Electronic musician Tom Jenkinson, aka Squarepusher, made his name with records such as 1997’s Big Loada EP, offering a tweaked take on drum ‘n’ bass that invited comparisons to his Warp labelmate Aphex Twin. Then in 1998 he released Music Is Rotted One Note, a sharp stylistic turn into jazz fusion that gave him the chance to show off his virtuoso electric-bass chops. Over the course of nine successive LPs he bounced between electronic and electroacoustic sounds before making a return to full-fledged EDM with this year’s strictly sequencer-based Ufabulum. Unexpectedly Jenkinson is now dabbling in dubstep, which may offend some of his snobbier fans, but considering the style’s indebtedness to the same kind of twitchy drum ‘n’ bass with which he began his career, his move also creates the satisfying sense of a long loop closing.
Interviewing Jenkinson for this week’s Artist on Artist is Steve Reidell (aka STV SLV) of Chicago production duo the Hood Internet. The group started out in early 2007 semi-jokingly mashing up indie rock and rap (including a Squarepusher track and a Bun B song for 2008’s “European Gangstas“), which led to unexpected Internet fame, recognition by tastemakers such as New York streetwear company Mishka (which released their Trillwave mixtapes in 2010 and ’11), and a full-time job on the national DJ circuit for Reidell (who’s also responsible for the Hood Internet’s hilarious Twitter feed). Recently the pair have moved away from mashups and begun making original music that stays true to their appreciation of dorky guitar rock and rawkus party rap—in fact they’re celebrating the release of their first album of that material, Feat, on Fri 11/2 at Metro; see Soundboard for more. —Miles Raymer
Squarepusher is known for mixing electronics with live instrumentation—records like Solo Electric Bass 1 using just a bass guitar, and your current record, Ufabulum, which is all programming and no live instruments. I wanted to ask you about making music using a limited palette.
My situation when I started making music was in quite extreme contrast to kids starting out these days—who, if they are in possession of a half-decent PC and an Internet connection, could quite quickly set themselves up with an extremely versatile electronic-music studio. This, in contrast to my early days of making music in the 80s, is a rather different situation, obviously, in that the availability of computer software was not really existent. Obviously there were the beginnings of such things on home PCs, which I did make use of.
Some of those things were available, but really not much. Not at all, no. When I was starting out using computers I had a Commodore VIC-20, which I programmed as some kind of drum machine—my self-estimate of what I thought a drum machine might be like. But really I just scrabbled together whatever I could, without any real kind of governing criteria. The only condition was that it was to do with music. So, you know, anything—whatever I could find, whatever I could afford, or whatever I could blag, whatever I could borrow . . . could “long-term borrow.” Some people call it stealing. There weren’t manuals telling you particularly what to do with these pieces of equipment. When I say “what to do,” I mean what to do artistically, you know, like how to whip all this garbage into shape. And that situation of working with an extremely limited range of equipment just conditioned a mind-set which prevails to this day for me.
Are there instruments or gear or technologies that you feel you maybe haven’t had the chance to explore yet that you’re considering for future recordings or live performances?
The one area which I suppose I’ve always skirted around—because I felt like it was a musical ailment from which I had to recover, as a teenager—was just playing with groups. We’ve talked about limitations, but when those limitations are human—i.e., other people saying “no”—it’s not the kind of thing that you can overrule. I was generally the kid; I was playing bass in essentially other people’s bands. But I’d always have ideas: “Oh, why don’t we try to do this. Why don’t we try that.” And I suppose some of my ideas were slightly off-kilter, a bit wacky, here and there, but in any case, I didn’t really get to explore those ideas in that format, which eventually I found frustrating and led me to direct more energy into my kind of homespun messing about with music gear. There’s a sort of a residue of negativity in me toward the format of working with and collaborating, because I don’t want someone to put barriers up in front of me that I think are artificial, especially if they’re based on a misguided speculation about the result of that experiment. For me making the experiment is fun—let’s try it, see if it works. Of course, 20 years have elapsed and maybe I’ve got access to different people now. I’ve fantasized about ending up in any manner of musical situations. I sometimes crave just playing in a group. Being anonymous, this guy, just playing jazz in some dingy club somewhere. Goodness knows, man, everything. There’s very little that doesn’t fascinate me.
Did you find anything in terms of the group environment when you were working on the Shobaleader project that called back to your youth of playing in bands, where you felt that there were barriers or like an unwillingness to explore?
At the time I framed it as a band. It was kind of a little collection of people that I’d called in and tried to sort of extract something from them. If you think of another random but possibly analogous situation of someone like Brian Wilson, where he’s governing a lot of what happens—it’s not really the group, it’s kind of his thing. And I think maybe that was what was happening there. So I wind up trying to bring these musical fantasies alive, and quite often, and probably for good reason, other people say, “Man, we shouldn’t do this.” But they fascinate me. I like the chance and the options to explore things that are unlikely to work. And it’s a lot more fun if it does, rather than following something where you’ve just got a plan and yeah, hey presto, you complete it, but who cares because you already knew it was possible. So I’m moving tentatively back towards it—the Andre 3000 collaboration concept is quite old by now. It’s recently kind of—it’s potentially back on the move.
