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Squarepusher in the Studio


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  • 1 month later...

Finally just read this... great interview and probaly the first straight-talking one by Tom - enthusiastic, technical, modest................I just hope he's in that studio pushing the fuck out of his gear to produce even crazier shit than ever!!!


I wonder what he IS working on now? a live Shobaleader set? A new album? Some EP's.... his tan?

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Guest bitroast

Tom Jenkinson has built his entire career out of doing the expected. So it should come as no surprise to find his studio - one that's been responsible for some of the darkest, most disturbed and wildly extreme music of the last 15 years - is actually tucked away in a beautiful, picture-postcard, pastel-coloured village in rural Essex. This is where he put together the new album, Squarepusher Presents: Shobaleader One: d'Demonstrator, his first to feature a full band…


FM: Before we go any further, can we just confirm that Shobaleader One is actually a real band. Let's face it, those names do sound a bit suspect… Strobe Nazard on keys, Sten t'Mech and Arg Nution on guitars, and Company Laser on drums. It's just you playing everything again, isn't it?

Squarepusher: "No not at all. Shobaleader One are a real band. Other people did physically come over to the studio. In the past, I will admit that i've imagined other people in the studio with me, but this is the first time they've actually been there."


You imagined them?

"Yeah, I'd make people up. I'd think, 'Today, the bass player is going to be this kind of bloke and he'll come from this country and he'll have these skills'. Then, I'd make up a drummer who was completely different to him, put the two together and see what happened. See how they interacted with each other."


Was it recorded as a band? All of you in the room?

"Not at all. In many ways, it was still recorded like any other Squarepusher album. The only difference was that, as soon as I'd written the song and got the basic idea in the computer, I would hand out individual bits to other people.

"One at a time, they come over to the studio, I'd record them and then start editing and messing around with what they'd done. The actual building of the album was the same, but in the process of building that album, there was an exchange of ideas with other people. Different people brought different sounds and different ideas to different instruments."


How would you describe the new album?

"That's really up to other people."


Ok, it's quite slick, shiny and chilled out… almost R'n'B-like. But there's still something very sinister running through the heart of it. How would you feel if we called it, 'twisted frightening R'n'B'?

"I would never have come up with that, but I can understand where you're coming from. The mixing desk [a Euphonix CS3000] had a lot to do with the sound of this album - and I don't just mean technically. I can sometimes get captivated just by the look of a certain piece of gear and that desk definitely did that to me.

"It looked a bit R'nB. So, I took that and shifted my perspective on it. Just doing regular R'n'B album held no interest for me. I need to change the rules, otherwise I lose interest."


That desk really is a massive piece of kit. [it takes up almost half the studio, the compressor towers take up most of the hall and a shed in the garden houses the power supplies.] Wouldn't it have been simpler - and cheaper - to go digital?

"I've had a play with digital systems and… They just don't work for me. I've got nothing against them, but when I checked out all the options, this was what felt right. I wanted fader automation, so I could recall mixes. The Euphonix has got that. I wanted an analogue signal path. It's got that. I wanted knobs and faders… I wanted something physical. It's got lots of that!

"The best thing about this mixer, though, is that it adds absolutely nothing to the character of the music. Whatever you record that's what what it gives you. Some people might see that as a disadvantage, but I like that. It means I'm in control of the sound. The desk isn't playing around with anything unless I tell it to. I can't imagine I'll ever make another purchase like this. I don't want to get into that thing where I'm making music with my wallet. Yes, I buy new bits of kit, but I have to be absolutely sure that what I'm getting is something that I need.When I feel I'm being hampered or reined-in by my current setup, that;s when I start looking for something new."


So what was your first setup?

"Probably nothing more than couple of tape decks. From the moment I became conscious of music, I was fascinated by tape decks. Recording sounds and music off the radio. I wasn't one of those kids that hung around in record shops. The radio is where I got my music. Bizarrely, I think that's heavily influenced how I feel about music today. When you go into a record shop, you see music put into different sections and compartments. When I was taping stuff of the radio, I had no idea what compartment it was supposed to fit into. I listened to anything and everything. It was just music."


