British producer Christopher Steven Clark, or Clark for short, is one of the heroes of the experimental dance music world. Having released seven albums on Warp Records, Clark has built a reputation as one of the most forward thinking producers of his time, creating tense electronica that struggles between a sense of natural wonder and exuberance and dark, foreboding undercurrents.
On the back of the release of his stunning new self-titled album, Clark has travelled down-under to showcase his new work at a number of free Red Bull Music Academy parties. Liveschool trainer George Nicholas (Seekae/Cliques) conducted this Clark interview ahead of his Sydney show at Goodgod Small Club to pick his brains on his recent working habits, approach to making tracks and stunning new live show.
If you’re in Melbourne, Adelaide or Fremantle make sure to catch his free performances on the 23rd, 24th & 25th of January, presented by Red Bull Music Academy. RSVP here.
George: What’s been keeping you busy over the last few months?
Chris (CLARK): Just gigs, really, mainly just gigs and making new music. It’s been really good. It’s been pretty flat out – I don’t really have off days of the moment.
G: I saw some time ago you did a live studio performance of some of the tracks from Iradelphic in which you had a desk and a bunch of outboard gear. Are you touring around with similar gear for shows and writing?
C: No, just my last album was basically just a laptop and some synths that I hired. I’m not really like into fetishising gear. There are some things that I use that I’m really into – there’s that sweet spot where you know the gear really well, but then you can get sucked into just buying stuff for the sake of it. And I’m a firm believer in ideas you know, like one good idea is worth a studios worth of equipment -or more you know? I just like simplifying stuff.
G: Do you usually formulate musical ideas in your head and know what they will sound like, or do ideas begin to form almost by accident once you begin experimenting with equipment?
C: I don’t think I do know fully…I guess you have a clear idea, but then you allow that to evolve as the process goes on. I think if you knew exactly how it would turn out there wouldn’t be much point to it. You do have an expectation, but then it’s that thing of allowing happy accidents do happen. Basically all the good stuff generally comes from just giving yourself space for happy accidents and freedom and being able to spot them and chisel away at them until they become – you know, what’s the opposite of an accident? Kind of a quite manipulated and controlled accident.
G: Is that a large part of your process? Of creating and refining, effecting, manipulating and resampling over and over?
C: It is, yeah. It’s also just relentlessly getting rid of stuff that isn’t up to snuff. That’s part of it. The kind of generative side of it is really easy, and actually it’s dangerous because you can kid yourself into thinking you are working just by churning out loads of material. That’s not a problem, but it’s about deciding what you actually include in your releases – you’ve just got to be as ruthless as you can I think in this regard.
I really like deleting stuff. I like the feeling of writing something and then thinking, “that’s bullshit! I’m deleting that”. I don’t ever feel insecure and I’ve never had a problem with being quite hard on myself with stuff like that. I’ve got so many different things on the go that one little idea not quite being up to scratch doesn’t make much difference in the big picture of what I’m doing. There’s always tracks that I kind of work on throughout the year, that gradually get finished and then there’s the sort of immediate / direct ones that you just bash out for a live show. So I don’t know, it’s a nice balance at the moment – of stuff that I labour over, and then stuff that I’m really a bit flippant about – that you probably wouldn’t release, but you would play live. It’s kind of a nice little world to be in – not too precious so you don’t overwork something, but also having nice things to work on for ages.
G: So do you think that confidence in being able to just create lots and lots of content comes from developing a methodology over long period of time and understanding your writing process?
C: I think it comes definitely from what other people would see as patience, but I don’t really see it as patience. I just see it more as compulsive weird behaviour. I’ve got a friend who’s sort of seems to think I’m really disciplined and that I’ve got this like inhuman patience, but I don’t think I have. I think I just get pulled in by music very quickly and before you know it, you’ve written something and the day has gone by and I’ve just done that for years now. So it just feels a bit like second nature – I don’t see it as patience really.
G: Just obsessive in some way, maybe?
C: Yeah, probably. My friend’s really the same with the piano, he’ll just play it all day and get really good, but he doesn’t see it as work. It’s just what he does.
Sometimes though, when I do learn new things, I realise that I can’t work as long on stuff if I’m learning really intensely. I can’t remember exactly, but I think it’s like you get like four hours of peak brain power a day – and that’s across the board no matter how bright or – not bright you are. You can operate, but then your brain just goes “nah, no way”. So although I can work all day on music, the period of focus is actually quite narrow and then you’re just like tootling about. Does that make sense?
I’ve noticed memory comes into it a lot as well. I had some shows where I had really early flights and just not enough sleep and it’s so bizarre how that affects the writing process. I just couldn’t remember as much musical information when I was arranging something. It was like my brain had shrunk to a floppy disk size memory. But weirdly, I think it kind of made the music more vibey because you are just like some sort of a dumb cat – you’re just like an animal who’s just into pure vibes. So you just end up making lyrics and just getting into loops because you just can’t be arsed to arrange anything. But if you want to do anything with a bit more ambition, I guess you need (a fully functioning) memory. It’s a pretty boring thing to point out, but it’s weird when you experience it. It’s quite frightening – you think “Shit, I’ve got to look after my brain”.
G: I guess in a kind of paradoxical way that allows you a certain freedom to be flippant in making music and to make something that gives you an instantaneous response, rather than overthinking everything.
