The second of our two-part investigation of Rob Hayler’s role in shaping the last decade of UK DIY music sees Bang the Bore’s Seth Cooke and secret recordist Pete Coward double-teaming their subject, quizzing him on everything from his labels Fencing Flatworm Recordings and oTo, attending shows at Leeds’ notorious Termite Club and his radiofreemidwich blog to dealing with depression, sci-fi and how the internet has/hasn’t changed things for musicians operating in what he calls the “no-audience underground.”
Since completing this interview, and partly inspired by doing it, Rob has been a busy bee. You will soon be able to hear what a reactivated midwich sounds like as he now has three releases of brand new recordings lined up: nicely packaged, limited edition CD-rs on Phil Todd’s ‘Memoirs of an Aesthete‘ and Paul Walsh’s ‘Zanntone‘ and a cassette on Lee Stokoe’s legendary noise tape label ‘Matching Head‘. All items will be plugged relentlessly on radiofreemidwich when available. Rob is also threatening to play live too… Friday 13th of January 2012 will see him performing at The Fox & Newt in Leeds in the company of The Piss Superstition, Culver and Astral Social Club.
On with the interrogation. Click images throughout to listen to midwich mp3s or to be directed to the radiofreemidwich shop…
I guess a lifelong taste for electronic music and weird pop began for me when I was about 10 years old and into Adam & The Ants, Human League, Soft Cell and Japan – ‘Ghosts’ sounds as strange now as it ever did. A few years later I was fortunate to become friends with my life-long musical mentor Tim Hall and he introduced me to The Cure, Cocteau Twins, Sisters of Mercy and took me out to see local bands. From then on my circle of friends was pub-based, a few years older than me and all into punk, post-punk and industrial noise. It was an education. I grew up a teenage thrash punk with a sideline in electronic body music (which all sounds hilariously camp now but was very exciting at the time) and the late 80s Melody Maker bands – Young Gods, Loop, Butthole Surfers etc.
I left the South coast for university in sunny Leeds at the height of the rave years. I loved the music but hated clubbing so when Warp’s Artificial Intelligence came along, and the electronica boom that followed, it was like a door opening. After a while though it seemed a little flimsy and I started back on the hard stuff. In the late 90s I also finally caught Jazz. Combine the two urges, add the fact that I lived in Leeds and you get the answer: Termite Club. There I could see free jazz skronk, power electronic screaming and, crucially, the psychedelic third-eye opening noise of Vibracathedral Orchestra. Through electronica fandom, Termite, Vibra and the Leeds DIY scene in general I met the people that inspired me to get on with it myself.
BtB: Was there any specific experience that was the tipping point at which you wanted to become actively involved? You single out Vibracathedral Orchestra’s role as ‘crucial’…
Well, the atmosphere was conducive. I’ve lost touch with the DIY scene so I’m not sure what it is like nowadays, but back at the turn of the century there were a couple of years when you could put on almost anything and 15-30 open minded, good natured souls would roll up to check it out. A few gigs would attract two or three or four times that number. Termite Club even got some funding from the Arts Council! Ah, we were living in a golden age – there was a small but enthusiastic and supportive audience to be found for all sorts of noise. Vibracathedral were crucial because not only were they a fun, enthusiastic and knowledgeable crowd – I’ve become good friends with Neil and Julian over the years – but because they redefined for me what could be achieved in a punk/DIY context. Who knew that your mind could be blown by a 50 minute psychedelic freak-out upstairs at The Packhorse on an otherwise quiet weekday evening?
If there was a single event that got it rolling, well, I’ve told the mostly-true story of my 28th birthday (thus: 26th January, 2000) many times. I’d taken the day off work to celebrate but, as it was a weekday, I found myself without companions to celebrate with. I’d not long bought a Roland MC-303 and had even more recently acquired a PC with a CD burner in it. Whilst fed up that I was spending my birthday on my own I plugged the former into the latter and created the first midwich recordings. On a roll, I plugged in the scanner and an inkjet printer and by the time I went out in the evening I had a record label, the first two albums completed and a handful of freebie copies in my pockets to give away. Like all the best punk: created out of boredom in a bedroom. Now I’m prepared to admit that this story is a little too pebble-smooth to be credible (why had I bought the 303 if I wasn’t already thinking about making music?) but I’ve told it so often that it has replaced the facts in my head…
The geography of it was a happy accident. Looking back I now see that all but half-a-dozen releases had a strong Leeds/Yorkshire connection. However, this wasn’t policy. To a certain extent I was just in the right place at the right time: a bubbling scene filled with artists intent on grooving their own way. As I mentioned in my previous answer, the open-minded, can-do nature of the DIY gig scene at the time was very inspiring.
