If there is a "Squarepusher sound," it would be best described as the battle between digital decay and analog ingenuity. But, since 2004's Ultravisitor, Tom Jenkinson's (aka Squarepusher) absolute fixation with the bass guitar has all but defined his work. On Ufabulum, the 13th full-length from the Essex, UK marvel, Jenkinson packs up and leaves his comfort zone for a warmer digital embrace. Originally envisioned as a companion piece to his visually stunning, LED-laden live show, Ufabulum shows Squarepusher pushing forward some of his leanest, most unfurled compositions to date. When it's all said and done, Ufabulum isn't the great emancipating departure people make it out to be, but it does express just how inspired this legend can still sound.
Where are you right now?
I'm in Austria; I'm playing a festival tomorrow night.
And this is one of your first shows for the new tour, correct?
We've done five now, so this will be number six.
Are you feeling the buzz around your new album? Because there certainly seems to be one.
Actually, funnily enough, there's one thing that is quite good, because it's statistically based, rather than based on hypothesis or chat. The album is number 16 in Japan, which is good, on the main chart, which also incorporates all of their domestic Japanese pop music and all international releases. For someone who's not going out of their way to form or generate a nice, concise or polite musical product, that seems quite remarkable, to me.
What's your take on the overall buzz, internationally?
I have to say I probably could extract something from it, but partly, I've been on the road, so I haven't really been able to look at any particular pieces of information that have been flying around. But, in all honesty, I don't tend to do that anyway. At the start of my career, I had a little bit more of the arrogance of youth, I suppose, and I used to occasionally check out reviews, particularly if someone told me there was a good one. It has its pluses and minuses, but I tend to stay clear of the general hubbub about music, whether it's about my music or someone else's. I think partly because my introduction to the world of music was a very singular affair. I used to just listen to music on my own on the radio or tapes I would find lying around the house; it was a very personally, specific investigation. I didn't know anyone, besides my parents, obviously, but certainly amongst my friends, I didn't know anyone who liked music. It took about ten years, when I became a teenager, until my friends and people around me started to become interested in music. But by that point, a lot of my mentality had been formed, in the sense that I was used to "going it alone," finding out things and just going with my response.
I had the impression that this album was sort of a response to, not only the musical landscape of the moment, but also the type of music you had been making over the last six or seven years.
I'm always keen on interpretation and on the other hand, I'm always keen not to tell people if they're right or wrong. I really like to foster intelligent speculation and criticism; I don't like to shut it down by saying, "Well, here's the answer and that's the end of the story." Maybe some people would see that as evasive or being difficult, but I see it as a mark of respect for them. I don't know if people have speculated, but there is one thing that I wouldn't shy away from saying. Regarding my work, I got to the point where I was sick of playing instruments, making music that depended on live instrumental playing, having to sit down in the studio and having to rattle out takes on a guitar, drum kit, keyboard or what have you. I think in addition to engineering it myself and trying to keep a producer's eye on the whole thing, that it's extremely hard work. So doing this album is certainly reactionary, in that I wanted to get away from that method. It'll always be a part of my work ― the live playing. I love the craft of playing instruments and I think it always acts as a good reference point, for me, when I'm programming because one shows you a lot about the other, even if it's kind of in a negative way, where that instrument shows you what the other ones can't do. So, for me, at the moment, doing this record is sort of like a holiday, in a way, because in a lot of ways, it's kind of a lot easier. If you fuck it up you can just go back and change it and you've always got time to kind of rearrange things.
Is there a piece of software that you would associate with this album? Something that shaped the sound?
It's an interesting point; I'm trying to think, "What would be the central piece of gear?" I suppose it's the sequencer, that's where all of the brainpower goes… although, I say that [exhales]… yeah, it's probably the sequencer. It's the central hub of the whole thing; it's where the instructions go out to all of the other pieces of gear to tell them what to do. Seventy percent of the time making the record is spent staring at the sequencer, which isn't the most pleasant way to spend your time.
That's interesting, because your music sounds like most of the work went into the editing process.
