Ambient musician and regional surrealist Konx-om-Pax has a head for detail and the mind of a dreamer, Lauren Martin discovers on a day out in Glasgow.
It’s funny what a slight scratching of the surface can uncover. I’m sitting outside a cafe in Glasgow on a muggy, overcast evening. A folk band are playing inside and a caustic raise of the eyebrow tells me that Konx-om-Pax is less than impressed, so we sit outside on the pavement with our drinks and his tobacco tin. As he leans forward cross-legged and rolls a cigarette he watches people walk into the cafe, but nobody offers much of a glance in return. He’s quite inconspicuous in person but then again, it can be said that his work speaks for him.
Since graduating from the Glasgow School of Art in 2006 Tom Scholefield has helped breathed life into some of the most exciting electronic music of recent years. His surrealist-leaning graphics have graced the videos and album covers of artists such Hudson Mohawke, Kuedo and Oneohtrix Point Never and after racking up an impressive portfolio of visual work, this week sees the release of his debut album ‘Regional Surrealism’ on Planet Mu. With the release a few days away he’s visibly relaxed when I met him. A weight seems off his shoulders and over some beer, cigarettes and a reflective hour, it becomes apparent that the album was a necessary endeavour for him.
“In late 2011 I was having a really shit time and started to make music as a way of trying to ignore the work I was doing. I needed to clear my head… “ – Konx-om-Pax
“In late 2011 I was having a really shit time and started to make music as a way of trying to ignore the work I was doing. I needed to clear my head but I also didn’t have time to release it myself. I’ve released things on my own label Display Copy before but, fuck me, it’s so much effort doing it on your own, and I didn’t have the time and energy I needed to do it well. I had just finished the King Midas Sound sleeve art for Hyperdub and through Hyperdub I knew the guys at Planet Mu, so I sent Planet Mu an EPs worth of tracks that I’d made over the past year or so – basically a compilation of my ideas – and they loved it and asked me to work it into an album. ‘Regional Surrealism’ as it is now is about half made up of those original ideas, and half new ones.”
As off the cuff as he makes it sound at first it becomes clear that the album has been a long time in the making. Although Konx-om-Pax is known primarily for his design work he’s always been something of a bedroom producer, having first started to make music intently at sixteen. It’s quite telling that what may have seemed like time-consuming, fruitless endeavours in your teenage years can come to form your attitudes and inspirations later in your creative life, and Konx-om-Pax owes it (oddly enough) to trance.
“I worked out that with decks you could change the pitch on whatever you wanted. It just blew my mind.” – Konx-om-Pax on early experiences of DJing
He laughs about his first attempts at production with a fondness that’s stayed with him for close to a decade. “ Rustie and I had a funny moment one of the last times we hung out. We were up at his old flat in Glasgow and we were just sitting on YouTube looking up old trance tunes and doing perfect air keys to them all. Like our wee secret love. Trance was really a common link between us when we were much younger as a way of getting into more commercial dance music, and it’s what got me into producing music in the first place. I started buying the Global Underground mix CDs and they had a big influence on me because it was the first time I’d ever heard a DJ mix where everything was in key. I could sit in the house and listen to them over and over to work out how they sequenced it all. Before those CDs I remember thinking that it was the mixer that controlled the mix, not the DJ [laughs]. Really. I only learned what decks were when I started buying DJ Magazine. The first issue I bought was one with a trance feature on the cover, and from an advert in the back of that issue I bought a mixer and two belt tracks for £200. Once I got them I worked out that with decks you could change the pitch on whatever you wanted. It just blew my mind. That was kind of it, really. I was obsessed from then on.”
Obsessive would be one word to describe his work. When he realised that DJing actually involved a bit of human effort after all he took the DIY ethic to an extreme: “I remember lying in my mum and dads living room playing tracks live into the cassette deck and recording straight to tape, and my bedroom walls were covered with row after row of post it notes in linear order. They all had scribbles about notes, chords and bar structures on them, and I’d record mixes live by following these rows of post its like a step by step until they were perfect. I’d even sellotape down keys for arpeggios. I had to program most of it manually – note, quarter note, half note, space – and it would take hours and hours to program a single synth line or a really shit sample. If I did something wrong I had to erase it all and start all over again. It was a pretty hellish way to learn but it taught me so much about manual sequencing. I only had a tiny wee LED screen so I had to really concentrate.”
This prolonged attention to detail is partly what has made his debut so fascinating. As a full length album ‘Regional Surrealism’ is a collage rather than a linear collection of tracks. As it gradually builds each sonic layer curls away from one another, but you soon realise that these layers are not wrapped around a definable centre. There is no centre, only layers. It’s a profoundly strange listen that takes equal parts concentration and relaxation to appreciate. Its murky waves of distortion echo and chime with pitched down, stripped back synthesiser compositions that billow out crevices and into the ether, hinting to the dreamy intimacy of Boards of Canada and the ground-breaking weirdness of Aphex Twin with delicate nuances rather than overt references.
