David Babbitt spoke with Mark Spybey about how technology has changed creative networking, playing toys without playing with them and always shooting the same view from a passing train.
I think I have open ears and eyes. I am still discovering new music from the past that bypassed my senses and it’s just beautiful.
What is your day job? Have you always held employment outside of your musical career?
I have always had a day job, thankfully. If I did not, I would likely be destitute. Some time ago, I made a decision not to talk about it. So sincere apologies, I’m not going to talk about it.
Does it influence your collaborations? And vice versa.
No. Vice versa. No.
You are from the Midlands of England and lived for sometime on the west coast of Canada. How did the different cultures of these places influence your creative work?
I am from the North East of England! Big difference, but I’ll let you off as you’re from the Midwest of America! On a whim, we moved to the west coast of Canada. It was only while I lived there that I came to realize how important the landscape and the ground of my youth is. Actually, it was friend, writer and guitarist Alexander Varty who said that to me. I confess I hadn’t really thought about it before, but I think he may be right. He came to my loft and we were listening to an album by Thomas Köner called Kaamos, and this this dense, grey beauty filled the bare bones of our apartment, which was close to downtown and it blended perfectly with the street sounds outside. He told me that he thought my music was about the landscape of the North East of England, and that his father was from there, and it clicked. I think I am influenced by the landscape that I know.
Musically, I was definitely of the “I am not a musician” school. In fact, I have felt a little intimidated by musicians and at times developed somewhat of an avoidance of them. I hit my teenage years at the time of punk in the late ’70s, and I guess this was like being brought up in the ’50s and discovering Elvis. There was a hint of rebellion in the air. So I disowned the idea of “musicianship”, even though I played with some folks for a while who valued this and decided that the way to go was DIY — cheap and disposable. So culturally, I felt an affinity to the values of punk and what happened after it. I think my “culture” was profoundly influenced by my teenage years and by discovering all sorts of music, visual art, drama and poetry. I think I have open ears and eyes. I am still discovering new music from the past that bypassed my senses and it’s just beautiful.
By the way, there are a few things you might want to know about the North East of England. It’s beautiful, in a ragged, desolate kind of way. It’s highly industrialized, although a lot of the traditional industries are no longer with us. You’re never more than 15 minutes away from silence and beauty: green hills, bleak moors, the cold grey sea, steep river valleys and quaint villages. The beauty is raw. It’s grey and green. It rains a lot and sunshine is at a premium. The people are warm and friendly. We hunch our backs when we walk, in part because it’s protection from the wind and rain that blows in fits and starts from the South West or from the North Sea, but also because we know our place. We’re from generations of working-class people who have been systematically exploited by the privileged few. I love it here. It’s so different than Vancouver, which is a pretty shitty city, and I mean that in a nice way. It’s very beautiful, but the beauty is undermined by the way that people are treated. If you have money, it’s possibly one of the best places in the world to live. If you have little money, it’s likely not the worst but it’s far from great. In the UK, I think we take care of each other, despite or in spite of the way we govern ourselves. Vancouver was all about the people I met and their openness and desire to collaborate. I don’t think I was influenced by the landscape, as pretty as it is. I didn’t feel the same level of attachment to it.
Most musicians pretty much stick to one or two roles in a band and stick to one band at a time. Your collaborations and positions in ‘bands’ seems to be different every time out. Where would you say this adaptability springs from?
I cannot play anything particularly well. I can only really play the drums. So I approach music-making from a naïve position and a vulnerable one. I guess I find a role, but I wouldn’t say I am a singer, and I’m a very reluctant front-person. I enjoy playing with others and believe in the ensemble. Sorry to say, I kind of distrust singers to be honest, or maybe I’m just intimidated by them. I think antics are usually tired and clichéd. Iggy and a few notable others did it best a very long time ago. I do love to improvise with others and collaborations that usually, but not always, grow out of time spent together, playing together.
If you take Download, for example, I started making music with cEvin Key in my living room. We had a four-track tape recorder, a rented effects unit, some contact microphones, a handful of ethnic instruments and household objects. A friend lent me a synthesizer that I could only get ugly squeaks out of, but cEvin tamed it with ease. We recorded several times together and eventually he invited me to the studio and over time we just worked together more with Dwayne Goettel and Phil Western. We put the miles in, enjoyed each other’s company and learnt to play together.
I think nowadays, with an increasing reliance on file shares, a lot of my work is done with other people’s sounds, and I like that. I try to find my way. I try to find a place for my sounds or my voice. Sometimes I hear words, and I will write words and sing. Sometimes I just mix the material and sometimes I radically rework it. I find my way. I’d like to think my work is about treating others work with care and respect, but I’m not sure that is the always the case. Over the years, I can only think of one recording project offhand where it hasn’t worked. Live, it sometimes fails, as I will invite others to work with me at the drop of a hat, but I kind of feel energized by the prospect of failure.
I’m a bit of a tyrant sometimes, too. I usually feel the need to have the final say and I know that’s not always a good trait, but yeah, I’ve put in the miles. I find my way. I have learnt a lot by working with some people I really admire: too many people to mention.
