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Interview: Squarepusher

Music thrives on mystery, and Tom Jenkinson aka Squarepusher has provided it in spades since his early singles in the mid 90s. His esoteric appeal is almost unparalleled, thanks to his 20 minute bass solos, Amen-sampling end-of-the-world drum and bass and excursions into ambient jazz. His fan club includes Andre 3000 and Thom Yorke, while Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers once declared Jenkinson “the best bass player in the world”.

His new project, Shobaleader One, was formed when a troupe of musicians – who, true to form, shall remain anonymous – approached Jenkinson to put into reality a daydream about watching a “crazy, beautiful rock band play an ultra-gig” that he mentioned in the sleeve notes of his 2008 album Just A Souvenir. The Shobaleader One album is ostensibly his most accessible work to date, but it still came as a surprise to many when the debut single was released not on Warp, but on Pedro Winter’s Ed Banger. The French imprint is best known for its electro club tackle, although it does harbour its own small stable of leftfield thinkers (chiefly Krazy Baldhead and Messer’s Flash and Oizo). Indeed it was the latter who provided a suitably off kilter remix when the Cryptic Motion EP hit the shelves in September. With the full album, entitled D’Demonstrator, set for release on October 18 – this time back on Warp – Juno Plus editor Aaron Coultate caught up with one of electronic music’s most revered characters.

How did the Shobaleader One project come to be?

The recording sessions came out of some informal conversations with a bunch of people. For me, it was a logical development in terms of the ways I’ve worked over the years. Obviously I’m known for working as solo artist but the way in which I’ve worked has often been to try to make the situation in the studio almost like it would be if there was a band. I try to image different players and concoct musicians, and play them off against each other, so when I’m recording I’m impersonating these imaginary people. That way you’ve got someone with this outlook, someone who plays that instrument, and someone who’s got a certain kind of taste and ability. And as much as it’s formally speaking a break from the past – to actually bring other people in – in the end it’s not so different to what I’ve already done. With the Just A Souvenir record I published a short piece of writing which was a description of a daydream, and in a roundabout way that was me trying to articulate the idea of me inventing people. So this band was an outgrowth of – I hate the word concept – that idea, that approach that I’ve instinctively adopted over the years.

And these people approached you?

Yeah, that’s right. One of the things about the age of the internet is that it means people can get in contact with you – not that I ever look at my Facebook, it terrifies me to be honest (laughs). But some bits and pieces came through Warp and I thought, yeah, let’s try it out and see what happens. I mean, it doesn’t break down quite as literally as it does on the back of the record in terms of who does what. I think of it like the Cohen brothers when they say one directed the film and one produced it, but in all likelihood what they actually do is mix it up and do whatever needs to be done at the time. Maybe this person does the greater part of the directing; therefore you give him that title. It worked the same way with us, some people were involved in the engineering or production, and it’s not just that they play the guitar, but they play a bit of bass, and of course from time to time I might play other instruments as well as bass.

Considering this project came from the idea of your ‘ultra-gig’, it’s interesting to see that it’s taken on a mysterious, slightly menacing look visually. Is this what you envisaged or did it develop a life of its own?

Well the costume is an outgrowth of the lighting that I’ve been using in shows for the past five or six years, these L.E.D panels. I’ve been using those since 2005 and I have a small program that takes an input of the sounds I make and generates a picture from it. This all happens in the simplest terms, like an oscilloscope, where you represent a waveform on a two dimensional graph. Usually we have a big screen at the back of the stage which represents what I am playing on the bass. And what we’re doing with this is trying to extend that idea so that each person’s mask reflects what they are doing themselves. Each person’s instrument is plugged into their own version of this software, which conjures up whatever images are appropriate to the sound that they’re playing. Again, it’s not so much of a radical break with the past, it’s just a new interpretation of this equipment I’ve been using.

And how did the recordings go?

It started off, like a lot of groups do, just messing around. I’ve got loads of recordings of jams, more along the lines of improvised sessions, but to my mind, as much as I like them, they’re not necessarily things I’d want to release. They sound like a band improvising, and if I put a recording out there I want it to sound not quite like anything else. So we got to know each other musically from improvising, but then that started feeding into bits and bobs in the studio. Again it was quite a gradual thing, it wasn’t like ‘day one, you’re doing this, I’ve written this piece, you play that’. It’s not a military operation of any kind. I would work on pieces and we’d try to develop them.

“I became a music lover by just turning the radio on and flicking through it until I heard something that I liked. I wasn’t following a particular DJ or an artist or a movement. It was just about what stood out as being interesting.”

Your work has arguably always had a pop sensibility hidden below the surface, but this seems to bring that to the fore, although on your terms. Would you say this is the poppiest thing you have done?

