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Interview with Ian Hawgood

img  Tobias

You were „essentially deaf“ until the age of 10. How do you remember  those years?
As with all childhoods I suppose, its blurry and certain memories fade in and out. I was aloof in some ways, wrapped up in my own little world. I wasn’t deaf as a child, but my hearing came and went over long periods with a lot of ear infections. I would be very friendly and sociable one minute, and then without really knowing what it was, numb from everything the next. In some ways it heightened senses, but I do remember feeling as if I was in a dream when the ringing started in my ears. It could last for minutes or hours and really wore me out. Its not just that you can’t hear, its that your focus of attention changes rapidly and it was hard to respond to things physically and emotionally.

I remember a sports day when I was about 5. I was expected to win the race as I was really good at sports, but I missed the start gun, staring at my feet and getting pushed by one of the teachers. I was so confused and apart from people shouting at me to run (but not hearing a word), I just remember my black running shoes and the way the trees bent as the wind blew.

I remember seeing doctors regularly, and my parents always checking (they were both nurses). I remember refusing to wear hearing aids as the feedback scared me... And most of all I just remember being very happy in both worlds and my ability to naturally inhabit each: the social regular one, and the one where I was stuck in my own world.

Despite your hearing issue, you started learning the piano. Why would you want to pick up an instrument, when you could hardly hear what you were playing?
I come from a family of musicians so I didn’t have any choice in the matter. The truth is that no one realised I had a hearing problem until I was about 6 or 7 – I think when you have things from birth you just deal with it, its natural to you. But I remember being called into the piano teacher’s room aged 4, and being too scared to touch the piano. I watched the piano teacher play and it just scared me.

I couldn’t read the music notation either. I mean, the whole concept of playing the piano just confused me and even though I understood the notes I was awful at following the simplest of songs. Also, sometimes I couldn’t hear what I was playing so I memorised what my teachers and parents played me. I was more interested in how the hands moved than the notes they were playing anyway. But my teacher would get angry when I couldn’t play a song he hadn’t shown me before, and I became more anxious than a kid should about something so trivial. I was always scared and got quite sick before my teacher arrived for lessons. Its my least favourite childhood memory – sitting there, waiting for a teacher I know would get angry, playing an instrument when I just wanted to skateboard with my friends or play toy soldiers. When my hearing came back (aged 10), I refused to play the piano again.

In which way was the fact that your parents were musicians themselves significant for your own development as an artist?

Well first of all my parents grew up in the Plymouth Brethren so they only heard and played church hymns growing up. They weren't allowed to listen to any other music.  I never actively let anyone listen to my work, even them. It seems too aggressive for some reason. Its one of the reasons I never promote my own records really - and yet I am happy to promote others records. I just release without telling anyone much. So they don't really know my work much... My mum has heard me working on stuff though in her house. I think she wishes I would play piano and sing on a record. But my parents don't seem to know how I do music, and don't understand how I taught myself bass and guitar at 16 and other instruments over time. Initially it was kind of a case of, without listening to the stuff I was making, disregarding it as mucking around and having fun. I think only in the past few months both my parents have admitted how confusing they find the fact I can make music but how impressed they are with what I do. I don't hear this directly because its not in their nature... But they do say it in other ways, and it's important.

How would you describe the process of how you started hearing again?

When I was ten I went into hospital to have grommits (pressure equalizing tubes) put into my ears, and my adenoids removed. I got chicken-pox at the same time so it was a nightmare! We took a few weeks holiday after that for me to rest and get better, at Norfolk, on the east coast of England. It was really windy and I just recall not having ringing in my ears at all, and the feeling of fresh air to my ears. It was an amazing feeling and I never had hearing problems again.

What kind of music did you then start listening to first?

I was bought one cassette in my childhood, a pop compilation called ‚Hits 3’ when I was 8. It was from my Auntie Jane who worked at Waterstones. When my hearing was ok I would listen to it non-stop on the crappy tape player radio from the 70’s. Until I had the grommits put in I just listened to that all the time. I know every song on all 4 sides of the compilation and am very emotionally tied to them now. I would play A-ha, Prince, John Parr, Huey Lewis and the News, Bonnie Tyler and The Cult over and over again. When I had periods of hearing problems I would be really sad I couldn’t listen to it.

