Saturday 29 June 2013

Daniel Pemberton interviewed

This interview was transcribed from a telephone conversation with Daniel on Tuesday 18th June 2013.
Q: Firstly, can you tell us about your musical background? When did you first try to play music?

A: My musical awakening in some ways was…my Dad took me to the planetarium at Madame Tussauds. I was never that interested in music and they had this crazy synthesiser music in there that turned out to be Jean Michel Jarre…and I was just amazed by this and that was the first time I’d really clicked with music. I think I must have been 8 or 9 or something. My Dad got me copies of the Jean Michel Jarre and Mike Oldfield records from the local library, which I then caned like crazy, driving my entire family mad and I got very hooked on synthesiser music and started absorbing all that…
...then I think it was about ’92 and electronic music was just starting up in terms of a wave of people like The Orb and stuff like that and there was a band called The Grid and I got very into that sort of thing. I started going to into record shops and there was a section called electronic and it would have like five records and there would be things like The Orb, Artificial Intelligence…and things like that.
Q: And you must have been about 13 at the time?

A: Yeah. 14 or 15 or something and I was buying all that stuff. I was literally able to buy the entire electronic section because it only had about five bands in it. At the same time I was writing for a video game magazine, which in retrospect is really quite bizarre called Game Zone…a very cool, irreverent video game mag and I was getting money from that, which meant I could buy music gear…and I bought a Korg Wavestation, which I still use to this day as a keyboard and a 4-track and I just started trying to make my own music that was, I guess, very heavily influenced by the kind of ambient stuff that was going on and my approach to sound. It wasn’t actually necessarily music in the way that…you’re brought up on the way that music is songs but this was more about kind of creating sonic worlds…

Q: Textures?

A: Yeah…and at the same time there was amazing stuff being made. Future Sound of London had a number one album and The Orb were on Top of the Pops. It seems quite weird now.

Q: It was sort of a golden age in a way. It’s almost as strange as thinking that progressive rock was ever a massive success because it’s so out there.
A: Yeah. So I started to go out to weird ambient clubs, like Telepathic Fish, which was run by Chantal Passamonte - Mira Calix. Ever heard of her? There was her and this guy called Kevin, who bizarrely I was talking to the other day and he used to run these ambient nights called Telepathic Fish, so I used to go to those and then I met Mixmaster Morris and Kev was a great champion of people and I started making tapes of the kind of weird music I was putting together and they started getting passed around and it was this really young kid as well, so it was this novelty of young kid into strange music and there started being…you have to remember this was before the internet, so it was a very different time in terms of how people experience music. Now I would just put something on the internet but I think then…I was going to quite mad parts of Brixton quite young. Again, in retrospect that’s quite odd and you meet with people…and word starts getting around, so I started getting offered record deals. R & S offered me a deal but I was kind of scared. I was still at school. At the same time I’m at school I’m doing this and Fax wanted to put my record out and so that’s what happened.

Q: How did Pete Namlook first make contact with you, then?

A: I was very close with Mixmaster Morris and he had a manager, who he subsequently fell out with, who was kind of looking after my stuff as well. Morris was good friends with Pete and I think it got passed over that way and it was kind of weird because I didn’t really know what I wanted to be doing. This whole idea of signing these five album deals, which kind of mean nothing in a way but that kind of really scared me because I was still at school and had no idea what I wanted to do. You know, I was kind of doing it for fun and bizarrely it wasn’t the album I wanted to put out at the time. I was making these longer kind of things…a bit more like a cross between The Orb and The Future Sound of London type stuff but I ended up not putting it out and I don’t know where it is. It has all disappeared, so the idea was it was going to be this sort of first record but a stepping-stone, being a debut thing but it came out and….
Q: You’ve whizzed through my first six questions there in one go, so fantastic. I was going to ask: you’re 15 or 16 and you’re recording the Bedroom album. Was that a daunting process?