BtB: Did you have much of a sense of who was making this music and how it was received in the rest of the UK before you formed Fencing Flatworm?
I certainly wasn’t up on the scene World-(or even UK-)wide at the birth of flatworm. In fact, in an early trade with Phil Todd’s Betley Welcomes Careful Drivers I swapped CD-rs for fanzines (notably Mark Wharton’s ‘Just Glittering’) so I could read up on what was going on and fill gaps in my knowledge. When I started helping with Termite I was very much the callow junior. For the first year I followed up on almost every flyer I got sent and this is how I found Matching Head, DDDD fanzine, all kinds of stuff.
BtB: I take it that the label you started on you birthday was a separate enterprise to Fencing Flatworm…
Nope, the label I started on my birthday was fencing flatworm recordings and the two albums were ff001 ‘every day is the same’ and ff002 ‘life underwater’ by midwich. The manifesto etc. obviously came later but the ‘first wave’ look and feel (jewel cases, pictures of colourful fish, the tahoma font, everything in lower case) emerged fully formed from the egg. I think I was biting the style of influential ambient electronica label em:t. Despite the story I tell about ffr’s inception I had obviously been mulling it over for a while, likewise midwich and what I wanted to ‘say’ with that project. I hadn’t run a label prior to flatworm.
BtB: At what point does FF co-conspirator Sean Keeble enter the story?
Sean discovered ffr around the time of ff003 (Neil’s ‘excerpt…’). I’m not entirely sure how – Neil gave me a list of contacts that I shamelessly spammed, I sent out flyers with everything, I sold a few CD-rs at Termite gigs and I set up a fairly functional website – just a page at the Termite Club geocities site. It could have been via any of those means. Anyhow, he dropped me a line offering to help and made the mistake of mentioning that he had access to a colour laser printer. His fate was sealed.
The unified look was important because I wanted it to be an indicator of quality. The late 80s/early 90s dance music/electronica boom had turned me on to the idea that a label could have a coherent and trustworthy identity. The aforementioned Artificial Intelligence series on Warp, with their covers by Designers Republic, was a massive influence. Warp convinced me to buy a coloured vinyl double album once a month by an artist I hadn’t heard of before just because I *knew* it would be good. Rephlex upped the ante by not insisting on a particular musical style – they just released what they liked. It is this kind of attitude I am describing in the paragraph that Pete quotes in his article. There were others at it: Fax (of course), em:t, Reflective, Sahko etc., etc.
I also wanted the unified look to indicate weight. Despite much of ffr’s output being fairly upbeat, it was all substantial – that is it would reward repeat listens and be worth keeping. Pete’s article is very gratifying because it confirms that years later ffr is remembered fondly which is exactly what I was after. I wanted it to be possible for ffr to be someone’s favourite label. I also got into the Impulse! and Blood and Fire reissues and admired the way they were packaged ‘for the ages’.
Finally, the unified look was kind of a private joke – a little satire on the collector scum culture that surrounds experimental music, especially noise. Whilst claiming to hate elaborate packaging, and loudly insisting that it was all about the content, we were also producing releases with sequential catalogue numbers that looked very nice in a row on the shelf. I was amused by the have cake/eat it contradiction.
BtB: Did you have a list of people whom you wished to release, or any gap in the “market” you wished to fill?
I had no real idea to begin with who I wanted to release, though I suspected (correctly) that I wouldn’t have to look far afield to fill the roster. It would be attributing more nous to me than I deserve to say that I ‘wanted to plug a gap in the market’ but I did have a vague idea about documenting the crossover between electronica and experimental music (midwich, for example, was partly an attempt at crossing ambient electronics with droney improvisation). However, this idea went out the window pretty quick, I think. Phil’s Betley was an inspiration, obviously, and like anyone who was interested in the underground at the time I had a heavily annotated Betley catalogue always at hand. However, with Betley the inspiration was less to do with the sound or design and more to do with the very fact that it existed – Phil was one of those who showed me that this kind of thing was possible.
