I first met Martin J Thompson back in Summer 2012. As we browsed the shelves of SoundFjord’s pop-up record store at the V22 gallery in London, he told me of his plans to start his own record label. I’ve since forgotten most of our conversation, although I remember him explaining that all of the releases would be consistent and thematically linked in terms of their design and titling. Sure enough, SM-LL is beautiful for its uniformity, as pristine and exact in visual aesthetic as the minimalist electronic sculptures that often reside within. Below, we discuss the importance of repeatability, how to manipulate streaming services and Thompson’s intimate relationship with the Nord Modular system.
For the sake of the uninitiated, would you mind introducing SM-LL and the premise behind it?
SM-LL is a London based label that begins as an electronic music label, and is run by me and my wife Lucia H Chung (en creux). We begun releasing music at the end of 2013 but had been working on the concepts and challenges surrounding the label for a few years prior to this. SM-LL really begun out of many discussions and a growing necessity to understand and influence notions surrounding concepts such as format, repetition, value, abundance, accessibility, reduction, reference, expectation and many more.
Essentially the terrain had changed from our perspective, from perhaps simply exploring sound and the results of that, to more deliberate attempts to reach a pre-defined ideal. End goals and routes seemed fixed and as a result things are experienced and to a degree created, a certain way. Rules seem more a thing to follow than to break and re-define. SM-LL is an attempt to break things.
All of your releases look incredibly beautiful, largely due to the elegance and rigorous consistency of your sleeve design. Is it possible to articulate why you feel a kinship with such a digitally pristine, ultra-reduced aesthetic?
Firstly we really appreciate your compliment, thank you. Although, it is interesting that you refer to “sleeve design”, and of course I understand what you are talking about and would probably use the same term myself. It’s interesting how we understand a digital image on the screen as a sleeve based largely on the platforms proposition of its function. I mention this as I think it is these givens of how something is, that has been a massive part of SM-LL and is evident in the way we design.
I would say the aesthetic is one largely born out of function more than anything else, and focused on two things: efficiency and repeatability. Managing time effectively has continued to be a difficult task for us and so designing something that allowed us some agility was key. Repeatability was equally as important. We made reasonably safe presumptions of where the designs would be used, i.e. social platforms, and studied how these platforms function and tried to create something that operated as a break. I think it’s also worth mentioning the work of Ceal Floyer, Roni Horn and repetition in general has played a part in our discovery of this approach.
Your releases thus far have had no titles in the conventional sense – instead they are labelled by their “format” and a numeric identifier (i.e. Batch 0002 or Default 0005). What’s the thinking behind categorising your releases like this?
We found that in order to deal with the restrictions in how music is experienced or even distributed, we needed ensure some agility in the ways we can operate and work with these restrictions. Each format functions more as a mechanism that deals with different aspects, some are label or artist based, some more creative, some are financial.
The numerical part has a very functional purpose. Firstly it’s difficult to communicate, especially verbally. It can be tedious. I find there is a want to shorten it or adjust it to make things easier. I am not someone who thinks that by making things easier it is always better, it’s just quicker. Also, along with the format, it reduces the chance of there being a title by the artist and therefore has less meaning, and potentially draws more attention to itself in how it works within the continuation of releases. The numerical method puts things in relation to the others around it, and opens it up to notions of collectability, expectation, reference and individuality.
Your next release is SM-LL 0000 by your own project, Pokk!. What can you tell us about it?
Pokk! is a project I started back in my 20’s, I am to be 38 this year, which attempts to experiment with concepts inspired initially by some specific work by artists like Steve Reich, Recon, Frank Bretschneider et al. Today it falls somewhere in-between two thinkings: conceptual and accessible. I find I gravitate towards more conceptual work, whereas Pokk! grants me something of a creative breather, using certain givens such as bass and groove, offsetting that against concepts surrounding structure, phasing, the role of effects and limitation.
