It seems a rare occurrence for Tom Jenkinson – aka Squarepusher – to come out of his self-proclaimed hermetic state for interviews. After all, save for the occasional takeover day and TV spot, he’s been a notorious busy-body for the span of his 17 year career, never especially interested by the limelight that so soaks his musical output, whether from the media or inner circles of high-profile musicians. However, following a string of live and festival dates over the summer, and new band project Shobaleader One released this week, DiS were fortunate to catch up with a strikingly open and excited Mr. Jenkinson and talk to him about why now, more than anytime previously, he has decided to work with a band, the new accessibility he seems to have forged and certain other collaborations in the works..
I guess the best place to start in relation to talking about Shobaleader One is with Just A Souvenir. How did that whole concept come about?
Well, I suppose the thing is with it is the first time that I made it public that there was something more than spontaneity behind the making of the record, when I wrote that short account, or daydream if you like - to be complete about it, that process has been present throughout my entire career, in various ways. The process of imagining setting, imagining musicians and imagining what they might do, how they might interact. I suppose I chose to make it explicit with Just A Souvenir because of how it sounded, there was an explicit effort to try and make it sound like a band. Even though at that point it was just me as I’ve always been, just doing my own thing. What I’ve done since very early on is imagine myself in the shoes of a different musician – so that might just be one person
Would you say that it was an exercise for your alter egos or something like that?
Well I suppose you could look at these things as alter egos, but I’ve never made it explicit. I always try to unite as much of my work under the term Squarepusher – because I think under all of these imaginary personas and people, there are core ideas that I can’t get away from, things about my taste in music that I just can’t go against. So as much as I might concoct a person who’s got this taste and another taste and another who’s got this interest and play them off against each other, in my imagination and the imagination of my compositions and how they might be realized, there are things I can’t get rid off. My fundamental tastes, the things that I can’t reason out of existence.
What is it that’s different about these new members that’s made you open up to a new collaborative process?
I suppose the initial ground was laid for me on the Just A Souvenir tour, as I was touring with a chap called Alex Thomas (drums) and that’s the first time I’ve gone out on the road and gigged every night with another person on stage. I’ve done bits and pieces where I’ve had a guest or acts like a support act, but this was the first time where it was every night. But I got into the process of making music through wanting to get away from the restrictions of playing with bands having played with various groups during my teenage years. It was getting away from that conservatism and the limits and habits that spring up around a band – but it’s still an amazing thing to play with a band, and playing with Alex got me thinking of that again. Instead of literally, instead of me conjuring up these fantasy bands, actually Why Not? That opened the door up and laid the ground for me to consider something like this (Shobaleader). So when the conversation started with this particular bunch it was like ‘Why don’t we try it?’ and so that’s what you’ve got so far on that record – I suppose it’s the initial experiment. I’ve broken it down on the back of the sleeve with dot dot dot on guitar and so on, but most importantly when we get together, it’s people with ideas. I’ll give them parts, and they’ll be adapted and the ideas will be fluid in the room until it’s recorded.
So you’re essentially a musical director within this process?
Yeah, something like that. I feel like all those terms make me fell a bit embarrassed ‘cos I just feel a bit like a cheesemonger. I don’t see myself in any specific role but if you force me to describe it I’m basically writing the music and making the recordings and guiding the ways that the parts might get played, as well as obviously playing some of them myself.
Will it develop into Shobaleader Two, Three, Four etc.?
That’s the idea. That’s one way it could go. In terms of names of things, that’s the very, very last thing I bother with.
Well, the member’s names. Is that some sort of language you’ve created or....
Only in so far as it’s the same kind of approach as I use in naming tracks. It’s taking your impression of something, like a piece of music or a person, and trying to give it some oblique terminology. Not trying to pluck a word out of thin air, or a combination of words and saying ‘Does that fit a song? Does that fit the person?’ – it always comes last. Whether it’s a good or bad thing, I’m quite a secretive person. In the end, it will all become clear because I want to go on the road – that’s one of the things I’m looking forward to the most, just getting the band out there and playing.
