TEN QUESTIONS WITH: SI.CUT-DB
Douglas Benford took time out from his many activities—creating music (like the new From Tears: Beach Archive under his si.cut-db moniker or with Tennis partner Ben Edwards), playing club dates, and curating the London club Sprawl—to discuss the new album in detail, his recording process, and assorted other projects on the horizon.
1. The BiP_HOp site states that your newest release From Tears: Beach Archive is an attempt to create a 21st century Another Green World. First of all, how exactly is it a 're-creation' of the Eno work? It's obviously not a literal transcription and there are no track-by-track equivalencies so the connection is clearly subtler. What's the exact connection? Secondly, the BiP_HOp site also describes the album as a recorded journey of you “circumnavigating the 'si-cut.db dub and micro-house music templates' with a nostalgic but escapist slant.” Can you elaborate on these statements, on how the album sounds, and how it differs from your previous work?
Hands up, in confession, this conceit was my idea; Eno always had a way of presenting pretentiousness (an underrated value, I think he said once) in a bearable form. The Another Green World parallels only evolved to me once the album and the artwork had been completed—I know that I'll be in for a knocking on this one—so there is no direct connection, only a nebulous one. The use of white, the angles, and the photos in the cover design reminded me somehow of that Eno artwork (after I'd completed it, mind you!) and the photo of Brian reading on the back. Then there is the 'sense of place' haunting both albums; Robin Rimbaud just reviewed From Tears: Beach Archive and said “it was drawing a nostalgic sketch of a dank, crackling, post-On Land Eno landscape.” It was nice that he picked up on that; On Land is positively all about a 'sense of place.'
There's no denying that Eno's original Another Green World was a pivotal influence on my teenage, angst-ridden youth and to me it seemed a perfect album—evocative, wistful. To me, From Tears: Beach Archive, although purely digital, has that spirit, an idea of different directions and moods. Someone just told me he found it difficult to find a representational track on it, as each piece sets out to do something different but within my palette. I thought, why not refer to it as an original influence?
In fact, the first album I heard by Eno was Before and After Science which just seemed unreal and to pull in different directions. Kraftwerk—though I loved them—lacked the warmth and sentimentality of that record (although all Kraftwerk's material is strangely sentimental about a future which almost came out of science fiction—robots, space labs, et cetera); Before and After Science and Another Green World seem more about nature. Brian Eno's whole 'non-musician' philosophy was an inspiration to me in my teens; it was a whole punk thing as well, married to my art college background too. To me, music has a lot in common with graphic design (my previous career). I remember buying Another Green World and the Human League's original 7-inch Being Boiled on the same day in 1978. Both records represented a freedom of thought, Being Boiled in practical terms too (that DIY independent ethic and 'anyone can do it/buy a synthesizer' theme you discover on the first few Scritti Politti/Normal/Cabaret Voltaire records too). Some of the other albums that made a particular impact on my teens in the late-‘70s/early-‘80s include Eno's Obscure label releases which were always very pure, English and open-ended, in terms or experimentation—the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, David Toop, Nyman, Gavin Bryars, and Robert Wyatt—and Eno's later Ambient series would have a big impact on my Media Form project.
I think the main difference from Enthusiast, Find Some Shade, and Offices at Night [Volume 1-Originals] is that for me those albums were more spontaneously compiled whereas this new album felt much more considered as a complete conceptual piece. It did actually take two to three years to put the material in order, to create 'definitive' versions of work-in-progress. From Tears: Beach Archive has more in common in spirit with Tennis's Furlines and my Mathieu collaboration und.and which were benchmarks or watersheds. It's also the first time in a while (since Furlines) that I designed my own sleeve which was a headscratching experience, even though I used to be a graphic designer.
I think that electronica is a bit stagnant at the moment; people expect predictable things from it and much of that has no relation to the person behind the music; it's done in a certain style and that's it. I am very selfish and make the kind of music I want to hear and would buy, and that quite often I only hear hinted at. I like to think that my music is at least personal; I am ploughing my own furrow and letting things grow naturally.
