Sight and sound: an interview with Squarepusher

After 20 years performing under his Squarepusher pseudonym, electronic musician Tom Jenkinson is still toying with strange new sounds and audio visual experiments. We spoke to the artist about visuals for his recent gig at the Barbican and new album Damogen Furies, the children’s television shows which influenced his creative output and why he is keen to avoid sticking to any particular genre.

Squarepusher performing at London’s Barbican centre in March. Image by Sebastien Dehesdin

After 20 years performing under his Squarepusher pseudonym, electronic musician Tom Jenkinson is still toying with strange new sounds and audio visual experiments. We spoke to the artist about visuals for his recent gig at the Barbican and new album Damogen Furies, the children’s television shows which influenced his creative output and why he is keen to avoid sticking to any particular genre.

Since releasing his first album, Feed Me Weird Things in 1996, Tom Jenkinson has experimented with drum and bass, techno, acid house and jazz, creating music using digital software, analogue machinery and traditional instruments. His music often splits opinion – it has been described by critics as repelling, captivating, brutal, exhilarating and nightmarish – but it never fails to surprise, often sounding dramatically different with each new release.

Equally unexpected are the creative projects which accompany his albums, from brilliantly bizarre music videos such as Come on My Selector, a 2005 collaboration with Chris Cunningham, to striking album art and sonic experiments. Last year, he released an EP made with a band of robots, including a 22-armed drummer and 78-fingered guitarist, and collaborated with conductor Charles Hazelwood on an orchestral re-working of his 2012 album Ufabulum.

He has also created some mesmerising visuals for live shows, often using his own custom built software. For his Ufabulum tour, he devised a dazzling light show, performing in an illuminated visor against a wall of LEDs and in March this year, hosted a gig at the Barbican in London which featured hundreds of dizzying visual sequences generated in real time.

The audience was guided through tunnels of light, abstract shapes and visuals resembling early computer game graphics (pictures shown above and below), providing a frantic and fast-paced accompaniment to tracks from Damogen Furies. The show was a one-off, but there are plans to launch a similar event in London later this year, and fans have since uploaded hundreds of clips to Instagram and YouTube.

When designing visuals for his live shows, Jenkinson says he aims to create imagery which enhances the experience of listening to his music, while avoiding any literal interpretation of tracks. “I try not to assume too much about what people are going to take away from it – my concern is more giving [audiences] fertile ground for an experience, but not to drive it in a particular way,” he says. 

“I start off by considering what will feel relevant to the sonic context,” he adds. “My primary concern is presenting musical events, and so if I present a visual component in conjunction with that, as much as I’m interested in it in its own right, there has to be a strong degree of relevance between the visual and musical components,” he explains.

 

One of the ways he achieves this is by generating abstract imagery based on audio analyses of tracks. From 2005 until 2012, he worked exclusively with his own equipment, which he describes as an “oscilloscope on steroids”, allowing him to generate visuals in response to changes in tempo and volume (the Barbican show was created with outside help due to technical demands, says Jenkinson, but he was also heavily involved in its design).

Describing the process, he explains: “Imagine you have an audio output that is identical to what you’re hearing through front of house speakers [at a gig]. Take that signal, then measure the amplitude and you’ll get a waveform diagram, which you can extrapolate amplitude information from quite straightforwardly.

“When peaks exceed a given threshold, you can illuminate a screen, and switch it off when the volume dips below [a certain level]. Immediately, you have some connection between visual activity and musical. That for me is the way into it, then you can build on that foundation and see if there are ways in which you can amplify the experience of music through imagery that you’re generating from that data,” he explains.

 

Squarepusher performing at London’s Barbican centre in March. Image by Sebastien Dehesdin

 

Not all of Jenkinson’s visuals are based on audio data, however – “sometimes it’s patterns which I find pleasing, or something more general like a scenario or image of a person, or just something simple like a sense of colour,” he says – but all are generated live on stage, offering fans a unique experience at each gig.

“There’s something exciting about everything being generated in real time,” says Jenkinson. “There are sequences which are written out [in advance], but if I didn’t have the capacity to change it as I saw fit on the night…if there was just something running on tape that is identical night after night, I’d feel like a bit of a fraud, particularly as my background comes from playing in a band [when each performance is unique],” he says.

The other problem is I’d get bored of it, as I’m the person who has to hear it night after night,” he adds, “and if I make a difference to a piece [of music]…I want the imagery to follow, otherwise you’ve got this horrible divergence between music and visual activity,” he says.

 

Squarepusher performing at London’s Barbican centre in March. Image by Sebastien Dehesdin


As a musician whose work is often oblique, strange and sometimes downright eerie (one of his latest tracks, Stor Eiglass, is described by the musician in a release as a forceful exploration of “the hallucinatory, the nightmarish and the brutally visceral capacities of electronic music”), Jenkinson also believes that creating compelling visuals for live shows can help provide “a way in” to his music. Audiences are considerably more tolerant of alien sounds when they are accompanied by imagery or some kind of visual context, he says.

“I put music out there to provoke people or get them thinking, but I don’t just want to smash them over the head with it. I want to give them a way in, and if a visual component to a show can do that, then that’s what I’ll do. I don’t know if it works but I’m enjoying trying,” he says. “I think our culture is more visually sophisticated than it is sonically – that’s my thought – a good example is the novelty and strangeness and bizarreness of some film soundtracks: if that music was played on the radio in a primetime show, people would be up in arms saying it’s too horrible or frightening or strange. But in the context of a movie, where it forms the backbone of a scene, that pictorial accompaniment forms its justification,” he says.

