The Touch 30 interview, part two: Contact

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Part two of my interview with Jon Wozencroft and Mike Harding of Touch picks up where part one left off: the CD era. This was a fertile period for Touch, in which they linked up with artists of the calibre of Ryoji Ikeda, Philip Jeck, Biosphere, Chris Watson and Fennesz. During the 1990s, a number of important side projects and relationships with new collaborators also developed, though the most important relationship remained that between the audio and the visual. In this part of the interview, we discuss how these points of contact helped Touch to continue to grow and evolve.

 

The mid 90s seemed to be an important time for Touch, when you made contact with a lot of artists, and built networks which were to sustain you through to the present day.

MH: Yes, the building blocks you now see were put in place in the 90s. Philip Jeck, Chris Watson, Fennesz, Biosphere, Ryoji Ikeda, Mika Vainio, Oren Ambarchi.

JW: I think the late 90s was a golden age. This was a time when the music that we were involved with was quite revolutionary, progressive, and ambitious. mesmervariations was released on Ash International in 1995, and just look at the people on it: Ryoji Ikeda, Peter Rehberg, CM von Hausswolff, this is just before the laptop music thing took off. There was an optimism about the digital developments, a feeling between 1995 and ’99 that there was going to be this really critical engagement through laptop music. Laptop music is a misleading term in many senses, because it gives you the impression of a bloke standing in front of a laptop, playing Upstairs At The Garage during the late 90s, with nothing for the audience to look at, except the upside down Apple logo (the company changed this configuration on subsequent laptops – I like to think we had a hand in that). The important thing was that musicians could all of a sudden produce high quality recordings without recourse to expensive studio time. Obviously there is more to it that that, but we had been at the forefront of home recording initiatives – Mike even published a book about it with the other Mike Harding from the band 1000 Mexicans! Now we can see how home recording opens up the floodgates.

 

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Philip Jeck is clearly interesting in that up to this point you’ve been talking about taking the crackle and hiss out, and he is putting it right back into the music. How did you come into contact with him?

JW: I saw Philip Jeck on a daytime TV programme in 1992 or 93 being interviewed about Vinyl Requiem, and I just thought it was amazing. We met him at a concert he was doing with The Hafler Trio at the Goethe Institute, said “we love your stuff, do you want to do a CD with us?” and he said yes. The significant thing about Philip is that his latest work is better than ever. His trajectory from Loopholes in 1995, through Surf and Stoke, to An Ark For The Listener is an extraordinary narrative. And that is such a lovely thing, that you work with someone over a period of time and the work just gets better and better.

And you’ve been working with Chris Watson for almost as long, 15 years, but you must have known him even longer, given his history in music.

JW: It took ages to persuade Chris to do something for us. I’d had little contact with him in his previous situation in The Hafler Trio, but then I had a three year correspondence with him to persuade him to publish his wildlife sound recordings.

MH: It took you even longer to persuade Biosphere to come out of retirement! You could say the same about Chris’s work as you did about Philip’s in terms of the way it has developed. The way Chris perceives himself is the key to that, as well as his relationship to us, and to the rest of his world. His role is so different in everything he does, it requires completely different mindsets. He has just come back from Namibia, one of the remotest places on the African continent, with his film crew, and then with us it is clearly a completely different setup.

Do you feel you’ve played a part in that development?

JW: Our role is to be like a framing device, and also this horribly overused word, curation. The artists are the ones that have the grapes that make the wine, and if we know the right shape for the bottles and the labels to put on it, that gives it some context, a way of it being received in the world. People often ask me about the artwork, but for me it is like a portal which you can pass through to experience and appreciate the sound. And the important thing about our work is that we’re not working with bands, it is by and large instrumental, there aren’t lyrics, there aren’t narratives being flung at you directly about what you should be thinking about when you listen to it. And so my work is giving it that aspect. It is like a location, taking the idea of field recordings and sounds, and applying it through photography. The first Fennesz release, plus forty seven degrees 56′ 37″ minus sixteen degrees 51′ 08″ is an example of this, you have you have two fields – the music recorded by Christian in his garden at home (the title of the release is the grid reference), and the images from a trip I was taking at the same time he was recording it (in Portugal, where I first met him), so you have this parallel journey.

MH: I’d go further than Jon. I know that when Philip is working on an album, he actively thinks about it as being “for us”. The inside of his record decks has little quotes, little prompts about us. So does Chris, he is out there thinking “this would be great for Touch”. I think we’ve given them confidence that when they do something, it will be treated in the right way. But that relationship takes time to build up.

