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Interview Andrew Hartwell
Photography Sanna Charles
Alexander Tucker has become a fixture of the UK’s underground scene over the last few years, an always-welcome addition to numerous shows, especially in the capitol. Perhaps seeming most at home in small intimate basement venues and art spaces, Tucker’s eccentric take on the lo-fi troubadour has always had the ability to utterly fill the space in which he has played. It was always clear that he is a formidable musical force. The man himself is a wonderfully English character – warm, self-effacing and extremely witty, with something of the slacker’s take on many of the more humdrum realities of the day-to-day world. With a deep interest in the comic book as art form, both as a consumer and creator (see his work in Sturgeon White Moss), and his creation of cover art for bands such as Wolfmangler, Tucker is certainly something of a renaissance man, and clearly no intellectual slouch. With ever more accomplished recordings and amazing live performances, this skilled musician (and illustrator) looks set to take his music to the rest of the world with his recent release Dortwych (Thrill Jockey, 2011).
Tucker’s 2005 self-titled debut release on the ultra influential U-Sound Archives label, the house imprint of seminal weirdo band Jackie-O Motherfucker, established Tucker’s sonic palette of acoustic fingerpicking and lo-fi electronics and started his more public musical journey. He went on to develop his sound further with three records on ATP Recordings: Old Fog (2005), Brow (2006), and Portal (2008). Dortwych is the natural growth of all of his past work; fuller, more rounded and with a complete vision realized, all elements of his craft working in symphony. Tucker brought in a stellar cast of guest musicians to add new depth and colors to some of the tracks, including free-improv drummer Paul May, avant-bluesman Duke Garwood of Fire Records, singer-songwriter Jess Bryant and Daniel O’Sullivan of Æthenor, Miracle, Ulver, and Grumbling Fur. As usual, Tucker has created all of the imagery and artwork himself.
I met up with Alex before his ’SUP photo shoot and spent the time looking through his new sketchbook, which was graced by new illustrations completed during his epic bus transit to the wilds of Clapton, eating the custard tarts he’d brought along and talking about his creative process.
How do you start a song? It seems as if you draw stuff first, quite literally sketch out an idea and then it grows into an entity of its own.
The songs usually begin from improvising around an open tuning. I’ll sometimes have a song hanging around for ages until I actually record it, so yeah, the ideas ferment over a period of time as I work out what works best. It’s true the songs begin to grow into unexpected forms and go in directions I had not perceived.
Like when you are working on an illustration almost?
Yes. When I began making solo recordings I was surprised at how much it was like painting. The process of layering sound and making decisions of how to get the balance right seems to be present in both. I think improvisation is a form of sketching and drawing, and from this way of working new ideas can emerge because your ego is not getting in the way as much. You’re not thinking what’s right or wrong, good or bad. Instead you’re in the moment trying to figure out where you can take that sound or image next.
Your artwork has lots of shading and fine pen work, lots of layering. In much the same way, I think you build up layer upon layer of sound. Do you think any of your music is ever finished or is there always room for more shading and more layers?
I usually have a pool of ideas that I’m drawing from so each piece is a continuation of themes I’m interested in at that time. I quite often work over a single track for months on end, not continually, but I will finish the music up to a certain point and then add more sounds or vocals at a later date. I like the pieces to ferment a bit, to give them time to grow some skin.
Do you revisit older tracks and rework them?
I never rework old tracks as most pieces come to their natural conclusion and I usually begin something new that contains elements from the last.
You’re quite free with your creativity, did you ever learn to play anything when growing up or is all your musical ability self-taught?
I did have a few classical guitar lessons but I hated them (laughs)! After about four lessons I sold my classical guitar and got an electric and a cheap practice amp. The first thing I did with that was put the guitar on top of the amp and turned everything up to 10 and just enjoyed the screaming feedback. This felt really natural to me and I understood that the sound I was making was immediate and exciting and channelling something that could not be taught, you know? As soon as I got a delay pedal that was it, there was no going back.
Is that how you got into looping and the low level technology involved with that?
Well, before I got a loop pedal I would buy these TDK endless loop cassettes and make recordings of feedback, shortwave radio transmissions and vocal sounds. I loved the whole idea of repetition, of making a simple idea into something epic, you know? The vocals I used to do in hardcore and post rock bands would have these repeated phrases that would come around and around, and then there was definitely an influence from contemporary classical music’s use of repetition, and also bands like Swans where Gira would use this mantric howling. My use of loop pedals was not so much of a desire to use the technology but a need to have a ghost ‘other’ to play with. I’d got fed up of playing in bands and dealing with other people and wanted to try playing solo but I still wanted the illusion of a band or ensemble.
To create as much depth as possible.
Yeah, and I also loved what happens to sounds and tones when they are laid and looped against each other. I love the phase patterns, which you can achieve through this process. My side project Imbogodom with Daniel Beban is a return to the source of tape loops and electronic music. A digital looper can become very formulaic, whereas tape loops and tape effects open up a whole realm of possibilities through their unpredictability.
How long does it take you to flesh out a musical idea? Do songs appear fully realized in your head or do you build them up from nothing? Can you describe the genesis of one of the songs on the new album?
Sure. “His Arm Has Grown Long”, for example, was born out of looping the cello. So having a set rhythm and riff down, then another part, which can come in and out, creates the illusion of a change without having to stop the looper. Then finally I add vocal parts to these two modes. In the studio I never use loopers unless I’m using them to build more abstract sound pieces. All the tracks with instruments I actually play the repetition from beginning to end, this gives the right resonance to the natural tones created between the layered instrumentation.
Labor intensive! I think its interesting how lots of lo-fi indie stuff went very free form and used a lot of wordless vocals for a few years, but people – yourself included – have now been moving more and more towards more traditional ideas of song structure, harmony, and lyricism.
Was that a conscious thing for you?
For me personally, I didn’t really know how to write a song in a traditional way. Each record I was making was a process of experimentation and discovery. I had also been singing in bands where the vocals were quite structured so in my solo guise I had the chance to use the voice as another instrument. Making sounds rather than playing music is probably the thing I’m most adept at, because it’s the thing I’ve been doing for the longest. The thing I love the most about Bardo Pond’s album Bufo Alvarius (Drunken Fish, 1995) is where the song writing is coming from the sound-making rather than the traditional route. I have always liked the idea of a song
being able to take any form, from being totally unravelled to the point of abstraction, to the total opposite of dense prog psychedelia.
Do you think the accessibility of music now has had an effect on how people make music? How everyone has almost limitless free access to almost all the music ever made in the world now due to illegal sharing, et cetera?
I don’t know. It’s hard to say. One thing I like about the current situation, though, is how vinyl has had a massive comeback especially in the experimental and underground world. People realize what an amazing concrete archival form this is. For me also, being a visual artist, seeing my work shrunk down to a CD size is always a bit of a let down, but seeing it LP size has the visual impact akin to a painting.
Totally. The format is so much more tactile and has a much bigger sensory impact. While we’re talking about tangible items, if you could keep just one album, one book and one instrument, what would they be?
Hmmm. Okay, give me a minute… Album: Cardiacs’ On Land and In The Sea (Alphabet Business Concern/Torso, 1989). The book would be the entire Alan Moore Swamp Thing series. Not really a book, I know but… (laughs). The instrument would be a classical guitar.
Earlier we were discussing work, the paying kind. So, lastly, does regular, paid employment hinder the creative individual? Discuss!
(Laughing) Work always gets in the way of creativity! But there’s not too much of it to really get in the way for me at the moment. A balance of the two is always nice, like we said earlier, but I know what I prefer.