Any plans for that as yet?
Nothing set in stone. Next year is when we’re gonna be looking at touring so hopefully. Maybe starting off with festivals and then playing the remainder of the year – but we shall see.
Keeping the members secret – is that something you’ve done because they’re at a status where if people were to know who they were, it would strip a level of mystery from the whole thing that would make it unnecessary to carry on with?
Well, I’d have to say it’s theatre really Some of the people are people you might well have heard of and I just don’t want that to become a factor at this point. I don’t think it needs to be considered. To look at this music, you don’t need to know – and, in fact, it probably will just complicate things in a way that I don’t think would be beneficial to anyone. Audience, me, the band - anyone. It’s just like - who cares? They’re people that have helped me make this record and they’re gonna help me tour it, let’s see what happens when they do. Apart from anything else, these people have their attributes, kind of like my imaginary people. Each one of us is trying to develop though. If there was someone you’d recognized from band, hopefully when they’re doing this it’d be taking what they do and taking in a slightly different direction. It’s a forum for innovation. It has to be. That’s what my career and my work has been all about.
Do you see being in this band as more liberating or constricting now, having gone so far away from that process throughout your career?
Well, my career was born out of that frustration of working with bands and coming up against..I suppose, prejudices and rules that I thought were just arbitrary. You’re ruling these things out but you don’t know what it’ll lead to if we were to explore it. That was very frustrating for me in those days so I was very keen to try and find a way – even if it was with the very limited gear that I had in those earlier times – just to make music without prejudice. Without evaluating musical ideas before they’ve been put to the test. Just binning all of these preconceptions and just letting things go, even just like incorporating something from a totally discredited form of music. Like jazz fusion or something. Yeah, I know all of the pitfalls in that music, and I hate most of it. But, in saying that, it’s not that it’s 100% worthless – there might be elements in every musical endeavour that are worth considering. But my trajectory was set up by trying to get away from working with people with musical prejudice, but I’ve been doing that for 17 years. My own practice as a musician, as much as try and keep it varied, has become habitual and that’s become harder to break. When I sense like I’m avoiding something or being fearful of it, it’s like that’s the beginning of a habit and then the beginning of prejudice. Like “I can’t be in a band, I don’t want to be in a band, it’s wrong, bands are shit’ – well, hang on. That’s crap. That’s wrong. So for me it’s trying to carry on the same mentality by making music away from habits as much as I can and this is just a new way of blasting fresh air through my compositional process.
There are numerous quotes from you that say that sometimes you may know a piece of kit better that those who have manufactured it. But is Shobaleader a case of conceding defeat to the machines, or is it bringing in more hands for a new state of mind towards them?
Let’s just be fair – some of those quotes might have been made in the spirit of a younger man being a bit boastful. On the other hand, if I own a piece of kit, I know it inside and out and absolutely. I suppose what I was trying to convey when I said that is that I know it inside and out to the extent that I can see ways in which it can be used. It’s the implications of the architecture, the things that it can lead to in the creative domain was it I was trying to convey.
Does it all still hold relevance to the band though?
I suppose it does. I hadn’t thought about it. But, if I’m honest, if I was sensing the limitations (of the kit) already, then I’d be pessimistic about doing anything else with it in that regard. When you’re talking about knowing something inside and out, like a machine, giving yourself that amount of time, even with the most complex machines – you can sass it. With a person – different. I like to think I’m a relatively insightful person, but knowing how people are going to react to certain situations is a different thing. A machine basically does the same thing every time, but a person....
Have you felt comfortable with this new process though?