Some of the rejection letters make me chuckle to re-read but I’m a little embarrassed at how balls-out they could be. Nowadays if someone sends me something I don’t like I just say ‘thanks, but it wasn’t for me’. Those letters, alongside the manifesto and submission guidelines do give a good feel for what we were up to and why. I’m very proud of the integrity, I guess, if not always with the way I chose to express it! I also had to deal with demos from people wanting Termite Club gigs so I heard a *lot* of shit. My patience was sorely eroded. I think one rejection letter read, in its entirety:
“This is the worst music I have ever heard, please never contact me again.”
BtB: There seems to be a tension between disavowal of objects for their own sake and producing beautiful objects. On the one hand you’ve got the fifty tapes that make up oTo that collectively make a pretty significant and undeniable object in its own right. On the other there’s the use of mp3 as a format, e.g. the Radio Free Midwich blog and the Fencing Flatworm In Brine mp3 CDr… is that part of the same have cake/eat it contradiction, or simply a means of keeping the content alive?
I agree there was a tension in ffr between the flat out dismissal of object fetishism and the fact that we produced objects worthy of that fetishism. I guess one way of explaining it (away) is that the packaging was just one expression of the dedication to *quality* that was our paramount concern. If every consideration is bent to that purpose then you would expect the packaging to be well thought out, as you would the music, as you would the website etc. Our packaging was never an end in itself, its quality being a natural consequence of our attitude to the project as a whole. This is a crucial point I think: how often have you worked your way into some intricately parcelled, limited-to-ten-copies noise cassette only to find that the actual music is the same boring, derivative crap you’ve heard a thousand times?
oTo is an interesting case study. Each tape featured only the artist’s name, the catalogue number and a hand-written edition number – nothing else. The five square miles of Britain that formed each inlay card was (with the exception of oTo/T50) chosen entirely at random from a pile of chopped up, out of print OS maps that I’d picked up for free at the bookshop where I worked. Everything about this said: ‘just listen to the music’. *But* because some thought had been put into *how* to say ‘just listen to the music’ you also had a series of objects that looked smart lined up on a shelf. Yes, the 50 tapes are a significant art project that I am very proud of but, y’know: music first, object second.
Regarding mp3s – I was an enthusiastic early adopter of the format but now I have my doubts for reasons I have written about at length on radiofreemidwich. Their easy availability leads to the indiscriminate amassing of unheard collections which in turn leads to a whole new series of problems and issues in music ‘consumption’. My reason for using mp3s on the ‘In Brine’ CD-r and now on the blog is purely practical: it is an easy way to make a lot of archive material freely available to whoever wants to hear it.
I’m fond of claiming that oTo was Julian Bradley’s fault. I was grooving on his self-released tapes, still some of my favourite music, and amassing huge quantities of tapes from Lee Stokoe’s label Matching Head – both important influences. Over a pint or two with Julian I discussed the possibility of a sub-label offshoot for ffr, possibly a series of limited editions so it wouldn’t overshadow the mother label, possibly on tape to distinguish it from ffr’s usual CD-r releases. Julian egged me on to do it, basically because he wanted to feature on tape #1. By then I’d had some experience of trying to sell this stuff so I settled on 50 for the number of releases, and the number of copies of each release, as manageable and realistic.
I was working in a bookshop at the time and in the staffroom was a box of proof copies, damaged stock and unreturnable out-of-print gubbins that we were able to help ourselves to. One day it was full of Ordnance Survey maps so I took them home. When I found out that five square miles of Britain was exactly the right size for a cassette case inlay card then everything else fell into place.
The squares of map suggested an austere military/industrial look – hence the minimal information and the title of the label which suggests both the Ordnance Survey mapping service (originally part of the military, of course) and ‘ordnance’ meaning weaponry, ammunition etc. I was indulging the unreconstructed noise fan in me – I might have had in mind those Throbbing Gristle 7” singles that came in camouflage pattern bags. Getting it all done during my spare time was a military operation too…
BtB: How were contributions solicited?
