Squarepusher, born Tom Jenkinson, has long distinguished himself as one of Britain’s leading pop avant-gardists. Warp Records, the label that releases his work, is also home to Aphex Twin and Autechre — and along with those two acts he has played a significant role defining contemporary electronic music.
Like them he has prioritized the computer as a musical instrument in the public consciousness, though he doesn’t have Aphex’s name recognition or Autechre’s legions of imitators. What he has is a uniquely aggressive body of recorded work, as exemplified by his 2001 album, Go Plastic, 10 tracks that range from catchy and upbeat to maddeningly noise-addled.
That madness may be his defining characteristic. Trying to locate a specific melodic theme in most Squarepuser compositions is like plotting a course in choppy seas; after a while, one learns to simply take comfort in remaining afloat.
Jenkinson has received considerable attention for the influence of jazz, especially the early electric fusion of Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, on his own decidedly digital work. That influence is most apparent on his Music Is Rotten One Note album, with its emphasis on an organized chaos that sounds highly reminiscent of group improvisation.
The Go Plastic album is marked by a similar brand of electronic rigor, but it also contains one of the most accessible songs of Squarepusher’s career, a chipper single titled “My Red Hot Car,” which drops an obscene lyrical fragment over a skittery, danceable rhythm.
In June of this year, just before he embarked on a solo tour of the U.S., Squarepusher took time to discuss his solitary life, hit work ethic and his listening habits.
Marc Weidenbaum: One of the best things about the single, “My Red Hot Car,” off your recent album, Go Plastic, is that it’s the first thing you’ve released in a while that someone could play for a friend to introduce them to your work. It’s listener-friendly.
Squarepusher: So many people say that. Yeah, yeah: “This one might make sense.” Weidenbaum: The single has other songs on it, including a quiet soundscape that appears at the very end of the single — was that something you’d initially intended to include on the full-length record?
Squarepusher: The reverb-y thing? Uh, I dunno. It’s just part of the track, it’s just how it ends.
Weidenbaum: It makes such a nice counterpart to the frenetic music that comprises the majority of the CD.
Squarepusher: I gotcha. I suppose I do get into a bit of a stark counterpoint. As far as I’m concerned, I couldn’t real justify why the track finishes like that. It simply does, you know what I mean? That’s the way it had to go.
Weidenbaum: The beautiful thing about that last track is, in part, how much it differs from the public persona you have. You’re best known for creating complex music that screws with people’s heads and that forces them to concentrate in a way most pop music doesn’t. The beautiful thing about that last track is that it doesn’t attack the listener; you could set it on repeat it for an extended period of time and just listen, easily.
Squarepusher: I’m into music for all different sorts of purposes. It’s just that 95 percent of my purposes are for screwing my head. It’s so difficult to know what to release. Because there’s so much stuff I don’t release. You can find different sort of avenues. Maybe I will do that in the future, release more stuff with more space in it.
Weidenbaum: Would “ambient” be a term you’d be comfortable with to describe that last track?
Squarepusher: No, no. I’m never comfortable with the term “ambient.” The word ambient is coined by Brian Eno, wasn’t it, for music that doesn’t actually require any attention — more, it merely complements the atmosphere in the room or something like that. I think that’s probably not what I do. [Laughs] I think other people do. I make music to generate atmospheres, not to complement already existing ones.
Weidenbaum: You’re about to tour the United States in support of the album. What can we expect from seeing you live? Do you have a band with you? What is your setup? Squarepusher: It changes all the time. This current round of gigs, I’m just doing it using pure electronics. For a while I was using the bass [guitar] and stuff; I used to play the bass at a lot of gigs. I reckon I’m gonna get it reintroduced. I’ve never really done gigs with just electronics, and I’m really into it, actually — just, like, using a computer. I get into a meltdown, a real — I suppose, like, the most intensified version of whatever I do. It’s like, turn up the volume of everything, you know? Just turn it into a complete — like, pushing the edge of complete nonsense.
Weidenbaum: Do you watch the audience when you perform?
Squarepusher: Yeah. As you may already know, I come from a background of playing in groups and stuff.
Weidenbaum: Does your audience dance?
Squarepusher: Depends on the audience, you know. I think the material is definitely danceable, but not in a regular way. Sometimes they do. Sometimes they just stand and stare. But I always communicate with the audience. I never pretend like I’m just in my bedroom making a track. The whole point of doing a gig is, like, a feedback thing between you and the audience.
