RSS feed RSS Twitter Twitter Facebook Facebook 15 Questions 15 Questions

15 Questions to Michael Tanner

img  Tobias Fischer

Hi! How are you? Where are you?
Hey! I’m in Dorset - at my work desk here in the library, with a half eaten baked potato and some broken headphones, reviewing some mixes.

What’s on your schedule right now?

Too much, as usual. I’ve just been putting finishing touches to my contribution to a friend’s charity compilation Moozak, and working on some backing tracks for the forthcoming United Bible Studies album.

How would you describe and rate the music scene of the city you are currently living in?

Nigh on non-existent. My nearest city is Bournemouth and there’s not much of a scene there - we have some pretty good lofi-pop bands like Powdered Cows and Hardsparrow but we lack the audience to nourish them ... same old story.
But that can work too, right? That lack of community influence can lead you to grow in your own shape. At least that’s always been my experience. The few Dorset bands/artists that have lasted more than a few records certainly have their own twisted uniqueness.

When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences?
I was a late bloomer. Couldn’t even tune a guitar until I was 17. I knew I wanted to make um … ’non-traditional music’ but spent a good few years hunting for a vessel to get me there. I grew up, musically speaking, with most of the early Domino and Kranky records catalog alongside a love for all things folky. Palace Brothers, Labradford, Gastr Del Sol, Sebadoh … that kind of thing. Usual 19-year-old chin stroking fare.

What do you personally consider to be the incisive moments in your artistic work and/or career?

The Pastels asking to put a song out back in 2001 or so (‘Bracken’ on the Geographic Music compilation). It felt like I was on the ladder, so to speak, and wanted to hold on to it for dear life. Seems stupid now I think about it, but I was such a big music fan that I just wanted a song out, somewhere. To contribute to ‘Music’, in the indefinable sense.
Aside from that, I remember a particularly serendipitous day in '98 when I learned how to slow down and transform sounds I’d recorded with a laptop and sampler. That changed everything.

What are currently your main compositional- and production-challenges?

I enjoy most aspects of what you call challenges - finding new ways to work is all part of the fun of it. My biggest problem I’m experiencing now, given that I’m a few years down the line with this lark, is simply making things sound ‘good’. Quality wise, audio wise, cleanliness of production and reproduction … I first started in the alternative/lo-fi years, which presented me with a ready made get-out clause for presenting poorly produced work. Nowadays, with the equipment I have at my disposal, there’s really no excuse. So that is what preoccupies my waking hours right now (in a musical sense, of course - there’s still mortgages and buying cat food that ranks in a higher order).

What do you usually start with when working on a new piece?
Normally with something that catches my ear - a sound or chord-change that leaps out from the past at you, like a childhood memory. Then I nail it to a computer screen and tweak it until I’ve extracted whatever magical quality enticed me in the first place. Wrap it in a concept. Repeat.

How strictly do you separate improvising and composing?
Depends on the project I’m working on, and at what stage I join the process. If there is existing material and I’m adding to it, I guess I see that as composition, adhering to pre-imposed compositional structures. Improvising is pretty much the starting point for everything else. Those things suggested by the subconscious.

How do you see the relationship between sound, space and composition?
Again, it’s dependant on the project. I work with folkier based artists, noise, ambient, so it tends to vary. ‘Space’ and minimalism are two words that get used a lot in referencing my output, I suppose.

Do you feel it important that an audience is able to deduct the processes and ideas behind a work purely on the basis of the music? If so, how do you make them transparent?

Oh God, this is a great question. Personally, I think the biggest fault with the music I make is how conceptual it is, and my need to viciously ram that concept down the throat of the listener. I’ve tried to tone that down recently, but old habits die hard. If you listen to a record like Music For Smalls Lighthouse (Second Language Records 2010) you can probably see how it could’ve worked as subtle, ambient record. But no. I needed to have the sound of the sea, nails and coffins, and to have it packaged with a short story about the Lighthouse history on pages made from braille bibles and antique piano rolls etc etc … I guess when I have a good idea for a record, I close my eyes and wrap myself up in the concept, the atmosphere, toying with it for a long time. Maybe read the right books or watch the films required to completely immerse myself in this idea. And in turn, on completion, it seems necessary to swamp the listener with these same sensations. Without that I feel like I’ve just made a bunch of songs with no framework or reference. Although, admittedly, I should probably tone it down a bit ...