C: Yeah I think so. I think you realise that a lot of it is about speed. I’m interested in what your brain does – like when I try and imagine a kick drum, in my mind it feels like about three things that I’m considering, but there’s actually probably about 300 little things that are intuitive. And when I’m working with the machines, I know the interface and I’ll be pulling stuff up and it’ll feel really quick, but it’s weird that a lot of that is actually muscle memory. Just over the years it becomes intuitive. I guess what I’m saying is, when I had this moment where I hadn’t had any sleep and that all fell apart, I was like, “Oh God, I feel about 12 again”, and I was just thinking like “9….0….9….what’s that again? Oh that’s a drum machine.” It’s just horrible.
G: In terms of writing, where does Ableton Live come into the picture? Is most of the experimentation happening within Ableton? Or is it like a tape machine and you’re sequencing is elsewhere?
C: No, it’s all in Ableton. The reason I started using it was like…I’ll just try and give you the short version. Before I wrote the album, I did a thing with my girlfriend – she choreographed something and I was doing lots of recording of her movement – she’s a dancer – and Ableton was just amazing because you can just do everything in real time. I had microphones all around the room, like several inputs being used and the granulator and the looper and a few Max for Live things that I built. So I was doing this with her and there was a bit of a ‘Eureka’ moment because you can do all of that live in Ableton – it doesn’t even hiccup. It was like, “what the fuck is going on here – this is amazing!” Because in Logic or other programs, you get glitches when you arm record and it just seems a bit backward. Ableton’s the first thing I’ve used that is very tight where that’s concerned. So I just learned that really quickly and wrote the album, basically in Ableton. But I didn’t really know Ableton until – I guess it was exactly this time last year – I had used it for live shows, but not very extensively.
G: I saw your live show a couple of months ago in Utrecht, which was fantastic. But it was difficult to tell exactly what you were doing on stage. Could you talk me through your setup?
C: It’s an MFB drum machine and Ableton just playing clips of tracks I’ve re-arranged. There are sections where it’s pretty improvised, but it’s kind of improvised within quite a tight framework. I want it to have distinct signature points and different peaks within the set, but there’s always quite a lot of room to stretch it around those points and change it a bit every night.
Though I’m into keeping it quite similar from show to show. I don’t want people to go and see exactly the same show – that would be terrible actually – but I like the idea of being able to hone the structure night after night and it gets better and better as you do a tour. The show starts in one place and it ends up completely different, but you do need those tent poles to pin stuff on, I think.
G: Yeah, sometimes it might be more exciting for you as a performer doing something completely differently, but for the audience, maybe they just want to see the best possible rendition of it, rather than you changing it up just because you’re getting bored of doing the same thing night after night.
C: Yeah, totally. That’s it, there’s an element of it where you feel like you’ve got to do the equivalent of guitar solo, but sometimes it’s best just to play in the pocket.
G: How faithful do you try and be to the records in your live performance?
C: Quite faithful, but with sort of appendages. They are kind of like a Frankenstein versions of the album tracks – there a bit doctored and extended. I think you can play music much longer live than you can on an album. That’s been a discovery for me over the years – that you can just get away with jamming stuff out a lot longer when performing live I think.
G: Yeah. At least for me at your Utrecht show, the tracks seemed like you’d changed them so they were a bit more suitable for like a club context. Is that the thinking?
C: Yeah, definitely. I think when you make an album, it’s this artifact that’s going to be in the world forever and every second of it has to be resilient to scrutiny – the way it changes and whether people get bored. There’s a lot of fine tuning in that. But a live show it’s a one off thing where you got more space to explore things in, I guess.
G: You probably get asked this question all the time, but what’s your favourite piece of gear? Hardware or software – something that straight away blew your socks off.
C: To be honest, probably this rifle mic that I’ve got – a Sennheiser 8060. I remember just sampling some hinges on my door at 192K and then slowing it down by 4x speed. Because you got all the resolution there’s no aliasing or anything, it just sounds so clean. So then if you do that on tape, it just opens up this whole world of sounds. I remember doing synths and I’ve got quite a short reverb time in my studio but then when you slow it down, it’s like the reverb’s huge – it sounds like it’s in a hall. And it doesn’t sound aliased or nasty either. So probably that’s my favourite bit of gear – I just love Sennheiser mics, they’ve got this top-end sheen that’s just so slick. It’s amazing.
G: So the last question I had was – If you could go back in time and give yourself a piece of advice at the point where you started getting more serious about making music, what would that be?
C: I don’t know. It’s quite a good question, actually. The rule of five – that’s quite good. The rule of five – five things in a track. Or even just five tracks. Just five! It’s a good number to focus on and it’s a good time signature to learn as well.
It’s one of my favourite numbers. I love writing music and then hearing and listening back to it in a really critical, analytical way afterward because when I write it, I’m just kind of in the moment and not analysing it at all. But when I listen back there’s lots of five going on in my stuff. I don’t know why, but it’s there.
G: Yeah, right. I noticed that in a lot of your tracks lot’s of the sequences – especially the melodic sequences – don’t usually line up with the percussive ones. Is that something that comes from modular synthesis?
C: I think this sort of relates to what I was saying earlier – it’s just one of those things that happens in your mind. It’s like an internal thing that you end up translating into the equipment you use. I don’t think it’s necessarily defined by the equipment you use – my sequences always just end up sounding like that. I just do stuff in 4/4, but it always ends up being quite polyrhythmic – it’s not something I will intentionally do, it just ends up like that.
Clark Australian Tour Dates:
FRI JAN 23 – Melbourne Boney
SAT JAN 24 – Adelaide – Rocket Bar
SUN JAN 25 – Perth – Mojo’s Bar
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