The Tonic Guest List #1 (14 minute read, with links)
Innervation – Luke Handsfree and Luke Fraser
In a new series for The Tonic, artists, musicians and writers select and discuss a series of recordings based on a particular theme, with the aim of exploring different modes and contexts of listening.
Luke Handsfree is a London-based promoter, DJ, and presenter of The Unboxed Show on Threads Radio. Luke Fraser is a London-based composer, teacher and presenter of The Tonic.
LF: Luke Handsfree, welcome to this inaugural feature for The Tonic’s new Guest Lists series. And to the theme of Innervation – the stimulation of the nerves, or more generally the communication of nervous energy. Talking in musical terms, for me that brings to mind the idea of pieces that have an overspill of energy, or maybe even a manic, delirious quality to them. Just stuff that’s a blast to listen to really.
LH: Indeed. Can’t wait.
LF: As a vague preamble I should just say that whist we’ve both been involved in exploring new music as part of the radio shows we’re doing, this seemed like a good chance to dig out some older music and talk about stuff that’s – for me anyway – slightly outside the remit of my own show. Though maybe not entirely outside yours?
LH: Yeh that’s fair to say.
LF: And perhaps I should also say that this concept could equally include composers, producers or performers.
LH: Yes, so when I read your thing, the concept for me was immediately a mix of all those.
LF: And those boundaries are blurred anyway. OK, mercifully I think that’s the beginning and end of the legalities. I thought we could go in turns – five records for you, five for me. You to start.
Clapton’s Wine Bar
LH: So I saw The Human League on TV the other day, all guylinered up and miming to a backing track. It was a pretty amusing performance – half tongue in cheek, half earnest. Anyhow it led me to this record, and of course we all know the radio mix that has dominated hen and stag parties since forever.
LF: So we’re thinking of the tune we’re thinking of here?
LH: Ha, yes. But this is the Extended Dance Mix, which is very light on the vocals and exposes the production wizardry of Martin Rushent. It is, not to put too fine a point on it… bloody great.
LF: It still sounds so fresh even to this day. Even though it’s a tune we’ve all heard an awful lot of. For me it’s got a lot more mileage in it than your Tainted Loves and so forth which I slightly groan at now when I hear, just due to overexposure. But there’s something still so wide-eyed about this.
LH: Yeh. It’s got so much space and clarity in the mix and everything’s so bright and vibrant and bouncy. And it doesn’t feel particularly 80s. It doesn’t feel New Romantic-y. It just feels like a big synth ripper – at least without the big melodrama of the vocals.
LF: So is this something you’d play out?
LH: I have played it out. But I don’t think I’ve played it within the bounds of a techno set. I think it’s a bit too light, a bit too frothy for that.
LF: Sure. I guess I was thinking maybe if you were doing something more loungy – playing Shoreditch wine bars and the rest of it…
LH: Exactly. Clapton wine bars
LF: Clapton’s wine bar
LF: Just this tune and Wonderful Tonight…
LH: Back to back to back forever. Well anyway it’s just one of those records that never fails to put a smile on my face.
LF: And, dare I say it, a bit of a jaunty spring in your step.
Cramming in the Notes
LF: So for my first piece I’ve chosen something by Hermeto Pascoal, partly as we went to see him together in town recently and I think it’s fair to say we both had a thoroughly good time.
LH: It was fucking brilliant. Sorry for swearing.
LF: Not at all… But also just because for me he perfectly encapsulates this theme. Anyhow let’s play it.
LH: Well that was great.
LF: Yes. And when in doubt, just play your entire tune again at twice the speed! It’s bulletproof. And yet it’s still short and sweet.
LH: Short and sweet, though he definitely crammed the notes in didn’t he?
LF: Yeh exactly. He’s someone I’ve been listening to for years and I go through waves of forgetting he exists and then remembering again, and getting excited all over again about his music. And there’s actually not that many artists whose music I’ve known for a long time who I can still get excited about in the same way. I think there’s something about his music, with its manic energy and dense information content that still tickles me after all these years. He’s got a real knack for melody but at the same time they’re these kind of turbocharged, mutant tunes that seem to go on for ever and ever and yet rarely outstay their welcome.
LH: They’re pretty bananas. He likes to be somewhat subversive in his attitude towards your expectations.
