James Murray: In Conversation

James Murray is a composer specialising in minimal electronic music. His recordings have been issued by respected labels worldwide since 2004 and often have strong conceptual themes inviting personal reflection. His compositions are unified by a light touch and signature sonic palette that frequently involves treated guitar, piano and processed electronics. Murray is known for his solo works, remixes and handmade Slowcraft Records releases including the critically acclaimed Floods trilogy…

Hey James! How are you? What are you up to right now?

Ian, I’m well thanks, on a train up to see family in Shropshire. It’s my mother’s birthday, we don’t see her as often as we’d like so we thought we’d join the celebrations. Passing through rolling English countryside, not a million miles from your old neck of the woods right now. Sun’s just come out too, feels pretty good.

Can you tell me a little bit about your background in terms of music.

I started playing guitar when I was about eleven. I learnt by ear so trying out different things got tangled up with my idea of music right from the very beginning. When you figure out your own understanding of the fretboard and chord patterns, making stuff up just feels like the obvious, natural next thing to do. In time I got hold of bass, keys, flute, clarinet, drums, bits of percussion, bits of tech. Self-taught bad habits galore but very little sense that anything was ever off-limits. Multi-tracking was a big shift, the Tascam Porta 07 four-track I got in my teens really rewired how I thought about constructing music. Computers blew it all wide open again a year or two later. I had an Amiga 500 in early studio setups but it wasn’t until the late 90s that I started using a PC as a generative sound tool. I remember that first machine – 100MHz, feel the power – I remember spending three days shaping a sine wave into the mandolin type lead sound you hear on my first released track Nautilus. It took literally all night to render out a track, but my word did that give you some discipline.

Gosh that brings back some memories. I used to make my first electronic music on Amiga and Atari computers. Alongside cassette track recording, I couldn’t agree more about discipline really. Do you think the ease of using computers to create music these days has impacted that discipline? If so, do you feel this is a negative or positive development?

Making good music is hard, always has been, there’s no getting round that. Modern hardware and software is for the most part more convenient and it’s easier now to come up with something fairly quickly that, on the surface at least, sounds pleasingly professional. That’s just a head-start at best though. You still need to get inside the music, get your fingerprints on it so it sounds like you, make sense of what it’s about and why it’s worth making. In some ways some of the older tech was perhaps better suited to that side of things.

But if you can get your state-of-the-art studio so well integrated and perfectly adapted to your needs that everything comes out easily and immediately how you want it, then great! Time to spend the spare energy you’ve saved taking the material deeper into more personal and original territory. There’s never a quick fix or shortcut, even if a fancy new piece of kit feels suspiciously like it might provide just that. As far as I can tell everything worthwhile takes time and dedication regardless of the tools used along the way.

What was your first instrument? Why did you start playing said instrument?

Must have been the bass guitar first, an old Arbiter that was up in the loft. Then an Eko Ranger twelve-string, dreadnought body, wide neck, one hell of a starter guitar but when I finally got hold of a standard six-string fingering was a breeze. Again, discipline! I honestly think having to deal with constraints, obstacles, having to compromise, over-reach or come up with workarounds is the very early best training anyone can get.

Beyond the piano as a child, the bass was also the first instrument I came back to at sixteen. I guess it goes back to the whole discipline element we mentioned before as it isn’t the easiest instrument to play for hours on your own really. How do you tally up such discipline vs the old Eno adage of ‘honouring your mistakes as hidden intentions’?

Mistakes are unintentional by definition, usually undesirable, but they’re also a very special kind of occurrence as they’re virtually impossible to predict or provoke and their effects usually can’t be replicated either. Maybe technology fails or misfires, or lapses in your methodology or concentration trigger an unexpected branching in the process. If you welcome even the smallest deviation into a piece’s development its influence on the final outcome can be profound. So you’ve got to learn to respect them not just for their effects but also because by their very nature they’re peculiar, elusive, unrepeatable things and all the more precious for it.

If you’re going to be ready to recognise and exploit a decent mistake when it occurs you have to always remain relatively open-minded throughout, which is a healthy attitude to cultivate in itself. No matter how well organised or controlled your production approach is, a happy project usually involves a few variables, a certain looseness, a question or two that answer themselves in the doing. I think we tend to impose order by default, maybe we’re wired that way, I suspect I am. That’s probably good for the bulk of getting stuff done but because it’s so often asymmetries and irregularities that make art beautiful or meaningful or moving, the value of nurturing a sensitivity to the unforeseen can’t be overstated.

