Darwin: Okay, today I have the great opportunity to speak to somebody whose work I enjoy, who is actually very influential, not only to me, but to a number of my coworkers and artistic collaborators. His name's Mark Fell, incredible body of work, incredible history of writing. If you go to his website, you'll find all kinds of previous interviews and writings there but also just some amazing music. So with no further ado, let's say hello to Mark. Hey, Mark. How's it going?
Mark Fell: Hello, Darwin. I'm good, thanks. How are you?
Darwin: All right. I want to thank you for taking the time out of your schedule to have this chat. This is really cool. It's really pretty special for me. I appreciate it.
Mark: It's always nice to escape from work, so it's almost doing an interview, I'm usually saying, "Yeah, definitely," and I jumped, "Can we do it now?"
Darwin: I agree completely. That's a great point. So why don't we start off by having you tell people a little bit about what you're currently working on?
Mark: I'm currently doing a whole bunch of stuff. What am I doing? Actually, right now, the thing that's occupying my mind is... I don't "mind". I'm not supposed to say mind. People think I don't like the idea of a mind. But what is occupying me is I'm doing some commissions for a small ensemble from Oxford in London. I'm working with a bunch of acoustic performers; like yesterday, I was in a studio with a pianist and I don't know anything about what pianos can really do, even though I like a lot of piano music. So I had full on imposter syndrome with this pianist, trying to work out what to do. So that's what's been happening. But I've just also finished a book which is coming out on Urbanomic in... It went to the printer today actually, so I guess we'll have copies back maybe in a month or six weeks. So that's been a lot of work over lockdown. Sounds like I'm plugging it. I'm not plugging it.
Darwin: No, no, please. I mean, I'm curious now. I didn't know that this was on the horizon.
Mark: It's called "Structure And Synthesis: The Anatomy Of Practice". And it's basically a bunch of collected writings and some new stuff on the subject of... The things that interest me are the relationship between aesthetics and technology and ideology. So it's kind of a bunch of philosophical writings and rants about that, basically.
Darwin: That's really interesting. Is it all your work, or is it a collection of many people?
Mark: It's all my stuff. But it's kind of like a mishmash of different things. I didn't want to make it into too much of a sort of linear track, like, "Here are these arguments and this is where it leads to." So crisscrossing of statements and things and drawings and diagrams and stuff. And it turned out to be a big piece of work. Like I said to Robin, the publisher, "Let's aim for about 200 pages," and it's ended up being 400 pages.
Darwin: Oh my goodness. Wow.
Mark: Yeah, so it's quite a big piece of work.
Darwin: How long did it take you to put that together?
Mark: About a year, I think. Yeah, I'd say about a year. The deadline, Robin wanted it off me last December, so December 2020 and I only just finished it. So he's been really patient. But yeah, I just felt it needed to be the size it was. It feels really nice to have done that actually.
Darwin: That's amazing, I'm really looking forward to that. It sounds fascinating. Especially since much of your previous writings have played around the edges of this, particularly discussions of structure is something that has always kind of been something you've talked about, as well as has always been an important part of your music.
Mark: I guess a lot of my thoughts about technology are kind of modeled on, or sort of borrowed from, or appropriated from, positions from the philosophy of language. When I first encountered Wittgenstein when I was... I never studied philosophy at university, but I did A-level philosophy, which is what you do before you go to university. And that's when I started to encounter philosophy of language. And so yeah, a lot of my ideas about technology are sort of drawn from that and the critique of romantic beliefs about technology, that it's just a kind of... ideally, a passive vehicle through which things are expressed.
What happened was, actually, when I was a student before I went to university, I was messing around in a video edit suite at the local college. It's actually about 50 meters from where I am now. I've not moved very far. And so I was in this local college that you go to before you go to university and the guy in charge was... he was not a fan of experimental work basically. I was like 17, 18 years old and I'd got access to this video edit suite and decided just to repatch it, just to see what happens like, I kind of thought, "Yeah, if I unplug that from there, what's going to happen if I plug it into there and route that..." That's my way of working. And the guy in charge came in and he was really angry. He was angry because I'd made a mess of his video edit suite, but what he was, "If you don't have an idea, you'll just be doing what the technology dictates."
