Conversation With John Chantler

Please may you tell us more about yourself and your music? What were some of your musical influences and why did you pursue music? How did you get involved with it and was there any kind of touchstone moment for you?

I grew up in Australia — about 20km outside of a town called Bundaberg (maybe you’ve seen the ginger beer that gets exported over here?). I played drums and my brother played guitar and because there weren’t any neighbours nearby we could play music at home. No idea why my parents were crazy enough to agree to this, but I’ll be forever grateful.

I mostly stopped playing drums when I moved to Brisbane for university, but after a while I got back into making music through a friend who showed me how to do stuff with a computer using FruityLoops. We started a project together and made a little CDr. That’s how I met Lawrence English. I started taking it a bit more seriously around the time I moved to Japan (this is in 2001).

When I was in Japan I met Tori Kudo of Maher Shalal Hash Baz through a chance postal error. My subscription sheet for The WIRE magazine was included together with his. He then wrote to me and we exchanged music and I ended up playing with Maher a bunch of times (most recently again in Japan last November — always a blast!).

So many things stem from that wayward sheet of paper. It led to me organising a concert for Maher in London (together with my partner Carina Thorén) in 2005. Had never done such a thing before but it was wildly successful and we were invited to do a regular night at the venue, which was in turn shut down after the first one as it didn’t have a licence. We went on to lose a bunch of money doing the shows we’d already booked at other places.

I got back into organising again when Saya from Tenniscoats (I’d slept on their floor in Tokyo when I played the first Maher concert) was coming to London and I suggested we could maybe try and do a show at this new place that was going to open with the Japanese name: Cafe OTO. This ended up being the first thing to happen there and was the beginning of a whole new time for me. I learnt so much and met so many great people through that place. Fair to say that nothing has had a greater impact on what I do now.

When you first began working with synthesizers, what was the learning experience like for you? Is it an instrument that can be mastered, in a traditional sense, at least? There must be something new every time you return to it, and that must be an amazing experience!

I started out with a Roland SH101, but didn’t really understand how it worked until I got into the modular synthesizer things, reading all the Doepfer manuals, working out what to buy… and then felt pretty stupid for being so naive about the SH101 for so long! That’s an instrument that can certainly be mastered. So can more modular things with enough practice. Look at people like Keith Fullerton Whitman and Thomas Lehn. Masters for sure. I also saw Thomas Ankersmit play again on the weekend and I think it’s safe to say that he has mastered the Serge. Of course, it’s not just about ‘instrumental’ mastery though — maybe more than with tradtional instruments, the playing is intrinsically bound up with the user as composer/improvisor. Those three guys are exceptional at that, too.

But yes, with so many variables, it can be hard to exactly repeat complex things, especially where there are feedback processes involved, and this is definitely part of the pleasure.

What are your thoughts when it comes to wider harmonic possibilities and the exploration of varying microtones, sequences, and frequencies? Is that an aim within your music?

Sure. What’s nice about this kind of instrument is that it isn’t locked down or quantized to particular scales — unless you decide that is what you need/want to do. Of course, there are people exploring all of these things with traditional instruments, too — so in many ways the desire for something else precedes the nature of the instrument.

Has your music changed, developed, progressed over time? How has your personal journey through music changed over the years?

Hope so. Making music is so much about a process of learning for me that I hope some of that learning translates to the results that go public. A label recently asked me to make a record for them and specifically requested something along the lines of a track I’d made 10 years ago from The Luminous Ground. It’s been an enjoyable process to re-engage with the kind of methods and approaches I was using at that time — it showed pretty clearly what has changed in the intervening years and doesn’t really sound the same.

On the subject of synthesizers: what drew you to the instrument? Was there a particular sound you were looking for? When did you begin working with them?

I’d heard some of Keith’s early Doepfer stuff on Susanna Bolle’s radio programme (She runs the excellent Non-Event concert series out of Boston) and was certainly intrigued. Shortly thereafter I was in Australia working with Lawrence on the record we made with Tujiko Noriko. He had an A100 system there. I had no idea what I was doing, but I was having a great time! I was also keen to have some music making apparatus that was not the computer as my eyeballs where so screen-soaked from the dayjob. I came home and started buying one module at a time as funds allowed.

