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Monthly Archives: April 1997

Electronic Flora

Erik Gilbert, label manager of Asphodel Records, talks about identity, electronica's forefathers, and DJ Spooky's move to the majors.

Erik Gilbert, label manager of the New York-based Asphodel Records, graciously agreed to answer a slate of questions for a feature story about independent electronic-music labels, published in the September 1997 issue of Pulse! magazine (“Black Label,”). Named for the flower that grows along the banks of the mythical River Styx, Asphodel is, perhaps, best known as the home to DJ Spooky. Its roster has included such like-minded electronic types as Single Cell Orchestra, the X-Ecutioners, Invisibl Skratch Picklz, and Datacide. But the label’s releases run from word jazz legend Ken Nordine to the second volume of RE/Search Books’ Incredibly Strange Music and, recently, the contemporary classical fare of Xenakis and Min Xiao Fen. This is the complete transcript of the interview.

Marc Weidenbaum: One of the exciting things about the rise of ambient and electronic music has been the extent to which truly experimental and avant-garde music is beginning to play a strong role in visible, popular culture. Asphodel’s release of a Xenakis record is a perfect example of this. Gavin Bryars and Philip Glass’ relations with Aphex Twin are examples, to some extent. Your Min Xiao Fen CD is yet another. Who knows, perhaps Autechre will discover Phill Niblock? Likely they already know. How long had your Xenakis record been in the works? How did you decide to record and release it?

Erik Gilbert: What we are experiencing, culturally, is a merging of what has always been traditionally considered high and low art. We are striving, as a label, not so much to cross-pollinate genres and styles, but to cross-pollinate the listeners. Although there are obvious dangers with this, whereby the value and importance of a work can be negated, we would hope to introduce a DJ Spooky fan to the work of Xenakis and vice versa. Breaking the boundaries created by class and privilege.

Weidenbaum: How are Asphodel, Sombient, Recombinant, and Sound Traffic Control related?

Gilbert: Sound Traffic Control is a collective, curated by Naut Humon, which explores the possibilities of audio immersion environments, specifically with 3D sound. Recombinant has been the live arena in which these explorations have taken place — where different styles and genres have been mixed. Asphodel and its imprint, Sombient, are the labels which can bring the recorded versions of these types of environments to a home listening environment. Asphodel and Sound Traffic Control do not depend upon each other, but mutually support each other’s endeavors and explorations in sound.

Weidenbaum: This story is about independent labels, and that “independence” is generally defined in contrast with so-called “major” labels. DJ Spooky, who has long been associated with your label, has signed with Dreamworks. Could you describe the situation that led up to the signing? At what point did it become apparent that the majors had “caught on”?

Gilbert: Firstly, Spooky has not signed with Dreamworks, but with Outpost, a division of Geffen. I think it has become inevitable for the major labels and independents to mutually support and respect each others’ positions. The majors obviously have the financial and corporate power to introduce an artist to a wider audience. The independents have the vision. Hopefully in a situation like this, Spooky can be appreciated by a wider audience without losing his importance as an artist. I believe the collaboration between Asphodel and Outpost/Geffen will prove to a mutually beneficial arrangement. And most importantly, Spooky will have an arena in which to develop and grow as an artist — and continue to have impact upon the world. So much important work is today consumed by the ever-increasing corporate structures.

Weidenbaum: What do you think about electronic musicians’ propensity for multiple identities?

Gilbert: We have been through the crisis of representation, and now we are going through a crisis of identity. These developments are partly a result of our culture, our now global culture, moving into the so-called Information Age. Identity has become an important issue, as cultures around the world become consumed by the capitalist and corporate powers of America. Who are we? Where does our identity start and finish? In light of the web, and other forms of communication, these questions become more valid. Of course, these issues are extremely complex.

Weidenbaum: Which, if any, of the newer electronic labels do you feel an affinity toward?

Gilbert: I think there are some fantastic labels out there. I think we have an affinity with many of them. I would like to see more and more labels collaborate, moving away from that traditional notion that we are all in competition.

Weidenbaum: Are there any musics you wish you could record and release, but which you think would be an unwise investment?

Gilbert: Never. Any work that is deemed to be of importance can be released. Of course, as a business, we have to consider certain financial matters and budgets. But if a work is important and should be released, we will endeavor to release it. Unfortunately, time does not permit us to release everything. Sales figures are not the first consideration, however.

Weidenbaum: Storm of Drones is one of the strongest compilations I’ve heard in years. As the operator of a label, do you feel a closer creative tie with compilation albums than you do with artists’ full-length albums?

Gilbert: I think compilations, specifically compilations such as the Drones series, act as works within themselves. I think that is what makes a good compilation — a CD that acts as a continuous work, regardless of the contributors. I am very much against the idea of compilations that merely reissue 10 or 12 tracks from different places. A Storm of Drones is an artist album, made up of contributions from many different artists. I think one of the strengths of the Drones series is that is brings together artists from many different styles (industrial, new age, ambient, electro-acoustic) but successfully manages to merge them into one piece of work, without losing integrity.

Weidenbaum: You take Brian Eno to task to some extent in the liner notes of Storm of Drones. Ambient has many progenitors and precursors. It’s been exciting to see John Fahey come back, and it’s exciting to imagine Asphodel fans coming upon the Xenakis record by chance. Beyond Xenakis, who are some forefathers you’d like to have a hand in (re)introducing to the public?

Gilbert: Stockhausen, Satie. Even Marshall McLuhan!

Weidenbaum: Like Achim Szepanski’s Mille Plateaux label, your company has strong associations with cultural theory. Are there some essential philosophical underpinnings to Asphodel (in both aesthetic matters and business ones) that you feel comfortable outlining?

