Posted on Mar 19th 2008 01:43 am
After fifteen years, Autechre still manage to surprise and inspire. On Quaristice, Sean Booth and Rob Brown turn their back to the ultra precise soundscapes that have defined their work in recent years and focus instead on a much more spontaneous and direct sound, developed from their live sets. Mark Flanagan talks to Sean Booth about how the band’s live sound has infiltrated their studio work, how him and Rob work together, what they think of live bootlegs, and being Myspace’d.
Quaristice will be your ninth album released on Warp, since you debuted with Incunabula nearly fifteen years ago, and it is also marking the end of the longest hiatus between releases, with the last output being Untilted in early 2005. Were there any significant factors for the longer interval, and does this suggest a change in pace?
It was a weird thing, I moved house in 2005 and we’d been doing a lot of gigs that year; in order to keep income stream going, we did some more gigs – mainly festivals and extended dates, we were doing them to keep above water basically. So we were putting down live tracks in the studio and for posterity kept a lot of the material, and sort over a period of time, changed what we were doing gradually – plugging in other bits of the studio in and running them off our live set up. So a lot of the album tracks are edited down jams, some of them hour long pieces we made in a day and then worked them down. We just kept going and thought we can do the edit at the end, because editing is so easy now.
Is that part of the reason that one of the characterised features of the new album against your previous work is the substantial track count, with twenty tracks as opposed to eight to twelve as has been the case in your previous eight albums?
Exactly, we just had shit loads of material at the end of the process, and we just rationalised things as we went along and continually made things shorter. We’d have a fifteen minute jam, a ten or a seven minute and end up with a three or four minute track and we just kept them all. A lot of the intermediate and longer tracks were lush, but we felt they didn’t have the pace we wanted for the album and because we had so many tracks we thought ‘what’s better?’ Like eight tracks or twenty of them, and we preferred a lot of the shorter ideas so it really ended up being like that.
On the subject of track count, having only had the chance to listen to Quaristice three or four times so far, one of the first impressions was that it was almost like the Gescom Minidisc project. Was there a logic to the track running order?
Well there is on the Gescom Minidisc, I think by having the tracks ‘shuffle-able’, we kind of remove peoples’ awareness that there was a definite arrangement. To me, the minidisc feels like it’s got proper flow. To us, there’s a total flow on this album too – maybe it’s just a familiarity thing.
Yeah, it always is… obviously when it’s unleashed on listeners it can maybe take about six months to get a feel for the thing…
It took six months to edit. So maybe that’s how long it takes. I just wouldn’t know. I’m so close to it now.
Having had the pleasure of taking in your live set in Glasgow back in April ’05, I wondered if any of the material released on Quaristice had featured in some guise or other in that Untilted tour? I was sure I detected something familiar about chenc9 for example?
Yeah, a couple of bits, there were a couple of bits here and there… yeah there’s one riff right at the end of chenc9 and the bass thing. It’s hard to remember now, we did so many versions and re-versions and odd mixes of a melody of this bit and melody off that bit; it all got really mushy.
When you approach a new album, I take it you don’t sit down with a blank slate. Is it more a case of being an ongoing cycle where some projects sit on the shelf or be part of a live set for years before reaching some form of conclusion on an album?
It has been with this one, it really varies from release to release – depends on how we’re working – I mean sometimes we’ll just sit there and make stuff. Like with Untilted, that was made using a similar hardware setup but in a very contrived way where everything was programmed and we literally were just pressing ‘go’ and capturing the output. But this was a lot more about real time input, and when you’re dealing with that, you want more sequences, and would bend things to fit. I mean I really like Art Of Noise and On-U-Sound, mainly as I used to collect that stuff, and the overlaps used to do my head in. You know, like ‘ahh that bit’s off that track’ or whatever, and I quite like that. When we came back to listening through all our material, it was quite disorienting in the same way, it was a similar feeling. There’s only two or three bits from the 2005 tour set that ended up on the album though.
On the gear side, are you still very much working with hardware boxes as opposed to screen-based sequencing?
Yeah, I mean the editing was all done using a computer. We were using bits of software in real time, but it’s almost all hardware…
Quaristice seems to be a lot dubbier, a lot bassier with much more bottom end than the previous albums. Has it been written with that in mind?
