Interview: Helm

How did you come to be involved in this project with Charles Atlas at the Tate?

I’d got an invitation to do it out of the blue, pretty much – apparently Charles had heard some of my records and I guess he enjoyed them. He got in touch with me about a week and a half ago, and I went to meet him to find out what the project was about and what he had in mind. We met for about 20 minutes in the afternoon while he was doing some video work at the Tate – I got to see his stuff for the first time actually, because I wasn’t really aware of him beforehand. It all came together at the last minute. I still don’t really know how he found out about my music either – I asked him how he heard about me, and he just said that a couple people had mentioned my name to him but didn’t actually say who.

Flattering regardless, I guess.

Yeah. I’ve never actually worked with a visual artist in this way before; I’ve had talks with people about doing stuff, but it’s never seemed totally right and I’ve never chased it either. When I saw what Charles showed me the collaboration made sense, and I can definitely see some parallels between what he’s doing visually and what I’m doing with sound. I felt a lot more comfortable about it after we met.

So have you had any thoughts on how you want to approach it?

At the moment I just have very vague outlines. I did mention to him that I’d be perfectly happy to work on something especially for this performance, but he actually seemed happy for me to do what I normally do whilst freeing things up for a bit of improvisation. I am going to approach it with some structured elements in mind, but also leave some room for it to be fairly loose and open as well, which I think will be a good way to work. We’re going to have a couple of rehearsals beforehand as well, so after that I’m sure we’ll have a more solid foundation.

I also understand that you’re going to be playing in a sort of “collaboration” with the nature of the venue space itself. Have you had a chance to scope out the Tanks yet?

I went down there last week to have a look, and that’s actually the first time I’ve ever been to the Tanks. It’s quite an amazing space and not too dissimilar to some spaces I’ve played in before. Have you been yourself?

No, not yet.

It’s a massive open space right at the bottom of the Tate. There’s a lot of stuff above you, so you feel submerged inside this big tank basically. That’s the only way I can put it. I think it’ll suit what I do and hopefully that’ll come across in the performance.

So are you going to be feeding off the visuals or vice versa?

I think it’ll be a mixture of both – a lot of it will be better left until we’re playing so we can let spontaneity take the stage.

It’s quite a daunting prospect to be thrust into something featuring dancing and visual arts…do you relish the opportunity to operate outside of your usual performance comfort zone?

I have to admit, I don’t feel comfortable with it! When I first got the invitation I wouldn’t say I was sceptical, but I wasn’t fully convinced that my methods of performance would lend themselves to this kind of live collaboration. It was only after I met Charles and saw his work that I realised that there was definitely potential for a good collaboration. So no, it’s not something I’d say I’m comfortable with but I think it’s good to put yourself in those situations – it doesn’t make sense to keep doing the same things over and over again. Not just for me, but for any artist; you do have to embrace new challenges and things you’re not totally comfortable with, because otherwise how do you stop things becoming stale and dull?

I get the impression that the process behind your recorded material is now more meticulous rather than formed out of blasts of improvisation, so I guess it’s a return to throwing stuff into the darkness and seeing what sticks.

I wouldn’t say that it’ll be as haphazard as that; some of the material that I’m hopefully going to be using is stuff that I’ve been playing live recently anyway, and some of it I’ll be using on this next record that I’m recording at the moment. It’ll be similar to how I’ve been playing live recently, in the way that there will be some bits from the records but just reconstructed in a live context. But what you are saying is partly true – there is likely to be a bit more of an “open plan” instead of getting something together and knowing exactly what I’m going to do at a certain time. It’s going to be a bit more improvised in the very nature of the word.

I saw your performance last year at Café Oto supporting Excepter. I definitely picked up on the flashes of material from Impossible Symmetry, and their recontextualisation into something completely new.

It stops it from becoming too much of a predictable rock and roll show, where an artist plays his “tunes” to the crowd and everyone just goes home. I like to bring something different to the live performance, otherwise I may as well just be sat there playing the files off a computer or something, or people could just stay at home and listen to the record – if you’re going to perform live, I believe that you should try and bring things into a different frame for that context. I like giving people who know my material something they can recognise, but also presented in a different way to what is on the record.

So when you’re playing live, is the style of the venue a major concern? Does your music change as a means of communicating with the space in which you’re playing?