Gilbert: To successfully merge the commercial considerations with artistic integrity. We live in a capitalist society, and the notion of public space is forever being taken away. Hollywood and the corporate logo are becoming the political powers. In our own, perhaps small, way we want to stand against that. It is enormously difficult to be political in this climate, and art is often consumed and fed back to those that create it as a product. We can not turn back the clock, but I believe we can make a difference, to somehow make people realize what is truly important in a work of art. That is why you see no merchandising from Asphodel, little or no advertising. It is a statement.

Weidenbaum: Just as I was about to email this series of questions to you, I received the Asphodel/ADA announcement. While the ink is still wet on the contract, could you take a moment to explain how a label makes a decision about distribution, what factors are weighed, and how, perhaps, this particular move (from Caroline to ADA) came about?

Gilbert: Obviously we needed to move to the next level. With ADA we can achieve a wider and deeper distribution network. We want to be in Musicland as much as we do the smaller, cooler stores. And we aim to do this without compromise. ADA has the systems and the tools to enable us to do that. I am very delighted to be associated with ADA.

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Extreme Measures

Roger Richards celebrates 10 years of CDs with Extreme Records.

Simply the list of bands and individual musicians associated with Extreme Records goes a long toward describing the nature of the label, which at 12 years of age (10 under the stewardship of Roger Richards) is one of the senior electronic record companies. The old-world agit-ambient of Muslimgauze, the jazz-inflected work of Paul Schutze, the noise of Merzbow, the abstract cinema of Soma, the tinkering of Jim O’Rouke—none of these sounds are unique to the Extreme label, but many of these musicians have done their best work here. As evidenced by a sly emoticon [ ;^) ] midway through the text, this interview was conducted via email. It was done in preparation for a story for Pulse! magazine (“Black Label,” September 1996).

Marc Weidenbaum: The business chronology of Extreme is, to the extent I am familiar with it: formed in ’85, you took over in ’87, initiated Extreme Europe in ’94 through an association with Artelier, with whom I am not familiar otherwise. Could you sum up the last three or so years: what new business developments have occurred? What is your current distribution situation?

Roger Richards: Since establishing Extreme Europe, we have been working hard to develop stronger distribution networks in each of the territories. GAS, Benelux, Scandinavia, U.K., etc. also require specific marketing strategies and it has been a challenging time. We have also recommenced distributing our own releases in Australia and this has proven most successful. In U.S.A. we are distributed by Dutch East India Trading and it was an important decision to work with a distributor that understands our music.

Weidenbaum: The marketplace has caught up with Extreme, to some extent. The sounds of Muslimgauze, and Soma, and Shinjuku Thief are more familiar to listeners, thanks to the ascension of ambient and electronic music in recent years. Rock — lyrics, guitars, songs for that matter — doesn’t enjoy the force of hegemony that it once did. Is this occurrence a comfort, or does it make you want to record entirely other types of music.

Richards: There are certainly other contemporary artists that sound like Soma or Muslimgauze or Shinjuku Thief and that is an expected situation. We see imitation as a form of flattery and are comfortable with this situation. We have always worked with artists that pioneer a certain style, the unique voice of the musician, and many musicians respect what Extreme releases. However, we do like to be leaders, as you suggest, and that is why we are working with artists like Social Interiors, Skuli Sverrisson, and Fetisch Park.

When a genre, such as drum and bass, is already established and has produced its seminal recordings we make a conscious choice not to release that style of music. Extreme is about innovation and experimentation and our audience is looking for a challenge.

Weidenbaum: Which, if any, of the newer electronic labels do you feel an affinity toward?

Richards: Extreme does not look to other labels, or music, for direction. Therefore, we don’t have an affinity for newer electronic labels although we do enjoy listening to the music they release.

Weidenbaum: Extreme started as a tape label, and has grown tremendously since then. The Internet offers many opportunities for small labels, from marketing to publicity to distribution, even to artistic collaboration. Do you think that the Internet could become a kind of late-’90s equivalent of the tape-networking culture: people posting their music on personal web pages for others to discover and download?

Richards: If the World Wide Web is not already the ’90s equivalent of the underground tape network then it should be. The Internet has done so much to reduce the tyranny of distance, both from a cost and time perspective, and it offers so much flexibility for the exchange of music and information. The only difficulty that it poses is how you find what interests you. Newsgroups are helping to fill this void.

Weidenbaum: Are there any musics you wish you could record and release, but which you think would be a bad investment?

Richards: Most people who hear what Extreme does would consider what we consider to be music a bad investment ;^) The 50-CD Merzbox is certainly a big investment but we see it as a realistic project for Extreme. We don’t seek out music with strict financial criteria. We make our judgement based on the music. However, if an artist is seeking an advance that would financially cripple our operations then we do say no. After 10 years we have learnt that there will always be some more great music to discover.

Weidenbaum: What have your experiences been with major labels? Have they come a-courting?

Richards: We have done some releases through major labels, although not in the U.S.A., and it is a worthwhile experience. Stores will stock, and sell, the title and we can gain press in mainstream media. However, the success of a release through a major does not necessarily translate to sales of other titles as it is a totally different network. The downside is lack of involvement in the release and little understanding of success or otherwise until after the event.

Weidenbaum: Is there a supportive independent label community, either in Australia or across the globe?

Richards: There is a network of independent labels across the world and this ensures that many of the specialty stores are kept informed of very specialized and esoteric releases. There has to be this network to ensure that unique music is not lost to the world. The Internet is also helping this network to maintain its presence.

