All Possible Words: an interview with Icarus


Since their emergence in the late 1990s, Icarus have followed their own fascinatingly twisted path, which has led them away from drum’n’bass and breakbeat and into live improvisation settings. Their Not Applicable label, originally set up as a means for them to self-release their own work, has now become an incredibly fertile community of like-minded experimental musicians and film-makers. The Liminal caught up with Sam Britton (SB) and Ollie Bown (OB) ahead of their forthcoming Cafe Oto appearance to talk about how their involvement with Not Applicable has shaped their thinking, what their plans are for the forthcoming year, and robot musicians.

You are playing at Cafe Oto on February 2nd as part of a Mystery Plays Records event. How did that come about?

OB: Whilst playing in Australia, we hooked up with a lovely man called Shoeb Ahmed, who runs hellosQuare Records out of his spare room in Canberra, and performs fantastic lo-fi live electronics music. The remix request from Inch-Time came via Shoeb.

The last time I saw you play at Cafe Oto, the combination of the sounds you made, the visuals, and the volume was menacing, even positively evil at times. Should we expect something similar this time?

OB: We’ll be loud and chaotic, but not as loud as that. We’ll largely stick to the live tools we’ve been using over the past couple of years, but be trying out a few new ideas. Straight after that we’re off to a residency at STEIM where we’ll certainly take the opportunity to develop fresh performance tools, ideas and material.

SB: The Oto gig from 2009 is documented on our live album All Is For The Best In The Best Of All Possible Worlds and we were definitely very pleased with it. I think it really achieves a synergy between large scale form and improvisation that we’ve been interested in developing for a long time in Icarus and I think part of that came as a result of the decision to use the series of concerts we did in 2009 to work up entirely new material. The format for the current album project is for us very much about building on those developments and seeing how we can best represent that kind of fluidity and potential for difference elsewhere in what we do. Where that actually leaves our live show is a different matter, but I wouldn’t expect the same material to come up in future shows.

Icarus: Uke ‘Em from Martin Hampton on Vimeo.

So can expect a new Icarus album this year? Is there a title and release date?

OB: Yes. It will be a concept album: there will be lots of versions of it. We still don’t know whether it will be on a label or a self-release. The art of self-release seems to be becoming increasingly appropriate, and we’re experienced at it, with Not Applicable. No title, no release date, but you can expect something before the middle of the year, as well as a handful of remixes that are emerging at present, and also a split EP with our Danish friends Badun, which is coming soon. We’re very excited about that.

What do you mean by lots of versions? Do you mean the actual music will be different?

SB: Basically, yes. We’ve yet to work out the details, it will probably involve spending weeks rendering out projects on multiple computers. This is another reason why a regular CD release may not be so relevant for this record.

It has been quite some time since the last studio release. Why the big gap, and why does it feel like the right time to return?

OB: The last few years have been great for both of us because we’ve both really expanded what we do, with collaborations, PhDs for the both of us (Sam is finishing his), marriage (Sam’s, I was best man), and research related to computer music. The nice thing is that Icarus has been ticking along during this time, and the motivation has always been there to get back in the lab and do what we’re doing now: a dedicated session. No distractions. It feels so fresh because we have such a solid connection about what it is we’re doing and why we’re doing it.

SB: In fact, our last entire studio record was in 2004. I think it’s fair to say that across the musical industry in the last few years, there has been an emphasis on live performance as a result of the fact that it has become incredibly difficult to sell and distribute records; this coincided quite nicely with our increased nomadism and the scaling down of the tools we used to create music such that we no longer felt the need for a studio at all and were quite happy with laptops, some microphones and a soundcard. To be honest, not a lot has changed now, we’re not in a situation where a label has come to us and given us the money to produce a record, far from it, but what has happened is that after the last live record, we sat down and thought more concretely about how we could represent the processes and strategies we’ve developed more coherently as a record. Our intention this time round is to see the record less as a document and more as vehicle for those ideas. Conveniently the ideas we have also coexist with the album’s new found liberation from a physical format and our interests in strategies for indeterminacy.

By indeterminacy, I take it you are referring to the thinking of the likes of John Cage, of ceding some creative control over your music to chance. In practical terms, how do those ideas feed into your music?

