A herald of the new generation of producers that opened a new era in Warp uniquely alive and evolutive catalogue at the turn of the new millennium, Chris Clark has established as one of the most innovative electronic music producers to have emerged over the past two decades.
Continually wrong-footing critics and listeners, preventing all to freeze him into a boring, monolithic figure, Clark much rather defines himself through his multiplicity, creating dizzying mosaics of harsh and tender motifs as he renders the emotions felt in his creative process in all their raw complexity.
The debut instalment of his newborn imprint, Throttle, remains true to such broadly intricate, boundary-pushing considerations. This time exploring the range of possibilities provided by the strange instrument that is harpsichord, Clark lets his inspiration flow with unhindered vibrancy.
Eager to find out more about the ins and outs of his new venture and debut 12″, we sat down with Christopher to discuss a wide array of subjects including AI music making methods, the pressure of presenting an idealised self image to the world, as well as “seeing beauty in everyday things”.
Interview by Baptiste Girou
"I treat music like some sort of monastic pursuit, an antidote to the coarsening of the mind, an endless game."
Hey Christopher, thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions. The first release of your new label, Throttle, has just come out. Can you give us more insight into the making of ‘E.C.S.T. T.R.A.X.’? What does it represent to you?
It represents a field of emotions that I can’t describe in words. I like the melt/melody bit in the middle. That actually happened as a final burst in the long process of beavering away. It was all a bit “yea yea fast harpsichord we get it” but then that melodic bit sort of comes in and steals your attention.
Music needs to have some kind of visceral impact, some sort of unflappable intention or emotional magnet at the core of it for me to think it’s worth releasing, and when I came up with the mid section for the tune I thought bingo that’s IT!
Taylor Swift loves it too – perfect background music, people who don’t even really like music LOVE it, which makes it perfect for streaming services – apparently her mum is dancing to it and going “who is this European Clark guy his harpsichord sounds so fresh!” BF is jealous.
What prompted you to set up your own label? Is it a way for you to reclaim more control on your own work?
Yes definitely that. Some sort of claim for independence, I absolutely love Warp though, we are still close. This is just a sweet little outlet for some of my new music.
Why this name for the label – ‘Throttle’? I remember you put out these exclusive CDs called “Throttle Clarence / Furniture / Promoter” back when ‘Body Riddle’ came out. What is it in the word “throttle” that appeals to you?
It’s just that thing of a word that has some indescribable zing that you liked 10 years ago that resonates and continues to resonate now. Perfect.
Is it tailor-made for your own output only, or do you plan to welcome other artists on the platform as well?
In an ideal world I would be putting out loads of other people’s music too, truth is I am rather picky and find it time consuming enough to curate all of my own archive of material for release. Never say never though.
You are speaking of this record as “devotional music”, drawing parallels with a sense of “religious rapture”. Do you think of the composition process as one linked with the ‘sacred’ in any way or shape?
Oo-aye, yeah music making is pretty sacred to me I would say. Sacred and mundane at the same time, i.e. the mundane discipline of having a daily habit that hopefully produces work of captivating force. Both music and myself are in reciprocal devotion with each other, it’s a two-way. The gift that keeps on giving. That is the ideal, anyway.
More and more I’m starting to see beauty in everyday things, they can often go unexamined if you aren’t careful. Things of extraordinary depth hiding behind an unassuming front. It’s kind of the opposite of Instagram. Everyone has captivating surface charisma in selfie instagram world. But underneath it all we are all just a node of data on a top down surveillance/advertising monopoly. Nothing surprising there.
We’re all sort of clones anyway. I don’t mean that in a cynical way, it brings some light relief to step out of your own human bias, there is something quite cruel and unenlightened in the way we elevate and denigrate certain members of our species as being either above or below average or whatever-there might be a few points difference here and there but it’s not like human/AI or rather flea/chimpanzee difference is it. It’s more what you do than some mystifying inner essence.
That’s just packaging/marketing. We haven’t got a clue who we really are anyway! It’s all just a story. We have a lot more in common biologically than we like to admit, it’s just our own self obsession projected – we are obsessed with identifying “special” that “special person‘ who stands out from the crowd. I’m not knocking fleas btw… we are all fleas in the fur of the AI chimpanzee anyway.
"Everyone has captivating surface charisma in selfie Instagram world. But underneath it all we are all just a node of data on a top down surveillance/advertising monopoly."
“Why are you good at piano? Because YOU are SPECIAL” – I don’t agree with this mindset at all. I’m all about the growth mindset. The “why are you good at piano? Because you practiced and stuck at it”. The naive mistakes people make can often be the things that make them create compelling art or music.
I treat music like some sort of monastic pursuit, an antidote to the coarsening of the mind, an endless game. It’s not that glamorous. In truth the pop life of glamour is silly. Being glamorous is like the most obvious thing anyone could ever want as well. It’s well mainstream! It’s the most normal thing ever.
