Ever since the mid-90s, Warp stalwart Tom Jenkinson aka Squarepusher has been the embodiment of witty, cutting-edge electronic experiments, crafting a template for generations of musicians in the field of bleeps and clonks. Starting out under the wings of fellow visionary Aphex Twin, the multi-instrumentalist, bass virtuoso has been re-defining the DNA of electronic music with surgically precise examinations of jazz and breakbeat heritage for musically rich drill‘n’bass and beyond. Listen to the audio version of the chat on RBMA Radio.
RBMA: One of the interesting things about British music is the long, fascinating arc of dance music. It seems fairly obvious that your music engages with that directly, and certainly when you first started releasing records that would have been about the peak of the jungle era. So, what’s your history with these kinds of music in particular?
SQUAREPUSHER: I suppose regarding what we loosely might call dance music, I used to hate it as a kid. I thought it was rubbish. As a teenager I encountered a couple of things that made me reassess that. Things like Newbuild by 808 State, LFO. Suddenly, it became clear to me that digging beneath the surface, it was a fascinating world of music out there, and I haven’t looked back, obviously. But yeah, some key things that really changed my whole outlook on music, really. In the 80s, prior to that, cassettes of old electro and hip hop stuff that was using drum machines, but I think when I really started to take that method of making music seriously – using programming – was this, as I say, moment, hearing things like Newbuild and LFO. Because it seemed that they were so vivid and so emotionally powerful, and I think that’s what a lot of the stereotype, if you like, against music made with electronics or particularly dance music was – that it was just vapid, empty, vacuous trash. And this completely blew that opinion out of the water. So, that was probably some of the earliest bits, then the breakbeat stuff that was getting into its stride in the early 90s, what people used to call hardcore, although that term can mean any number of different things, but at that point is what people were referring to the kind of breakbeat music on records like Chill, Back 2 Basics, all that kind of stuff, which then gradually morphed into jungle with the addition of various other things.
“I think there’s a massive amount of conservatism in the world of music education, which makes me grateful that I’ve never had anything to do with it. I’ve learned what I’ve learned out of enthusiasm.”
You know, I switched in and out of it. There’s bits of it that, quite frankly, I just thought was crap. And bits that still inspire me to this day. I take it fairly much on face value. I’m not gonna be persuaded that just because a certain person did it that it’s gonna be good. My whole approach to music is derived from listening to music on the radio. Just scanning through the radio as a kid, so I’d hear things and if the DJ didn’t announce it, or happen to say it in that little frame of time where I was listening to that station, I wouldn’t know what it was. So, it’d just go on cassette, unknown piece of music. Wouldn’t know where it was from, who made it. And it set the mentality for me that I never really cared about who made, I didn’t care where it was from. I suppose radio presented me with this kind of unified surface of music, that’s worldwide, obviously. These days I obviously know much more about the history of these things and these pieces that I didn’t know what they were, now know what they are and the background, but fundamentally, it’s still what happens in that moment when you stick it on.
RBMA: Obviously you’re famous for being a bassist. You don’t really seem like the kind of bassist that’s self-taught. I could be wrong.
SQUAREPUSHER: You are wrong, in that respect. [laughs] I’m sad to say. I mean, I don’t know, really. I quite like the fact that I’m not taught by someone. Particularly these days, we’re witnessing a sort of professionalisation of musicianship, and it’s good in the sense that people will find it more straightforward to get work. You can read music, you’ve got the scales so you can adapt. You can understand how different harmonic structures work. But for me the downside which rules out all of those kinds of benefits is the fact that everyone sounds like they’re the same person. And everyone plays in the same way, and the teachers convey idioms as if it’s gospel. And no, that’s just what some guy did in the early 80s that everyone else copied. He had an idea, or she had an idea that was inspiring, and everyone now just treats it like it’s a guidebook. I think there’s a massive amount of conservatism in the world of music education, which makes me feel quite grateful that I’ve never had anything to do with it, to be honest. I’ve learned what I’ve learned out of enthusiasm. The downside for me is there’s massive gaps in my knowledge. But they’re gaps in my knowledge to do with things that I don’t care about. In that respect, so what?
RBMA: You’re talking about an academic approach to music, which is generally associated with the conservatory. But you’re often cited as being a fan of musique concrète. obviously that came completely out of this. How about those two opposing points?
SQUAREPUSHER: Yeah, as you say, musique concrète, very much a creature of the academic sphere of music. But the area which I feel much less enthusiastic about is the kind of rock school, academic approach to music. Teaching you how to play hip, or play funky, or play jazz. Play music that was born out of quite a rough and ready experience and try to translate it, turn it into margarine, turn it into a formula. As I say, overall, knowledge is king. Education is key to everything. BUT the classical form of musical education, I’m not making a comment on. I’m just making a comment on what would happen, say for example, if a kid went to music school and wanted to learn to play bass. Because they’d be feeding him Jaco Pastorious chops like it was the thing you’ve got to do. But it’s like, no you don’t. You pick it up, you experiment with it, you start playing sounds, you play sounds you like, you follow your nose, you go from there. It’s all those strictures, I think, are completely going against, and drain actually, the lifeblood and spirit of the music they’re deriving their rulebook from. Maybe classical music is more apt for that, but as I say, I’m not making a comment on that. I was really just making a comment on what seems to happen to kids when they go to get taught how to play instruments from the rock n roll category. It doesn’t seem to do them any good.
