Posted on Mar 14th 2008 12:39 am

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Interview Alistair Crosbie

Since 1995, Scottish musician Alistair Crosbie has been forging his own sound on the Glasgow underground scene, mixing drone, folk and pure noise whilst collaborating with like-minded musicians such as Brian Lavelle and Andrew Paine. His efforts were recognised by this website in December when his album This Quiet House featured in our top 20 long-players of the year. With a new release, Seven Starlings More on the way, he took a break from the studio to speak extensively to themilkfactory about his music, the failure of the pop industry, and a curious penchant for Girls Aloud.

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How did you get into music? Is there a moment or a time of your life to which you can look back and say, this is what shaped my musical taste?

Music “got” me pretty young – I got a little cassette player for Christmas when I was nine and a tape of what was then the new Madness album The Rise And Fall. I remember being thrilled as much by its diversity as by the actual songs – they seemed to be able to do anything they put their minds to. This, coupled with the fact that they were by now as thoughtful as they were entertaining suggested the possibility that you could be a musician and pursue more than one line. As I never had much of an attention span, this was pretty important. I fell for The Smiths when I was ten, which eventually took me away from mainstream pop and into listening to John Peel’s late night programme, so when The Fall arrived to me via Peel when I was thirteen or so, that sealed my fate.

What about Scotland – what influence, if any, does the country have on your music?

There is a consistent theme of light, dark, the changing of seasons, weather systems and so on in my work and these conditions are fairly pronounced in the West of Scotland so there is some influence in that regard. There is also some beautiful countryside which has inspired more than one piece over the years. One correspondent asked if musicfordrowning concerned the traditionally persistent Glasgow rainfall. I was sorely tempted to tell him it did.

The idea of the drone is obviously an important one to you. Why?

Drones are perfect for representing longer timescales. I can be a bit obsessive – if something is on my mind, it’ll be there for days, weeks, months, even years. Drones allow me to represent both that passage of time and the relative extent to which the matter in hand has got to me. It annoys me when people use drones to fill up time – I use them to condense time!
People can have a very downbeat view of drone – it is after all often quite slow, dark, quiet music. Does this description also fit you – or are you more of a happy-go-lucky chappy?

There are one or two people out there who counted themselves very surprised when they discovered that I had a sense of humour, which I understand, given the nature of some of my work. Of course there are darker times but that’s true for everybody. I loved Radiohead’s webcasts because they showed what a warm, surreal humour the group have and they are almost always portrayed as severe and insular.

This sort of music is a million miles away from the mainstream. Is that something you worry about, or is that perhaps part of the reason why this sound appeals to you?

What I’ve been doing in the last 2-3 years is the most natural music I’ve ever made; it’s what I’m happiest doing with sound. I’ve done other types of music – if my teenage song demos ever see daylight, I may have to change my name to Miranda and become a masseuse in Brazil to escape the shame – but I’m always drawn to things that are more abstract and off-kilter, not just in music but in art, literature and humour. There’s more room to move if you don’t have the constraints of pre-set forms like songs or 4/4 beats. Or any beats at all, in fact.

What do you make of today’s mainstream? Are there good acts out there, or has mainstream music – be it rock ‘n’ roll, dance, folk or whatever – simply run out of ideas?

The mainstream has always fed off the non-mainstream and presented underground ideas in an acceptable, easy-to-digest form. The Beatles, for example, are often presented as a handy summary of the musical developments of the Sixties because they were all enthusiastic listeners and were absorbing influences from all over the place – Zappa, AMM, Ravi Shankar, free jazz, Stockhausen, Hendrix etc. It all made it into their work in some form or another. On a more personal note, it wasn’t Einsturzende Neubauten who introduced me to banging bits of metal for percussion, it was Depeche Mode doing People Are People on Top Of The Pops in 1984 when I was ten or eleven. The problem is that this cross-pollination has all but ceased – the current pop groups are influenced by nothing other than the previous batch of pop groups and so on – mainly because the participants are seeking fame rather than musical fulfilment. There’s fewer new genes getting into the pool and that’s what’s caused the stagnation. Ironic, given that it is easier than ever to hear new and different music – just switch on your computer…

How do people respond to your music when they hear it?

