Thursday, 28 August 2014

Jonah Sharp interviewed

The following interview was transcribed from a telephone conversation on 15th March 2014.

Q: What was your entry point to music because you were a drummer to begin with? Is that right?

A: Yes I was born in Edinburgh, Scotland and I was playing in punk bands since I was 14...15. I'm 50 now so I went to see The Buzzcocks, The Clash, Generation X, The Specials, Selecter, Madness...you know I was really lucky enough to catch all of that energy from the late '70s, early '80s. I was pretty serious about it but I wasn't sure it was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I went to art college to do film making in Newcastle.

Q: That's where I'm calling from.

A: You're in Newcastle? No way.

Q: Monkseaton, near Whitley Bay.

A: Wow! I love it out there. I love Whitley Bay. Yeah. Newcastle was great. I remember when Riverside opened...the club. Is it still there?

Q: No. They have Riverside reunion nights but they don't hold it in the same place.

A: That was a big deal when that opened up because there wasn't really anything. There wasn't a huge amount. There was no venue big enough for any band to really play at unless they were at the City Hall. A lot happened in Newcastle for me. I loved going up there and art college and I played with a lot of bands there. After I left college I actually stuck around for about two or three years because it was such a good local scene. I was hanging around with lots of great people.

There was a breakdance club, we're talking '83, '84. I can't remember the name but it was downtown. It was something like Tiffany's. It was really popular and there were 100 or 200 really dedicated kids breakdancing. I didn't actually breakdance but loved the music. They would play Egyptian Lover and all of that kind of stuff. That was a really big scene in Newcastle.
Q: My next question was going to be what were your early musical influences but I think you've kind of semi- answered that...

A: English bleak young men. Gang of Four, The Cure, Cabaret Voltaire as I said, Public Image, Ultravox with John Foxx in there. That was pretty good. I wasn't mad about Ultravox later on. Yes: anybody who was using synths, drum machines, as it was just something different.
I remember going down to Sheffield to see Cabaret Voltaire and Human League and all this kind of stuff going on at Sheffield Polytechnic and The Leadmill. I went there to see Cabaret Voltaire...before I moved to London, which I guess was in about '85, '86. Those Cabaret Voltaire shows really really got to me. It was something different. There was kind of art school super 8 movie montages but with music running at the same time. I think it was ahead of its time. It was the first time I really heard a drum machine loud. They had a Linn drum at the point and Richard Kirk nervously chain smoking on stage - it totally blew me away - for them to get up there and make it all happen live.

I was into jazz as well. I was into all kinds of stuff but the early north England electronic music scene was particularly inspiring. I never really got into Depeche Mode: that kind of poppier stuff but was looking for anything more edgy: Gang of Four...

Q: Well Depeche Mode got a bit edgier later on? But the Vince Clarke stuff was a bit poppier...

A: It was. I mean I liked the way he did it. I liked the sounds that they were getting. I didn't have a problem with Yazoo so much but I think Depeche Mode and all that kind of stuff...the people that were really poppy. That didn't really grab me. I appreciated it, though.

I moved south and continued my music in London where I began stage two. That's where I got into breakbeat music and dance music and also where I really became aware of machines and synthesisers.

Q: I'd read somewhere that you were a drummer with an acid jazz band in the late '80s. Is that right?

A: Well, yes. When I moved to London I started doing jazz gigs in small West End clubs in Soho and private clubs. I got to play with some great musicians. There was a band called The Humble Souls on the Acid Jazz label and I drummed for them and we did a couple of tours. We actually opened up for Norman Cook and his band Beats International...
Q: Before Freakpower...

A: Yes. That was good. They were really nice guys. It was pop music but it was really good, what they were doing. We did a couple of college tours with them. Also at this time in London there was Gilles Peterson up at Camden Lock. He's great. Really good. I remember going to see him DJ in Camden on a Sunday afternoon at Dingwalls.

Anyway, that scene: I got involved was just because I was a drummer. I wasn't heavily into the scene; it was way too fashion conscious - it was just because I could play. There was something kind of missing for me but it was very healthy. It was like a big explosion of energy, good musicians. I remember Jamiroquai and meeting him in the Acid Jazz office. They were like: this kid's going to be massive and he was this really friendly, talented kid really nice. There was a band called The Sandals and band member Ian Simmonds ran a club called The Gardening Club in Covent Garden...that was probably '88, '89. Ian Simmonds the DJ and I always thought he was really good: mixing it up - funk, rare groove and other stuff but of course at that time the whole Acid House scene exploded - a very exciting time in London and suddenly the dance music scene definitely got to me musically. I felt I could get involved and perhaps contribute, so that was quite a big change.

Q: That was my next question. What was the catalyst that moved you over to being involved with electronic music so you anticipated the next question there, yes...
A: Well I had a drum machine already and I was using a drum machine with drumming. I had little Simmons electronic drum pads and that was part of my sound. Inspired by New Order and that kind of sound. So there was that electronic element and incorporating that into my drumming. I worked with this guy, his name was Sean McClusky. He was in a band called The JoBoxers, I think but he was running the Brain club on Wardour Street. It was a dance club. He went around inviting people to come and play live. That's where Orbital, Ramjac and Mixmaster Morris used to play and it was all live hardware. I got really in to that scene. That was when I thought: I want to be part of this. It was pretty easy to be part of it because most of the people who were playing had just started. They hadn't been doing it for years and they'd just bought samplers so it was quite a new thing.
Q: So it was almost a bit like punk: a sort of DIY ethic?

