“Her art in this piece is obscure, slow, difficult and sometimes agonizing. But it is never the grand agony of stately images and sets. It is about you and me. What begins in solitary otherness becomes familiar and even personal. It is about who we are when we are not rehearsing who we are.” – Don DeLillo, The Body Artist, Picador, 2002, p 110.
I have just done an interview with Julia Kent, with whom you’ll be playing tonight. I would like to start with the same question I have asked her, with a quote by John Berger, on the late Cy Twombly. I have chosen this because you have titled your latest album Hold Everything Dear from Berger’s book and because Julia Kent has dedicated a track to Cy Twombly in her own album Green and Grey and I liked the idea of bringing the two together. “I know of no other visual western artist who has created an oeuvre that visualizes with living colours the silent space that exists between and around words”. I wanted to ask you about the concept of silent space and whether that is something you are striving for in your music.
– GS: Absolutely. I mean, I think it is probably impossible to be any kind of… – what is the word I am looking for… intuitive sort of musician, a musician who improvises, without accepting that silence is every bit as important to the sound that you are making, if not in most cases more important. This is strange for certain people, myself included, who make a barrage of noise, but then, when you do create space and silence, it is much more noticeable. It’s a question about light and dark, and playing with both, of being aware of that. You can’t have one without the other. So yes, absolutely. I also think it is to some extent the Holy Grail to most musicians, a quest. When you are younger and fumbling around to find what you are looking for, I suspect one of the things we are all looking for is silence. I know that the older I’ve got – beginning life as a punk etc – that is certainly what I’ve been looking for, stillness, space, silence. Of the recent three albums I have released on Editions Mego, the most recent one is the stillest, the quietest, almost the most at peace with itself. The first two are much more fidgety, nervous, abstract, noisy, and frenetic and I have been looking for that space. I am constantly looking for a place where you can settle down inside, where something you are having to fumble about for, is there, not so much to have control over it, but to be at peace with it.
Was moving to Japan a quest for silence and the poetry of landscape?
– GS: Again, I think so. I think it is trying to reach certain points somehow, by hook or by crook. Japanese culture is such that everything they do is based around poetry, from Ikabana flower arrangement, to tea ceremony, to Zen gardens. Poetry underpins every single detail of their lives. Sometime even construction for goodness sake. You walk past construction in Japan, and there would be three people standing around a hole to make sure you don’t fall into it, and they are positioned in such a way that you make the assumption that they know what they are doing, they are doing it deliberately, making sure that you are looked after, and to me there is fundamental sense to that and a poetry to it too. Every single detail I think has that spirit within it. When I am in London, I am here to join the fray, when I am in Japan I can stop and make music. I find it almost impossible to make music in London, there are too many distractions. In Japan, I live on a mountain near Kobe and there is space and time, there are insects and birds. Again, sorry to overuse the word, but it has that stillness I am looking for, and I think the space really makes a difference. Over there I am in a position to be able not to make much noise, whereas here in London… Interestingly enough, tonight, and this might be a failing of mine, I am playing a noisy set, because the last few gigs I have been doing at festivals in Europe, they have asked me to play quietly. So I have been playing quietly and it has been a joy, but tonight I decided it would be noisy, because this is London, even if I am now thinking that it might be a mistake, actually… Anyway, going to Asia may have had something to do with that. It might be an attempt to see whether I could find that space and to see whether I was capable of using the space. I am ostensibly an improvisational singer and I like to give the musicians I work with room for manoeuvre. In a way, you plan to elevate each other. You give everybody space to do what people can, but I am not technically a musician myself in that sense, I mean sitting at that piano tonight with Julia makes me think… oh my God, there is something wrong, there is a proper musician next to a non proper musician…
The three albums on Mego signal a change for you because they witnessed you working with a laptop, something which you had never done before. Was moving to Asia instrumental in that sense?
– GS: I actually started learning to use a laptop as an instrument in America for wholly different reasons. I went to America hoping to continue my work with Cindytalk, whatever that meant and however that felt, because Cindytalk has always been a project which allows itself to shape and reshape itself at will depending on who is involved and on the line-up at any given moment. I went to the US hoping to find musicians to work with, but found a landscape, which, for me, was barren. I think I am very European in my aesthetic, and I didn’t really fit with American sensibilities as I didn’t really want to do rock music and a lot of things that were happening there. I felt myself out on a limb, so I started working with sound systems and deejaying and making noise with turntables and whatnot, and then eventually I thought, the next step is to do something on my own, get a laptop and learn. So I got myself a laptop in 2001 and early versions of Ableton Live, and taught myself to make some rudimentary sounds, and they were incredibly rudimentary, and maybe even still are, but I was still trying to make poetry with it, even with a limited palette, which I think I have. That is ultimately what I am trying to do, I am trying to create some poetic structures and simple little short poems with sound and dissonance. The whole process really started in America, even if I found my feet in Honk Kong where I stayed from 2002 to 2004. And then it all came together in Japan in 2004 when I started making records, rather than just making sounds.
It was definitely a reaction to not being able to find what I wanted in America, and then being forced to dig a tunnel rather than be stopped in my tracks, you know? But all three elements were crucial to the process.
Was it a deliberate choice to move to a part of the world where you couldn’t speak the language, in order to distance yourself from everything you already knew and learn a new musical language?
– GS: Yes, in a sense. I am still rather thick when it comes to learning a language. I have a weird memory that doesn’t retain that kind of information, but yes, I quiet like it in a sort of oddly perverse way, the idea that there is a detachment from the things around me. I actually feel that even in my own home, living here. It is just a continuation of the displacement, which I think is one of the roots of my work.
