According to the press release of his upcoming album Brittle Love, Joe Snape is “particularly committed to the kind of sounds that, if they were people, would be the last picked for sides in a game of schoolyard football.” He was born in Birmingham and currently resides in Berlin. In our exchange below, we discuss his current string of tour dates (including a show at Bexhill’s De La Warr Pavilion in support of Richard Skelton), the calming omnipresence of melody and the allure of instruments falling apart. At one point, he talks about a hand-made instrument composed of contact microphones and a sound card. After our interview Joe kindly put together a video of the instrument in action, which you can watch here.
You’re busy playing few dates across the UK and Berlin at the moment. How have they been?
They’ve been a lot of fun! Surprisingly hard work to clock in for sound check in a different city every day, but to be able to play for so many audiences one after the other is a privilege. Figuring out how to deal with all the feedback and overheard conversations that happen after a gig has been learning curve too. When it goes well – I’m grateful that the last week has been pretty solid – it’s the best feeling in the world.
I see you’re particularly excited to be playing a date at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill in support of Richard Skelton. It’s a really lovely venue – I was there for an Editions Mego showcase a couple of years back. Have you ever been?
Wow, that sounds pretty cool. No, I’ve never been, but I’ve been aware of it for as long as I can remember. An old friend I saw at one of the shows in London last week spent literally minutes eulogising the spiral staircase there. She’s a designer and really knows what she’s talking about, so I’m expecting a lot! Also I grew up totally landlocked in Birmingham, where there’s not even really a river, so anywhere near the sea feels like being on holiday. But more seriously, I’ve been a fan of Skelton’s work for some time, and actually invited him to play a festival I put on when I was living in Oxford a few years ago. He wasn’t touring then and very gently and generously turned me down, so it’s particularly exciting to be doing this gig with him now.
Brittle Love is really wonderful. Although how on earth do these pieces begin, compositionally speaking? Everything is often so commotional and dispersed; it’s difficult for me to fathom where your point of entry must be.
Thanks! Gosh, that’s such a good and difficult question. I suppose the first thing is mood; a sense of the atmosphere that the music has to make happen. Then when I actually get down to writing, it’s an idea about form that takes over: a feeling, first and foremost, of making proper traditional songs, and then trying to push them as far as they’ll go without completely breaking apart. So in that sense of old-fashioned song writing, the entry point shifts from piece to piece, though it’s usually either percussive or melodic. As a teenager I came up through the citywide Music Service as a classical percussionist, and so spent years playing marimba and multipercussion stuff: perhaps that explains why some of this music sounds the way it does? Yes, I guess a rhythmic feel or a snatch of melody is usually how a number starts, and then it’s a matter of developing that material into something that fulfils the formal idea in a way that, hopefully, is also moving.
But super important is also juggling these themes and motives across the full length of the record. While each piece has its own character, I work at weaving threads of common material through them all; I try to get the whole record to sound like one thing: a single long song, or one coherent suite of music. So although things might sound commotional on the surface, I guess there’s a lot of careful pencil & paper planning that goes into making it that way.
There’s one particular instrument that keeps coming back: this bright, beeping synthesiser that often sounds like it’s coughing through dying wires. Can you tell me a bit about this instrument?
[Laughs!] The ‘instrument’ as it currently exists is a very primitive thing, though at the moment I am working on something more worthy of that title. Basically, it’s a pair of 60p contact microphones (electropiezo transducers for those who care especially) run through a soundcard. One microphone is actually hooked up to an output and is used as a tiny speaker, while the other is feeding to an input. I run an audio signal to the speaker, which is fixed to vibrate loosely against some kind of surface, usually sheet metal or the strings of a guitar or violin, and which acts like a strange resonator. Somewhere along that surface is fixed the recording microphone. By faffing with the dodgy solder on both during takes, I found I can get quite an evocative crumbling, coughing sound. But really this was an accident: it started out as a way to give physical brightness to otherwise slightly lifeless digital synths, as well as a sense of space more lively than your average digital reverb.
So usually, as you say, it’s this trademark synth sound, but sometimes it’s other stuff too. In Lada at 0.48, for example, can you hear this wailing, shrunken pump organ? That’s the instrument again. In my head it’s a really important part of the record: it’s not just a sonic fingerprint I’m fond of, it’s also a kind of a miniature version of the record as a whole. It’s something that’s fragile and almost broken and actually in the process of falling apart, but it’s hanging on regardless: a bright, naked little thing that’s trying, bravely, to be very expressive.