Weidenbaum: To which three releases would you direct newcomers to Extreme? Richards: I would suggest XCD-038, Soma’s The Inner Cinema, as it is accessible and enjoyable music that also provides a challenging cinematic listening experience. XCD-031, Pablo’s Eye’s You Love Chinese Food, is a very special album that is the true voice of this group and intriguing for its diversity of form. I would also suggest XCD-008, Merzbow’s Music for Bondage Performance, as it showcases the greatness of Merzbow’s noise music and the cultural differences that still exist between Japan and western civilization.

Having said that, I think it is impossible to define Extreme with three releases as each release is unique. The real test of what we do will be what future generations think about the music released on Extreme.

Weidenbaum: What is due out next from Extreme, say through the end of ’98?

Richards: We have just release new albums from Skuli Sverrisson and Social Interiors and a new EP from Soma. We will release new albums from Fetisch Park and Ed Pias in fall, along with a 10-year anniversary compilation album. The Merzbox by Merzbow is also scheduled for release in the fall.

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Digital Libations

Moonshine Records label head Steven Levy on why independent companies own electronica — for at least the near future

Home to DJ Keoki, Electric Skychurch, Cirrus, and countless compilation series (Psychotrance, United DJs of America), Moonshine Records predates much of the current electronica hype. This interview with label founder and A&R head Steven Levy was done in preparation for a story for Pulse! magazine (“Black Label,” September 1996) about independent record labels that specialize in electronic music.


 

Marc Weidenbaum: Let’s start at the top, with a brief history of your label.

Steven Levy: Moonshine’s been around for almost five years. We’ve had a few different distributors, our current one is RED, which we just inked a deal with two months ago. Originally, I used to put on raves and clubs here in L.A., used to DJ at them. Through some of the people they used to bring over from Europe to play at the raves, I made some connections and somewhat naively decided, Why isn’t this music getting out here, and how do we get it out? Put together a compilation, called Techno Truth, and hooked up distribution, back then through Indi. We hit the nail on the head at the right time, with the first release, when “techno” was a big word. The first record sold, and we just kept putting out records from then on, compilations mainly.

Weidenbaum: When you started with compilations, was it understood you’d eventually do full-length releases?

Levy: Yeah. At the time, even in Europe there weren’t really any album artists coming out of the genre, and there were a lot of big singles that were big in the raves and the clubs, but none of the artists that were doing big singles at the time had got to the level of doing full-length work. The other side to the scenario was that in America, you’re not going to make enough money selling 12″ singles to support an actual record label. So, the compilation was the inevitable route.

Weidenbaum: Does a company make money on 12″ singles. I’ve heard differing opinions.

Levy: How we make money on 12″ singles is, really, from licensing those singles onto other compilations, and to other labels, and to other territories, from the one-off single project. I would say that the sale of the 12″s and [cost of ] the manufactured 12″s is to promote them so that we can then do that.

Weidenbaum: What is it about the 12″ single that lends a cachet to something.

Levy: I don’t know if it’s a cachet. It’s a necessity to get club play and to get it onto the turntables of the people who play music, so people can hear the music initially.

Weidenbaum: Where are you from?

Levy: Originally from London.

Weidenbaum: And you started the label with your brother?

Levy: Yeah.

Weidenbaum: What is the division of labor?

Levy: He handles the business side, the day-to-day operations, the money, that kind of thing. I handle the creative side, the A&R, the packaging, the artist relations. We meet with the marketing and the advertising end of things.

Weidenbaum: What’s coming up you’re most excited about?

Levy: We’ve got Keoki’s first full-length self-produced album, which is called Ego Trip; really excited about what’s happening with Cirrus’ album, called Drop the Break. That was released about eight weeks ago and it’s selling really strong. We’re getting tremendous support at radio and college radio and press, and they’re doing some amazing touring. What else we got coming up? Couple of signings in the works I’ll talk about at a later date. Also the fact that we signed Carl Cox in the U.S.

Weidenbaum: You still involved with Mixmag?

Levy: We’re distributing their releases, yes. That came about through a relationship we had with Guy Arnedell, who was running DMC in the U.S. We kind of together formulated with him the whole United DJs of America series, and then when Mixmag, which was kind of a sister company in the U.K., said, Well, why don’t we put these albums we’re putting together for the magazine out in America, they put it through the same channel, which was us.

Weidenbaum: A lot of electronic labels are inking with majors; other, like Ninja Tune, are staying apart. What’s with Moonshine?

Levy: The beginning of this year, with all the focus that’s been on electronic music, we had a lot of interest from major labels, and there’s still interest going on. At the same time, we were distributed by Navare for the last two or three years, and our deal was up with them. I saw a lot of opportunities were open to us, but when we looked at the major label system and getting into that, it didn’t make sense, so we went with RED, cause they gave us the best of both worlds, in that they are an independent company but when push comes to shove, they’ve got Sony behind them, Sony distribution set up behind them to really put records away and put records into the stores. So, we chose to go with RED and stay independent, ’cause the company’s independently owned, um, but seeing as how the majors work, and even in discussions with people at the majors, they freely admitted that they could not do the business we’re doing in the way that we do it through their systems. It does not make sense at this point to go with them.

Weidenbaum: Could you delineate that for a layman. What are the things that indies do that are difficult for a major to consider?

Levy: We make money selling 10,000 records, and we know how to make money selling 10,000 records. We have ways of promoting records and building a fan base for an artist or even for the label that completely baffle the major labels since they really have a system that they plug every record into and if it works it works and if it doesn’t it doesn’t. The whole priority system: If a record isn’t selling over 100,000 records it’s considered a flop. We don’t need to do that to get the records out. At this point in electronic music the fan base isn’t that big. It’s growing, and we’re doing our best to help it grow, and now that the doors at radio and major commercial press are opening, our sort of fan base is opening and we can tap into the, maybe, more traditional forms of promotion, but still having the base that we work with.