JW: The framing is also about the way it is compiled and edited, even the titles. Some artists are very good at titles, some aren’t. And the cover is also like a title. The difference between the vinyl and the CD is that vinyl is very distinctly front and back in terms of its layout. Whereas with the CD, we use three panels very often, you create a narrative from that. The most important image might not be the one that is on the front.

Are some artists will involved more and some less in the dialogue about the visual side too?

JW: Just as Mike said, where our artists have a specific mentality when it comes to knowing that something is for Touch, I’ll make work for specific artists. I’ll find a location, take a photo and I’ll go “that is Fennesz”, or “that is Chris Watson” or “that is Philip Jeck”.

MH: Sometimes an artist will come in with their own imagery, and Jon will say “that’s a nice photo, but what about this?” and they’ll go “Oh god, that’s brilliant, far better than mine!”. Sometimes not though, Phill Niblock and Mika Vainio are very dynamic with imagery. Mika’s cover for In The Land Of The Blind – that was his image. And Phil, being a visual artist anyway, gives us about 100 jpegs.

 

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Alongside the relationships with these artists, there are other side projects which have developed over the years – associated labels like Ash International and OR, projects like Spire, which have involved various collaborators. How important are these projects?

MH: It gives you room to breathe sideways. If someone is particularly busy doing something, it gives us freedom to do something else alongside it. As long as it is growing and evolving, everyone is happy.

JW: Ash was a way of getting Mike away from doing the accounts and talking to distributors. This couldn’t happen unless Mike and I were happy to do different things.

They are very collaborative – for example, Ash was started by Mike and Robin Rimbaud, aka Scanner. How did that happen?

MH: Scanner was the right guy in the right place at the right time. Robin (Rimbaud) was working in a library in Fulham. He’d had some books published, had his fingers in a lot of pies, and had lots of energy. He had a really good idea, in that he wanted to release a record of mobile phone intercepts. He became the face of this new thing, and the NME trivialised it by having him dressed as a gnome with a fishing rod over the city. As well as the Scanner idea, he also brought Runaway Train, which was an amazing recording, and oddly he also brought the idea of doing something with Electronic Voice Phenomena, because he has a cassette of it. I tracked down (EVP expert) Raymond Cass’s number and he had all these EVP recordings, so the Ghost Orchid CD followed, along with the Parapsychic Acoustic Research Cooperative (PARC). Ash is tailor-made to deal with things like that very well, the vinyl had such beautiful artwork.

And with OR you were involved at an early stage with Russell Haswell, who has gone on to become a significant artist in his own right. How did that happen?

JW: Russell Haswell was only 18 when I first met him, a total fish out of water. He is a networking genius, absolutely gifted with language, incredibly on the ball.

MH: Russell wanted to do a computer music label, experimenting with formats and design. I’d like to stake a claim for OR being one of the first artist-curated labels. Peter Rehberg is now doing it really well with Stephen O’Malley’s Ideologic Organ label. I really like that idea, it is a good way of doing it, because the artist doesn’t know how to make it work, you need someone to come in with that expertise.

JW: Russell has so many ideas, and in those days he couldn’t sit still for 5 minutes. He wanted to be in the art world, a noise musician, he wanted to be a fine artist, he wanted to be a graphic designer, and he is great at all these things. He got himself into a bit of a mix-up. But not in the bad sense, because he does what he wants and this is what we all want to do.

Given how extreme the music is, I was amazed to see a recent Haswell and Hecker album pitch up on the Warner Classics label! It reminds me of an interview with Christian Fennesz a couple of years back in which he said he felt that music which was considered difficult in the late 90s would be considered much more accessible now. How does it feel to you, not just across the decade, but across the 30 years of your existence? Have tastes changed?

JW: [Fennesz’s] Endless Summer was a freak wave at the perfect time. It was always in his work, that melodic element, but suddenly it came to the surface. The relationship between Endless Summer and the other things he has done is quite misleading. Plus forty seven degrees, where we started with Christian in 1999, was a difficult album, very demanding and abstract, but recently he has just had one of the tracks he recorded from that period, “Surf”, used for a Hollywood trailer, a film called The Grey! But this brings us back to another integral part of Touch and the range in which we operate. There is something I always tell my students about sound and music which has a very particular relationship to taste. When you play certain kinds of music, you get an immediate reaction based on taste – “I don’t like it”. How do you know you don’t like it? You are not even listening to it. But we have learned how to listen to and appreciate and enjoy difficult music. When you place certain things together alongside it, you can start to become more tolerant in the way you listen and respond to things, and out of tolerance and taste, one develops a critical mind. It is also to do with the time and space you give yourself to digest something unusual and to look at things from a different point of view.

