Russell Haswell is a Coventry-born multidisciplinary artist whose work covers video art, public sculpture, and production. Collaborating with the likes of Aphex Twin and Autechre Gescom, Pan Sonic, and Masami Akita (Merzbow). He worked with Florian Hecker on Iannis Xenakis’ UPIC system in their Haswell & Hecker duo, whose Blackest Ever Black LP is widely considered a milestone of modern electronic music composition.
What is the reasoning to start doing noise music?
So I don’t have to do anything else (smiles), I mean really. I’m doing what I’m doing because I want to make something, that I want. It’s selfish. I want to make something I want to hear and it’s also a reaction to everything else that we hear, that we see, that is presented to us by the mainstream. So most of it is a critical reaction to what I don’t like, it’s my disdain, my dissatisfaction with society and the mainstream art, music. It’s a reaction to that and that fuels me to make what I do.
Is it a political gesture?
Well, it is political in the end.
Do you think that your “aesthetic of failure” is shaped by the failure of the equipment that you use?
It used to be a lot more when I used to use computers for my “performances”, because at the time in the 90s the computers were very slow and they crashed. When I used to do a gig the tracks usually finished because the computer crashed and then you had to reboot the computer. So the failure quite literally determined the duration of the work and also the sound because things wouldn’t be working properly and it was a desire to push the computer as far as it would go. The software at the time would fail and it was always about just pushing it further and further and further and then obviously it would break.
So it just became part of the work, you know. It’s a bit like auto-destructive art. I was always interested in this kind of process art and things like this. So in a way, I wanted to have as little involvement so it was pure. And also back then we were using software that actually generating sound with mastering tools, something that was actually designed to finish a recording was actually used to generate the recording right rather than using some instrument. I don’t know I never studied music, so I’m not really interested in instruments. That’s why with my synthesizer I don’t have a keyboard. I don’t want to use musical form.
There’s this similarity between what would probably call the computer works from the 90s to the synthesizer works from the thousands. And with the synthesizer, I’m using a kind of non-traditional or chaotic oscillator. I’m using these things to control and generate and trigger and modulate the sounds that I’m working on. Even when I’m playing a beat and a rhythm, I’m still using random generation and chaotic oscillators to trigger sequences. It’s not so straightforward. I want it to be self-generating, although I’m just interfering at times to steer it in different directions, usually to the more chaotic, to go further, where I haven’t been before. It’s a bit like exploring, like wandering off and going off over the hill and finding out what’s on the other side. And that’s what I’m trying to do with the sound. I’m trying to go into the sound. I want something physical. I want to feel it. That’s why I like noise because it has a physical presence. It’s sculptural.
I’m usually thinking about how shit the mainstream music is or other artists. So it is a critical investigation that I get a kick out of. I need to get a buzz and energy. When I’m doing a gig, I get a feeling and I want to feel uncertain, I want it to be unpredictable, so it’s all improvised, so I don’t use any pre-programmed sequences. I’m not cheating, you know. Most people just play stuff back or whatever. I’m making it all on the spot as it happens.
Can you say that you are collaborating with the machine?
Yeah, I’m a co-creator with the machine which I have configured. But I’m also collaborating with the people who have made the modules, some of which I have had a part in its development. Or I’ve requested something from an engineer. I have some totally unique things and then I have some things that anyone can go and buy from off the internet. But it’s the connection. There are many modules and these modules are interconnected in different ways with different patches to do different things. You end up having a more unique system because of the modules that you’ve selected and how you choose to patch. I know many other artists, but I don’t know anyone that’s using the same modules. They might have some of them, but they haven’t got the next thing and the next thing.
Does that mean that you are limited by the machine you patched?
Yes, I am limited, but it’s how I choose to work. It gives me instant gratification and I enjoy turning knobs and patching in cables rather than wiggling a trackpad or a mouse. I did that for too long and I became bored. Everybody started to play with the computer and they were all cheating because they were just playing files back or pre-sequenced. Using Ableton live or whatever everyone’s using. I’m trying intentionally to be quite unique.
I’m interfering with it directly as it happens. The AI piece is generated by gathering data from other users and other data sheets, which I’ve got nothing to do with. In the end, it won’t sound the same. It’s like playing chess with a computer. You can still beat the computer and I can beat the AI. AI’s taking over everything so I wanted to go away from it. It’s taking over my bank, my bills, my rent. Everything is controlled by AI. So I’m choosing to go away from what’s affecting the rest of my life. I want to have something more physical more tactile and direct. And I want to interfere. I want to stop or start. I want to change it and don’t just leave it to another group of people that I don’t know, who I’ve got no interest in. Who’s got a completely different mindset to me? So it’s a choice, it’s my choice to do this.