Weidenbaum: I was reading this article about the movie Titanic, and the writer was talking about how the movie had to be put off because it wouldn’t have enough of an advance to meet the press deadlines. Indie labels don’t depend on press the same way majors do. The whole production hinges on how magazines have a two month lead time.

Levy: Sometimes even longer. We were talking to some magazines lately and they have, like, four or five months. On our end of things, like you said, we don’t have to rely on the press to do it, because we don’t have to sell hundreds of thousands of records, and we also don’t have to work by the same rules. I mean, they have rules in place of how they do it. They’re attempting to make some changes, because they’re seeing that the way major labels have been attempting to work records recently has caused a real downturn in the whole music market, because they’re not believing in artist development. There is no story behind a lot of artists who come out. For us, with Cirrus, we’d been working them two years before their record came, with 12″ releases, with them going out playing, with us making people aware of them, with street awareness of them.

Weidenbaum: Are these new rules or old rules. So many people get their info on the Internet, that it’s almost old hat when they turn to Rolling Stone — or Pulse! for that matter.

Levy: I think that’s true to a certain extent. The power of the Internet is maybe still overestimated. I’m more and more a fan of the Internet, but I still think that your average kid in the street usually finds this stuff out in Rolling Stone before the Internet.

Weidenbaum: What are the new rules?

Levy: The old rules. I read The Mansion on the Hill, about the old rock’n’roll business — Springsteen was out touring for three years before he released a record. There was a local awareness on a big level of a band before people would even consider picking them up. Bands had experience playing in front of audiences before they would be allowed to go in the studio. Now, it’s like, you know, a band does a demo tape, which they could do in their bedroom studio, and the song sounds like a hit to an A&R man — he picks them up, doesn’t even know whether or not they can play live, and it’s very manufactured. Next thing you know they’re trying to put the band in front of 10,000 people opening for a bigger band, and they don’t cut it. What we’re trying to do, because the way our business is set up, the actual financial end of it is supported by the compilations; it doesn’t matter whether or not we put an artist album out on schedule, and it doesn’t matter whether or not it’s a hit. We create an awareness of a band just by having a record out there, and we build them. We’re not looking to break them on the first album, even the second album.

Weidenbaum: What’s the investment structure? It’s privately held.

Levy: It’s owned by my brother and I.

Weidenbaum: And are there any other investors?

Levy: No.

Weidenbaum: How much money did you initially have to invest?

Levy: It just sort of grew. We scraped together enough money to put a compilation together, and then the money that we earned from that compilation we put back in, and then we put another one out, and then we put it back in, and it’s been this constant re-investment.

Weidenbaum: Estimate market value for the label right now?

Levy: Obviously, we’ve looked at it. By industry standards, probably got to be worth over 10 million dollars.

Weidenbaum: You mentioned the label has fans. One of the beauties of electronica is the association of a label with a particular sound. What do people go to Moonshine for?

Levy: I think one of the things we’ve tried to do with the compilations, and one of the things we’ve seen from the feedback we get from the people who buy them — whether we’re documenting trip-hop or jungle or techno or whatever, we’re picking the best of the genre. Whichever DJs are doing mix albums for us, it’s guaranteed to be good. There’ s no schlock on there. We didn’t just get into this to do Dance Mix ’86, ’96 — two big tracks and a load of filler, six tracks done by the same producer under six different names. If we do a trip-hop album it’s the real deal, it’s the real artists from the genre. So, I think that’s one of the things — you’re going to like the music. We get feedback that says, “I just look for the label and I know that if it’s Moonshine, I might not know what trip-hop is, but I’ll buy the record.” On the artists end of things, we sort of are now focused on where we’re going with that. On one end, with the 12″ dance product, it’s a tougher and tougher end of house, a tougher, pumping house. On the actual artist albums, such as Keoki and Cirrus, I would say “electronic alternative” is the best way to describe it.

Weidenbaum: Who are your role models?

Levy: We’re doing a similar thing as someone like Rick Rubin did during the ’80s with hip-hop. I produce myself, and I would like to see myself in the future — our bands coming to me and saying, We’d like you to produce us. What he initially did — not necessarily what he’s doing now — in the past … definitely model on that. And then, sort of maybe going further back, look at someone like Bill Graham, who really spotted talent when it was at its rawest, and built relationships before people even knew or heard about anything, and built his empire on that. A guy by the name of Tom Hewlitt — I used to go to school with his daughter, and he ran Concerts West and did the original Elvis concerts and managed the Moody Blues, and he was my initial view as to why I wanted to get into the music business.

Weidenbaum: Every system is stratified. Millionaires eye billionaires, much as mid-five figure types eye low-six-figure ones. A&R people at majors hear music every day that they love, but know to be a bad investment — a bad investment for big label. You guys can have a million-dollar business based on albums that sell 10,000 copies. Is there music you listen to that you can’t release. What kind of music do you listen to that you just couldn’t feasibly —

Levy: I don’t think there is any. We have a sublabel, which is called Bottom Heavy, which I kind of run as a hobby on the side, which was a reaction to exactly what you’re saying. I was getting demos from producers I knew and I liked the stuff so much we just put it out on 12″. We’re doing a compilation of this stuff coming out end of August.

Weidenbaum: What kind of stuff is it?