So his position was like, if you don't know what you're going to do, then you just going to be doing what the technology determines. And he framed it in terms of this opposition between your authorship and the technology. And I was just a young kid at this point, but it really got to me like, "This is completely wrong. This equation isn't what I... it's not what I feel. That there's this opposition between me, the author, and the technology." Because I'd been using synthesizers for years at this point, all my work was about just fiddling around and seeing what came out of that, you know? So that kind of problem stuck with me.
Darwin: Yeah. It's funny because I see where I see where this person was coming from because having... I spent some time teaching in an art school and one of the things that was really depressing was when people wanted to do something so they would start off in Photoshop by dropping down the filters list and seeing what there was, you know? But in a way you're making a great point, which is that there's a practice there to be had, which is doing that exploration and figuring out what speaks to you and that becoming... that also being an artistic expression.
Mark: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I take your point about the Photoshop filters, but if I'm honest, when I first got Photoshop, that's what I was doing.
Darwin: Right? No, I know.
Mark: It's like, "Whoa, more solarization and let's solarize the solarization. And let's..." whatever.
Darwin: Embossing. "Oh no, emboss the other way."
Mark: Yeah, yeah. "Let's emboss the emboss." And then you do it, and then everybody does it, and then you think, "Yeah, well..." But for me that's not a problem of the technology, that's a problem about overfamiliarity of it becomes too saturated and that kind of stuff.
Darwin: Right, right. We kind of jumped off track because I did want to find out... Are you working on any musical stuff right now?
Mark: Yeah. So the stuff with the ensemble I'm doing right now. Maybe two years ago, I went to Buenos Aires and did a thing with a percussion ensemble there that I can't... it resulted in a performance, but I didn't really like the recording of the performance, so I go the ensemble to go back in the studio and record all the bits. So I'm trying to edit that. And I'm also working on a new electronic record, which I guess you heard the sad news that Peter Rehberg died about a month ago. So I was like working on a new album for Editions Mego, which was, again, I'd said to Peter, I'd deliver it in February and I was late with that. So that's something I've been doing. Yeah, I've got a whole bunch of stuff. I've always got like a million things.
Darwin: Right. Well, and then the other thing is, recently I did an interview with you, you had been working on some collaborative stuff. You and Rian, Rian Treanor, your son, have been working together on some performance systems using Max and especially using remote connectivity between players and between playing groups. Is that still in action for you?
Mark: Yeah. So what we did, that came about because we'd gone into lockdown and all these festivals were like, "Oh, can you do some streaming stuff?" And I really got really super bored of the whole streaming paradigm. And so me and Rian were like, "What can we do instead?" I'm like, "Hang on, what about if we try and figure out a way of using Max, so we can just synchronize parameters over networks?" And either we can just send a Max patch and control that, or we can have several people all connected together. We started to do quite a lot of that stuff and it got sort of interesting. A lot of technical problems, also a lot of ideological issues and conceptual stuff and aesthetic things all sort of seemed to collide in this activity.
Yeah, it was really good and we did some stuff. And then we realized actually it was quite a barrier that if we wanted more people to be able to engage with this, it was actually quite difficult to say, "Okay, now you need to install Max and download these externals. And yeah, these are the audio..." We wanted to be able to just get people with quite limited technical expertise involved. We made contact with someone who could write it as a website, so that's what we did. We just did a thing. The first thing went live maybe a few weeks ago, which is kind of got a basic grid-like step sequencer type thing with some algorithmic controls. And that's been really popular, actually. We were really surprised by the amount of people that just visited it and used it.
We want to do more of that. That was the first one, that kind of quite simple grid-like sequencer, but we want to do more things like that. But it's a case of getting money to do it. Because we can't program it ourselves, so we have to pay the programmer. And actually, I put a funding application into the Arts Council in Britain. So we were asking for like £15,000, which is not a lot of money. That was to pay my fee, Rian's fee, the programmer, but also to do lots of outreach type work. So actually my fee was going to be something like £2,000. It was going to be a hell of a lot of work, and we as artists weren't going to get paid much. And it was a really strong application - and it got rejected. And on the rejection it said that, "What we'd like to hear more of is the artistic vision behind this project rather than what it's technically capable of." And again, it got rejected on the basis that they assumed because we were using technology it was just about technology.