Is there any emotion you associate with the synthesizer, or any that emerge when you’re engaged in the music?

Nothing intrinsic… but I don’t have those associations with other instruments either. Tend to prefer music that isn’t doing the obvious emotional manipulation thing.

There are repeating melodies and ideas in your music. Do you feel like your music is largely non-linear, and do these ideas come up spontaneously, or do you have a goal when you set out? What are the challenges you face when improvising on a synthesizer, and when it comes to live performance?

Most of the material comes up spontaneously… I’ll often record what I think is the most interesting stuff when i’m not trying for a specific thing. Of course, when I’m putting together finished pieces I’m very conscious of the range of parts I want to assemble.

For live performance I’ve started working with a setup that includes essentially half a dozen smaller ‘instruments’ or patches, a couple within the Serge, a few different ones I can recall on the Nord Modular and then some in the computer on PD (thank you Johan!). These all have range and are ‘playable’, so I can make a different combination of sounds in real time.

The synthesizer can be an unpredictable instrument, the sound of raw voltage, and it’s capable of producing varying results. Is that what drew you to it? Is this unpredictability, this spontaneity, an important aspect to you, and is there a deeper meaning within your music? Does this unpredictability mirror events in life, to some extent?

I think a big thing, is that relationship to learning. It felt like something that would take some time! This is also why I went for the Serge after I had my first experience of the ‘big guns’ at EMS (they have a Buchla 200 and an early 80s Serge System). The Buchla was so much more immediate, but the Serge was going to be something for the long haul.

Of course, there is the readily available means to inject chance operations / uncertainty into the instrument and that certainly appeals. Sure you could try and draw a parallel thing to life. I like to think i’m open to the unexpected, but I don’t think I would choose to patch a random voltage into life in general, even if i’ve had some beautiful chance come my way.

You’re originally from Australia, but you lived in London (Yay!) and now live in Stockholm. Have these places had different impacts or influences on your music? Does the music differ from place to place? Are there cultural or musical differences between these areas, are some more open or receptive than others, and if so, why do you think this is? What was your general experience with music like in each area / continent?

I’m not really into the recurring narrative of music as a meditation on the landscape, but I think material circumstances — e.g. housing and general income security, access to community, places to gather and listen — have a massive impact on anyone’s ability to create and sure, these vary radically from place to place. Since moving to Stockholm I’ve had the most time i’ve ever had to work on my music, so I hope it’s getting better as a result of that — but then I go out to listen a LOT less and I do miss that.

Can you tell us more about your annual festival in Stockholm, Edition? Was it designed to promote any particular kind of music?

Post-OTO, I felt that I still wanted to organise, to make things happen. I felt like certain things weren’t happening when I got here… There is a real shortage of good venues and lots of people who had been doing stuff seemed to be burnt out. I usually have some private themes to help narrow down the infinite possibilities, but it’s not about genre or any particular ‘kind’ of music.

It’s been a real treat to both experience myself of course, but also to have made it possible for other people to hear things like the Eliane Radigue orchestral piece ‘OCCAM Ocean’, Ellen Fullman’s Long String Instrument or the Anthony Braxton Octet to pick just a few highlights. It didn’t feel like anyone else was going to make these things happen and having people visit is a big inspiration (even if the anxiety is pretty destructive as some points in the year).

I just spent a wonderful weekend in Turku at Himera Festival. I know the organisers — Marja Ahti (her ‘Vegetal Natives’ record is very good!) and Niko Ahti — as they have come to every Edition festival and also played at the Third Edition (as Ahti & Ahti). It was a welcome reminder how beautiful these small festivals can be and of the lifelong connections they can initiate. A nice prompt to keep going.

Do you feel like ‘other music’ should have more coverage and/or prominence in society, or would that dilute the music? Do you think the world would be a more inclusive, accepting place if there were a wider acceptance of music in popular culture?