Levy: From low to mid-tempo breakbeat sort of West Coast sounding, all sort of based on breaks, non-vocal, but real experimental, anything from stuff you want to listen to on headphones to stuff that actually does work on the dance floor but is really based around breakbeat. There really isn’t anything [we can’t release], but then there’s other bands that maybe on the other end may be too rich for my blood that I really sort of idolize, that I listen to.

Weidenbaum: Like who?

Levy: Like Garbage, just the whole project, the way that came together, and the music that’s come out of it is just phenomenal. The Prodigy’s a great band — we were gonna sign them, back in ’94. We had the same deal on the table as Mute did, because of the relationship we had with Excel in the past, and the only reason we didn’t get it was because management wanted them for a major. I would have loved that deal to go through. I was having a conversation with the guy from Excel the other day, and he said, Would you have done what Mute did with Maverick [Records], and I was like, Yeah.

Weidenbaum: Good to see them get the success.

Levy: There’s so much shit going on with electronic music at the moment that I’m taking a step back and laughing. The majors are throwing stupid money at the moment at anything that was created on a keyboard with a sampler with a couple of guys that front it.

Weidenbaum: It would be easy to pull one over.

Levy: A lot of people are — bottom line is most of these people have only ever done one track, none of them have ever played live, there’s huge hype going on, and a lot of this stuff is getting signed thinking it’s going to be the next Prodigy or Chemical Brothers. They don’t realize, the Prodigy have been around since 1991, sold millions of records, played in front of millions of people, and all the stuff that’s getting signed is one guy in the studio creating noise — that may be great, but there’s nothing beyond it than one guy in the studio creating noise.

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Luke Vibert’s Bedroom Is a Jungle

The Throbbing Pouch full-length album is making his Wagon Christ pseudonym a household name. Next comes Plug.

Ever since Luke Vibert moved into his new London apartment, a strange array of sounds has emanated from his bedroom: A chorus of angels sigh with eerie uniformity. An unidentifiable woodwind pipes catchy tunes worthy of Sesame Street. Sine waves surf like saucers over the ridge. And then there’s the endless stream of drum patterns: lockstep grooves thumping with inhuman precision, the sauntering cadences of American hip-hop, the ballistic Ping-Pong signature of “jungle” music. Despite which activity, Vibert reports no complaints from his new neighbors. Perhaps they think the 22-year-old merely is doing what 22-year-olds do: playing records at all hours. In fact he is doing what many 22-year-olds do these days, but he isn’t playing records. He is making them.

“There’s not much of it,” Vibert says on the phone, surveying the equipment that allows his bedroom to double as a recording studio. “It’s a very tiny work space, just in my corner. On my left I’ve got my old Atari and a sampler and a mixing desk, and then on my right there’s just one keyboard and the effects unit. And that’s it.”

Then again, maybe Londoners have simply gotten used to Vibert and his generation of bedroom Beethovens. There certainly are enough of them come 1996, these Aphex Twins and u-ziqs and Mouses on Mars, holed up in their PJs, assembling fabulist pastiches of electronic music with minimal resources. “Aphex has just got hundreds and hundreds of things in a lush little bedroom setup,” says Vibert of ambient music’s biggest star (and fellow Cornwall native). “Most of the others are quite small, like mine.”

The room’s dimensions have not constrained Vibert’s prolific nature. By his own estimation, he releases one in three of the tracks he assembles bedside. And that’s been enough material for a steady stream of albums, singles and work-for-hire remixes not only under his own name but as Wagon Christ and Plug. Rapid-fire 12″s keep his name afloat in ambient and jungle circles, but limited pressings (as few as 500 copies a title) lend them the substance of rumors. By the time word has circulated on Internet newsgroups, they’re sold out.

Fortunately for his U.S. fans, Vibert’s best work is also his most readily available: Throbbing Pouch (Rising High/Moonshine), a far-ranging instrumental expanse of sci-fi backdrops, ascetic mantras and insinuated funk. Call it information-age bachelor pad music, so thick and varied is the mix, including a solid debt to U.S. hip-hop that distinguishes Vibert from much of his competition. (“I’m mainly into East Coast stuff,” he says, “like Tribe Called Quest, DJ Premier, Group Home.”) He’s nicked a few samples from stateside rappers, but aside from royalties, what Throbbing Pouch most owes to hip-hop is the inspiration for his inventive use of sampled records.

“I had a really dodgy old record of my mom’s, actually,” he says, “that I stole from her a few years: Yves Montand, with this lush string intro. And I found it on CD up here, so I did this bit when it was really crackly and horrible and also sampled this lush CD, so it suddenly cut to the same sound but with no crackles.”

Perhaps Vibert’s neighbors aren’t far off the mark. He is playing records in his bedroom, or at least playing with them. They sit in crates by his computer, like so much clay waiting for the potter.

Originally published Pulse! magazine, April 1996.

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Cornish for Jungle

Full transcript of the interview with Luke Vibert, aka Wagon Christ, aka Plug

Marc Weidenbaum: So, you just moved into a new apartment. Do you still work in your bedroom?

Luke Vibert: Oh yeah, I do.

Weidenbaum: All the technology’s still there.

Vibert: There’s not much of it, though. It’s a very tiny work space, just in my corner. On my left I’ve got my old Atari and a sampler and a mixing desk and then on my right there’s just one keyboard and the effects unit, and that’s it.

Weidenbaum: Most of your friends work in the same situation?

Vibert: Yeah, they do, pretty similar, although Aphex has just got hundreds and hundreds of things in a lush little bedroom setup. Most of the others are quite small, like mine.

Weidenbaum: Is space hard to come by, or does a studio just not take much these days?