LF: Yeh. His music is of a genre, of bossa nova and choro, but it quickly transcends those categories and becomes something way more unique.
LH: And he’s an enthralling performer who clearly has a devil-may-care attitude towards convention on stage, as well as the music being completely wild.
LF: He’s just an eccentric who’s been ploughing his own brilliant furrow since he began. His musicians are effectively his acolytes in this beautiful cult he’s had going all these years. It’s music that still fires me up after all this time, and I’m very glad we had the opportunity for it to tickle you as well.
LH: So this next tune is by Neotropic – Ultra Freaky Orange. What I like about this tune and Ris Maslin’s general attitude towards composition and production is that she doesn’t shut herself off from any sound source. She doesn’t go ‘right, well ‘I’m going to make a dance tune and therefore I’m going to use a drum machine, a synthesiser and a sampler and a couple of effects units.’ No! She goes ‘right, I’m going to take my microphone and use Radio 4 recordings and loads of nutso stuff’, and I find that really enthralling as it casts into sharp relief the concept that everything is music. I like that very much. So, shall we?
LH: It’s quite Plunderphonics-y
LF: It reminds me a bit of that Pierre Henry piece – that was used as the theme tune to Futurama, whatever it’s called.
LH: It’s a massive collision. There’s no uniformity in terms of its reverb profiles, delay, compression and all that.
LF: Yeh definitely. And it’s not prettified in any way. It’s pretty full spectrum.
LH: None of the instruments were likely to be soft synths or such like.
LF: It sounds very sample based.
LH: Yeh it’s probably entirely samples. I really like just the idea of using found sound in a looped fashion and going ‘there’s your riff. Happy days.’
LF: That seemed to be quite big in the 90s.
LH: Yeh with Coldcut, Hexstatic etc.
LF: And then it seemed to… fall out of… or things got more quantised.
LH: Yeh. I think the people using samplers were in the jungle, drum and bass and hip hop scenes, and the people making techno were using drum machines and synthesisers, and they didn’t really coexist outside of some of the more esoteric artists on say Warp Records and Rephlex. The instrument setup was delineated. ‘Samplers for you guys, synthesisers for you guys.’
And at the same time you had all the cut and paste crews who were taking their cues from Steinski and those kind of people, and they’d come up with this idea of using turntables and a multitrack to do what they couldn’t do with samplers at that time because those samplers weren’t good enough.
LF: They didn’t have enough storage.
LH: They didn’t have enough storage, or they were so unbelievably expensive it just wasn’t possible. So instead of buying a Fairlight for 50 grand they’d just buy turntables and multitrack and practice like motherfuckers. And I think part of that is reflected in Ris Maslin’s music.
It also came out on Ntone, which is an offshoot of Ninja Tune. So that’s probably why it found a home there, although the rest of the stuff that’s on the label is much more ambient and electronic – the kind of stuff you’d hear being played in the chillout rooms. Very synthy – Mixmaster Morris and co.
LF: Whereas this is pretty Catholic in its influences.
LH: Oh yeah.
LF: So next I am going to play something that I actually did feature on my radio show. This is Conlon Nancarrow.
LH: Ah, sweet.
LF: As you no doubt know he was an American composer, long living as a semi-recluse in Mexico, with his music only becoming better known more recently. This is of course one of his Studies for Player Piano. Let’s give it a spin.
LH: Oh that was wild!
LH: Ha, yes. I just love the feeling of euphoria it gives, coming from the manic buildup of so many different lines of music.
LH: Yeh it’s crazy dense by the end.
LF: Can you believe all the pieces in this series were scored and then hand-punched for player piano? Apparently he could only write a maximum of about 5 minutes of music per year.
LH: Mental. Now I know what a player piano is, but perhaps you would like to explain?
LF: It’s a mechanical piano where the hammers are triggered by piano rolls, into which holes are punched to mark each note’s pitch and duration.
LH: Just like MIDI then right? Hence the fact that MIDI input is called Piano Roll. And am I right in thinking that they don’t do dynamics?
LF: I don’t think so. So I think dynamic effects are largely brought about by the buildup of the musical texture instead if I’m not mistaken.
LH: And that has some pretty loopy textures.