Soliciting contributions was easy – I asked around, I mentioned it on flyers and the website and left it to word of mouth. The project gathered momentum very quickly. It helped that my submission criteria were a lot less strict than with ffr. For ffr I wanted high-quality music that could be listened to over and over again, cherished even. With oTo all I was concerned with was making sure the piece in question held the attention through at least one listen. I always thought of oTo more as a sound art project, rather than a ‘record label’. Imagine walking around a degree show at a decent art college or, perhaps more accurately in this case, a psychiatric hospital’s display of outsider art by its patients. You stand in front of a picture, or an installation, or whatever, for a few minutes, form a judgement as to what you think, then move on to the next one. It was that kind of ‘gallery’ experience I was going for with oTo.
BtB: Did anyone buy all 50 oTo tape releases?
There is an elite of about 7 or 8 people who own all 50 oTo tapes. I do, obviously – number 1/50 of each release is on a shelf next to me as I type this. My comrade Sean Keeble too, of course. Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth has a set – he collects tape labels apparently – as does Chris Sienko of the essential ‘As Loud as Possible’ magazine. There are a few others who shall remain nameless.
I didn’t start oTo thinking that it would become a cross-section of the no-audience underground at the time but it sort of ended up being that. Reaction was massively positive. Simon Morris of Ceramic Hobs came up to me at a gig and said “Rob you are famous! Everyone wants to be on your tape label!” I have to admit that only a few of the tapes sold out and many hardly sold at all (I duped them as necessary – don’t worry about boxes of unwanted tapes under my bed) but the project garnered a huge amount of goodwill and was very enjoyable to do despite the huge amount of work.
BtB: Are you planning on giving oTo a digital after-life? It seems more suited to that format than the ffr releases, possibly… for one thing you can construct the eternally looping playlist implied by how the original releases were structured. It’s also easy to give it that “check it out then move on” response that you mention.
Well, I can see the appeal for the reasons you mention but, no, I am not planning a digital reanimation for oTo. Difficulty in finding the time would be a major hindrance – many of the masters are on tape themselves and would therefore need recording onto my laptop and mastering before acceptable mp3 versions could be created. The bigger problem though is that I no longer have all the masters. When ffr/oTo was wound up I offered to return masters to artists so they could reissue their work elsewhere and a few took me up on it. Phil reissued the Zen Nuns tape (a collaboration he did with Lasse Marhaug) on BWCD, for example. I realise that most of these reissues are now themselves unavailable but still… I returned this stuff on the understanding that oTo was over. I’d also not feel happy about releasing mp3s of this stuff without the permission of the artists themselves and I’ve completely lost touch with quite a few of them. No, reanimating oTo would be a logistical nightmare. Best just to accept that the moment has passed.
There are mp3s of two oTo tapes available on the ‘Rob Hayler Discography’ page at radiofreemidwich – the collaboration I did with Paul Harrison (Expose Your Eyes) and the midwich tape which closes the set. There are 30 second mp3 snippets from all 50 releases still available via the defunct ffr/oTo website. I guess an enterprising soul could stitch those together into 25 minutes of madness…
BtB: How “directed” was Fencing Flatworm? did you try to guide any of the musicians in any way (eg, you, xx, should collaborate with this guy, yy, you’re on the same wavelength), or more on the lines of, have you got anything I could release?
Well, we were dictatorial about the look and feel but in terms of the music the answer is: not very. I would sometimes edit a thing down to get it under 45 minutes but mainly this just involved selecting favourite tracks from a longer list or, in one case, chopping out some rambling. I think I suggested an album title once and in one instance did some mastering to balance channels. Minor stuff – most releases were left exactly as they were presented to me. With ffr I never asked for or commissioned anything from anyone. All submissions were unsolicited, albeit often from friends, and all collaborations and groups, apart from those I was personally involved with (Truant, ‘in luck’, ffr-a), were pre-existing or existed independently of ffr.
BtB: It’s obvious that ff saw itself very much as part of a loosely-connected international network of like-minded labels/musicians. How did that work in practice: was it more than a simple trade of releases, and was that part of the thinking behind the splits & collaborative releases on ff or more of a simple coincidence?
