After three EPs/12″s on the Blackest Ever Black label, this month sees the release of their first full-length album, Quarter Turns Over A Living Line, which has already received emphatic reviews. It’s a slower-burning and more spacious listen than their earlier EPs, and finds them incorporating a greater amount of live instrumentation into their working process than ever before.
In the wake of Joe Andrews and Tom Halstead’s appearance at Ether on London’s Southbank, and before they jetted off to Krakow for Unsound, the Quietus caught up with them at Andrews’ flat to discuss the album, performing live and how they create their singular music.
I was surprised you didn’t actually perform at the Blackest Ever Black showcase [at Corsica Studios, 13th of October]. How come? Did you stay to the end, though?
Joe Andrews: No. We had a show at the Southbank, and had a really long day. I think I kept on until 4am. [to Tom] How about you?
Tom Halstead: About 5, I think. I lasted until just before Source Direct [laughs].
I don’t actually remember Source Direct! It seems like quite a tight-knit circle of bands around Blackest Ever Black…
JA: It’s interesting because it’s become a tight-knit circle, mainly because of Blackest, obviously – there’s a focal point which is Blackest, but actually, since our beginnings, we’ve never had a way for people to contact us. The Facebook that’s up is not ours, someone did it for us. So every contact there’s ever been, apart from live stuff, has always been through Kiran [Sande, head of BEB]. To begin with, it was just us, and Kiran putting out our record, and in the communications, others would be cc’ed, like Karl [O’Connor, aka Regis]. Blackest has just become the hub, and over time we just met all these amazing artists, man.
TH: And doing live shows…
JA: It’s amazing to think that two years ago no-one could have expected this.
I’ve seen you perform three or four times, so was disappointed not to see you on Saturday. Do you enjoy performing live?
JA: Yeah, it’s bloody great, but there are times when you don’t enjoy it so much. It’s the other level, I think, but hopefully the records work on both levels.
Do you find it hard to adapt your music to a live setting?
TH: Recently we’ve recorded a lot more live instrumentation, and that’s really helped in terms of how it works when we play if live. Our early stuff was a lot more sample-based and now we’ve moved towards live instrumentation.
JA: Live, it’s always been a sort of mix of live editing and live structuring, loops, etc. You’re not making a drum pattern live, you’re playing a loop. We love it, and for the last show we did we had friends make a video especially for us to use. They got in touch with quite a famous modern dancer, who’s got a quite extraordinary body, and went to a disused warehouse in Portugal to film for three days and night. They created this fucking bonkers visual element, and now it really feels like the two are working together. We’re really aesthetically led anyway, and now it feels like a real show, rather than just a couple of dudes behind laptops.
How did you come to start making music together and to found Raime?
TH: We’ve known each other for a long time, since we were teens, and had been making music independently. It wasn’t until four or five years ago that we realised we had kind of shared visions and that actually we wanted to get closer to a voice and to express ourselves through music. And it was five years ago that we started to join the dots from UK industrial stuff and contemporary things…
JA: We’d shared records with each other ever since we first met, and I think that exchange always gives you a level of trust, man. You obviously have your own things that you’re into, and sometimes you part, for a year or whatever but we always come back to one another. There’s always been a sort of mutual respect for one another, musically, so you join a few dots, as he said, and you start to get a great deal of inspiration. Also, there’s a level of desire about what you want to hear and see happen in music. We’re obsessive record collectors, and so there’s a huge amount of time when you’re a fan, where people are creating and you’re consuming. And a lot of that time you’re waiting for someone to make the next thing, and I think there came a point when were like, “Fuck man, I’m not quite hearing what I want to hear”, or “That’s incredible – maybe that vibe or acoustic idea has been lost. Why don’t we feel confident enough to join some dots?” Which is such a terrific feeling.
Your album was preceded by, I think, three 12″s and several mixes and mix tapes. How do you feel you’ve evolved from the first release up until now?
JA: I think we’ve evolved quite a lot, but stylistically I don’t necessarily think we have. We’ve just refined it… Obviously, the first EP was kind of a stab at doing something and then as you go through you’re trying to hone it, and I think that’s what we’ve done.
TH: You’re trying to get your idea across more clearly.
JA: Yes, just communicate better! You have got something to communicate, so you’re literally trying to say it as succinctly as possible. With us, we’ve got quite a few reference points that are dear to us, but at the same time we have this intention not to just ape something. It’s almost like a Rubik’s cube attitude where we piece it all together. In terms of understanding what you want out of something, we have had times where that Rubik’s cube has lasted for months and months! [laughs] The record was more fluid because, hopefully, we were a bit more in control.
That ties into my next question – do you see Quarter Turns Over A Living Line as a culmination of all those previous records, and that you’ve been building up to this point?
TH: I think it gave us a bit more freedom to open up a bit more. The previous record, Hennail, was a lot more percussion-driven, a lot more clenched. We felt with this, there’s less percussion, more space and more tracks to get different sentiments across. When you’re putting out two tracks, you’re trying to say a lot in those two pieces of work.