A: Yeah. I mean: you just needed a drum machine and a sampler and a bit of imagination and you could make noise and I can remember seeing people just playing with an Akai sampler and a 909 and that just blew me away. That's when I met Mixmaster Morris. He used to play live and he was friends with the band The Shamen. I was very interested in them because it was sort of indie rock and they were morphing in to a more electronic sound. I was really into what they were doing, mixing machines and guitars. Soon after that the first rave that I played at was called The Pirate Club or something and it was on a boat on the Thames. That was about '88, '89. The promoter had a rave club and he said: we'll do this massive rave on a boat...

Q: Sounds like 1977 all over again?

A: Yeah (laughs). Anyway, he said: we need somebody for the ambient room and I said: that's me. I'll do that and I can remember Jimmy Cauty from KLF was there and he played some stuff off DAT tape. I think it was
Chill Out, the album and I was like: Wow! Wow! This is amazing! So that was kind of like more of a sense of purpose: you know, to get creative. But while the chill-out room was establishing itself upstairs in the main room it was all breakbeat, hardcore. Things were getting really crazy: out of hand with the tempos. It was sort of turning in to drum and bass. Hardcore! All of the music seemed to be getting frantic and at the same time the chill out room was getting more and more popular because the music was crazy upstairs. Do you remember that tune that went "Mr. Kirk -  Your Son is Dead Bam! Bam Bam!"

Q: (Laughs) Your son is dead? By who, sorry? I don't actually but now you've said that I'll look it up.

A: There's this voice sample: Mr. Kirk...your son is dead. It's a really good track and actually it's originally 4 Hero who did that track and I only found that out about 10 years ago. Wow! That was 4 Hero the whole time and it was like breakbeat before drum and bass...also there was The Moody Boys. That was Tony Thorpe and that fast breakbeat thing, where it was more interesting but for the most part the stuff played on the main dance floor was just doing my head in. I couldn't really take it. Meanwhile bands like Black Dog were picking up on the Detroit sound...for me that was way more interesting. It was the start of ambient techno. I thought Black Dog were the best thing in the world because they were taking all of these elements and making something new...it was just so much more interesting and mysterious.
Then I got this opportunity to come to San Francisco...about '91, '92. I got a gig out here and I thought: this is great and I'm staying here! The weather was incredible and also the dance music...the party scene, rave had literally just started. The Americans were always a little bit late to pick up the things that come out of Britain and there was a bunch of Irish guys here who were basically starting this whole movement and I kind of got sucked into that very quickly. The minute I got here I was offered a residency in a night club, DJing and I was making money - straight off and then I met my wife in L.A. and she got pregnant and had the kid so that was it. I've got to stay.

Q: There's worse places to have to stay than San Francisco (laughs).

A: Yes. Then I founded my label, Reflective Records and put out my first record as Spacetime Continuum and was somehow surprised that people picked up on it, as it was fairly out there. I sold it to a distributor in New York - a guy called Harry the Bastard who was the buyer for a distributor called Watts. They were the main exporters to Europe of U.S. dance vinyl and  he was selling it to Germany and England. He bought 800 copies of my record, which blew me away and it sold out instantly. Next thing I knew it was getting reviewed in Melody Maker and suddenly the label was getting attention.
Q: Which record was that?

A: It would have been the Spacetime Continuum Flurescence EP. Reflective 01. We sold out of that and I thought great - we can makes some records with new artists. At about the same time David Moufang knocked on my door where I lived was also my label address - he literally just showed up and I thought: who the hell is this guy. It was kind of funny because that night Autechre were playing around the corner and we all went to see them and it was me, David and about four other people. It was a Friday night bridge and tunnel crowd. They weren't interested in Autechre. They were playing and nobody got it but we thought: this is great. Autechre had heard my record from all the way out here at the edge of the world and that was how the whole thing kind of started. Then I guess David told Pete Namlook about me back in Germany and I found out about the Fax label. Soon after we flew Pete out here for his first U.S. show in San Francisco. It was called The Ambient Club and we also had Mixmaster Morris come out here. I used to actually throw parties here back then in '92, '93. We flew Morris out for a really big event.
Q: Presumably Charley Uzzell Edwards would have been somewhere in there?

A: Oh yes: Charley was working with me at that time. We did the ambient club together, me and Charley and he something called The Gardening Club, which was really good. I was one of the kind of rotating residents. Yes: he was very much a part of what was going on and that's when he met Pete. Pete flew out on his own and he was really keen to meet me and work and I wasn't very used to: just turn on the machines and do it in one shot. That to me was...

Q: Yes. I get that impression from the interviews that I've done that his is a very spontaneous approach.

A: Well yes but also it was a very important thing to him that when he put his fingers on the keys the tape was rolling. There was never five hours of noodling around to see what to do before we pressed record. He was just kind of: let's go, which I found kind of startling but really rewarding because we got good results and he really taught me about: follow your improvisational...
Q: Instincts?

A: ...and just kind of do it. Be confident in that way. The album that we did together was called Alien Community. I didn't even know he was recording. After 10 minutes I said OK: let's record and he said: I am already recording.

