Artist: Graham Dunning
Interviewers: Guy Harries and Patrick Evans
Date of interview: 4 June 2016
Location: University of East London, University Square Stratford, London
Q: Could you tell us about your musical background and creative trajectory in the exploration of different musical fields?
A: If I go right back to the start… I played in punk bands for years from when I was a teenager. I started off playing bass, later played drums as well – literally mates in a garage writing songs, working out how to write music, I guess. Songs developed over time and we would play live and then add in new bits, but it wasn’t really improvised as such. It was kind of basic: four chord songs.
Around the same time at secondary school there were two things: one was I could already play keyboards a bit; everyone was playing the keyboards in the lessons, so I was allowed to use the one computer that we had in the school. I mainly remember programming drumbeats. It wasn’t like a sequencer; you had to do it with notation. So I remember specifically trying to do these sort of snare rushes. Secondly, there was also a 4-track tape recorder, which I was able to borrow over the summer to record my band with. Together with my friend Andy Hargreaves, who still writes and records music now, we both used the 4-track and learned a lot about recording.
Q: What year was that?
A: Late 1990s. Then I went to university and a friend of mine had music programmes on his computer. I had a minidisc recorder that I used to use for live stuff. I didn’t really use it for recording, but what I used to do was make beats on the computer and then put them onto the 4-track for live performance, as a way of choosing different beats or sometimes other electronic sounds.
However, in the live set up we were kind of an electronic and rock mixed group, so I would play keyboards a bit too. It was good having the student loan. I bought some equipment: nice old synths – an electric piano and a string synth. The electric piano had weighted keys and kind of screw on legs so I used to drag that around Manchester in black cabs to go to gigs, and then I had the minidisc 4-track.
I was always kind of adamant I didn’t want to play to a backing track, which was the other option for electronic music. So with the 4-track it meant I had the option of doing it in different ways: either have one beat on track 1 for the verse and then a different beat for the chorus. Or have bass drum and snare drum and bring in the high hats later, bring in maybe a bass line or a sample later on, so it was pretty flexible. Also, because it had EQs, I realised you could just cut the bass drum by just turning the bass EQ all the way down, then bring it back in. So it made quite a flexible instrument for making the rhythms. Essentially it was like in a band set up: There were two of us playing keyboards and a bassist who sang as well. This was around 2000-2003 something like that.
Then around the same time I was writing more dance music-based electronic stuff. I used to do a live set with another friend, Kane Clover as Testrack, who did the same: we used to each have a laptop and went through a DJ mixer. Rather than syncing with MIDI or anything we would just make sure we were set to the same tempo, then start it at the same time and hope for the best, and I always found that it was in sync enough. We were playing solo tracks but we could have quite long cross fades. I could have just some hi-hats that I would bring into his track, for example, and start to add different elements that way. I think I did have a small MIDI keyboard on it that had a few knobs so I could control a few filter cut-offs and things like that. That was very much a dance-floor / bass music project.
Then a little bit later on I was in another band called ‘Blood Moon’, a duo with Louise Woodcock, which was much more noise-rock and improvisation. I guess that was my entrance into improvised music, which I didn’t really know much about. I knew more about live noise music because of being a fan of Sonic Youth and things like that. I had always enjoyed a long feedback session at the end of a live performance. I used to have various instruments with which I could do that: a little analogue drum synth on which you could set the decay all the way up and let it ring out for ages, and then you could tweak all the knobs and make a horrible racket using delays and reverbs.
I’ve read quite a lot about improvised music and I play improvised music a lot now, but it was great starting without really knowing anything about it or knowing who any of the key practitioners were. I mean, I was watching people like Chris Corsano play in Manchester and going to ATP festivals. I was aware of this type of music, but wasn’t fully involved in the scene. So we went through various stages of learning the hard way really, where we would just decide to do a gig and not really have any plan at all and then, because it was so much about this kind of explosive energy, we would only end playing ten minutes and then smash up all the drum kit and that would be the end of the performance.