2. You composed it over the course of two years at many coastal locations across the world, while exploring waterways and seafronts in Riga, Vancouver, Athens, Aberdeen, and the coast of Devon in England. What prompted this nomadic undertaking and why coastal locations in particular?
Growing up, I was always drawn to water—rivers, the coast, canals. I take endless photos nowadays with my digital camera of waterways, and I've been involved with clean-up projects on the river Thames. Unfortunately, whilst I am good swimmer I get seasick very easily; otherwise, I would love to go on ocean cruises. A lot of the visits to the locations you mention were places I was performing in. Last year was quite stressful on a personal level, so getting away to these places was a welcome break; at the same time, I felt as if I were running away from reality even though much of this travel was work-related. Scenery can act as a powerful sedative and I had some amazing conversations, met other artists and scientists, really sweet people. Quite often these visits seem unreal but inspiring too; Riga and Vancouver are such beautiful, optimistic cites. To some extent I've achieved my ridiculous schoolboy dreams, being actually paid to visit these exotic places with my little laptop!
3. To what degree are you attempting to literally evoke coastal locations (e.g., generating deep digital waves and washes) in the album? This raises the broader issue of referentiality: to what degree are you attempting to evoke something beyond pure sound with your music, or is that sufficient unto itself in your estimation?
I think digital washes are a feature of the material on the new album, for sure. These 'sonic billows' or 'curtains' I have been working on for some time. I try to keep the sound fairly pure, in that these are all sounds that have actually evolved out of my palette, files I return to. People are justified in saying that my last albums 'all sound the same' but I am challenging myself to create new works within these restrictions; in fact these limits I find really work when I add other elements, like the 'found' accordion samples (which are all played by children, for instance, though they have been heavily processed).
Also, with its randomness, a coastal line is almost shaped in fact like a sound wave; maybe one is a metaphor for the other. Think of From Tears: Beach Archive as a collection of sea shanties!
4. The album's sound design in particular is stunning. Listening to “Come to the Moments,” for example, prompts me to ask how you generated its palette of sounds and what stages were involved in its composition. Could you elaborate upon the creative process for this track as a representative example of your approach?
Creating something like “Come to the Moments” has been a long process, a piece that was never finished (there was a prototype of it called “Motif” which went to a couple of small compilations, but it needed more work I thought). The key things were the backbone of the rhythmic bits, which were small drum sounds cut down, but both the 'wash' and the 'clicks' are actually small accidents I had in Logic, the 'wash' a previous sound I had originally created from an old synthesizer (my trusty Casio CZ101 I believe) for another piece, then put into a generative programme (Replay Player), and then edited and sequenced. But the rhythmic end I've worked on for a long time; it was one of my attempts to create a 'perfect unperfect' rhythm which is not strictly 4/4; the bass sound is really just tuned bass drums (I think). That gives you some clues but there is no set formula or process. I do think more and more as if I am 'sculpting' work (e.g., 3D in feel) now as opposed to 'graphic designing' pieces which is more 2D.
5. What's the status of the 2nd and 3rd volumes of Offices at Night? (The first volume was released in 2004 on Fällt and is scheduled to be followed by two more as special Fällt downloads. Volume 2 will feature other artists' versions (including Stephan Mathieu, Tu m', Sebastien Roux, Mitchell Akiyama, and Mapstation) of the Offices at Night material, while volume 3 will feature si-cut.db's own versions.)
The whole Offices project has taken a long while; Offices at Night [Volume 1-Originals] was recorded around 2000 and then Chris (Murphy) at Fällt had an idea about expanding the project, with the next volumes being a download series. Volumes two and three will be linked with specially designed CDRs you will order from Fällt, very cheaply, to burn yourself; it's a nice idea, but as ever, commissioning busy artists with no budget is painfully slow. I am waiting for all the remixes to come in before I start on volume three, which is a major undertaking. I may make some more 'conceptual' versions! Most of volume two is in now; we are just waiting on a couple of artists, and we may have to find some fill-in ones because, as I say, everyone is so busy...
6. You're performing at MUTEK 2005 in June. What kind of set are you presenting these days? Is it exclusively the new material or is material from multiple albums included?