One day some kids were talking about music, and I felt a bit uncool as I had no idea what they were talking about. When I told them about Hits 3 I was bullied a bit as it had been 2 years of just that for me. So I stopped listening to it. After I came out of hospital my father bought me Michael Jackson ‚Bad’ and ‚Off The Wall’ which just blew me away. I listened to them on my new walkman obsessively until I was fourteen. Nothing else, sometimes going back to Hits 3 for memory sakes! And that was it from the age of ten until fourteen, Hits 3 and Michael Jackson.

Did this period of not being able to hear provide you with insights which are still relevant to your musical work today?
Very much so. When I started playing piano again aged 18, I was so taken with the tones and slow melodies in what I played, it felt like I was the little deaf boy again, happy in his distant little world. In my more recent work this is really important. I think I realised that long tones, drones and focus on simple textures is a very important thing for me. You can take something so simple, like a piano chord, and focus on its beautiful insides, creating something new and unique to you. It might not be to everyone’s tastes, it might not be new and it might not be particularly clever, but its me and it makes sense to me and who I inherently am.

Going back to the story of the race... My music is kind of a soundtrack to what I couldn’t hear, my black sports shoes and the wind-bent trees. I think that was the most significant insight I gained.

Emerging from Silence
You only started publishing your music in 2007. But then the floodgates seem to have opened, with a cornucopia of releases on various labels and under differerent monikers. Is there something positively compulsive about your productivity at the moment?
I took a three month break recently, in part because of some personal stuff, but mostly I needed a rest to look at the next step with my music. I have also been insanely busy with running Home Normal and other side projects, not including teaching high-school kids. But before that, I was always productive – I have been making music regularly since I was 16.

In terms of kicking off in 2007, well there are many elements. For one, I had no confidence and was scared to play people my stuff, even close friends. The few times I did people seemed to really dig it so I became a bit more confident. I did send out demos to 2 labels when I was about 21 I think, both of whom responded very positively but said something like ‚we will only check you out and sign you if you play live.’ I was still very shy about this side of my life and hated going out, so I decided to play with bands. However, I played in a bunch of bands where people just kind of sucked for various reasons. The only person I stuck with was my mate Ben (who helps out with Home Normal and whom I make music with under Lost Lanterns). I was just a bit particular about how the spirit of the music should be and Ben was the only one who was the same. But nonetheless I hid behind these bands for my lack of self-confidence, and let them dictate to me... even until 2007. When the last of these just slowly, and apathetically just died, I was like ‚oh fuck this’. And I set about doing new work or revising old work to send out again. The first two people I sent work to were Mike from Smallfish Records and Christian Roth from Resting Bell/Humming Conch. Their responses pretty much dictated a new found confidence in my work and that was that really.

The demo I sent out to them was Tents and Hills, which I released as an EP on Luv Sound and will be released as a CD (full album) on Humming Conch later this year. With this new found confidence in their support I made/reworked ‚The Fire Will Die At Night’ for Resting Bell in 2007. So no, it didn’t open up the floodgates creatively, but it opened up my confidence to release music.

Right now, after a heap of releases I am very satisfied with, I am more than happy to be slowing down a bit. I think I had a lot of emotion to get out of my system in some ways hence why I released so much. I actually made about double the amount I released so far but they didn’t feel right for any labels I know for me. I still have some early Oh No Nuno! work I need to release sometime for example. But now I am able to calmly and slowly do work I want to do, rather than work that consumes me and emotionally forces my hand. ‚Snow Roads’ (on Dragon’s Eye in September) is probably the first album where I have made something I wanted to make rather than having to make it emotionally or spiritually.