Although this is the 3rd Pokk! release on SM-LL, it’s the first release under the main label format, also called SM-LL, and ironically is the oldest material of all the releases so far, which I think is a testament to how the labels formats developed. We failed to get this record release twice before now through various reasons, but the consequence of this, both with the record and the label, are things are stronger.
SM-LL 0000 came about through my experimenting with the Nord Modular G1 in a daily upload project that spanned some 400+ days, whereby I created a patch/sketch each day and uploaded the audio to a blog. What started out as sounds, drones, textures, quickly turned into revisiting various ideas, and Pokk! was one of them. SM-LL 0000 collects 4 of these sketches, 3 are my own, with the 4th being a remix of sorts by Yves De Mey. Yves had been following the blog and even bought a Nord Modular G2 as a result, so I sent him a patch from the blog to rework in his G2. He done an excellent job.
It was created entirely using the Nord Modular, which I know you’ve been working with for many years now. Have you noticed any evolution in the way you interact with the instrument? Are you as prone to surprise and experiment as you were when using the Nord system several years back, or has increased acquaintance changed these aspects of your practice?
The Nord Modular G1 system really is a great system for so many reasons. The process of working with it reminds me slightly of other tools like earlier versions of Max/MSP, Audiomulch, Bidule, in that you have building blocks you connect with graphical cables, but where it differs is in the mental approach you take, which I find is key in using it well.
With the G1, you have this cumbersome graphical interface you run on computer, which is partnered with a hands on hardware synth, or in my case a rack of dials as I have the rack version. If you approach it wanting to make patches in the same way you might with Max/MSP, it can get very clinical sounding, which I think you can hear in many hardware modular creations. It sounds more an exercise in patching and there is less typical emotion involved. I really like this approach as it really tests what emotions and expectations we have in general about what sound or music should do. Alternatively, if approaching the G1 more musically, you hit this interactive wall of sorts, the interface is slow and you are in this box next to your emails, and the dials, as not specific to any control, are totally ambiguous to their function. I really like this also (laughs)
I have learned to understand and build a relationship with this machine, functioning a little like a relationship with another person. You are challenged, supported, and share this bond that relies on an experience and ability to switch perspectives when the time is needed. I would say the Nord Modular G1 and the daily uploads, that ritual, was fundamental in the building of SM-LL and my solo work.
Interestingly, you’ve described SM-LL 0000 as the first “main label release”. Most other labels seem to work the other way round: by developing a sub-series of releases after establishing their main cannon of output. What led you to work this way?
Initially, back before even the first Default release, SM-LL was going to be an only vinyl label, with a sub-series to follow called series, which dealt with ideas probably not that dissimilar to how most of the formats function now. At the time I had issues with the digital platform that I had yet to work out, and seemingly opted to side step these issues by doing vinyl only. I should point out I am not a vinyl purist, vinyl does however, come with a set of challenges and consequences which, at the time, I think was the appeal.
I spoke with many friends whose opinions I trust a lot, about our plans with SM-LL, and recall my perspective changed one evening at our friends Mike’s place who basically said “not doing digital is suicide”. I think there might have been some whiskey and words of wisdom from Lucia involved that night (laughs). This changed things for me. I was challenged to think again about the digital format and realised I had got it all wrong. The result of this change brought about Default 0000 shortly after. To have initially struggled so much with digital to then be releasing digitally first…it was an adjustment.
The effort and risk required in releasing digitally is far lower than say pressing up hundreds of records, and perhaps this is more our experiences than the rule. But this variety in risk and in the many other aspects each format presents, such as time, creativity, financial, platform, expectation, value etc, enables us to work in more interesting and challenging ways and with a wider selection of people than we could have with just vinyl alone. The main label format of SM-LL, is taking a lot of what we have learned and are still learning, into a new and difficult arena, yet one that is perhaps more traditional.
You recently released a compilation called SYS 0000, which I understand is exclusively available on streaming platforms such as Spotify, Beatport etc. Given that this playback format usually operates as a companion to a “main” release format, what made you want to work with streaming like this?