What were you actually making music on?

"A bass guitar, some pedals and my growing collection of tape decks. I started playing the guitar at about 10, then picked up the bass when I was 11. I'm not really what you'd call an archivist, but I have kept more or less all of those early recordings.

"It's pretty much how I still make music. For better or for worse, that's always been my approach every time I go into a studio. It's not an ego thing… it's not me saying, "Let's see how clever I can be'. It's just me trying to get the most out of what I've got. Whatever music I've made has always been dictated by what equipment I've got. Trying to get the most out of it. Trying to get beyond the limits of what it's capable of. I never start out with any sort of predetermined idea. I just mess around with a baseline or a little sequence of notes and that precipitates the next move. That next move might be something that seems totally and utterly wrong on paper. If you were to explain what you were doing to someone else, they'd probably say, 'That will never work.' But I stick with it and eventually think, 'My God, that sounds brilliant'. That's probably why I've spent so much time working on my own. If someone else was in the studio with me, they'd be telling I was wasting my time. The real trick is to try and avoid imprinting myself on the music at any stage. You just go where it takes you. What you're eventually left with is you. That's the bit of you that you can't get rid of. That's your sound."


When did you first get interested in Dance music?

"I suppose I first heard about Acid House when I was 10 or 11, but I didn't really hear any of the music until a couple of years later. I understood 'Acid' to mean 'LSD'. A psychedelic trip. My take on the whole thing was that it was an update of Jimi Hendrix and the '60s. Music taking you on a trip… To outer space.

"By 15, I suppose I began to realise that this was what people called 'Dance music', but I didn't suddenly say, 'OK, now I'm into Dance music'. I find it very difficult to break music down into individual styles and sounds. It was the same with Drum 'n' Bass. It wasn't about the speed or the complex programming. I was a music enthusiast… I liked Drum 'n' Bass, because I liked everything about it. I like my music wholesale. I suppose the sampler made a big difference. It took things to a whole new level for me. I got an Akai S950 when I was 20 and used to take pride in jamming as many samples as possible into that 1.5MB memory. It was a beast!

"The Roland DR-660 was always my choice of sequencer. I never went down the Atari/Cubase route. All of those early releases were nothing more than a straight pass of the DR-660 MIDI'd up to the 950 plus the [TR-]707, [TB-]303 and [sH-]101. Live stuff was done on a portastudio via MIDI and the tape sync facility."


You didn't fancy giving yourself - and your eyesight - the benefit of a slightly bigger screen to work on?

"Hard Normal Daddy was certainly done on the DR-660. Come On My Selector was done on it. The 660 finally bit the dust in 2001… around the time of Go Plastic."


Then you switched to something bigger?

"Not a computer. I got another sequencer. A Yamaha QY700. I've just never fancied Cubase or anything like that. There's obviously a computer in the studio, but it's just for running software and storing samples/audio. Live stuff was recorded on a Tascam MSR 16multi-track and every bit of sequencing is done on the QY. I've tried other systems. I've tried Cubase and Nuendo, but I Don't see any need to make the shift. For a start, I'm super-fast on the QY. I know what it can do and I know how to make it do it. There's also… how can I put this. There's also a very 'definite' feel to working on the QY. You press this button and it does that. You turn this knob and it alters this. With Cubase or any of the other sequencing systems, you don't get that. You get infinite possibilities. I look at a blank computer screen and think, 'Wow, where do I start?'

"The QY has limits, I know exactly where those limits are and - as I've always done - I try to exceed those limits. That's how I work best. When someone or something draws a line in the sand an says, "OK, that's as far as you can go'. My natural instinct is to explore those boundaries to the nth degree. To go as far as possible. With a more modern sequencing package, I don't really get any boundaries. I get infinite possibilities. I get four pages of snares, a hundred kick drums and a giant computer screen. I'm sorry, but that's my idea of hell!