I read in an old interview where you said in regard to [working with Andre 3000] that you didn’t want to serve as a production vehicle—like basically you didn’t want to be a rap producer and send in something to work on. Have you spoken to him more about it?
Yeah. I mean, it’s become clear actually that he wants it to be a full-blooded collaboration. It still remains to seen how it would work and if it would work, of course. My ideas for that are just—if I can make it work, it’s going to be fucking mental. As you can imagine, both of our schedules are busy and this guy, he’s a busy man. We’ll see.
I read that your current tour for Ufabulum features no old material. Do you ever find a desire from your audience to play the old shit, as it were?
Absolutely. It’s a continual battle and in the end there’s probably some hard-headed nature of mine which doesn’t particularly please my audience from time to time, because as you say the show as it’s been conducted thus far hasn’t featured any old material. Although I will add that that has recently changed. Without wanting to go into it specifically, there’s now actually a couple pieces at the end of the set that will be much more familiar to people who have listened to my stuff over the years. But by and large it is based on new stuff, which is—I suppose there’s that sort of cliche, “Oh no, he’s playing the new stuff.” For me, it’s the only way to stay excited. I suppose there’s always that kind of heartwarming thing about the old numbers, but for me it doesn’t warm my heart. It just makes me feel like a joker. Like, what am I doing here? Anyone can do this.
I think that kind of nostalgia resonates with the audience far greater than it generally does with the artist.
In my experience. For me actually the only thing that makes this project continue is keeping my enthusiasm alive, and consequently I base my decisions primarily on the effect they’ll have on my enthusiasm. Because without that there’s nothing. There’s no music happening. Without enthusiasm there’s just no—and I might well have a studio, but I just don’t want to go in it. So who the fuck cares? In the end, actually, there is some concession that has to be made to the crowd, because I wouldn’t be up there onstage unless I had some desire to bring an experience to people. I’m not shut off from the crowd, I’m not hiding, although sometimes I do want to.
Well, you’ve got a mask, so . . .
Exactly. That kind of helps me negotiate that shyness. But in all seriousness, this is a case in point, because when I started going out to raves when I was a teenager, I found that to be in direct contrast to the gigs I was doing with whatever bands I was in—the crowd was more focused on itself rather than focusing on a DJ or performer, and I found that really refreshing. So when I started doing my own electronic-music gigs, I used to set up behind the PA stacks, because I didn’t want anyone to look at me. I just wanted to them to be hearing the sound. And obviously that’s pretty naive. I’ve always had a problem with the cult of personality—it’s like, people want to come and turn you into a sort of product. Like an object. Partly it leads people to conduct themselves in such an annoying way. Like people who talk to you. Like they’ve already understood what you’ve done. They know you. They’ve made a set of assumptions that govern their conduct, which has actually nothing to do with what they’ve got in front of them—they’re not actually acknowledging you as a person, they’re basically talking to a figment of their fucking imagination. So yeah. It does have its dangers, this alienation that can occur between a crowd and a performer.
So you’ve been playing bass since you were 11?
What bassists have you admired along the way? Are there any new names in addition to your classics?
It’s a funny one, you know. Again, it’s one of these things where there’s something perverse in me that wants to try to make good the heritage of the bass guitar, because lots of people have made it bad, and there’s a lot of muzo stereotypes with it, which I don’t repudiate entirely, because I think in one sense people who have gone out of their way to develop the technical side of playing the instrument are actually doing something which is of some value. I mean, you know, Jaco [Pastorius] is an interesting and very obvious person to refer to. The height of Weather Report is like cheesy television music. But there’s sort of a musical personality which I felt was sort of at least quite engaging in Jaco, and definitely, it’s problematic, because I think he brought almost an athletic side, an athletic approach to the performance of jazz music, which I think it continues to suffer from.
What do you mean athletic?
Almost like a sportsman’s approach. Again it’s like this trespassing into the world of, basically, physical prowess and technical prowess for its own sake. Some of these guys nonetheless have got something to offer—it just has to be reprocessed before general humanity can be expected to take any notice of it. That’s sort of an obtuse answer, maybe. I mean, for a new name, just to fast forward, I really admire that guy, the Lightning Bolt bass player [Brian Gibson], because he’s doing something which isn’t really in any case bass playing in any ordinary sense of the word, but nonetheless he’s at least starting out with equipment which could be referred to as a bass amp and a bass guitar. He’s done something quite remarkable, extremely visceral, with it.
The way he sort of cascades things in a live performance, just kind of with the way the volume increases and the low frequencies kick in over the course of the piece—that’s not just technique, that’s application.
He’s got something quite special going on, and I put him ahead of a lot of other people though he’s not nominally more technically proficient. I think he’s a much more interesting—I don’t like the word “holistic” because it’s got some weird connotations, but he’s got a much more “whole” approach to music. He’s got technique, but he’s doing what music ought to do, which is basically stimulating and moving people and giving people an emotionally engaging experience, which I think is what these real technical nutcases tend to lack.