Darwin: It was just a technological demo. Right, yeah.
Mark: Yeah, and where was the artistic vision? Well, actually I don't really have an artistic vision because I don't work like that. I fiddle around with technology and-
Darwin: And see what comes out of it, yeah. Right, right.
Mark: And also why should I actually... I could use that language to sell the project to these people. I could start to talk about, "My glorious artistic vision is that I want to communicate..." But why should I? I felt like replying and saying, "It's almost like you've asked me to say, 'How does your project enhance the glory of God?'" Do you know what I mean? This hopelessly metaphysical language about artistic vision. It actually sounds like-
Darwin: We're shooting right back into the 1600s, right?
Mark: Yeah, yeah. Like, "How does it glorify the word of God"? Or, "How do you become one with the angels in the production of this work?" You know what I mean? It's just stupid, metaphysical language that just is about barriers. That's what it's about. It's about people being gatekeepers and their values determining who gets the cash. The audiences that we're dealing with, like my background, are working class kids who aren't particularly engaged with that kind of world. And it would have connected with those kids. So yeah, I was just like, I don't even want to resubmit this application, I just think-
Darwin: Yeah, that's pretty frustrating. Right.
Mark: Yeah. And I'll get along, anyway.
Darwin: So you brought up this idea of your background, and one of the things I like doing in my podcast is talking to people about their background and how they got to be the artist and technologist that are. And particularly with this idea of how, at what point did you combine your interest in art and your interest in technology into the combo life that you now live? And I'm wondering what your story looks like?
Mark: Well, they were never not combined. So my story is that I grew up in the north of England, my parents kind of brought me up to be critical basically. So they brought me up to question and argue and I was trained to be an outsider from the beginning I guess. And then the '80s happened. So I was a young teenager, like 13 at the beginning of the '80s, and in Britain it was... in the north of England it was a terrible place to be because we'd got this horrible political leader called Margaret Thatcher and just decided that it was not a nice place to be. Society was falling to bits. Everyone seemed to be unemployed. For me, it was like, okay, I'd been brought up to have these values about community and about the world not being about greed, basically. And then it seemed to me that the world was turned into that and there was this famous miner's strike, I don't know if you've heard of, called the Battle of Orgreave, was the kind of climax to it all. When that happened, I lived in the village next to where that happened.
So it was a time of big political turmoil. And I came across weird electronic music, things like Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, stuff like this. And that was an alternative world for me. So we're talking like 1980-81-ish. I got a synthesizer from the next door neighbor who'd got... but he was a technician in the university and he got us inside to let me borrow it. And it was like, "This is amazing." So that was the starting point for me. And then I got a computer, I think it was a Commodore 64 computer. Did you have those in America?
Darwin: Oh, you bet we did, sure enough.
Mark: Yeah. And then I did computer science at school, so I learned how to do... We had an old Apple, I can't remember what it was, Apple computer. I learned basic programming on that. The first things I would do was like, "Okay, let's make it do loads of flashy colors and stuff." And so my interest in making art and my interest in technology were always part of the same-
Darwin: Always mashed together, yeah.
Mark: Yeah. At school, I was on the nerd spectrum sort of, but I was equally... I was angry kid. Angry nerd. I was the angry nerd. And yeah, just that kind of activity of using synthesizers and bits of computers and stuff to do stuff was what I wanted to do.
Darwin: Yeah, interesting. What was the point at which you went from being in technology and doing cool stuff with that or fun stuff for you, and into saying, "Well, no, I'm going to be serious about this"? And I put that in air quotes in a way because I know that that's always a continuum. But at some point you... At least in my experience, I'll talk about my experience. There was a point where I was interested in technology, even deep into it. I also had this background in music, but then all of a sudden, I found this... and then I started getting kind of obsessive about it, right? Did something like that happen for you? Or was it a different take?