So, unlike Stephen King, for example, you're not afraid of losing your creativity now you've tamed the demons a bit?
Not at all. I may have tamed some serious demons yes, but I'm also a very obsessive person and throw myself into everything I do and care about deeply. And I will never be content or satisfied, its just not in my nature. I guess the one thing I have learned is that while I can't nullify this obsessive behaviour and thinking, I can at least split myself in some ways. If I let my obsessiveness spill into my personal life (which I do now and then to those I love), it has bad effects, but when I pour that into the music I make, its healthy and wholesome. I don't ever listen to music (under my own name) after its done, I tie up the package as it were and that's it... If I listen to it again it reminds me of the obsessiveness I put into it and makes me feel sick. I make an album until I hate the music, and once I hate it, I know its complete. I still hate my finished work, so that's a good sign.

Now you've earned a lot of praise with your solo material, would the idea of entering a real band constellation appeal to you again under the right conditions?

Under the right conditions, yes, definitely. Its really nice to just focus on the tones of one thing in relation to what others are playing. But I won't play again with people who play for themselves, or who don't make music on their own. If people want to make music, they just make it no matter what and too many people I played with wanted to make music rather than actually making it. I've been in bands where, before you've even struck a chord, have planned beyond the music. When people, whether individual or bands, start thinking about music in these terms, its screwed. Sometimes people just need to say to themselves, 'I don't have the desire...but I would like to jam'. And that's cool with me. It's why I am slowly starting to do collaborations with people I really admire... I know people like Jeremy Bible for example, who create constantly and with a strong vision...I will always have time for that if I love the music and the person.

Would you say that building these friendships with label heads and other artists is part of what engages you in this scene?
Absolutely. Ultimately I reside in a couple of circles due to my different monikers, but the main is very much the 'minimal / ambient' one if I can loosely term it that. This circle is ultimately a very very small one, with the same artists releasing on shared labels...I guess people like Celer, Jeremy Bible and Jason Henry, Ryonkt, Segue, Offthesky and myself (to name a few) pop up all over the place. None of us sell huge numbers of records, but this little group seem to have a bigger impact than our sales would suggest. The people who buy these works are really dedicated to the genre which is as exciting as it is constricting. But its very much a community, a small group of people who all (now) know each other and release on shared labels, whether they are net, cdr or cd. Its the main reason each of the above artists is so willing to release on new, tiny labels; namely because it's for the good of the community. Will and Dani for example, didn't think twice about releasing with Ryonkt's Slow Flow, nor with Home Normal, Jeremy Bible and Jason Henry didn't think twice about releasing with Tokyo Droning (later in the year), I didn't think twice about releasing with Experimedia or Slow Flow for example, for the simple reason that its part of a community, its to do with friendship and love. In this sense, the 'community' or scene is fundamental and without it I wouldn't have such a desire to keep creating. It feeds itself constantly and is evolving in a positive way. Its fair to say that if I feel I am a positive member of a community I will both feed into and feed from it. The more you put in, the more you get out, as obvious as that sounds.

The titles to your tracks appear to be important in a personal way. Where do they come from?
I don’t know. They just pop in there. I have a lot of things running around my head when I make music but mostly its memories, dreams and emotions. I try not to think too much about titles and just try to listen to what pops in there.

So there's no particular reason for a lot of your titles referencing colours, light and night?
I'd never noticed this before, well spotted! I'm sure there is some sub-conscious thing going on - I process a lot of my music in quite a dark apartment, usually in the middle of night/morning so light plays a big part. I think living in Tokyo, light plays a huge part as you are so surrounded by buildings, there is little open space and everything has a darkness to it, except for the amazing neon lights at night. So its probably my surroundings as well as concerned with depression as well, in equal measure or as a result I'm not sure.

There is, of course, something bittersweet about calling a track „An open letter to my father“, because the piece remains instrumental. What were you trying to tell him?
Hmmm. Good question. As an album, ‚A Life In Abstract Colours’ is about how alike he and I are in some ways. The point of that piece on a level I can talk about is that I am here, I exist and I love him. I am always open to him. I think that’s all I can really say about that.

