Going Spastic With
Squarepusher is Tom Jenkinson, a solitary force that clicks, drags, clones, and pastes ordinary music into distinguished (and quite intriguing) micro-repetition. While this sort of bit-fiddling has become commonplace to the point of banality these days, what with ProTools and a bevy of digital toys, Squarepusher’s compositions stand out, probably because the man can pick up an instrument — the kind made out of wood and steel — and blow your lid off without really trying. Continually evolving without settling into any sort of describable genre, Squarepusher resists even the heaviest chain of hyphenation, not even coming close to “dub-jungle-jazz-fusion-skippy-CD,” though that’s as accurate as I can get without playing every single track of his for you. I spoke to him on the eve of a solitary New York City gig, a release celebration for Go Plastic.
You’re here to do interviews and possibly tour•
Nah, I’m only doing one gig.
Just one? Are you a live gig kind of person?
Very much so, absolutely. My background is playing in gigs. I started a long time before I recorded anything.
How do you set up?
It depends what the gig is. Taking tomorrow night as an example, I’m just going to be using a computer and some electronic bits and bobs. It’s just a couple of rack boxes, so I can plug in and go.
Do you play instruments on stage?
Again, depending on the gig. Tomorrow night, no, not in the sense of traditional instruments. I’d like to think that even when I’m using electronics in a gig, I’m still playing an instrument in some way. I like to incorporate some bass guitar or drums now and then.
What influences the decision of what kind of gig you’re going to play?
Everything influences me. I’m subject to all kinds of fluctuations that go on. Who knows? Something puts you in the right frame of mind to do it, and you do it.
Listening to your records, you sound like a multi-faceted musician; it’s almost like you keep those facets separated in your live shows.
Yeah — I don’t mean to. I’d like to do it every gig, but it gets to be difficult for one person. Sometimes I’ll bring up other people on stage. When I’m working with other musicians, I tend to become a quite heavy boss, if you know what I mean. In that sense, I try to avoid working with others, because I end up being such a fucking aggressive boss that I feel it’s not right, it doesn’t suit the atmosphere about music. I’d rather do it on my own, because if I fuck up, it’s my own fault, it’s where the blame lies. Who knows, I’m not going to make any judgments. I used to play in bands for years, and I did get a bit fucking sick of it. I’ve done hundreds of gigs with other musicians, but at the moment I’m just doing stuff on my own. I’m pretty sure that in the future I’ll get back into it.
If you were to start playing with other people, what kind of music would you play?
Something based on improvisation, though again, that’s difficult to predict. Especially since I’m not executing my musical career along any sort of plan. I’m just working as hard as I can, doing stuff that I like. I could end up just sacking the whole electronic thing off, end up being in a jazz band.
Each of your albums has been significantly different from the previous one•
In a sense, that’s a bit of a bogus picture; I deliberately have painted that picture, but it’s not necessarily a clear image of what’s happening with me. I don’t go from one to another — the major strengths of what I do are music that is based on computers, software, sequencing, and so forth, and music that is based on stripping away all the electronic crutches and relying on your abilities to play an instrument. What I do when I release records is not make them from start to finish; I compile them out of different sections of different areas of music I’m working on. These things happen concurrently, it just happens to be that when you release a record, it gives the impression that you’ve just gone from one to the other when in fact they happened concurrently.
But that’s cool, I quite like that picture. In a way, I really enjoy dismantling ideas about me, I think it’s funny. I can only do it to an extent, there’s only a certain amount of breadth to what I’m doing so I can’t really do that forever.
You have all these threads running at the same time, and an album happens to be what you’ve done in a certain period?
No, that’s what it isn’t. The album is what I’ve felt like sounded right together, and that can come from any part of what I’ve done. The compilation procedure is starting with one track and adding tracks to it, bit by bit. An album grows from an initial seed, and then you see what other tracks fit around it, or complement it, and then you go from there.
So at any given time, you have a large pool of material to draw from•
There is, it’s constantly growing.
Are the albums keeping up with the growth of the pool?
I’m not saying they have to, I’m just curious. Do you consider yourself a prolific artist?
I don’t really consider myself an artist. I’m just doing what I do. For reasons of maintaining some semblance of mental health.
I guess it’s up to others to label you “artist.”
That’s a journalistic issue. It’s not an issue for me. I’m not interested in that anyway.