Well, not entirely. Another reason that has kept me away from working with bands is that if I treated a band member like I treat myself in the studio – I mean I’m very hard headed and don’t tolerate any kind of slackness from myself, utterly committed to it – I don’t think I’d be comfortable pushing other people that extent. It’s an awkward thing. I have asked an immense amount of myself over the years, to the point where I’ve not slept enough and my health has suffered – it’s a way of life that I’ve accepted, but I think it’s a different thing to oblige someone else to go through that. But it hasn’t entered that level of extremity, because if it’s a case that people want to go home then I’ll carry on and I’ll finish it. I don’t mind. I don’t want to turn into the kind of stereotype hardheaded bandleader like James Brown or Frank Zappa or Buddy Rich – that’s not me. It’s not how I want to be with people. I’ve done various bits of playing with free-jazz bods like Evan Parker and so on and I prefer that model of how band should operate. There’s no specific leader. Everyone has responsibility for his or her area and then you come together and see what happens. Ethically that’s acceptable whereas kind of bullying people and docking their wages ‘cos they played a bum note – that’s just not me. It’s horrible.
But there’s definitely a more accessible sound to this record. Was that a conscious decision – like a rebuttal to any mainstream pop or anything that you’re exposed to?
I hear what you would expect to hear on a Friday, Saturday night. You end up hearing what’s going on – I’m not avidly following anything specific but I will hear stuff and it will influence me. Again, it’s like if you imagine me four or five years ago I would be saying that I can’t make things with conventional song structures or I can’t make things with explicit melody lines, can’t make things with vocals. I had some roughshod guidelines of things like I was like ‘Nah, I don’t want to buy into that shit, that’s cheap, easy, anyone can do that’. But actually, I’ve come to see those rules as kind of having that damaging, arbitrary thing of something which is starting to become a hindrance as opposed to inspiring you and helping you along – as rules can. So there’s the thing with the vocals, as I did the vocals on that record, I thought, well why not? Why not use conventional song structure? If my attitude was summed up by saying There Are No Rules, then I’d be a hypocrite to sort of rule those sort of things out, those hallmarks of popular music. I’m trying to be consistent with this open-minded approach. Because lots of people will say ‘I’m an experimental artist’ – that, to me, means you should be allowed to try anything. I’m not saying that it’ll stay like that. In three, five years time, I could be back in total electro-acoustic extremism – I’m not making any promises of how I’ve become a commercial artist or something.
But you recognize it?
I’m not going to pretend that I don’t know. Maybe people might not realize, but it is obvious. It (Shobaleader One) has some of the obvious hallmarks of what people call popular music, but I’ve misjudged it in the past. There have been a few tracks in the past where I’ve thought ‘Yeah, maybe that track will be massive’ and it cuts to tumbleweed rolling past. I must admit I don’t think I have a very good handle on popular tastes, I would like to but I just don’t. I don’t tap very well into that zeitgeist.
Well going back to the vocals, how did the lyrical content come about?
The lyrics came last. The songs were written and recorded and then the melody lines were composed for the vocals and then I fitted words around all of that. I know what all the words are so I don’t have a problem when it comes to intelligibility, but I presume it’d take quite a dedicated listener to start picking out all of the words – but I’d rather keep that closed. Some of the themes, on repeated listening, will start to emerge but I quite like the idea of them being in a bit of a haze. One thing I find a bit of a problem is excessive literalness – I think it’s patronizing to the listener and sort of lifeless as well. The longevity is kind of compromised by those excessive degrees of literalness, so I’d rather let people figure it out. I don’t want to force those on anyone – if someone got something from it, I don’t want to tell them ‘No, you’re wrong!’.
What would you say to anyone who turned around and said to you that this is about a level of maturity coming out in your sound?
Ah man, I was really dreading that anyone was going to mention “maturity”. I don’t know, I like to think that I’m a long way before having matured at all really. But I suppose that’s just come from a quite conceited view of maturity, which is that when you become mature, you become really boring. That’s pretty childish, but again that’s a sign of my immaturity, right?
How did the Ed Banger release happen? Was it a heart set decision to go with them?
