Alessandro Cortini (Clash feature, 2019)

“I was moving around Berlin a lot when I was listening to works in progress for this album. I realised that I was maxing out on the volume, and after briefly thinking about the damage that I might be causing to my ears, I also realised that I’ve never really found myself making stuff that loud before. I remember doing that as a kid – I’d push the cheap, crappy headphones against my ears to get more bass while I was listening to the version of Duran Duran’s ‘Save A Prayer’ from ‘Arena’ which I used to play over and over.”

Alessandro Cortini (Clash interview with Mat Smith, September 2019)

VOLUME MASSIMO, the new album from Alessandro Cortini and his first for Mute, is released tomorrow.

Ahead of its release, I spoke to Alessandro for Clash about his love of vintage synths, pressing headphones against your ears to get more bass and the enduring influence of guitarist Steve Vai.

Read the interview at the Clash website here.

(c) 2019 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Clash

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Goldfrapp – Black Cherry

Goldfrapp’s second album finds the duo moving from the chilled ethereal ambience of Felt Mountain into a sort of robotic retro-modernism. There are moments that nod in the textural direction of their debut, such as the serene title track or the beautiful ‘Deep Honey’, but on the whole Black Cherry is a harder, more direct affair.

Black cherry was always the flavour of yoghurt that no-one else wanted from the fridge in our household, a weird vestigial throwback to 70s faux sophistication, no doubt achieved via an array of bitter E numbers; it’s one of those ‘love it or hate it’ flavours, and I guess this analogy works well regarding this album. In many ways, the disparity between Felt Mountain and this may not taste good to some who only bought their debut for its chilled vibe and its placement in the voguish late 90s chill out compilation canon. Personally, I loved black cherry, and I love Black Cherry.

Alison Goldfrapp‘s voice has always possessed a certain sensuality which has the capacity to draw you in and surround you with half-whispered temptations. That tone is best evidenced on the penultimate track, ‘Forever’, which is full of achingly seductive promise, Alison’s captivating vocal expertly accompanied by Will Gregory‘s chastened electronic textures and a sort of Beatles-y psychedelia. Elsewhere, the opener, ‘Crystalline Green’ is a hypnotic stream of words set to a jerky electro rhythm, while the prowling multiple climaxes of ‘Slippage’ that end the album edge forward with a nagging, ‘Nightclubbing’ pace and a large pinch of burlesque noir.

At times, Black Cherry is a thoroughly over-sexed, occasionally grubby affair, with the single ‘Twist’ getting as close as the duo ever dared get to the sound and imagery of Peaches. The gritty square wave-dominant sound that dominates parts of the album is both extreme and a shock to the system after their spell working the ambient torch song ephemerality of their debut. Singles like the glam-infused ‘Train’ and the deftly ubiquitous – yet utterly subversive – ‘Strict Machine’ more or less defined a new, more urgent and confrontational dimension to the Goldfrapp sound, one that allowed them to slip effortlessly – but perhaps unexpectedly – into a new and eclectic early 2000s anything-goes pop movement.

Catref: stumm196
Words: Mat Smith

Originally posted 2003; edited and re-posted 2019 to coincide with the vinyl reissue of Black Cherry.

(c) 2019 Documentary Evidence

GUO – GUO4

Daniel Blumberg could well be seen as the most sonically challenging addition to Mute’s present-day roster. His prolific release schedule highlights both a limitless improvisatory imagination and also a huge amount of trust and freedom by the label that he joined last year with his Minus opus.

In parallel to his work under his own name as de facto band leader, his output as GUO with tenor saxophonist Seymour Wright represents an ever-adaptable framework that allows the pair space to collaborate with other like-minded musicians. After previous releases with friend and muse Brady Corbet, GUO4 pitches the Blumberg/Wright duo together with drummer Crystabel Riley, accompanied by a text from Fran Edgerley. The impetus for the session was a new short film by Peter Strickland concerning itself with an altercation between two men in a locker room.