Squarepusher performing at London’s Barbican centre in March. Images by Sebastien Dehesdin


While visuals are a key part of his shows, however, Jenkinson is critical of live events which employ them ‘for the sake of it’, or where there is little synergy between imagery and the music being played on stage – something he says is becoming more common as acts are increasingly expected to deliver impressive visual accompaniments to their performances.

“It seems many people feel its an obligation to supply visual fodder to be playing while they’re doing a gig, but quite often I find it more of a distraction and actually it doesn’t amplify the experience of the music. It’s more of a deterrent,” he says. “It feels like padding…as if musicians are standing in front of a massive television, and there’s nothing in it I find compelling,” he adds.

 

Jenkinson’s continued desire to create music that is novel, unusual or unexpected has earned the musician a cult following, but it’s something he also believes has placed a limit on his commercial appeal. He describes achieving a balance between music which will sell, and that which he finds fulfilling to make, a constant struggle, and something he often tries to rail against in his music (though he credits his label Warp with leaving him “largely to his own devices” to experiment). He is by no means a mainstream act, and is keen to avoid being labelled as a particular type of musician.

“I’ve observed close hand a number of musicians who’ve had a degree of success and on the basis of their first releases, an idea about them sprung up. That idea initially acts as a fuel for hype, and generating attention, but at a certain point it will switch and become a kind of prison. At that point, you have a decision whether to abandon it and stray outside of that little set of descriptive terms, or you can remain inside it and maintain your popularity, but at the expense of your enthusiasm,” he says.

“If you looked at my musical career it’s a very messy affair. There are ideas of Squarepusher, but none of them encapsulate what I’m doing and that’s kind of the point. You can generate a stereotype of me, but I’m keen to try and undermine that…Ive probably thrown away certain opportunities to become more popular but at the end of the day, I’m still here with the same level of enthusiasm that I had when I was a kid. I don’t know which is right or wrong, but I feel what im doing is in keeping with what a human is like – we change and our attitudes change, and that’s reflected in my work,” he adds.

 

Ufabulum deluxe box set, featuring a box and lid with screen printed glow in the dark ink, revealing the musician’s logo in the dark. Devised by Jenkinson with Nick Robertson


This struggle to avoid being moulded by the music industry, or music media, is an idea that runs through much of Jenkinson’s creative output – in his Ufabulum shows, he says the lights and visor was designed to deflect attention away from him on stage “and to disrupt the cult of personality in musical representation. I wanted to essentially annihilate my presence in terms of the performance, and instead turn myself into a canvas – a platform for imagery to be displayed,” he adds.

In his latest performance, attention is also on the rapid fire visuals taking place on large screens behind him, with Jenkinson again performing in a helmet (though this time, it’s not illuminated). In the artwork, too, designed by Build with photography from Timothy Saccenti, his face appears heavily distorted.

“I feel disfigured by the industry in a way [for the reasons above], and this is quite a literal interpretation of that,” says Jenkinson. “It’s not meant to sound like some grandiose statement – but it’s a simple idea and the artwork is a visual interpretation of that concept,” he adds.

To promote its release, Warp launched a microsite designed by We Make Awesome Shit which featured similarly distorted visuals, and an audio visual installation based on the artwork. A user-generated glitch on the site means each digital download comes with a unique version of the cover art, and visuals are disrupted as users scroll through the page.


Artwork for Squarepusher’s Damogen Furies, designed by Build with photography by Timothy Saccenti. Images courtesy of Build

With such a diverse back catalogue, you might wonder where a musician like Squarepusher – once described as the Dr Frankenstein of electronica by NME – finds inspiration, particularly when it comes to mixing sound and image. He’s reluctant to name too many artists, but cites 1970s and 80s television as a key influence growing up – namely, the cheerful children’s show, Rainbow.

“It’s a bit of an abstract contribution, but Rainbow was the sort of fare that was available to children of my generation and fascinated me as a child,” he says. “The majority of it was daft teddy bears running around, but there was a bit in the programme that always stuck with me, because it was so different to the rest…a sequence in the programme where the screen would just go grey and an image would gradually piece itself together,” he says.

“It’d just be some mundane thing like a house or a fire engine, but the way in which it pieced together would absolutely enthral me…and the thing that really stayed with me was the sound design,” adds Jenkinson. “It’d be accompanied by some kind of sound and then suddenly a new black square would appear, so each visual event was accompanied by a sonic one. To my little mind, there was a beautiful synergy between the two,” he says. “It was a little window into a world that no-one else had really provided, with sounds presented in a manner which I later discovered in musique concrete [an experimental form of audio collage, pioneered by composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen].”

Microsite designed by We Make Awesome Shit to promote new album Damogen Furies

“The first time I listened to Stockhausen I thought, ‘It’s like the stuff that used to fascinate me as a child’. It had provided a big source of inspiration for my musical outlook, without formally knowing about it,” he adds.

“Another thing I used to adore was the canned laughter on TV,” he adds. “If you listen to it, it’s almost the same laughter every time you hear it, and there’s something very unnvering and spooky about that, which I picked up on as a child. Often, it would digitally stop when a presenter came on, and you’d have this strange event where the sound stopped absolutely dead, coming to an impossibly quick standstill…It’s not the most auspicious source of inspiration, but I found it fascinating to have this real world sound that could find this unreal conclusion – that dissonance of real event and unreal processing, which in a way, could be said to be the backbone of my work,” he adds.

Damogen Furies is out now on Warp Records.

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