Vibert: I’m not sure, really. For me it’s just that because it started off being like a hobby, I never thought of releasing the tracks or anything. So I just do it in my room. Because it wasn’t until about ’92 that I realized I could actually release stuff from my room, as well. It just kind of gradually developed. I always imagined before that that I would have to go into someone else’s studio to do the final thing, but [the record labels, such as] Rising High and Rephlex were like, “No, it’s fine; we can release it.”

Weidenbaum: So you don’t even mix down anywhere else?

Vibert: No, with a couple of things, I’ve gone to the studio and they’ve put on a bit of treble and things like that. And the Throbbing Pouch album I mixed it digitally at some place just so I could save a bit of time, so I could squeeze more in. But apart from that, it’s all at my place. It’s getting better all the time, though at the moment I won’t need to do anything at the studio, because I’ve got a few more bits inside my sampler, like filters, bits and pieces.

Weidenbaum: The sounds are so live on the first track, “Reedin’.” Is that an oboe?

Vibert: I think so. It’s off this bizarre reed CD. Might be clarinet, pitched-down clarinet

Weidenbaum: Some of the sounds are so live, I wonder if you’ve brought someone into the bedroom to play something.

Vibert: No, I do want to do that but no, I haven’t at all. It’s just samples. I did get his big reed CD. I don’t know if it was for sampling. I think it was for things like plays, something to play in the background. It’s got loads of nice reeds on it. I just usually go for things like that. More sort of sounds I can play around with, rather than loops, because if you take just one or two notes then you can play around and make your own tunes, which is more my kind of thing. I would like to do my own tunes, but at that time, as well, for Throbbing Pouch, I didn’t have that much sampling time. I only had about 30 seconds, I think. So I couldn’t do that much. But now I’ve got five minutes. Definitely I will be doing more live stuff.

Weidenbaum: You do your work-for-hire remixes in your bedroom studio as well?

Vibert: Yeah

Weidenbaum: Working on any now?

Vibert: No.

Weidenbaum: Are you jonesing?

Vibert: Jonesing?

Weidenbaum: Drug terminology for when you need some.

Vibert: No, I’m not at the moment. [laughs]

Weidenbaum: In reference to the remixes.

Vibert: The remixes, yes. No, at the moment I’m just finishing off the Plug album, which kept changing all the time.

Weidenbaum: I haven’t seen any Plug titles in the States.

Vibert: There hard enough to get here.

Weidenbaum: Yeah, I’ve found some peculiar stuff in a few stores, such as that EP on LO Records.

Vibert: Oh, yeah. There’s only one track of mine there. Basically it was just a remix I did for them. They just styled it so it looked like we all worked together. It’s a strange record. I haven’t still quite got with it.

Weidenbaum: First thing I’d heard of yours was the Redone EP, the U.K. edition. And I didn’t know what to make of it. I guess I expected something a little more coherently danceable, as with say “Pull My Strings.”

Vibert: Funny enough, that’s quite a dancey one in my book.

Weidenbaum: What I liked was I’d hear drum beats and then they might disappear …

Vibert: I like it to sound more live, I think, than most kind of clubby things, I think because I have got a live background myself. I get a bit bored when everything is all loops and staying the same. But especially now with the latest one, I try and make it as if it’s a band playing.

Weidenbaum: Do you wonder if you’ve gone too far, drifted too far from dance music at times?

Vibert: Yeah, always. It’s such a fine line between going over the top.

Weidenbaum: Arrangements are what it’s really about. If you listen to a string quartet piece, even the most adventurous composer has a limited range with which to explore his or her ideas, a limited range of sounds: some strings, a bow, a bit of wood on which to knock. I suppose there’s the music stand, and some paper to ruffle as well. You and your ilk, on the other hand, can do anything. How do you restrain yourself?

Vibert: I think comes down more to when it comes to releasing, really, the restraining, because I’d don’t restrain myself that much when I’m in the studio, I really do just try to just do whatever I like the sound of at the time. But once it’s been a few weeks since I’ve done tracks I have to sort of sit down and think, God!, and look objectively at it and think, Has that gone a little bit over the top? But usually there’s kind of one in three or four tracks I do that I release. The others I keep to myself.

Weidenbaum: Apparently you work quickly. Your work on one for a couple of days and then move on.

Vibert: Even now, it’s only about three days per track.

Weidenbaum: A lot of what I like about it was these strange little augmentations and modulations, things that seemd very well planned out but are truly more serendipitous.

Vibert: I just kind of work really quickly. I’m still amazed. I just kind of seem to know what I want from each track. So it does — it should — it would take, say, for the same thing to be done by other people, it might take a lot longer, but just cause I’m quite self-confident and quite sure of what I like I just think, “Yeah I’ll do this at this point” and then motor through it.

Weidenbaum: You work with keyboards and samples, so are you playing melodies, are you constructing melodies from bits of sound?

Vibert: Oh yeah, quite a few, but usually not with electronic sounds but with a flute, or whatever.

Weidenbaum: On one track in particular, the one that goes “Prepare to beam aboard” —

Vibert: Oh, “Spotlight.”

Weidenbaum: Yes, “Spotlight.” The voices are so lush in the background.

Vibert: One big bit of that was a loop off a weird old record, some weird, Brazilian kind of easy listening type of thing, and that was the main tune with the singers. And there’s also a kind of a, oh I’m not sure what instrument, a kind of plinky instrument with it. But I’d taken all the bass off that because it was a really crackly kind of old — one of those records which goes wooh-wooh, very [he makes a deep pant-y breathy noise that distorts, and repeats it a few times] when it gets really low. Then I’d redone the bass, so it sounds more like a loop but it’s actually several things.