Before getting on to the node-in-a-network thing can I just set things straight re: musical splits and collaborations? I think you may be overrating their importance to ffr.
oTo was a bit different as it had a looser, more experimental feel but on ffr the majority of releases (over two thirds) were created by solo artists. We were interested in the sort of single-minded rigour, seriousness of intent and dedication to purpose that you can find in solo projects but which sometimes gets watered down in bands or collaborations. That an ambitious solo project can fail as spectacularly as it can succeed just makes it all the more fascinating. Flatworm was attracted to those grooving their own way, and all my favourite ffr releases are solo projects.
The only splits the label released were the two 7” singles, which is a medium that invites that approach, and the four artists involved in those singles – me, Graham Booth (no energy) Jeremy Smith (Straight Outta Mongolia) and Matt Robson (randomNumber) were all Yorkshire based and from the electronica end of the roster. Nothing too radical there.
So, whilst the idea of musical collaboration wasn’t that big a deal to us, the idea of collaboration with others doing similar things became incredibly important. At the time flatworm began Betley Welcomes Careful Drivers still published a paper catalogue, The Wire was still the magazine of record for the experimental underground (god help us), CD-rs were still a luxurious novelty and as much communication took place via the exchange of post, flyers etc. as it did via email. Remember being asked for cheques, trades or ‘carefully concealed cash’? During the four year existence of ffr eBay acquired Paypal, and Myspace, Facebook, Wikipedia, Blogspot and WordPress, to name but a few, were all created. Whilst none of this scared me – I’d been indulging in obsessive fandom via the internet since the usenet days of the mid-90s – it wasn’t clear what was going to happen to what I fondly refer to as the no-audience underground. There were many fully-formed early-adopters – Carbon, Slippytown etc. – but for the rest of us the late 90s/turn of the century was a transitional moment. To be in touch with others doing the same thing was, at the very least, good for morale.
This did, as tradition dictated, involve the trade of releases but I’d hesitate to call that ‘simple’. Trading was/is the lifeblood of the scene and the thing that makes its self-perpetuating self-sufficiency possible. To put it another way: all of this is done solely for the joy of it, god knows there is no other reward, and spreading that joy is essential to sustaining the whole business. We were now also able to exchange links to websites which eventually surpassed the flyer as the way of finding out about new stuff and gave coherence to the scene. The limitless word-count allowed by the internet led to us being able to write manifestos, submission guidelines, reviews etc. and, of course, the ability to post mp3s finally gave us a chance to hear stuff in advance of handing over the readies.
I’d like to think that with Sean’s website and cover design and ffr’s uncompromising attitude we were the (loss) leaders of a small vanguard. There were a flurry of other CD-r labels – Pjorn, Sijis, Trademarked Industries, Evelyn, Nid Nod etc. – that were more or less influenced by ffr and the French label Burning Emptiness went as far as adopting our submissions policy word-for-word as their own! That all but one of the aforementioned are now defunct shows that this ‘business model’ is tough to sustain but I am constantly surprised and delighted to find that others (who presumably haven’t even heard of ffr) are defiantly carrying the torch. See the links on radiofreemidwich for some excellent examples.
Well, in a way flatworm was a victim of its own moderate success. I’m not sure how much time Sean put in but I suspect it was a lot – and it was definitely more than he would readily confess to me. For me it was the equivalent of having a part-time job on top of an already exhausting high-street day-job. 10-15 hours a week was the absolute minimum, 20 or more wasn’t at all unusual, plus time spent listening to demos on the way to and from my ‘real’ job etc. Sean and I got to a point where we could, if we chose, spend literally all our free time doing ffr.
Now, whilst this was both fun and rewarding, we both had reasons for being wary. Sean had, admirably, managed to retain a sense of proportion and candidly admitted that perhaps he’d rather spend his spare time with his young children. Whilst he was slaving over a hot laser copier they were growing up at an alarming rate. I saw his point.
For me the problem was my mental health. I was first diagnosed with depression in 1997 and have been on various medications ever since. Nowadays I am much more knowledgeable about my condition and have a safety net of healthcare professionals and coping strategies to catch me when I fall. Back in the days of flatworm it was a lot more touch and go and a grim breakdown and lengthy recovery in 2004 gave me pause for thought.
I don’t think I ever really considered scaling back. Flatworm always had an uncompromising ‘all or nothing’ attitude. Sean and I both had a vision of a difficult future struggling to maintain the extremely high level of quality (and output) that we’d managed to establish and decided that rather than just peter out we would prefer to yank the plug. Die young and leave a beautiful corpse, eh? I think a little differently nowadays but don’t regret the decision.
