TEN QUESTIONS WITH FINN MCNICHOLAS
If there's puzzlement over why the above title references Finn McNicholas rather than his better-known Ultre alias, it's because the prolific producer is about to release a new collection under his real name. It's an unusual release in many respects, the most obvious one being that Tape/Recorder was created almost entirely using a recorder. And though, by his own admission, the project began somewhat casually—in January 2010, he dreamed about making an album using cassette, guitar pedals, and a school recorder, and then, holing himself up during the snowy freeze of winter, created the album's material in a week—the resultant album is so satisfying in its own way it deserves to sit alongside the Ultre releases that make up McNicholas's discography. And don't be misled by Finn's comment that he doesn't see himself as an accomplished visual artist. That might be how he sees himself, but even a quick scan of the images posted at the Ultre site confirms that he's as talented visually as he is musically. We thank Finn for generously sharing with us the details surrounding the new album's development and his own perspective on it.
1. Before we discuss your latest musical project, for the benefit of those who are new to you and your work, could you tell us a bit about your background—where you grew up and currently live, education, day job (if applicable), etc.? What's a typical “day in the life” like for Finn McNicholas?
I want to start by thanking you for your time, listening to the recording, and considering it so gracefully. I sent a very flippant message out to a handful of people that I thought would like the album in a personal way, so it's great to hear that your interest has generated these questions. The message contained some very loose comments about my feelings about the album that now in type look very formal. The album was purely meant for listening on a personal level, so my critique of it is almost as an outsider.
Growing up in the North of Engand, it was great to play in teenaged bands around Wakefield in the ‘90s. That was a really fertile environment to learn to love music and gave birth to loads of brilliant musical people. Then living around Sheffield, the electronic music was really inspiring in those days. I always want to make music for cinema, so I spent the rest of the time getting involved with visual arts and people making films and animations which led me to Brighton on the South coast to study art and music. Then I performed and wrote some albums on my own and kept playing with bands.
Now there isn't really a typical day, but it's mainly making music for visual work, playing live, recording, and drawing. My day job is writing music and that's also what I do for fun; it's how I socialize and how I keep my head together.
2. It's funny that you've described Tape/Recorder as something “cute” that represented a holiday of sorts from the “serious” things you're also working on. Did the absence of pressure—self-imposed or otherwise—allow for the music to come to you or flow through you more easily as a result?
I did a commission that involved composing for orchestral players and realized how illiterate I was in terms of notation. It was a piece for a film, and I felt a little inhibited, not being able to notate sounds that I could imagine. So I thought at some point I might end up exploring one instrument and the sounds it could make. You mentioned music flowing through, well, that's exactly what this was. I didn't plan to do it or have any conceptual ideas; I just happened to have time while other work was quiet so I just got on with it without thinking, so it almost wrote itself. I sometimes use the word “cute” to describe something that isn't particularly cool or intellectual. To me the word also describes something un-masculine or childlike but has value.
3. You also said that it's based on a dream. What exactly was the dream about that inspired the project?
I know it sounds odd, contrived maybe. Waking up on the sofa at my brother's house with a complete idea is just how it happened. I just woke up and the idea was there, almost as complete as it is now. There were a few things that I've changed now that I've decided to share it with the world. One difference is that there were originally two cover songs—Animal Collective's “Fireworks” (from Strawberry Jam) and Dinosaur Jr's “I'm Insane” (from Hand It Over)—but I decided not to include them in the end.
There were ideas like: one piece that uses a four-second delay and explores polyrhythm; one that speeds up and slows down; one that uses an ambient build with a screech halfway through; a percussive one using the sound of the holes being tapped; a pair that feel like siblings; lousy superhero themes; an atonal piece without a fixed rhythm; one written as if it is from the perspective of the instrument telling a story; one recorded through a guitar amp. Things like that, but not as conceptual Western musical ideas, just as a series of pieces that I imagined as existing. It's quite hard to explain. It sounds over-analyzed and conceptual when I describe it. Because I make music all the time these things are just the way I think. Every part of the process was important. I considered it a musical device to even go to a shop and buy the instrument.
I woke up, then made some notes on the train home, got all the things together, and made it, for no reason. I am quite proud to have followed it through.