Q: (Laughs)
A: It was all learning - a real awakening. It was about getting in the moment, getting in the zone and Pete taught me that but also before even that, when David came and knocked on my door we decided to record in my studio, which was in my house and we recorded half of the first Reagenz album. We did about four of the tracks at that time. My studio was so primitive back then I didn't have a computer at all - just a bunch of machines and I'd go straight to DAT tape and I'd set everything up and just record the mix...everything straight off and we recorded half of the first Reagenz album and we did more than play around a little bit and then press record. It wasn't so simple but it was really obvious that we had something going on because it happened so quickly. I mean he's my hero. David is a great musician. He's got a great attitude, very easy to work with. It was '94, I think, and I got invited to play at the Love Parade in Berlin as part of The Interference Festival along with Richie Hawtin, Pete Namlook, Deep Space Network, Air Liquide, Sun Electric, Dr. Atmo - great names. They really managed to just throw all of the right people together. What was happening there was astounding: how kind of involved things were in Europe. Having left Europe for a couple of years - coming back how things had evolved really blew me away and I've always drawn a lot of inspiration from Germany, England and Japan: the way people have an appreciation of music: very different to here. At that time Pete was barreling along with his label and releasing a record a week.

Q: He was at one stage as well, yes.

A: He was, yes. He really was and that's when I met Tetsu Inoue and did a couple of albums with him.

Q: That's awesome. I've had Electro Harmonix on this week. I've had it on in the evenings. It's a great one for after work if you're exhausted. That's an incredible album.

A: I've got to listen to that again. I was going to dig out that stuff and listen to it again but it's in my basement. At the time everyone was working with each other: Tetsu and Namlook, me and Tetsu, Namlook/Reagenz and Namlook/Laswell. Then Bill Laswell called me and I was like: f***. It's f****** Bill Laswell! ...and he'd done a thing with Pete and he wanted to work with me and he was working with Tetsu and we were all kind of working with each other. We were all  feeling the joy of recording and playing together. It was a great time for me musically and at the same time I got signed to Astralwerks, which was an American subsidiary of Virgin. I sent a demo tape to Astralwerks after I did a show with Terence McKenna who I'd met in California. That became my first album: a live record and that came out on a major label. They were very much a major label at the time so my music was all over Tower Records and HMV and high street shops -
it was like a whole different thing going on. It was in the mainstream, almost. It wasn't the mainstream but it was available, whereas the music I was releasing on my own label was only for the dance music shops and it was very limited so it was very good to get out there and get heard by everyone. That was the engine that Astralwerks had.
There were some really interesting things happening at the time in the early rave scene in America. People like Josh Wink, Richie Hawtin...stuff coming out of New York and there were all of these different scenes going, which was really an amazing thing. There was a musical revolution happening here and it was a little bit later than Europe. It was more like '93, '94 and I can remember going to play at these huge, huge raves in Miami and Chicago with Underground Resistance, Gemini and Paul Johnstone. I can remember playing in Chicago with Blake Baxter and I was in some kind of carpet warehouse outside town. They were illegal parties with 3000-5000 kids. It was a really strong thing that was happening here but at the same time I was going to Europe and Japan so I was kind of seeing everything at once at that time.

Q: It sounds like you've lived a life, being honest with you. It sounds pretty amazing the journey you had.

A: It was really interesting. I did an interview for a book that's coming out - a guy from the Village Voice in New York and he wrote a book about the early rave scene in America and he was picking my brains about three months ago about all of this stuff and he said to me you're one of the people that saw it all, travelling between countries. Some of those parties were just a nightmare. They were like military operations: get in, play and then get the f*** out.

Q: (Laughs)

A: It was like some scary assed warehouse in downtown Miami.

Q: Actually I went to Miami in the '80s and it's quite a scary city at times.
A: Yeah and also I remember going down to L.A. in '92 and I was hanging out with Psychic TV. They were living in San Francisco so Psychic TV and Spacetime ended up playing a lot of gigs together. I remember a party in downtown L.A. Tim Leary gave a lecture in the chill-out room and that was amazing. I met Tim Leary at that time. It was shortly before he died but he was really obsessed with the idea of the Internet and he saw it coming - he saw how it was going to change everything. That was all he could really talk about: the fact that the Internet was going to change the world and he also saw that at dance parties there was a real audience of forward thinking people that he could talk to. Interesting being in California at that time: Terence McKenna, Tim Leary and these people were firing on all cylinders. Very much part of the culture on the West coast.

Q: I bet you were wondering what the hell was going on. You were just a kid playing for some Acid Jazz bands in London and suddenly you have a two or three year journey which is like pow! You must have had a few moments where you slapped yourself and said what the hell...

A: Well yeah. I mean I just fell kind of lucky but I felt that it was a really good move to get out of London. It was all kind of completely accidental that I left. Also there is a lot of talk of come to California and you'll find gold. There is a lot of opportunity here. Everyone on the West Coast has come from somewhere and the landscape is always changing. Right now we're going through this moment where Facebook, Google, eBay, Amazon - you name it and they're here. They're right down the road and San Francisco is undergoing this huge transformation where you can only live here if you've really got a lot of money, whereas me: I've just been around for so long that I'm in a good situation but now the doors are closing unless you're involved in the tech industry or have some computer skills. I walk around San Francisco now and it's completely different to what it was then.
Q: Right. It's quite interesting actually because this week for my commute record I dug out Sea Biscuit and in the evenings I've been listening to Electro Harmonix and I was thinking about San Francisco and thinking: I bet it would be great out there. I started to think: I wonder what I'm doing here and then you say this to me and it makes me realise that often in life things are not quite what you think they are. Do you know what I mean?

A: It's true but then here, now a lot of artist and musician friends have had to move. They've moved to Oakland, which is kind of like moving to Brooklyn - Oakland across the bay or they've moved into L.A. The music scene in L.A. is really healthy now...really good. Labels like Plug Research. I would almost consider moving there. I don't really want to live there but it's like saying: where would I go next if I had to move. I couldn't really imagine being anywhere else. You know my kids finish high school in a couple of years and I'm actually considering moving back to Europe if I can make it work. My Mum is getting really old and she lives in Scotland and I really want to come back for...I don't know...a few years. It would be great to live In Britain or Europe...

