Proc Fiskal: What lies beneath
About halfway through my conversation with Joe Powers, better known as Proc Fiskal, he starts telling me about a gruesome discovery that was made near where he lives.
“Right outside my house they’re building trams, so they’re ripping up the floor. They found all these bodily remains and skeletons,” he says. It’s the type of story that seems to animate Powers’ imagination, which has a tendency to veer towards the twisted and grotesque. “They might be from the 1500s – pretty old,” he continues, “they had to get archaeologist teams to come down and dig up all the bones.”
Since he started making music as a teenager, Powers, who is now 24, has been propelled by a fascination with the murky details that lie beyond the shiny surfaces of everyday life. In the process, he’s become one of the most innovative electronic artists to have emerged in the last decade. After signing to Hyperdub (he humbly insists he got lucky because he’s Scottish, as is Hyperdub boss Kode9), the artist released his debut album Insula in 2018. It turned out to be a dazzling work: heavily influenced by the restless computer game sonics of east London grime artists, but filtered through a hyperlocal aesthetic; its fidgety edits liberally sprinkled with field recordings, mumblings and mutterings of conversations with his friends and random strangers around Edinburgh, his home city.
Growing up, music was a presence in the household from early on. “I learnt guitar because my dad and a lot of my relatives play guitar, so it was kind of a rite of passage,” he tells me. In terms of musical influences, his “mum was more into disco and pop” while his father preferred punk. The ethos of the latter clicked with an angsty adolescent Powers. He hints at difficult childhood experiences like getting bullied at school, but doesn’t wish to dwell on them: “I’m the youngest child, so I’m always mediating family things, so maybe I ended up with a bit of anger about that. It’s hard to say.”
Powers started making his own beats by scouring YouTube for samples and using downloaded grime sample packs. His twitchy compositions would soon become injected with a dark, absurdist sense of humour, which was partly influenced by the context in which he grew up. As a youngster, Powers lived in Pilton in north Edinburgh; one of the city’s more deprived neighbourhoods, it was worlds away from the postcard image of the city – something he is sceptical of. “It’s just constant,” he says, scrutinising the impact of the tourism industry. “If you actually live in Edinburgh it’s an alien invasion – it’s this sort of quaint Scottish tartan and shortbread tourism which is kind of fascinating.” In reaction to this, his music has always highlighted the less glamorous side of Edinburgh life, functioning as a kind of piss-take brochure of the city’s margins.
“I wanted to do really synthetic sounding Scottish instrumentation, like bad violins, accordions and flutes – like in games when they have a flute and it’s really crusty and lo-fi”
Despite achieving success as a producer, he is very forthcoming about the fact that his everyday life hasn’t changed all that much. “I’ve done catering jobs since leaving school to support myself to do music. Which kind of sucks, but it’s quite good,” he says. Having been unemployed for most of lockdown, however, he’s now clamouring for some structure. After our call, he has a job interview at a deli. “Being unemployed at the moment, I really want a job. The infinite freedom is a bit shit. I like working in horrible kitchens. It’s motivation to make tunes.”
Throughout our conversation, the word “horrible” comes up a lot. The same deep sense of ambivalence toward Scottish culture seems to permeate his entire worldview. One minute he’s speaking about the beauty of the Highlands, where he used to visit his gran on summer holidays — describing these holidays as mind-expanding – and the next, he’s criticising how boring Highland culture is: “It’s just a bunch of farmers.” Even when he was young he always felt something ugly was lurking beneath the surface. “We grew up around it, that Scottish matrix of horrors,” he expands. “It is just really repulsive and fascinating, the marketable romantic image of Scottishness, and the way that that’s used in music.” He also holds a deeper level of contempt for the dominant icons of British life. “It probably comes out of a wider disgust for Britishness and politics. I really do hate the Queen and that whole thing – the monarchy and Westminster. It is really horrible.”
This “matrix of horrors” has strongly informed his latest album, Siren Spine Sysex, which functions by way of sonic mutilation, or what he calls the “cultural body being ripped apart”. There was a more personal lineage he wanted to explore on this record, too: his own family’s connection to the Scottish folk music scene. “My dad’s family are all folky, Irish musicians, a bunch of them play guitar and stuff. Then my mum’s brothers, they all play instruments. That acoustic music thing, it’s always around me.” Though both his mum and dad rejected the folk roots of their parents, Powers became enthralled by it, particularly the work of his grandfather, Archie Fisher. “He was a guitarist in the 60s and I think he had a BBC Scotland show. He was quite the big fish in folk; he knew all the 60s folk people like Bert Jansch and the Incredible String Band.”
Although he felt compelled to explore this family history, he was also troubled by the aesthetics that accompanied the music of his grandparents’ generation. “It was honest music, but they were making it in the 60s which was a really futuristic time period. It was out of place,” he says. “It just smells horrible, that earnest folk guitar thing. I do like the music to a degree, but an element of it is really sinister.” He took particular issue with the fact that many of the participants in that scene would “dress like medieval peasants and act all feudal”. As a result, it’s unsurprising that the tracks on Siren Spine Sysex carry only a mangled imprint of the traditional sounds associated with Scottish folk. “I wanted to do really synthetic sounding Scottish instrumentation, like bad violins, accordions and flutes. Like in games when they have a flute and it’s really crusty and lo-fi.” The samples of Gaelic acapellas he used, including the voice of his grandfather on the track Iaosiphsean Powers, were also warped beyond recognition.
The dissonant and antagonistic energies that have featured on most of Powers’ releases are present on this album, but there is also a surprising amount of warmth. This is most notable on Auld Peop, a track which sees rich synth pads accompany glitchy beats. This may have been due to Powers adding cheap hardware synths – bought on eBay and Gumtree – to his production setup, which added fuller timbres to his tracks. But he also mentions that he’d been listening to the “woozy” vocals of singers like Kate Bush during lockdown. “In my mind I was trying to make a darker album. But it’s definitely a lighter album when I listen to it these days. I think I was quite happy when I actually made the album. I was having a really good time making it.”
As an artist who’s constantly chiselling away at conventions in his music, and as someone who has spent much of the past year thinking about and sampling folk music, I ask him what he thinks about the term, and whether electronic music could also be thought of as a form of folk music. “I think it’s just a complete bullshit term,” he asserts. “I mean, if you wanted to talk about it like that, the Oxford definition of folk would apply to any music at all. It’s just done by people not in a conservatory. That’s partly my resentment toward folk music – it’s exclusive. I personally imagine that folk music is anything that people enjoy.”
Siren Spine Sysex is out 24 September via Hyperdub