SB: I did hesitate to use “indeterminacy” there as it has become an increasingly loaded term, I think to a certain extent as a result of Cage himself who in many ways inadvertently politicised it in his writings. However, I do feel it is the right word, not in that it specifically refers to Cage or his philosophies, nor in the sense that there is some toolkit that can be followed to invoke it, but in the sense that increasingly, a lot of the work I seem to be involved in doesn’t try to predict its final state, whether that’s in terms of how it is presented to a wider audience or in and of itself. This state of deferral, as long as it is constantly the subject of some critical evaluation, is intensely practical, as it promotes an openness and discourse across a broad spectrum of intentionality, from software and programming to performance situations, politics and aesthetics. Analytically, it also opens a discourse with critical concepts such as deconstruction and différance – something I am concerned with in my PhD.

OB: Also, it’s not just chance that you can hand over control to. There are many perfectly deterministic computational processes that you can set up that operate beyond your control, something that was quite central to the thinking of the group I have been working with for the past two years in Melbourne (Centre for Electronic Media Art).

Schneefall from Brittski on Vimeo.

While it seemed to start as a label, Not Applicable is now more of a collective. How did all these individuals, from such disparate backgrounds (yourselves from electronic music, Lothar Ohlmeier and Tom Arthurs from jazz, Maurizio Ravalico who has played in Afro-Cuban and funk bands, the visual artists Martin Hampton and Britt Hatzius) come together?

OB: As with anything like this, there was a lot of happenstance (for example, I was living in the same street as Tom Arthurs, and so was Britt), but also a certain amount of necessity. For years I’d viewed electronic music incorporating live instruments (or vice versa) as falling badly between two incompatible practices, but suddenly it seemed like an acceptable sound did emerge, which had a lot to do with the “realtime-ification” of electracoustic music and free improvisation (which has always been very open to electronics). A lot of the motivation behind the collaborations in Not Applicable was to explore this amazing new territory.

What was it about the integration of electronic music and live instruments which so appalled you, and can you remember the first time you actually thought that you could make it work?

OB: I remember seeing bands I liked who did great stuff on recordings with live instruments and electronics, but finding their live shows lacking. I think the problem was that there was nothing live about the way the studio tracks were made so playing them live was always problematic. One of the perennial problems is the fact that the electronics have to lead, where metronomes or fixed recordings are involved. Squarepusher was maybe an exception, screwing around with prerecorded tracks and going nuts on his bass, and it was undeniably engaging, a very honest approach too. It changed as people became more capable of improvising with electronics, particularly with things that run off metronomes. I think it also just took time for the sound to mature.

What sort of software are you using? Do you develop it yourself?

SB: I use Max/MSP with various framework extensions developed by IRCAM, CNMAT and others for live stuff and algorithmic composition, also Digital Performer, Ableton and Pro Tools. For scoring I use a combination of Lilypond MaxScore Illustrator and InDesign.

OB: One day about two years ago I had an irresistible urge to make my own computer music software library. I was working with Max/MSP and writing objects for that in Java, so I decided just to make a Java library for realtime music performance. To my own surprise I got as far as something I’m happy to use for live shows. It’s called Beads, and is also free and open source. However, I think the ecosystem surrounding Max/MSP and Ableton Live is so powerful now that it’s irresistible (for example, the IRCAM and CNMAT tools Sam mentions), so I am drawn back to these.

Flat Home from Martin Hampton on Vimeo.

Some of those films that have been produced under the Not Applicable label are really striking. How important is the visual aspect to Not Applicable, and how do you feel it relates to the musical side of what you are doing?

SB: There was no real strategy with this, but the fact that music is so amenable to contextualisation grants it a certain freedom in its association with other art forms, something that can not only change your perspective as a musician, but by association, can in turn rub off on other artists. It’s something that I’ve always found refreshing, in fact: some of the most inspiring concerts I’ve seen have involved musicians improvising to silent films, in part because the interjection of a different extra-musical context alters the musical performance in a very particular way. So in this sense, it just seemed like a natural thing to do.

