"If you like plants, then plants like you back,” says Robin Edwards in a quietly mysterious yet humble tone. Robin, otherwise known as an electronic sound alchemist R.Seiliog, is telling me about his old indoor summer garden in Cardiff, where they "had peas and stuff growing up the walls.” Looking at the lush, mini jungle nestling on the desk of his tiny bedroom studio, I can only conclude that he must loves plants.
After a few months of working in a makeshift shed above his parents’ garage, last spring Robin moved to his current residence in Denbigh. A historic market town in the middle of North Wales, Denbigh seems like a quiet place. Earlier in the day we drove up to the nearby Foel Gasyth quarry, where Robin recorded some of the sounds used on his new Shedhead EP. Up there in the hills, everything looked even more quiet and still. Every sound felt lived, and fundamentally bound with its surroundings. Back in the house, I’m looking at boxes of old CDs and Robin’s mountain bike perched against the wall under the stairs. He’s in the kitchen, making tea.
From his 2012 debut EP Shuffle to the krautrock-inspired Doppler LP and the 2014 fantastic kosmische house In Hz, each of Robin’s releases has had a strong character of its own, developing his experimental minimalist approach in different directions. Shedhead, his latest EP release, is another bold step combining familiar krautrock elements with a more nostalgic Balearic vibe. Oddly, it feels both futuristic and retro at the same time.
I'm digging through Robin's CD collection that includes everything from Stockhausen to Mclusky, The Beach Boys, and new wave dance music from South Africa. Robin walks into the living room with mugs of tea and we sit down to chat about sonic art, his experience of the 90s, why he’s not interested in writing songs, and his latest adventures in sound.
DiS: You had a couple of year’s gap between the previous album and Shedhead, your current EP. What have you been up to?
Robin Edwards: I was messing around with sound but never really latching onto a definite idea. I'd be emailing Turnstile (his label) saying, “I’m gonna do this thing with spinning tops on contact-miked metal plates.” And they’d email back saying “Yeah, that sounds good!” Those ideas never held water long enough to actually come to a stage where they would be finished. I was building microphones using lasers and solar panel pickups. I found a couple of those the other day; weird stuff, but they’re all quite conceptual ideas that didn’t have much musicality for a record. Maybe I was thinking of performance and sonic art...They’re still in my mind and there are still a lot of ideas. I was thinking about these solar panelled pickups. Lasers pick up vibrations from whatever object first, then – as they reflect back onto the solar panels - it's the panels that act as pickups. The result is that you hear the sound in a really distorted way. I dived into it and got quite lost. I was also looking into prisms and firing lasers through prisms, and having a ring of solar pickups; but then you’ve got the health and safety thing 'cos you don’t want to blind people. There were a lot of obstacles to overcome.
So Shedhead was recorded in North Wales. When and why did you move away from Cardiff?
When I moved to Cardiff I never thought I’d be there for 12 years. Then a relationship came to an end. There was a chance to move, so I thought: “I’ll move back to North Wales for a while.” There were no plans really. I’ve been renting here since March, and before then I was just staying with friends and my brother. I was still half in Cardiff and half in North Wales, just kind of moving around. Most of the EP was done in my parents' garage, kind of a shed thing. It was a similar set to what I have now.
Listening to your EP it struck me that it sounded very cold, an entirely imaginary soundscape unrelated to any particular place.
I would agree with that. It’s not particularly rooted to a place. I wasn’t really rooted to a place at the time either. I wasn’t planning on living in the garage for very long, but months went by and I was still there. It’s got a certain bleakness to it because it was quite a bleak time. There aren’t really any standout melody lines, it’s more about sound just shifting in and out of itself. I suppose I was constructing my own sonic space. I didn’t have any plans, and I didn’t know where I was going to live. Maybe I was making my own soundworld I could actually go into, and that took over everything. It’s almost like maybe I didn’t know what I wanted to say; it was more about being in a certain place without having anything. I’m guessing that the melody line is the bleakness of the situation.
Would you say bleakness was its key theme?
Yeah, it was a theme whereas the other records had more of a direction. This one kind of thrives on its non-direction.
Your press release refers to you as an outsider artist. Would you agree with this description?
I was thinking about this the other day because a friend asked me if I minded being called an outsider. I was just thinking maybe it’s better than being called an insider? I’d rather be an outsider than an insider, I think. I don’t know where it comes from. I think maybe it's to do with not sticking to one genre or one scene, I don’t know.
To me this term has the connotations of opposition, of consciously rejecting something. A political element of sorts.