A: Well it kind of was and wasn’t. It’s very weird because I make so much music now – nearly every day. I feel very fortunate to have started off without a sequencer, working on tape. You know, that was all done on a 4-track with nothing else. I didn’t have so much gear. I feel quite privileged to have only had one piece of gear, which was the Wavestation and I think I learnt a lot doing that…you know I think there’s a track on the album called Phosphine and that was really long. I had to do a take and I actually remember that day and it was blazing hot in the middle of summer…not like the summers we get now. You know my mates were all out and I was stuck indoors really trying to nail this and I had to get it all in one take…it was a nine minute track. I couldn’t torpedo in or anything. You have to get all of the synth parts done at once, so yeah it was quite an experience to record it and I think in some ways there was a lot of love in that record, you know because it was the first time I was doing all of those things. Now I do so much stuff and I think I write some music that’s really good…some of it is a bit rubbish but I don’t spend that long on it now…producing one performance.
Q: I suppose really when the pressure is on you haven’t got the time?

A: Yeah. I think I will spend an absolute bloody fortune and time trying to get the sounds really right for big films. I still want to make things as good as they can be and there’s certain aspects to the way I work that haven’t even really changed, yet I’m working on bigger canvases sometimes. Just because you work on a bigger canvas doesn’t mean it’s a better piece of music and there’s lots of experimental stuff …I remember there’s a hidden track at the end of the album that was from my sister’s fourth birthday party…trying out all of these ideas on that record, which I think are quite inspiring now.

Q: Were you ever tempted to do another Fax record?

A: Well, kind of. I was a bit of a pain at that age and I kind of fell out with Pete. Pete is probably a lot like me. Very headstrong and very…like…my way or the highway. I really didn’t like the Fax artwork. I understand it. In a way it’s very clever because it created a whole…I mean there’s amazing stuff about Fax and the fact that you’ve got someone creating music and being able to make a living and being able to put out a vast output of work…and they are independent – answerable to no-one is absolutely fantastic but I guess one of the reasons that works in a way is because they have this generic style.

Q: Uniformity to the artwork that makes it quite collectible?
A: …anyway, I didn’t like that so I ended up trying to make my own. There are a hundred copies of the record with a kind of little tracing paper overlay, so they are more valuable now…so I made a hundred overlays and put them on top and that p****d Pete off and I can’t remember…I think I was annoying. I think I wound him up and then Massive Attack were going to put out my next record on their label, Melankolic, and I was going to be one of the first signings on that. It was very heavily influenced by Blade Runner…in fact I just bought myself a CS-80. Anyway, it was quite a good record actually and Virgin decided it wasn’t commercial enough, which it wasn’t and I started becoming really disillusioned with the music industry and I kind of realised that you weren’t really free to have that much artistic control in a way. Often it seemed to be: you do what we say and I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life making the same kind of music. Bands kind of keep making the same type of music and I wanted to absorb all music, rather than just do one style and so I slightly turned my back on putting records out and fell into doing TV music. I took a year off from the end of school and the idea was to see how that panned out and I’m still on my year out, which is quite funny.

Q: Ha-ha! You just whizzed through another three of my questions! I was going to ask: is it me or does the music on Bedroom seem a bit dark? 

A: I would say that is probably because I wasn’t very good at making light music. It’s funny, really because the other stuff I was doing was lighter but that never got heard. Yes, it is quite a dark record but it is a lot easier to make dark music than it is happy music if you’re making electronic stuff.

Q: After you and Pete drifted away from one another did you keep in touch with what was happening on the Fax label?
A: Erm, yes and no. With Fax I would be very frustrated with Pete’s stuff. I love the Air records. I can tell that he spent more than a day on it and I would kind of tell him off and say: you should be doing more records like this. Don’t do these…like 40 minutes… that were like two keyboard sounds held down, looping. I would get annoyed with the slight laziness of some Fax releases because I knew that when Pete did something that was really good it would…he had an immense amount of skill and sometimes I think he did too much… I would rather have five Namlook records that were really good than 50 that were ok. I sort of kept up but at the same time I wasn’t like a rabid Fax fan. Certain records I really liked and others are a bit lazy but I loved the independent ethos behind the label, which I think is really awesome. I loved the way it encouraged people, I think, more established artists just to experiment and make music and for me that’s what music should be about: creating all the time and not worrying about…I think the big problem with the music industry is it’s all about creating a brand and just having this brand for the rest of your life.