‘Regional Surrealism’ is a thoroughly original creature and it’s arresting in its subtlety because you know that for all its minute samples and intricacies, you can’t quite put a finger on why it sounds the way it does. You feel torn between the potential grandiosity of the instrumentation and the stuntedness of the recording process, the weighted grimness of where it might have come from and an ephemeral lightness-of-being that it embodies. It’s a thing of mystery and unusual beauty that builds an unsettling, nocturnal otherworldliness in your minds eye. I can imagine it being the soundtrack to a documentary about the descent into the Mariana Trench; sitting in a submarine and discovering that you’re all alone in a world you cannot hope to fully understand, listening to those ominous frequencies roll out into the all-consuming darkness.
“The editing process was taking all the bits that I like, cutting them up then sequencing what I have left. I like to do things that degrade the quality of the recording and give it this otherworldly feel.” – Konx-om-Pax
This eerie sense of isolation stems largely from the disjointed composition and recording processes, which Scholefield avidly presses upon. “The album is made up of chunks of audio recordings from live keyboards. It’s largely comprised of basic audio files layered and exported onto tape. The way I make music now is more of a jigsaw. Everything is in little bits. I sample old VHS tapes or jingles off YouTube, or TV, or even just recording random everyday stuff. Sometimes I go round to friends houses and just leave a mic on and record the night. One of the tracks on the album was made with a recording of being up at Jamie Griers house, the guy who mixed and mastered the album. He had an old Yamaha or Casio synth which we plugged into a guitar amp and started freestyling arpeggios on it. Then we recorded it from the guitar amp into the laptop speakers (which were on the other side of the room from us) and we ended up with this really tinny and overdriven tape recording. The original jam was like a seven minute long improvisational thing, but the editing process was taking all the bits that I like, cutting them up then sequencing what I have left. I like to do things like that that to degrade the quality of the recording and give it this otherworldly feel.”
As much as the experimentation with recording quality and sampling was a chance to explore the possibilities of his albums sound it was a different story when it came to the mastering process. Those nights using a laptop to record synths through guitar pedals proved bittersweet once he realised that physical format has its limits. “The mastering process was a real eye-opener for me because it made me realise how difficult it can be to put across distortion in a mastered tape.
The tracks were mostly shitty tape recordings so a lot of it had to to doctored to be able to sound good on a CD.” Vinyl on the other hand proved a more fluid and honest representation of his sound and confirmed what he’s long thought of the difference between digital and vinyl formats. “Hearing it on vinyl, that was a completely new experience. Vinyl is just bliss. It has this warm, mild distortion to it anyway but it also manages to translate quietness well, which was perfect for the album.
‘Regional Surrealism’ isn’t meant to be loud. Turning the volume up doesn’t work in its favour. The hiss and compression add to it all when its on vinyl. High frequencies disappear and the bass just gets warmer. I first listened to the test pressing after-hours in a bar where my friend works, and we just sat there and looked at each other after a while and said ‘Wow, this sounds like a proper album.’ It sounds exactly how I wanted it. If you’re going to buy my album, get the vinyl, I swear. It makes so much more sense.”
“Techno empowers people. It’s religious.”
As avant-garde as ‘Regional Surrealism’ sounds I learn that the album is largely indebted to Konx-om-Pax’s enduring love for techno and the emotional pull that it retains for him. I mention Bjork and her assertion that “if there’s no soul in the music it’s because nobody put it there”, and he nods in agreement, quickly elaborating upon the lasting emotional impact techno has had on him and his approach to production.
“When I listen to Drexciya everything’s there – happiness, sadness, darkness…. it’s like a musical equivalent of saying ‘Life can be shit sometimes, but you’ve got to get your head down and get on with it.’ They have this melancholy kind of optimism that’s quite realistic. Underground Resistance has this amazing positive mental attitude of getting out of the shit, out of Detroit, out of everything. Mad Mike is very much inspired by organ gospel music and it totally makes sense for techno because it’s so uplifting. It empowers people. Techno is religious. Although I don’t make techno I like to think that’s what it feels like. I think my album’s quite calming. It soothes me. I feel contented when I hear it. The mood of the music is the mood I’m in most of the time. It reflects my general state of mind. I’m not the happiest guy in the world, but I’m not miserable either. Sarcastically happy, I guess.”
This melancholic element runs deep throughout the album and get a wry nod in the title of the last track Let’s Go Swimming, a direct reference to the Arthur Russell song of the same name. Twenty years after his death the life and music of Arthur Russell remains a potent reminder of the vast emotional pull of experimental electronic music, and the resurgence of interest in him in recent years is a point well made in the appropriation of the track title. Konx-om-Pax knows that his reference is a little obvious but it’s not out of a desire to adopt his sound or techniques. It’s a homage to a man who has had a profound effect on his outlook and work.
“‘World Of Echo’ is just beautiful. That album does the strangest things to me. I wanted ‘Regional Surrealism’ to conjure up those same kind of weird, dreamy emotions as ‘World Of Echo’ does for me. I mean don’t get me wrong, I love all his disco stuff, but ‘World Of Echo’ is just so strange. It’s just a cello put through loads of guitar delays. It makes me feel really normal and happy oddly enough. If anything shit happens, I just stick that on and it makes everything go away.”
