Container‘s noise-infused techno is finding a wider audience
It may be time for us to start thinking differently about Ren Schofield.
It turns out the Providence-based noise veteran turned techno producer known as Container has got a bone to pick, which is awkward because when it comes to talking about his heavily saturated, hardware-based take on the genre, there are persistent difficulties.
Dominick Fernow, who you might label a similarly ‘extreme’ producer, cut to the core of these difficulties in a recent chat with Red Bull when asked if he’d ever read any writing on his work which had really nailed it. “Very rarely, almost never,” was the reply, the problem being that as soon as you label something ‘extreme’, you’re stuck with a thorny question – extreme to whom? The general public? Them who voted the Tories back in?
OK, fine, how about the fans? Maybe, but consider the further end of the spectrum populated by the likes of Wolf Eyes, Cut Hands, or Yellow Swans (RIP), all of whom have reached out to global audiences. There are evidently tens of thousands of people to whom this ‘extreme’ music makes complete and total emotional sense.
The problem, continued Fernow, is that ‘extreme’ music cannot, by definition, be viewed as sincere. Extreme doesn’t tend to just occur. Extreme is the result of concentrated and pinpointed effort. Extreme often goes hand in hand with contrived, and is therefore open to ridicule.
In labelling something extreme, you might be unnecessarily robbing it of a certain humanity, and doing the aforementioned tens of thousands of fans who plug into these sounds a disservice.
And this is one of the things Schofield’s grappling with just now. In recent times, he says, his techno consumption has gone up. “I know much more about it now than I used to,” he tells me over Skype, “that’s for sure.” But difficulties remain for Schofield, whose background in the American noise and improv underground is a far cry from techno’s traditionally austere and regimented ethos – where allowing the sound to move beyond your control isn’t always necessarily valued.
"I don't like this idea that once you step outside of the confines, you're suddenly being confrontational"
“It’s not that I don’t like the music,” he clarifies. “What I don’t like is the way a lot of people treat it, so maybe the new record is a reaction to that. I feel like some people want their techno a very certain way, from how it’s presented to how it sounds. They impose weird limitations for the sake of keeping the party smooth, and I feel like that prevents a lot of potentially interesting things from happening.”
As one 2014 interview highlighted, Schofield’s performance at Berghain in May 2013 sent some purists home to their keyboards to moan loudly about the ‘incoherence’ of the sound (“Back into the container with you!” demanded forum user ‘Jens’). Perhaps Schofield is performing a specific role within techno? To muddy the waters, to provoke confrontation, to drag us out of our comfort zones?
Nope, says Schofield. That’s fair enough: firstly because that’s been a cliché for about as long as noise has been a ‘thing’, and secondly because this would see him working only in opposition. Although this latest album – titled LP, like both his previous albums – may be responding to certain attitudes, the fact is that Schofield’s music has been widely embraced by members of several communities, from those favouring L.I.E.S and Trilogy Tapes output, to hardware purists who can immediately tell what’s been made on a laptop and what hasn’t, to noiseniks who’ve always secretly wanted a 909.
“The whole idea that my tracks could be a problem for someone is exactly what I don’t like – this idea that you step slightly outside of these confines, and all of a sudden you’re being confrontational. I don’t know but, to me, that’s funny. What you hear on the record is just what I prefer to hear. Those things sound good to me.
“I definitely don’t think the tracks are dark,” he adds, suggesting that the Container project remains concerned with a previously stated objective of simply creating accessible dance music, albeit with an approach honed at noise shows.
But saying that, LP is almost upon us, and terrace vibes it ain’t. One of its most striking moments comes seconds into the record, when opener Eject erupts in a festering mess of screeching synths and drums overdriven to the point of collapse. A textbook statement of intent, it sets the tone for the remainder of the record: raw, immediate, unflinching. The track has a music video, which in keeping with Schofield’s homegrown approach is typically DIY. “My girlfriend found this VHS in a Virginia thrift store a long time ago,” he explains. “It’s a home movie shot in the 90s labelled ‘Kev’s Video’. It’s a video letter from this guy to his friend Kev. It starts with this dude at some insane street rock festival in Japan, where he films some of the bands and the crazy audience behaviour. After that, it moves onto him talking directly to Kev, showing him all the blacklight posters in his bedroom, and his new surfboard.”
"[People] impose weird limitations for the sake of keeping the party smooth. I feel like that prevents a lot of potentially interesting things from happening"
2015’s LP is no radical departure from previous releases. With faster, shorter tracks, Schofield identifies a more direct approach than encountered on 2012’s LP, but stops short of suggesting this was intentional. Gear-wise, little has changed, with Schofield enlisting for this recording an MC-909 sampler, a four-track with some tapes for distortion, and two delay pedals. This minimalism serves a purpose in forcing Schofield to drive his machines to their very limits. “Basically I go through phases where I get really frustrated with the gear I have,” he says, “and then I’ll stumble upon some new feature, or discover some different way I could use it, and that will spawn a bunch of new ideas. Then I’ll get enthusiastic about it again.
Maybe it’s here, amid the detail of collecting together and setting up battered gear for a home recording in a remote part of Tennessee, that we encounter what’s truly human in ‘extreme’ music. Ultimately, it may be worth remembering that some of Schofield’s commonly cited influences – the likes of Arab on Radar, Black Dice, Lightning Bolt – may go some way to explaining Schofield’s insistence on the accessibility of his work as Container. “The music scene here when I was growing up is and was a huge influence. It’s totally ingrained in what I do. There’s a lot of stuff from here that is brutal, noisy, intense, but also just pleasant and fun at the same time, and not in a corny way, which can be extremely hard to pull off.
“So yeah”, Schofield says, “I guess my perception might be a bit warped.” He’s probably right. But then again, that’s no bad thing.