There seems to be a real element of getting people out of their comfort zones, and into very different (and challenging) situations – the live soundtrack work you mention, Maurizio Ravalico and Oren Marshall jamming with nature on In Thunder Rise , Sam’s incredibly complex modern composition record Ohka under the Isambard Khroustaliov name. Is this the intention?

OB: Sometimes, to some extent, but you can’t only do that. None of us are interested in being aggressive or purposefully unpleasant or extreme. You see a lot of bands who seem to be trying to do that and although I may be missing something, I tend to hate the idea. That said, in our music the “chaos-frenzy” is a popular theme. There’s no doubt we want to achieve music that is surprising and engaging by being different, but I think even the most popularist artist is also trying to do that, it’s the nature of music.

Oh, and while we are on the subject Sam – “Isambard Khroustaliov”? What does that name mean?

SB: It’s a name that hopefully throws up a few questions…

Questions like this one?

SB: Maybe also some about personal brands, identity and intentionality…

TRAUM from Martin Hampton on Vimeo.

The most obvious parallel I can think of to what you are doing is that of Spring Heel Jack, who I guess were once contemporaries of yours on the experimental edge of electronica/drum & bass, who’ve thrown their lot in with the free improvisation scene on their Treader label. Can you relate to what they’ve done?

SB: I’ve played at Ashley Wales’s ‘Back In Your Town’ nights that used to happen at the Red Rose in Finsbury Park and thoroughly enjoyed them, they were a really great melting pot, where all of the normalising factors of the various different types of musical practitioners involved were suspended and some really amazing musical combinations and performances occurred. I think Spring Heel Jack really put that kind of collaboration back on the map for a lot of people, ourselves included and it’s great to see that kind of initiative actively taking place outside of the remit of Arts funding bodies. It’s also great to see the body of work and discussion fostered by the community of free improvisers over the last 40 or so years being celebrated as a model for the future, it makes you realise just how valuable grass roots, self organising movements like this are.

Has your involvement with Not Applicable changed how you approach working as Icarus? If you were to take your forthcoming Icarus release and compare it to early releases like Kamikaze or Misfits, how do you think you have changed over the years?

OB: Our drum’n’bass background may seem like a misnomer these days, it is an awkward place to be, but for that reason it is also very stimulating. Our music has a breakbeat backbone carried through into a free improvising experimental milieu, and we make a lot out of that. It’s fun and challenging living between sometimes very incompatible worlds, and you find that being in a situation like that, which is partly of your own devising but also very much to do with history beyond your control, creativity is often just to do with making sense of what you ended up with on your plate. We’ve managed to carve a very odd identity out of that

SB: In more than one respect, I think Not Applicable has consolidated our intentions. By getting involved with a lot of other musicians and artists and developing shared approaches, we’ve been able to build a kind of lexicon that feeds back into what we do as Icarus. I also feel that our early inquisitiveness, evident on Kamikaze and Misfits has only been able to survive through developing approaches like Not Applicable. I only wish that this was something that the independent labels we have been involved with over the years had had the courage to support themselves. It seems pretty telling to me that the labels I currently get the most out of listening to these days are almost exclusively those run by artists or collectives of artists, I think there’s a lot to be said for that.

Which labels, artists and collectives are you talking about, Sam? We’ve talked about how you’ve been influenced by classical and jazz artists from the last century, but who, outside your own collective, is inspiring you?

SB: In no particular order: Kammer Klang, The Loop Collective, Gravid Hands, Room 40, hellosQuare, 12k, Slowfoot, Audiobulb, Incus, Psi, Matchless, Tzadik, Alivism, Trytone, Interlace, Placard, Dorkbot, Audioculture, L’An Vert, Rump Recordings, Text, Jazzwerkstatt Wien, Cave12. I’m also very excited about a new label on the horizon called Drumble.

Strecken from Brittski on Vimeo.

What forthcoming Not Applicable projects are in the pipeline?