LF: Yeh they’re really structuralist on one level but there’s also loads of vernacular influences like blues and boogie woogie throughout the series. And the pieces just have a kind of manic, delirious energy that you can only get at the turbocharged tempos that are possible with player pianos.
Potentially some Aphex
LH: So probably some Aphex next. Let’s put some Aphex on.
LF: I thought there might, potentially, be some Aphex coming. I stopped a little short of sending you a message earlier saying ‘you can’t just play five tracks of Aphex…’ But this will be good to listen to. I’ve only heard this EP once before. Is it not the first track?
LH: Yeh it is.
LF: What’s the title again?
LH: Serge Fenix Rendered 2. S – E – R…
LH: Yeh yeh. Serge modular mate.
LH: So basically this tune was known to me under the name Siren, because it had been floating around on the internet as a result of the competition where Luke Vibert offered stems to the readers of Future Music…
LF: Ah, yeh.
LH: And apparently Aphex picked it up and remixed the track and sent it in.
LF: Under a pseudonym right?
LH: Under a pseudonym, and he supposedly won.
LF: I mean would Luke Vibert not recognise the hand of Richard James?
LH: Yeh. The thing is, that was the story that had been perpetuated for ages, and this tune was the tune that was most associated with that apocryphal story. Now I’ve heard from multiple sources since then that the whole story is just bollocks. But it is definitely one of my favourite Aphex tunes. I finished my Boiler Room set with it, but because it hadn’t come out yet it was just a crummy lo res MP3 which sounded crappy on the Boiler Room system. But then happily…
LF: He did the deed…
LH: Yeh. And as it has come out with a real title under his own name it’s obviously got nothing to do with Vibert.
LF: Tuning. So off-kilter.
LH: Yeh well mental isn’t it?
LF: I think it’s partly… well I can’t say for sure, but I think there’s just a load of overtones going on in there that makes those mixes seem so much richer than your standard Equal Temperament stuff where obviously a lot of harmonics are just chopped off. It really seems to live and breathe.
LH: The whole thing is just ludicrous really. And also slightly weird. There are really very few performers or artists who get me as excited as Richard D James, and certainly some of the best shows that I’ve gone to have been his.
LF: He does put on a good show.
LF: Ok. So this – well you probably know this already. This is something that was doing the rounds on social media, I don’t know, like a year ago or something. It’s Cavad Recebov, who is an Azerbaijani DJ – a wedding DJ. You must have seen this. But it’s just fun so we’re going to watch it again.
LH: Yes. Great to see this again.
LF: This was someone’s wedding. Can you imagine that?
LH: Amazing. (Laughs.) The guitarist giving him a bit.
LF: It’s partly why I like this video so much. It’s the look of complete glee on [Recebov’s] face contrasted with the looks of complete bemusement on the part of his bandmates. Unfortunately you don’t then get the reaction of the wedding guests.
LH: (To Recebov) Yes! There you go. Give it some Bruv! Just amazing.
LF: He’s really having a great time.
LH: He’s having an amazing time. The guitarist is looking on with total bemusement. The keyboard player…
LF: He’s trying to do… something? He’s just not quite sure what.
LH: Also I like that [Recebov’s] using the archetypal Hip Hop beatmaker, the MPC, to make percussion-heavy batshit. Well fuck knows what kind of music that is.
LF: It seems to run the gamut of breaks.
LH: But what kind of style?
LF: I don’t know. It seems to go from one thing to the other thing. Almost a stream of consciousness.
LH: But it’s definitely Middle-Eastern influenced. Baltic steppes.
LH: Yeh. That kind of tribalistic, rhythmic-driven, community-getting-together-on-a-Friday type mentalism. That video is probably a few years old and the MPC 5000 was top of the range at that time. It’s a really massive overspec thing. The kind of thing you can write a whole album on. And it’s brilliant that he’s very serious, very invested in it.
LF: Yes he’s clearly spent a lot of time working on his sound. And I don’t know – is Azerbaijan ready for it? Is anyone ready for it?
LH: Well, who knows whether the wedding guests were ready for it. There was some applause though.
LF: Polite applause. You could just see one lady on the end there, giving it a coy handclap. But I mean yeah, I’d like to see that at a wedding I’m at.
LH: So the styles have… dovetailed quite nicely. This next track is by Jeff Mills under his alias of The Hypnotist. This, in my opinion, is one of his best tunes. It came out on a label called Tresor as part of their True Spirit Compilation.