So then around 2009 I started to think about moving into sound art and experimental music. My first performance in that way was with Gary Fisher. We both used various kinds of electronics and tapes, radio static and modified records and that sort of thing. It was entirely improvised and I think we played for about an hour altogether. It was very abstract and included washes of sound going up and down in intensity. Then I started to do solo performances, mostly using records and turntables, modified records. Generally I would get a standard set time, being 20 minutes to half-an-hour, for a live show. So I would work out what I could do within that amount of time. I think my view of the solo turntable stuff, part of it was about what different sounds you could make, but then part of it was something which I have only just thought about really: it’s kind of a demonstration of the different experiments that had been happening in the studio. So there would be times where I would want to show some of the different kinds of modified records that I had been making and the different sounds that they would make. There would be a section where there would be marbles on the turntables as well, which is quite a visual thing, which was something that would again come into my work later on.
So just to explain the current performance [Mechanical Techno]... I start with just a turntable and then put one record on it which is playing a loop, a kind of forced locked groove on the record. And then I have another record that is a modified record with deep scratches in it, which makes a kind of snare sound. And as I add each record to the stack and physically build it with each one, the structure is evolving all the time. With each record there’s a new sound being added to the mix. So it’s an interesting way to perform for me because there’s always this visual pay off. If I was in the studio recording, I would be paying more attention to how the sounds come in and I would probably be fading things in one at a time. Whereas because the live performance is this demonstration and it’s very visual, I’m trying to connect the sound with the visual in the performance. So I’ll always have the fader turned up before I put the record on. Often it comes in slightly out of time or it comes in a bit too loud – It’s not how I would do it if I was doing it in the studio, but I want it to be clear to the people who are watching that when I put the tone arm on this particular record, this sound starts to happen. It’s a kind of visual demonstration as much as it is an audio performance.
Q: You’ve talked about experimentation and preparing the machine or the instrument in the studio, and then sharing. Would you say that this is a guideline for what you do in general? Would that kind of a methodology be one that you consistently adopt?
A: I hadn’t really thought about it, but I guess it feels like that’s what’s happening really. With the Mechanical Techno live performance, it’s definitely a conscious thing, and it’s become integral to that performance. And what’s nice about that is that it’s holistic and kind of modular: each of the layers can work with any of the others. I can put it together like a jigsaw, so if I develop something new to show off, I can bring that into the project.
One example is something that I brought in back in January. Previously when I had built up the first stack of the turntable set-up, the stack gets to the top and I thought it needed something before it just went back down again because otherwise it was a bit of an anti-climax. What I was doing at the time was just adding an extra percussion layer at the top and the thing that I was demonstrating was that by adding bulldog clips onto the record they would hit these percussive sort of drum triggers. Then during one set I was using an FM synth bell sound, which I tuned to the loop that was on the bottom layer, so I knew it would be in key. I realised I could go back to what I used to do with using the marbles on the turntable back in 2010. So now I use ping-pong balls on the top layer to trigger the bell sounds – it's a new development that has become a key part of the set.
Q: When thinking about your live performance, how important is the visual aspect?
A: It’s a really strong factor, and I guess it has been for a while really. I mean, it’s quite a contentious issue because I don’t think that necessarily for musical performance you have to provide something visual. I think it’s perfectly legitimate to go the purely acousmatic route. The classic example is someone sat behind a laptop not really moving very much, and you’re there just to listen to the sounds really, and I think that’s fine.
Things that I find interesting or exciting about using the turntable as an instrument are: one, that it’s very tactile. As soon as you touch it, it instantly affects the sound and that’s linked to the fact that it’s very visual as well. As soon as the audience sees you touch the record it instantly affects the sound. I think that’s part of the reason that I’ve continued to use them as an instrument in my practice. It was definitely a driving factor with the Mechanical Techno project. One of the comments I often get on the Youtube video is, ‘Why bother? Why are you using this convoluted kind of over-the-top set up to make sounds? You could make it a lot easier using a sample-based digital audio workstation or Ableton [Live]’. I think part of the reason is that really, it’s a step sequencer, but it’s made very visible. So you can see where each sound is coming from.