RBMA: What about jazz? It sounds very evident in your work. And you’ve been called a fusionist many times.
SQUAREPUSHER: [laughs] I’m not sure how happy I am about that. The concept of fusion I think is fantastic, and I suppose – people would probably differ on it – but the first fusion record, Miles was making all the brave moves in the early days for that music, In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew, bringing in instruments from the rock n roll camp, category, and integrating that into the jazz setting. But it seemed to turn into margarine too quickly. It just turned into TV theme music. I mean Bitches Brew is quite a visceral, aggressive, quite brave record. And then you’ve got Weather Report. What happened in the middle? [laughs] I mean, like Mahavishnu certainly could be accused of self-indulgence almost all the way through the tracks, but is pretty aggressive, pretty full-on music in places, and I think John McLaughlin’s a good composer, as well. I think the more that phase in music progressed, the worse it got. It just turned into dross, just smoothed out – margarine.
RBMA: And how do those ideas apply to your music, if at all?
SQUAREPUSHER: Well, I like to try and avoid making dross. [laughs] If I can. That’s one way of applying the principle or learning the lessons. As far as I’m concerned, I’ve never made a fusion track. I’ve certainly never intended to. The area of fusion where jazz bleeds into other music that I’ve referred most to is more like soundtrack music. For me, Hard Normal Daddy, for example, I daresay has been accused of having references to that kind of music, to these kind of fusion-y type records, but for me the references were more like the Death Wish soundtrack from Herbie Hancock, or something like that. Or cop themes, the kind of TV funk, rather than TV jazz, if there’s a difference – I think there is. [laughs] Say for example, Music Is Rotted One Note, the references would be, I suppose, something like musique concrète, but also trying to work with that idea of making jazz bleed out into other areas of music, but keeping it from becoming just a unified pap. Keeping it strange, keeping it frightening, keeping it dark and aggressive. Those are the things which fascinate me about that combination that Miles was so pioneering in the late 60s or early 70s.
RBMA: Your first album, the lead track was called “Squarepusher Theme”. By title alone, that sounds like a manifesto. What would that manifesto be?
SQUAREPUSHER: Probably pretty selfish, I just want to stay interested, enjoy myself. I’m not going to make music for commercial gain, but also I’m not going to make it just to be part of a scene or be popular. My external concerns are… well, they’re always on the list somewhere, because you can’t make music and survive on nothing, but I’ll always try and keep experimenting. You could say that’s selfish, I’m just like entertaining myself, but actually you can frame any kind of music-making endeavour as self-indulgent. If I was just like wheeling out copies of Big Loada, it would probably be bliss for a certain section of my audience. It’s actually letting a lot of other people down. It’s just sort of, what have I brought to the table? If that’s all I did, made one record and then just replicated it. I think that’s what a lot of people do and I’ll always avoid it, because that for me is the definition, the paradigm of self-indulgence. Cause you just want to stay there, you want people to keep loving you, and if you make experiments you always risk that. You always risk throwing it away, but I’ll stake everything on it every time. Absolutely.
RBMA: I do think that your body of work would come across as, I’d use the word ‘uncompromising’. There’s quite a lot of artists who do that, but quite a lot them can’t make a living from that, and they’re certainly not popular. You have a decent following, your music is popular. Do you want to comment on that?
SQUAREPUSHER: To me, it’s like the holy grail. Because there’s a lot of people who would say that being popular is bad. Like once you’re popular, you’ve sold out, once you’ve sold a lot of records you’re conservative. I don’t see that link, there’s no necessary link in there. It happens quite often, yes, of course it’s the case. People that sell stacks of records are making crass rubbish. But I don’t see any necessary link, and again I think Miles said as much, not that I can quote him directly. But actually I’m going to avoid referring to that and just simply say, why wouldn’t you want to sell a lot of records? Why wouldn’t you want to get your work out to as many people as you can? As long as you haven’t ruined it in the process. And I’m not doing anything different to what I would if I was not making records at all. If I wasn’t selling them, that’s what I’m saying. I’m following my nose, that’s the only thing that I’ll rely on in order to do my work. The plans, trying to pin a structure on it, trying to pin a career path on it or pin an aesthetic on it, I’m not interested in doing. I just want to keep moving, keep interested. But to boil that down and say, how did I get away with it, and still sell a load of records? I don’t know. It’s just ridiculous, innit? [laughs] Quite lucky, I suppose. That’s probably about it. [laughs]
RBMA: What parts of your very long career do you look back on with the most fondness – for either personal or aesthetic reasons?