I mean you could argue that music is that as well, It’s a conduit for ego in some ways, but it’s quite refined and cathartic and takes a lot of effort and dedication too, hopefully you also exorcise something in the process and keep it pure.
You also keep your less worthy ideas from the public realm heheh. That hard ball game of allowing everything in the improvisation process and censoring all but the best for release into the world. Intoxicating fun.
I couldn’t help but hear in ‘Harpsichord E.C.S.T.‘ a distant, cocaine-intoxicated cousin to the dizzying interpretations of Padre Antonio Soler by late genius harpsichordist Scott Ross. It actually left me thinking it has to be one of the instruments that most naturally induce this intense ‘vertigo’ feel; certainly because of the polychromatic essence of its sound and unique tuning. How did you approach this instrument and its very singular character?
Oh wow that’s wicked. I don’t know Scott Ross. The harpsichord has an ugly sound. But I find it charming and also hard to get something good out of, which makes it more of a challenge. I like how un-dynamic it is. It’s such a brutish binary sort of instrument, only certain kind of riffs really work on it. It’s quite partisan. It’s like “you’re either playing with me, and I’ll make a sound for you… or you can fuck off and I’ll sulk in silence with the rest of my harpsichord friends” – it fits our partisan/echo chamber times.
I always turn velocity off on hardware synths. I actually hate it. It’s a fucking synth not a felt piano. I had a go on a CS80 a few years ago and got really annoyed at how expressive it was. Heavy weighted keys on a sawtooth wave. Eurgh it’s like someone trying to put posh truffle paste in your cornflakes or something. And also smirking at that fact that you are eating cornflakes.
That’s how using a CS80 made me feel. I’m sure other people do wonderful things with them. Just not me. Same with the Juno, I like them in other people’s music but I always come up with total shit on a Juno. I feel weird when I touch the plastic filters, I feel a bit empty, all of a sudden thirsty and bored or something. I feel haunted and gaunt and pessimistic around the Juno. They visibly age me.
I love dynamic instruments too though by the way, like felt piano with really thick felt so it’s almost inaudible but then full heavy hit on the keys so you get all sorts of harmonic overtones. Lovely. The odd thing is I often end up making synthesisers like something more pianoesque and mellow. I love how unexpressive they sound to a point… and then after a while try and turn them into acoustic instruments.
Wedding the first track on the Dummy mix is a good example of this, to me that’s like a pure joyous sort of Leo Kottke finger picking tune…but on a synth. If I heard it on a guitar I would probably want to wack it into my P6 though.
It’s a personal view, but I tend to think the evolution of your music seems to be dictated by an infinite search for verticality: the higher sensation, the state of trance, the omega point. And listening to your tracks often bears this rewarding pleasure at its heart, like witnessing the blooming of a fragile flower out of the dull sky and rumbling chaos, or confirmation in music that – according to Dostoevsky’s famous words – “beauty will save the world”. Do you relate to this motto?
I don’t really relate to that motto, poor old Dostoevsky though eh. What do you mean by an infinite search for verticality? Trump’s White House has quite a vertical power structure. Hmm. Not sure if a) that’s good or b) that’s exactly what you meant. I’m digging your interpretative questions though.
"It’s like “you’re either playing with me, and I’ll make a sound for you...or you can fuck off...and I’ll sulk in silence...with the rest of my harpsichord friends”
All in all, there’s a very impactful dramatic tension to your music that feels both very written and, at the same time, compulsively improvised. You also said you managed to develop an intuitive working method over the years. What’s the part of chance and preparedness in your work?
My music is less compulsive these days and a bit more planned. Like not loads, not like totally cerebral and dry or anything, just a bit more smart the way I go about honing things. It’s like getting the right amount of tension before you embark on making something.
I like hearing what I am going to do before I actually do it more and more. So then the process of actually making it is a doddle, and happens in a flash, because you’ve completed a lot of the grunt work in your own mind beforehand. This really works for learning music too.
Like trying to compose a whole track in your head. Or imagine really wide intervals in your head. All chords and melodies over 5 octaves or something. It’s maddening and quite addictive. So yeah, I suppose that is still quite compulsive. The point is to have ever more control over your materials. My music has a life of its own inside my brain, my body – not the hard disk on my computer.
I get quite flummoxed at how easy tools make it these days. Whether it will have a net good/bad effect on the quality of music remains to be seen. At the same time gosh it’s funny when the innovators who used the current technology of the time become the old men shouting at clouds, and I never want to become that. It’s tiresome.
Perhaps people that etched cave paintings would have seen the mass produced pencil as a cheat. Theatre types have a snobbery towards film. It’s not “real acting”. People that used faffy old hardware samplers are now angry because you can have a whole DAW on your phone for £5. The trick is to navigate all these different positions with zero dogma and an open mind.
