Ian Hawgood: Shattered Light
Posted In: Charles Sage, Ian Hawgood, Ian Hawgood: Shattered Light, Koen Music, KOMU, The Shattered Light
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‘The Shattered Light’ is many things, all at once – the maiden release of a new imprint, a welcome return after a self-imposed silence, a sincerely personal project many years in the making, a tribute to loss, a reversion to a simpler technique. Also most importantly, music made for the sake of it, free of expectation.
The lengthy six tracks are the rumbling hum of a grand machine, cogs of plaintive guitar squall fed slowly through fizzing tape reels. A recent review used the word “icy” in relation to the tone; totally accurate, likening it to the detail of the intricate patterns of ice you scrape from your windscreen on a winter morning as heavy frost crunches underfoot.
Amongst many highlights, the twenty-one minute behemoth title track – buzzing hornets of choral guitar that dart between howling noise and anaesthetic silence. The album makes demands, many tracks requiring vigilant attention to be understood on their own terms. Within the hertz-y grumble of “The Truant Heart” the detail is startling, but if listened to without full concentration the effect is lost; a flickering trick of the light.
A Sistine Chapel of sound, needing readjustment of depth perception to appreciate; the ceiling, walls, windows, tiles, paint, architraves and tapestries all need the listener to stop and look up, to be quiet and stand still. When the effect breaks at the 1:30 minute mark in “Seas Of Silence”, the thud of returning to Earth is audible.
The project was completed with a self-imposed constraint: no digital trickery. It seems hard to believe, listening to the results. The far corners of the record have the textural complexity of diligent digital layering, but are in fact the actual physical depth of fragmentary sketches, captured without revision.
Hawgood returning to the fray has been universally well received, and to get some insight into this notable release Fluid took time with Ian to look further into ‘The Shattered Light’.
What can you tell us about KOMU?
IH: KOMU is my new self-release label. I just felt like it was more personal for me to have something for my own work as I put so much of myself into the other labels that I don’t feel like my own music should connect to them predominantly. I also like the idea of releasing quietly to be honest and sometimes with Home Normal in particular, there is a little too much fanfare for my personal tastes. So, I set-up the label earlier this year as I felt I could be freer to put myself into it on a personal level.
The name KOMU comes from ‘Koen Music’ (literally meaning ‘park’ music in Japanese). The name derives from my first moniker for electronic work (Koen Park…yes, that means ‘park park’!) but I wanted to adjust it a bit to get away from that…hence the KOMU. Over the coming two years we have a steady stream of releases including Black Elk (w/ Danny Norbury, Tim Martin (Maps and Diagrams) and Clem Leek, and guest vocalist Aki Tomita), Tiny Isles (w/ Christopher Hipgrave, Jason Corder (offthesky), Ben Chatwin (Talvihorros), Antony Harrison (Konntinent) and Erik Schoster (He Can Jog)…as well as guest vocalist Miko), The Whalers Collective (w/ Gareth Davis, Felicia Atkinson, Miko and Ryonkt)…further in the distance there is a long-term collaboration with Ben Jones called Wraith vs Wrath, and I will also be putting out a series of reedited, remastered Koen Park work with bonus remix discs featuring an array of awesome artists and friends. There might be a few more things that are on the boil right now to go in there probably. Busy times!
How long did it take to put The Shattered Light together?
IH: Four years.
Four years is an extraordinarily long time to have worked on a project…why the length?
IH: I approached the album completely differently from the bulk of my released works to date. I have always thought about what I wanted to get out of a record, a vision for each if you will. For example, ‘Snow Roads’ needed to reflect absolute isolation, desolation and emptiness, so I thought carefully about how I could get this across whilst retaining spirit in the work. ‘Wolfskin’ is about violent childhood dreams and nightmares which I had noted and used as a guideline to express musically. But with ‘The Shattered Light’, I started it when I had more or less wrapped up ‘Snow Roads’. By the time I had actually completed ‘Snow Roads’ I was just totally done with thinking about making music, and just wanted some time out. It didn’t last too long though as I brought out my old four-tracks and guitars, and found myself just rocking out for want of a better expression. I went over old recordings when I made music with nothing else but a need to play. So rather than thinking about other people, concepts and all that crap, I just made music for me. And it was amazing. At no point did I think about release, as I honestly was thinking about not releasing work again at that time.
The whole work was coming together technically as I kept doing alternate live takes (making over a hundred odd in the end) and on cassette this takes time. However, it wasn’t until last Christmas that it came together as a complete work. My father had passed away quite suddenly in November and I found myself in a situation where I couldn’t process it, as I was too busy thinking about my family and the whole situation. I eventually came home to Japan and knew exactly what these noisy late night recordings I had done the past four years had been leading to. I re-recorded some parts and it came together very quickly after that. So, long story short, it took so long because I just wasn’t ready personally, and the album wasn’t fully realised until that four year period had reached its course. I didn’t push it at all, and the album was a natural development of who I am and the situation I found myself in, and everything that lead up to that point in time.
