Tom Jenkinson tells Crack everything that’s rubbish about live AV shows, and why he’s now doing one.
Tom Jenkinson, better known as Squarepusher, has a new record out. If you can call it that. In fact, it’s intended primarily as a live show comprising a huge wall of LED lights (plus a few more on Tom’s face) displaying visuals generated by the music itself. The entire thing was meticulously constructed with the final show in mind. The catchily titled Ufabulum sets out to act as a step up from the increasing number of dodgy, overblown AV shows.
“Years ago at raves you’d just have some crappy fractal graphics and strobing or whatever, cut in with some daytime TV footage. I suppose it’s sort of funny but the bottom line was like, ‘what the fuck? Why bother?’ There doesn’t seem to be any sense of coherence between the sound and the picture, and in fact, I find when that’s the case one actually detracts from the other and each part diminishes the experience as a whole. I’m trying to get as far away from that as possible. The point I was trying to explore was how far I could really take the integration of sound and picture.”
As usual with Squarepusher’s work, especially of late, it can be slightly tricky to grasp, but Tom has never been afraid of conceptualising what he does as long as it serves a purpose. “It’s funny, 20 years ago to mention the word concept in connection with an album was anathema really. It kind of brings to mind these absurd seventies prog-rock recording projects, but to get rid of the concept entirely is probably not a good idea either. Once it turns into the Six Wives Of Henry VII or Journey To The Centre Of The Earth (solo albums by Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman) it starts getting a bit ludicrous.”
In fact, Squarepusher’s last couple of efforts certainly seemed to be edging dangerously close to prog pomp. His Shobaleader project saw him attempting to replicate the sound of an imagined band playing a concert against the backdrop of a huge, glowing coat hanger. The result was unsurprisingly confusing, and Tom’s new project clearly marks an attempt to be a bit more illuminating, literally explaining to his audience how he sees his music.
“I’m sure lots of people have this, but I have a particular thing where sound will often produce mental images. They can vary from just a simple colour or maybe a geometric arrangement to complex images or even scenes, memories if you like. Memories from a long time before the music was made, which is a bit spurious in itself, but part of the point was to see if I could actually recreate any of those mental images via this process. I’ve almost tried to make it like a film in a way. Obviously not with any characters but something with narrative, so throughout the song the images develop rather than it just being a shape that bounces around the screen that sort of changes colour a bit now and then”
The video for forthcoming single Dark Steering gave us the first glimpse of it all coming together. The LED mask has already been criticised for being a Daft Punk ‘rip off ’ and it certainly does bear quite a resemblance, but really that’s to miss the point. As always, Squarepusher has a concept to back it up, as he explains: “You might, I suppose, find it funny, but in a way it has a poetic justification having an LED element actually in front of your face. It’s like this window into what’s going on in my head”; a place that’s no doubt baffled countless people over the years.
For an electronic artist famed for and identified by his unique stage presence, it seems an interesting decision to don a mask. It’s therefore also worth noting that he has put down the bass guitar. The two have been pretty inseparable for many years, a relationship which probably peaked with the release of 2009’s Solo Electric Bass 1. It seems with Ufabulum, Tom is trying to shed some weight and return to a more electronic sound, something which is sure to split opinions. “It’s quite rare that I’ve actually excluded live instruments entirely from recording, but it has happened before. On Go Plastic there’s no live instrumentation.” Go Plastic remains an old school favourite among fans, many of whom will be relieved to have a break from the relentless bass solos, but then again the other half of the demographic might well disagree.
If Squarepusher’s fanbase, especially recently, has become increasingly polarised, then you could also formulate an argument that Tom is switching between two personas. “When you’re trying to cut live takes – y’know guitar, bass, drums, whatever instrument – and then move between that and being a recording engineer, it can be a bit of a switch. Those two mentalities are something that I’ve always done, but it’s a peculiar switch in perspective. Given this time round I was working on this visual element, I thought ‘I’ve got to sort of simplify the actual recording process. I’ve got to make some concessions in order to allow room for this visual thing’, if you like.”