MH: It isn’t the same world. An idea which worked then may not work in the same way now. 30 years is a natural cycle, a generation, an economic cycle. 30 is a magical number, with all sorts of properties attached to it.

JW: When you are 30, you go through what is called the Saturn return, which is meant to be the final shedding of your adolescence and youthful instincts. It is also a harmonic number, we always work in threes, everything we do is triangular in one way or another. You are tapping into something unpredictable, therefore in movement. One of my starting points is how to use sacred geometry as a way of trying to counteract the numerical fascism of digital, which is just ones and zeroes. In digital, everything is stuck in squares, in pixels, but if you work in the ratios of photography, which are 4:3 and 16:9, then you’re starting to work in 3s.

 

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This idea of the audiovisual narrative is clearly of utmost importance to you, which must present some issues when we begin to talk about the move to digital formats.

JW: What we are really trying to defend isn’t the physical object as such, but the narrative you develop from a certain way of working. There is a highly compressed narrative in the relationship between the consumer and the object of consumption with digital downloads. There was a chain of events and a production process that one used to go through that was quite complex and involved, that was a narrative in itself. When you relate back to Ritual, which took 2 years to complete, now we are in the situation where everything has to be instantly delivered. It’s a concern to resist all of that and try to take a more painterly approach. In the old way of doing things, the investment of care and attention somehow becomes part of the thing itself, it is like a kind of polishing something until it is ready to be put out in the world. If nowadays you just put something on the site and someone downloads it, it is like everything is compressed and you are losing all of these stages. I’m not saying we are against downloading, but I do think that we have not found a way yet to create these narratives in a digital zone. And there’s obviously the musical equivalent of a drunken post at 3am on a Sunday morning!

MH: There has been a weird shift though. To illustrate this, when we first got the option to do digital commercial downloads through Kudos, I emailed all the artists about whether they wanted to do it and they all said no (except one). When I asked them again two years later, they all said yes.

I read a – seemingly very prescient – interview with Mike 7 years ago, where he talked about the “crisis of capitalism”, and the imminent collapse of the music “industry” as we then knew it. How does this collapse appear from your vantage point as outsiders of the industry, in particular in relation to what has happened in the digital era?

MH: It was pretty obvious, wasn’t it? It didn’t have any form then, people still had their heads in the clouds. But when Rough Trade went bust, the music business really changed for us, it fragmented. Now, it doesn’t exist.

JW: I think this is almost looking at it through the wrong lens, because the collapse of the music business and the incompetence with which they responded to the digital question is not nearly as important as the fact of what has happened to people as the result of digital. Music has lost its value, and young people today think they can get everything for free as a divine right. When we were coming up through the ranks, you had very little music on TV, you had John Peel, there were one or two embryonic pirate initiatives. If you wanted to find out about something you had to go out, get off your arse and go and source it, like my example of phoning Tony Wilson. And this whole thing about being a fan – I would be there on the day of release waiting for the album in the shops, and go “wow, it is the new Wire album, amazing”, and there would be this ritual and this relationship between you and the object and what it represented, and that has all been dissolved.

MH: Yes, but I think that old rituals have been replaced by new ones. I just feel like we’re in an in-between weird period where the rules haven’t yet been established.

JW: Digital culture is dissolving all of the steps on the path between the creation of a work to its distribution, and the understanding and participation in it. In the process, you have to go through various stages to do with scale. Everything starts in a room, usually your bedroom. Your bedroom becomes a rehearsal space, a mate’s place, a garage. The room gets bigger and bigger as you get better. You first start to play to 20 people, then you play to 50 people and so on. Then you start to branch out on a national and even international level. You go through making a demo tape to making a single, to a first LP. What digital tells you is that you can go from the start of that process to the end in one step, which is a total distortion. The thing with the music business is that is a behemoth, it has no way of responding to that disturbance in scale. Dubstep is possibly the latest and last example of this generative principle – rooted in the vinyl and now having to come to terms with commercial exposure and karaoke versions of the basic intentions. We like the idea of anti-commercial exposure, as we said before, we’re still quite naïve and idealistic! Kode 9 promised he’d do us a Touch 7 – he’s a busy man – but we did do an amazing concert together two years ago at the Atmospheres festival at the Museum of Garden History. There was a power cut half way through their set, but the energy levels remained.