"You'd be surprised at how complex and useful the QY is. [He fires it up]. This is what my music looks like. [A string of numbers and figures race up the tiny QY screen]. This is where the magic happens [laughs]. It's all just second nature to me. That's time-stretch… that's gate time… that's the loop point. It just sends out the relevant control parameters to the samples, which are all stored in a sample player in Reaktor. Yes, I know it's old fashioned. I know some people don't believe I do it all on a QY or a DR-660. But that's the truth. That's all that matters."


How long did it take you to programme something like Come On My Selector?

"Probably a couple of days. [He thinks a bit more]. Maybe three or four days. But that's doing absolutely nothing else. That's me just living here, sat with the 660. There is an intense attention to detail involved with my programming, which really tests my commitment. More than a week and I get bored."


Where do those extreme rhythm tracks start? How do you know when they're finished?

"With the 660, I used to know when a song was finished when I ran out of memory! Now, it's… I don't know. The thing you've got to remember here is that I don't do all this extreme programming to prove a point. It's not a crass experiment to see how many snares I can pack into one beat. It's all working towards an aesthetic end. I employ tastes at all points.

"Yes, there are times when it becomes gibberish. There's no room left in there. It loses all of its funkiness. That's when you've gone past those boundaries I was talking about. That's when you need to back off a bit."


Are you a hoarder of samples?

"Not really. I've got a few on a hard drive. I sample myself, but I don't buy sample collections. If you give me one snare to play with, that's fine. I'll make it work. Too many people get hung up on having banks and banks of samples and a massive room full of gear. Or they try and replicate every piece of gear that their heroes use. Forget it! The chances are that your heroes came up with the sound they've got because of the equipment that happened to be sitting around in the studio at the time.

"My advice to anyone who's reading this would be: 'Don't worry about what I've got. Don't worry about what anyone else has got. Take whatever's in your studio and make music. The most important thing is that you keep that free flow of ideas. Keep pushing your imagination. If you can only afford two bits of gear… fine! Push them as far as they'll go.' "


That being said, are there any bits of kit you couldn't go without? The 303 has been around awhile, hasn't it? And you're a big fan of both the Eventide Orville and NI's Reaktor.

"Yeah, I love the 303, but if I didn't have it, I'd find something else to make the noises I was after. As for Reaktor it's certainly been a constant in the studio for many years now. I remember that a mate of mine had it, back in the days when it was called Generator. Obviously, what attracted me was the idea that you could create your own algorithms. You could build your own synths. It allows you to go into incredible details and to create sounds that no-one else is going to have.

"As soon as I got my first synth - which was a Roland SH-101 - I started to mentally take it apart. To find out how it worked so I could make it do new things. I recently got my hands on a [Yamaha] CS-80 and I've having a lot of fun getting my head around that. As any synth nerd knows, it's an absolute classic. Looks and sounds wonderful. I suppose the thing it's really known for is the luscious string sounds, but I've been trying to go against the grain. I've been trying to make it sound as harsh and nosebleed as possible.

"The Eventide is probably the thing that really got me started with algorithms. That's what got me into the whole extreme programming of sounds. The Eventide is out there on its own. It's object oriented programming - same as Reaktor - but there is a unique flexibility to the Eventide which seems tailor-made to experimentation. A lot of the more aggressive vocoders come from there. When it comes to customising your sound, the Eventide is pretty remarkable.

"Can I just add, thought, that I am loathe to go on about one particular piece of gear, just in case it gets seen as an endorsement. I have never gone in for endorsements - not even for bass. I love the Eventide, but you don't need an Eventide to make music. If I didn't have the Eventide, I'd work out what else I could use to do the job and get that instead. When I started out, I had the bass, a few pedals and a tape deck. If that's all I had now, I'd still be making music."

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Guest Jackson Michaels



He's never used a PC for sequencing?


I find that a bit surprising to be honest. I always thought at least parts of Go Plastic was sequenced on a PC.


Still, you've got to believe what the man tells you. And all the more props to him for doing whatever it is he's doing.

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