Mark: Yeah, I mean, what happened was that I got sort of obsessed by the potential of things and that brought... It stopped being fun, basically, at some point. There was a fun side of it, but then it was like, "Oh right, so there's this difficult side of it," that I started to encounter. So I was thrown into it because it was fun. And then it was like, but now it's kind of getting serious. Yeah, just for me, it was always about how can these things interact, basically. How can this thing interact with this? And also the interaction of sounds. I remember the first time I borrowed a Portastudio, a four-track cassette, off a friend, and that was the first time I could actually make more than two sounds at once. And I realized, as soon as you add a third sound, it actually starts to... for me, it got really difficult. Like, okay, it's easy to make something with two sounds, but then you add a third sound and it becomes really difficult to... the equation suddenly gets a lot more complicated, you know?
Mark: It switched from I'm awake all night having fun, twiddling these dials, to I'm awake all night but I'm not actually... I'm actually having a trauma. Yeah, I think that's quite a common experience. And I think it's a kind of experience that isn't just rooted in what it's like being an artist, but I think also a lot of my friends who are scientists also describe this thing of like...
Darwin: It was really interesting and then all of a sudden it got to be work? Yeah.
Mark: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Or it got to be not working like, "Oh my God, I've got to go to the office and answer telephones," but it became-
Darwin: Work as in difficult, maybe.
Mark: Yeah, it became... you're not driven by just pleasure, basically.
Mark: I guess. You're driven by the questions that you're dealing with.
Darwin: Now are you the kind of person that gets motivation in tackling a hard thing?
Mark: I guess I am actually. I mean, I've always thought that I'm quite lazy, but then I'm not... but my laziness is like, manifests itself in a workaholic sort of attitude. It's kind of like, if I'm not careful, I can just be up all night doing stuff. Not so much these days, but especially when... I think I was quite obsessive for quite a long time.
Darwin: What was your first release?
Mark: So - the first release is secret and I'm never going to say the name of it because it was absolutely awful. I did two or three things that are like, 'There is no way that I want people to find out about that.' But first serious release, that was a thing I did with Mat Steel, this project SND.
Mark: So what happened was, there were a few of us working together. Me, this guy Jez Potter, and Mat Steel, and we kind of... the three of us worked together. And then this guy, Russell Haswell, I don't know if you know Russell Haswell? So he's really, really important British artist, like the whole... basically every music scene that means something to me, Russell's had a bit of a hand in it. Really close friend of Peter Rehberg, really part of that early Mego stuff. So Russell got in touch with Jez, the guy that me and Mat working with and said, "I want you to do a release for my label, but I don't want any of this mellow chords and stuff on it." And so Jez said to me, "Oh Mark, Russell's interested in this. But we can't really involve Mat in it because Mat's so into these lush chords and stuff." So I was like, "Okay, me and you do this project, Jez." And that became a thing called Shirt Trax, which was released on Russell's label.
And I said to Mat, like, "Look, Jez has got this offer and I'm going to do it, but he doesn't want any mellow chords in it. So Mat, me and you let's start a project and all it will be is just the mellow chords that Jez doesn't want." And that became this SND project, which was ironically released before this weird other thing.
Darwin: Oh, interesting.
Mark: Yeah. So me and Mat made this record, the 12-inch single, and we didn't have... we actually got a friend who'd got a company and he wanted to lose money, actually. He was a businessman with an interest in music and he'd been buying synthesizers and stuff and building a studio through his business and he needed to make it legitimate by being seen to be trying to-
Darwin: Producing some stuff, yeah.
Mark: So he said to me and Matt, "Look, I can invest in this record label. I can pay for the record label." And he was assuming it was going to lose money. It was a bit like that film The Producers. You know, that Hollywood film? It was a kind of thing like-
Darwin: The accidental success.
Mark: "Yeah, I'm definitely going to lose money with these guys because..." We thought that. I mean, we didn't actually make any money, but it was a successful release, it sold. And we were really surprised. Yeah, the motivation was that I'd said to Mat, "Look, I don't care if it's successful. I don't care. I've just got to make the thing now. And let's just do three 12-inch's, and if we can do that, I will die a happy person." Because it's like, I've just done what I wanted to do. And it was really like that. It was like we were so pissed off with everything and just being in shitty jobs and that kind of thing. So we did it and it was really... people liked it. And this label in Frankfurt, Mille Plateaux, got in touch and said, "Do you want to do an album?" And that sort of catapulted us into a different world, and that's how we started.
Darwin: Right, with Mille Plateaux, at a time when that was a real influential label and you a very influential artists on that label.