Between two worlds
How did you end up oscillating between Tokyo and the UK?
I moved to Tokyo in March 2007. Before that I had spent about 3 years living between Puglia (South Italy) and London as my ex-girlfriend lived there. I actually went between Tokyo, Puglia and London for my first year in Japan. I've always been this way really. As a child we went away on holiday constantly, both in the UK and abroad. When I was 18 I went to Japan, not with any sense of wanderlust, but simply to see and make music with a friend. But I was fascinated by the vibe of Japan, the sense of 'otherness' or something like that at least. From then on I spent long holidays in various places with friends or just travelling, like America, India or Asia - I haven't had a year where I haven't been abroad in my life I don't think. The same is true of my father as he lived and travelled between India, Thailand and the UK almost the exact same time I started to and fro between different places.

In terms of Tokyo though, I moved from my Puglia/London travels to go back to Japan. I lived in Japan for a year and a half after university and felt I had unfinished business for one thing, and another was that I needed to focus on my music alone for a while. Loneliness breeds creativity I think, but I was never alone in Puglia or London and needed that desperately. It's the best and worst decision I have made in my life really. Nonetheless, I am very lucky in that I am a high-school teacher in a great school - and get long holidays where I can travel and come back to London. As my parents have gotten older I have come back more. And more importantly, for the first time ever, I feel very settled here (in the UK now), so the oscillating should stop soon as its pretty tiring... Saying that, I am actually going to Puglia next week!

It is often said that a European will never be able to understand the Japanse soul. In how far is that still true from your experiences in an internationally connected city like Tokyo?
No idea - never think about whether I do or don't, but I do like hiking in Japan, I do like going out into the countryside on long train rides, and I greatly appreciate the quietude and peace of both the city and countryside. I love and understand my Japanese friends as much as they love and understand me. I won't go living a lie like many people seem to try in Japan, I'm not Japanese and never will be. I am an 'outsider' there, but so much more than that, I am English. Its taken me a very long time to accept that, as daft as it sounds. But I am English and know who I am. So, do I understand the Japanese soul? I have no idea. Yes. No. Maybe.

In which way have those two different cultures influenced your music?
Culturally I suppose not at all really. Its more about the setting. In Tokyo, whilst I do more and hang out with friends more, its a very aloof, ostracised and emotionally distant existence... So I can create work from within, as a kind of opposite to the surroundings I make more emotionally charged music. Whereas in the UK, I am on holiday here and with friends and family, in a garage full of gear I can make noise with, so I do my fun other moniker work mostly. I’m trying to transfer the emotion of the work I make in Japan to the work I do here right now without the isolation and inwardness, but it's quite hard to be honest.

What is Tokyo's live scene like?

If you host a show or play a gig where more than 20 people come, you've done well, really well. Its amazing that the size of the city doesn't reflect the interest in the live scene. So the live scene feels very small, the same people come to the shows, the same artists, the same organisers. Its also a really bad set-up - bands PAY to have shows. And I know established artists who pay to play shows - I really think the venues need to do their part in the live scene as they are far too passive. That said, I am lucky in that I get to play shows (mostly for free) regularly. CMFLG is one of the very few organisers who create these amazing shows and pay the artists, despite often losing money. To be honest, without CMFLG there wouldn't be Library Tapes on Home Normal as I first heard David's work at a CMFLG show. I have become good friends with the organiser and he (Dela) invites really interesting artists to his events. That he can fill venues sometimes is a testament to the work he does. I am able to present my work with the support of a handful of independent minded and music-loving promoters, namely CMFLG, Cal Lyall (Test Tone), Shintaro Aoki and Syn Nakamura. I'm also starting regular monthly nights of minimal music and electronica with my very good friend Wataru Osako (Pakchee).

Label matters
Most artists set up a record label to release their own music. You, on the contrary, founded Home Normal to release the work of others. Why do you keep these two aspects so strictly separated?
Its not that strict really. When I first thought about all the labels (of mine) I had a very strong impression of what I wanted, who I wanted and where I wanted to go. I just didn't fit into that musically with Home Normal. For some reason, right now, I really like small CDR handmade/hand-print labels like Experimedia, Slow Flow, Wolfskin, Dragon's Eye, Mobeer, Humming Conch etc. That's just where I am at musically - much like I was last year with net releases. I like and have always liked making music for friends, my friends run tiny labels so I release on them. Simple. Making music where I do every element, right now just doesn't make sense to me. That's not to say I won't release on Home Normal, just I am far too interested in promoting other people's work and handing over my own when I am musically done to someone else. Like I said before, I am sick of even thinking about my work once I am done musically. To then go through the whole other side of things like promotion, artwork, distribution etc etc... That would make me want to quit it all. I am amazed, impressed and a little disturbed by artists who can promote themselves once the work is done.