No idea – I’m almost never there when they do so!

Your music is often very quiet. Does it work well live? Or do you tailor your music differently in a live setting?

I rarely perform live as a solo artist, partly due to time constraints and partly because most of the music is as good as impossible to translate into that kind of setting – my attempts at doing so have yet to satisfy me. There are a few new things I’m working on that could be done in that setting however, so we’ll see what the rest of the year brings – I’d like to do some more live work before we get to 2009. I also need to get over the fact that I don’t like people looking at me.

Which musicians working today do you admire? And what records do you listen to?

I’m a very keen listener and my appetite for music is voracious. I’ll spare you the long list but my absolute favourite band is The Fall and has been for the last twenty years or more. I adore Nurse With Wound, Richard Youngs, Jandek, Scott Walker, Brian Eno – mainly awkward men with varying degrees of eccentricity! Of late, I’ve been listening to John Coltrane’s Impulse releases, electric Miles Davis and a lot of Richard Youngs, with particular emphasis on his collaborations with Andrew Paine; their new Ilk album is a beauty.

I’ve said already that your music is often very quiet, but on tracks like Wave 7, Wave 8, Wave 9 there are moments of pure noise that are really quite the opposite. Do you like to keep your listeners guessing, or is pure sound – as opposed to melody, say – something that interests you?

Well, I’m never considering a theoretical listener when doing anything except occasionally when actually sequencing and editing the albums together once the music is complete – the decision to put My Ideal Home at the end of Everything Around Me Has Somehow Broken was aimed at perhaps soothing the listener after what was otherwise a pretty fierce blast, although that certainly wasn’t the sole reason for its inclusion. Also, I have a dislike of overly long albums and I find increasingly that most people are the same and this has an impact too. I like dynamics in music because, well, life has dynamics. Some things are well expressed through noise. Alight/Suspended is a good example of that – the Alight section is almost pure noise because it is almost pure anger and frustration. I view noise and pure sound as an option that I’m more than prepared to go with but it is only one option and there are myriad others.

Speaking of your listeners, who do you think buys your records? Is there a typical Alistair Crosbie fan?

I have no idea, sorry.

What do your friends and family think of your music? Have you switched them on to it, or do they think you’re mad?

My family have absolutely no interest in my music whatsoever – my father and brother make the occasional polite enquiry but neither they nor my sister have expressed any desire to hear any of it. Perhaps they had enough of it when we all lived under the same roof! My friends are mostly of a musical mind themselves but those who aren’t generally think that a hobby, pet, girlfriend etc. might be a good idea. Morton Feldman once said that the best period in his work was when absolutely no-one cared about his music at all and he was totally alone in his endeavours. He may have had a point.

One website described you as one of the UK’s leading avant bedroomists. Is there an element of the lo-fi bedroom studio to what you do, or is that stretching it a bit?

It’s a badge I’ll wear with absolute pride. The roots of where I am now are definitely in the tape/DIY underground of the late eighties into the nineties and into the CDR boom of this decade – Richard Youngs, Neil Campbell and Matthew Bower are something of a holy trinity to me in that regard and, of course, Nurse With Wound emerged from a self-supporting tapes/private pressings/DIY underground. My music absolutely belongs in the bedroom, although not in the Barry White sense, of course…

Do you ever see yourself making different styles of music to the folky, droney stuff we hear now? Are there times when you feel like dropping a drum ‘n’ bass mix at the end of an album just to mix it all up a bit?