Again, it may seem a strange direction, undertaking the involvement of a whole new visual element, especially when there is a pre-existing tension in your musical approach. It’s either very brave or very stupid, but no one can deny its challenging nature. “The good or the bad thing about me is that I can’t tolerate things standing still for long,” Tom elaborates. So far from simplifying, Tom is already hinting he might add the bass too at a later date. “These pieces are really carefully organised both visually and sonically, so at least for the first run of shows I’m going to be playing it fairly close to how the album is. I’ll start ripping it up later in the year when I get bored. At some point I’ll just think ‘crikey, I need to change this’, and when you’ve got a live instrument it’s so quick to dial in new elements.”
So soon he’ll be doing three things at once instead of two. It sounds like a lot of work for one man, which begs the question: why does he have to do it all himself? “The more common thing with AV shows is actually to hire in third parties, but for me it’s just a no-no. Immediately you’ve got problems. Okay, you might be able to convey some basic similarity between what you’re seeing in your mind’s eye and what this third party goes and generates, but no doubt there are going to be subtleties to that image which are actually the things which give it life and give it intensity and make you attached to it.” It’s an ethos that extends to everything Squarepusher does and has always done. It’s certainly what makes his music so unique.
Tom explains: “It’s one of the main reasons I try to keep the recording process as in-house as possible, because once again you’re trying to convey your ideas to other musicians. I think it’s fair to say some people have done remarkably well trying to convey ideas. And I don’t mean say “oh yeah play C-major, go to E-flat”, what I mean is trying to convey the sound and the texture that you’re hearing in your head to other musicians. Captain Beefheart would remark on his technique of using a metaphor to get across ideas as to what he wanted. So he’d say “play like you’re in a wardrobe that’s full of broken glass” or something. And you think, ‘what the fuck are you talking about’ but in some way or other it worked for him. I’m just a bit sceptical about my capacity to do something like that, so I’ll just do it myself. It means I’ve got to do more work, but I’m happy with that.”
The whole nature of the way Tom creates what he does is a very solitary process, and as with anything, working alone can create varying results. His projects exist ostensibly in a microcosm with their own sets of logic, and Tom seems to like it that way. If you ask him what he thinks about himself in the context of modern music, he doesn’t seem occupied with it at all. “The awkward thing for me is that I’m aware of certain things that are happening, but I’m usually spending 12 or more hours a day in the studio listening or working on music. So listening to music as a recreational activity is something I do, but I don’t go out of my way to study what’s happening. I’ve got so many things I want to do, so many ideas in my head. That’s my priority: to get those down, and get them recorded and out there. It’s uncomfortable in a way. I’m under pressure all the time from myself, which is why I work fast.”
“The other thing for me is because I listen with an analytical ear it’s often difficult as one song contains so much information, I’m reticent to experience that kind of information overload, which can quite often happen for me. I’ll hear four or five songs from someone’s album and think ‘now my head is full of data!’ It just breaks it down into data; the key, the rhythm, everything’s there.” Tom seems to find enough fascination within the inner working of his brain to not bother looking out. There just seems to be too much going on in there at once both musically and ideologically. It’s this that has given him his true originality, but at other times it’s clear he has become lost in it. “I’ve always got this sense of ‘man there’s so many other things to do. There’s so many ideas I’ve got to try and record’.
To truly judge the success of Ufabulum it would only be fair to observe it in the live environment for which it was designed. No doubt it will be an unique experience, no matter what your view of Squarepusher’s work. Tom is well aware that it’s all a bit of an experiment. “My main concern is to just get these ideas down. I’m maybe at some points more successful than at other times, but you’ve just got to get on with it and do it. Make of it what you will.” Tom’s latest work is without doubt his best effort for a long while, and it remains to be seen how the live show translates. It’s certain his approach is unique and actually, the concepts on the whole stand up, in a Squarepusher kind of way.
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Squarepusher is performing his live AV show at Simple Things Festival in Bristol on May 6th.
Ufabulum is released on Warp on May 14th
Words: Jack Lucas Dolan