In 1982, Touch was established by Jon Wozencroft, Mike Harding, Andrew McKenzie and Gary Mouat. Pointedly not a record label, they initially produced audiovisual magazines, in which the images and text were given as much prominence as the music on their cassette compilations. Over the years, they have moved onto releasing vinyl, CDs, and digital downloads, by artists such as Fennesz, Chris Watson, Philip Jeck, Phill Niblock and Oren Ambarchi, but their ethos is as it was when they first started.
Touch remains under the curatorship of Jon Wozencroft and Mike Harding. To mark the beginning of their 30th anniversary, which will feature a number of events around Europe and the US, they agreed to be interviewed by me, the first time they have been interviewed together for over ten years. Given that the number three is of symbolic importance to Touch, it seems appropriate that this interview will run in three parts. Part one covers the genesis of the project, and how their core creative values saw them through the changes in technology which took place in the 1980s.
30 years old? It seems longer than 5 years since the 25th anniversary celebrations. What do you consider to be the official beginning of Touch?
Jon Wozencroft (JW): The official entry is 4th March 1982, when I met Mike at the Moonlight Club in West Hampstead, though I had established the idea of doing some sort of avant-garde magazine with sound in 1981. I knew Andrew McKenzie [The Hafler Trio] when I was at University, and he was working the shrinkwrap machine in the Virgin Megastore in Newcastle. We were into the same sort of weird music – we both loved The Residents – and had the idea of doing something. Meeting Mike was the catalyst for doing something about it, because he had some kind of infrastructure that we could use as a starting point.
Mike Harding (MH): Unrelated in any way to Touch, I had a label which had published two vinyl releases. And around that there was kind of a small network, so we already had a little system.
JW: So then having decided to so something, my starting point was “what is my favourite band in the world right now?”, which was New Order. So I got the Granada TV number from directory enquiries, called the switchboard and asked to be put through to Tony Wilson, who told me to speak to Rob Gretton, their manager. They were doing a concert in Newcastle, so I went and by hook or by crook I got to talk to the band after the concert. I literally did a pitch in the dressing room to Bernard, Steve and Hooky, with Rob in the corner. I finally emerged at 2am, by which point all my friends had gone home and the transport had stopped, and had to hitch back from Newcastle to Durham, where I was staying, in the driving rain, finally arriving back at about 4:30 in the morning.
When did you hear back from the band?
JW: The following Monday I gave Rob Gretton a call, and he said “they’ll do it”. But do what? This was the really difficult thing – how were we going to pay for New Order to go into the studio? Anyway, I’d see them quite often at gigs, and Bernard said to me one day “we’ve got this thing that we’ve done that you might like, but on the other hand you might want us to go in the studio and record something new for you”. Given that my whole pitch had been that this project was going to be something different, when he offered me something different I felt I had to go with it. But we still didn’t know what this was going to be. In May they were doing a concert at Pennies in Norwich, and Rob told me he’d give me the master tape at the concert. So Mike and I drove up from London together, saw the concert and Rob gave us the cassette. We went out and immediately put it on in the car’s cassette machine, and went “what the fuck is this?”. It was a 23 minute long techno instrumental [“Video 5-8-6”], we didn’t know what to think.
Were you even sure it was them? That they hadn’t just given you a random tape?
JW: Well they had done “Everythings Gone Green”, but nothing else was like this at the time. I had some close allies who were New Order fans, and I played it to them, and they’d initially go “what the fuck?”, but slowly, one or two of them began to say “That’s amazing. That’s really amazing”. It was a real grower. We decided we’d go with it.
So you had this really special piece – how did you go about turning that into your first release, Feature Mist?
JW: We went round the houses with it a bit, because we didn’t know how to accommodate a 23-minute track on a 60 minute cassette. We had to get New Order to agree to let us split it into two parts. We gradually put the pieces together after that. One of the big things was getting Tuxedomoon to make something for it, who were very big at the time, and they did a beautiful track. And then there was this connection we had with the Riverside Theatre in Hammersmith, who were doing a retrospective on Futurism, Russian Constructivism and Mayakovsky. We then mastered the tape in the autumn.
Was the technological side of that a bit of a challenge?
JW: We were just learning as we went along. The biggest difference in those days was access to recording and mastering facilities – it was super expensive, there was no way you could play around with it and experiment. Andrew thought he knew what he was doing, and he had a four track tape recorder, and was starting to learn how to perform various tricks with it – editing and looping and what have you. So we went down to a friend’s studio with all our tapes, compiled it into two track Revox, which then had to be bounced back down to a cassette, which you would copy using one of these old high speed copying machines. And so the first real problem we had was dealing with tape hiss. Now everyone is trying to put it back, but we were trying to take it off!
You had told New Order that this was going to be something different – what was it that differentiated it?