Interesting. Stepping out of the norm is political, in a way…I suppose maybe it is looking at things from the outside and not being involved in one thing, or maybe looking at more of an expanse of different things. I feel like the 90s vibe is coming back through now and I was looking at that, like trip hop and deep house. In my mind, there was almost like a nostalgic sound to this record.
You must have been very young in the 90s. What are your memories of that period?
Yes, I was just slightly too young to be properly involved in the 90s. It was like a magical thing where you saw things but didn't quite understand them yet. You know, being a 90s child but not experiencing the 90s for the 90s. It’s quite interesting to go back to that, like a nostalgic thing. There are many things that happened in the 90s that, I think, were quite pure. Maybe stuff like that isn’t happening at the moment as much. Growing up quite close to Denbigh moor I could hear raves happening. I could imagine what was going on but I was too young to go. It’s so quiet up there. There’s nothing going on, but all of a sudden one night you could hear some bass coming through the woods; and that was: “Whoah, there’s something crazy going in the forest over there.”
Obviously, sound is your focus but have you ever been tempted by lyrics, songs rather than soundscapes?
I find that more of a strain. Lyrics direct someone, so you're telling almost too much. I like to craft the soundscapes and take someone on a journey through the sound itself; whereas if you put lyrics on top of it, you’re taking away the subjectivity of listening. I think it’s quite nice when people can make their own thing out of your music. It’s kind of a subjective thing. What people are listening to is going to be more personal to them because it opens up their subjectivity that strengthens their own belief. Words came after sound, which is much more primitive; it’s got a more primitive connection to emotion. What I’m trying to do is find a natural dynamic of sound that works in a musical way.
But you can't do away with language entirely; you still have track titles. The one that really struck me is 'Cloddio Unterdach'. I understand that cloddio is a Welsh word and unterdach looks like a German word. What was your thinking behind this name?
It’s a mixing of languages and a mixing of concepts. It’s definitely got two meanings…I suppose it's a reference to the bleakness of that time. The unterdach is a German idea that doesn’t exist in English; it kind of means under or in the eves of the roof. It's a sort of an atticky kind of description, or being under the roof. Cloddio means mining, so I was kind of mining away my soul, chipping away…And I was also up on the roof of this shed, chipping away at some things in my head. And, of course, the roof could mean your head. Chipping away at your own head and beliefs that you had before that may no longer be true. But I don’t want to impose my personal concepts. They’re just titles and they’re relevant to me. I leave it open to other people to find their own way to connect with the sound of the music.
And what kind of stuff have you been listening to when you were working on this record?
I was listening to a lot of Boards Of Canada and getting back to Aphex Twin. When I’m creating music I like to go back into Pauline Oliveros and GRM, or French acousmatic music and Pierre Schaaf. I get really inspired not even by their ideas but through their ideas. I’m inspired by their concepts by twisting them into my own, which takes it into a different direction. It’s funny 'cos a lot of the acousmatic music is quite academic, but even in that academic stuff you can still hear the person; they’re not just clinical tests. I don’t know what’s been happening in their own lives, but things do come out whenever you create, whether it's writing or painting. There’s no getting away from it. They’re digging for the emotional within the clinical, academic stuff and sometimes it sticks out like a sore thumb. The actual emotional stuff in the middle of this academic sound... I just follow my nose. I don’t like to limit myself to listening to certain types of music. I like everything. I’m a massive Gram Parsons fan. I’m listening to a lot of The Brian Jonestown Massacre at the moment and trying to figure out their magic.
How do you normally write? Do you follow a particular process?
Usually, I have some kind of an end sound I want to create; but every time I have a goal or a check point of the sound or experience I want, I feel like I’m missing the hit point. Later, when I’ve finished and look back at it, it is actually pretty much exactly what I was setting up to do. It’s kind of weird. When you’re in the middle of the creative process, you're hypercritical and you're doubting you’re getting the sound you were trying to achieve.
You showed us the quarry where you recorded some of your samples. Can you tell me a bit more about the sounds you use.
I like to composite sounds with each other. Most of the drum sounds are falling rocks composited with a tambourine or a snare drum, or another recording. They could be a camera shutter, any clicks or blips. I like to make my own drum sounds. For 'Cloddio Unterdach' it made sense to go to the quarry and get some mining sounds of slate tumbling down from the top to the bottom and then cut them up into little samples. I’ve got some software and some convolutions, so you can put two different things and use impulses from one set of sounds to play the other set of sounds. You can get a sound wave going – any note you can imagine – and then have the tumbling slate impulsing the sound waves. Lots of really interesting things and strange little concepts you can get into electronically.
What’s your current live setup?