I think it’s partly a result of us playing out a lot, and getting into that feel and what I like to hear really loud, with that kind of vee’d EQ. But also the fact we’ve had a new room to work in and being able to crank it a little bit…
Have you rebuilt your studio?
Yeah, I’ve got a new studio, well we’ve still got two studios. Rob’s still got his studio in London but I’ve got mine in Manchester now.
Do you still work together in the same room or do you pass material back and forward?
Well for this one we did loads, just by necessity, I mean we were spending a lot of time together. I guess that’s why we took so long as we both had other things on, other projects and being abroad. So we’d just sort of do bits of tracks on our own, mainly writing a few patterns or sequences on our own and then just waiting, storing them and filling the machine up with bits before getting together with Rob’s half bits and making stuff out of the things that work together.
Do you have any plans to release an EP to support the album?
Errm… this isn’t it, but there’s no EP. That’s all I’m going to say at this point.
On a slight aside, how involved were you with the recent Gescom release?
[Laughs] What, in percentage terms? Well…I was very involved with one of them, in fact very involved in two of them, the end of one of them. I’m not being specific, but yeah I did one of them mostly and the rest was other people…I’m not going to reveal who of course.
Back to the album, many fans found Untilted to contain probably your ‘hardest’ and ‘heaviest’ sound so far, how would you describe the overall sonic character of Quaristice… certainly in comparative terms to your previous work
You mean in those cheesy terms where you use one word like ‘spacious’ or ‘open’ or whatever? Ehh, ‘instantaneous’… ’direct’ maybe, because we weren’t thinking too much, we were just doing it… possibly ‘self-indulgent’.
It almost sounded sort of retrospective to me?
Yeah, I think that’s what happens when you don’t have much time to think, you just do what you do.
Do you guys get approached by companies to help with product development?
Yeah, but we always end up signing NDAs (non disclosure agreement) so we can’t ever talk about. We say Yamaha a few years ago but didn’t end up doing anything. We’ve had contact with Roland and other major companies too, but can’t really talk about anything.
If you were locked in a cell for a year and were given just one piece of software (and a laptop) and one piece of hardware to allow you to continue writing music – what would you take with you?
I’d probably just take a copy of Digital Performer and an AKG C-1000 mic, think that’s about all I’d need… straightforward and give me the most flexibility.
Do either of you play any instruments in the traditional sense, such as guitar, piano, percussion etc?
No, not really, I mean pads on a drum machine…but that’s about it. I don’t know, do decks count as an instrument these days, I’ve been playing those for twenty years! You could say drum machines and sequencers and fader boxes…
Nothing on a conventional or traditional basis?
You mean like a guitar or something where you select the notes? No, f**k all that! They just don’t have enough tonal capacity for me. I’d use it If you could make a guitar sound like an (Elektron) Monomachine, but…
How do you and Rob feel about live gigs being bootlegged and made available online, such as with the handful of soundboard recordings from the Untilted tour… is this something that pisses you off or do you take a positive view towards it?
That’s great, we wouldn’t ever charge for them. It’s a two-way subjective process playing live. If you’re not there, you’re missing out on half of it anyway. I mean it’s fair enough charging for the gig itself, but beyond that it’s a bit weird to make money off it. The quality of the bootlegs are usually proper snuff anyway, and I think that people who want to share and listen to that stuff on their own terms are aware that they weren’t there and missed out on a lot of it. Obviously I prefer mic recordings as opposed to soundboard as you get the room rather than being super dry. It’s all about using the room with us playing live. The bootleg thing is going to happen isn’t it?
Have you any plans to release a live album though at any point in the future?
No, I don’t like taking it out of context like that. I don’t mind using a few bits from a live set and using it in the studio, but wouldn’t take a live set we’d recorded at a venue and release that – I mean that would be milking it, you know what I mean?
Moving away from your own material, who do you guys listen to at the moment and what releases excited you or piqued your interest… Do you still listen to a lot of dub from the 1980’s?