Spotify, and similar data subscription services alike, do seem to come with a bundle of controversy, and understandably so. I think we have seen similar things occur with the many other formats over the years that have emerged to challenge in becoming a new standard. Essentially it’s change, and generally that is troubling for most people. Yet as well as these views, we have also seen how these formats have become used in different ways, more creative ways. We have just starting to think about these new formats or delivery mechanisms in this way, as not just as another way to get something, but another opportunity to manipulate it into something else. Many foundations of electronic music were built upon misuse, and yet many of us are using things for the exact purpose that it is supposed to be. Although perhaps some are more inline with ideas surrounding pop music or pop culture, the act of doing or aiming for what is correct or popular.
It ultimately comes down to communication, and part of that communication has been challenged with newer systems. Tagging, for example, a mechanism to aid search, has influenced definitions of genre and even the genre itself. With these sorts of things in mind, it seems a missed opportunity to only utilise such new services as a mere “companion”. However, these new streaming platforms are not without their restrictions, but like all formats, it’s just a matter of breaking through this phase and finding other ways to use them.
Last year you started releasing music on vinyl, having worked exclusively with digital releases up until that point. How have you found the move into vinyl, and what made it the appropriate choice of physical format?
The transition from the digital based Default format into the Batch format was pretty gradual and carefully curated. We have obviously always been really keen to start working with a physical format, specifically vinyl, as soon as we could, but we kept hitting financial and distribution hurdles that we were simply not in a position to tackle well enough at the time.
The Batch format being small runs of cut vinyl, keeps costs manageable but also brings with it some new creative angles. For example, each Batch release can be considered a run of vinyl of a limited number that we can re-cut should there be a demand. Being such a small number, typically around 20 so far, the turn around time and overall cost of manufacturing is small relative to say what a pressed record would be. As a result we can also do interesting variations on each subsequent cuts say in design or colour.
In addition to this, we ensured all the credits and release information for each Batch is kept online, leaving the vinyl itself almost entirely void of anything but the catalogue number etched into the run out. This presents a nice tension between the physical and the digital, and hopefully goes some way into highlighting some of their traits. The physical is often something that is fetishized over, the digital often considered throwaway, non-tangible or arriving with an abundance of data or information. I really like the idea that the physical format can be re-defined simply by us changing the information for it online. Or that the more you might own from the collection the harder they are to distinguish from each other, as all sharing the same look of a black paper disco bag surrounding an un-labelled clear record. Packaging that is hardly worth fetishizing over, and yet we do.
The R.E.C release, the first of our Batch releases, nicely initiated this idea of exploring notions of format in the physical, and how value or desire is placed upon it. Batch 0000 consisting of a 2 track record, one side cut at 45rpm, the other at 33rpm, seems at first to be two similar themed tracks. But, just as I did when I first heard the demo, you realise they are actually the same track played at different speeds. It was the perfect record to start the format with.
What’s next for SM-LL?
There is often a temptation of not sharing what is coming up, in-case things go wrong and we look silly. But we have learned making mistakes is the best part. We have begun to adopt a more agile approach both to how we run the label and how we create the music. This has been incredibly liberating. So with that in mind, we have lots planned for the remaining of this year.
We just recently changed the structure of how we release, specifically with the scheduling, which means we can deliver far more music more often. We have a new website very close to completion. This will be the beginning on us working on different ways to deliver the music and also to encourage connection. We are planning some events, initially online events, but also a live performance autumn/winter. We have 3 new artists confirmed to be releasing with us this year on the Batch format, so we are very excited about that. Also, what with our previous troubles in getting bigger runs of pressed records manufactured and distributed, we decided to begin helping and partnering with other labels who might be in similar positions as we were, for joint label releases and have the first of those partnering’s coming up later this year in a joint record from myself and Lucia. Our biggest challenge this year is moving into cutting vinyl ourselves and providing it as a service for others. This will give SM-LL more flexibility overall and especially in the Batch format, but it also allows us to pay our artists better. It should be a fun year.