Weidenbaum: So, you talk to the audience?
Squarepusher: I’ll address them.
Weidenbaum: At a lot of concerts, especially at instrumental electronic shows, the performers don’t speak a word. Sometimes there isn’t even a proper microphone on stage.
Squarepusher: Yeah, I will speak. I’m very into abusing the audience, whatever. I’ve done gigs — like, not so many lately, but years ago — when I got some really pretty kind of mystified reactions, and it used to fuck me up and I’d get on the mic and start abusing the audience.
Weidenbaum: At this stage, your listeners are prepared to be challenged. They expect as much. I suppose there’s a continuum between being challenged and being abused.
Weidenbaum: You present to people music that isn’t just difficult to listen to but that is visceral, that feels like, maybe, exercise. A listener afterward thinks: I’ve, like, really dealt with this music.
Squarepusher: [Laughs] I suppose, I’d say, in sort of fairly simplistic terms, I think music is taking over some roles of living in reality. I’d say that it’s important for music to be there that gives you a challenge, that rearranges things in your head. It’s important for that to exist in a society that doesn’t present you with any genuine problems. We’re talking about middle class existence. You can get along with your job, and you confront very few problems in life, compared with even what you would have a hundred years ago. The problems of illness, poverty — those sort of problems have been virtually eradicated from the kind of audience that’s involved in music and culture, a middle-class kind of bracket. So, music has arrived that replaces those roles, things that aren’t pleasant.
[Editor’s note: This interview took place in June 2001, well in advance of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.] Weidenbaum: So, essentially, things have become not “staid,” but very comfortable —
Squarepusher: They’ve become so sanitized.
Weidenbaum: — and art provides a way for us to challenge ourselves?
Squarepusher: That’s right. But it’s in keeping with the general move to reality becoming more and more a cerebral thing.
Weidenbaum: You’re challenging the audience to keep it physical?
Squarepusher: I don’t know. I’m not talking about my intentions, now. We’re talking about this from a second-hand perspective. I’m not talking about me for the minute — or, if I am talking about me, I’m pretending to be a journalist. Because, when I’m making music, I don’t think about anything, you know? All I think about is what I want to hear. So that for me is what I want — I want my head to be constantly being rearranged. That’s the only way I can actually live, is to feel like that. When you refer it back to me, the answers will get more vague. I’m not that interested in what people make of it, or how people consider me. That’s nothing to do with me. On the most fundamental level, music is my lifeline; it’s the only thing that answers all the questions, the only thing that keeps me relatively sane. Times of my life, brief periods without music, have completely felt dangerously over the edge.
Weidenbaum: Why would you have been without music?
Squarepusher: Because there’s been certain times when I’ve felt, for other people’s sake, I’ve had to remove it. It’s an obsession for me. It’s alright if you’re on your own — but if you’re thinking in terms of relations with other people, if it [music] takes up that much time, how do you have a steady relationship, any sort of relationship with anyone else? So, there have been periods when I’ve had to take a break from this, but then it really — the consequences are far more severe for me. So, I leave a completely solitary life. I see people every now and then. That’s just the way I am; that’s just the way I have to live.
Weidenbaum: Do you travel much?
Squarepusher: I love traveling. I love just going about on my own, feeling I have no roots.
Weidenbaum: As a musician, especially as an electronic musician, when you’re, say, hiking up a mountain somewhere and a musical idea forms in your head, what do you do?
Squarepusher: The thing is, it stays in there. I don’t need to write it down. For me, if an idea comes that strongly, then it just stays with you. Maybe that’s the thing that makes you go home; you just think, Fuck it, I’ve got to go back. My life does consist of these two phases — I do an immense amount of work in the studio, and I spend the remainder of the time traveling about. The main thing I’m into is going about on a bike, taking random routes; I’m really into the idea of making up journeys, and just seeing where they take you, because they always end up taking you someplace freaky. Especially if you’re taking the journeys around cities. Once you start straying out of the commonly trod routes, that’s where you really start discovering the city.
Weidenbaum: And music provides a soundtrack to these journeys?
Squarepusher: It’s the reverse. Music has nothing to do with those experiences. Those times are where the music becomes inverted. The thing of interest to me is sounds that are devoid of intention. Like, I’m just listening to the sound of — if you’re in the middle of nowhere, if it’s the sound of birds or animals or whatever; and if you’re in the city, the sound of trains and cars and noise and just people chattering and stuff. You forget about music completely, certainly music in the idea of composed music — and I just let the sounds, kind of, overtake me.