I’m sorry to hear about your dad. I had a parent pass on a few years back and it’s not fun. Everything just stops. Did you re-record much?
IH: Thanks mate, and sorry to hear that too. I think that is it really…everything does just stop, yet with the labels, store, work commitments, plus looking after my family and dealing with everything as a small (formerly Brethren) family, emotionally I just stopped for everyone but not for me. Anyway, not really that much, although I wrote the title track the day I returned when my wife was out of the house! I realised that all the work sat around that perfectly and began re-recording with different full takes to bring this into play as the tip of the album as it were. I just spent a lot of time adjusting the initial recordings really to get the right feel.
What sort of feel were you trying to get?
IH: At the time I had no idea to be honest. But after everything, when I finally had this clear vision – I wanted to express myself, and how I felt about my father and what he was to me. The loss. The love. The passion. The memories. The spirit, mostly the spirit. The light of life was shattered, but these shards of memory and eternal being remained, floating like embers: bright, bright embers that could last forever. In this dark room of absolute loss and sadness, the shattered light was still light, only more spread out and surrounding, covering me and guiding me. That is what ‘The Shattered Light’ is. It is my father…and the past, present and future effect his light has had and will have on me. It isn’t a ‘feel’ then, but a being and thus when it was completed, it wasn’t a case of guiding the work in the right direction, but of being guided. I know that is pretty out there, but it is exactly how it was. I was sort of on auto when it became clear.
Do you always have that feeling of being guided, or do you usually feel control over what you’re doing?
IH: I have always felt a strong sense of control and direction in the bulk of my releases to date. ‘The Shattered Light’ however, was my first work since early piano recordings as a student that I just felt I was being guided on some path beyond me. It was a case of letting go of everything and just allowing this to evolve in it’s own way, in it’s own time.
Stream of consciousness approach?
IH: For this, yes I suppose so, although this still suggests it’s in the mind…it felt more external than that really. But it was certainly a very natural free-flowing style one could attribute to ‘stream of consciousness’.
This album seems to have been more guitar and less laptop. How did that come about?
IH: I was just really bored with looking at a computer all day frankly. I’ve been recording sketches on my tape and reel machines since I can remember, before taking these over to computer. I just skipped the latter stage and decided to do everything on my favourite recording devices rather than computer. It was a chance to challenge myself and go back to my youth really. Computer recording and editing is far too easy, and I wanted to have fun and free myself from waveforms and digital crap.
What guitars were you using during the recording?
IH: A Japanese Fender Jazzmaster and an American Tele.
How did you record the guitars?
IH: Different set-ups depending on where I was, but as standard I used a few Shredmasters, a couple Memory Man’s (classic), about three Headrush loopers, an EQ and a few other distortion pedals. I ran these into my amp and recorded from there straight to tape or reel, as well as having about 8 contact mics placed around the studio going into a mixer onto another tape recorder. I then re-tracked them to move the shades of distortion between the direct recording, the amp(s) and the contacts which gave the work its heavy weight to certain frequencies at certain points. I played with a bow, wine bottles, vinyl, anything I could throw at the guitars really. Jazzmasters are the kind of guitars which just invite that really.
They are indeed a monster. I had a mate who bought a vintage one as an investment, and I suspect (actually I am certain) he was broken hearted when he had to capitalise. How long have you had yours?
IH: I had it for three years, although have owned a total of five. I sold it after I finished ‘The Shattered Light’. Basically I associate instruments with albums / recordings and don’t want to tread old ground…saying that I always pick up Jazzmasters it seems! But it is such a personal album that I had to let go of it, as it would always be connected to that recording for me. I would feel like I was betraying the guitar and the record if I tried to work on it with something else. I know that is a bit odd, but it is how I feel. And yes, I was beyond broken hearted but knowing it helped create what it did, I will always be reminded of it. I’m a bit personal about my gear as you can probably tell.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think I saw a photo of you playing a Yamaha Silent Guitar once. Do you still use it?
IH: Oh I sold that after the earthquake in March last year as we were totally skint. I really liked it but didn’t have a huge connection with it so it was ok. I actually pick up a lot of cheap used guitars at the local recycle shops all the time, among other things. My wife has had enough of it I am sure! I used it to record elements for the follow-up to ‘Enfants Ruraux’ although these were all destroyed in the earthquake. Much like ‘The Shattered Light’, I have since slowly gone back to this work with old warped classical guitars and reels, and am of course enjoying myself far more in the process.
Do you have much of that type of equipment, tapes and reels?
