Growing up in a small northern town, experimental sound artist Robin the Fog would tape the crackly transmissions of pirate radio, desperate to be part of a scene that was anywhere but here.
20-odd years later, he's taking these imperfect recordings as source material for new work. He spoke to Helen Frosi about the project and shared a composition, 'Yes, Damage!!'.
SOUND - Robin the Fog
I find myself sitting in the studio of sound artist and radio producer, Robin the Fog, wide-eyed at his immense record collection of over 3000 vinyls. Robin has collected music since he was 13 years old. Latterly, he has added radiophonic recordings and sound effects to his collection of hardcore, jungle, musique concréte.
His own pieces range from field recording and radiophonic composition to documentary sound design. Alongside Chris Weaver as Howlround, his performances involve live tape loop and machine manipulation.
While listening to tunes from our 90s childhoods, Robin hands me an inconspicuous cassette tape, scrawled on in biro and nestled within a smashed case, and urges me to listen…
Tell me how this well-loved cassette tape came into your possession?
It’s a beautifully crackly tape made 22 years ago from a recording of a now-defunct pirate station, Pressure FM, using an already quite shaky transmitter. Made for me by a family friend, it became one of the very few documents of the scene that I managed to get hold of, living in a small town up north. So it quickly assumed the nature of a sacred artefact! As well as an occasionally faltering and distorted original signal, the tape was played to death throughout my teenage years. Playing it now sounds like listening through soup!
Tape as sacred artefact! How has its content influenced and inspired you over the years?
The tape is a lovely commentary on the fragile nature of physical sound-carriers, passing cultural trends and slowly vanishing memory. In fact, I deliberately never digitised it as I was fascinated by tracking its decay as I continuously played it back.
I've obsessively searched online, but not managed to find any reference to this particular DJ or much about the station. This slowly degrading tape is entirely likely to be the only document of this broadcast – and perhaps the career of DJ Damage and his unnamed MC, the duo bringing us all this thrilling noise. Perhaps they disappeared into the ether once the tape ran out?
I’m also curious at how well this type of music lends itself to that heavily-compressed pirate radio sound but also to the hissy and occasionally wobbly sound of an over-played cassette! Over time the whole thing has mulched together quite beautifully.
You’ve recently made a new work, ‘Yes, Damage!!’ from the tape. What were the main influences behind the piece?
In using the cassette as source material for the creation of new work, I wanted to pay homage to the history of tower-block pirate radio culture and to the music it contained, for the continuing role it has played in shaping my attitudes to music and sound. Everything I love about electronic music can be found here. Listening to this tape made me realise that it was very well owning the 12” singles that Damage was pulling out of his bag, but the real thrill comes from hearing them being blended together on the fly, complete with slightly dodgy scratching, keys clashing and the ever-present threat of an imminent ‘trainwreck’!
That leads me to ask, how have you moved beyond the original material?
‘Yes, Damage!!’ embraces the way the artefact, and my relationship with it, has changed over time, including the gradual process of decay that twenty plus years and constant playing inevitably causes.
I also wanted to explore the idea of maintaining an equilibrium. Much of my live work involves juggling a number of wobbling, entangling tape loops in constant motion through a quartet of elderly, protesting machines, with the results being mixed in situ during the performance. This process is not unlike the work Damage puts in on the Pressure FM tape, running lengthy, elongated mixes where he attempts to hold two complex records in sync for extended periods of time, and I wanted to emulate that, and abstract aesthetically interesting elements from the tape.
The referencing of popular culture and hat-tipping to both retro and progressive audio culture is so prevalent when I listen to your work. Could you talk about your voracious appetite for sonic worlds and cultures that may, on first listening, seem quite disparate?
It’s taken me a long time to join the dots. The hardcore and jungle music of my teenage years can trace a direct, though perhaps unwitting, lineage back to the likes of Pierre Schaeffer, Pierre Henry and the traditions of musique concréte – treating samples as acousmatic blocks of sound to be combined, juxtaposed and twisted into new shapes and finding the musical value in all sounds, not just those of a musical origin.
The Rufige Cru track ‘Krisp Biscuit’ is a prime example of this, the way the sounds seem to bump, knock, smack and squelch around each other. By today’s standards it sounds almost primitive. There were many others working in that field at the time, but this example features on the original Pressure FM tape. It’s funky as hell while retaining the rough edges of a gleeful experiment. Like the best hardcore there’s an abrasive rudeness to it, like listening to a drum machine falling down a flight of stairs!
Everything I love about musique concréte now mirrors what I loved about jungle then, and it strikes me that their mutual embracing of contemporary advances in technology – creating compositions that could only ever exist “inside the machine”; a Frankenstein approach to composition – provides a direct link across the decades.
The Frankenstein approach – meaning music is more than the sum of its parts?
Hip hop and sample culture came first, not to mention house and techno, but to my ears jungle went further, going beyond simply referencing the source material to transforming it into new shapes or, in the case of Rufige Cru, really putting it through the blender! In previous decades, first Kraftwerk and then Detroit techno imagined the future as a sleek and glistening cityscape, but there’s something much more satisfying (not to mention strangely British) about taking those sounds and bludgeoning them into submission.
Tell me about the appropriation of time in your work: looping and stretching, layering, deleting...
A quote from the sleeve-notes of A Guy Called Gerald’s seminal 1995 album Black Secret Technology, comes to mind: “We have advanced to a level where we control time sonically by stretching a sound – we play with time.” It sounds obvious now in an age where you’re able to curate your entire existence online, but I remember thinking about that a lot and became excited by the idea.
My live performances as Howlround take on an almost sculptural aspect with their precarious criss-crossing of tape-loops stretched across venues while my creative partner, Chris Weaver, and I are forced to maintain a balance of chaotic and improvised performance art.
It’s a discovery I’ve rather made backwards. Placing sounds back into the physical realm and attacking them with razor blades and splicing tape rather than cutting them up on a computer opens up all kinds of new creative possibilities and, yes, plays with time, sometimes repeating a single instance over and over again until it has lost its bearings completely and been transformed. It takes you out of your comfort zone, which is a good thing.
Finally, you use your bedroom as studio, a place for making recordings, experimentation and for listening to music. Do you feel you are following a tradition of bedroom labels and producers?
Much of my formative years were spent in my room listening to music and, apart from life becoming an awful lot busier, little has really changed since then. I wouldn’t describe it as any kind of desire for isolation. It was merely being happy with my own company.
As a teenager I couldn’t wait to be old enough and correctly geographically located enough to consume this music in the circumstances for which it was invented: the rave. But by the time I was old enough to start going to these events, the scene and the music had changed. The drum'n'bass and UK garage sounds that followed left me cold and somehow the MC had come to prominence over the DJ.
Although I’ve had plenty of great nights out over the years, I still feel that it’s on my own that I can really listen and engage with the music. I’m the first to admit that doesn’t make much sense, but there you have it! “You must be off your head when you listen to this stuff,” was a frequent comment from classmates at the time, and it’s a curious truth that people’s attitudes haven’t changed that much in the 25 years since ‘Krisp Biscuit’ got its first reload. The answer was the same then as it is now: this music has always been enough. Neither of us required any modification.
I currently live in South London and my room doesn’t differ a great deal from my teenage bedroom, except there’s now several thousand more records, numerous tape machines in various states of dilapidation, tape loops everywhere and a couple of teetering bookcases.
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