Q: My wife's family are from...well one of them is from Ardrossan and the other one's from Glasgow so they've got a holiday home on the Isle of Arran.

A: Oh that's really beautiful. That's exceptional. My family are from Yorkshire. 

Q: So the early days of Fax...what do you remember about that. Was it just a question of when Pete contacted you you would work because when I spoke to David (Moufang) he said that...he suggested that you need to get in touch with Jonah...you need to get in touch with Morris. What do you remember about those early days? Was it a question of Pete would call you from time to time and say: let's work?

A: Pretty much. I mean the first time was with that Alien Community recording. He had captured my attention and I knew about him. I totally knew about him and his album Silence: I thought that was amazing. I was like: O.K. - this guy is for real. It was brilliant and I started collecting Fax CDs. I've got so many I haven't listened to half of them. I've got a very, very big box full of hundreds of Fax CDs. The way that Pete was so prolific is pretty fascinating to me, although I always remember saying to him: can we do like...two tracks...or three tracks this time instead of one track?

Q: (Laughs)

A: One track is usually about exploring one idea and when you get together in a session there is always more to explore. When I was in Germany I went to visit Pete because I'd actually fly to Europe quite a lot. I'd get booked to do shows in Europe and I'd always take the opportunity to work with whoever I was working with at the time. Me and David finished off the first Reagenz album in Heidelberg after the Love Parade - the show that we did together and I drove across Germany with my baby who was six months old. I went and recorded the rest of the album with David in his studio. It was so much more sophisticated than mine. He had a computer and a mixer...

Q: In Heidelberg?

A: Yeah. He had some great equipment and Pete's studio was also amazing. He was the guy who had every synth you could think of, so many that lots were stuck on the wall.

Q: I've seen pictures of it. Presumably you're talking about Frankfurt at this point in time?

A: Yes. His apartment in Frankfurt was where we recorded a bunch of stuff.
Q: Was that the address: Eulengasse? Was that the address with the Inoue album (62 Eulengasse)...was that actually his address at the time?

A: (Pauses to think) Yes.He had this beautiful apartment and he was so blown away by me being there and excited that he woke me up at 8 o'clock in the morning. (Does best Pete Namlook impression): "Hey Jonah! Come and help me make music!"

Q: (Laughs)

A: He was very business-like about it. It was a really methodical approach.
Q: Well I suppose to release an album a week you've got to be up at the crack of dawn, haven't you?

A: Yeah. He was really efficient with his time and the way he approached it. A lot of people would be pondering but he would just get on with it. We did the album Wechselspannung. It was kind of one big long track but it had lots of sections and I kind of initiated that. There were multiple tracks. We did Wechselspannung I and II and number II had...

Q: Breakbeats? I had it on this week and it's very rhythmic and kind of almost anticipates drum and bass, actually, I thought...

A: Yeah. Might have been the first time in to some pretty sophisticated computer work and computers for me at the time...I mean I still didn't have a computer.

Q: That was going to be one of my questions, actually because I was going to say that nowadays when you want to record you bang on Ableton or whatever but I was going to ask you about how you recorded music back then before the likes of Cubase and Ableton? I mean I'm probably a bit naive in that respect and I was going to ask you about how you went about doing it?

A:  Synths,  drum machines, a sampler, effects, a little mixer. I would set up all the gear live and just record on to DAT two track. I used a hardware sequencer: an Alesis MMT-8, which was a really cheap, simple sequencer and I would record a song four or five times. With my album Sea Biscuit a couple of them were done immediately but I'd set up the gear and then perform it. I didn't even edit stuff then. I didn't have any editing equipment.

Q: That is amazing because I've been listening to that this week and all the little details in there. I'm a fledgling electronic music maker and I'm listening to all of the detail and thinking how did you get that and to hear that you weren't even using computers at the time...
A: It was a live approach in the studio. I'd be playing a lot of live shows and you just get on stage and do it in the moment. You know that's a lot easier when you're collaborating with someone...you've got to be quite bold, quite confident. You've got to be in the zone. You've got to really keep your concentration but when you've got other people doing the same thing it's such fun. It's very rewarding so that's always been my approach. Around 2000 I kind of got sucked into the computer thing pretty heavily. I spent 10 years trying to make computers work for me as a live instrument and it just didn't work out so now for the last five years I've heavily gone back to my live analog process, which I started 20 years ago and it's amazing how obviously I've got a lot better at playing these instruments...for instance I've got an SH-101 and it's a very simple instrument but it's actually pretty hard to play live to make it do what you want. You really have to learn that machine and it's taken me all this time to really explore the machines and to feel confident that I can dial in anything I want. We  are definitely seeing a trend back towards hardware now. The whole laptop thing has become less interesting: to watch somebody perform on a laptop, especially in current EDM pop music. I think people's expectation will evolve and they will expect more from electronic musicians. The amount of new gear that's come out in the last few years is astounding: the amount of cool drum machines... Technology, where it's at right now - it's really exciting. There's this whole kind of modular synth craze, which is pretty exciting.
Q: Oh yes, yeah. I've got friend around the block and he has a Doepfer modular synth and he invites me around sometimes and we spend a couple of hours patching in wires (laughs).