In some projects you are the singer; in others, you’re a musician backing up someone in fairly traditional “band” roles: Download, Beehatch, the Damo Suzuki band. Then there are your collectives: Zoviet-France, Reformed Faction, Spasm, Pigface and many collaborative releases where your role and the roles of others are all over the place. In Dead Voices On Air, your long-running project, aspects of all of the above structures make appearances. When I step back and observe your body of work, you seem to be exploring the process of creativity itself. Or am I just reading into happenstance?
You’re right. When I started this journey, I was preoccupied with the act of being creative. I felt its benefits and could feel how liberating it was/is. Not just for myself, but for others to work in a way that allows you to be yourself and to learn more about yourself, others and the world around you. I still feel excited about that. I have just ended up in situations that have been ridiculously exciting. Happenstance.
As a Can fan, I ended up supporting Damo Suzuki and Michael Karoli on a US tour. I can see how that happened; it was a case of so-and-so introduced me to so-and-so who told me about so-and-so, who I met and befriended and the next thing you know, I’m being asked to play with Damo and Michael. I can remember the first time I met and heard Michael play the guitar. It was in this less-than-salubrious club in New York; we’d just arrived, first show, wet around the ears, and I went into the venue and Michael was soundchecking. All I could think was, “That guy plays the guitar like Michael Karoli.” It had an unreal feeling, like, what am I doing here?
Gerard Malanga from Warhol’s Factory was there taking photographs. Unreal. It was a dream come true, as clichéd as that sounds. I joined Zoviet-France because I met one of the members via the animal rights movement. Happenstance. It clicked, for a short time at least. I think, as a “musician,’” and I’m stretching the word there, I need to feel an affinity to the person I work with or at least feel excited about the prospect of working together. There has to be a connection. You have to know your role, too, and play by the rules. I learnt that from Michael Karoli. Be sensitive to those you work with and work with them, don’t try to compete. Support them. Care for them. It doesn’t always work.
How have changes in technology over the years affected the networking involved in turning up collaborators?
It’s just made it a lot easier, more immediate. I think in the past we relied on the mail, sending DATs and cassettes. If you think about it, within minutes now we can unzip a file and start working on it. I’ve always embraced technology, although I rarely understand it and never waste time on mastering it. It’s one of our “un-rules.” Everything can be appropriated. That goes back to the days of Zoviet-France and it’s a philosophy that Robin Storey and I have continued to embrace as Reformed Faction. Micro-composing.
A loud conversation in a public place sometimes seems overwhelming; that awful bleeding sound from earphones on public transport is just hideous! I think sound emission should be taxed!
In DVOA do the collaborators look to you as the “leader”, not unlike in free jazz where the same core of people will play on each others’ records?
I think I’m not in the best place to answer that question. Somewhat regrettably, I’d say that I do act like the leader. Although I’ve collaborated with dozens of people on DVOA records and live, I increasingly feel that ultimately it’s my project and my responsibility.
I like the free jazz analogy. I am not sure bands often work that well to be honest, as one is constantly having to manage the dynamics: the more people, the more drama. I like two-piece bands! Three-piece bands are like triangles; each side is entirely dependent on each other. I think it works best when one leaves the ego at the door. It’s not always easy to do that. I think I’ve steered clear of people whose egos seem or feel more important than the music.
Sometimes I have learnt this too late, but it’s all trial-and-error. Nothing ventured. I have often found myself playing the role of mediator — or perhaps, counselor — which doesn’t always sit with me easily, to be honest. But in pressured situations, I either manage it or make it a whole lot worse. I hope I’ve become easier to work with over the years, but you’re probably best asking other people that!
I hope I have managed to create opportunities for some people and I’m sincerely, very grateful for the dedication, care and support people have shown over the years. Folks who fly themselves out to a city to play with me; they know who they are, and I love them all dearly. We do all of this because we can and because we want to. I’d do the same for them.
How does listening and knowing where and how to fit in sound and otherwise in the collaborations you do change with your DVOA work? How do these skills affect your day to day life outside of music?
I’ll answer the second part of this really interesting question first. I am very attentive and sensitive to sounds in general, and feel overwhelmed when I can’t control them. So a loud conversation in a public place sometimes seems overwhelming; that awful bleeding sound from earphones on public transport is just hideous! I think sound emission should be taxed! It’s about being pro-social. I sound old. For me it is all about playing the right card at the right time. It’s about tactics, and I think that bleeds into how I live my life.
For me, listening is critical. I can remember seeing one of my favorite improvising bands AMM playing several times in Vancouver and I was fascinated by the pianist John Tilbury, who would sit for what seemed like an eternity before venturing to make a contribution. Just as it seemed he was ready to play, he would often pause again and wait, and if the moment was not right, he wouldn’t play. It happens in most great ensembles. I’ve watched a lot of Miles Davis and he did exactly the same. I think the key thing is to listen, to play with people who leave holes or spaces in the music and to find a place to play that works. It’s not as easy as it sounds. I’m lucky, I’ve worked with some people who are masters of this and it all comes back to listening. Active listening.