How would you describe the decision-making process between yourself and Ben?

I make the decisions mostly, but when I am stuck or not 100% one way or the other I ask Ben his opinion and he gives it. Ben is similar to me in that he is very obsessive about the work he does, yet he is an ideal partner for a control-freak like me because he steps back, appreciates the label is my baby and just gets on with it. So yes, I curate the label, but without Ben it wouldn't work as well. I guess a great example was with the Christopher Hipgrave release. We both loved it but I wasn't sure if the album was really 'organic' given the nature of the work. We spent two days working on stuff and listening to it, and eventually Ben just said 'its not organic, but it sounds organic in spirit and is certainly feeling homely'. And that was it. Hopefully, if and when I do eventually move back to the UK properly, we can share the label a bit more evenly. Given my nature, I'll always be the annoyingly dominant one, but a bit more balance would be no bad thing at all.

I'm quite intrigued by the artist roster of Home Normal - it is recognisable and yet still suprising enough to delineate a territory of its own. How would you characterise the Home Normal family yourself?
I strongly believe a label has to have its own unique identity, as much as an artist really should. I love 12k, Spekk, Warp, Type, Smallfish etc, but I don't want to BE them. The world doesn't need another Type, they do what they do just fine so why make another lesser version of that? They have their own identities and Home Normal should have (and has) its own identity. But its hard to define as its seemingly broad, from Celer to Chihei Hatakeyama, from Pedro to Bvdub, from Library Tapes to Seaworthy and so on. I said before that I find it really hard to explain how I define the label, and only a few people seem to understand. But I can only repeat what I always say; Home Normal is a minimal organic label. But its my impression of minimal, ie. simple and direct. And its my impression of organic, ie. thoughtful and natural. There is too much forced music out there, created out of urgency to be heard rather than just made for the spirit of the music, of the moment. The Home Normal family is characterised by its organic and minimal spirit, a quirky sense of self and quietude within that self. That's about the best way I can describe it really.

You've mentioned before that you wouldn't say that you're selling a lot of records particularly. I, however, find selling 500 copies of a sound art work within a couple of months a huge success ...
In terms of selling records, I meant the community of minimal ambient I seem to reside, for my part. As a community or scene (if we can call it that), we seem to have a more profound effect than our sales suggest. That's all. But yes, selling out of 500 CD's in two days actually of pre-sales to distributors is amazing... But then again so are Celer.

Why did you decide to restrict the print run of  that Celer release to a mere 500 copies, then?
Will and Dani asked for 500 and I thought it was a good number too. We have a  pattern of 1000 and then 500 every two releases (although this is changing now). I didn't want to reprint straight away, needed to give it space and right now they are releasing a lot of great previously unheard work. The plan is to re-release Engaged Touches on its one-year anniversary, but in different packaging. Those original 500 are set and special, so I didn't want to do the exact same thing again. Ultimately it comes down to the fact that Will, Ben and I all agreed that, given space and time, Engaged Touches needed to be out on CD again as its been totally unavailable for quite a while now.

What about the creative side of things?

Artistically, well... I'm stoked. I had the art side / direction planned a long time ago, so it's just going to plan really. Once Jeremy and I sat down and agreed on the design, and Christian and I agreed on the concept for the site, things really felt ready to roll. Jeremy and Christian are amazing, you tell them what you want, they do it and then make it better than the loose guideliness I give. The same goes for the music. The two releases which made me choose to really start Home Normal were Sketches (Library Tapes) and Engaged Touches (Celer), so these were the building blocks for me. After that I just told artists and friends I invited to just make something which defined very much who they were, to feel free to make something beautiful and wild in spirit. What I have got back has blown me away and has really helped me to define the label more. So, we have the line-up I wanted and to be honest we are booked up until late 2010 with incredible, truly incredible music. I'm just blessed that I have such talented friends and connections. Artistically we are bang on course.