Violence, then, is to be expected from this atypical soundtrack, which is, for the most part, led by Riley’s evocative, sheet metal-esque percussion. Taken as a sympathetic and wonderfully noisy response, Wright’s atonal squalls of upper-register bleating and Blumberg’s signature guitar un-playing – ranging from low distortion rumbles to metallic splinters to an undercurrent of angry note clusters – make the single 22-minute piece both expressive and beautifully uncomfortable.

To paraphrase what another of Mute’s noisier pairings might have dubbed it, this is easy listening for the hard of hearing. Whether it acts as a portent of what we can expect from Daniel Blumberg’s next LP under his own name remains to be heard.

Catref: stumm444
Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2019 Documentary Evidence

Electronic Sound 54 – Factory Records

Issue 54 of the inestimable Electronic Sound is out now, and its major focus is on the enduring legacy of Anthony Wilson’s Factory Records.

As Mute’s artist-led focus has continued since becoming a fully independent enterprise again, the borders between the Factory back catalogue and Mute have become fuzzy; New Order now call Mute home, and A Certain Ratio‘s entire back catalogue is now looked after by Daniel Miller‘s imprint. The latest issue features interviews with ACR and Stephen Morris of New Order / Joy Division, while the accompanying double 7-inch single issued with the bundle (now sold out) features the single version of ACR’s ‘Knife Slits Water’, presented alongside tracks from Factory stalwarts The Durutti Column and Section 25, as well as the oft-overlooked Minny Pops, in a gatefold sleeve that nods reverentially in the direction of the original Factory Sampler EP.

This month I contributed a short introductory feature on Alice Hubble, the alias of Alice Hubley from Arthur & Martha. You can read a short interview with Hubley over at my Further. blog as part of a series of micro-features called 3 Questions. I also reviewed albums by Pere Ubu, Tenderlonius, sometime Jaki Liebezeit collaborator Burnt Friedman, a fine Erland Apseneth album on Hubro and a various artists record fusing the natural sounds of Michigan with intelligent sound responses.

I also reviewed the excellent new Yeasayer album, Erotic Reruns. My interview with Anand Wilder from the band can be found here.

Buy Electronic Sound here.

(c) Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Electronic Sound

Yeasayer (Clash feature, 2019)

Yeasayer‘s fifth album, Erotic Reruns, was released today via their own Yeasayer Records. The LP saw the trio of Chris Keating, Ira Wolf Tuton and Anand Wilder returning to the live compositional style of their earliest releases, taking their inspiration from 70s MOR, personal relationships and the prevailing US political environment.

To coincide with the release, I spoke to the band’s Anand Wilder for Clash about the genesis of the album, leaving the comfort blanket of record labels behind and the necessary tensions within this enduring New York group.

Read the Clash interview here.

Buy Erotic Reruns from Yeasayer’s website.

(c) 2019 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Clash.

Interview: Stubbleman’s Pascal Gabriel on the making of ‘Mountains And Plains’

Pascal Gabriel – Stubbleman. (c) Pippa Ungar

“I had a plan, and that plan was simply to be inspired,” begins Pascal Gabriel. “I wouldn’t say I was jaded, but I was certainly feeling bored of pop, and bored of the tricks I’d learned. I wanted to unlearn all of that.”

For Gabriel to confess such a disdain for pop music at first sounds like he’s biting the very hand that has fed him for the best part of thirty years. From his pioneering work with samplers on tracks like ‘Theme From S’Express’ by S’Express and ‘Beat Dis’ by Bomb The Bass, Gabriel went on to write and produce countless pop hits, from Debbie Harry to Kylie Minogue to Will Young to Dido, and a cursory glance through the record collections of anyone who bought into pop music over the past three decades is highly likely to yield more than one Gabriel songwriting credit.

