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Interview with Darren McClure

img  Tobias Fischer

These days, originality appears to be the main gauge for artistic success: No insult could be worse than being made out a copycat or rip-off, no praise higher than having one's work being commended as 'unique', 'personal' or 'inventive'. And yet, as much as it's in demand, originality is a highly problematic term. For one, entirely original music is an impossibility, since every composition already builds on what came before it in some form or the other. Also, originality as a main priority does not by default result in satisfying results. Even more critically, our notion of originality is questioned by the advances of the information age: The more people are making and releasing music, the smaller the potential for each of them to create something truly original, after all. What happens when everything has been done - every sound sculpted, every beat programmed, every chord played and every arrangement tried? We spoke to a wide selection of artists from all corners of the musical spectrum to find out more about their take on originality, how they see it changing and what it means in their work.

In this interview, sound artist Darren McClure describes how his confusion upon hearing the first Godflesh tracks served as an important attractor – but that even the most outlandish and 'original' music is always influenced by something else.

For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
The first solo music I made in the mid 90s was with a synthesiser looping in a sequencer, just ambient loops that sounded nice by themselves. As the years went on and I accumulated more equipment and technique, I would make all kinds of electronic music: ambient, beats, noise, whatever felt fun at the time. But the more seriously I took it, the more I realised the need to focus on one style. I love lots of different types of music, but it’s the textures of sounds and the sounds themselves that I felt most attracted to. So it felt good to concentrate on just experimenting with these textures and creating abstract, minimal ambient pieces with them.

By that time my favourite music would have included the output of labels such as Mille Plateaux, 12k, Chain Reaction, Mego and other experimental electronic music, with one foot in techno and another in experimental/ambient sound design. So certainly the music coming from these labels was a big influence on how I approached my own music making. A lot of my early efforts were in direct response to this influence, an effort to emulate these sounds that I enjoyed so much. A few years later I was very inspired by a live event curated by Minamo and the Cubic Music label, called “Four Sounds” in Tokyo. Its line up included four artists whose music was diverse but also shared a certain sense of space, quietness and textural subtlety. That afternoon I listened to these artists perform live in a beautiful art gallery space, with the windows open on a warm Spring day, with the sounds of distant traffic and street noise bleeding into the room and becoming part of the music. This experience made me want to include field recordings in my own music, to give a sense of those sounds of the world being woven into the sounds of the studio.


When, would you say, did you start to appreciate originality as an important quality in music? What were some of the first artists that stood out in terms of their originality to you and what was it about the originality in their work that attracted you to it?
I think with art and music and all other forms of creative work, there’s no absolute in terms of originality. Everyone has influences and include these influences in their art. Of course, there are certain artists whose music tends to have a very signature sound, and my first exposure to something like this was in 1989 when Godflesh’s Peel Session was broadcast. At that time I was a big grindcore and hardcore fan, so I was immersed in those bands, especially those on the Earache record label, and these bands all shared similar qualities as it was such a tight-knit scene and within a very specific genre. So when I tuned in to hear Godflesh, a new Earache signing who I had never heard before, I was expecting that same “in-house” sound. Instead I heard four tracks that were so completely alien and original to my ears then, I had difficulty describing their sound to friends afterwards, my closest frame of reference back then being Big Black.

Peel quoted someone who had described Godflesh’s music as “incarcerated yet vulnerable”, and this stuck with me then and all these subsequent years since, so that phrase seemed to convey the mood of their music, as no genre names were appropriate or fitting. Of course, their sound wasn’t completely original, in retrospect, once I had heard the likes of Swans, I realised that even Godflesh had influences. For me, the important thing is your own personal twist on these influences. That alone gives you more of a singular voice.

The reason i was attracted to this sound was that it used space and texture to such a degree, and although the heaviness was still there, there was also an emphasis on atmosphere. Coming from an expectation of hyper-kinetic grindcore, only to be confronted with a slow-motion, imploded sound, was a revelation for me and changed my thinking about music completely. Following Justin Broadrick’s side projects since that experience served to open my ears to electronica, dub, noise and free jazz. And of course continuing to tune into John Peel did likewise.

As my tastes went in different directions during the ‘90s, I discovered Autechre and was completely floored by their music. Of course, hints of their roots were and still are evident in everything they do: hip hop, acid, techno, electro etc, but as their career progressed, their sound became so unclassifiable that the best was to describe it would be simply as Autechre-music. This is the true sign of originality, when your output transcends your influences so much that it simply sounds like, well, you.