You've just set up your new record company Tokyo Droning. In which way is it different from your previous outfits?
Home Normal was made to fit what my own aesthetic for ‚minimal’ is, namely; direct, open, focused works full of emotion and soul. They also have to have an organic feel for me, not necessarily in the instruments used, but in the spirit and feel of the work. I am really proud of the label, and whilst I run everything from top to bottom, I am not physically hands on enough. When I first decided on three labels I decided I wanted something like Home Normal, something more design based and focused on a whole range of music no matter what its genre (Nomadic Kids Republic, which will have its opening in late September) and something where I could just get my hands dirty, make the site, make the discs, choose artists who make really intense experimental music and just something where I felt free to release work that just pushes the boat out a bit more really.

I wanted Tokyo Droning to be so different from the other two, so much so its taken over a year to get the design, materials and concept just right. And so I arrived at a point where there was almost no design, ‚anti-design’ if you will. Unlike NKR or Home Normal, there are no beautiful photos, just hand printed recycled card in the same design each release. Its all handmade and very very minimal. But from here I am able to release music where artists (if invited) are totally free to make anything from live works, drones, micro-bleeps, through to noisy guitar feedback, 30 foot piano pieces or field recording. Last night I even got a wonderful noisy guitar album from my old mate Lalo Padilla (Molloy and His Bicycle) which I want to release. I guess its ultimately about being free to release music which doesn’t care about how its perceived, and just says „this is me, take it or leave it“. And I really dig that.

We've talked about the Home Normal family before. I am also increasingly beginning to see a community budding based around artists like yourself and labels like thelandof, Mystery Sea, 12k etc. In which way do you feel integrated into a larger environment of like-minded artists?
I guess its like dropping stones in still water - the circles grow and converge in part, much like labels do. But yes, I think in my own work and in the labels its natural that connections and friendships should abound. We all speak the same language after all. The funny thing is I often get emails saying 'Hi, Ian...such and such told me about you and Home Normal but I had no idea it was you who ran Home Normal...' And why would they?

By Tobias Fischer

This Interview with Ian Hawgood was originally conducted for “Beat” Magazine. Many thanks to Thomas Raukamp.

As Ian Hawgood:
Spiral Into Somewhere (Resting Bell) 2007
The Fire Will Die At Night (Resting Bell) 2007
A Life In Abstract Colours (Resting Bell) 2008
Enfants Ruraux (12rec) 2008
Shallow Waters Distant Minds (Lunar Flower) 2008
Soundtrack To A Film In My Head ... (Rope Swing Cities) 2008
Tegami Beauty (U-Cover) 2008
Tents And Hills (luv sound) 2008
Tents And Hills (luv sound) 2008
Urban Holiday (Lunar Flower) 2008
Before I Let The Sunshine Rot (Phantom Channel) 2009
Her Name Was Frailty (Test Tube) 2009
Snow Roads (Dragon's Eye Recordings) 2009
The Great Allure (Experimedia) 2009
We Are Better For Being Built This Way (Slow Flow Rec) 2009
Wolfskin (hibernate) 2009

As Koen Park:
'84 '85 (October Man Recordings) 2008
Everything In Shadow (Experimedia) 2008
Grey Night Clouds (Experimedia) 2008
My Log: August 2008 (Headphonica) 2008
Nowhere Home (Headphonica) 2008
Pastoral Pioneer ( 2008
Warbled Demos For Lone Dreamers (Best Kept Secret) 2008
Computers Are Not Our Friends ( 2009
Remixes, Reworkings And Reimaginings (I, Absentee) 2009
The Lazy Burden ( 2009

As Oh No Nuno!
Dusty Gentle Insides (Dog Eared Records) 2007
The Boutique Mission (Best Kept Secret)    2008

Ian Hawgood
Home Normal Records
Tokyo Droning Records
Nomadic Kids Republic Record

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