If that’s the Pascal Gabriel you think you know, his album Mountains And Plains – released last month by the legendary Belgian Crammed Discs imprint under his Stubbleman alias – represents an altogether unexpected proposition. Stubbleman was the nickname that the staff at Gabriel’s future wife Pippa Ungar’s Carnevale restaurant gave the unshaven patron that would generally turn up each day for breakfast, lunch and dinner, evidently smitten by the owner. It immediately suggests something entirely distinct from Gabriel’s work in the pop field; something much more experimental; something altogether hairier.

Mountains And Plains is a quietly euphoric instrumental travelogue written by Gabriel while journeying across America from New York State to California. Its eleven geographically-informed pieces slot neatly into an electronically-infused modern classical canon, while also sounding only ever of themselves. They veer from wide-eyed wonder at America’s bountiful natural beauty to the ceaseless, intoxicating hum of downtown Los Angeles, containing musical gestures that are simultaneously serene and violent.

It is, in essence, the sound of a producer letting go of his inhibitions and moving in a new and rewarding direction.

Gabriel and his wife started their road-trip from the east coast of America to its most westerly points in October 2016. In among their luggage were two Brompton fold-up bicycles for exploring, a MacBook loaded with software synths, a small keyboard, a portable digital recorder and microphone (known as the Hairy Guys) and a playlist of eclectic music influenced by the trip they were taking.

At the start of the trip, the idea for what became Mountains And Plains hadn’t yet presented itself; the only thing Gabriel knew was that he wanted to do something that took him many thousands of miles away from his pop background. “I’d always loved American music,” he says. “Things like Memphis-based soul, stuff from New Orleans, jazz music and so on. I thought the trip would recharge my batteries and maybe something good would come out of it. As it progressed, I realised it was really working, and lots of great things were starting to emerge. Suddenly I had this little seed of an idea, and it got watered and it grew as the trip progressed. Just after we got to Central Texas, and then by the time we got to New Mexico, I had loads and loads of ideas.”

The concept that emerged was simple, but highly disciplined: using the Hairy Guys – a Sony PCM-M10 recorder with a Sony ECM-MS957 microphone, each equipped with a rumble-reducing windshield – Gabriel would capture the sounds of the natural environment in whatever places they’d been to that day and then write music in response to what he’d seen and heard. “We’d arrive somewhere, we’d have dinner and we’d probably be a little bit tired from the driving. We’d just hang out in town, walk round, and then I’d go home and faff around for an hour or maybe more. If an idea came to me, I’d work on that a bit more, and then if it didn’t I’d just go to bed. Generally, I would try and find an upright piano to play and sample, if there was one, really just to get an idea going. They were all sketches, basically. They weren’t finished pieces, but the melodies, the basic construction and the arrangements, were all written while we were on the road.”

Gabriel never really struggled with the composer’s equivalent of writer’s block. “It’s definitely easier to write if you experience a lot of incredible views and panoramas,” he reflects. “That’s probably why maybe some of the New Mexican and southern Coloradan days were so inspiring, because the vistas were just so incredible. In contrast, Texas is a bit flat and boring. I had to make musical decisions about what was working and what wasn’t working, regardless of the places that I loved. Some places I loved more than others. I mean, Memphis was an incredible place, I really loved it, but no piece made it from Memphis.

“It was scary at the same time as being liberating,” he admits. “For pretty much all of my musical career I’d been working with someone else, so I’d be able to turn to that person in the studio and go, ‘What do you think?’, and you’d get feedback and encouragement back. But with this project I was having a conversation with myself. I’d go, ‘What do you think Pasc?’ and sometimes I wouldn’t know the answer. Back when I still smoked, that’s the point where I’d have gone and had a cigarette and tried to figure the song out, but because I don’t smoke anymore, when I was making this album there was lots of cups of tea and walking around the block. It was a bit like Magritte: every morning, his wife would make him a lunchbox of sandwiches, and he’d go out of his front door, walk round the block, come back to his front door and go upstairs to where his studio was in the attic, and he’d do exactly the opposite in the evening. I did that a few times when I was writing this album, because I wanted to have the cigarette break, just without the cigarette.”