Mark: Yeah. When the guy phoned up... so basically these 12 inchers, we'd stamped Mat's telephone number on them, on the back of it. We'd not got email accounts and stuff. And Mat's like, "This guy, Hakim, from Mille Plateaux's phoned up. What is this label?" And I was like, "Oh my God," I was having a panic attack. And I was too scared. I was such a little naive kid, I was too scared to even answer the phone to this guy. And Mark's like, "Why are we going to do what? Should we do something on this label?" I was like, "Yeah, yeah, let's do it."
I guess what we did, was we... there were people that we took direct influence from, so Thomas Brinkmann and Mike Ink, and there was a group called Oval that were doing this kind of almost low resolution, chopped up stuff. But I guess we sat in the middle of those two things and it just became quite popular. So yeah, it was a big... just catapulted us into just a different... Even someone's going to pay for us to Frankfurt... was just like, that is amazing. That is amazing. We're actually going to go on an airplane and do something.
Darwin: Now one of the things that SND is known for is long form work, where there isn't a lot of structural change. The change is like... it sort of really attaches to a lot of that minimalist stuff that Mille Plateaux started. And then other labels like Raster-Noton and some of these others, continued with. This idea of long form structureless stuff, where the change isn't in structure, the change is in timbre over time. Is that a fair assessment for the elevator pitch of that?
Mark: Yeah, I guess so. I mean, my problem was that, so I'd come from this analog synthesizer background, and then I'd got an Atari computer running Pro24 then Cubase. And what I realized quite soon was that I couldn't really make work in this environment. And for me, it was like, "Oh yeah, this is the natural progression. You've got a little monosynth, and now you're got something better. You're getting an Atari and that's better. And you can throw away your monosynth." And I never really occurred to me at that time, that there's just a very different way of working and that using a timeline puts you in a certain kind of relationship to your materials, that is very different from using a monosynth.
I'd be like, "Yeah. And now we'll put this bit here and we'll have another layer here, and yeah, we'll have a drop down here and then we can have a snare rush here." And it was all these bad habits of techno that I was like, "Why is everything sounding so rubbish? Why is it all just sounding not right?" An then listening to people like Mike Ink and Thomas Brinkmann and the Basic Channel stuff, I think a really important one for me was M-4. It's just this quite linear thing that just... it doesn't have the bad habits of here's a breakdown and here's a snare roll, and this whole thing of music is just... we were getting away from this idea that music is a series of layers that kind of came in and out. It was just like, here's one thing and we just let it happen and that's enough. And that, for me, was a big, really important thing of like, we can forget those habits and just do this. And that's what it was, yeah.
Darwin: Well, and also, I would say with that SND stuff, a lot of it to me... Just a minute ago, you said something about when you started working with this stuff, once you got more than two sounds, there was a different thing to it. And I would see with the SND stuff it's sort of stripped down to being kind of two sounds, right?
Mark: Yeah, yeah.
Darwin: It had to change your approach to what we typically think of as arrangement, because arrangement isn't that important because you're not working... you're not having to do this puzzle piecing thing of making all the bits fit together, right?
Mark: Yeah. But the concern was, it was about the detail of like, how does this rhythmic stuff and these chords, how do they fit together? And when you look at it in detail, obviously there's an infinite number of things that you can do to that. So we just got drawn into that. It's like, the minute detail of like duration, the duration of a chord step. And like, "Oh, you have a long one than a short one." And then the gaps between them and how does that fit with just a kick and a snare and stuff? And actually that came about from me and Mat, we have this shared love of like early techno. And in particular, I came across this producer, Marc Kinchen, he did this thing, I think it was a remix he did with Derrick May, this track called Can You Feel It.
Actually, I was listening to it the other day. We dug it out and we both listened to it, me and Rian. And it was just like, just the detail of the duration of this chord and how the duration changes, you know? And when I first heard this record... I actually got it from the reduced-to-clear thing of my local record shop, so it was a completely random purchase. And I was like, "Oh my God, this is..." I became obsessed with how these things interlocked and now you could re-interlock them and all this kind of stuff. And that's what SND was about. It was just that real fascination with like, you have this rhythmic stuff and this chord stuff, and we didn't need any chord changes, we didn't need any melody. And it was just like, how do these things lock together? And that was what we were dealing... So we weren't bothered with how does it change over time and is there a crescendo and how does it make people feel and where is the joyous bit. It's like-
Darwin: Where's the riser? Right, yeah.