[Laughs] I’m always listening to dub from the eighties, I’m the world’s biggest Scientist fan… I’m a total fuckin’ completist as well, I’m terrible. What really spun me out, was when we saw Rhythm & Sound at All Tomorrows Parties and they were playing Scientist records that I’m sure were different to the versions I’ve got – I’m sure they’ve got access to some masters or some shit. That was really doing my head in; they’ve got records I’ve never heard before. I’m pretty old-school unfortunately, I tend to listen to a lot of old stuff– that must sound really boring to a kid – but the last thing I really liked were J Dilla’s Donuts and Mr Oizo – Moustache. I really like those records a lot, but would never do a proper sample based thing like that. I’m more into editing, than sampling, it doesn’t matter where the source came from, I’d prefer it was my own stuff really.
Just when you say that, do you find that when you’re writing together, you both have your own half of responsibility in terms of the life-cycle of a particular project or a track – or do you both basically act as one entity as it were?
It depends really, we don’t have predefined roles, but we sometimes settle into roles defined by what we’ve been doing… track to track, they’re all different percentages of involvement and different people do different things. Though I do tend to slightly lean towards percussion and Rob tends to slightly lean towards oblique sound design and textures. That’s what we do in the live set, it’s always been a big part of what we do, we’ve always had a separate live set to the album – it’s always been new stuff so that’s informed us over the years.
Many regard you more of a live act these days. Which part do you enjoy the most? Do you personally enjoy the live aspect more than say back in 2001 during the Confield tour?
Oh definitely more than then. I mean Confield was a good one, but it was very much us taking out our homemade sequencers and really rinsing it, trying to get as many events out there into the audience’s minds in the shortest amount of time and trying to twat them and really melt their brains and stuff. But the last couple of tours have been about really rockin’ it – trying to really twat everyone in a more movement sense, where they feel like they’re being pushed around. I guess the new set is a lot more of that.
Obviously that’s been what, twenty years or longer that you’ve been working together. Is there a preconceived point at which you feel you might call it a day or do you just take each album as it comes?
Ahh, definitely take it as it comes… I mean you can’t plan that kind of thing that far in advance can you?
So you still feel the same hunger or inspiration and will to keep producing music, or is it something from time to time have found it harder to stay focused?
No, I think that only really happens if you consciously try to push yourself and we’re not really about that. We’re trying to just do it and get on with it. As long as I prefer making music to doing other things, I’ll keep doing it.
Away from music, and talking about doing other things, what sort of pastimes fill your time away from music?
Mates, to be honest, I’m more into people than I used to be…
Do you have any other creative outputs that might feed back into the music?
Not specifically…I dabble in programming, and dabble in doing a little bit of video and graphics, mostly coding really. Just stuff I do for myself, because I get interested in a technology, like Flash or whatever, and mess around with for a while, but really just as a distraction or an antidote to what we do musically.
What’s your take on the likes of Myspace and online fan communities like xltronic and watmm?
WATMM? What’s WATMM?
We Are The Music Makers…
…Oh THAT thing! And XLTronic, well XLT, it’s a bit more macho innit and We Are The Music Makers is a bit more geeky. I like them both, slightly… but, you know, it’s like any online community.
Do you pay any attention to the feedback you see on those forums, do you keep a thermometer of what people think?
Well now that they’ve all been MySpace’d, now you can find them all… and they’re all having their pictures up and stuff and be honest about how they are, it’s slightly chilled them all out, which is good! I mean, I know who most people are on there now, which is a bit weird. So I don’t tend to post much now as a result, I post like once a month… and it’s usually just to correct someone [Laughs]. Mainly my mates go on their and will post up links to stuff.
Well, I have to admit… I am one of the ones that hangs around We Are The Music Makers… from time to time [Laughs]
Well that’s not like a bad thing to say, not really! I’ll probably be trying to find you later. The thing is, We Are The Music Makers is actually alright now, because they’ve divided it up into fan rooms, it stops people going like “you fuckin’ twat – that band are shit” posting in threads they shouldn’t even be posting to. But it’s all good, faceless communities create that insane interaction you don’t get anywhere else. So if you can handle it, and you’re feeling a bit brave then go for it…but it tends to just make me giggle, smirk and then go ‘Oh God!’, you know?
Quaristice is out now on Warp Records.
Phone interview conducted on 24th January 2008 by Mark Flanagan. Used with kind permission
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