Well, I’m certainly not an expert on Ed Banger as a whole but I’m familiar with bits that they’ve done and been a fan of quite a lot it. It just came out of conversation where I played the record to Steve (Beckett, Warp Records founder) and he was just making a couple of references and it came from there. I was talking about some of the acts that I was interested in and following on from what he was saying and what appeared to us to be interesting is ‘What would these kids think of this?’. Because, sadly, the way the music media works is if it’s on Warp it has an immediate, key demographic and unfortunately that might, by that token, exclude some of the kids who are into Ed Banger releases. I’m sure there is some crossover, but maybe what we wanted to do is to try and explore that crossover rather than hope that some of them hear it. Just play the game a bit. Ed Banger and Warp have got a pretty good relationship after doing that night...
Yeah, Warp-Ed, of course...
Yeah, I was really annoyed as they asked me to play at that. But it was at a stupid time and I thought ‘Nah, I couldn’t be bothered...’ and then I heard about it all and I was like ‘Why didn’t I do that?!’. Really stupid to miss that.
Do you see yourself going back into those kind of nights and fitting into those kinds of line-ups then?
Well, for a start, I’m a fan of Justice and I would have loved to have just been on the same bill as them. It was that kind of thing, it would have been kinda cool to have a chat with them and have a jam or something like that ‘cos I could imagine some pretty funny stuff happening there.
Well, are there any other collaborations in the works? Is there any truth following the Culture Show hoo-ha of 2007 in the collab between yourself and Andre 3000?
Oh right, yeah. We were talking about that before you turned up and yes, the intentions are all good on both sides and we’re both really keen to do it. But factoring in how busy we are and how shit we are at organising things, it’s three years later and it’s like ‘Why isn’t it happening?’. It hasn’t hit the point of making that important phone call, and nothing happens. But we’ve talked a few times on the phone and we’re gradually edging towards a plan. ‘Cos I think it could be absolutely amazing; it could be fucking astonishingly well. I couldn’t think of any vocalist I’d rather work with, and the ideas I’ve got are fucking staggering! So it’s gonna happen...my publisher’s onto it now, so I think that might mean that it’ll happen in the next few years, rather than the next thirty years!
Is that the one that you’re focussed on at the moment, aside from Shobaleader? Anything else in the works?
Noting to report at this stage. I’m trying to get more open to that kind of thing because along with my kneejerk against working with groups, there’s a kneejerk against collaborations. I don’t want to try and factor other people’s work into what I’m doing right now, I don’t want that to slow me down. But that’s all changing and I certainly want to open up to that more. Out it this way – the idea of working solo for the next fifteen years…it’s not going to happen. There’s too much to gain from collaborations and I know myself well enough to hold my own identity through collaboration. Part of what used to scare me about it, if I’m totally honest, is losing myself in it and dissolving. Losing my identity, the thing that makes me, me. Partly because I’ve seen so many of the artists I admire do a collaboration and I think ‘Where are they in that?’ – it becomes this horrible soup. Instead of it become greater than the sum of its parts, it’s the opposite. It’s lowest common denominator, middle ground that really is less interesting than each person on their own.
Any plans for other Squarepusher releases on your own, as such?
I don’t know. As much as Warp would love to nail me down to a plan, it’s not the way I do it. I go with whatever idea is most exciting. Because that, to me, is the way to keep your enthusiasm, and that’s what it’s all about. If I start thinking about what I should do, then I’ll start to lose my enthusiasm, because it’s not really what I want to do. So, that’s why my career is such a mess because I just follow my heart and what I care about at the time. It could have been more coherent but then I would have made less music and learnt less. As much as I love the idea of having a stylistically coherent career, it’s never gonna be me. I just go with what excites me at the time. In saying that, I’m hoping to pursue Shobaleader One and gonna give my best shot at it. As long as we don’t have a massive, horrible fall-out…