reasons I redesigned this thing anyway, as it was originally a little bit laborious to make. The gradual evolution of my devices has very much been to try and make them more easily replicated. There’s a whole host of different issues that one has to face just in running a business…you’ve got all the non-circuit things to carry on attending to like bookkeeping.
You’ve been running your own business for a while now. Do you feel that you’re now more capable of adapting your designs to the practical aspects of the business?
Like many things, it’s a constant rolling fight…no, rolling play-fight. That’s a description I’ve used quite a lot the past year. You’ve got to engage with things and get stuck in to enjoy the challenges, and every so often something will knock you off a bit but hopefully you always learn from these things. There are certain aspects of the business side of things that will drive you nuts, but you’ve just got to knuckle down and get on with them.
Going back to when you first started making these effects and electronics…were you merely curious, or did you want to find a way of establishing your sonic niche as a musician?
I was curious with the electronics, definitely. As soon as I started getting some results, it sort of snowballed from there. I got a bit frustrated with using computers for music, partly for interface reasons, but I also saw them as perhaps offering too many possibilities. Whether going into electronics was the right choice on the basis of that, I don’t know! I certainly hadn’t planned the career path of becoming a musical electronics builder; even getting into the modular synths has been a constant shifting and re-evaluation.
I’ve played around with guitar pedals for a while, and there were difficult aspects such as making the enclosure for them – obviously they get stomped on so they have to be sturdy, and while I was able to do that when doing everything by hand, I had to think about how I was going to get them made elsewhere. And then there are signal levels and things like that, and the fact that quite a few other people are making guitar-based effects…there are always push-and-pull factors.
The early devices I made were very lo-fi electronics, like the Weevil’s that I’ve constantly been changing since even before I officially started BugBrand, and those are all based on very simple circuitry and the techniques of circuit-bending; so you basically try to get the circuit to malfunction and spit on new sounds from very chaotic approaches like power starvation and body contact. A lot of people have been really interested in that stuff. As an instrument I often find those things a bit too chaotic; very enjoyable to play with, but from a musical standpoint they don’t always work for me.
Looking into the modular synth side of things, which is much more involved circuitry, taught me a lot about how circuits really work. It taught me about the building blocks of things too; when you’re making a modular synth it’s basically made out of building blocks: you make an oscillator, and then you build a filter…that sort of thing. When you break it down, you can see how this interfaces with that, and…sorry, I’m sort of rambling here!
Well by the sounds of it you use very tangible terminology to describe electronics and synthesis, so I can’t imagine that you lose many people along the way during your workshops.
People are always like “wow, I built this!”, and they get to take away their device at the end. What I try to do is a bit of, “Don’t be scared about this; we’re going to learn a few things but you don’t need to remember all of them. Just follow the instructions and you’ll be fine”. Once everyone has built their device, I go into a bit of how the electronics work; so I go, “this is the core of the oscillator circuit – you can take this away and use it in your own design. It works like this – try these sorts of things…” You can read about how to do all this, but that has to go in tandem with getting your hands dirty.
I’ve always got a few projects on the go. As I say, modular synths have come to the forefront in the last few years. A couple of years ago I moved workshops and I’m in a much more stable place now. Since moving I’ve also set up a studio space; that’s what has lead me back to playing again, as for a few years I didn’t have the space for it. Having a studio where I can set things up and not have to take them down constantly – and just having things interconnected – has again shifted my perspective and desires somewhat. Everything I’ve done has grown from a fairly low-budget origin, and although I have now got a small-scale successful business, there are some drum machines and studio gear that I would still like to check out. An 808 for example or a nice compressor; those things can cost a lot, and even if I can write it off as a business expense, I still find it very hard to justify these things because I like some kind of bargain really.
I’ve been looking at drum synths recently, and I’ve got a few different examples. Each one has got areas that interest me, but then for a lot of them I’m like, “I could definitely do that better”. So that’s when I start dreaming and going, “okay – so why don’t I start investing in this sort of circuitry?” All of this can take you away from actually making music.
Do you still record music at all?
I used to do a solo project called Knowledge Of Bugs, and that was generally song-based. As I started doing the electronics I put Knowledge Of Bugs to sleep. As I say, having the studio space these past couple of years has got me back into doing the music side of things, but definitely not from a song-based angle. Whenever I’m testing out modules for example, there’s just an endless array of amazing sounds you can make. I really struggle with composition and editing stuff – I mean, I can easily record a 30-minute plus jam and bits of it will be really good, but I haven’t quite nailed the process of boiling things down into something more cohesive. Some people say, “Why do you need to? Pull it out warts and all.” In some ways, that’s what I’ve been doing with my Soundcloud tracks – rather than obsessing on whether I’ve got a perfect recording or whether it needs any edits, I just do it and share it. I enjoy the process of doing it. A 30-minute live studio track will be out shortly on 12” via a Detroit label – very different from the live shows, basically a meandering techno-house banger.
I guess that’s what you’re doing with the live shows – you can’t take anything back once it’s happened. As you said before the Arnolfini performance, you just “roll around” with the synthesiser and see what happens…
That was one thing I reacted to in your review of the Arnolfini performance actually; I got a sense that you’re taking it to mean that I was unsure where I was going. The wonder of the modular system is that it’s built on pretty stable circuits, so I’ve got a reasonable grasp of what’s going on. As you heard in the performance it starts of very basic, and I should probably move more slowly through these moments – the sonic palette is so vast, but I’m quite impatient in some ways.
When I used to do live shows as Knowledge of Bugs, a lot of my set was pre-planned – I didn’t like the whole “improv-fucking-blast-it” thing. A lot of people say to me that the results of my current performances are quite musical, as I do like rhythm and things with a bit of tonal interest in them. But the modular system does constantly surprise me. I’ll be moving through something and thinking, “oh that sounds quite lovely,” then I’ll tweak one thing and it all falls apart. Live, that can be pretty scary really – you’re sort of floundering going, “shit, I lost it!”, and so I always tell myself that it will kick back in to something else before too long. In a way it reminds me of life (laughs) – things trip you up, things change, and if you dwell on it you can be like, “ah shit, it can never come back from here”, but actually things do work out.
There are some electronic instrument designers – often people that really know their electronics – that come from a very straight, engineering approach. And okay, I’ve got the technical side too, but hopefully I leave some of that behind in performances to open up to chance events; to me, a lot of the wonder comes from having a vague direction but not being so focussed that a happy accident can’t take place.
BugBrand official website – http://www.bugbrand.co.uk/