Well, I did electronic stuff for a couple of years under the name d/compute which was all programmed rhythms, basslines, synths etc, but I’m totally finished with rhythm now and I won’t go back to that style. I never really know what’s coming next -at the moment there are more actual songs than before and I’m using more keyboards than I have since d/compute died in a tragic gardening accident in 2003 so things are changing again. I did two gigs in 2004/5 where I performed with only an acoustic guitar and my voice. In the last week or so, I discovered the file with the lyrics to about thirty of these songs on my old computer. I was surprised how much I liked some of them and that’s set off a whole line of thinking I hadn’t anticipated.

The drone is something that for me has associations with seventies bands – I’m thinking off the top of my head of people like Velvet Underground and early Tangerine Dream. Did they play any part in your sound?

No, not at all I‘m afraid. Never been that wild on the Velvet Underground apart from White Light White Heat (especially Sister Ray, despite Lou Reed’s embarrassing lyric) and I only kept Zeit from my Tangerine Dream exploration. But both those bands were undoubtedly influential on several of the bands and artists that influenced me so to deny them would be short-sighted. Drone music really came to me upon hearing Soliloquy For Lilith by Nurse With Wound, an exceptional work that should be getting taught in the schools in my opinion.

Musicians of course have to think about their credibility when they talk about their influences. Your own music doesn’t suggest it, but are there any embarrassing pop/reggae/rave records in your collection that you secretly cherish?

I am unashamed of my love of pure pop music, the best purveyors as at right now being Sugababes, Kylie Minogue and, especially, Girls Aloud who are almost unfeasibly great. I harbour a slight suspicion of anyone who claims not to like Girls Aloud actually.

There are few obvious musical parallels with fellow Scotsmen Boards Of Canada, but your work shares the dreamlike quality of their sound at times. Are BoC an influence in any way, and does the dream state play a part in your musical thinking at all?

I think electronica had a really exciting accelerated development during the mid to late nineties – in particular, Autechre’s work up to and including LP5 remains astonishing, especially Chiastic Slide. I certainly enjoyed the first couple of BoC records but they weren’t really an influence as such. My relationship with BoC’s music is interesting however because I’m just a little too young for some of their references – although born in the eventies, my earliest memories are from when I was five or six, so it’s a nostalgia for a period of my life that I don’t remember and that gives it a curious feel for me. The suggestion of having a dreamlike quality is interesting as I’m a dreadful insomniac so it is something I experience fairly rarely. Perhaps some of the music is a substitute. Or a product of semi-hallucinatory states of sleep-deprivation…

Just looking at some of the titles of your records – Everything Around Me Is Somehow Broken, Music for Drowning – your use of words seems consciously and very effectively poetic. On your Myspace page you also talk of your music as being “the sound shadows make when you catch them”. Does poetry feed into your music at all?

Not so much poetry but language certainly. If you’re only using a few words then they have to be absolutely right and, in fact, some of the titles go through as many permutations as the tracks – Everything Around Me Has Somehow Broken being a good example of that. Thank you for picking up on that actually, few people do. The titles aren’t just there for decoration.

You are clearly prodigious when it comes to making music, but how quickly do you work? Do you plan it a lot before you get it down on tape, or is there a spontaneity to what you do?

Albums and individual tracks almost always go through many permutations before being finished and it can be pretty exhausting so it’s not a spontaneous process at all – which is one of the things that makes live work so difficult and one of things that makes it essential to have more than one project on the go at any given time. Sometimes the initial recording can be quick but the process that follows can be protracted and convoluted. It’s one of the things Lea Cummings (a.k.a Kylie Minoise) and I have in common – I semi-complained to him that the released version of This Quiet House was the thirteenth or fourteenth version and he gently responded that Spank Magic Lodge had been through twenty five or more different masters! Frustrated architects, the pair of us.

You have also collaborated a lot. Who do you like to work with, and do you prefer collaboration to working alone?

Brian Lavelle and I have been working together since 1993 and his role in my development as a musician is incalculable – he introduced me to so much great music that without him, I could still be trying to emulate My Bloody Valentine on a practice amp. As such, it is impossible to separate my collaborative and solo work as they feed into each other so much. As a recent example, when Ruaraidh Sanachan and I started recording together, I ended up using an old Casio keyboard I had in my attic. Recent solo work and a session with Andrew Paine saw me using this and other keyboards much more than I could have anticipated. It looks as if Alec Cheer is getting some similar stuff to manipulate for our next album too. I thoroughly enjoy all my collaborations and fully intend for all of them to continue.