What I also like, and I think this is the thing often people don’t realise, is that however much you intend your performance to be an audio experience, and for the audience to be focused on the sound, the fact is that you’re there in the space and you’re supposed to be making it happen. I’ve seen a few artists who choose to perform behind the audience and leave an empty stage so there’s no kind of visual focus. But generally even if you sit there behind the audience, people will watch you to see how what you do affects the sound, and I think that’s part of the enjoyment of live music really.
At the same time I'm not really keen on performing in front of people, so I realised fairly recently that I don't look up at all really when I'm playing. I don't know whether it’s a conscious thing or not. I might look up to see how many people are in the audience, but I definitely avoid eye contact with anyone in the audience. And part of this project is that because I'm focused on this physical process it means that I'm concentrating as I do it as well. What I'm coming to I guess is that even when someone is behind a laptop, they're a physical presence on stage whether they think about it or not. Their gestures are almost more meaningful or more significant, because there's less to look at anyway in the first place. Even what you wear, even if it’s your own clothes, it is a stage costume. So I think there's no reason why people have to think about these things but the audience is going to notice them anyway.
Q: You're talking about being involved in a process rather than making eye contact in a traditional performative sense. In general, is that your role as a performer: facilitating a process, or being part of a process?
A: I see it as non-theatrical really, because I don't feel comfortable pretending. For me as a performer it feels a bit disingenuous to be forcing yourself to be grooving to the music. I don't think I've ever put my hands in the air while playing live. The performances I feel the most are when I'm really getting into it and kind of want to dance, and then I do start to dance. Then I know it’s going well. And that goes back to the Blood Moon project, where we would smash up the drum kit, but not in a pretend way. It was really genuinely letting anger out. (We didn't always smash up the drum kit...)
Saying this, I also think it’s really interesting when people do start to put more theatrical elements into what you expect to be free improvised performance as well, and I think that can work really well to push at the edges of what you expect of these kinds of genres really.
Q: You seem to avoid the use of laptops and digital devices. Is there any particular reason for that?
A: 'Mechanical Techno' is kind of a studio project really. The live thing has developed out of that, but I really enjoy more using it to compose with in the studio, because it makes me write in a different way to if I was using a normal step sequencer. And so part of how I want to do it is that it’s a kind of DIY hardware electronic music software set up. So it feels like it wouldn't make sense to then start using a laptop as part of it.
But also I'm not sure what I would actually use a computer for. I recently downloaded Pure Data [a visual audio programming language], and I'm realising that there's a lot that I could do with that: where I've got an idea about, say, using multiple noise gates and resonant filters in order to try and translate audio signals into triggers for something else, and might not have the right hardware to do it. If I use Pure Data and set up the system with these little building blocks I can do that all within one box and I don't have to buy the additional hardware to be able to do it.
There are a lot of ideas that I want to try with the Mechanical Techno set up that I can't currently do because I don't have enough gear. Again that's partly through choice, because I think those kinds of restrictions lead to different types of innovation really, and if I had access to all the equipment I wanted to, it would have come out as a very different project from what it is now. But part of the reason I haven't used a laptop with it so far is because I've always been able to find a solution – I've been able to execute the idea with hardware of some kind, or by making something.
Q: In the Mechanical Techno project, is there a reason that you choose to reference a particular genre and its typical time signature? Does this give you a frame of reference within which you can explore sonically?
A: Yeah, it’s a conscious decision to stick to that kind of genre. Part of it is that I really like this coincidence that the record, when its turning at 33 1/3, you split that into quarters and you get 133 1/3 as your BPM, which is ideal for techno straight away basically. (And interestingly, if you put it on 45, then it’s 180 BPM which is quite good for drum’n’bass, though I don't think that works quite as well.)
Also record crackle has this rhythm. I think you lock on to what rhythm comes out of the crackle. There's always one strong beat, which is when in each loop the stylus pops back in to where it started from. But then there are always these little peripheral pops and crackles as well, and you naturally start to recognise that as a rhythm. Because of the music we are mostly exposed to, 4/4 is often the one that pops out. It might be a 6/8 sometimes, but generally you're not going to hear a kind of 5/4 beat. I mean, when I was playing drums, I've never been able to play in 5/4 properly anyway. Or maybe I could do it for a bit, but then I'd try and do a roll and I'd lose it again, so I think just naturally I tend to recognise a 4/4 anyway.
I've also done mechanical techno sets with different time signatures. I made some records with prime number divisions – 1, 2, 3, 5, 7 – and experimented with these triggering different drum sounds in different combinations.
The Mechanical Techno project came about by accident. I was doing a workshop with some folks round at my place, for other people just to experiment with turntables, try stuff out together and make some sounds. I just tested out plugging in the sound of one of the cut up records into an analogue synth that had a trigger input. I realised that all the transients from the record were triggering the envelope shape for the filter cut-off, and it basically sounded like a monophonic acid bass line. It was just playing one note, but it had this really strong kind of rhythm, and I realised that would sound great if you put just a bass drum with it. And it just sort of developed from there really. I just starting adding multiple sounds together. I made a 30 second clip of video on my phone of a studio set up and put it online, and just called it 'Mechanical Techno' because it needed a title on Youtube. So the set that I did in Brighton in February 2014 was before I really called it Mechanical Techno, but I integrated some of these rhythms into the set that I was going to do, which was more textural and droney. Then I was offered another gig by someone who had seen it and enjoyed specifically that aspect of it, and just started building on it really. I never really planned to do it but having done the little 'Mechanical Techno' Youtube clip it sort of evolved, and I just kind of ran with it really.
GH: How does your solo performance differ from your group performance? It seems like there are very different approaches there.
GD: Yeah. The Mechanical Techno performance really is self-contained. It’s difficult to improvise without doing a lot of preparation to know what the options are. That said, I have used some of the elements from it when I've played with some people. I did a trio with Tasos Stamou and Robbie Judkins (Left Hand Cuts Off The Right). They're both electronic musicians in the noise or drone field. There I had three turntables rather than one because the thing with the tower is that you can only ever change the top record really, without having to take more than one off to get further down, so I used three separate turntables so I could access them more easily. I was just using drone sounds and those prime number polyrhythms, but wasn't really going for anything with a solid beat as much there.
When I play the turntable in more of an improvising context, the most regular performances are with Colin Webster who plays saxophone. The focus isn't on rhythm there. It’s more on texture, and I guess it is quite percussive at times, as well as lots of drone.
GH: Is your set up more responsive in a group context?
GD: Yeah absolutely, because of the sort of genre in which we're playing it’s all about responsiveness and that kind of communication between the instruments really. We [Colin Webster and Graham] play as a duo quite regularly and there's a different thing really where it’s essential to change what you're doing or the way that you play, so you don't get too used to each other; it’s about the newness and being in the moment of the performance. And if you know what's going to come next too much, then it just gets stale. That's why I love improvisation so much: you can't fake it really.
The way I see it is that you have a palette of techniques that you can draw upon at any time and just whatever sounds right or feels right to do you will go with. With Colin I tend to only use dubplates of field recordings. Again, with a turntable you could potentially have access to anything that's ever been recorded as your source material to sample from, so I deliberately narrow that down. The field recordings that I make are generally pretty prosaic and everyday. I'm not one of these people who goes chasing after rare creatures that make interesting sounds. I'm just as interested in listening to a normal street sound in Luton, as on some of my records. And it’s just as much about the texture of the sound field as much as it is the clips and pops and crackles that come from the records themselves.