Rockerilla Magazine Interview

reproduced from interview for Rockerilla magazine article, april 2004

First of all, what's new in your life? What's Cathode today?

Well, I've spent the last week travelling the UK with a juddering little live show to support the release of "special measures". Reactions have ranged from hushed reverential silence (a show in an art gallery basement in Oxford) to full-on drunken electromayhem in the corner of a record shop (an Expanding Records night at a fine record shop named Phonica in London). Somehow I've survived with my laptop and my sanity intact.


How did you come to music? How did it all begin?

I had a Saturday job as a teenager in a second hand record shop as a 14 year old, which meant I got exposed to all kinds of terrifying and beautiful music by the people I worked with (it was "high fidelity" for adolescents). Ever since then I've been a bit obsessive about sound, and played guitar in a string of bands as I grew up, which ranged from the completely ramshackle (a garage band featuring a marvellously unhinged and noisy guitarist who later went on to play in Slowdive) to the almost-famous (an early version of Orlando, which released a single on Sarah records before the rest of the band went on to head a doomed new-romantic revival movement and make a marvellously underrated album for warner brothers). The most stable of all these outfits has been Cody, who released two albums of carefully crafted electronic pop music on Shinkansen records before that style of music became fashionable again... Over the time Cody has been developing since the mid-90s, I've become more and more immersed in electronica, and Cathode is the result.


Try to explain me your music today.
It's simply about trying to create something beautiful. For me, the thrill is often in the tension of opposites - for instance, cavernous noise verses extremely minimal fragility, or counter intuitively confusing rhythms verses a simple, straightforward melody. I love the idea of sound falling apart, but stopping short of the point where it becomes completely formless, and instead revealing something very simple or beautiful in the confusion. So I'm naturally drawn to glitchy, arhythmically cut-up sounds, of the clicks & cuts school, but want to tie it in to something more warm and emotional. That's the idea, although how the songs turn out may have travelled quite a distance from that idea by the time they're finished.


Can you tell me something about your main music influences?
Historically, my influences have been people who've done something twisted and beautiful with guitars: My Bloody Valentine, Ultra Vivid Scene, Wire, mid-period 4AD records. Recently I've been heavily influenced by modern electronic minimalists like Pan Sonic and Carsten Nicolai (Alva Noto): basically, they allow you to revel in the beautiful presence of very simple sounds through stripping texture right down to the basics. I've also more time than is currently fashionable for guitar pop - for example Felt, the Field Mice, the Magnetic Fields; the importance of melody in manipulating your emotions is underestimated in electronic music, I think, and I don't feel ashamed of the melodic content on cathode records.


"Special Measures" is your debut album. What about this experience? Are you happy? Are you satisfied? If you could change anything on it, what would it be?
I'm happy with the record: it captures the feeling I'm trying to articulate reasonably well, I think, and I feel it's diverse enough to keep people entertained, as well as not outstaying it's welcome (albums, like this one, always used to be 45 minutes long before CDs came along, and I think less is often more in terms of length where electronica is concerned). I'm also really happy working with Expanding - they have been hugely supportive of cathode, and I feel really comfortable with their corporate design and aesthetic sensibilities (with that cover photo of the world war ii sea defences in the thames estuary). If I could change anything, it might be to try to articulate the dynamics within the music a bit more clearly - to resist the temptation to fill the songs up with sound, and instead have some very minimal pieces contrasting with the richer, more orchestral moments.


How does a Cathode song start?
It could be anything... a melody, or a rhythm, or often, a concept or idea: "what would happen if I tried doing this...?" The idea of "experimental" music in its true meaning is a very attractive one, but I'm interested in experimenting within clearly defined limits (e.g. a pop song, a 4/4 rhythm) or experimenting and then manipulating the results. For instance, there's a song on the album where the melody is entirely generated by a random note generator, which is then looped and used as the basis for the rest of the song. Entirely experimental music is often academically interesting but emotionally a bit dry, so I'm interested in how to mix the two.


What are your favorite tracks in this album? And why?
I'm probably most pleased with "While Making Other Plans", because it has that emotional quality that I'm after. Also "This Just In" for the sense of dynamics: it has a "take off point" where all the guitar noise crashes in - I like the visceral effect of single moments like that...

Are there any other projects you're working on besides Cathode?
I've been working on a live performance, Map Music, with a sound artist named Andrew Hodson, who has made a CD of electronic music from found sounds recorded on the Newcastle Metro train system. This is an improvised act based on the metro sounds and performed to a 50 minute film of the view from the metro window on the train line where the sounds originated. It's been an interesting experience because I don't normally work in an improvised way, and it's taught me quite a lot about how to use computers more responsively in a live situation. We're also thinking about touring the C90 audiovisual collaboration (see electronicartist.net) with Posset (fencing flatworm) and Spoonbender (micromusic).


You've a video track, "Sundowing" on your album + you've also a recent collaboration with Richard Fenwick (soundtracks). Can you tell me something about these experiences?
The whole issue of visuals and electronic music is a bit of a vexed one - it makes intuitive sense for electronic musicians to work with visuals, but the kind of images that get used tend to become neutralised and clichéd very quickly - particularly "ambient", abstract imagery. I'm interested in how film and sound mutually complement one another, and the projects with Rob Kennedy and Richard Fenwick are experiments with this idea, really. Rob's film is tied quite tightly to the music using a very simple concept: that the audio output (the music) is sent to the video input of a cathode ray tube (a tv set) and the film is the result of the video input trying to decipher the alien signal it is receiving. I think it works because the concept is neat and simple but somehow the filmed result is similarly minimal and microscopically detailed as the music itself.


The collaboration with Richard Fenwick came about through his existing connection with Expanding Records. He wanted to make a series of his RND# films in the North East of England, which is where I'm based; the films are about how individuals and communities engage with and are affected by technology. I won't say too much about the concepts involved in the two films, "Economic Growth" and "On Demand" (you can see them at richardfenwick.com), because it would determine people's responses too much. But the best thing for me about these works is that it enabled me to make music which engages in some way through the films, socially or politically, with the world: electronic music is, to my mind, in danger of becoming very conservative and homogenised by its disengagement from actually saying anything very much about the world (with some honourable exceptions like Ultra Red, for instance).


What can we expect from you in the near future? Any dreams?
There are several things in the pipeline: an EP for a new label from north-east England, bit_part, for which I'll be experimenting with using guest vocals (cathode has been entirely instrumental so far); a 7" for Zeal records of Belgium, and compilation appearances for Catmobile and Static Caravan. I'm also very keen to do another record with Expanding a little way down the line - they have a really high quality roster of artists right now, and it's a pleasure to be working with them. Other than that, I'm working to develop the visual component of Cathode - the films which accompany the live set, which are inspired really by the British structural filmmakers of the 1960s and 70s (such as the London Film-Makers Co-op) and by early computer filmmakers like the Whitney brothers. Dreams? Well, aside from longing to organise a gig on a clifftop in northumberland, it would be lovely simply to have enough time to devote to making music, to getting all the sounds I would like to make out of my head and in to the computer...