A: Well I've been sucked into that world quite recently. There's the Eurorack format, which is that size. You've got all these different companies making that format. You can mix and match manufacturers now and there are companies making one filter and you can mix that with Doepfer. You can really customise synths. It maybe is not necessarily a synth. I've got a lot of audio processing modules. I like to process my drum machines through modules and right now there's just so much great technology to make it all work really well that we didn't have back then - the little clocking devices to synchronise things together and when you put that together with Ableton the sky is the limit. There's so much possibility right now. I'm actually very excited about where this whole technology electronic music hardware is going. It's getting very imaginative and really embracing the old technology. That has really come back.

Q: Well I suppose what you can do now is you can make analog synths or an approximation of analog synths but they're much more stable than they were 40 years ago.

A: Oh yeah and what it means is that musicians are developing very unique set-ups and subsequently making unique sounds. It's not all about buying Ableton and just using presets or dragging loops in from a browser. That's not really electronic music to me. Back in the day everyone had their own studios and their own set up, which defined their sound so everyone had a completely different and it's kind of getting back to that now instead of everybody using the same software. It's really where I am right now and I think it's really made it harder: having so much choice of software and that decision making that you have to make. O.K. I've got 5000 different kick drums. Which one do I use? That kind of thing can really slow things down so if you just say this is my drum machine and this is my synth and you should limit yourself to hardware...

Q: So sometimes less is more...

A: Yes. It will make you more creative, ultimately.

Q: So if we go back to Sea Biscuit...when you were recording that you didn't even have computers so what did you use to record that one then? Can you remember the equipment that you used to record that album?
A: Yeah. I had my Sequential Circuits Pro One, a 101, 909, 808, 606. I had a Prophet VS, I had a Juno 106. Two or three mono synths, a couple of poly synths, a few drum machines. I was using an MS-20 to process...a lot of the kind of crunchy sounds is stuff going through an MS-20. The MS-20...I never really used to play it...the keyboard...it was just audio processing: high pass, low pass filters. Yeah: I had an Eventide Harmonizer H3000, which had a lot of the effects on that. I borrowed that off someone. I had a huge pitched reverb and that's all over that album. That was the Eventide. I had a sampler for lots of funny little sounds. I'd kind of program a basic bassline, keyboard line, maybe program the sequencers and then all of the little details were little samples off my gear. I'd build a sound library from sampling my own synths - all the little sounds, all the little whooshes, echoey things. I would be very cautious about sampling other people. I would never really sample other people or rarely would I use a voice. I'd use a voice of...a recording of people in a room...or a field recording for ambience.

Q: The track Q11 there's something that sounds like an answerphone message?

A: Well that was actually a friend of mine who got framed and busted for LSD manufacture. He got 10 years in a Louisiana jail and he used to call me every week and that was actually him in jail. Q11 was his cell.

Q: Yes. I was wondering where that track title had come from. That was actually one of my questions and I would never in a million years have guessed that.
A: Yeah. I often use field recordings of different kinds of ambient noise in the back of a track. You know I would record a stream and then put it through a filter to create some kind of background noise but I wouldn't get too conceptual about where it's from or what it was. It was just to give it some air in the background. I had a portable DAT player and would go out and record all kinds of stuff and then the track Subway - I was on the subway in New York and I just recorded all kinds of background noise. That was kind of the inspiration for that track.

Q: What about Ping Pong?

A: Ping Pong? (laughs) Ping Pong had recordings of a ping pong game in it. My mates playing ping pong in the background.

Q: Yes, it does and you've kind of distorted it. It sounds like skyscraper-sized ping pong (laughs).

A: Yes you know it was just a recording and I thought O.K.: that sounds cool. That's the starting point. Now I think about it...yeah that was just using ambient sounds, real ambience around us as a starting point. Things sound so dry when you start with a synth and a drum machine and I'd just fill it out with something in the background.
Q: Something that's quite interesting actually when I listen to Sea Biscuit and Electro Harmonix and you can correct me here because I could be wrong but I kind of get a vibe of somebody who lives near the ocean from both of those albums. There's something tidal about some of the sounds..sort of whooshing sounds. I don't know whether I'm completely off the mark or whether something has seeped in to the music by osmosis but with both of those you get this feeling of ocean spray and beaches. Maybe I'm right, maybe I'm wrong?

A: Yes. Well there are some ocean sounds in there. I was always running around with a DAT player recording sounds around me but yes being next to the ocean on the Pacific side here is very awe inspiring. The coastline here is beautiful all up and down California. Yeah: it's definitely a powerful thing living next to an ocean...

Q: What's the track on Electro Harmonix? Is it called Morphing Cloud and I don't know whether that was you or Tetsu but I mean there's something about that...it sounds very tidal to me?

A: I've got to listen to that album because I haven't listened to that in a very long time.

Q: Well I've had it in my collection  for a while and I dug it out over the last week to have a listen again and thought: this has got to be one of my favourites.

A: Wow! That's great. Thank you. That was recorded in San Francisco, I believe and that was certainly the same equipment that I was using for all of the other stuff. The same gear but Tetsu actually moved to the Bay area at one point and he was living out here near the ocean.
Q: How long did he live out there for?

A: Oh. It was not that long. He sub let his New York apartment, his rental of his apartment and I actually hooked him up with a friend out in Marin County and he lived here. It was maybe a year, a couple of years. He wasn't happy in New York but he hung around here for a little bit. That must of been like '96, '97...
Q: Around the time of Instant Replay?

A: Instant Replay? Was that an album?

Q: Yes. It was.

A: Yes...yes. Tetsu is great. I lost touch with that guy. I wish I could find him...

Q: Well that was one of the questions I was going to ask you because no one can find him and people are quite concerned...