JW: We had this big idea that we’d sequence the tracks so it was like a journey, almost like a documentary, by putting in these little inserts. It was before people started doing it with hip hop and sampling, because that hadn’t really arrived – I mean it was happening, but we didn’t know it was happening – so that turned out to be quite a revolutionary thing to do. Suddenly you had a musical item which was almost like a TV show.
MH: Or a radio show, rather. We were responding to what was around, the media at the time. It was a very different world.
Aside from the music, the visual aspect of what New Order were doing must have been a huge influence.
JW: Design is intrinsic to labels like 4AD and Factory Records. If there was a catalyst for me, it is Factory, and what that represented as an idea – not just the music or the artwork, but a completely wild and maverick idea of what constituted record company practice. I guess we’re like Factory but with better business sense! However I think a bigger influence comes from trying to work out what you could do that other people weren’t doing. Peter Saville and Malcolm Garrett and Neville Brody and all of these people were doing really strong visual work, but these were just simply record covers. I was struck most by the developments that Cabaret Voltaire and Human League had started to do with the idea of a visual element alongside the sonic. I asked myself what could be done to extend that into another area of practice? The whole idea was to make the visual element as much a compositional force as the sound. That is why we keep bleating on about how “Touch is not a record label”.
MH: We called it an audiovisual magazine in the early days.
JW: What Touch was set up to be was like a radio programme, and the booklet was like the Radio Times. You see it as being three components that the user or listener puts together themselves – the sound, the image, and the script. It becomes an interactive thing, the audience becomes a participant in the way something is digested rather than just a passive consumer.
And that is where the name Touch comes from, isn’t it, the idea of a meeting point between these different worlds? How did this idea develop over the next few releases?
JW: The name also relates to the idea of the tactile being potentially the most powerful element. The way the structure works, when we commission musicians or sound artists to do something, we give them some text or photographic input. When we commission a photographer we give them some musical input, so there are all of these interpolations, connections being made in the composition of the product.
MH: Touch 33 immediately followed Feature Mist, and that was in retrospect a really important release.
JW: That was just a cassette, and that was done in the most economic way possible, a two-colour cassette liner card, and all of the sound was made up of stuff that people had given us. People don’t really realise this, but we published the first ever Current 93/Nurse With Wound track. We didn’t realise how potentially important that was going to be. We also published the first Test Department recording. And Geoff Travis had been sent this stuff from Laibach in Ljubliana, and he said “I don’t know what this is all about, see what you can do with it”. So we used that as loops and elements of Touch 33. It was also the first item, through our connection with Soliman Gamil which expressly made the connection between world music and weird music. By the time of Meridians 2, our cup was overflowing, and we had to do it in two parts. So we did the weird part and what we thought would be the more commercial part, with the booklet.
MH: Which had to be put together by hand over many long days.
JW: That was a complete nightmare. Each of the pages of the magazine were separate sheets. They’d be in the racks of the Virgin Megastore, and people would take them apart, and try to stuff them back in the plastic sleeve. You couldn’t shrink-wrap the magazines because they came in these plastic wallets that we had custom made. If they got messed up, then no-one would buy them.
MH: And there were 5,000 of them, it took weeks to make and it cost a fortune. It was naïve, but it was a really tricky thing to do. We should point out that there were other attempts at cassette magazines around at the time, not just in the UK, but to this date no-one still has really cracked the combination of the audio and visual in a satisfactory way for me yet, shoving a CD inside the front of a book or whatever.
JW: The next release was recorded in 1983, released in 1984, I spent 2 months in Indonesia between Bali and Java just with a tape recorder, a Sony Walkman which was just out then.
MH: Then, as now, technology was enabling stuff that couldn’t have been done before without lugging heavy equipment around. This is also stuff that Chris Watson and David Attenborough talk about in relation to their work over the years.
Yes, I saw the great talk they gave last year at the Royal Institution, and the photos of David with his huge battery packs powering his recording equipment.
MH: And they couldn’t actually record anything because of the noise of the camera! So new technology was really opening up at the time what you could do.
Did it feel like you were involved with something revolutionary at the time – not just in terms of Touch, but in terms of the wider musical scene?
JW: The whole point of Simon Reynolds’s book Rip It Up And Start Again, was that post-punk was far a lot more revolutionary than punk. The music coming out at that time was much more experimental than what had preceded it just three years earlier.
MH: And the system in place to support it was strong, with Rough Trade and Chain With No Name, that was 17-20% of the market, selling large numbers of records. Unthinkable now. The structure was in place, the culture was in place, everything was feeding off each other, it was a really fertile time.
JW: There was an energy in the early 80s, an optimism that you could change things. It all started to change with the advent of that wonderful thing, the personal computer, which solved some problems, but created so many others. I was working very much in graphic design with Neville Brody, so we saw this coming, all of these dot-matrix and bitmap aesthetics that were hideous. It took us two years before we went “right, we’d better do something with this”.
You seemed to have taken a conscious decision to be somewhat outside of the prevailing system.
MH: It didn’t interest us. We thought we could exist alongside that. To this day, we are still ignoring it (laughs).