What's your own definition of originality?
Maybe just trusting your tastes, enjoying how your own music sounds to you subjectively and according to those tastes instead of trying to create something that fits into a pre-existing genre or type.


Originality is one, but certainly not the only aspect of quality in music. What, from your current perspective, is the value of originality and has it become more or less important to you over time?
Well, If it can be argued that there isn’t really a perfect notion of originality, that everything has an influence and heritage, then maybe originality isn’t that important. Or at least, an artist might be “more original” than another, or who brings new ideas into play in an unconscious way.


With more and more musicians creating than ever and more and more of these creations being released, what does this mean for you as an artist in terms of originality? What are some of the areas where you currently see the greatest potential for originality and who are some of the artists and communities that you find inspiring in this regard?
It’s true that access to music and sound creation is more available than ever, and this means a lot more output to digest. I don’t think this is really a bad thing, just more to choose from. Besides the bigger and more well-known labels, there are now lots of smaller labels, issuing handmade issues of CDRs and tapes, and that community is really thriving and curating quality releases.


What are areas of your writing process at the moment that are particularly challenging to you and how does the notion of originality come into play here? What have been some of the more rewarding strategies for attaining originality for you? Please feel free to expand on some of your recent projects and releases.
Recently I’ve done a lot of collaborative work and this experience is always interesting and challenges my normal mode of writing. Each person I work with brings something very different to the process, and my interaction with that exchange of ideas forces me to think in ways I may not otherwise have considered.


The idea of originality is closely related to one's understanding of the creative process. How would you describe this process for yourself - where do ideas come from, how are they transformed in your mind and how do experiences and observations turn into a work of art?
I usually work in such a way that it’s mostly sound designing and improvising in the studio and capturing the things that are most interesting to my ears. Less planning, more intuition and plenty of happy accidents. And it’s usually those unplanned, surprising sounds that end up becoming the basis of tracks. So ideas don’t really come from a conscious moment for me, instead they evolve throughout the process of writing and processing sounds. The notion of having an idea in your mind and manifesting that exact same thing into the real world seems impossible, at least for me anyway. Even that act of transferring the original idea into a recording is a bit like copying something but not succeeding, therefore the copy is a slightly different version. It’s like having a visual image in your mind’s eye, if you try to channel that image through a pen onto paper, the physical image will differ at least enough to be something new in itself.


The aspect of originality has often been closely linked to copyright questions. I'm not so much interested in the legal and economic consequences, but your thoughts on how far an artist can claim an idea / composition as being their own – is there, perhaps, a better model for recognising originality than the one currently in place?
Copyright and the idea of intellectual property is such a slippery concept. Some of the most imaginative music ever made has been sample-based. Hip hop and Jungle are thought of as groundbreaking, but both recycle the Amen break to infinity. The Caretaker’s music sounds very original to me, but is all made from loops of old ballroom music drenched in reverb. So maybe if the concept is original, even if the constituent sounds aren’t, then the intent renders the finished product original. And if the argument can be made that technically nothing is original, that it’s all rearrangement and repurposing of existing ideas, then maybe the originality of the work can be valued on the basis of how well that it has been reprocessed and (de)constructed.


How do you see the relationship between the tools to create music and originality?
I suppose it’s not what you use but how you use it. All rock music uses guitars, but not all rock music sounds the same. With electronic music, the same gear and software is used by everyone, but that doesn’t mean a universal sound results. Of course, if artists use those tools in ways not normally intended by the manufacturers, like circuit bending or hacking, then unexpected results are sure to arise.


In terms of supporting originality, what are some of the technological developments you find interesting points of departure for your own work?
My studio is a hybrid of software and hardware, and the fact that everything is so easily connected is a technical achievement in itself. I like to edit a lot in a software environment, and process sounds over and over, so i guess computing capabilities being what they are act as a springboard for my ideas to develop.


The importance and perspective on originality has greatly varied over the course of musical history. From your point of view, what are some of the factors in the cultural landscape that are conducive to originality and what are some of those that constitute obstacles?
These days there is a culture of inclusion-neediness, whereby people feel obliged to fit into groups or trends. If you go along with this then anything you produce will be homogeneous. Better to have a culture that encourages individual expression.


Do you have a vision of a piece of music which you haven't been able to realise for technical or financial reasons?
Not really, but my music has always been the result of whatever tools I have at my disposal. Limitations encourage initiative.

Darren McClure Interview by Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Darren McClure