Weidenbaum: There are moments when I hear what sounds like a bit of reggae drums, and I think it’s going to take off in another direction and then it comes right back.

Vibert: Cool.

Weidenbaum: I like how you use the poor quality of some of the source material to your advantage. There are times where I think the loop’s been going on for a while and then it really deadens out, as if you’re pointing out what part of what I’m hearing is a straight sample.

Vibert: Yeah. I just did one the other day where I had a really dodgy old record of my mom’s, actually, that I stole from her a few years ago: Yves Montand, with this lush string intro. And I found it on CD up here, so I did this bit when it was really crackly and horrible and also sampled this lush CD, so it suddenly cut to the same sound but with no crackles. Weidenbaum: The use of string sounds pops up quite a bit. How much of the music you work with relates to music your parents listened to.

Vibert: Yeah, especially my dad, he really did try and force stuff down my throat when I was really young — old Jimi Hendrix. He was into up front, really big. Then got into punk and stuff later on.

Weidenbaum: You’re having your revenge on him now?

Vibert: I think I am, actually. He likes it, actually, he’s really into it, but then I think he would be whatever it was — even when I was doing sort of band sort of shit — so I’m not sure how objective he is.

Weidenbaum: So your dad listened to punk and your mom listened to Yves Montand?

Vibert: Yeah, that’s basically it. Yves Montand and the Beatles, that’s mom. She’s likes sort of lush melodies and classical music …

Weidenbaum: I think her influence prevails. So, what are those long, horizontal tones on “Down Under.” They sound like a dentist drill.

Vibert: The only thing I remember on that was this weird reggae drum beat I’d taken and kind of put filters on it, so I tuned it, so it was playing these weird notes.

Weidenbaum: And I’m hearing the treble end?

Vibert: Oh, that sound. That was just my 101, and that was one of the last tracks it worked on.

Weidenbaum: I read that you accidentally poured beer in it.

Vibert: Even worse. Horrible.

Weidenbaum: I was wondering. Is there a kind of competition between your friends, especially between yourself, Muziq and Aphex Twin.

Vibert: There was more, funny enough, when we didn’t know each other as well. When we didn’t really know Richard at all, and we hadn’t released anything, the fact that he was putting out stuff from his bedroom — more than competition it just sort of spurred us on to do it ourselves, but these days I’m not sure really, because we’ve all worked together as well, that we just go on our different courses and occasionally link up.

Weidenbaum: A lot of the music that you’re associated with — ambient, techno, jungle music — has been composed in bedrooms, but yours is the rare breed that I actually play in my bedroom.

Vibert: Wicked.

Weidenbaum: In the magazine where I work, we recently listed a bunch of ambient records and a proper setting for each, and yours came under the first date category.

Vibert: I thought it would be more of a meaty thing, when people were pissed off.

Weidenbaum: I suppose that sometimes first dates are like that. One naive question. I often hear of your work in a jungle context. I suppose you do make those references, to that jittery, back-and-forth sound, but that isn’t really a constant in your music, is it?

Vibert: I think that’s more of a Plug thing, definitely, ’cause that really is pretty full of 160-bpm madness. But, yeah, I did try and keep Wagon Christ more funky and downbeat, but a few faster tracks did slip on to the album.

Weidenbaum: Did you hear the last Big Audio Dynamite, F-punk?

Vibert: No, when did that come out?

Weidenbaum: Like six months back. They used a jungly sound on one song; it was strange to hear it in a song context.

Vibert: All Mick Jones?

Weidenbaum: Yeah, and whoever’s been hanging out with him. You have been quoted saying that you want to make a pop songs. What would a pop song from you sound like?

Vibert: Hmm, that’s the thing really, I’m not very poppy. There’s a couple of covers I’d like to do at some point — hits from when I was a young lad. There’s one which no one seems to know by Viola Wills called “Dare to dream” which I definitely want to do. It got to number 40 over here and I thought it could have been a huge hit. A couple of jokey things I wouldn’t mind doing — not jokey, but I’d like to do a stupid jungle version of L.L. Cool J’s “I Need Love.”

Weidenbaum: Do you listen to a lot of hip-hop?

Vibert: Yeah, that’s basically the only kind of music I keep up with.

Weidenbaum: What do you think of Coolio?

Vibert: I’m mainly into East Coast stuff, really more like Tribe Called Quest, and Premier.

Weidenbaum: So you like Gang Starr, Jeru the Damaja.

Vibert: Yeah, and there’s a new one, Group Home, and that’s wicked, really good. Last record I bought.

Weidenbaum: The rapping on Throbbing Pouch, is that friends or samples.

Vibert: Yeah, just cheekily stuff I’ve nicked off records. The Roots, I believe.

Weidenbaum: Does that worry you?

Vibert: More so in America, definitely, Over here, it’s such a small thing, people don’t look unless it’s you’re having a huge hit.

Weidenbaum: Can I ask how many copies of your records sell?

Vibert: Very small, very small indeed. Five-hundred more every time I release something.

Weidenbaum: I’m always kept alert by your music. I suppose it changes an awful lot. It’s always mutating.

Vibert: Some of those hypnotic things really work. Some of my favorite records are just really nothingy kind of Kraftwerk or even some of Aphex’s, like “Didgeridoo.” But whenever I’ve tried to do them, it always just sounds really boring. So I just seem to always end up changing it later.

Weidenbaum: Can you describe how you go about working on a remix?