JW: We were in a difficult situation after Meridians 2 because it had cost a fortune. At a certain point you are forced into an economic decision about whether you are going to become a proper “record company”, and if you do, you have to work with bands, managers, personalities and expectations, and all of the infrastructure of the music industry, things we really didn’t want to deal with. It did become a problem because certain bands would say “we want to make an album with you”, and we’d have to say, “that’s great, but how are we going to do it?” We could have gone to Rough Trade and asked them for £20,000 so we could make an album with, say, Test Department. To this day we don’t make money out of Touch, which is biased in favour of the artists. It is easy to say that 30 years later, but in 1983 or 84 when we had to try to exist by whatever slender means we had, it was more difficult.
MH: Not just the costs of recording, but the sheer physicality of making it, you had typesetting and printing costs. Typesetting costs were huge, really huge, hundreds of pounds.
JW: And you had to get it right first time. You couldn’t afford to keep going back to the typesetter. You’d ask for ten point on twelve, they’d give it to you ten point on twelve, and you’d think “I really should have done that ten point on fourteen”. Also, people forget how expensive telephone calls were back then! We used to have situations where the phone bill would come in and we’d wonder how we were going to pay it.
How did this first era of your existence come to an end?
JW: The end of part one would have been Ritual in 1985. Until that point, Gary Mouat and Panni Charrington had been involved with the design and photography. Then Gary went off to live in Germany, and later Panni went off to live in India, so I was left holding the baby. We did 3,000 copies of Ritual, as we couldn’t afford to print 5,000. It came with a 100 page book, and took us about two years from start to finish. This was the first time anyone had mixed different paper qualities like this. Some of the paper was very unstable, it often cracked and tore, so the printers hated it, but we loved it, because it was matte on one side and glazed on the other. But the juxtapositions between this and the photography and illustrations and the stories and the artworks was like a summit for us. We really thought that this was as far as we could push the cassette magazine idea without bankrupting ourselves. We made a profit on this – for nearly two years work – of £200.
So then you moved from the tapes and magazines into other formats. How did you preserve the link between the audio and the visual?
JW: With The Sea Org, the first release we did for the Hafler Trio, you have this rather lavish booklet . The interesting thing to note is that we are still very much in DIY land, see all this Letraset text here, you can see that it’s a little wobbly. It is also very prescient, in that it also has The Hafler Trio incorporating sounds into the images – sonification before people were really up for investigating that sort of thing.
MH: You can also relate this idea to the split screen film that the Hafler Trio made that was played on Channel 4 called Alternation, Perception and Resistance.
JW: Another key release was Andrew McKenzie’s recording with John Duncan, Contact. This was for me really a breaking point, moving from working with typography and graphic form into the photographic., and taking the idea of noise within information as typography, putting it through all kinds of different visual distortions, using photocopiers and scanners. I just used to really love the way you could get this poetry out of distorted photography and images. This is also interesting as it was the year before Photoshop came out, so this was the last non-Photoshop cover.
MH: There didn’t even have to be music involved. We published a translation of Jean Baudrillard’s “Xerox and Infinity”.
JW: This was quite important the time because it was completely outside the realm of experimental music, but it was taking the visual languages we were trying to explore in the likes of The Sea Org to extremes, using just scanners and copiers again.
MH: The first version was homemade. I remember photocopying tracing paper, trying to get tracing paper through the apertures. It didn’t always work.
JW: Me and my girlfriend at the time, Catherine, who was French, were really into Baudrillard’s work, and we noticed that one of his works had been published in a magazine in France called Traverses, and no-one had bothered to translate it. As it was called Xerox and Infinity, we thought “lets just do it ourselves”. Catherine translated it, I edited, and we basically just doorstepped Baudrillard and said “we’ve translated your work, can we put it out?”. We got his number from the Paris phone book.
MH: And since it was called Xerox and Infinity, he could hardly say no!
How did you feel when the industry were getting behind the CD format in such a big way in the second half of the 80s?
JW: The funny thing is that, going back to our earlier point about hiss, the CD seemed to be a solution to all of these problems.
So you viewed it as a positive thing initially?
JW: Yes. We went to Abbey Road with our reel-to-reels and said “we want the best digital mastering that you can offer”. We did The Hafler Trio’s Thirsty Fish CD at EMI’s cutting studio in Germany, specifically because they cut Kraftwerk! I went on the plane with the quarter-inch masters. However when we came to do the CD of the Soliman Gamil record, which had been out on vinyl and cassette, I took the quarter-inch masters to the Exchange cutting studio in Camden Town on the tube, and during the journey they got demagnetised. It suddenly sounded really dull, the recording had lost its top end. So we had to master our very first CD from the vinyl! The next CD was the Hafler Trio’s Ignotum Per Ignotius, which was immediately an attempt to break the jewel case format, by using a booklet.
MH: Ugliness is a big influence of ours, we have to break it!