This might be a germane moment to thank Sean for all the work. I didn’t know him prior to ffr and we’ve lost touch since. He appeared like some kind of angel, worked tirelessly for little reward, then disappeared to get on with his life afterwards. As he was based in County Durham we only actually met face to face a handful of times. He is an unsung hero and, if you are reading this Sean, I wish all the best to you and your family.
BtB: I’m interested in your position on internet fandom, given that you were an early adopter. Simon Reynolds recently referred to MySpace as a “mass grave;” do you feel as though these networks have given much to what you refer to as the “no-audience underground?” How do you feel about the present climate for making and distributing music?
Firstly, I wouldn’t worry too much about what Simon Reynolds thinks. As with many cultural commentators of a certain age he is prone to mistake his own partially-informed opinion with the actual fact of the matter. Myspace is horrible but for practical reasons, not in principle: it is poorly designed, the pages take ages to load and when they do they are choked with spam and advertising. I hate linking to myspace pages and will only do so as a last resort. However, although many I know are deserting it due to the reasons above, to call it a ‘mass grave’ is shrill nonsense. If those problems were fixed – if it was, for example, more like WordPress – it would be fine.
But I digress. It is tempting to say “of course the internet has changed everything!” but on closer inspection: it hasn’t. Some of the no-audience underground, as I currently experience it, appears happy to use the internet as a tool to advertise and distribute its wares. Some of it – Fuckin’ Amateurs, Matching Head etc. – couldn’t give a monkeys. I suppose you could spend all day downloading stuff from bandcamp, or labels like Interdisco, or listening to stuff via soundcloud but if you are interested in the physical objects being produced then the internet is really just a huge, illustrated Betley Welcomes Careful Drivers catalogue.
The internet certainly hasn’t increased the number of people who are interested. The corner of the experimental music underground that I am most involved in still has no appreciable audience. The fact that radiofreemidwich has a potential global reach in the billions doesn’t mean that I can shift 50 copies of a CD-r. Andy Robinson of the wonderful Striate Cortex still struggles to sell a run of 100 copies of something. This music is produced and appreciated by a tiny number of people who are driven to make it, driven to distribute it and driven to seek it out. They’d be doing this with or without myspace or the like. The internet has occasionally made their lives a little easier but the difference is purely practical, not a difference in kind.
BtB: Could ffr have happened without the internet, in terms of getting the music out there and making connections with international artists?
Flatworm could, of course, have existed without the internet. The exact form it took would have been different but microlabels existed and self-released stuff was produced and distributed in the pre-internet era. Flatworm was in many ways just an ‘old-fashioned’ micro-label that happened to be around during a boom in internet use. We were happy to make use of this resource, for reasons given in a previous answer, but the technological advance that really made ffr possible was the CD-r. For me the fact that sound files could be kept on a PC and that perfect digital reproduction, at greater than real-time speeds, was now possible at home really was revolutionary.
If you’d asked what a reactivated ffr would look like a year ago I would have said “oh, I’d just stick it on a blog for free” but now I’m not so sure. Perhaps I’d ape something like the Sonic Oyster cassette series or Apollolaan: keep the roster small and very high quality, fewer releases, desirable limited editions, publicized in advance to attract pre-orders. That seems like a sensible way of doing it – not that I’m going to!!
BtB: You describe Radio Free Midwich as being about “the mechanics of coping with the everyday”, while the Midwich blog is refreshingly candid and level-headed about your experience of maintaining yourself throughout your depression. How did you go about translating the depression into something musical? Is it an ongoing process of refining your sounds and methods, or have you settled on a creative strategy?
Midwich was only occasionally about depression, though it would be foolish to claim my illness didn’t infuse my (ahem) ‘art’. When I started making music I had only been diagnosed a couple of years previously and the experience was still largely undigested. Thus ‘the mechanics of coping with the everyday’ was not an explicit reference to living with depression. I meant it in the wider sense of dealing with the world most of us have no choice but to engage with. To quote myself from an earlier interview: “…most of the things we have to do are dull and repetitious and grinding and perverse yet we can somehow manage by enjoying the small differences, the nuances, of the day or by being surprised by an unexpected event. Hence slowly changing droney tracks interspersed with short sometimes jokey tracks…” Midwich was partly about documenting a grim situation but it was as often, I hope, about extracting the maximum amount of joy and humour from our everyday experiences. It might seem odd to claim that all this featureless droning and throbbing is deeply personal and autobiographical but it absolutely is.