What are some albums you’ve been enjoying recently?

Most of my friends who are also music makers seem to also be avid music fans but I’ve no idea where they find the time or headspace. I only get a fraction of the listening time I’d like. When I’m in a writing phase I find most other music distracting, when I’m outside the studio my ears just need a break. You must get this right? Especially with all the mastering work you do. I think what’s happened is that over time I’ve gradually become a producer first and consumer second.

Anyway, even if some of it relates to work, top of my pile is the Hüwels / Clay release on Eilean, the last glacis album, last couple of Arve Henriksen records, Jeffrey Roden’s ‘Threads of a Prayer’, your collaboration with Wil Bolton, and upcoming music from Anne Garner, Enrico Coniglio, Rothko. And everything I’m working on right now of course.

Yeah, exactly. Given the concentration needed for audio engineering and music production, these days I have found I listen far less to music when I’m on the go. I used to listen to music whenever I was travelling but now just enjoying my surroundings feels like such a nice rest for my ears and spirit really. Saying that, I’ve found myself pulling out old cassettes and vinyl these days as it soothes my ears. It doesn’t matter what music it is, but for some reason these warbly old cassettes and dusty records are the only thing I listen to beyond the work-side of things these days.

People quite often seem to be pretty rigid with how they listen to music; to the extent where they dislike other formats. Do you have a preferred format for listening to music?

Interesting, yeah, I’ve been making a conscious effort to listen to my surroundings more too, rather than just block it all out with headphones. Just paying attention I guess, whether it’s birdsong or traffic, whatever. Different kind of music.

I totally get what you’re saying about analogue formats, physical media; it’s an altogether different way of listening. Putting a record on, rewinding or flipping a cassette, these are positive, affirmative acts that don’t quite have a digital equivalent. Being able to see what you’re listening to actually spinning in front of you adjusts the psychology I’m sure. The more we move away from the physical and drift into streaming cloud-based media the further our experience becomes untethered from the psychological constants that have shaped the way our brains have evolved until very very recently. Anything that slows that down, grounds us, reminds or acts as a kind of touchstone has a valuable therapeutic function.

I think there’s a healthy element of good old-fashioned nostalgia in there too of course. You and I both grew up through the rise and fall of many an audio format, some of which have returned to favour, others not. With my Slowcraft label I place great importance on the physical editions, although in my case it’s more about the handmade packaging than the format itself. Otherwise I try not to be too fetishistic about it, I’m certainly not tribal, and I kind of zone out when the debate gets heated. It feels too much like a distraction from the music itself, which is all that really matters in the end.

If you had to pick one piece of gear from your studio that you just could not live without, what would it be?

Sound design is right at the heart of what I do and the computer sits right at the heart of that. There are plenty of instruments and bits of kit I’m sentimentally attached to, and lots of different analogue and acoustic sound sources usually find their way into the fabric of each record. I’d miss all those immediate tones and textures but know I could quite comfortably produce entirely in-the-box if needs be, so I’ll keep the Macbook Pro.

That’s fair enough I think. Your intricate but playful sound design is what really drove me to your music, and the detail and textural understanding to hand really differentiates your work from so many other artists. Did you study sound design at all? If so, what elements did you find most interesting and influential?

I’ve never studied anything music related so I don’t tend to share many reference points with people I meet in the sound art world, classically trained musicians or those with audio engineering backgrounds. I’ve probably missed out on a lot, developing more or less in isolation, but I’d rather have it this way. If you heard something different in my music I expect that’s why. Without formal training or paying too much attention to any particular scene I’ve been more or less guaranteed to end up with my own distinctive voice without too great a risk of getting intellectually sidetracked, overwhelmed by influence or worn down by the weight of comparison along the way.

And I don’t need training to know that sound design is really important, it just is. I’ve always been very switched on to how music actually sounds, how it feels physically on the ear and in the body. It’s not just the presentation or the delivery of a message, a properly realised production aesthetic becomes an integral part of the message itself. Not just the language of the poem, but actually part of the poetry. That’s what I’m trying to do with my work all the time; achieve a harmonious integration of the idea and its execution. I’ve never had an orchestra, session players or another producer implement my ideas for me, it’s become a curious point of pride that no-one else ever plays a note on any of my solo records. I wouldn’t want them to, it serves me too well to be able to ensure the narrowest possible gap between what I hear in my head and what I’m able to present in the final recordings. That’s the role of careful instrumentation and sound design for me, it’s my means of effectively bridging intention and outcome.


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