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15 Questions to John Twells / Xela

img  Tobias Fischer

Hi! How are you? Where are you?
I am good, right now I’m living just outside of Boston in a small city called Malden in the state of Massachusetts. But to be honest as I type this I’m sitting on a bus to New York City as I have a DJ set tonight.

What’s on your schedule right now?
My schedule’s always busy, and right now it’s packed with a handful of Type releases, commissions, remixes, live shows and DJ spots. Since starting a DJ night and series of live events in Boston the schedule has become notably busier.

How would you describe and rate the music scene of the country you are currently living in?
America’s so gigantic it’s really impossible to rate the scene in general terms. It’s easy for me to comment on the Boston scene, or if you wanted to expand that to the East Coast it still might apply, but the sense of scale is not really understood in Europe. It would be like asking what the music scene in Europe as a whole was like, I suppose. In Boston I’ve found the experimental music scene to be very healthy and collaborative, with plenty of established artists working in the same sphere as me, and plenty of new, younger artists joining the gang each year. For certain other forms of music I maybe feel that it’s not as good as England; electronic and bass music especially, but it’s a very small trade-off, really.

Do you see yourself as part of a certain tradition or as part of a movement?
I try not to, although I get just as caught up in trends and movements as everyone else does (I’m a simple chap) I just make music that I like to listen to, and make music that’s fun to produce. Whatever agenda gets caught up in it is more to do with my own mind than any musical tradition or movement.

In terms of composition, what do you consider your main challenges?
My main challenges have always been to get the character of the sound right, I’ve been composing music so long that that aspect of it isn’t the main pitfall I have, it’s getting everything to actually sound exactly how I need it to.

How would you describe your method of composing?

I usually come up with a chord progression or melodic part and write around it, building it up very slowly. Often I will remove any trace of the original track and can just be left with half an hour of white noise, but usually the tracks have roots in actual ‘music’.

In which way, would you say, is your cultural background reflected in your work?
My cultural background is a weird one, I think possibly the best way it was reflected was in my first album ‘For Frosty Mornings and Summer Nights’ but I’m probably the only person that can hear it. I come from a pretty impoverished area of the UK called The Black Country, and despite attempts to clean it up and force art on my town it’s a pretty culturally bankrupt place to grow up. I had my parents playing tunes to me from an early age, but stepping out of the house was a grey, industrial wasteland – this is where heavy metal and industrial techno began you know? My first record was written when I still lived with my parents, and I was working at a car parts store selling and fitting bass boxes, so there was a pretty pointed reason why it was littered with rap/R&B references and sub bass. I think the big difference between that album and later ones was that it was definitely hopeful; I can hear my youth in the recordings. Some of my darker, later work reflects the landscape more clearly and vividly, but I hear my cultural background directly whenever I hear those early songs.

How do you see the relationship between sound and composition?
Sound doesn’t have to be composed, and well composed work can totally be lacking in the sound department, I think when you have both nailed you can stumble across something really good. It’s something I’ve attempted since I began writing music, I don’t know whether I’ve got it absolutely right just yet.

How strictly do you separate improvising and composing?
I try not to separate it at all, improvisation can lead to composition and compositions can inspire new improvisation. The big difference is when I’m improvising around other musicians it’s important to listen very carefully and not over assert what you’re doing. I’ve seen big problems with artists who traditionally have absolute control over what they do, and when confronted with an improvisational environment they simply don’t know how to handle it.

What does the term „new“ mean to you in connection with music?

New can mean a lot of things when talking about music, but to me it tends to mean ‘released recently’. This is probably because I’m a music reviewer and first and foremost a big contemporary music fan. So while the ‘new’ single from Kelly Rowland might not be ‘new’ in terms of breaking new ground in music, it’s new to me if that makes sense? If a mate said to me “have you heard any good new tunes” I would reply “yeah that new jam from Kelly Rowland is great”.

Do you personally enjoy multimedia as an enrichment or do you feel that it is leading away from the essence of what you want to achieve?
I’m still fascinated with music videos and great artwork but I don’t think it’s the make or break point. Music can be a selection of unmarked MP3s these days and you can get just as much enjoyment from those as you can from a deluxe gatefold 3LP box set. I think a lot of the time artists get way too bogged down with multimedia; when it’s an enhancement to music that doesn’t need it to exist I’m cool with it, when it’s to polish a turd, not so much.

What constitutes a good live performance in your opinion? What’s your approach to performing on stage?

I’m not a good live performer; let’s get that out of the way first. I occasionally enjoy doing the odd performance but I’m constantly trying to find a way to translate my very laboured studio productions into something dynamic and ‘live’. I don’t appreciate the ‘play a couple of tracks from Ableton’ school of live performance too much, it’s valid sure, but it’s not fun to watch as a punter. Seeing an artist wrestle (expertly) with their gear is a phenomenally visceral way of experiencing live electronic music, but it’s rarely done right. Keith Fullerton Whitman is probably the closest you will get to genuinely innovative and enjoyable live performance in the genre at the moment. My approach is way more haphazard, I’ll hopefully have it down in the next few years… it’s only taken ten so far.

How, would you say, could non-mainstream forms of music reach wider audiences without sacrificing their soul?
I think most non-mainstream musicians would love to reach wider audiences, sacrifice or no sacrifice. It’s a common misconception that as experimental musicians you make music that sounds weird because you don’t want people to hear it. Most people I know who make tunes that sound like your fridge is on the fritz would absolutely love it if they could rack up the sales numbers of Lady GaGa, it’s just almost impossible to make that happen.

You are given the position of artistic director of a festival. What would be on your program?
Being a rabid music fan this would of course be a dream but would also take months of thought and hundreds upon hundreds of scrap bits of paper with ideas scrawled over ‘em. Off the top of my head : Waka Flocka Flame, Lil B, Hype Williams, Clams Casino, Burzum, Demdike Stare, Prurient, Keith Fullerton Whitman, DJ Premier, E-40, SND, Pete Swanson, Kate Bush, Joker, The Skaters, Andy Votel, Thomas Koner, Jamie xx, The-Dream, Jazkamer

Many artists dream of a “magnum opus”. Do you have a vision of what yours would sound like?
Like a successful amalgamation of all the music I love.

John Twells / Xela Discography:
For Frosty Mornings And Summer Nights (Neo Ouija) 2003    
Tangled Wool (City Centre Offices) 2004    
Boomkat Selected Mixtapes Volume 6 - Listen With Xela (Boomkat Selected Mixtapes) 2004    
The Dead Sea (Type) 2006    
The 12th Chapel/ w. Greg Haines & Danny Saul (Rite) 2007    
Heirs Of The Fire (Rite) 2008    
The Illuminated (Digitalis Limited) 2008    
In Bocca Al Lupo (Type) 2008    
Never, Better (Digitalis Recordings) 2008    
Electronic Music Vol.1/ w. Marea Nordului (Rite) 2008    
Calling For Vanished Faces / Shipping Gold/ w. MGR (Barge Recordings) 2008    
I Love Her Till I Die/ w. Ajilvsga (Digitalis Limited) 2008    
The Divine (Digitalis Limited) 2009    
Gnaw Their Tongues / Lunar Miasma / Mrtyu / Xela Split (Insult) 2009
Coasts/ w. Christensen (Digitalis Limited)   
My Memories Of Gallifrey (Private Chronology) 2011
The Sublime (Digitalis Limited) 2011

John Twells / Xela

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