Definitely, and recently that’s become more apparent to me. Since I’ve been playing a lot more over the past year and a half or so, I’ve come to learn that there are some things that you just can’t do in certain venues. When I played with Oneohtrix Point Never at the St Giles-in-the-fields church in London; it’s a huge reverberant space and I was trying to do these aggressive and noisy sounds, and they just don’t work in those sorts of buildings. Everything just gets lost and becomes a complete mush, and you lose all of the definition. I felt like I was dying onstage that evening.

When I played in Milan last month, it was a big gallery space with concrete walls and high ceilings – you could click your fingers in there and you’d get this 10-second reverb. I completely dropped the sharp and piercing electronic sounds that night, because I knew that it’d just be completely pointless; it wouldn’t come across the same as in a small club with a powerful PA, you know? It just wouldn’t hit you in the same way. There’s no point trying to push something that you’re not going to be able to put across in the way you intend to. So I went for something with more of an emphasis on texture and density.

I’ve only been to a handful of church gigs actually, and each time it’s been music that lends itself to that space. Grouper, for example.

Yeah. I actually don’t really like church gigs, and I actually have a bit of a problem with them.

As a performer or spectator?

Both I guess. Whenever I’ve been to a gig in a church, everyone feels like they have to respond to the performance in a particular way, like overly reverent and respectful. You wouldn’t do that in other situations. For someone like Grouper, I understand that you need to pay attention to it, but I kind of feel that if the music is good enough, and the people are there to see the artist, it wouldn’t necessarily matter where she played. If you were to transfer that from a club to a church, I just think you gain an extra amount of baggage that I find a bit unnecessary.

So you’re referring to the concert etiquette rather than anything architectural or acoustical?

Yeah, but acoustically they only suit certain things as well. I’m sure someone like Grouper may say that I’m completely wrong and that her music is totally suited to a church environment. But that’s just my personal opinion; I’m not really comfortable in those kinds of spaces, as I like to just be able move around and take to things naturally. In a church it feels that your experience of the gig is dictated too much by the space itself.

You mentioned a new album in works. Can you tell us anything about where you think you’re heading with this one?

It’s was going to be an EP, but I just got to the point where I’ve got all this material that’s going to make sense together, so it’s going to be an album now. I’m in no rush to finish it at the moment – it takes me about a year to put a record together so I’m not setting myself any deadlines for finishing it, but I would like to have it out by the end of the year.

Each record I do is a continuation of the one that precedes it. Not trying to say that it’s a reaction against it exactly, but I like to think, “what I didn’t I do on that one that I’d quite like to do on this one?” I just build on the existing elements basically. There are more rhythmic aspects to the newer stuff – it’s not heading in a dance direction, and it’ll still be an “experimental” record for want of a better word. I’m just trying to think of ways of using rhythm in a more abstract way where it doesn’t become the main crux of the of the piece; it’s just another element. If I end up with people nodding, then I’ll consider it a failure.

Will a lot of the material be derived from found sounds and field recording, as per Impossible Symmetry?

Yeah. I’d actually say more so now. The electronic aspect of the project has always been there to just fill out the sound in a way – it fills in the gaps and creates a bit of extra density. The main things that you pick up on are the acoustic elements and the field recordings. I’ve been using a lot of feedback systems with tapes, and a lot of the rhythmic parts I’ve done have been created using accidental feedback loops; running certain signals through an old tape machine and then feeding it back into my computer when recording. It’s not a new thing by any stretch – I remember seeing Wolf Eyes (I think) using dictophones for tape delay. You might have to do some EQ-ing after wards otherwise it can sound totally shit, but at the same time that’s part of the charm of it in a way. When it’s been mixed and mastered it’ll sound a lot different I’m sure, but at the moment I’ve been having a lot of fun working with that.

I’ve had fun working with tapes again in general actually, which is something I only started doing again towards the end of the last record. The last two tracks of Impossible Symmetry were my re-introduction to working with cassettes and tape players, which I don’t think I’ve done since Birds Of Delay [Luke’s band with Steven Warwick, aka Heatsick].

Are you constantly looking for new ways to bring new texture or re-invent your approach to your own music?

Yeah, definitely. It’s something that I always try to do when I’m starting a new record. Actually, the record will often start to develop as a result of me doing something new, or using a new piece of equipment or a new way of recording something; that’ll plant the seed for the new record and it’ll just start developing from there.

Let’s talk about your record label, Alter. So that was originally started to release your own music, is that right?