IH: Oh absolutely. I studied sound engineering at university and half the course was software and digital, the other half we worked with analog gear. I taught myself how to fix all sorts of things and make instruments as well at that time. I was a hoarder but the truth is the labels cut into my funds so much I have had to flog most of it off. Saying that, I have kept many of my tapes machines and have a lot, yes…although my absolute favourite is still my Fostex X-18 tape recorder.
Is it easier working with them than with computers?
IH: Brian Eno once said , ‘Honour your mistake as a hidden intention’. Computers have kind of screwed that side of things up because you don’t need to do re-takes or care about mistakes, you just edit things. So we get this perfectly formed, perfectly executed music, and its fucking boring. So no, it isn’t easier if you want perfect sounding work, nor is it easy if you are a rubbish musician. I’m a rubbish musician, but then I adhere to Brian Eno’s ethos (although perhaps not in the subtle way he meant it!). I did loads of takes of the work, but it wasn’t about perfecting the sound, structure or notes, it was about capturing the right spirit in the music. There is something very direct and earthy about straight up recording to tapes and reels which you just can’t replicate with computers. Plus they sound awesome.
So is it easier? No. Is it more me? Yes.
You also mentioned warped old classical guitars; what’s your approach with them?
IH: Well I love them for a start. Some of the warmest guitars I have played are considered crap by most people. I’m just a big fan of finding a cheap guitars and recording them in their own way. I don’t like strumming acoustic or classical guitars, so I often just do my own rather awful finger-picking and layering, seeing how things come out. I saw a video of John Fahey when I was eighteen, and that just blew me away. It was a sort of ‘no rules’ wild approach which I really liked. I don’t know chords very well or care for them. I wrote all of ‘Enfants Ruraux’ in quick takes using people’s guitars which were laying around the places I stayed in Pennsylvania…so I guess my approach is very much in the moment, as I can never play the same thing twice!
I’m a bit embarrassed to say I know nothing of John Fahey at all…
IH: Oh mate, go check him out. Amazing Folk/Avant-Garde guitarist inspired by Folk and Blues…his most well-known track is probably ‘The Yellow Princess’ but my personal favourite is ‘In Christ There Is No East Or West’. I saw a video when I first travelled to Japan…it was a double thing with Elizabeth Cotton on a guitar teaching show from the 60′s or 70′s would you believe. I seem to recall John Fahey smoking away and just playing these wild guitar variations…totally in the zone. The presenter clearly loved it…but I guess that was back when music and musicians were loved for their sheer creativity whereas now, that would never exist. The artists do, but not the appreciation of them which is a shame. He’s just a dude who played with amazing heart and soul, and he didn’t give a damn about how he was perceived. He passed away about ten years ago I think, apparently in poverty. He was always true to himself and his art, and how many artists can you say that about now?
If you move most of your instruments and guitars on, do you have any that you’ll never sell, or any that you’ve had for longer than usual?
IH: Never ever? My wife would never let me sell my gamelan instruments. I bought a heap of gamelan when we were in Indonesia and Bali for our honeymoon. We were working in a jungle and every chance we got to go into the local villages I would look for people playing gamelan. Then in Bali I did the same, to the extent that we found ourselves taking long drives in search of gear…my wife being the amazing woman she is never at any point took issue with it. Even on the last day when we spent the whole time packing the stuff up she helped out and thought it was just hilarious how obsessive I had become. She wasn’t best pleased when I opened it up at home and a massive spider jumped out of one of the bamboo shoots. After using it on The Whaler’s Collective album, I decided to sell it all off. When my wife found out she went a little nuts so that is now prime position in my studio.
I have a guitalele which got broken in the earthquake. It was fixed but is still warped. However, I would never sell it as it’s a tough little thing and I adore it. My tape machines. Never ever. Oh, and my dad’s piano, couldn’t ever sell that of course. I’ve never played a piano as nice as that, plus the memories of the family sat around it playing together and singing (yup…like religious loops) is one of my fondest memories.
That idea of a family sitting around a piano singing sounds idyllic. Does that still happen, or is that sort of thing lost as the result of the age we live in? I find it hard to visualise now.
IH: I certainly like to think that it does, as family is everything really…yeah, I think it does actually. I hate to say it, but in families who have a strongly religious background it is likely the norm…for me it was about spending time with my parents as they were both nurses and worked long hours. I think if it isn’t something which takes place it damn well should. Whilst I can’t visualise my own family playing piano and singing hymns, I can see my family whacking instruments around the house which is a bit more fun!
KOMU001, ‘The Shattered Light’, is released officially on July 20th in a 6 panel CD digipack and is available from Stashed Goods, mastered in detail by James Plotkin with cover photography by Eirik Holmøyvik and design by Michael Waring (Future Sequence).
- Charles Sage for Fluid Radio