Ah no, The Hypnotist is a guy called Caspar Pound who is also a techno producer. Well anyway this is typical of the heavier end of techno. The beginning stages of Underground Resistance, and before Mills started exploring space, becoming a bit more…
LH: Let’s say cerebral, but also more engaged with the melodic content. I mean there’s great synth work in this but it’s very…
LF: Rhythm forward?
LH: Yes. It’s about the dance floor. It’s a dance floor smasher basically.
LF: Bosh. That’s a heavy hitter.
LH: Yeh it’s heavy isn’t it?
LF: The heaviest thing I’ve heard of his.
LH: It’s absolute rinse. It’s a great piece of work.
LF: I can imagine people completely losing it to that.
LH: And it’s a great end-to-the-night one. It’s got those full stops.
LF: I love the second false ending. There’s something going on with the timing of that where it’s just a little bit longer – weirdly displaced.
LH: Yeh, it’s Mills using the 909 to run everything – and then going ‘Stop: done. Stop. Now start again. Stop. Start again’. Ludicrous
LF: Really good fun.
LH: Yeh. Wicked fun. Stupid tune. But yeh – Jeff Mills is definitely someone I’ve enjoyed the performances of. He was one of the first people that I had ever seen DJ where it felt like a performance. And him performing on the 909 – he’s such an absolute master of it.
LF: Yeh I think he wrote the book on that.
LH: Yeh, he’s basically unparalleled in his ability to manipulate the 909 in a way that feels rhythmical, fresh and interesting. Considering that it’s only got eight sounds or ten sounds, twelve sounds, whatever.
LF: And he must have got pretty much everything you can get out of that box.
LH: And, you know, there are very few people who can be so identified with an instrument. Jimi Hendrix with the Stratocaster, Miles with the trumpet, whatever. And Mills with the… iconic drum machine of techno.
LF; Yeh. And just doing his thing really. To maximum effect.
Smashed and Chopped and Twisted
LF: Ok, well you’re gonna know this next one as well. You might have guessed it was going to go here at some point.
LH: (Sees record) Ah!
LF: But maybe a slightly leftfield track choice.
LH: Yes that is a bit of an unusual choice.
LF: Well I didn’t want to go obvious.
LH: Ah, I haven’t heard this in ages. Whoo!
LF: So far out.
LH: Ooh. Wahey! (Record ends). Well that was amazing.
LF: Yes. A blast from the past.
LH: I actually don’t listen much to Go Plastic.
LF: It’s probably my favourite album of his. It’s kind of at that sweet spot of him refining his style. So on the one hand the production quality is a lot better than on the earlier albums and EPs. It really sounds great just on that level…
LF: But at that same time I just think there’s a lightness of touch, a deftness of touch… and a sense of humour that’s frankly just completely lacking from his later, bombastic stuff.
LF: I also really just love that album because it’s completely anti-melodic, and yet it’s so musical. It doesn’t really have any discernible melodies or chord sequences on it at all, or very few. And yet it just manages to create such insanely compelling music out of these… textures.
LH: It’s got some brilliant chords in it though. Absolutely amazing chords.
LF: Yes, but they’re not… What I don’t really like about a lot of his later albums is that they’re stuffed with these top-down chord progressions, that have been effectively subsequently ‘produced’. Whereas this album feels like something organically coming from the bottom up. It’s why it’s still so interesting to listen to. And just the madcap energy of it…
LH: Yeh. So that track has samples of Tenor Fly, of Barrington Levy and whoever else it was. Brock Wild? There are two different sets of samples in there. Those two ragga samples – they’re lynchpin ragga samples from Wheel ‘N’ Deal by DJ Gunshot and I think it’s called Request The Style by Top Cat – they came out on Greensleeves, and those samples were used multiple times. But those are the tunes that I first heard them on. I think they were their first appearances within the jungle scene? They’re just archetypal jungle samples. And there are loads of archetypal breaks in there. But they’re just so smashed and chopped around with and twisted. But not so DSPd so as to be…
LH: Yeh. They still have the swing and the funk of the breaks themselves in there. And they’re not just exercises in how much trickery you can do with them. And as you say there’s like humour in there. There’s fun and bounce to it.
LF: Yeh just great fun.