Aside from having someone to turn to and bounce ideas off, Gabriel admits that producing the tracks at his studios in London and France also presented unique challenges. “It was a bit more difficult, because, as a producer and a pop writer, I was very much inclined to think, ‘Let’s go really big. Let’s go Sigur Rós on this and bring on the strings!’ I realised that I needed to set myself parameters. With any project I’ve worked on, I always write down what I call the Ten Commandments – the rules of the project. It’ll be things like staying minimal, using short reverbs, smooth bass and so on. I like to think that it stops me from getting lost. I can break those rules, and that’s okay, because I’m breaking them with intent. It just limits your framework, which I think creates a kind of coherence to the work.” His Commandments for what became Mountains And Plains included phrases like ‘purposefully unrefined’, ‘minimal dynamic shifts’, ‘frame a place and a moment’, ‘sound as a memory’ and ‘say much with very little’; in aggregate, those rules have given the album the fragile, transcendent, impressionistic tone it possesses.

One manifestation of those parameters Gabriel wrote for himself was that the album would not use strings, even though their inclusion would have perhaps been entirely logical. “I love strings, and I think that there’s wonderful, wonderful music made with strings, but I just didn’t want any on this album, because I thought it would be too easy,” he confesses. “When you use strings they glue everything together, and I just wanted space. And if I didn’t want the space, I didn’t want strings to be there – I wanted something else to be there.”

Griffith Park. (c) Pippa Ungar

Nevertheless, true to his mantra that rules can also be broken, Gabriel did add a string passage to ‘Griffith Park’, named for the landmark observatory building on Mount Hollywood that looks down on Los Angeles, a site beloved by film directors, and an important backdrop for James Dean’s Rebel Without A Cause. A frantic string arrangement was added to the track, designed to evoke the waking LA dawn visible from the observatory’s commanding – yet tranquil – vantage point, but in the end Gabriel reverted to his firm desire to leave the strings out. “There’s probably as much music on the album that you can hear as there was that was rejected,” he explains.

During the course of the road-trip, Gabriel accumulated some forty sketches, a testament to how excited he was by what he was experiencing each day. Sometimes his Hairy Guy recordings would feature in the tracks with prominence; on other occasions they’d be processed, stretched and altered, providing a kind of imperceptible resonance alongside Gabriel’s synths, guitars or toy drums. “On each piece they were a little bit fiddled with,” he says. “I would generally filter the rumble, otherwise you’d get this droning sound which is pretty annoying on recordings of the waves, for instance. On ‘Piety Wharf’, which is the last track on the album, it was a mixture of both processed and unprocessed field recordings from an area of New Orleans that we really liked. There’s birds, which were some of the field recordings that were there, and there’s also a kind of sound that’s also the atmosphere slowed down and stretched a lot to make the length of a recognisable note. I synced that up to the piano part, so then it’s almost like a ghost piano part behind the piano. I think it gives that melody a kind of underwater quality.”

Fourteen of the forty tracks were mixed by Gabriel with his friend Gareth Jones, but only eleven feature on Mountains And Plains. Gabriel remains unconvinced as to what he should do with the remaining mixed and unmixed pieces, namely whether they should be given away as free tracks after an unspecified period of time has elapsed, or simply left gathering digital dust on his hard drive, never seeing the light of day. “I don’t like to go back too much,” he muses. “The ones I rejected – they bore me already. It’s hard to kill your babies, but for me they devalued the others, even though some of them were more complex, or more grand, than the ones we kept. For instance, ‘Great River Road’, recorded along the Mississippi, is three chords repeated at different intervals, but it has something about it that’s special. And the others just didn’t quite have that.”

Mountains And Plains navigates us through some of America’s most incredible landscapes, along the dramatic Californian coast, through the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, across the unforgiving barren plains of Texas and beyond, following paths cut by America’s earliest inhabitants and new roads built to replace older ones which are left unused, abandoned and hauntingly visible from the modern freeways. Each piece was accompanied by suggested reading material that Gabriel had used when he began researching his road-trip – the poem that appends Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur (‘Sea: Sounds Of The Pacific Ocean At Big Sur’), socio-geographic maps by Rebecca Solnit, books of Ansel Adams photography, books on trains in America. Alongside the sounds he had recorded and the images he accumulated, these books added another evocative input to the moods of these pieces.