In fact, these are very much live takes ― running all of the gear in the studio simultaneously from the sequencer, once it's recorded and down, there's very little editing. In the past, I have made tracks literally out of edits ― no sequencing, no playing ― but I think one of the good things about running everything from the sequencer in real time is that it's a better way to keep an overview; it's a good way to stay in charge. I find with editing, you have to try harder to keep a sense of where you're actually going with the piece as a whole. There's so much work and craft going into making music, but the curious thing is the finished product can sometimes be so removed from the process. For example, I didn't know about the absence of live instrumentation until I read about it. That's really refreshing that you say that because I dare say, I've had varying degrees of success in this regard over the years. But one of my long-standing aims is to try to make music that transcends the means by which it's made. I don't mean transcend it in any sort of mystical or spooky way, just that you're trying to get away from the traditions of instruments. Obviously, it's hard to do this entirely, but I do feel that there are ways of using instruments in manners that you do feel that you buy less into the general lexicon that surrounds them. If it's, for example, a bass guitar, then I would like to think that sometimes I could at least play that in a way that it takes you away from its traditions. And I think that if you are sitting there listening to a record continually, being reminded of the instruments, it actually limits your imaginative response; it keeps you in the real world. Maybe that's good, I don't know, but I've always just had a thing about lifting myself out of reality with music. It's like a psychedelic sort of thing, I suppose. As much as I think that psychedelic music, historically, is crap, I still like the idea of it: that something is kind of a trip or journey without… It's hard to talk about that without sounding a little bit cliché.
The video for "Dark Steering" is quite remarkable. Can you talk a bit about that?
Well, in talking about the video I will probably end up talking about the package as a whole. The video for "Dark Steering" is essentially an excerpt from the live show. One of the fundamental points I was trying to address when I was working on this project was the integration of picture and sound. So the challenge was, could I make the record and make pictures at the same time and develop a visual narrative that corresponded with the musical one? I should say that I have this thing where you have a visual response to music so it would correspond with pictures or images. What I've been trying to do, in code, is recreate those images. So, for example, a bass line, if that evoked in me simple geometric shapes and movements of those shapes, then I'd try to recreate it visually using, well, I call it a video synthesizer, but it's just a bit of software that I've been working with on and off since 2005. Another negative inspiration was the fact that so many times you would see what people refer to as "visuals" in clubs. The DJ would be playing a set and they would have some sort of collage, film footage or TV graphic, all edited and spliced together, and it would just be randomly plonked onto the audio of what the DJ was playing. But in general, you just find this unsatisfying experience where the picture doesn't really relate to the sound.
Do you have synaesthesia?
Yes, sorry, that's what I was trying to refer to; I gather that this is certainly not uncommon. The interesting thing is the variance of the experiences that people have. For example, someone might say, "This track sounds very green" and others might say, "No, that's definitely very blue." And that's one problem, almost, with my idea because I don't want to railroad anyone into having a particular response, so in one way I'm almost fighting against one of my ideals. It's one of those things where sometimes you just have to tough it out and accept that you can't please all of your ideals. I'm now presenting a show with my vision of what these tracks look like, but whether anyone would agree with that is another question. But while listening to the album, I wouldn't want to suggest to someone to keep those images in mind; they should treat it as it comes to them. So, yeah, there's a minor conflict in that.
I find it strange that you say you have synaesthesia, considering that your overall visual motif, through your music videos and album art, is based on the colours black and white.
I have to say that there is a pragmatic aspect to it as well. If you imagine being in a studio with all this visual software, there's so many options at any given point that sometimes you have to deliberately cut out options and set rules so that you don't get buried in options. On this occasion, if I had introduced colour as well, I would probably still be working on it. The other thing is that, when testing it out by using the LED hardware I want to use onstage, it's so striking in black and white that when you use colour it takes out some of the intensity. There are a number of reasons why black and white seem appropriate.
You've included a limited edition version of the new album with glow-in-the-dark print that will include the Enstrobia EP, a 12-page twelve-inch booklet, along with the download and glow-in-the-dark T-shirt package. Can you talk a bit about that?
I've varied my approach from album to album as to what I've seen as being appropriate. With some albums, I just like to put them out there, forget about it and move on. It doesn't mean that I don't think it's any good, because at some point I've had to afford it some good or otherwise I wouldn't release it at all. But on this, it really felt like the right time to make a big deal out of it. And I've realized that this is something I always try to look out for. Like when you see habits developing and unthinking responses to situations, and I'd gotten… not phobic, but very reluctant to talk to the press; I just want to make music. But I've started to step back and say, "Now, hang on a minute, this is becoming a habit." And when things become habits, the reasons why you had originally thought that have already disappeared and the habit takes over and you stop thinking about what you're doing and you just become mechanical. So I thought, "You know what, I'm just going to throw myself in and see what happens." I like the idea of making people work hard, make them think for themselves when it comes to my work. But it's part of another experiment, like, "Let's see what happens when I play the game a bit."
Read a review of Ufabulum here.