Interview: John Richards (Dirty Electronics)

We live in the era of touch screen; our fingers glide quickly on the screens of tablets and smart phones, and the applications are endless and for all tastes. But placing your finger on the Mute Synth created by the Dirty Electronics and Mute Records label is a very different sensation. The Mute Synth is an inexpensive hand-held touch and tilt instrument with copper etched artwork and contoured printed circuit board. To learn more I interviewed John Richards, founder of Dirty Electronics collective and designer of the Mute Synth.

How did the Mute Synth project begin?

I had been playing in the post-punk group Sand and with Nic Bullen (ex Napalm Death and Scorn), as well as exploring electronics more and more and making my own sound devices. I started sharing some of these ideas with large groups, in what you might call workshops, and this gave me an environment/forum to create and develop Dirty Electronics. I have always tried to emphasize the music making and performance. There are now lots of people making things, but it is the combination of making with a strong music aesthetic that has been the genesis of Dirty Electronics.

The idea of artwork printed circuit boards stemmed from trying to speed up the building process in workshops so as to leave more time for devising and performing music. I had seen the Cracklebox, a touch instrument developed at STEIM in Amsterdam, but thought much more could be done with the graphical interface. It then took me about a year to learn about printed circuit board manufacture; something at that point I knew nothing about. The boards are made in a factory in Leicester, UK, and I have developed a close working relationship with the staff there.  It is still very important for me to create an object that is essentially hand-made. So although part of the instrument is manufactured, the “hand” plays a big part in assembling and constructing the object.

I first met Daniel Miller of Mute Records in 1997 when he came to one of Sand’s early gigs. Sand was latterly published by Mute. I kind of lost touch with Mute after the late 1990s. You could say we went in different directions – Mute being taken over by EMI, and I was more involved in the experimental music scene. It wasn’t until recently, with Mute regaining some of their independence, that I began working with Mute again. Earlier this year I was approached about being involved in the Mute Weekender as part of Short Circuit at the Roundhouse in London. It took about eight months to plan the event and design the Mute Synth. I have made a number of touch/artwork printed circuit board instruments, including the Skull Etching and Dirty Carter (with Chris Carter from Throbbing Gristle), which the Mute Synth derives from.

How important is the experience of workshops in understanding “Dirty Electronics”?

The process of building things collectively is central to Dirty Electronics. I have tried to think beyond the traditional workshop. Sometimes, when I say to a festival or promoter I want to create an event that could last for a day or two, they don’t understand. For me there really is no distinction between the workshop and performance. These are two things that are part of the same artistic process. Unfortunately, many promoters still have to think about the gig and what happens outside of this (such as workshops). Perhaps it is not a surprise that I have been doing a lot of arts events/festivals. I was once asked if I was trying to create a kind of happening. My first response to this was to laugh, but actually defining Dirty Electronics as a happening makes some sense.

Human life on Earth can be defined by the concepts of “control” and “randomness”. How these terms affect your work and your way of thinking?

Yes – control and non-control, indeterminacy, freedom, organization and disorganization are all at the heart of my work. It is not about me or anyone else playing Dirty Electronics instruments, but how the instrument “plays” you. Some people just don’t get why anyone would design an instrument that can’t be fully controlled, but I find this approach so much more interesting for making music, art and life in general.

What does “punktronic” mean?

Punktronics takes the broad ideals of punk and applies them to electronic music. It’s sticking up two fingers to more recognized forms of electronic music.  Anyone can do it. It’s cheap, intuitive and has political overtones.

With the new technology we are witnessing a sort of democratization
of the medium, in terms of the internet, social networking, and now even musical
instruments.  Will this new approach, based on creative interaction and DIY,
bring us toward an higher humanization of the electronic instrument, or vice versa?

Yes; creative interaction is something I feed off. I have very little desire these days to make a traditional music album. I am driven by creating something that can be utilized and explored by others. This includes objects, instruments and aesthetics. I design an instrument, for example, which is then passed on to someone else who makes the music. It is a form of democratization.


John Richards website:

Dirty Electronics website:

Supersonic Festival website: