Interviewers: Guy Harries and Patrick Evans
Date of interview: 4 August 2016
Location of interview: the artist’s living room, North London, UK
PE: Could you start by telling us a bit about your musical background and how you came to create the work you do, especially with reference to electronics?
WY: I have no formal training in music in any way at all. My experience in anything that could be considered musical was a household thing. My father sang devotional hymns called 'naats' and as kids we used to sing with him. It’s where we learned harmonies and vocalisation. We would go round singing in various mosques and in various people’s houses but obviously, apart from the British Pakistani community, there's no sort of public facing aspect. So I was brought up on a sort of performance stage within the community. I moved to London aged 18 where I worked for a record label called Sonnet, who were the international arm of the record label Mute.
Mute was a fantastic revelation for me: bands like Nitzer Ebb, Laibach, Non, bands who were really challenging what was even considered music. And so I was switched on to all of this experimental music - purely as a listener. At this point there was no creative urge, no impulse to make music. I then left Mute to live in Sweden for a year to find the teenage years that I never had, given the fact that I was from a British Pakistani background. I went over to Sweden to essentially demolish my own moral compass, to destroy everything I thought I knew, destroy myself really and try and build something from that. It involved being in bands, DJing on the local radio and a lot of the times involved just not being a particularly nice person really.
GH: So you were in bands in Sweden?
WY: Yeah that's right. Bands in the very loosest term you know, just really just making a racket.
GH: What were you playing?
WY: I was doing voice, just sort of screaming. I couldn't play anything. I tried the guitar, and I thought like most people ‘hey I can grab hold of a guitar and make a racket with it.’ I quickly realised that hammering away at three chords doesn't necessarily qualify you as a guitarist, although that sort of playing style is still claimed justifiable by some people. But it was just sort of howling really, trying to sing.
I then came back to London and worked for lots of other record labels including Beggar's Banquet, who owned 4AD and Too Pure and loads of other labels. I was asked by one of the bands on Nation records called Fun Da Mental to join them on a gig they had planned in Belgium. I had never played live proper, and Aki – the main guy behind the band was like 'Can you play? You'll do' sort of thing. I remember getting up in front of about 500 people at the gig never having played before and I just had my back to the audience all the way through, mainly through nerves but also with the idea that that'll be my style, I'm just gonna essentially have an antagonistic / aloof approach to audiences and that's it. And so that was it, I stayed with them for a couple of years.
After loads of gigs with them around the world, I got to the point that I had a craving to create something even more extreme than even Fun Da Mental were renowned for, and so I created my own project 2nd Gen for the first time and that sort of propelled me into getting signed to one of Mute’s offshoot labels.
Whilst I was doing 2nd Gen stuff I got interested in collaborating with contemporary dancers, and created a lot of music for dance pieces. In particular I remember seeing a performance by a choreographer called Mara Castillo at the Place Theatre and came away feeling as though she was physically doing a version of what I was doing sonically. The way she had choreographed the piece felt compositionally very similar to my own approach. So after the performance I went back stage with some determination and said 'Look, I'm going to do the music for your next piece – full stop’. Thankfully she also recognised that our methods were identical.
GH: And did you use electronics for that project?
WY: It was entirely electronic although I wasn't a purist when it came to electronic music at all; there was no way that I specifically invested in electronics as an exclusive point of expression. I used whatever it took really, and electronics happened to be of the convenient kinds of weaponry that I could use.
Q: And did you perform it live with the choreography?
A: Yes. Actually I was on the stage with the dancers a number of times, which was quite interesting. It was breaking some of the expectations, some of the performance moulds for choreography, by actually having the musician/composer being live on stage and performing that.
I then started incorporating choreographic movement as part of my own music performances, drawing on the experiences I had become familiar with in working with dance companies, by dipping into choreographic practice and really expanding what gigs and musical performances could be.
Then I really got into the idea of breaking away from as much musical language as possible. I started to get interested in sound in space, but not in a physical locative sense, not in a quad set up kind of way, just thinking about it purely within the composition itself: what does it mean to place sounds in an exploded composition and particular place, what does that do? Can that still be essentially emotive? I started doing quite a bit of composition with that in mind and I created two albums under a project called Uniform. What I found was textural experiments became kind of lost on most people, and the way to resolve that was to take people to an extremity by using the voice as the primary vehicle. So on the second Uniform album I used voices: Lydia Lunch, Alan Vega from Suicide, Dälek - all really interesting distinct voices. I delivered some really quite unsettling electronic composition, but because as humans we’re so attuned to the voice, I could fool people into the extremity - using the voice to sort of lead them in and be the carrier for this really weird stuff.
Since then I’ve done various other sound related things – installations and music for film, but in terms of music production I’ve sort of walked away from it almost entirely. In some way I don’t really see myself as an artist anymore. In fact, over the last six months or so I’ve become quite determined to not identify myself as an artist anymore.
PE: In terms of live performance what would be the crucial elements for you?
A: A lot people get obsessive about the light or quality of sound that’s being generating, but I’m finding actually that things not being physically in the right space unsettle me. Space seems to be quite an important thing for me.
GH: Regarding the choice of venue?
WY: No, no, more like the shape of the space and what happens in the space, where things physically are in the space and where bodies are in the space. There’s something about that which seems to be quite an important thing for me. I’m now less obsessed at least exclusively with the quality of the sound that’s generating in that space.
GH: How do you approach that as a performer?
WY: If it’s a solo performance I know I’ve got total control over how it’s going to be, and that means that I’m going to respond to the space. When it’s a collaboration with somebody who may not have the same sensitivity, that’s when it’s tricky. Then it comes down to personalities and what kind of approach to discussions you have. There are some people I’ve collaborated with where it’s impossible to talk with them because they’re too sensitive to accept a suggestion. There are other people where I’m free to openly shout and be furiously passionate about the way I think things should be, and they can take it on the chin. And that’s great, that’s my preference, I prefer a sort of intensity or violence as a way of getting to something.
Q: What decisions do you make in live performance?
A: Well, I think one of the things that has been creeping and growing over the last few years or so within me is that my sense of self as a performer is dissolving. I used to be able to stand in front of large numbers of people on a stage and invert the performer/audience relationship. Instead of people watching me, it actually became me watching people. I remember speaking to a friend of mine where he saw me do a performance like this and mentioned afterwards that I seemed quite vulnerable on stage, but he felt this moment where this balance shifted, where he suddenly felt as though it was me watching him, and that the vulnerability had switched. Whatever I had done on stage, I can’t recall what it was, just switched this mould between performer and audience. To be able do that you need to have presence on stage, some way of generating that power, that kind of feeling. That ability has been dissolving, and that’s what has been pouring away from me. I haven’t been that interested in live performance as my practice is going elsewhere, but my ability to tap into previous sorts of performance modes has gone.
Q: Do you find technology facilitates that letting go of the typical presence of the performer?
A: I think there’s no clear-cut answer to that. I mean, the most obvious example is performers staring into laptops, right? It breaks the traditional relationship between them as the performer and the audience; and there’s that well-known saying that they might as well be checking their e-mails, right? But I don’t believe that technology necessarily means that you will have a dislocated relationship at all. There are all sorts of interesting on-body interfaces out there now. I think you can also have that fractured relationship with any traditional instrument, where the dynamic between the performer and the audience is broken. It can be so set in one particular mode that there’s no communication at all. So I don’t think technology is to blame.
GH: Are you interested in the relationship between different sensory percepts? I know synaesthesia has been a long-term interest for you and features in some of your projects. Is that something that informs the music that you make?
A: Not directly in the music. I’ve been looking at this and thinking, Of course we see sound as a physical expression, so you can feel it in your body, you can feel the resonant frequency of your own body. But I have to be quite honest about it when I ask myself if there’s a genuine synaesthetic sensory crossover, and the answer is no. There are relationships through time when it comes to playing around with sound and music though.
I mean, of course we are entirely multi-sensory beings, we know that what we see modulates what we hear and what we hear modulates what we see on an everyday basis. That’s really been useful for us, and part of our survival mechanism, the way we’ve evolved and developed as a species. I think this intertwining is an entirely innate part of human expression and impression. Everything is intertwined. What’s interesting about synaesthesia is that’s a really obvious example of this intersensory binding.
In the ‘Ear Cinema’ project I used live performers, multiple screens and diffused sound to come up with one cohesive narrative. Whether that’s synaesthetic I’m not sure although it’s playing on different sensory modalities – but of course, everything is, you know.
Q: Skipping to something very different, the SoundHoppers project and how that ties into the idea of agency and performance. How do you convey or teach that kind of intuitive approach?
A: SoundHoppers is really exciting. It’s a sound workshop for children and I’ll give you a little bit of background. It started off as part of the programming for the nursery Isaac [Wajid’s son] used to go to. It’s a parent-led nursery; and they use a model partly based on the Montessori method where creativity is deeply embedded in the curriculum. So the nursery would have fine artists and musicians and choreographers come in regularly, and I thought it would be nice to have somebody come in and work specifically with sound, keeping it away from music. And so SoundHoppers has developed from that. It started off with infants, pre-schoolers, nursery children, and it's grown really since Isaac’s been growing. I’ve now done it at his current school, so it’s tracking his development really but we are getting invited to do these sessions all over the place now. One of the key definitions is to make sure we don’t get into musical discourse with the kids. What we found is that by keeping it away from music allows the children to be quite free in their sonic expressions.
Sessions are spilt into two sections - we’ve got a listening section where we sort of ‘game-ify’ the exercises - we get the children to focus on just listening itself, and then we get into sound generation stuff. The listening section is really interesting. Even adults don’t know how to listen attentively. Careful, deep listening isn’t actually such an easy thing to do, because we are predominantly visual animals. The brain seems to give a huge priority to the visual system. But it turns out that just shutting your eyes changes that, for example, there’s this notion that when people become blind that all of their other senses start making up for the loss of the visual. They become far more acute in the non-visual. But it turns out you don't have to be blind for the brain to do this re-wiring, all you’ve got to do is just close your eyes and your brain starts doing it really, really quickly. So getting children to listen to stuff with their eyes closed is quite different from getting them to listen to stuff with their eyes open. Anyway, we’ve got all these lovely little exercises: we get them to listen to things, then get them to listen to the space using various sticks and transducers, and then we get them to generate sounds using the sound box, using synths etc.
GH: So how do you teach that?
A: Well the children are led up to careful listening by gradual exercises, so by the time they get to the synths and the actual sound generation stuff they realise that any sonic expression is valid. Some of the exercises involve getting them to identify a specifically localised sounds with their eyes closed whilst a lot of distraction sounds are being made, challenging them to identify a particular sound. Not as easy as it sounds. They’re really being entrenched to listen carefully up to that point, which gives them the confidence to realise that sound generation doesn't have to be a case of playing an instrument in a particular way. I’m not interested in playing anything the ‘right way’ anyway, and we support the idea that there isn’t a right way to be creative with sound. By the time we get to the end of the sessions, they’re usually full of confidence and we’ve brought home and embedded the idea that there’s no wrong way to do this thing.