4. You mentioned that in early 2010 during the winter you bought a recorder and made Tape/Recorder in one week. Had you played the recorder before or did you simply teach yourself after you bought it? The recording certainly suggests that you brought a pretty advanced degree of recorder-playing proficiency to the project.
This is funny. I hadn't played the instrument since I was eight years old. I was talking to a friend about this recently. We went to a really small village school and playing the recorder was the main thing. I'm not even sure if we did Maths. We definitely didn't do any science. I went and got the standard school recorder that we used to play and it all came flooding back. Muscle memory, I suppose. It is a bit of a feature in the way I make music actually, the novice quality of learning instruments. I spent a lot of time a while ago making instruments and playing them because it becomes a really exciting thing to have to work things out. It holds my attention better than mastering one instrument.
5. Could you clarify specifically how the recording was made? I hear a great deal of doubling up of recorders, for instance, which makes me wonder whether you recorded them individually or whether you electronically multiplied them? What other instruments were involved and was there a specific order you followed in multi-tracking them (i.e., which instrument first, second, etc.)?
I made the album really quickly and, as I mentioned, there were ideas ready before I started. They all happened individually; there were no other instruments on the recording. I did a lot with an octave pedal, delay, reverb, distortion; lots of multi-tracking to build up the size. It was important to derive the songs from the instrument but not be limited to the range of the instrument. I would be as spontaneous as possible so I played parts through an octave pedal to make bass parts but also built up sections in the delay pedal and played it back different pitches, so some have a Mellotron or old sampler sound. It was really enjoyable making it because of the limitations—the ideas and the process. The main thing was making music that was descriptive; I wasn't thinking “E minor here D flat there.” I was thinking: at this point in the music it has to sound lonely or excited or like loads of things running together or something being clumsy. I ended up doing things like shaking the tape player to get tremolo and things like that. If the process wasn't really enjoyable I wouldn't have finished it.
6. About the recording, you wrote, “I'm sure there is a use in the world for this kind of thing. I find it particularly useful for regressing back to childhood and getting into some sort of trance.” The comment indicates that you see the style of Tape/Recorder as being significantly different from your Ultre music. How do you specifically see the Tape/Recorder music compared to Ultre?
It's actually very similar in the process to how I make all music alone. It even deconstructs the process to me. I've been thinking of the usage of music a lot. It's so easy to record music now that it's become a different beast to what it used to be. There are millions of people making brilliant things all the time. I just imagine that if you make something with a strange idea that somewhere someone will find that interesting and it will become a part of someone's life. At the moment I will make some music and think, what is the best situation for this song to be heard? Why does the world need it? A lot of people seem to think that you can keep pushing music out and it will become of value. It's exhausting. I wasn't going to release this album. I've made others too that I will never release because there is no space in the world! I sent the album to some friends and they kept asking about it, so I thought it was worth pushing it off the shore to see if it can be properly loved by anyone.
The stuff I mentioned about trances and things like that I find really interesting but maybe shouldn't mention. I think this music is descriptive and puts me in a strange frame of mind. I make these things to induce imagery in my own mind, and then wonder if it will create images in anyone else's. That's the kind of thing that has to happen naturally. I could go on all day about the imagery and symbolism I can see in my own music. It would be as unattractive as explaining my dreams. I think with a limitation like only using one instrument the purity of gesture is preserved. So it's nice to imagine what the gestures mean.
7. One of the more fascinating aspects of the listening experience relates to the degree to which certain instruments make such a powerful impact due to associations rooted in one's personal history. When I hear the recorder in Tape/Recorder, for instance, I'm taken back to all kinds of things: Mike Oldfield's Ommadawn, The Chieftains, Gentle Giant, the Scottish highlands—even a Canadian TV show called The Friendly Giant I watched as a young boy where the Giant played “Early One Morning” on his recorder while the camera showed the drawbridge and doors of the Giant's castle opening wide in welcome. Does the recorder have similar such associations for you and what might they be? Do other instruments affect you in a similar manner?