At the moment it’s really laptop-orientated, with not many things going in but everything coming out. I’d like to bring more live movements; it’s quite nice to see things happening. I’m enjoying doing the laptop stuff, but there’s not much visual element to it. I suppose all sound comes from something moving, so it would be quite nice to have things moving.
Like background visuals?
I’m trying to focus purely on the sound. The sound itself has things to say.
Is live performance something you think a lot about?
Definitely, I studied sonic art. For a while, my mind was just in sonic art. I wasn’t making any beats.
What is sonic art?
I liked basing it on nature, so I was looking at the dynamics sound has in nature. Things like the wind and how wind can shift from one type of wind to a different type of wind; or even watching birds or fish how they move. It's bringing dynamics of nature into art. Basically, it's borrowing; like using impulses from natural sound to create a structure. It doesn’t translate very well into music. It translates very well to sonic art but not as much to the musicality of things, where you have to have some sort of a musical 12-tone structure or rhythm.
Do you tend to keep it fresh on tour, with different sets?
When I was on tour with Stealing Sheep I tried to have a new track for each gig. I didn’t stick to the same set through the whole tour. I added and took things away, tried different things out. It started off being an ambient set and then by the end of the tour it got into jungle. I’m not sure, I may have lost my way somewhere. (laughing)
I spotted you had a guitar in your room. Do you play a lot?
I’ve pretty much played the guitar every day since I was about 11. I’m really conscious of the whole muscle memory thing, so I keep changing tunings. I don’t like to be overfamiliar with a tuning. If you’re set in a tuning, you inevitably go back to playing the same thing over and over again. I like to mess around with different tunings; notes fall into different places and you have to figure things out. Keeps it fun and fresh, gives you different textures and keeps the whole instrument quite exciting.
But you played the drums before as well, right?
I started playing drums in Cardiff in a band with Huw (H.Hawline), Sweet Baboo, and Cate Le Bon. It’s a really different instrument to play. I remember noticing that you can make the floor tom and the cymbals ring when you get into the groove of the drum. I really like playing drums but I don’t own drums; I’ve never owned any drums. With H. Hawline we used to just turn up to a venue and all I had was my sticks; we just backlined the rest. When you listen to some of H. Hawline recordings, the drums are really bad 'cos I was learning. I haven’t played drums for a year, maybe two years now.
Apart from music, what do you get up to?
I like being outside in quieter places, like going out into the mountains. I ride my bike a lot and just get up there. Sometimes I listen to music. Usually it’s ambient stuff like Aphex Twin…Not to keep going, just to lose yourself in. It’s almost like a meditation. Once I'm out into the country, I just listen to the sounds. If I hear a real stream by the side of the road, I record it. I find streams really interesting. I can sit by a stream and focus in on different parts; like little bubbles that are happening, coming over a rock at one point. I zoom into that and then hear something else happening further down, hear some really basey bits at deep ends. That’s why I like recording all these different bits. When I bring them back to the studio, I can zoom in again using digital equalisation to find what I was hearing before. I think running water is a really interesting sound. And wind – recording wind, but it’s not the actual wind affecting the environment. I like going to pine forests where the trees are really close together. They squeak when they touch each other and I can record the squeaks.
Maybe one day you'll release a record made up entirely of natural sounds.
Yeah, like Chris Watson. Why not? (laughing)
Speaking of records, is there an LP in the pipeline?
Yeah, I suppose it’s about 3/4 of the way finished. I’m composing, then I’ll be mixing and then mastering. I’m not going to master it myself. It’s quite nice to have another set of ears. I also like the idea of the whole process coming from one viewpoint…You get to start thinking that you might be a bit arrogant to think that you can master your own stuff as well. People dedicate their lives to mastering and it is worth taking their advice to get the best out of it. I think the LP will be mastered by someone else, but I’m not sure who.
Is it going to be in a continuation of the ideas and sound on your EP?
It’s a continuation but it is different as well. It’s not relying on the past, or the 90s sound. It’s got a direction of its own. I suppose the EP was getting back into it and relying on past sounds to make it happen, but the LP has got its own sound. As I said, I like to combine natural dynamics and movements with other elements. The LP is attempting to do that more than anything else I’ve done before.
And are you planning to stay around North Wales for some time?
I don’t know. I’m not fixed at any point, so it’s quite nice knowing that I can go anywhere; but I've nowhere I really want to go to. I was thinking maybe Bristol, or overseas, but I don’t know. I’m happy here for now.
Shedhead EP is out now on Turnstile. For more information about R.Seiliog please visit the artist's Facebook page.
Photo credit: Mike Hughes.