Therapeutic escapism with a sprinkling of agitation, I say. He tells me it’s agitated because nothing that’s meant to be therapeutic works one hundred percent of the time. There’s always something lingering in your mind that stops you relaxing. “My music is this blurred feeling that I get at the back of my head that I want to channel in some way, but I’m not quite sure how yet. I can’t describe it in words because it won’t make any sense, but it’s sort of like this nostalgic kind of safety you felt when you were a kid that triggers all these memories and emotions for you in later life.”
“My music is this blurred feeling that I get at the back of my head that I want to channel in some way, but I’m not quite sure how yet.” – Konx-om-Pax
This agitated uncertainty is somewhat reflected sonically in the insistent reworking of original recordings until they become copies of copies; until they become his own eerie take on the progressive recording techniques of Russell. After Konx-om-Pax muses about Russell with such clear adoration I can’t shake the muted kinship they unwittingly have with one another. They are strangely akin when he describes ‘World of Echo’ like that – disorientating and bleakly beautiful recordings that aren’t afraid to push boundaries.
The unsettling vocals and scattered keys of Sura-Tura Gnosi-Cosi were achieved by warping a raw file until it became almost unrecognisable. “The initial recording was sped up double, slowed down to half-speed, and then layered on top of itself and played together at the same time. So, you’ve basically got this double time synth line with a really slow version of it fed into it. I was initially going to leave original in as a kind of middle layer, but I took it out altogether. I didn’t need it anymore. It’s all about playing with speed and pitch. I like to make things really quickly tempo wise that are pitched quite high up, but then slowing down and dragging them out unnaturally. If you manually pitch things down it really stretches it all out and makes it really disjointed. Machinedrum told me that he played the album at an after-party recently and people started freaking out a bit. I liked that.”
Reality is not something that sits well with Konx-om-Pax, clearly. The escapism of the production process, the distortion of content, the wry pleasure taken in the unsettling effects it can have on people; it’s no wonder his enduring love for science fiction and surrealism features so strongly in his work. Konx-om-Pax is concerned with showing us the space between the present known and the future unknown, something cerebral that speaks to us without language. His animation sequences are deeply indebted to the science fiction tradition’s love of technological artifice and the unknown and ‘Regional Surrealism’ in turn taps into these concerns by sitting somewhere between reality and dreams, tactile yet just out of reach, deeply unsettling to the listener. The mention of science fiction provokes him and he smokes furiously as he picks his words.
“Trying to get a voice out of a machine is one of the most fundamental elements of electronic music, right from when the Bell Research lab got a machine to sing ‘Daisy Daisy’.” – Konx-om-Pax
“The main thing I became obsessed with when making the album was Florian Fricke and the Mellotron, and how a synthesiser could create a human voice like in the opening titles of Herzog’s ‘Aguirre’. Trying to get a voice out of a machine is one of the most fundamental elements of electronic music, right from when the Bell Research lab got a machine to sing Daisy Daisy, which incidentally is where Kubrick got his inspiration for HAL in ’2001: A Space Odyssey’. From this idea of the Mellotron I programmed a C note of a man singing into voice pads and then transposed that one note into a whole keyboard, so I can play chords and make it sound like I’ve got a whole choir. It’s pretty sweet. I wanted a signature that I could pull through the whole album. It’s like how films have those little sounds that may not seem like much at the time, but when you hear them again they make you feel like how you felt when you saw that film. It’s an evocation.”
This evocation wouldn’t be complete without the accompanying art direction, something he felt no undue pressure in living up to expectations of his consistently imaginative design work. ‘Regional Surrealism’ takes a different route to his usual style by avoiding colour altogether. The sleeve features a black and white pen drawing of an industrial underwater structure which quite overtly evokes classic science fiction cinema of the 1970s and 1980s. “In terms of the artwork I was in total Ridley Scott mode because I was so hyped for the release of Prometheus…. before the dream was shattered, obviously.
I spent a lot of time thinking about Moebius, Syd Mead and Geiger, and I watched Herzog’s ‘Aguirre: The Wrath Of God’ a lot too. If I get into a film I will watch it over and over again. I have seen ’2001: A Space Odyssey’ at least one hundred times. Kubrick was the master of juxtaposing really odd music with scenes that you don’t think will suit it, but end up being so perfect that it’s this undeniable signature that manages to resonate for decades. That’s pretty much what I want.”
After the umpteenth listen what I’ve begun to understand and appreciate about ‘Regional Surrealism’ is not so much how it was made but why it was made. Part emotional therapy and part sonic experiment, it gave Scholefield a chance to breathe. When you think of the larger body of his work (with all the hyper-real colours bleeding into layer upon layer of synthetic illusion) there’s something so muted about ‘Regional Surrealism’ that I feel few suspected from him. It’s evocative of something I can’t quite name but, then again, the human soul is a tender and mysterious thing. Who are we to name the most private of experiences. All we can do is just, be quiet and listen.