Were all of these sounds performed / recorded by yourself? How did you go about accumulating the sounds for Brittle Love? Were they captured with the explicit intention of using them on this record?
The clarinet line on the first track, Hoi, was played by Robbie Gardiner, but the rest, for what it’s worth, was me. This is partly because the recording has to happen in a really specific way. At the beginning, I never ever work with a sequencer, and also never with any kind of quantisation; though obviously both become very important later in the process. Instead, I work away from the computer with a handheld recorder, and capture lots of different, related things at tempi that feel just right for those things, and worry about how they might fit together later. In this way I end up with loads of recordings at different speeds, which – when I do eventually sit down behind my laptop – become a kind of puzzle that has to do with time and pitch. Piecing them together is the fun part; it’s where the Varispeed tape sounds and strained, digital pitch shifts come in, and it’s also the root of the polymetric feel of tracks like Hoi, Einzelfahrt and Closed For Winter. So as much as the actual recordings, it’s the initial recording process that is the explicit sonic choice, and the thing that determines how things end up feeling and sounding at the end.
There’s a real-time vivacity to the music, in spite of its careful assembly. Is it ever a conscious consideration to retain a certain vibrancy and immediacy in the process of putting this music together?
Definitely. In fact, this music came out of a frustration with other projects where I would deliberate endlessly over minute timings and shifts in panning and whatever else. So with these tracks I tried expressly to work really, really fast at first. As in: sketch out multiple tracks in a day, and keep moving onwards without getting bogged down in detail. That said, once the basic, tessellated frameworks were in place, it did end up being really slow. I tend to make music by writing and overwriting again and again, introducing things that take it closer to the ideal sound and taking sounds away that aren’t right. In that sense, many of the entry points you asked about earlier are nowhere to be found on the final record; somewhere along the way they just didn’t make the cut. Until January it still had more of a black metal vibe. (No, not really). But seriously, I think that this initial burst of speed helps get past the paralysis that can happen when you’ve not yet committed to a sound or found a convincing voice. If you just start, and start really fast, a sound gradually emerges without you having to labour it consciously. I think in this way, the initial immediacy still comes through in the result, regardless of how long it takes me to actually get there.
As a listener, your melodies feel like the aspect over which the elements of Brittle Love intersect. Do you feel this way as well? Is melody the facet that hauls Brittle Love into coherence?
For sure. Melodies are really, really important to me. I come from a family of whistlers – my sister is better than your best brickie – and so melody is something that has been there always, and is connected deeply to things like home and a feeling of belonging. When I’m not listening to music or the radio, I make up quiet little tunes, usually to the pulse of something else going on nearby, like a dripping tap or a clock or somebody’s footsteps. It’s kind of a way of checking in with yourself, regulating your mood, letting yourself know that everything is great, or that you’re agitated, or that you’re on the verge of completely losing your stuff. Try it: phrases that start with falling major sevenths are the most comforting, cathartic things.
Of course, it’s not like I’m the first person to figure this out: think of lullabies, work songs, spirituals… People have found comfort and solace in melody forever: they’ve long been special things that can hold stuff together in the sketchiest of circumstances. With the record it’s the same; they’re these delicate stitches that hold funny-shaped rags of material in place. I’m not sure, though, that they haul anything into coherence: I’m not sure a melody has the brute force to act so drastically on its surroundings; it’s more that the melody helps the listener to do that heavy lifting. Melodies provide a guiding thread for you to take the ride with; a safety line to orient yourself around and in relation to which you can make sense of – or maybe just come to accept and bear – challenging (musical) situations. Man, I can’t even imagine what it would be like to live without melodies, let alone make music without them.
What else have you got coming up?
For the next few weeks I’ll mainly be recording and playing shows in Berlin, but I’ll be back in the UK at the start of May to tour a live version of the record. For this, I’m super exciting to be working with an ensemble called ACM up in Manchester, and we’ll be playing as a quintet with live text projections, all over Europe. Along the way we’ll also be commissioning companion pieces from people whose music we think is amazing: Darren Joyce of Modified Toy Orchestra in Birmingham, for example, and an outfit called Bastard Assignments who have been doing some really fresh things in London over the last year or so. I’m really looking forward to hearing what they come up with. You’ll find everything you need to know about it here. But yes, in a nutshell: five UK dates in May, then another six in Europe in June, and then we’ll see where it’s all at…