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Interview with Gagarin

img  Tobias Fischer

In which way can you still recognise particular places just by closing your eyes and listening?
I think you can. All cities sound subtly different – a combination of different car models, different size roads, driving styles, public transport systems, height of the buildings, humidity, different musics being played, language and accents obviously. All underground systems even have their own sound - I could probably guess most of the London lines blind.

How important do you rate the feeling of belonging and home this creates?

I think there are many different ways of feeling a sense of home or what actually home consists of and it's a complex question. I like to belong in lots of different ways and I think that's natural – I belong to the community of cells and organisms that make up life, to the community of Britain, London, musicians etcetera etcetera. I also like to feel a connection with the ground, the geography and sense of place but I can also find home in that least homely of environments – being on tour, constantly moving. I have lived where I do for a long time so it is very much my home but I feel equally at home in a tent in a remote place. I guess having something over you helps it be home but I think there can be something in familiar objects that helps us to keep home with us.

Tell me a bit about the acoustic potential surrounding you right now.
To be honest, in South London, it's not that exciting – it's flat, so sound dissipates quickly. Where I live, the dominant sounds are the trains which have a huge variety of tones and timbres – sometimes, something goes past and I have to run with a hard disc recorder because it's so great but I usually miss them. On the common at the end of my street there is a place where you are at the apex of a huge triangle with trains crossing a 3D field of sound and endless reflections rattling down the lines. Then of course cars, planes, sirens, big subbass units in a rattly old Golf, some kids spitting bars into their phones on the bus, then lots of birds around my garden – really loud Blackbirds, Robins and Wrens, annoying Collared Doves. Most exciting are the voices – so many different languages, accents and tonalities. So I guess I was wrong. It is quite exciting really. It's never silent or dark here – there's a constant hum at the very least.

You've referred to dubstep as „South London's folk music“. What precisely did you mean by that?
There is a huge South London history since the first large wave of West Indian immigration on the Windrush of first blue beat and ska then reggae being in a way the flag bearers for multi-culturalism which developed as second third and now fourth generations became more and more established as South Londoners especially as Brixtonites. The 70s saw an explosion of soundsystems like Tubbys, Coxsone and later Saxon which laid the blueprint for South London bass – enormous systems with huge subs and always a space echo with big name reggae DJs, producers and musicians all working around the area. And then this big punk/reggae thing led to lots of cross pollination. But reggae is Jamaican music fundamentally, though we all share in it. Mixing it all up with other influences was always happening and younger people of whatever heritage have tapped into that, bringing a myriad of other influences, and maintained that history. But they've also needed their own music and culture that reflected their personal place and time.

On Biophilia, you're using elements from dubstep without actually creating „pure“ dubstep tracks. Could one see these as a form of field recordings?
Yes absolutely – it's fragments heard as cars drive by, from phones, shops, pirate radio – music is part of the backdrop to our lives and every moment has its own sounds – the wobble bass or a big echoed snare are very much of time and place. In a way, the album is how I hear the world - my soundworld is a mass of noise, beats, melodies, semi-heard voices, different styles, new musics, old musics. So those are all part of the pallet that I can use to express myself.

The idea of juxtaposition also seems to be relevant to your interest in the interface between the urban and the pastoral. What kind of conclusions did you draw from your research into this – personally, artistically and perhaps even politically?
It's interesting and insightful that you bring politics into this as you can't really separate the political from the aesthetic if you are influenced as much as I am by my environment. Whether it's the more obvious aspects like the way nature quickly reclaims failed enterprise or the resilience of the natural world in the face of (post)industrialisation or more complex and subtle influences around social demography, land ownership, transport policies and so forth, it all has a strong influence on my art. We can't ever remove ourselves from nature – as Neil Young said Rust never Sleeps – nor does Buddleia.
My aesthetic is definitely shaped to a great degree by juxtaposition and I consciously manifest that. For instance I love to set a degraded noise against a beautiful melodic pad – I love the colours and textures of rust. I have learnt to find much beauty in that area of juxtaposition and seeming conflict. I’ve seen motorways that actually added to the beauty of a natural place for instance.

Perhaps we need both in a way ...
Constant struggle for me, I’m not sure I have a preference – I personally really need it both ways. Today I’ve spent most of the day on the streets of Balham – tomorrow I’ll be in a tent in the Lake District. London makes me feel totally alive. But so does striding along a mountain ridge.

Tell me about your interest in „Nature Deficit Disorder“, please.
For me personally I know that in difficult times nature has never failed me – on the toughest of days the sound of a bird, the sight of a flower has never failed to lift my spirits as well as to make me feel physically better. I think it's so sad that most young people don't get regular access to this most natural of medicines or indeed the challenges that being in touch with nature throws up and the more elemental side of nature as well as the pastoral. They don't know what native animals look like, probably never even get wet in the rain! I am convinced that a greater connection with the natural world helps people to understand their place in the world and nourishes the soul.

The biophilia hypothesis postulates that men have an inherent liking towards nature.

I think there is somewhere in our psyche a deep drawing back to our roots as wild animals that we have tried to escape from but can't really. We have tried to master nature, to control and use it for our own ends. But fundamentally we are creatures of the woods and plains. So for me it's not so much a liking for nature as much as an unbreakable link to it. However I don't subscribe to any „back to nature“ pastoralism that rejects modernity.

In which way can music and sound, as for example through your work, support a return to these roots?
I guess the market for recordings of birdsong and sea and the pleasure people derive from listening to this has broken down the barrier between music and environmental sound for many – for me I don't think there ever was such a separation. I’m not making healing music though. I’m more playing with some ideas that could be other soothing or challenging – I do think that hearing sound in a „musical“ context makes us listen in a very different way.

The cosmos has often been used as a backdrop to make very human and earthly issues more transparent. With regards to your Gagarin-nom-de-plume, are you using references to space in your oeuvre in a similar way, do you feel?
I think there is the aspect of being outside and apart looking down on the world but also definitely the science fiction thing that you describe is a big influence where you can look at earthly issues in a different light through removing them from the earth. Gagarin himself represents something very human, very heroic, fragile, small and alone in the vastness. But I also just love the escapist ambition of space too.

By Tobias Fischer

Gagarin Discography:
Gagarin (Geo) 1997   
Earthling (Geo) 2003   
Ard Nev (Filament) 2006   
Ard Nev Version 2.0 (Geo Records) 2006   
Adaptogen (Geo) 2009   
Biophilia (GEO) 2011

Recommended Gagarin Interviews & Articles on the Web:

Insightful Interview with Gagarin on Biophilia and the idea of an interface between the urban and the pastoral at Soundblab.


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