Q: Formulaic?

A: Yes.

Q: Did you get back in touch with Pete through the years or was that it?
A: That was kind of it. I mean I…there were some other things that I…I’m still good friends with Charlie. Charles Uzzell Edwards. Charlie is great and I went to America and I did a record with him. He lived in this crazy tree house in Marin County: very Fax in a way. I went out there to make a record and we had field recordings, we were firing synths off…banging things together. It was really good fun. Charlie now is back in London…a graffiti artist. He’s a really, really nice bloke. So him, Morris…I mean lots of people I still send Christmas cards to but they’ve drifted away and I maybe bump into them now and again.

Q: And you went through a stage of journalism?

A: Well, I was always doing that alongside the music. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do at that stage. I was doing a lot of really interesting things in some ways. The late ‘90s was a really exciting time for me because it was the birth of the internet and thinking, rather than how much money can we make, which is what it became and what it is now. I’m quite alienated by what that’s become. There are obviously aspects that just aren’t the same. It’s crowded out by narcissism and commercialisation.

Q: It’s a bit like the record industry, really? There were times when the opportunities were there to create music and be freer than perhaps later on. I think when people get wise to making money it becomes a whole different ball game.

A: Once you can make money and people work out how to make money they keep on formulating and there’s a golden era of anything when people are making money but haven’t quite worked out why. But they kind of see: oh that’s got something to do with it. Let’s make some money. Once they work out a formula they slavishly follow that formula and eventually bleed it dry, which is kind of what happened to the music industry. I’ve been doing film and TV for so long and I’ve always really loved doing film and TV. I can do massive orchestral pieces, pieces based on electronic sound design and experimentation but people are always so sniffy. They’re like, oh don’t you write the music for yourself and everything I do I try to do for myself…you know, creating things that I like but what’s interesting is that over the years people have gone from I don’t want to do TV music to how can I get into TV music because it’s the only place where there’s still a bit of money.
Q: What was your opening in film and TV?

A: There was a director called Paul Wilmshurst and he heard about Bedroom and his then-girlfriend at the time had written about it and he really liked it and he got me to work on a Channel 4…I think it was a series of documentaries that they were doing and they were literally done after school…after I did my homework. I remember I had to make a drum loop on a MiniDisc player and just loop it. I never sampled anything on computers and we got on really well. He got bigger documentaries that did quite well and I think TV at that time was quite possibly populated with people who looked down on TV music as something people did because they needed the money and it was not something they cared about. I loved being able to experiment with all of these different kind of ideas, so I guess I had a lot of enthusiasm towards it and I’ve still got it today, really. That showed and Paul always wanted to work with me. He liked what I did and it would carry on like that.

Q: Are there any standout projects that you’ve worked on that you’ve really enjoyed?   

A: Yeah, I mean there are tons of things for all different reasons. The Edwardian Country House, which was big for me because it was the first time I’d used an orchestra. I’d never tried that before and it was really scary. Certain shows I love. There was a show called Bad Lads Army. There are so many things I’ve done now. Some I’ve loved and some I’ve forgotten about. That’s a much longer conversation.

Q: What are you working on now?
A: A Ridley Scott film called The Counselor and even that…there’s still elements of things I was doing when I was 16 that are in that score. I recorded at Abbey Road with a massive orchestra. Some of the best stuff in the film is weird, treated guitars and you know, slightly more experimental, synthy sound designy stuff…that I did at home in my bedroom…slightly bigger than the bedroom I grew up in.

Q: Am I right in thinking you’ve presented a track for the forthcoming Namlook tribute album?

A: I’ve got so much unreleased music because I didn’t really care about releasing it in a way. I was a bit precious about my music at that stage and I didn’t really want to give anything out. I think I’ve put something on there that I kind of did for fun from this ambient project called Opaque. I still make music for myself that no one hears…for my own personal enjoyment.