A: Yeah. Somebody asked me that about six months ago and I said: you know what? I haven't got a clue and I was looking all round the Internet and he had a little MySpace page a while ago and he didn't seem to be looking after that and I don't know where he is. I couldn't find him.

Q: Nothing has been updated. Anyone who has any sort of business correspondence with him doesn't get a reply. Musically nothing has surfaced for quite a long time. There has been all sorts of awful speculation that he might have been involved in the Japanese tsunami but maybe that's very wide of the mark. Maybe he's gone back to his family. I don't know but it's a bit of a matter of concern...unless he's just become a recluse and decided to step away from the music business. I don't know? It's unusual.

A: Yeah, I mean he was definitely a really interesting guy and he was very singular in his process. He was doing stuff with computers, using Max and Works MSP. Sort of way ahead - going in a different direction than me. He was definitely doing some cool stuff.

Q: Really very beautiful. The best way I can describe his stuff is that there's a real zen about it, some of it before he went...I mean the glitch stuff is a different ball game but I mean the ambient stuff is...I've been trying to figure out his working methods and how he makes that kind of incredible light, frothy, floating music. I don't know. It's a difficult one to figure out. He's certainly got a very idiosyncratic approach, that's for sure...
A: Yes. Well he had this thing called an Electro Harmonix looper, which is really rare. We used that for the process, record a synth sound and then run it through the looper and then re-loop it and re-record it until we came up with these fabulous textures and that Instant Replay was all about his looper. That was really a fantastic process that he had. With Instant Replay he sat down with this looper, creating textures from mixing just two second little synth loops. It was more like a five second loop or something but he'd loop it and then reverse it, pitch it up and down and then mix it with another loop and that's how he made a lot of those textures and I found it fascinating, working with someone with a singular process.

Q: How fascinating. That's really interesting because I was listening to it and I was wondering whether he makes the music with a computer: records it and then slows it right down. You listen to something like Ambiant Otaku or Electro Harmonix and you're thinking how on earth does he make a sound like this? That's really interesting.

A: I'm telling you his secrets but...

Q: Guess who's going on eBay straight after this (laughs).

A: They're really expensive, those things. They do a new one. There's a new Electro Harmonix looper that's very expensive. It's like a hardware looper. Human beat boxers use them. They're really cool. They're a really good way to make sounds.

Q: They should be paying you for this, the company that manufacture them. When I put this on the blog every other Fax fan is going to be going out and trying to buy one. Product placement (laughs).

Alright, well: to rewind a little you've got the two Alien Community records and they were San Francisco recordings. Is that right?

A: Ermm... Yes.

Q: And the Wechselspannung records were Frankfurt?

A: Yes.

Q: That's almost like Charley Uzzell Edwards because he did two series of records with Pete, one in San Francisco and one in Frankfurt as well. When you recorded those records...you've probably hit the nail on the head with what you've said but was it a question of you jamming alongside one another or did one of you typically set off before the other and did one of you instigate the recordings and set up the rhythmic structure and the mood...because typically with a lot of these collaborations you tend to find that Pete actually asked somebody else to start and added to what they'd done and the fact that those records, particularly the Wechselspannung ones are quite rhythmic to me it's not really typically Pete's trademark. It made me wonder whether you'd started them and then he'd added to what you'd done or...

A: That particular record I remember saying let's do something a bit different. You know the holding down a chord on a poly synth: to use that as a starting point...we'd done that on those other records.
Q: On the Alien Communities?

A: Yes. So with Wechselspannung he had this really sophisticated computer set-up and we made all the drum sounds with samples whereas it was me playing with synths...his incredible synth collection. I made all of these percussive sounds and he was just recording, recording, recording and chopping it and mapping it on a keyboard so it was like a computer sampler. I think it was Cubase he was using. I can't remember. It was all a mystery to me what he was doing. I was like: wow! You know: I don't even know where the hard drive is...

Q: (Laughs)

A: So he was making the content, very quickly chopping it up and mapping it on to a keyboard so we got a whole bunch of sounds from the Pro One and the OSCar synth and anything that sounded good in his room and it ended up being a sound bank on a keyboard. Then we started to program the beats, I think. I think he started on that 125 b.p.m. if I remember, sort of Kraftwerk-esque. I think he kind of instigated that and then I jumped on it. I'm all about electro.

Q: Yes because some of the stuff on those Wechselspannung records reminds me a little bit of Computer World?

A: Yes. It's definitely got that kind Kraftwerk groove.

Q: Like Home Computer: there's a section where it breaks down and it sounds like a production line in a factory and it definitely reminded me of that.

A: Yes. I mean Peter's process put together with what I was doing it kind of worked and what I like about working with people was that I always learn a hell of a lot. I mean: you never stop learning and when you're in the studio it's always fascinating because you always learn new tricks. Collaboration is always about learning. He had this incredible synth collection and there was a signature Namlook sound. I think if you had to pick one sound that was his then it was the EMS.
Q: Was that the briefcase synth that's a bit like a VCS3? Did he patch other synths into that or did that have a little keyboard in it?

A: He had the really nice deluxe version  that had the keyboard as well and when he came to San Francisco he turned up with that thing. When he played live that was his thing: the Pete Namlook sound, that lead...

Q: Ahh...I wondered what that was: that sort of lead sound and I wondered whether it was an Oberheim but...

A: He had this ring modulated (makes fluctuating sound).

Q: You kind of hear it on the Hawtin collaborations. There's kind of a lead sound. Is that what you're talking about?