At times those moods can be uplifting, at others there seems to be a certain disappointment in the tone that Gabriel presents. “I’m quite a melancholic person,” he explains, “but I find joy in melancholy as well. I am genuinely a positive person, and I don’t revel in the past. As with everyone, some things upset me and some things touch me, but I always try to think that there is redemption, that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Life isn’t an easy ride for most people, especially in some of the poorest parts of America that we visited, like Alabama. I’ve only just started to analyse it now, but if I go back to my pop work, things like the Peach album, there wasn’t that many tracks that were completely euphoric. There’s always been a little bit of a questioning quality, and I think it’s the same in this project.”

“My guideline for making music is ‘Do I like it or not?’,” he continues. “In the past I’ve worked with people who say ‘Would the A&R guy like this?’ or ‘Would the record label like this?’ or ‘Will the publisher like this?’ I can’t do that. I’ve never been very good at doing that. I can’t work by formula. I just work by feeling. That’s my compass when I’m making music.”

Stubbleman – studio with cat. (c) Pippa Ungar

Pascal Gabriel will perform the tracks from Mountains And Plains at London’s Purcell Rooms on November 20, with support from Simon Fisher Turner. Not a seasoned live performer, Gabriel was faced with a difficult decision over how to present the Stubbleman tracks. “I didn’t want people to look at me too much, and so I didn’t just want to go onstage with a keyboard and a laptop. But on the other hand, to perform these pieces like they are on the album, I’d need six or seven musicians, maybe even more. I obviously physically can’t play everything myself at once.”

Instead, Gabriel alighted upon a novel idea, but one that, perhaps more than anything else, illustrates his firm commitment to the Stubbleman project and its music. “I’d heard about this guy in Berlin who designed little MIDI-to-voltage boxes,” he explains. “The boxes fire up little electric motors, and that pulls a hammer down. You give it a little impulse, it pulls the hammer down, and it’ll hit whatever instrument you attach to it.”

Gabriel spent most of summer 2018 in his shed in France building a number of instruments using these motors, each one housed in an old-fashioned hard trunk Globe Trotter suitcase, which will play alongside himself, a bassist and other musicians at the Purcell Room show. “I’m quite good at DIY,” he says, modestly. “I enjoyed making them. I bought a job lot of piano hammers from the States to get me started with a first set of vibraphones, and then I decided to make another set, this time with xylophones.” Because of their construction, and the space available to him within the Purcell Rooms, the instruments can be spread out across the stage, rather than being confined to a specific place. The result is nothing short of a theatrical, visually interesting means of presenting Mountains And Plains, somewhere between the primitive punch-card automated music of Victorian fairgrounds and the elaborate, often audacious work of Luigi Russolo’s Futurists.

Stubbleman – live rehearsal, April 2018. (c) Pippa Ungar

Talking to Pascal Gabriel and being caught up in his enthusiastic interest for this entirely new direction, it would be tempting to think that he’d throw himself headlong into other road-trips across other countries, repeating the approach taken on Mountains And Plains. Nothing could be further from reality right now. A return to pop writing and production isn’t on the cards, however.

Instead, he has taken his enthusiasm for road cycling and used that as the basis for his next project. Titled 1:46:43, his next Stubbleman album will be an auditory evocation of his best time on the punishing Mont Ventoux in Provence. “It’s very selfish,” he laughs. “It’s not a bad time. It’s an acceptable time. I’d like to beat 1:45 but I’m not sure I’ll do it this year.”

Not for Gabriel, however, the twee concept album approach taken by Kraftwerk on Tour De France Soundtracks; instead, he used the various statistics about his performance recorded by his on-bike computer – heart rate, cadence, gradient and speed – and converted that data into four modular synth sequences derived from the length of his climb to the end of the route up Ventoux.