Weidenbaum: I’m more on the consumer side. For me, whether on a Walkman or a car radio, music often provides a soundtrack. I was wondering if that’s the case for you.
Squarepusher: No. Given that I can spend up to 14, 16 hours in the studio every day, the times I’m not making music I’ve got no need to listen to it.
Weidenbaum: Do you plan to ever release music under your own name, Tom Jenkinson, instead of as Squarepusher?
Squarepusher: Basically, I don’t know. As far as I’m concerned, there are certain parameters I’m concerned with, and they’re all within the realm of sound and electronics — or even video. But there’s a realm of considerations that are important to me. And there are certain considerations that are relevant to me, but I don’t care about.
Weidenbaum: So, the word “Squarepusher” defines a certain realm of your areas of interest?
Squarepusher: Squarepusher isn’t anything. Squarepusher is just a word. When someone said, You’re gonna put out a record, they just said, OK, so therefore you have to have a pseudonym or a band name; that’s what people do. I don’t care. It’s not — it’s just a word. To my mind, I’ve just used it for — it’s just stuck. It’s a convenient term to be identified by.
Weidenbaum: The web site of Warp, the record company that releases your music, had a promotional animation contest. Are you involved with that?
Squarepusher: Nothing to do with me.
Weidenbaum: There are a core number of musicians who at a specific moment focused a lot of people’s attention on electronic music. Those people, arguably, are Mike Paradinas, Richard D. James, the two guys in Autechre — and, maybe I’d include Luke Vibert. Of all those artists, with the possible exception of Paradinas, you’re the likely the least imitated. Is this something you are aware of?
Squarepusher: Not really. As far as I’m concerned, there’s me and there’s the rest of the world. As far as music goes, I don’t care really what happens. I certainly don’t seek out people who sound like me. It’s of no interest to me at all. [Laughs]
Weidenbaum: What’s funny?
Squarepusher: It’s a funny idea. It’s like, I know other musicians, always checking themselves out, checking out people who imitate them, check out their press, check out their —
Weidenbaum: Surf for their name on the web?
Squarepusher: — and I’ve never fuckin’ done that in my life. It’s a mixture between: I don’t wanna know and I don’t care. … I’m not a media-head. I’d never say I’m self-sufficient. I need food from reality. But I don’t immerse myself in all that shit.
Weidenbaum: Books? Are you a big reader?
Squarepusher: Yeah, I love books.
Weidenbaum: So what do you read?
Squarepusher: Last few years, I’ve gone through pretty heavy, philosophical stuff.
Weidenbaum: Are there specific books you’d recommend to your listeners?
Squarepusher: I find it hard to pull names out [at a moment like this] —
Weidenbaum: Well, if any occur to you, just mention them. Moving on: what did you — if you have a public comment on it — think of Oval’s remix of your music, which appeared on the Warp anniversary compilation?
Squarepusher: I’ve never heard it. I deliberately avoided hearing it, because I’ve got no — as far as I’m concerned, I’ve got no need to hear it.
Weidenbaum: If we could speak about a specific song for a moment: On “Boneville Occident,” the second song on Go Plastic, there are what sound like video games going on. Can you talk about what fed that track, at what point those sounds entered into the composition?
Squarepusher: I don’t know. I have to be brutally honest, they’re not from video games. It’s just, maybe that’s an aesthetic judgement of yours — you’ve formed a parallel in your head, as to that’s what it sounds like. I hate deflating — it’s one of the reasons I just stay out of any commentary about music, because I hate deflating people’s ideas. People come up with such gorgeous ideas of how tracks come about, or what they’re talking about, and that for me is the essence — the only real reason to release records is to not force my viewpoint down people’s throats, or force my ideas. But offer them platforms for thought, for their own thoughts, their own responses, and they make sense of it in whatever way they find their way through it. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the only reason to release records. Because the only thing that ever interests me about it is when people — without sounding harsh — when they get it wrong, when they get the idea completely wrong. But that’s brilliant. because I don’t care about the right idea. [Someone else in the room interrupts him.] Oh, we’ve got to call it quits now. The book I’d recommend — two books, for different moods: fiction, I’d recommend A Scanner Darkly, by Philip K. Dick, and non-fiction, I’d recommend Madness and Civilization by Michael Foucault.