A: Possibly, yes. It's really his signature sort of thing. You know: you hear it everywhere. So that was so expensive. I mean that was way out of my range. The kind of thing where I never even hoped to own one.

Q: The Krautrockers used them quite a lot, didn't they?

A: They're a really particular sound and they're very hard to operate. You've got to spend a lot of time with that machine before you can really do great things. There's a little matrix.

Q: Oh yes: I've seen that. It looks as if you're playing battleships. Yes: I can picture in my head what you mean.

A: If you want more than just drones you have to patch in an awful lot.
Q: So it doesn't sound like an angry wasp?

A: I had one of those. You know the Wasp synthesisers?

Q: Well there's a freebie you can download...

A: Well I had the original Wasp. That's actually one I forgot to mention. I bought it in London in the '80s. I bought it for twenty quid and I've still got it today.

Q: Wow. Twenty quid.

A: Yeah. It's made of plastic and really fragile.

Q: Twenty quid? I bet it would be more than that for one now.

A: They tend to go for £2000- £3000.

Q: Wow! I think you got yourself a bargain (laughs).

A: There was that time in the '90s when a lot of the analog stuff looked as if it was superseded.

Q: Yeah and it wasn't. Have you seen the documentary I Dream of Wires?

A: About modular synthesisers? I've seen a few...is that the one with Daniel Miller talking about Mute Records? That's very cool.

Q: Yes. He's in that...yes. There's a four hour version. The first two hours is a history of and the revival in the early '90s of the analog synth and the last two hours is blokes with oversized beards showing their set-ups. It does become an endurance event after the first three hours but it's worth seeing.

A: I should look that up: the four hour version.

Q: I think it's called the hardcore version or something like that (laughs). O.K. I'm looking at the questions now and seeing how far we've got. The Alien Community records: I was going to ask you about that. I read somebody online saying something about some...I don't know whether this is somebody who was speculating and guessing but he was talking about some sort of waveform equipment that was used on it or something? It was something that was over my head equipment-wise. Was there anything unusual in the set-up for those records...or? They're quite...in fact all of your collaborations with Pete are reasonably radical sounding, I think.

A: I think that we pulled something out of each other. I mean he very much does things on the spot and it makes you play differently. Just very bold so it was very much: don't f*** up, don't bring anything in really loud.

Q: I suppose you have to shelve any self doubt working like that. If you're working on your own you've got time to say: is this working...I don't know if this is working, I'll replace it with this, whereas with that it's straight in there. It would have to be?
A: I think he was really surprised by how primitive my set-up was and I remember him going (does Pete Namlook impersonation): "Oh, O.K...this is your studio?"

Q: (Laughs)

A: A drum machine, a sampler and really primitive compared to what he had but he totally went with it. However my studio is at any given time: I know my way around it all really, really well so it's that thing about getting the most out of what you have. We've all got tricks up our sleeves and you know he'd go off on his EMS Synthi and I'd be like: that's amazing! Great! That would make me do something and answer his sound...

Q: Go off on a tangent that you wouldn't find if you were on your own?

A: Oh yes. It's that whole thing about...getting back to that idea of live performance and being spontaneous and being technically proficient with operating the machines and yet flowing and making sure everything is developed...
Q: O.K. This is a fan boy question. The front cover of Electro Harmonix I've sat and tried to work out...what is that? Looks like some kind of head set. Can you remember?

A: Yeah. It was kind of red and black...

Q: It looks like a head set with something coming out of the middle of it?

A: With the artwork, we'd finish recording the album and the minute we finished it he'd master it. I remember with Alien Community: he'd do the artwork right there and then. I mean normally when I've finished recording I'll go down the pub, come back a few days later and have a listen and maybe...you know: ponder it and that's my kind of way. He would finish it and then he would do the artwork there and then, product finished.

Q: The circular window and black border, yes.

A: He'd do all of the artwork and really do it quite quickly. But at that point I didn't generally get too particular about it. I remember thinking: well Pete will come up with something.

Q: It's a good aesthetic, yes and what it actually does is to take a lot of musical styles that are quite disparate and for collectors like me it brings them all together and you pretty much know that every time out you're going to hear something fascinating, something interesting, something different but it was a shrewd move in terms of...for collectors. The artwork definitely gave a uniformity to the label, I think.

A: You've really inspired me now to get out my collection now: to go in to the basement...

Q: Yeah. You should. How many have you got? A couple of hundred?

A: Oh, at least. I mean he used to send me them. I think I was on his mailing list and he'd mail me just the CD. He wouldn't send me the jewel case. Just the CD and the cover.

Q: Did you get all of the artwork, the back as well?

A: Yes. He'd send the tray card, the front cover and the CD. I've got some that I've never even opened....I mean I've got piles of them.

Q: So did you keep up with Fax all the way through or was there a point at which you supply of Fax records...you stopped receiving them...or?

A: Yes. It was just a few years where he sent me a lot of stuff and I haven't had time to listen to it all as well. There's just so much stuff. I couldn't really keep up with it. There was too much to digest. I mean having worked with him I could hear a little bit of the same thing over and over again, which is totally fair enough because that's what you do when you're a musician and you've got a natural thing. You keep doing it but my ears would prick up if I heard him doing something different. So, who's he working with? If he's working with Bill Laswell I want to hear that...
Q: I've actually got Visitation on my desk here and I haven't had a chance to listen to it yet...speaking of not having had a chance to listen (laughs).

A: That was a really odd session, that one. I mean I did everything. I did all of the music. He said what do you want before I got there and I said well get me a Minimoog and an 808 and he had this incredible studio. He had Bootsy Collins' bass in the corner.