Q: Was that something from a long time ago or more recent?

A: I think that was from 1997 or ’98 on a MiniDisc digital multi-track. Opaque was done on a MiniDisc recording system. Now it seems funny that you don’t worry…you don’t even think about this idea that you can’t have too many tracks because there’ll be tape hiss and that sort of stuff but then it was a big deal. It was like how do I…

Q: Was Bedroom recorded on a MiniDisc?

A: No. That was recorded on an old fashioned tape 4-track - a normal cassette.

Q: And you gave that to Pete and he transferred that and digitally…?

A: I mastered the whole thing wrongly. The funniest thing about that is that the whole album is slightly slower than it should be because I ran it all off on to DAT at one stage and you had to mix it live and I would do lots of live panning to make it sound bigger but you have four tracks and I might have one track that I would move around and I would have to manually do that down to DAT. Anyway, I ran the whole album down and sequenced it because it’s very important to me how things flow and it was only when I finished it all that I thought this sounds kind of different and I looked at my 4-track and it had speed control and the speed control had dropped slightly for the whole thing and I didn’t realise until it was too late, so it’s quite funny. The actual Bedroom album is slightly slower than it should be.

Q: Is it noticeably slower compared to the recordings that you did or just a very tiny fraction?

A: Yes, it’s quite noticeable. Something like the track Antarctica is supposed to be in D minor and it’s halfway between D and C sharp, so it’s dropped between a tone and half a tone so if you wanted to mix it with a track in the same key you’d have to change the pitch. That’s why it probably sounds slightly darker as well…because it’s a bit slower than it should be.

Q: So, when you release the reissue one day…the remaster…?

A: I did think about it but I don’t think anybody cares. I think there are only about five people out there who care. I’ve got so much stuff that no one’s heard. The weird thing is that I’ve always made music but no one’s ever heard it.

Q: I was personally pretty shocked when I came home one night and found an e-mail in my inbox, saying RIP Pete Namlook. I’d had a bit of correspondence with Pete and…some musicians…if you buy their music they don’t really want to communicate, whereas Pete…he’d be quite happy to do that, so I was quite shocked and quite upset by it, which is why I decided to start up the tribute website...
A: Yes. When I heard the news I was really shocked as well because that record (Bedroom) really changed my life. I now have…I’m super lucky. I’ve got this job and I get paid to make music and to kind of have fun and…OK, so sometimes it’s a real pain when you’ve got directors and producers being annoying but most of the time it’s really good. I kind of owe all of that really, the genesis of that to Bedroom.

Q: So, for you it’s a pivotal moment in your life?

A: Yes.

Q: The last question I was going to ask was how would you pay tribute to the great Pete Namlook in words?

A: He released a million records every week (loud laughs all round). Some of the most interesting things about Pete I would say are as much in his kind of attitude towards music, as much as the music itself. I think if you want to be an artist what a lot of people forget is that you need to make money.

Q: Otherwise it’s not sustainable?

A: You need to have some way that allows you to keep going. I think there’s this massive myth of the tortured, starving artist and if you look at all of the great artists they’ve worked out a way of carrying on doing what they’re doing by getting someone else to foot the bill or by being self-sufficient and I think what was great about Pete was that he created a self-sufficient system that allowed him to make music the whole time, which I think is absolutely brilliant and I dreamt that the internet could allow that to happen and there’s the great thing now of being able to self-distribute, which is amazing, I think, but whether people can make any money out of that…I’ve always got a very soft spot for Fax Records. It’s a weird thing because I haven’t really talked about it that much (pauses). I don’t really talk about it that much. I like doing it. That’s another great thing about doing TV and film music: no one cares. In some ways you’re not affected by outside forces. The only person who does care is you. Sometimes it’s good to be affected by outside forces but there’s so much noise out there.

A huge, ever growing, pulsating ultra massive thank you to Daniel for taking the time to talk to NMLK and for patiently enduring a barrage of e-mails until our schedules finally allowed this interview to happen!

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