Does this short-circuiting of the process in some way diminish the value of that end product?

MH: For the Phill Niblock generation, releasing an album is a big statement of their work, a serious thing, whereas to younger people it is far less important.

JW: We’ve always had a conversation with certain artists regarding the frequency of their releases. The Hafler Trio and Richard Kirk were the best example of this. They had the attitude that they were like journalists making reports from the front, and if they wanted to put a CD out every week that is what we should do. And we tried to create a mechanism for that to happen with the Hafler Trio, with the Spiral series, and Richard developed so many different personas for his work that you didn’t know which was which and what was what in relation to the other. One of the things that record companies always used to function as was as gatekeepers or editors or calibrators for what the market would stand, and the general rule was that a major artists would do a record every 18 months to two years.

MH: Accompanied by a tour!

JW: Now in the current era that no longer applies at all. We have artists like Fennesz who are incredibly ecological about how often they release, and you have people saying “Oh my god, when is the next Fennesz album coming out?” as soon as the last one is out. The audience needs to be given time to appreciate things and to let something resonate for them. I used to love as a young music fan those albums that you don’t get until you listen to them ten times. Whereas now I feel you have to “hit” within the first ten seconds of the CD.

MH: I’m not sure you need to “hit” within the first ten seconds, but I think you’ve got to intrigue somehow in that opening section. I’m also involved in drama, and at the moment it is hard to get anything commissioned if you haven’t got an immediate setup which intrigues. There is no drone in drama! No one would commission Waiting For Godot. No one would commission Beckett. It just wouldn’t happen now.

JW: I was a creature of the 1960s, and I bought records at a very early age, and I loved everything happening in pop culture at the time, The Kinks, The Beatles – so into it. Then at about 13 or 14 I suddenly started getting very intrigued by the idea of difficult music. So I bought Bitches Brew, because of the cover, and thought “what the hell is this?”. My favourite band when I was 15 was the Mahavishnu Orchestra because it was so challenging and kinetic and breaking all of the conventional ideas of melody and rock and so on. I always come back to these question when I’m listening to new works that are presented to us: what happens when you really dive into the depths of it? Does it reveal all of these other layers? Do you have to give something of yourself over to it? And this was the thing I thought was really fascinating with Burial. Here was something that was deeply introspective, almost misanthropic, very alienated and yet on the surface it was so nice. Of course everyone thought “Yes! This is it!”, because you had the idea of difficulty of emotion so superbly packaged within the zeitgeist of what was happening at the time with the Hyperdub scene. It was like Fennesz’s Endless Summer, but more towards the mainstream. But for me the latest Burial record sounds like the first one. It is the Burial sound. He was a friend of one of my students, and made a intervention at one of my Royal College of Art sound seminars, with Kode 9. I want him to do something abstract for Touch, but he is incredibly hermit-like. No difference to Christian in some respects, but Fennesz has a firm relation to his musical output in a way that I imagine a sound signature like Burial would learn a lot from. It’s an example of cross-fertilization that might take a while to develop.

 

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Before we get further into discussions of digital formats, I just wanted to ask you about one more analogue, physical point of contact you have: what is Touch’s relationship with the mysterious Tapeworm?

MH: I just offer administrative support to that, The Wyrm curates it really efficiently, and calls for help when he needs it, whereas something like Ash is much more hands on. It is a stand-alone idea. We sell the product through our shop, and have opened up our contact books of artists to him.

When he came up with the idea, it must have been one that was very attractive to you, given your history?

MH: Yes, cassette culture! We are actually still waiting for Jon’s Tapeworm – number 33. There has never been a Touch 33 or a Tone 33 either – they are all reserved for Jon. He is slower than Chris Watson!

JW: Slowness is good, and potential is the most important thing, you need to have the knowledge that you are still learning, which is why Mike and I have the most dynamic discourse with our artists, we all want to make the work better. And to this day the relationship with suppliers, printers, the business side of things is more fractious than ever, so it’s a continual learning curve. As a wise man once said, it’s never perfect. For example, I still personally regret the printing error on the Ritual Magnetic North book that credited “Josephy” Beuys.