Mark: Yeah, yeah. It's just like, oh my God, we're really looking at just these things of we can put the kick in this place and then put that there and... It was much more like using something like Lego but not to make a building, but just to look at how three bricks fit together and what you can do with it. And we just got drawn into that. And I still am, really. It's like, that's the question that keeps me going, I guess.
Darwin: Yeah, you still are. But one of the things I would say that has happened over the duration is that your relationship with time has gotten to be more and more complex over time, I would say. And I'm curious about what is it that draws you into not only complex timing, but complex divisions of time, what would seem like arrhythmic connections along with a rhythmic back bone or stuff like this. Tell me a little bit about your sense of time and how that expresses itself in the music? Because if you take like some of the early SND stuff, and then you compare it to the Infoldings And Diffractions release, right? Very, very different. Sonically, the connections can be made, but timing-wise, there's a real difference there. And if you listen to your work over time, you see that progressing over time, and I'm curious, what is that relationship and what is the thought process in your mind and dealing with rhythm and with time?
Mark: That's a really good question.
Darwin: I know, I know.
Mark: Well, I encountered Indian classical music, South Indian classical music. Someone said to me, "You should really listen to this stuff, Mark." And I was like, "Well yeah, I've heard it on the radio and it's kind of nice and whatever. And then I got a record. I think this friend who said, you should listen to it gave me some records. And I was like, "Oh wow, this is really amazing." And then I went to a summer solstice event of all night... so basically it starts at sunset and ends at sunrise. And actually it was Rian's birthday. And he was living in Leeds and there was this thing, and I was like, "Rian, let's go to this for your birthday." I'd never seen Indian classical music live before. And it was basically one of those mind blowing things of like, "Oh my God, I just really feel this is the music that I'm into." Just, "Crikey, this is great."
And I've never liked Western classical music. I actually find it almost unlistenable. And that's my problem. I'm not saying it's bad, I've just got a problem with it that it's like, I can't actually bear listening to most Western classical music. And what I like about Indian classical music is that it's an... for me, I hear this exploration of like the interlocking of rhythms and very basic elements, you know? Also, maybe because I'm not Indian, my relationship to it is... it's not about my emotional response to it. It's quite dry in that sense that it's just a kind of... Yeah, because it's outside my cultural... or it occupies a different relationship to me in terms of it's cultural position. I didn't grow up in that culture.
Darwin: That's interesting because, while it might not have an emotional draw, I would think that there's something that goes beyond just a pure intellectual draw. Because if nothing else, rhythm has sort of a physical component to it, right?
Mark: Yeah. I mean, I think there's an aesthetic. It's not like I'm saying it was just the kind of formalist exercise, you know?
Darwin: Right, right.
Mark: But anyway, I just felt like, "Okay, I get this." And then I went to India and met people and started to learn about Indian... the South Indian version of Indian classical music, carnatic music, and especially about the rhythmic elements, which is a thing called a Tala, which is like a very simple system that produces incredible complexity. I was lucky to meet people who were from that world and we became really good friends and we still work together and in touch and stuff.
So that was an important thing for me. And also it was a step outside the electronic music world as well. I've always been kind of quite aesthetically... how can I put this? Perhaps too focused. So it's like, I remember when I first got into North American house music in the early '90s. There was this moment when people stopped... it got trendy, not to use handclaps, but to use finger snaps instead. And I was like, "Okay, I'm not going out anymore because I cannot bear being in a club where there's a deep house record and it's got bloody finger snaps on." Do you know what I mean?
Darwin: Right, right.
Mark: And I was just like completely, aesthetically immobile, if you see what I mean?