JA: We tried to squeeze everything in there! You feel like you’ve got something to say, and you haven’t said it all. With an album, we could plot it, and it was such a great freedom. We thought it’d be the opposite, actually, we always thought we’d do 12″s; I don’t know why it took us so long to work it out [laughs]. We realised we could develop a coherent piece of work. It was never meant to be a collection of tracks, it was always meant to be a piece of work, you know what I mean? I don’t know if it’s achieved that, but having that idea in it made the creative process a lot more interesting.
As you say, Hennail and other previous releases were very beat-driven, but the album features more atmospheric and experimental tracks. Was there a conscious effort to push the boundaries of your sound?
JA: Absolutely. We grew up with Detroit techno, jungle, all the sort of dance-based musics, so that’s really part of us, and we’ll always have rhythm in there somewhere, but actually, in the last five to ten years, we’ve been opening out into drone, doom metal, noise, early industrial, more experimental stuff, and that’s become just as integral, and we wanted to include those influences. The way that we learn about music is by listening to that. And we wanted to have a go at that, to see if we could do it.
TH: We didn’t want to be restricted. Hennail was difficult, in that sense. And we didn’t want to get caught in that snare.
JA: Percussion in the way we use it is sort of in a dance music format, and because we’ve grown up with that music, you’re pre-programmed to understand those structures in a 4/4 structure. When you’ve got a beat going, your brain is already waiting for that snare or hi-hat to come in, and you know when that’s going to happen. One of the points for us was to try and change the listeners’ knowledge of when that’s going to happen, so they feel a little lost in it, but without losing the security that that structure gives you.
TH: That’s the hardest part, finding the balance between being contrary to how you expect rhythmic things to work, and actually making a coherent work.
JA: Yeah, and that balance and trade off is one of the things that interests us. Security and non-security.
Your music has often been lumped in with ambient dub or dubstep, but that seems a tad reductive. Would you agree?
JA: I don’t ever want to say to any journalist, or anyone, that they can’t call it what they like, because I’ve been doing the very same thing, as a fan and a record collector, and that’s the condition in which you work. Those genres are certainly part of our musical heritage, but I’d hope they weren’t the only parts. I’m glad you feel that they aren’t the whole picture.
Well, I think that when you guys first emerged, dubstep was pretty much on everyone’s lips, so it was an easy connection to make, but to my mind you always seemed closer to industrial music and jungle, as you’ve mentioned.
JA: It’s difficult, because dubstep has now become a little bit passe as a term and if you go back to the beginnings, to those iconic labels like DMZ, the music was absolutely incredible. We’d never say that it wasn’t an important part of electronic music, it’s just that at this moment in time, it feels almost like a negative thing.
TH: It’s become so branched out that it’s become a blanket term, so it’s not really pinning anything down.
JA: Our first influence was probably Mo’Wax, you know, DJ Shadow and trip-hop. When I was 15, I bought my first Mo’Wax record and was absolutely sold on it, man. It was just the coolest fucking thing I’d ever heard. And then we’ve just gone through everything: Detroit techno, jungle, house music… And then there’s the flip side, which is all the sort of avant-garde, industrial and doom stuff.
TH: Those things kind of came a bit later for us.
JA: I think we’re just hungry, and we get obsessed. Record collecting is still a massive part of our lives.
How did you go about creating and recording the tracks on Quarter Turns Over A Living Line?
TH: We did a lot of recordings, by ourselves and with other musicians. We did recordings with cellists, drummers, some guitar stuff. There’s quite a lot guitar on the album, actually, but then you go through it with a fine-toothed comb to pick out those interesting inflections or textures and start constructing them. We get a big archive of things that excite us and start putting things together to see if there’s synergy between the sounds or interesting juxtapositions. Track by track, we begin with the material we each have and work on sketches before bringing them to the table and looking at whether we can work them up. It’s been a healthy way of working.
JA: For example, Tom will put a guitar through some effects, make half an hour’s worth of sound and then we go through it and pick out bits. A nice sound can be patched to a drum patterns and what’s exciting is you get certain points or textures that match. There’s an element of chance in that match, and as soon as we’ve got it, we’ll throttle the hell out of it!
It sounds very intricate…
JA: It takes hours [laughs]. It’s an amazing process to do with someone else. You’ve always got someone to discuss it with. The other person kind of limits you.
TH: It’s really important to have that discourse, because it’s really hard to have it with yourself.
JA: There’s a core of what we’re doing that we both know we’re trying to reach. There’s an absolute specific idea. And you’ve got the reassurance that the other person shares that idea.
Going back to Blackest Ever Black, the label is noted for its somewhat bleak aesthetic, which runs through their artwork and the music of most of their acts. Do you have a particularly gloomy outlook on life? Could you say Quarter Turns Over A Living Line is a reflection of these somewhat depressing socio-political times?
JA: Um, I’d never describe myself as chirpy [laughs]. I definitely can take things quite seriously…
TH: This is a difficult question…
JA: A loaded gun! We are definitely pretty serious when it comes to music and the sentiments within that music. But everybody has a laugh sometimes, it’s not like we go around in a continual state of depression. But we’re pretty serious. I think there’s a natural instinct to hone in on the darkest elements of life when you’re being creative.
You can read this interview, and listen to a Soundcloud playlist of the album, here