One thing about doing an album with mono-instrumentation is that you don't mix associations with genre and style. So I think people are going to have more specific flashbacks to things like you mention. Which is brilliant. I have a few associations, like primary school, old television, cartoons, moomins, woodland, etc. There is a whole other interview about my interpretations of what the pieces mean. I try to allude to the imagery I can see in it with the titles of the pieces. There are obvious aesthetic things like the Celtic aspects and modern minimalism, and most people mention Steve Reich or Terry Riley. It's quite hard to make music like this without referencing things like that.
I like the fact that it's contemporary music, but I'm not afraid to be romantic or symbolic with things because it's out of academia. More like an artwork. I'm sure I would have to justify the techniques if I was at some music conservatory, but because I'm not I can just enjoy it. I love the idea of making contemporary music with all its techniques, and instead of calling a piece “Atonal Study of the Sonority of Prepared Woodwinds,” I can just call it “Woodlice” because that's what it sounds like to me. I feel like most people just listen to music and feel it rather than consume its devices. I like the idea of catering to peoples' listening experiences rather than trying to outsmart them.
8. During “Calling Clouds,” woodwinds play ostinato patterns in such a way that I'm reminded of classical minimalism, as if the writing has some subtle connection to Philip Glass's early composing style. Did particular influences seep into the material as you were composing and recording it, and if so what were they?
I feel as foreign to the influences in this as a first time listener. I think it definitely sounds like classical minimalism in places. I never planned that really, I think in its approach it has minimalist principles as I do. As I mentioned though, with things like this I don't mind setting rules for myself then breaking them on purpose, which feels very un-minimalist. There are some very classical parts too, and there is a kind of romantic narrative to some pieces. At the moment I feel like the way you present music is a part of its composition now, like the public consciousness is the new concert hall. Which is great.
9. Another interesting thing about the project is the range of moods captured on the recording. While many songs are joyful and uplifting, there's also “Please Be Careful,” for example, which sounds darker and more mysterious, and “Thick Ancient Ghosties,” which treats the recorder like a wailing spectre against what sounds like a guitar-generated atmospheric backdrop. How consciously did you set out to ensure that there would be such a range of moods?
I knew that because it's all one timbre and a monophonic instrument I had to make every piece different in some way. It was all done so quickly, it probably depended on what I had eaten or something. When I'm hungry, I make a depressing song; when I have a sandwich, I write something euphoric. So maybe the moods are all based on the arc of my blood sugar. I don't really feel like making introspective, sad music any more. I think it's more challenging to express other moods or symbolism, like friendship, inquisitiveness, care, glee. To me the screeching in “Thick Ancient Ghosties” doesn't sound melancholic, it sounds free and natural or unhinged.
10. You've released two full-lengths (All the Darkness Has Gone to Details, The Nest and the Skull) and an EP (Watch Your Thoughts) under the Ultre name and, being as musically prolific as you are, I'm assuming that new Ultre material is in the works. Could you update us on whether there is new material and if so what it sounds like compared to the music we've heard so far? Finally, you're an accomplished visual as well as musical artist. Could you say a few words about the kind of visual work you do? How do you manage to accommodate both interests, given that each one by itself could occupy all of your time and attention?
I haven't really thought about what to do next. There is a lot of music being made and a lot of ideas going on. I started a similar deconstruction of the piano called “Piano Muscles” but got really busy before I could finish it and it lost its spontaneity. I expect to finish that one day. I have recorded an album of new songs in a duo with a friend of mine that will be the live events to perform. I write music most of the hours I'm awake in one way or another, so if there is a collection to be put together then I will release it. I expect the next recording will be a reaction to this album so it will probably be really macho and digital. Hmm, maybe not. I made a song this afternoon that sounds like that 1920s sound I used to do more of. Then I found a floor-tom and made some drumsticks out of barbecue skewers bundled together so maybe it will be a cod-micro-taiko album.I don't imagine myself an accomplished visual artist; I draw every day but it's normally to empty my mind, not really for show. I think it's all a part of the same thing; it's just nice to keep making things. I really like animating things and have ended up usually performing with visual work too. Usually the time before a performance I'll be rabidly animating and get really into it but have to get on with making music. I guess both ways of creating are about possessing some imaginary world or at least making this one more exciting.