What would you be doing if you weren’t doing this?
I’d be in some sort of mental institution. Or maybe• I don’t know. What I’m doing answers the questions for me most successfully, but I think if it wasn’t there I’d be doing something• I’ve got so much energy that I never feel like I’ve expended enough of it. I always feel like there’s always more to do. If it wasn’t being channeled in a positive way, I’d end up being a lunatic, a serial killer. The fact is it’s not an issue, because this is what I’m doing, it’s covering all the bases.
What is the best thing to happen to music in the last five years?
I don’t know. Me, probably.
Whatever, I don’t know. I only see it from my point of view. As far as I’m concerned, my world is what’s going on with what I’m doing.
There has been a lot of change in the way the music industry works, from the ways people buy records to the ways people make records.
I suppose what you’re hinting at is the Internet•
I’m not hinting at anything in particular, I’m just curious as to what you feel has affected your music the most.
God knows. Everything affects my music in some way. One of my problems is that I find it difficult to filter out reality into things that I care about and things I don’t care about. Everything feeds into what I do; I have very little protection from the outside world in a cerebral sense. It’s difficult for me to differentiate good causes from bad causes. In a way, it’s my way of dealing with it all.
Do you have any plans for the future, or are you just playing it as it goes?
I am literally playing it by ear. I’m into doing the touring, as long as I can get a setup where I can write tracks when I’m out on the road. If I could always do that, I’d stay out forever. I don’t really have much of a home life, I’m writing music pretty continually.
Do you have a studio somewhere where you work?
I’ve got a couple of different setups. One’s in my house, and I’ve got one down the road with drums and keyboards and more old-fashioned instruments. Guitars. I do most of my work on the electronic side, though.
Do you use any sort of bass synthesizer?
Oh, yeah, I’ve done loads of stuff like that, where I generate MIDI sequences from bass, although I’ve got to say that the actual timing of the MIDI response from the converter is pretty bad. It’s shit really.
You’re dealing with such low frequencies•
It takes a while to track. A low E on a bass is 40 Hz, and it takes three or four cycles to get picked up, which means a tenth of a second delay before it issues a MIDI note.
I wonder how that would do on a piccolo bass.
The really high ones?
I think they’re an octave higher.
Maybe I should try that out.
What kind of bass do you play now?
I’ve had a few. When I was growing up, I had only one, for years. An Ibanez Roadstar thing, with two humbuckers. That was tasty, it was a really nice bass. When I got my record contract, I decided to go treat myself, and I bought myself a Fender Jazz, and a Musicman, a Rickenbacker and stuff. I’ve cut it back now, so I’ve just got the Fender and the Rickenbacker, they’re the only two basses I’ve got now. I love them to bits — they do everything I want to do.
Do you feel particularly influenced by bass musicians?
Compared to most people in the electronic area, I’d say I was. Obviously, being a bass player you tend to tune in to bass. Massive amounts of influence come from bass players, without a doubt• particularly people who’ve taken a more melodic approach. My music tends to be driven by the rhythm and the bass, but not necessarily in a traditional sense. I like those two areas to be blown apart; I like hearing bass and drums really taking the foreground.
When I hear some of your more bass-oriented music, I hear a lot of Jaco Pastorius.
It’s weird with the Jaco thing, because I’d never heard his stuff, and I was doing this thing where I thought I was inventing a style. And lo and behold, Jaco had already done it, it was already there. That blew my head off, when I first heard him.
What was the first thing by him you heard?
It was something on TV. Some concert, he was playing with Randy Brecker and some other people. The drummer from Weather Report [Alex Acuña]. Basically he was using it not just as a melodic instrument, but as percussion.
He did to bass what Jimi Hendrix did to guitar; opened people’s ears.
Without doubt. But a lot of people also say Jaco ruined the bass, because he put a lot of pressure on the bass to become more of a solo instrument, and a lot of bass players really resent that. They feel like it should have stayed as the bass, as part of the rhythm section, a fundamental role instead of a lead role.
Do you feel that way?
Well, fuck it. Our culture is in the process of blowing itself apart, isn’t it? Everything that comes up gets blown to bits or turned on its head. That’s the nature of our culture at this time. Things become inverted, and that’s what he did with the bass, he inverted the role. It sounded fucking good, it got a lot of people thinking.