It’s true that composers of the 18th Century had an impressive grasp of harmony that we’ve possibly lost. But I think composers of 2018 have a whole set of equally tricky problem areas to navigate, It’s just different. It’s inspiring, such an infinite variety of ways we can create work. Ten lifetimes wouldn’t cover it. That’s why I’m always a bit baffled when people are uninspired or bored or feel they have completed “the music stuff”.
It makes me feel like an alien. I feel like screaming “What? You’ve only just scratched the surface!”, how can you possibly be bored by music I just don’t get it… crikey… I think my own mortality is probably the most horribly inspiring thing of all, the thing that makes me want to furiously get it all down before I croak it. Still each to their own eh.
For this record you worked hand in hand with sample library and virtual instrument company Spitfire Audio, which also collaborated with the likes of Hans Zimmer, Olafur Arnalds, The London Contemporary Orchestra and Hannah Peel. Can you tell us more about the new potentialities they offered you and how you incorporated their creations in your music?
Spitfire make mighty fine tools, I’ve been interested in their work for years. Why would you not want an orchestra on your laptop! I think sample libraries are great for showing you possible worlds. I tend to favour recording real instruments as well as/instead of using libraries as well. A balance of both is good.
Real recordings seem to gradually crowd out my arrange page. But I’ve actually learned loads about orchestration through using their libraries. I use them as a starting point for testing out new ideas. I mean not everyone can afford to hire an orchestra for £40k. Something about having the intent of a real player in the room with you that you just can’t beat though.
I’ll also quite often take their sounds and place them in an array of speakers in a nice acoustic space and re-record them. Quite a lot of this is going on with ‘E.C.S.T‘ 12”.
"Could I pay someone to hack my brain and just send out the hologram version 'Auto-Clark' to clean up the EDM scene?"
You said that “oddly the ease of use of sample libraries makes me want to complicate the process”. How’s that, exactly?
It’s more just about trying to put a unique stamp on something that is hard to replicate. Apparently John Stuart Mill had this acute attack of anxiety that all the melodies would eventually be used up, it caused him much neurosis. We almost have the opposite problem now, especially with AI being able to churn out an infinite variety of Bach music in like, four seconds. I guess we are still invested in the question of intent, of how a piece of music with the right intention and focus can last in people’s minds for quite some time.
Still, we will be outdone by evolved AI soon enough. Artists will probably be able to give their musical DNA to an algorithm that will construct an infinite variety of tunes in his/her style. I would love it if AI got good enough to pick apart the master of a track into stems.
I lost the stems for “Future Daniel“. I like the idea of getting like, four exact audio stems back from that track just by AI listening to the master. Or being able to literally just say “take the synth part, invert it, transpose up by four semitones, modulate the pitch bend with five lanes of automation all at a ratio of 1/13th per semitone with 11% random LFO on each of them, put it in an array of eighty amplifiers in the channel tunnel, slow it down by 2/3rds and have some glockenspiel counter point out of phase by two bars inverted by a fifth with a -0.5 tempo shift down over thirty seconds and then send thirty drones armed with Sennheiser 8060s to record it all and deliver it to my dropbox in three minutes” just saying that and your phone does it for you in like 2 seconds. Wow that would be so wicked, hehehe.
I suppose if you take enough selfies from different angles and Google consolidated a persona from all of your IM’s… etc. you could eventually probably get a hologram of yourself constructed and send that around the world to play gigs if you just felt like staying home and writing music. What sort of percentage would you have to give the hologram, would it complain that its fee wasn’t high enough in the same way you would?
Would arguing with it be like some elevated form of humility and self-awareness or would you just be projecting? Could I pay someone to hack my brain and just send out the hologram version Auto-Clark to clean up the EDM scene? The real question is, would the music Auto-Clark made be more authentically Clark than my own attempts.
Who are the artists that get you excited these days?
Err… My wife. Bach. Bach’s not my wife by the way, I mean my wife Melanie Lane. I also listened to an interview with the author Ottessa Moshfegh the other day and loved it, she is remarkable. Her short stories “Homesick For Another World” had me hooting with laughter. People apparently find them disturbing, perhaps they are, but I liked them a lot.
I really like one of the Lorenzo Senni tunes on that 12” he did last year, the one with the mega drop. Just lovely.
What’s your definition of happiness?
I wouldn’t want to define it.
Your worst nightmare ?
Falling off stage. Repeated nightmares of this. I have dreams of playing the drums at a gig and then the stage tilts and I helplessly slide into the crowd, the drum kit cymbals slicing peoples heads off… etc.
Where can we find you this autumn?
You won’t be able to. I’m in hiding at the moment and I’m loving it. More new music soon though…
‘E.C.S.T. T.R.A.X.’ is out now via Throttle Records, order a copy here.
1. Harpsichord E.C.S.T.
2. Piano E.C.S.T.