SQUAREPUSHER: Well, making Music Is Rotted One Note was quite a special time, but there’s a lot I could say about every phase. The phases, I suppose, I wouldn’t say so much about are just the phases where I didn’t end up releasing a record, because I didn’t think that anything that I’d done in that phase was worth really showing the world or talking about. It tends to be the things I put out that correspond with a sense of enthusiasm and enjoyment and fulfillment and fun that I’ve had making it. That’s where I suppose I derive at least some of my conviction to release it. And actually sometimes people will say, “You should release that,” and I’ll be like, “Nah, don’t want to release it,” and they say, “Yeah, you should.” And I think again, and maybe their opinion will influence my own. But Music Is Rotten One Note was quite a special time, because that was the first time I’d actually got a studio together – well, I had all the instruments that a band would use in the ensemble that I’d envisaged, which was this moody, rock-influenced jazz ensemble with the Rhodes and guitars, keyboards and drums and whatever. But got the whole thing in one room, and that’s when I was trying to do the thing of being a band, but being one person, but trying to emulate different personalities on different instruments. The fact that I had a vision for it, and I thought, “This is just going to be impossible. This is going to take me years,” and I did it and ended up doing it in six months. And just learnt so much in that time, it was so rewarding, it certainly stands out as a phase.
“I was trying to do the thing of being a band, but being one person, trying to emulate different personalities on different instruments.”
When I make a record, when I’m getting going in the studio, I’m always trying to explore something. I’m always trying to get away from what I’ve done before, trying to correct the mistakes that I’ve made, if you like. In a way, I see my career as like, it’s just a litany of errors. Just this mass of mistakes, and when I make one record I feel I’m trying to correct the wrongs of the one that went before it. And part of that process is learning more stuff, learning new things, learning about new ways to do things – in terms of harmony, whatever. So, each experience, I suppose, is kind of special in that respect.
RBMA: I think Ultravisitor is a really interesting album. I read an interview where you said that “50 Cycles” took the longest to make than any other piece that you’d ever done. And that quite a lot of the pieces on that album took a very long time. Why? How did that process differ from the rest? What was the struggle?
SQUAREPUSHER: I suppose in some way it was just an outgrowth of the phase which I’d set in motion with Go Plastic and Do You Know Squarepusher of trying to get ever more clinical, ever more synthetic, ever more plastic, ever more fake, if you like. Trying to concoct something, which is impossible. Concoct something which is just ridiculous. I suppose a quite simple way of realising that idea is through detail. I don’t mean detail, though, like, trying to ram it in your face. Although I think some of the pieces I like less from early in my career are the pieces where it does feel like a drum kit falling down the stairs. I think there are ways that you can get detail in and convey an extremely intense atmosphere without resorting to something as simplistic as that. Like, say for example on “50 Cycles”, I was just working with thousands and thousands of fragments of sound. And it was, as I say, very much derived out of desire to make music like a scientist, or like a plastic surgeon, rather than an artist. I mean, I never wanted to be an artist, anyway. I don’t even like being called a musician. I like the idea of putting things together so that there’s a structure, but the structure is actually ultimately unknowable, the detail recedes off into the distance. There’s sort of a description in The Castle by Franz Kafka: the main character picks up the phone, he’s trying to communicate with these people in the castle, in the story, and there’s just hundreds of voices receding off into the distance, this blur of sound, if you like. And I always remembered that as quite an inspiring idea – that there’s sound which you can never see the furthest point, it just disappears into the distance. I love that idea. And that’s one of the attractions of working with an extreme level of detail, that you can have the obvious things in front of you, and then yet actually the detail reaches a vanishing point and you can’t actually see where it stops. And pieces like that were really trying to explore that idea.
RBMA: You’ve also said that your mode of composition involves numbers and logical number relations, which you’ve sort of restated there. So, that’s obviously still in your head, but you talked about how you’re self-taught as a bassist and instrumentalist, so that would require hours of improvisation. How does the state of improvisation on an instrument compare to this notion of very logical, mathematical, controlled, almost-laboratory situation?
SQUAREPUSHER: For me, improvisation is having a command of all those relationships, but it’s a developed form of that command – which means that you’re not considering it moment to moment. You’re not actually picturing each phase of the story as you tell it. You’re not actually seeing each relationship in front of you as you convey it through the instrument, you’re not seeing this structure or that. It’s, I suppose, akin to the way a sportsman would make calculations about where to put the ball. They just know where to put their foot, and they do all the advanced mathematical calculations in an instant. It’s the same thing. Maybe it’s not the same, but at least there’s something in there that makes me think there’s a valid comparison of some kind, because I’m trying to explore number relationships, but I’m also trying to operate with them fluently, so it doesn’t sound like it’s maths. Because I don’t think maths in itself is actually what… that’s not music. It’s not sufficient for music. There’s something else. And that’s the mentality of the listener, the processing. Yes, you could boil down all these notes and their relationships into a mathematical description, but actually there’s always something beyond that. And the fascinating thing for me is the way these relationships act as routes to an emotional spectrum. That absolutely fascinates me, and that emotional spectrum, the way you link through to it, is always subtly changing. But the vocabulary, if you like, of the emotions is static. There’s no new feelings, but what fascinates me is that there are new routes to them, through music.
Title image by David Milne.