I settled on a working method for midwich fairly early on and just got more adept at working through the variations. One sound source (a long-suffering Roland MC-303 Groovebox), one idea per track thoroughly explored, very little sequencing, few effects, record live and just keep retaking until it was perfect. I’d generally have an idea in mind as I set up my kit then let myself be led by the noise. Friends have been amused when I’ve told them that, say, one 9 minute track comprised of nothing but two phasing tones took 11 takes to get right. “But things kept happening!” I would protest. It was maddeningly complicated to keep it so simple.
Now that I am older, wiser (well, a bit), content with my lot and managing my illness as well as could be hoped I’ve no idea what ‘new’ midwich recordings might end up sounding like. And the volume control on my MC-303 is broken…
BtB: You wrote on the blog that “the name midwich comes from John Wyndham’s exquisite science fiction novel ‘The Midwich Cuckoos,’ a place that is both utterly normal and distressingly alien at the same time,” yet the name ‘Radio Free Midwich’ also seems to be a Philip K Dick reference (to Radio Free Albemuth). Dick is well known for the manner in which he processed his nervous breakdown in his writing (as well as being a rather splendid writer and a perennially misjudged and unwitting source of Hollywood movies of wildly variable quality). Do you feel an affinity with Philip K Dick? Are there any parallels you’d draw between your work and his? Your accounts seem much more down-to-earth, unless you’ve secretly been drafting reams of Gnostic scripture.
Well, I’d like the blog title to be read as meaning something like ‘broadcasting from the radio station of the Midwich liberation front – vive la (no-audience) underground resistance!’ but I appreciate that is a bit of a stretch. I’m happy to cough to the Radio Free Albemuth reference but the influence in this case is subconscious. I’d be hard pressed to spell out any affinities or parallels in detail but I am a huge Philip K. Dick fan. I’ve thinned out the collection somewhat but there was a time a few years ago when I owned more or less every published word by the guy and collected variant editions and first appearances of his short stories in pulps. In fact, my first proto-blogging activity was a mid-to-late-90s geocities site dedicated to collecting PKD stuff called ‘Bogart’s Exchange’ (amazingly, this is still viewable via reocities). Make of that what you will. And no, I don’t have a million words of closely-written, speed-induced Gnostic exegesis in box files under the bed – if only Dick had had access to WordPress, eh?
BtB: Do you see the Radio Free Midwich blog as being a continuation of Fencing Flatworm? Does the blog have any specific mission in mind, or is it just about being flexible enough to do what you want, when you want?
RFM has become a definite continuation of the FFR project in two ways: I am calling attention to the music I like and I am consciously courting node-in-a-network status – albeit it in a fairly relaxed manner. However, I didn’t really have either reason in mind when I started the blog.
After we ended flatworm and I ducked out of Termite Club I decided to take a few months away from music, which turned into a year, which suddenly became five years. During a little (mid-life) crisis of confidence I kind of woke up with a start, looked around me and discovered it had all gone. I realised that I missed the music and, more importantly, the people. Time had also smoothed off the rough edges of my memory and left a residue of fond pride in the achievement. My glasses weren’t so rose-tinted that I was tempted to start it all again, but I did think it was worth documenting and a blog seemed the easiest, most accessible way to go about it. However, the initial archival purpose has now become secondary to the commentary.
I enjoy the writing, although I am a stone-cutter and it takes a great deal of effort for me to chip out these posts, and I dig the opportunity it affords to immerse myself in ‘music appreciation’, for want of a better term. RFM is a lot less fiery and driven than FFR – there is no manifesto, no deadlines and if I am sent something I don’t like I (almost always) just politely put it to one side with an encouraging murmur. What you are reading are the thoughts of a life-long enthusiast who stuck his toe back in the water and is delighted to now find himself amongst all these great people and awe-inspiring art. I can’t believe my luck, really.
Virtually the entire midwich discography has been chronologically indexed and made available for free download on Rob’s radiofreemichwich blog. The above mp3s (indexed and linked via the pictures on this page) are all taken from this fabulous resource.