I’d have to concede that, of course. But then again, I’ve been utterly mistaken in the past with pieces of music that I thought were pop, or pieces of music that would have me saying, ‘everyone will love that’ and then it just disappears and no one ever mentions it again. I was totally wrong – I couldn’t have been more wrong – so I think my interpretation of pop is probably quite skewed. I don’t claim to have any understand of the zeitgeist really. I listen to and hear new music, but I don’t hope to have a good grasp of it. So I say this sounds pop to me, but with the qualification that I’ve said the same about other bands and no one’s ever mentioned them again (laughs).

Where did the name Shobaleader One come from?

It’s a misheard lyric. Every music fan will have done this – where you’ve heard lyrics in a song, and you hear maybe two or three words, and it jumbles into this new word in your head. You get this sense of ‘I’m sure that’s not a word’, but you cant hear it any other way. It becomes set in your mind then – every time you hear that song, it has this odd composite word, and you have no idea what the original words are anyway. It was one of those, I heard the track on the radio, and it just stuck out at me, this sound: Shobaleader One.

And invariably when you do find out the real lyrics it’s a disappointment…

Precisely. And on that note, I make sure I never find out what they are really saying, because it’s always a disappointment – it’s never half as interesting.

That level of mystique – of leaving certain elements unknown – relates to the band itself too. You have made a conscious decision to keep the other members of the band shrouded in secrecy, right?

People will probably be asking me about who’s in the band and so on, but I’m quite keen to retain a level of mystique because I think it allows people’s own imaginations to come into play. Their interpretations are allowed free reign, they’ll have to guess – and that’s exciting as a music listener. I wouldn’t want to nail it down and say, it’s this person who was in that band, because everyone will just say ‘sorted, now I know’. People are intrigued, but sometimes the answer … I’m not saying the people in the band are in anyway uninteresting, they are great players, but when you breach the factual level of information, it’s not quite as much fun.

Electronic music certainly lends itself to that level of anonymity among it producers…

As I said, it’s a continuation of what I’ve tried to do regarding all of my work in the past. I’ve never wanted to turn this into a Tom Jenkinson personality cult, I don’t see the relevance of my upbringing or my past or my current lifestyle. What I’m trying to do with music is get away from all of that. I’m trying to imagine myself in the shoes of other people. I’m not saying I’m doing that from an excessive degree of self loathing – I don’t want to negate myself, it’s just that in the end I’d rather that people were using their imaginations, instead of getting bogged down in the detail, things like, ‘he did this because he was splitting up with his wife, and that’s why it sounds really sad’. To be honest I’ve made music when I’ve had a bad time in my life, but you wouldn’t know it from the song. I would challenge anyone to derive truth about my life from my compositions – I don’t think it’s possible. And I’d rather people would just interpret as they see fit. I suppose really what I’m trying to do is force on people what I do, because I don’t go out of my way to find out autobiographical information about artists. I became a music lover by just turning the radio on and flicking through the stations until I heard something that I liked. I wasn’t following a particular DJ or an artist or a movement. It was just about what stood out as being interesting. And all of that other information is secondary – it can be interesting, maybe, at some point, if there’s something you are really, obsessively keen on, but more often that not it undermines it.

I guess an extension of that will be when people want to see you guys live.

That’s the idea, yes. That video was done in a night, it was done on an extremely small budget – it was a real shoestring and spontaneous thing. But what we tried to convey is that we have these different characters, if you like, and they have their own signature image or style which is displayed on their mask, which in turn is linked to their instruments. That will be if I ever manage to get the whole thing working, because it’s a real Heath Robinson at the moment, fucking loads of circuit boards, just a horrible mess (laughs). I’ve had to twist the arms of the manufacturers of this equipment, because it’s a smaller budget operation and these are the sort of companies who are only interested in clients who want to spend big money. It’s the same kind of technology as the people who make the Coca Cola screen on Piccadilly Circus, just on a smaller scale and for a more esoteric purpose. I managed to get it sorted, but that just gives me a bunch of circuit boards and wires to worry about. So I’m probably in line for an electric shock.

Squarepusher presents Shobaleader One – Megazine (taken from d’Demonstrator) from Warp Records on Vimeo.

Well that should make for some interesting live shows! Do you hope to write more material before you hit the road?

That’s what we’re doing at the moment. We’re back in the studio trying to do some more stuff, and then get touring after that. We haven’t booked anything in, dates wise. I don’t want to hurry into it. I suppose from a record label point of view, they want to get us out while the record is still fresh in people’s minds. To me, it’s better to do it when everything is musically right. It’s about trying to select a set out of bits from this record and bits from the follow up. And I really want to interpret my older stuff through this bunch of people. I think it’s high time I did something like that, I mean it’s a bit risky and the reason why I’m foremost a recording artist is because I get really obsessed about things sounding a particular way, and at a show there are always details – the levels between each instrument, the acoustics of the room, there are so many factors to contend with. As much as I love that, if I get a composition, I want it sounding just so. And that’s only something you can do in the studio. Those older tracks, they were finished to what, at the time, I considered perfection, but I think it would be good to re-interpret them. A few years ago I might have said it would ruin it, but I think, stepping back, why not use it as a platform or a stepping stone.