“You could do it on any mountain, really,” he says. “Like the US road trip Pippa and I did, it’s another journey. With this, you really push yourself to the limit, and every corner becomes an entire state, if you compare it to my current album. Essentially it’s going to be made up of different events along the climb that inspired me differently, and themes that reoccur through the whole thing – for example, something that evokes the feeling of your legs being completely dead and like you can’t go on! I can write themes for those kinds of feelings and then bring them in at different points.

“To me, it’s the same way as how Max Richter’s Sleep is made up of lots of different elements,” he continues. “It’s not a single piece. For example, there’s a few times on the climb up Ventoux where you have these very sharp turns, and I can write for those events, and allow them to repeat at different points during the whole piece.” I’m treated to a brief snippet of this work in progress as our interview concludes; at this early stage the first gestures of what will become 1:46:43 are inextricably recognisable as being Gabriel’s work, but are entirely different to the album he’s just released.

Mountains And Plains, the forthcoming live show and his new work all find Pascal Gabriel enthused and enlivened in a way that he recognises he hasn’t been for some years. “I’m really fired up right now,” he agrees. “I’m mixing different artforms and I find that really interesting after years of observing other people doing interesting things in other places from the pop world I was in.

“When I first came to London in the late 70s I mixed with lots of people from St. Martin’s College Of Art,” he recalls. “I always loved the free thinking they brought. I came from a small town in Belgium and when I came to London and I hung around with them, it was like everything was possible. They were great artists that went on to do many, many brilliant things. I’ve always wanted to do something more artistic, but, over time, pop became my raison d’etre. So what I’m working on right now is a very, very liberating thing for me.”

Mountains And Plains by Stubbleman is out now on Crammed Discs and can be purchased from the Stubbleman website. Tickets for the Stubbleman and Simon Fisher Turner show at the Purcell Rooms on November 20 2019 can be purchased from the EFG London Jazz Festival website.

Stubbleman is published by Mute Song.

All photos used with the permission of Pascal Gabriel and Pippa Ungar.

Documentary Evidence album review: here

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2019 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Electronic Sound 53 – including my Mute STUMM433 feature

ES53_Bundle-Square.jpg

The latest issue of Electronic Sound is now available in the usual high street retailers and as a bundle with an exclusive 7″ from their website. This issue has a primary focus on Berlin, featuring conversations with Alexander Hacke from Einstürzende Neubaten, Mick Harvey, Simon Bonney and others who recall the vibrant creative melting pot that the divided city represented in the late 70s and early 80s. The accompany 7″ features Berlin legends Malaria! while Gudrun Gut from band offers her take on sometime Berlin resident David Bowie’s ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ on the B-side.

My major contribution to issue 53 was a feature on John Cage’s seminal composition 4’33” and the incoming Mute STUMM433 project. For this feature I interviewed K Á R Y Y N, Daniel Miller, Simon Fisher Turner, Irmin Schmidt, Laibach, Pink Grease and Maps, each of whom explained how they approached their performance of Cage’s distinctive piece – where they recorded it, and what instrument they didn’t play. Each of the 58 versions on STUMM433 is wildly different from the next, each one includes its own individual story and accompanying visual, and only one of the inclusions is actually silent – just as Cage would have wanted.

This feature involved me diving back into Cage’s Silence book – something I’d first tackled in my late teens when I found a copy in my local library and studying the score. One took much longer than the other. It also awoke in me an interest in Zen after reading about Cage’s following of these ascetic Buddhist principles.

Elsewhere in this issue I reviewed Colours. Reflect. Time. Loss. by Maps; the score to Marnie by Bernard Herrmann; David Tibbet and Andrew Lisle’s debut Nodding God album; the latest Blow collaboration on Front & Follow by Polypores and Field Lines Cartographer; and a fantastic new Buchla-based concept album by Simon James.

(c) Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Electronic Sound