Nowadays, like so many artists I've met, I am running the beloved Ableton and mixing old and new tracks together, processing them at the same time, either fragments, loops or whole tracks; usually about half my set is unreleased, work-in-progress material, as it's nice to hear it on other sound systems. Sometimes I'm shocked that something I produced on small, crappy speakers at home can sound so great on a big system but I do spend an awful lot of time with every aspect of my EQing. I jokingly tell people that when I've finished a new track it is always THE 'quintessential' or 'ultimate' si-cut track, and that after completing it 'my work is done, I can retire' (fat chance!).
7. What's the status of Tennis, your duo project with Benge (Ben Edwards)? Will we be hearing newly released material in the future?
The way I look at Tennis is that we really reached a fantastic high point with Furlines, and each album from Wooden Sweets on was a massive progression, so I'd like us to come back with something amazing, and that might not necessarily mean another 'electronica' album! The other problem is that Ben Edwards and I are both incredibly busy with our own things so it's been difficult to get together recently.
We just did an improvised Tennis net broadcast set (from London) for a New Zealand festival, which kind of worked, but I think we need to rehearse our improvisations more! I think there are more possibilities of Tennis things; we've done a few compilations tracks, and two recent news ones will be on BiP_HOp Generation vol. 8.
8. What are some of the other recording projects you're involved in at the moment and when might we see them issued?
Most recently I've recorded two tracks for a locked groove 12-inch for the Canadian 1.8 records (apparently there will be two tracks by Venetian snares on the other side, so quite a contrast) which should be out soon. And I've also given new tracks to the MUTEK and Synch festivals for compilations. Stephan Mathieu and I did some superb new music for Interplay 3 (the Sprawl event in London ), so I think that will make its way onto a new Mathieu/Benford album, and there is also a small download track just out on thinner, on their Crossways compilation. Future material I'm working on includes the final volume of Offices and some material to collaborate on with Granny'Ark. I also want to take my music in some different directions and this might not be si-cut.db-orientated.
9. You've been touring heavily this past year (Greece, France, Canada, Russia, and the UK). Any tour-related highlight(s) you care to share? Is there a particular locale you enjoy playing most of all?
The actual playing in a location is often eclipsed by the place itself. Though visiting Riga and the RT-32 radio telescope was originally meant to be a holiday, it was fascinating to see this Solaris-styled piece of Soviet hardware (previously used for military purposes) in the middle of a Latvian forest, being re-used for actual space research, run on low resources but real enthusiasm. Then I got asked to use some of its space data recordings to create tracks and later was invited back to beautiful Riga to play at their arts/media centre. Again it was the people as much as the scenery which made it special.
The Synch festival, outside Athens, was great for so many reasons: doing touristy things like visiting the Acropolis, hanging out with and meeting such nice people. Ljubljana and Lille were lovely, and I seem to play in Paris often too. I played two gigs supporting Pole and we have a certain rapport; funnily enough I think we both enjoyed the London one we did last September the most, mainly because we probably had low expectations. Stefan Betke and I both had a few beers and locked horns as it were; we both played excellent sets, I thought, through our alcoholic haze, and it was actually quite funny and produced some great music. And then Moscow was a real eye opener: an incredible experience, a free festival in an old converted car factory.
10. You also curate London's Sprawl events. How is that going and what have you got planned for it in the days ahead?
The monthlies have been great. We always seem to get a good selection of nice artists, often traveling from all over the world, and a small but appreciative audience. These Sprawl regulars are actually fairly small, modest in size, with around 60 people in attendance. It can be quite intimate and, after almost 10 years, it's established, I think, as part of London's sonic cultural landscape. We usually take a break in the summer as people seem to go away or spend all their money on festivals and holidays so we have a break from June to August and then come back in September.
Our last Interplay 2 night event—which my Sprawl partner Iris Garrelfs curated with the Goethe Institute last February—was amazing: lovely music and both nights sold out, and being at a venue that's not too large—300 people I think—kept it still feeling quite intimate. Next year it will be Sprawl's 10th birthday. We are planning some more Interplays, taking them on the road and issuing a CD that'll highlight the last three years on our fairly dormant Sprawl Imprint label. I can't believe we've been doing Sprawl for so long! Certainly it's been a great journey though.