Mark: So it was important for me to just break out of that and not be so childish, I guess, because as a kid, it was almost like that focus got me through. But then as you become an adult... Well, I didn't become an adult until I was about 40, I think. It's like, "Okay, you can let go of that a bit and just start to be a bit more... not so narrow minded." And actually meeting people, meeting guitarists like Oren Ambarchi and Stephen O'Malley and hanging out with them. And it's like, 20 years ago, if you'd said I was hanging out with a guitarist, I would have been like, "No way on Earth I'm ever going to be friends with any guitarist. You can forget that." And I remember talking to Stephen and I was like, "What? So are you into Iron Maiden and stuff like that? I can't believe that anyone's into Iron Maiden and Ozzy Osbourne." He's like, "Yeah, Mark, when I was a kid, that was my Throbbing Gristle. That was the thing." And it's like, well, yeah. But yeah, that's what we were talking about, time structure.
Darwin: That's interesting. Well, you talk about some of these collaborations, whether it's the South Indian... the people who understood South Indian music that introduced you to that, or if I look over your work, you've done a lot of interesting collaboration with Mat, for SND. Once you started doing solo releases, a lot of your "solo releases" are actually in combination with other people, in collaboration. What is it that collaborations do for you? And how do you search out the people that you're going to collaborate with?
Mark: Well, one thing about collaborations is, when things get difficult, you've got someone else to fall back on. It's like, I remember I did a record with Sasu Ripatti. I was struggling. I was like, "Oh God." And Sasu was just like, "Hang on a minute. Just let me have a go." And it's like, oh wow, he really, really knows what he's doing with this. And it was like, thank God, I couldn't have done that.
And the same, I did a thing with Errorsmith and it was like, when the going got too tough for me, I was like, "Okay, I'm on the sofa," and Eric would kind of have that extra energy of bringing it together. And so there's that, that you've got someone else to help and you've got support. And then the other thing is it's just nice hanging out with people. I'd rather be in a studio with some other people and then you've the session's done and you go for food and you're having a laugh.
A really good one was this thing I did with Oren Ambarchi and Will Guthrie and Osama Shalabi. We did this project called Oglon Day. For two days we were just joking the whole time and it was just really good fun, you know? And actually most of my social life is through work, I don't really have friends that are just normal friends. So I kind of rely on work to have a social life. Like right now, I'm working with this ensemble, yesterday I was working with this pianist, and just to learn what... a bit of what it is to be a pianist. It's like, oh God, there's this thing, and you can do this with the sustain pedal, or there are these concerns. Just the complexity of how that whole world functions, that was completely unknown to me before.
Darwin: You talked before about not only this ensemble you're working with now, but you've done a couple of album releases, I think in particular you have the Intra album, where you're working with acoustic musicians. How do you convey your work to them? I think of you as being a laptop person, that's got weird, algorithmic things happening in Max/MSP. It's not like you can show the patch to a pianist to have them work it out. How do you convey your work to have them perform it?
Mark: Well, each time I do it it's different. Yesterday, the pianist said to me... she's brilliant and this isn't a criticism of her. She was like, "I don't really know what we're doing. It's just a bit... I'm confused." And I was like, "Yeah, I am as well." And then the leader of this ensemble was like, "So what we're going to do? How are we going to get out of this?" And I was like, "I don't know, we're just going to keep doing stuff and see what happens, you know?" And so the methodology comes out through the process of the encounter and then from that comes some work. But so there isn't a kind of preset sort of way of doing anything. And I think that's what appeals to me, that every encounter is new. And even the people within this ensemble - so I've worked with three of them so far, and we're working individually at this point. Each one is completely different, you know?
And what I've realized is I'm not really... to them I'm the composer or I'm the director or whatever. But to me, I feel much more like a coach or something. I don't feel like I'm the one controlling everything, I feel like... surely, I have got an authority or something that I can't deny, but it feels to me that I'm much more in a position of like, responding to what I'm getting from them, if you see what I mean? But yeah, when we did the Intra stuff, so Rian was there as well, and we were in their studio for a few days trying stuff.
I think one important thing for me is to get over the boredom barrier. To get to a place where boredom doesn't count anymore. Do you see what I mean? For a lot of performers, like these guys, the percussion guys from Porto, it was like, they were a bit surprised by just how little I wanted them to do, if you see what I mean?
Darwin: Oh, I see. Right, okay.
Mark: And it's like, we don't have to be constantly aware of the audience might get bored. Like my job, I feel like my job is to get the audience through that boredom threshold, into a place where... Boredom exists because you're constantly trying to entertain people. Do you know what I mean?