I was asked to play as DVOA in Germany recently at a festival, and I got the gig because of some friends who had released something by me. I didn’t think too much about the show until a couple of weeks before it and in conversation online, invited my friends to work with me at the show as they were going to be there. We had never played together before. We exchanged a few messages and a week before FaceTimed each other and spoke about how we might approach the show. I don’t know if I made too much sense; at times I think I might sound a bit like Martin Hannett, you know, “Play something fast but slow.” Michael Karoli often spoke like that, but I think attentive, sensitive musicians or players understand that kind of language. It’s instinctive.
I think that is how I work. If I feel affinity to people, I have confidence that we can do something together that we will feel satisfied by and it’s the greatest feeling when it works. On this occasion it did, it was a memorable show. Same thing happened with the band Orbit Service when we played in New Mexico a couple of years ago. We hadn’t played together before, we talked about what we might do, soundchecked and it worked and the show was just great. On that occasion we were creating songs and they were using more conventional instruments like bass and guitar. Lot’s of shared vocals too. With DVOA, it’s almost always an adventure.
I know you will say others were doing it before you, and sure, most kids made a racket playing with toys. You haven’t stopped playing with toys and have taken your toys to a level all your own. How did you start playing toys? (Notice there’s no “with”.) Is there a connection to childhood and/or the childlike head-space?
Thank you for your kind words. I choose to play toys because they don’t require a great deal of musical skill or technique to master. That, to me, kind of levels the playing field. I would like to think this creates opportunity to feel and act in a less restrained way. I suspect technique hinders creativity. I hear of great and accomplished musicians who speak of “unlearning” in order to get to the point where they can play in a more instinctive, childlike way. Maturity and education seem to diminish the capacity to be creative, to act in an unfettered way. Didn’t Picasso say something similar? If he did, then it’s good enough for me.
Unlike your musical output, your photography is very focused. Is this a decided route?
Well, my photography is accidental! The camera on an iPhone is incredibly simple to use. I avoid learning how to use gadgets like the plague. I never read manuals and if things are too complicated, I don’t touch them. So I started to take photographs as a way of livening up my commute, which just happens to whiz through some really beautiful landscapes and the English weather changes so often that every day feels like a new day.
I think my photography is focused because I almost always shoot the same views from a fast-moving train. In fact, I kind of haven’t really been that excited by shots that I have taken on my travels to other places. I think I capture something about the landscape I know well and at the moment, it feels like the output from my photography is as important to me as my music.
I avoid telling stories, or at least I tend to avoid telling literal stories. I have always believed that there is beauty and power in creating an opportunity for the listener to make sense of music.
Building on the previous question, do you establish parameters for your projects, consciously or otherwise?
Yes, but rarely conceptual parameters. There are some exceptions. For example, on a couple of records I did with The Gnome, we would agree “no rhythms.” That sort of sets the tone. I avoid telling stories, or at least I tend to avoid telling literal stories. I have always believed that there is beauty and power in creating an opportunity for the listener to make sense of music. I find that kind of liberating or dare I say it, empowering?
Looking back over your career, how have your motivations changed, if at all?
Just when I think I have slowed down, I speed up. Slow but fast. I go through periods where I don’t feel compelled to make music, but I think that’s always been the case. I’ve just emerged from one of those periods and I confess that in the midst of it, I was thinking, “Why do I do this, anyway?” Then I played that show in Germany and I have my co-conspirators Ralf Gatzen and Dirk Geiger to thank for getting me out of my slump. One week later, I had recorded more than an hour of new material with their help and encouragement.
I need people to work with, although I suspect I do my most concentrated work in the studio when I have time to be by myself. I’m just a mass of contradictions. I’d say, on reflection, that I don’t have to make music or to be creative; I need to. So if I’m not making music, I’m making something else.
What has traveling and working with folks from all over revealed about the world at large?
I think my worldview is limited. I guess I choose to limit it. I am not sure I enjoy traveling that much anymore and there are places I have little or no desire to go to. I love the North American road trip diner experience. I love Europe, especially the East. I think of myself as a European and love the absence of borders between countries. This is but one of the many reasons why I am still so angry about Brexit. I’ve got those Brexit blues.
Curated by: David Babbitt
Conducted by: Email
Edited by: Morgan Enos
Published: May 22, 2018
Total questions: 13
Word count: 3242
Reading time: Twelve minutes
accident, beauty, Beehatch, bleeding, bypass, cEvin Key, conversation, Damo Suzuki, David Babbitt, Dead Voices on Air, desolate, download, Dwayne Goettel, earphone, emission, empowerment, England, Europe, experimental, feeling, free jazz, industrial, literal, Mark Spybey, Martin Hannett, North Sea, opportunity, overwhelming, performance, Phil Western, photography, pressure, public, ragged, satisfaction, situation, story, technology, The Gnome, Thomas Köner, transport, tyrant, United Kingdom, Vancouver, worldview, Zoviet-France
About the curator
David Babbitt has lived and worked on the indie side of music, art and design for nearly thirty years. He has DJed, designed and screen printed for Wax Trax! with Interzone and was Touch And Go Records’ celebrated art director. He is also a student and teacher of Aikido and Iaido, two practices on the spiritual side of the martial arts spectrum.
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