I see this as a direct result of being from a war-destroyed city, growing up around concrete, and becoming interested in brutalist architecture. As a result and being interested in Xenakis and his mathematical calculations with concrete. And the literal translation of music concrete or synthetic sound. I love nature, I love nature sounds. Chris Watson is a very good friend of mine, but I’m not trying to do his job. He does that the best so I’m trying to make something synthetic. When I was a teenager, I used to go to lots of concerts, like three concerts a week. As I grew older I went to even more concerts and now I’ve been nearly all the way around the world and I’ve seen concerts all over the world. All different types of music and in the end I try and make what I would be happy going to experience.
So new things that you experience and discover, are constantly shaping your sound?
Yeah, little bits. It becomes granular, it’s on a micro level, but there are thousands and thousands of grains to make the thing, sure. I’m influenced by everything I’ve ever seen, done, heard, eaten, drank, taken. I enjoy life, so I want to enjoy myself, I want to please other people you know. Some people react to my concerts and say fuck you and throw things or pull the cables out or close the computer or pour alcohol into it. But I’m not trying to actually get that reaction, I want people to go “yes”, “woohoo” and enjoy themselves. I want them to have a good time too. In the end, it’s a kind of entertainment, even if it’s actually more conceptually driven and it’s got different ideas hidden and interwoven into the work. It’s actually about pure adrenaline and enjoyment and pleasure. It’s probably quite hedonistic.
So how an unprepared listener should approach your (noise) music?
Well in an immediate way. Immediately, instantaneously, because it’s about pure adrenaline and so they should have a physical and a mental reaction to it. If they don’t like and understand or want to explore and go on with me on this journey, then they should stop listening and they should go away because if they don’t like it, they don’t like it. I don’t want to force anything on anyone. I’m a reasonable guy, I’m not trying to irritate people.
But do you provoke your audience?
No, no, I want them to enjoy it. I might be provoking other artists, well because it’s critical of their work. It’s critical of their process, the results of their work. That’s also why I stopped I stopped working as a curator because sometimes I had to work with artists that I didn’t appreciate. Even though they were very successful and in the end, the result of that is that I’m doing this now. The niche scenes in music, you know, they’re transitory. They get some of them, they’re fads. Some of them will come and some of them will go and some will stay around and maybe carry on for a long time. I would say that’s unpredictable. Maybe artificial intelligence will tell us something about which way it’s going to go, but I’m going to probably try to go the other direction. You know, whereas 90% of artists are going to follow the instructions of the computer and Spotify or whatever it is that they choose, how they choose to consume music or art.
But it is also the industry that pushes trends right? Labels chose specific artists and pack them with distinguishable sounds. For example “The Death Of Rave” has a very specific lineup. What’s the tradeoff then?
Well, the artists gain. Because they become associated with the other artists on the label. Hopefully, the other artists on the label are good and interesting, and challenging. There are lots of labels that have lots of uninteresting artists, but some of them are very successful and some of them aren’t. I’ve probably been quite lucky. I’ve usually worked with labels that I consider to be good. I mean, I enjoy other artists, I like the people, I like spending time with them, so it becomes social. It’s also a social thing with concerts or making art. It’s not just the finished thing, the record or the artwork, the painting. It’s who you have dinner with the day before, where you travel in the world, do you have a good time, don’t you have a good time. Do you want to return, do you want to work with these people again. You know I don’t want to run a record label, so that’s why I don’t have my own.
Well, I don’t want to do all the paperwork. I don’t want to do the accounting, I want to create. I don’t want to be tied up with bureaucracy. You know, if iI was an accountant or something in a former life I probably would be interested in running a label. I know people who successfully run labels, actually enjoy doing the paperwork and enjoy ordering the mastering and arranging and commissioning the sleeve and doing all this stuff. I’m not really, that’s not where I get my kick, you know. It’s the last thing I want to do. I’m lucky that I’ve got friends that run labels. People that are interested in me and they’re happy to release my work. It’s not straightforward, it’s not really. There’s not really an agenda or a manifesto. It’s just got to be good and good company.
So human aspect is the core.
Yeah, I mean most of this is really all about the human aspect. It is for me. I don’t want to go somewhere where I don’t like the people or they give me shit or I have a bad time. I want to go somewhere that’s easy to go to. It’s much easier to come here (Yerevan) and for that reason, I prefer it here. It’s nicer from what I’ve seen and the people I’ve met. I’m having a good time here. I really like it and I’d love to return. I’d like to see more you know.
So it’s really about the social aspect. It is probably the most important thing. It turns into a cycle where you have to make more work and the only reason you’re making more work is so that you actually get invited to go to places, to meet more people, to have social interaction with people and I like being in a room with a sound system and people and playing and making chaotic irregular sounds that I’ve never heard before. It’s more important than doing a record you know. I make records really quickly, like in a few days, and then it takes a whole year for it to come out, and then it probably takes a year for it to kind of disseminate and for people to react to it in some way or actually find it, come across it.
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