Q: Wow!

A: He had Herbie Hancock's Fender Rhodes. He said: that's Herbie Hancock's and I was like: holy s***! Can I play that?

In no time I was in and out of the studio. I mean working with was really fascinating because I knew all about him and Material and that whole Ze records scene from the '80s. And then he had his engineer...I can't remember his name....

Q: Shall I get the CD? It's on my desk. Robert Musso?

A: Yes. That whole album was recorded on to 24 track tape through a beautiful Neve console and then mixed down to two track quarter inch tape and edited using tape splicing. It was pretty fascinating, watching him work.

Q: It sounds almost like the Miles Davis of the fusion era approach to production, what you're describing. Taking things and then cutting them up. Post-production?

A: Yes. I was partly the source material for his process. One thing that was new was that he was also sampling other guy's CDs and that was a new thing to experience.

Q: At the time you felt you wanted to make fresh music...were you perhaps a bit freaked out by the fact that he was involved with a kind of post-modernist recycling process?

A: Yes: it was a sort of mash-up of ideas. Put this with this and this and...

Q: Like a hip-hop approach, I suppose in a way?
A: Yeah. That was his process and with his bass guitar that was his contribution to that project. Bill Laswell was inspired by Pete. His label, Subharmonic for a while was almost like Fax Records in that they released lots of CDs. Bill was very keen. He worked with Tetsu...he was reaching out to all of these people to work with. For a while he was very prolific. That was very much a new approach and he was obviously really inspired by Pete.

Q: That's interesting. I hadn't made the connection to that extent, actually. I mean obviously I'd realised that he collaborated with Pete but I didn't really realise that the Subharmonic thing...that was what it was all about. Tomorrow I'm going to find the time to listen to Visitation.

A: I think you might find some parallels with that and the other stuff because it was all at the same time. I think that takes the fearless approach to music making...

Q: Well, actually: again that's quite a Miles Davis thing, isn't it really...you know: that kind of idea from the fusion era of just going into the studio and everything that comes out everyday is radically different to the last and basically just jamming.

A: Yes. Miles Davis...for a while he never played the same stuff on stage. He'd record an album, put it out and then change to something new. Miles Davis was very much in charge. He called the shots and he kind of established a bunch of musicians to get what he wanted: his vision.

Q: And sometimes dragging more out of them than they could on their own.

A: Definitely.

Q: I was going to say if you had to choose a favourite Fax album what do you think it would be?

A: I think Silence. The first album is a real game changer. I was always into Dreamfish.

Q: Everybody chooses that as a favourite. Actually Silence and Dreamfish.

A: There is something about the Dreamfish album that is really immediate - that was a really good time for Morris.

Q: The second one is kind of darker but it's still brilliant as well...the second Dreamfish album.

A: I can't remember.

Q: Dig it out tomorrow (laughs). It's good.

A:  I think Morris and Pete worked really well together. I should add that I talked to Pete on the phone the year before he died and one of the last things we said was lets record together. Let's get back in the studio next year so we were planning to do something again.

Q: Arghh! What a shame. What a great shame.

A: Yeah.

Q: It's a great shame. I guess that while it didn't happen it's heartening to know that the will was there on his part to take things full circle.

As one last question what do you remember about Pete as a person and how would you pay tribute to him?

A: I think Pete was very driven. He knew exactly what he wanted to achieve musically and he didn't hold back at all. He had no self doubt. Very confident. In a weird way he was very inspiring. He was quite a unique guy. He had a very clear picture of what he was doing.
Q: From what I've heard interviewing various people it seems that he was quite a strong character...

A: Yes. Well he used to work in finance and he was quite detail oriented. There was nothing fuzzy. It was just: this is how it should be and he wasn't copying anyone. He came up with his own plan. It was completely against what everyone else was doing but he was very proud of that. Very proud of the fact that he was the only person doing things the way that he was doing them and probably no-one else would be able to carry that kind of thing. It was definitely his way of standing out from the crowd: by releasing a record every week. I don't know of anyone else who did that. No-one did that. He was the only person who approached the music and the business in that way. I don't think anyone else could get away with it to be quite honest. He just had this mission to deliver or to share music or maybe it was to prove something to himself. I don't know.

Q: It's quite interesting now to think about how prolific he was and the fact that he passed away at a relatively young age. You could say and I think David (Moufang) was certainly making some connections between his work rate and the fact that he wasn't here for as long as a lot of people definitely would have hoped.

A: He always struck me as a really healthy guy. He didn't drink or smoke. Yes: he was always very fresh faced.

Have you heard the Fax tribute compilation?
Q: I've ordered it. I've ordered the physical copy and with the physical copy you get a download and I've started to make my way through it but when the box arrives I'll listen to it all in detail...and you have a track on there?

A: My track is a version of Subway. When I recorded Sea Biscuit I'd always do about four or five versions and I'd record again and again until I felt happy with it.The Subway that's on that Namlook tribute...it started off as much more...I think it had too many chords in it or something but I always really liked that outtake so I thought it would be very fitting as Pete released Sea Biscuit. I thought it would be a good place for it to go. I've got a whole load of outtakes from throughout the years and it's always good to find a home for them.

A giant, morphing cloud of thanks to Mr. Jonah Sharp, who even had the patience to ring me when Skype wouldn't work for our interview. What a top bloke!

2 comments:

  1. Wow, thanks for this lengthy detailed interview. I've never seen a Jonah Sharp interview before, and I love his music.

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  2. No probs, Brad. Glad you enjoyed!

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