OB: It’s going to be a busy year for Not Applicable and Icarus. I made some music with some fantastic musicians whilst working and living in Melbourne – Brigid Burke and Adrian Sherriff – on the Not Applicable live electroacoustic tip. A record called Erase, with Brigid (on bass clarinet) will be coming out soon on Not Applicable. I also made some folktronic tunes with singer songwriter Adem a while back and these will appear on Not Applicable soon too. Sam and I also experiment with autonomous music systems, and a piece based on these was premiered at the North Sea Jazz Festival last year, with Tom and Lothar from Not Applicable performing alongside them. A recording of this will also come out this year and we intend to continue to develop this project.

That piece at the North Sea Jazz Festival took the idea of ceding control to an extraordinary extreme. Your names were on the bill, but you weren’t actually there. I remember talking to you afterwards, and you had no idea if it had even worked, never mind what it had sounded like. Didn’t that feel in the least scary?

SB: Scary in a good sense…it’s one thing to be in a situation that is undefined and quite another to put your work in the hands of people you trust and respect. It’s a little like providing the rules for a game, you can predict the types of interaction that might occur, but not the actual play or the result. From here it’s not such a big step to conceiving of a robot player.

OB: Actually, we’ve done lots of experimental shows running up to this, but usually we are hovering over our laptops making sure nothing goes wrong. But as Sam says, with a bit of practice the idea of something “going wrong” gets replaced by it just doing something a bit different than you expected. You get to know the parameters of the system, so you do basically know what is going to happen, just not “exactly” what is going to happen. One thing that we both recognise about this field that is reinforced each time we do this is that the idea of AI is very vague really, and on the inevitable path to “truly” intelligent robot musicians (ours are far from that description), entire genres can arise out of the weirdness, failures and discoveries that occur along the way.


Maurizio Ravalico and Oren Marshall, In Thunder Rise (Not-Applicable)

In Thunder Rise

Maurizio Ravalico is an Italian percussionist, and Oren Marshall an English brass player. Which should make In Thunder Rise a duo album, and most definitely the first conga and tuba duo album I’ve covered on this site (I’m pretty confident on that one). But look a little closer: there is a third name below the two headliners on the front cover of this new double album – that of Isambard Khroustaliov, the alter ego of Icarus’s Sam Britton, and one of the founders of the Not-Applicable label. Britton’s role is an interesting and important one – he was responsible for recording the two instrumentalists in a variety of outdoor settings, and for facilitating the introduction of a fourth, unbilled player into the lineup: the city of London itself.

In Thunder Rise was recorded in a number of different locations in south east London, including in a park, in a foot tunnel, by a busy road, near a train line, and next to the river. Each of these brings its own acoustic properties, and its own particular set of background noises, and the manner in which the album was recorded accentuates these. Microphones were fixed above the instruments, but Britton was equipped with a further set which he could use to record whatever he liked – making decisions in real time, moving about the space, pointing the microphones at the instruments, and then towards the sky, to the traffic, at people passing by, and listening to other more industrial sounds, creating a three-dimensional map of the place, inserting the listener at the heart of the process, and also blurring the lines between the real and the recorded. I’ve listened to this album on headphones outdoors several times, and found myself pausing to look for birds that aren’t there, or – more alarmingly – to avoid being hit by a thankfully non-existent reversing truck.

But there is more to this than the interaction between listener and location. Lest we forget, there are congas and tubas in here too. Ravalico and Marshall are determinedly unconventional in their approaches to their respective instruments on In Thunder Rise, as often as not not eschewing rhythm or melody in favour of a focus on tone and timbre – for example Ravalico brushing the head of his drums, or Marshall blowing airily through his instrument. This is because In Thunder Rise is – as if this wasn’t obvious enough already – pretty far from being a conventional duo album. As much as they are interacting with each other, they are responding to their environment: reacting to weather conditions with drones, creating the sound of a passing train with deep pulses, simulating mobile phone signal interference with staccato phrases, joining in others’ conversations, or even just evoking sensations of space, or of danger. This is far more than just an album of duets, this is an ensemble piece both featuring and dedicated to London, to its geography, to its networks, to its people, and to its moods. It is an album born of a love that cannot be shaken by downpours, by filthy streets, by the potential for violence, or even by missed buses.

In Thunder Rise is released on October 15 on Not-Applicable. The label is also having a bit of a festival in Berlin in mid September. More details on their website.