And are there any particular tracks or albums you had in mind?

There are pieces that are more obvious and suggest themselves, I mean Just A Souvenir was a reasonably conscious effort to make it sound like a band, and other albums have been as well. Music Is Rotted One Note would be another example I suppose, but in a way the most exciting idea is trying to do some of the more inhuman, brutal, digital stuff. The extreme, electro acoustic music, with completely fucked up timing – the stuff I made at the time in that manner because I thought there was no way anyone could ever play it. So to try do it could be quite interesting, quite a challenge.

I would say some of you older stuff is the ultimate anti-band material…

Almost…but what I don’t want to do is make it sound too academic, like a sort of music college project – trying to do the impossible. It could just be really cheesy. If it doesn’t convey the aggression that was in that original piece, we might quietly forget about that idea. We shall see.

“People will probably be asking me about who’s in the band and so on, but I’m quite keen to retain a level of mystique because I think it allows people’s own imaginations to come into play”

The first place most people heard about the project was through the Ed Banger release. That 12” gave everyone a nice little taste of what to expect. How did that hook up come about?

When the record was finished, which was in early February, I got Steve (Beckett) from Warp over and played it to him – as is the customary thing to do – and he said he was up for releasing it, which was a relief. We got talking about a couple of the references I suppose, and some of the things which the music immediately brought to his mind. Ed Banger came up in the conversation, because Warp did a concert with them last year, so we started discussing the label and the artists associated with it and so on. Then we just started saying it’s a shame that if this record just came out on Warp, with the way the media works, it might well not get through to the Ed Banger crowd. And of course people only have so much time, so they will follow certain labels just because they’re more likely to produce music that they are going to want to hear. But we thought it would be amazing to try and reach out to some of those kids, because if they see a record on Warp they might try it, they might not, but if it comes out on Ed banger they are more likely to give it a go. The fundamental thing being, we were hoping that some Ed Banger fans would really enjoy it; that they might see something in it that they might not have expected from a record released on Warp. We sent the track to Pedro and he was absolutely over the moon with it, which for me was really flattering. It just went from there.

For any admirer of interesting electronic music, the idea of seeing a Mr Oizo remix of Squarepusher on a 12” is a bit of a treat…

Pedro suggested it, and it immediately struck me as a good idea. I mean, I’d love to see what Justice would have done with it as well. It would be good to do more, although I don’t know how many records Warp want me to do on another label. But it’s definitely a fertile area, and I’d quite like to do a remix of Oizo’s remix. He has extrapolated quite a long way from my piece which is great, and I’d quite like to work on his track and make a follow up. However as much the record was actually finished in February, so much time since then has been taken up sorting other things out, so these ideas are yet to be put to anyone.

Was leaving Warp, even just for one release, a big thing for you? The first time you had released on anything other than Warp since 1999.

Not really. I mean, without wanting to make the whole thing sound unglamorous, you put a record out and unless you go to the shop and see it, you can feel quite removed from the process. About 95 per cent of the work that goes into making a record is nothing to do with me. I mean I make the music and look after the production so it is ready to give to the label, but from then on it’s really quite distant from me. The difference really was instead of conversing with Steve at Warp, I was conversing with Pedro at Ed Banger, and given that they’re both perfectly nice, personable people, the process wasn’t particularly different. That’s not to say that I’m inclined to do stuff with other labels, I mean Ed Banger was great, and maybe we’ll do something again. But I still remember the first day I had a record out, and I was just sitting at home going, ‘it came out today, why is it not more exciting to me, I’m sure it should mean more’ (laughs).

And is it strange to be talking about the record as if it is new, even though you finished it nine months ago?

It’s odd talking about it with that time delay. To me, it’s when you have mastered the tracks that you really have a sense that it’s real, that it’s all happening. And, as with all the other records I have done, there are numerous things that I would change if I was making the record right now.

Of course all the talk at the moment is about Shobaleader One, but is there any new Squarepusher material planned?

I have made a couple of new tracks that are nothing to do with the band. I don’t see it as the end – it’s certainly not a full-stop of any kind for Squarepusher. To be honest there’s no discontinuity to speak of between my solo work and my work with band. I’m still basically governing the entire band, although I’m trying to give them more control as we go on, but really, if I don’t like it, it doesn’t end up on the track.

Andre 3000 from Outkast declared his admiration for you on the BBC culture show back in 2006. Are there plans to collaborate, as was suggested back then?

With Andre and I, with the best intentions in the world, I think we’re probably not the best people at organising things. He’s super busy, I’m always in the studio, and now four years have passed and nothing has happened. I mean we have conversed on the phone, so we are past stage one. And I can’t wait until it happens, I think it’s going to be absolutely incredible. Watch this space – it’s got to happen to soon.

Interview: Aaron Coultate