LH: And what I also like… is that it’s a great segue into what I’m about to play.
LF: Ha! Serendipity
LH: So my final choice is DJ SS – Rollidge, or Rollidge – Bonus Track. This is in my opinion the archetypal jungle tune. It’s got about seven breaks in it, four different basslines… It’s got seven sections of ridiculousness, and it just keeps piling on more and more mentalism. But it never really overstays its welcome because it’s always changing around. It’s even got timpani in there, ridiculously. It’s just absolutely killer, dancefloor destruction.
LF: Let’s give it a spin.
LF: Yeh. That’s like a whole jungle ‘suite’.
LH: I know!
LF: It goes through all these different sections.
LH: It’s got all of the archetypal bits. Actually it hasn’t quite got a ragga vocal, although it does have that little bit that says ‘Crazy licks that we rewind’ And ‘gunshot means forward.’
LF: And it’s got timpani for God’s sake!
LH: Yeh. It’s got reverse vocals. And I like the way the sub bass and the mid bass aren’t in tune with each other.
LF: Yeh. That really doesn’t bother me with this kind of thing.
LH: And the background, the sample of the vocals is really not clean – there are loads of weird artefacts hanging around in there. It’s just a mess!
LF: Yeh but it never really matters. I wouldn’t go to this kind of music for squeaky clean production.
LH: Yes, and that’s one of the things that vexes me, well not quite vexes, but… I feel that one of the things missing from modern Drum and Bass is….
LH: It’s kind of the grittiness but it’s more that everything is engineered so exquisitely. Everything sounds amazing and to a certain degree, there’s so much precision that it’s lost some of its’ swing, because everything is super-programmed. There are no accidents.
LF: I feel like that a lot with a lot of modern instrumental music as well, with micing for example. Particularly in terms of classical and jazz where there seems to be a kind of platonic ideal and where micing has become so good and controllable that you get this amazing fidelity. But sometimes you miss the atmosphere that you can get from say recording in a weird room or with a less than perfect mic placement.
LH: Or your busted amp…
LF: And those are the things that create ambience. I think that’s still important.
LH: It’s still desirable in post-Rock. But the pursuit of the form has become so distinct that the things that aren’t to do with the specifics of the player or the sound of the instrument have been eliminated.
LF: Yeh, you make gains in one area and you lose in another.
LF: OK, my final one. I’m just going to play the first part of this as the whole thing’s quite long.
LH: What is it?
LF: It’s going to be John Cage.
LF: Yeh. So this is partly a troll. But also a troll to myself, if that makes sense?
LF: So this, and pieces like this are things I like to go to every now and then when I feel the need to completely clean my ears out and just listen to something that’s so far removed from what may be my usual considerations with regard to music that it just seems to open up a new dimension, and freshen everything up. And that’s obviously a big part of what Cage was interested in doing.
Some of his music I find more interesting on an intellectual level than necessarily exciting and engaging, but this is definitely an example of the latter. He once said something along the lines of there being two types of music that interest him – one is music with not enough notes in it and the other is music with too many notes. And there’s not much doubt which of those camps this piece is in.
LH: Great! Awesome!
LF: Ooof! I found that really synaesthetic. It just makes me see stuff as soon as I shut my eyes. Textures and whatnot. I find it really powerful for that.
LH: There are a lot of really weird textures in there.
LF: Crazy. It’s so super-saturated., in terms of its busyness. Not that you can’t hear stuff.
LH: Yeh but it’s weird isn’t it? Some of the harpsichord noises, it’s almost like they’ve been doubled-tracked.
LF: It’s seven harpsichords in fact I think. It was originally this multimedia spectacle that was done in a baseball stadium with the live harpsichords, live electronics and a whole bunch of slide projectors and films and all the rest of it. It was a massive and completely over-the-top multimedia spectacle. In terms of that recording I think the harpsichord parts were overdubbed.
But yeah as mentioned that’s the kind of thing I like to put on when I want to completely re-orientate myself. Or just wind other people up at the end of parties.
LH: Ha! Well, I really enjoyed that.
LF: A slightly weird one to close out but there you go! Thanks again for joining me on this little energistic record jaunt Luke. It’s been a pleasure!
LF: And some ridiculous music along the way there.
LH: Absolutely. Abso ridic.
In conversation, February 2020