Field recordings are integral to your latest albums, and again, Japan seems to have been instrumental in this.
– GS: Since many, many years past, I have considered the sound around us to be music. I have honestly believed that the sounds we hear around us are equal to the sounds that humans beings create, or machines create for that matter, I never differentiate it. Even in the punk days we were using found sounds. All the way through the 80s we have been using field recordings, this is nothing new to me. It has always been an integral part of what we do, even if we don’t always use it because you cannot always use the same elements. You have to shift it around to keep yourself moving but it’s another possibility. I think it gives it a depth of possibility when you integrate everyday sounds, whether you process the sounds or whether you use them as they are, which I often do. I like actually integrating what I do with the everyday, you know? I find that quite an exciting thing.
In terms of the latest three albums, you have mentioned in previous interviews, that you feel that Crackle of my Soul is the most cohesive, the most thematically coherent of the three.
– GS: That is my personal opinion even if it doesn’t seem to be shared by many people. It could simply be that Crackle in my Soul was the first of the three. It was almost a new area that I was moving into, even if with Cindytalk I had already played with those kinds of ideas, but here I was immersing myself into a digital form which was new to me and I pursued that with a certain vigour and determination in order to make the record. I like the fact that it is crackled and kind of messed around a bit. I also like the fact that it is my first attempt to go fully into that. That albums means a lot to me particularly because there is a bit of a leap involved in that, a leap of faith for me as well, because for the first three years that album was being formulated virtually and nobody was responding to it. When I played it to people they would say, “There is no music, what do you want us to do with it?” When something like that happens, you do question whether you have lost the plot, or whether you are doing the right thing. Instinct told me I was, and clearly that has been proved to a certain extent right, by virtue of the fact that it got a release. So yes, I think Crackle in My Soul speaks more directly of who I am and where I was trying to get to. Up Here in the Clouds it was a definite continuation from that, but I deliberately changed the way I worked, so there was a shift. And then, with Hold Everything Dear, I wanted to bring in played instruments and use more field recordings and deepen it, and also find that stillness that I was talking about.
Is there an album of yours, which you feel is more like a self-portrait, or does all your work feel like one to some extent?
– GS: Yes and no. It has to be said that all the works prior to Crackle of My Soul are effectively collaborations. Cindytalk was, and still is, a band, even if I use the same name to work on this sort of thing as well. So yes, they are essentially my vision, but I am very much interested in having other people involved to be co-drivers. I never tell musicians I am working with what to play or what to do, I just kind of set a basic direction and then everybody can play with that. It has to be their expression too, in some cases there has to be equal expression even though ultimately there is a bit more slant on me because I am kind of directing it. I think if somebody was to ask, “You have a bunch of records, which one is closest to your heart?” it would Crackle of My Soul to answer your question.
Have you reached the destination you were aiming for with these three albums?
– GS: I don’t think you ever do. I am terrible for remembering details, but there is a Brian Eno quote that is perfect. I won’t remember the quote so I won’t make much sense, but the gist of it is that when you are worried whether you are doing the right thing or not, he says, set your own parameters, throw what you have where you’d like it to land, whether that is right or wrong it is irrelevant, where you land is what you have. So I don’t think I ever reach the point I am aiming for, but hopefully I get as close as I can.
Do these albums feel like home in a way?
– GS: Yes, except that, as I mentioned earlier, everything is from an element of displacement. Home for me is not a settled thing. I am not home in a gender sense; I am not home from a physical sense because I come from another country, and I keep travelling and I am never really in one place that often; I am never home because I am a musician amongst musicians, and now I find myself in a computer music landscape working with people who know infinitely more than I know. I am always with people who know much more than me, but I am kind of fearless like that. I am not trying to prove anything, I am not trying to show off, to say, “Look how cool I am”, and I not going to win any electronic awards, but I know that, and I don’t care, as long as I can occasionally touch someone, reach them emotionally, that is fine. It has nothing to do with anything technical, it is just poetry. So yes, home but bearing in mind the displacement because I am always going to be a little bit uncomfortable no matter where I am. Somebody actually asked me in an interview how I felt being an outsider at Mego, and I went, “Oh God, here we go again”, no matter where I end up, I am always the bloody outsider and I guess I need to be cool with that otherwise I will get upset and worry.
What comes next?
– GS: I am off to Japan fairly soon, where I am hoping to make a new album. I want to make something more physical… I mean, there has been noise involved in these last three albums, but it has been quiet-ish, ambient noise or whatever, I am not very fond of the term “ambient”, but live I have been trying to bring something back, physical sounds.
I have a few tracks I am working on. In fact, I will be playing a few new pieces tonight, which might make the beginnings of a new work. Basically I would like to make a band album, with bass, drums, guitar, electronics and voice. I want to record early next year a full band album, and I have some projects I have been working on with other people. This has been my 50th year on Earth and it has been the busiest and the most productive so far, so it appears that life starts any time, you just have to keep moving.
Finally, what is the scariest sound you have ever heard and the most beautiful?
– GS: The scariest sound is very easy: Margaret Thatcher’s voice… worse than the Daleks. And the most beautiful… This time of the year, early autumn, where I live down in Battersea, to the trees around my tower block come a flock of wild parakeets. They make the most beautiful collective squawk. They are the most beautiful thing ever. I stood outside and just cried.