There seem to be two fundamental tendencies in music today: On the one hand, a move towards complete virtualisation, where tracks and albums are merely released as digital files. And, on the other, an even closer union between music, artwork, packaging and physical presentation. Where do you stand between these poles?
I’ll always be a fan of the physical ‘thing’ but am easily seduced by the label-free autonomy of digital music. Increasingly, even manufacturers of physical goods seem to sell their merchandise solely over the web and via facebook links and youtubes, so I don’t see a huge world of difference between that and a Bandcamp widget. But as it stands, I’m another vote for physical packaging. I’d always work with a label who’re willing to go the extra mile with presentation, than one who will simply press up more copies.

The role of an artist is always subject to change. What's your view on the (e.g. political/social/creative) tasks of artists today and how do you try to meet these goals in your work?
… To give people an away-day in their heads, to remind them that life’s not always as shit as it seems, or to provide them with background music that’s not too fruity whilst they complete overdue photoshop assignments.

Music-sharing sites and -blogs as well as a flood of releases in general are presenting both listeners and artists with challenging questions. What's your view on the value of music today?
Well it’s de-valued, though whether you can lay the blame solely at the feet of file-sharing is debatable. I try to be as liberal as possible in that respect. Like a lot of my peers, I’m on a very low rung of the ladder. I don’t really play live often, so file-sharing is basically my PR - which is unfortunate, but true. My goal (like most artists) is to get as many people as possible to hear what I do - that overrides any other notions like income, etc. I always felt that if you actually have an audience, *then* you can worry about who’s buying and who’s freeloading. But the main thing is getting an audience in the first place.

A lot of people need to re-calibrate their thinking on this issue, as it’s not going to get any better. There’s an increased air of desperation and almost emotional bullying in statements released from artists towards the free downloading blog brigade that I don’t think helps either party. You can hope that morality still plays a role in the life of the downloader … but it’s only hope. I uploaded two out of print records onto my Bandcamp a few weeks back to make some money to cover travel for an upcoming tour. Within hours, a guy puts both of them together (even linking the images from the Bandcamp) up for free on his blog, encouraging the downloaders to ‘buy a physical copy from the artist’. Only the whole point in the exercise is that there *is* no physical copy. So do we expect the downloader to go to Bandcamp and pay me for a digital download of something that’s already sat in their iTunes? I mean … .some things still get to you. You don’t want to stop believing in ‘genuine music fans’ (eurgh).

How, would you say, could non-mainstream forms of music reach wider audiences?
Well that’s the million dollar question in an industry in a constant state of flux, right? I really don’t know. Unless an exec comes along and asks to use ‘alternative’ music for TV or film, it pretty much stays at grass roots level. Though to be fair, the above seems to be happening for ‘non-mainstream’ artists much more regularly now than say, 15/20 years ago.

Please recommend two artists to our readers which you feel deserve their attention.
Currently, I think the work of David Colohan (Agitated Radio Pilot/Raising Holy Sparks) is much underrated and is not given the attention it merits. I also normally put a shout out for Emmanuelle Parrenin’s ‘Maison Rose’ as one of my all-time favourite records at this point...

Many artists dream of a “magnum opus”. Do you have a vision of what yours would sound like?
Gavin Bryars ordering Steely Dan at gunpoint deep into the bowels of a Pagan catacomb, de-tuning their instruments and strapping a bomb to them that detonates if they play anything over or below 30bpm. Mike Oldfield would be heard in the processional corridor outside playing with a rubik’s cube, cackling.

Intro by Hannis Brown

Michael Tanner Discography

As Michael Tanner:
Five Shores (For Guitar) (Michael Tanner Self-Relased) 2005    
In The Rheidol Valley/ w. Sharron Kraus (Morc Records) 2011

As Plinth:
Wintersongs (Dorset Paeans) 2001    
Plays Victorian Machine Music (Rusted Rail) 2006    
The Rest, I Leave To The Poor/ w. Textile Ranch (Make Mine Music) 2008    
Music For Smalls Lighthouse + Flotsam (Second Language) 2010    
Albatross (Deadslackstring) 2010    
Collected Machine Music (Time Released Sound) 2012

Recommended Michael Tanner / Plinth interviews & articles on the web:

Interview with Michael Tanner about the art of songwriting
Complete overview of Michael Tanner's work / tribute page

Michael Tanner

Related articles

Interview with Dirk Serries - Microphonics & 3 Seconds of Air
Tilburg, 24th of January of ...
Interview with Telekaster
It is anything but easy ...
Interview with Nicholas Szczepanik
"I'm sorry it disrupts your ...
Interview with Ian Hawgood
There are a few select ...
Interview with Jimmy Behan
"Time is something that always ...
15 Questions to Pillowdiver
"I guess the tracks that ...

Partner sites