There is a filmic quality to your work. Do you watch a lot of films or listen to a lot of soundtracks? And what are some of your favourite films / soundtracks?

A few people have asked this but I’m not a film buff at all and have been inside a cinema just twice this decade. I blame this on my rotten attention span. But since you‘ve asked, my favourite film is Monty Python And The Holy Grail.

Do you listen to your own stuff after you’ve finished producing it? Or – like listening too much to any record – does it bore you?

It is exceedingly rare that I listen to my own music after it is finished except in small fragments to make sure the CD-Rs have copied properly. The one exception is Treenails with Andrew Paine which is probably because we recorded the piano tracks so quickly that, by the time we heard them again, we’d both totally forgotten what we’d played. Thus we could listen to them afresh.

Outside of music, what interests you? Are you a football fan, a budding gardener, a political anorak? Or is it all about the music?

It’s pretty much all about the music I’m afraid – I do keep in touch with current affairs though, as everyone should in these volatile, sinister times. My only other real interest is in British comedy from The Goons forwards, especially radio comedy.

Do you make music full-time, or is there something that forces you to put down the guitar occasionally to make a buck?

Yeah, I work full-time. I had a year off funded by my redundancy payment from a job I’d held for over a decade but I’ve been back at the grindstone of late whilst still keeping the music going. I’m often somewhat tired.

When did you start making music and releasing records?

I began writing songs when I was about ten, eleven maybe. First release was probably the Inversion tape on Chocolate Monk in 1995 (Inversion being Brian Lavelle and myself – we now just work under our own names, as on Disused)
There are probably not millions of pounds to be made in releasing drone records – do you see yourself still being a musician in ten, fifteen, twenty years? Or is there a time when people should call it a day?

You should stop when you have nothing left to put forward or nothing you feel like putting forward. Then start again when you do. I don’t know if I’ll still be making music next year; I could find I have nothing to say for myself for a spell. This has happened before and, in fact, it might do me good to fall silent for a while. I’d like to think there will be music for as long as I am physically capable of making it, but who ever knows?

If you weren’t making music, what would you be doing?

Listening to it. I have had long periods during which I’ve recorded virtually nothing and during those spells, my appetite for the music of others diminishes by not one scrap.

If you were to describe your music to an alien – or even someone on the bus – what would you say about it?

I’d tell an alien that my music had the power to heal the sick. That way, they might take me with them when they leave.

What instruments, equipment etc do you use most in your work? Do you tend to stick to the same ones, or try and whip out new stuff from time to time to keep things fresh?

It’s all pretty simple – things are recorded on a normal home computer or 4-track tape using mostly conventional instruments – I have an electric guitar, an acoustic, a bass, a couple of knackered old Casio keyboards, an aging standalone sequencer with a faulty internal battery and some effects pedals. I have a good mixing desk that used to belong to Brian Lavelle which has some lovely processing tools. The multitasking and editing software is a free programme called Audacity so there’s nothing special there either. There’s a few toys and some dust-covered processing units in the attic that might be pressed into service at some stage. I don’t tend to buy new equipment very often and that allows me to get to know what I have.

If you had to save one of your own releases in a fire, what would it be and why?

That’s hard, obviously. If forced, I would say How To Fall Without Hurting Yourself – that covers all the basic food groups of my recent work well enough.

And one final, Desert Island Discs style question – what five records would you take to a desert island if you for some reason were forced to go to one?

The Fall – Perverted By Language, Talk Talk – Spirit Of Eden, Nurse With Wound – Homotopy To Marie, Richard Youngs – Sapphie, Scott Walker – The Drift

Icon: arrow Alistair Crosbie (MySpace)

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