Darwin: Yeah. Well, it explains you're innate distaste of classical music.
Mark: Yeah. Yeah. And obviously there are people within that contemporary classical frame.
Darwin: That are pushing the envelope in that, right, yeah.
Mark: Especially the minimalists of the mid-20th century in New York and stuff were doing that. But yeah, it's like I think getting to that point where... Also, this is the lesson I learned with SND, that you don't have to have all these frilly bits of like, "Oh, we've got some space, so let's put that in there and let's put that." It is what it is and just deal with it. There are people who don't like that. But I think at some point you cross that threshold of where boredom isn't a consideration anymore. Because I do think people just get bored because they're constantly bombarded with things that just are changing all the time, you know?
We want a film like this, where every shot lasts three seconds and there's dialogue everywhere. And it's like, but let's have things that last a bit longer and let's have some silence in there and some space and just get used to it. Just get over it. And I think that's important.
Darwin: When you listen to music for yourself then, what do you listen to? And maybe more importantly even, where do you listen? I mean, are you a person who listens when you're driving around or when... you wear headphones when you go for a walk? Do you have like a listening room at your house where you sit back and enjoy? Or do you avoid listening to music in general? Different people have different responses to that. I'm really curious.
Mark: Well, I don't drive. This is, I guess, really unusual for someone in America to find that there's an adult who doesn't drive. But I don't drive. And I walk around a hell of a lot. We live near the Peak District in the North of England. This is a big national park.
So I'm out there the whole time and the thought of wearing headphones and listening to music while I'm out there is horrific. There's a weird thing that happens when you're out in somewhere very still and remote that your whole... you sense of hearing sort of changes. You become aware of the silence. And I think even if I went out there with someone, if I took a friend out there and they put headphones on, I'd actually be offended by that. I'd be like, "Stop filling it with nonsense." But having said that, I do listen to music loads. A really brilliant radio station, NTS. Do you know this London based-
Darwin: I don't, no.
Mark: ... NTS? So we tend to have NTS on the whole time.
Darwin: Is that N-T-S? Or N-
Mark: N-T. So that's on quite a lot in our house. And the that's a really great way of encountering new music, because basically the people that present the shows are just like, "I'm the of jazz freak," or whatever. Actually it's this guy, Greg Davis. Do you know who Greg Davis is?
Darwin: I know of him, yes. I haven't met him.
Mark: Yeah, he did a... with someone else, did a show, an Indian classical music show, and we listen to that a hell of a lot. And then course I'm caring for my elderly parents, and my mom's got dementia. Music's a really important thing for her. So we tend to listen to a lot of... She loves dub reggae.
Darwin: Oh, interesting. Wow.
Mark: Which is quite unusual, I guess. So we listen to a lot of Lee "Scratch" Perry.
Darwin: Well, congratulations, because all the elderly parents that I care for, all they want to listen to is fricking Fox News. So good on you for having a good taste profile there.
Mark: I think I've got unusual parents. They're very working class from extremely poor backgrounds, grew up with nothing. But I don't know what it was, but I think somehow before I was born, they're not hippies or anything. I think they just have this alternative set of values that came from somewhere. But yeah, also in addition to dub reggae, my mom likes Hawaiian guitar. So we listen to loads of Hawaiian guitar and jazz, she likes jazz. She grew up in Leeds, which is quite a cosmopolitan city in the North of England. And in the '50s jazz was a big thing.
Darwin: I see. Interesting.
Mark: So yeah, we listen to a lot of music in this house and we also play a lot of music, so we've got lots of instruments around. I don't play anything, but I make sound on at. I have a go. I recently bought... What is it called? The kind of dulcimer. Santur! So recently I had one made in Tehran and got it shipped over. And that arrived. Just things like that. The house is constantly full of music, basically.
Darwin: That's beautiful. That's beautiful. Well, man, I want to thank you for your time. I look at the clock and we have way shot over our time. I appreciate your discussion always just really fabulous and really, really inspiring. Thank you so much for that.
Mark: Thanks. And I hope it was... yeah-
Darwin: Oh, it was awesome.
Mark: ... I could have tried harder, I think. Sorry about it.
Darwin: Okay, with that, we'll say goodbye.
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