Of course it should be a bigger part of the general society. I fucking hate this idea that some music should remain fringe to keep it’s purity. Such garbage! …or also that ‘the people’ (ie. working class folks) can only stomach popular folk songs, etc. Such patronising bollocks that is perpetuated by those whose power interests it serves.

Is there a reason as to why experimental music isn’t more popular or mainstream? Why is that?

Capitalism. If society is organised around a few people making as much money as possible from as little investment as possible then you get the kind of mainstream cultural discourse and lack of diversity that we have these days.

There is nothing ‘natural’ about this. You play ‘weird’ music for kids and they can be so open and excited about the possibilities, but there is usually some boring adult around to shoot em down and kill the fantasy. I had a class of eight year olds come and see Ikue Mori and Steve Noble play a duo during the second festival. They were wild for it. Best audience ever.

Energy is very important within your music. Does the synth naturally enable that?

Nah, the synth doesn’t do anything ‘naturally’ ;-) but i like the idea that some people might be tricked into thinking that what they hear as energy is the result of some organic process…

Please may you tell us about your other projects?

Happily. I have two records that will come out in early 2020 — a trio with Steve Noble (drums) and Seymour Wright (alto saxophone) called ‘Atlantis’ (recorded at the same studio as ABBA!!!) and a duo with Johs Lund (bass saxophone). I like playing with these people very much. It’s great to have the social / community possibility of playing with other folks. The record with Johs is called Andersabo which is the name of the house in the Swedish countryside where it was recorded. We had a week there in August. Lots of time to test mic placement between baking bread and foraging for mushrooms. A really glorious time (Thank you Jason!) that hopefully comes through with the record, in no small part thanks to the work of Stephan Mathieu who did the mastering and helped get the mix right on one of the pieces.

What is the process of creation like for you? Are there any technical challenges you face when using the synthesizer?

Well at the moment I’ve got a long term project developing a new way to do concerts. It’s mostly focussed on computer synthesis but I also need to build things and want to engage with other ideas about spatial audio (for example). There are many technical challenges and a crazy amount to learn! I’ve just started a masters programme in electro-acoustic composition at the Royal College of Music here in Stockholm, so this is also a big part of that.

Please may you tell us more about your new album, Tomorrow is too late? What was the inspiration behind it? How did you go about converting these themes into sounds, and what made you choose these particular sounds?

‘Tomorrow is Too Late’ was made for the INA GRM’s Presence Electronique festival. François Bonnet invited me to do a residency there and work with the synthesizer Phillipe Dao (GRM tech genius!) had just finished reverse engineering from the original ‘Coupigny’ synthesizer they have had since the late sixties. I had about a week to get my head around it and just recorded, recorded, recorded. Made a bit more progress when I hooked it up with the very nice Serge system they have there… Went home for a few weeks and cut it down to the parts you hear on the record before a final week back at GRM ahead of the concert to get it finished. Probably the fastest thing I’ve made start to finish. The title comes after the music, from an email exchange with François. Can I have a title for your piece? I’ll have a think and send it tomorrow. Tomorrow is too late. But I like how it reflects the urgency of the process of its making and how it can also mean something much heavier if you want it to in these times of imminent apocalypse. I don’t do narrative music, but if someone wants it to tell a story for them then more power to ‘em.

The other side of the record is a more bastard assemblage. It includes some pipe organ recordings from the Elb Philharmonie. Have you seen this place? Mindblowing. By quite some stroke of luck I got access (thank you Cathy!) before they opened and could record in the night. They were still ‘voicing’ the organ during the daytime, so an errant honking note one day would be gone the next.

The title ‘We’re Always at the End’ is a quote from Tony Conrad in an interview with David Grubs. It’s in there as a wee love note to both of those folks, but again there is also the possibility of multiple meanings — either dovetailed with ‘Tomorrow is too late’ or the pig’s ass on the cover — an ambiguity that I also want to the music to have.

Any more plans for the remainder of the year? What’s up next for you?

It’s almost over, huh? School. A few concerts. Then it gets really dark. Sleep like its winter!

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