Vibert: It depends on really whether I kind of like the original or how many bits I like of it, ’cause the last couple I’ve done, I’ve just used, say, vocals and then done all the — basically it’s a track of mine with vocals on. But if … I did, say, when I did a Ken Ishii one I used loads of his sounds for that. It was only about five bpm faster and quite similar, so I kind of had all of his bits going and then added all of mine slowly on. Usually I don’t like the track so much that I’m doing so I just do a track of my own. With Richard, it was a matter of I did one for him and he did one for me and neither of us took any money from the other.

Weidenbaum: You’re referring to your remix of “Ventolin”?

Vibert: Yeah, and I did one for his record label, as well, a group called the Gentle People, which is this easy-listening thing. I did a jungle version. I think it’s quite mad.

Weidenbaum: I’ve heard that. They seem embedded in the late ’60s, these Gentle People.

Vibert: The Gentle People? Yeah, they love Yves Montand.

Weidenbaum: There is that flute bit on your record; it’s very pretty, very gentle.

Vibert: It’s an almost swing beat.

Weidenbaum: One last Aphex question. Is he asthmatic, what with the “Ventolin” fixation?

Vibert: Yeah. Very much. Not as bad as he used to be, luckily. But he’s still got a ventolin with him. He was going try to release that single — but it shows how late singles get released — but the original plan was, there’s an Asthma Week and he was going to try and release for that, but he missed by three months.

Weidenbaum: There’s a claustrophobic sound to a lot of his music.

Vibert: Yeah. Weidenbaum: Is there a similar sound that informs your work.

Vibert: I’m not sure if it’s a Cornish connection, just because we were both in the middle of nowhere and didn’t worry about things like styles of music, and categories and that sort of thing. Just make music to amuse ourselves, because there aren’t many record shops around. That’s the simple fact for him, ’cause he used to DJ out and play a lot of his own stuff, because there weren’t that many records he liked. He used to play acid and a bit of stuff like that but mostly just weird, weird shit. It kind of comes from not worrying about styles, and both of us — another link is the urge to make our tracks really sort of … longevity, I’m not sure of the term, not poppy, here-today-gone-tomorrow kind of things.

Weidenbaum: Yeah, I was somewhat amazed to discover that even six months later both records, your Throbbing Pouch and Aphex’s “Ventolin” remixes, still meant so much to me. I can’t help but notice all these references to aliens. There’s your “Prepare to beam aboard ” bit, of course, but also there’s a kind of lift-off pattern in a lot of the sounds.

Vibert: I think for me, just from when I was growing up. I was a real Star Wars child, space child. I saw Star Wars when it first came out, when I was five. All the pop when I was growing up was all spacey and kind of early ’80s — like Ultravox.

Weidenbaum: Who looked like they were from the future

Vibert: A lot better than the Blur stuff of today

Weidenbaum: So you’re citing a new-wave influence

Vibert: Yeah, that’s the sort of pop stuff I like. Human League’s sound could be from any era

Weidenbaum: Did you see Close Encounters of the Third Kind as a child as well?

Vibert: Yeah.

Weidenbaum: Do you remember having an emotional reaction when they contact the alien with music?

Vibert: Yeah, I do.

Weidenbaum: Is that in the back of your mind these days?

Vibert: It is actually, but I’m not sure if it’s just ’cause I’ve got this wicked disco version I’ve been playing. Kind of Moog-y.

Weidenbaum: Moogy blues

Vibert: More that big mountain.

Weidenbaum: When I was a kid, I traveled across America with my parents, and we visited that mountain, Devil’s Tower. It’s only stranger in person. And there are these smaller little Devil’s Tower-shaped peaks elsewhere in the surrounding area. Is Vibert a French name?

Vibert: Everyone always says that, assuming it’s a French type thing. It is a totally Cornish name, which is where I come from, but everyone from Cornwall was awfully — well, we had tin mines years and centuries ago and there was Spanish and Africans shagging all the Cornish.

Weidenbaum: I interviewed Martin Gore from Depeche Mode once, and asked him whether he felt like he opened himself to criticism for having adopted black gospel music on some of his recent work, especially given the anti-religious bent of his lyrics. He said something to the effect that his blood line is more complicated that most people know.

Vibert: I agree, especially in Cornwall. He’s probably a Celtic geezer.

Weidenbaum: Was it good being a “Star Wars child” and having the first name Luke?

Vibert: Wicked, that was my nickname for years, Skywalker. If that 2 Live Crew bloke hadn’t called himself Skywalker I would have had that years ago.

Weidenbaum: What can we expect from you soon?

Vibert: On import there will be the Plug album. I’m a bit worried about the samples. With the drum and bass stuff that I do I tend to use more cheeky samples, and I’m a bit worried about that for America.

Weidenbaum: Label?

Vibert: Rising High subsidiary Blue Angel.

Weidenbaum: I’ve heard your Mo’ Wax record. Have you heard the one Money Mark did for them?

Vibert: I love that old Hammond stuff, the older the better, the more distorted the vinyl.

Weidenbaum: Have you been DJing much lately?

Vibert: Not that often, every month or so. Cologne, Norway and elsewhere.

Weidenbaum: So remixes pay the bills?

Vibert: That’s the one. I’ve been doing them for things like Warner Bros., a Swedish band called On. Even reasonably big companies play a couple of grand. They were basically a rock band. It usually tends to be things like that, a rock band or an indie band, or someone a bit like Enja, just more rock/poppy kind of stuff.

Weidenbaum: It’s probably got to the point where you’re called on reputation more than on account of someone having heard and been moved by your music. Do you ever wonder why you were called?

Vibert: Nearly every time. I always think, Who chose me? Was it the artist, or was it some A&R geezer. Why do they want me to do it?

Weidenbaum: Well, I’d feel guilty asking any more questions. This is for a fairly short piece. Thanks.

Vibert: Thanks.

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