I started it because I’d been sat on my first record for a while. This label in America were meant to release it, and they did actually end up co-releasing it with me, but I started getting involved with it because nothing was happening. I got an email one day from the guy who ran the label saying, “I’m going to quit the label after I’ve put your record out.” I didn’t just want the risk of a load of copies of this record sat around and potentially forgotten about – it just seemed a bit pointless – so I did the record with him just so I could…not push it, but just to make sure that people could hear it if they wanted to. If you spend a certain amount of time on a record, I always find that it’s a bit of a shame to leave it there and have no one hear it; it’s happened before with a lot of Birds Of Delay stuff and some Helm stuff, where we’ve recorded an album and it’s never come out. I just got a bit tired of that.

I decided to develop the label from there, and it’s ended up becoming the opposite of what I intended it to be – I did think that it’d be a nice idea to have an outlet for my own music, but as time has gone on, I’ve found myself not wanting to release any of my own records!

Why is that?

If you’re putting a record out you have to promote it, and I don’t feel 100% comfortable with having to promote my own music; I think I just feel like a bit of a dick emailing people with a press release written in the third person, even though everyone I’m sending it to knows that it’s me behind the e mail. It’s just a bit embarrassing really.

It’s also nice to have a break away from Helm and do some label stuff, and concentrate on some music that I really like. They’re two different experiences and I enjoy doing both of them equally.

I came to know the label through The Letter by Liberez. That’s an awesome record.

Yeah. Glad you enjoyed it.

So is the label simply for music that enjoy and want to share with people, or is there anything in particular that you want to achieve with Alter?

I always leave it fairly open – there isn’t really a criteria for the artists I choose to work with –  but I would say that I’m primarily interested in releasing artists from England and especially London. It’s a big plus that my relationship with these artists isn’t just professional; like, I often actually have some other connection with these people. For me that’s a really important part of understanding the music, and in terms of a working relationship, it just makes things so much easier. There are a couple of artists I’ve worked with that I didn’t know at all when I first approached them – like Richard Youngs’ Hieroglyphic Being, who I’ve only met once – but primarily there is a focus on representing things from my home town and things going on around me.

It’s strange having London as your local scene I guess, as it’s not really a music scene that needs a bolster of any sort…

That’s partly what I was trying to say. There are definitely labels will go out of their way to look for a particular kind of artist but that isn’t how I work. I don’t feel like I need to do a label for that; not wanting to sound like a hippy but it should really be about the music at the end of the day

How much of a concern is the visual aspect of the records you release, in terms of packaging and artwork?

I think it’s important that a label has some kind of visual identity, or something that you can relate to the label itself. I don’t put too much of an emphasis on it, but I do like to make sure that it’s there – for example, the way the information is laid out on the spines and the back cover. I like to make sure that’s relatively consistent across the releases. I give input to an extent, but for much of the artwork I allow the artists to do what they want; it’s their record, and as an artist myself I have my own ideas of how I want my records to look too. I’m not going to push my aesthetic on them – it’s up to them.

Another part of what the label’s about is releasing different-sounding artists that you wouldn’t necessarily group together, but may have certain things in common. Joining the dots between them all.

Some labels are good at forging a label identity without necessarily having all their artists under the same genre banner.

Well if you take someone like Raster Noton…with the way those records look and sound, you know exactly what you’re getting before you even put the record on. Artists like Atom and Alva Noto are very different, but you know what kind of sounds are going to be in there because they are working with a similar sonic pallete which has almost become synonymous with the labels visual identity. I don’t mean thet in a bad way necessarily, but if you take a label like PAN for instance; it has maintained a very strong consistent visual aesthetic, but the label has grown to become very diverse too – what Bill (Kouligas) has done with that label is quite interesting, as you can’t always tie in the visual aspect with the sound on the record. With a PAN record now, you don’t really know what you’re going to get from it and that’s brilliant – I think that’s what any label should aspire to.

So what’s next for you?

I’ve got some PAN nights next month in Bristol and Manchester…and then Donau festival in Austria, which I’ve never been to. So I’m looking forward to that, even though the gig is in a church [laughs] I’m playing at the Stubnitz with Zoviet*France in May too actually, which will be good…things tend to happen fairly short notice at the moment, so that keeps it pretty exciting.

There’s a couple of new things on Alter too: a new Liberez album on CD, a couple of records by this great Danish duo called age Coin, an EP by Lee Gamble and an album by this really good London-based band called The Bomber Jackets, which is two of the guys from The Pheromoans. It’s completely different to The Pheromoans though; it’s electronic-based, but quite “hooky” music with a rough DIY edge to it. I think the record will be good when it’s finished.


Alter’s blog –