As he was making his third album for Warp, Chris Clark was living a happy little life. Weekends were spent in Welsh caves, chanting with chums into a dictaphone. And, days went by, either drumming to Krautrock in his Birmingham studio or pitch-shifting creaking door recordings until they sounded like free jazz experiments.
He was doing as he pleased, fusing it all with evocative waves of sombre electronica, organic beats, glacial soft synths, and icy acid. It was a sparse, odd flavour. And the telling sound of a man making music with little money, on a diet of mainly liquified vegetables.
“I was really skint at the time,” says Clark. “Basically eating cabbage and bean soup. But, I was the happiest I think I’ve ever been, because I just knew I had this album. That’s all I needed.”
His Spartan lifestyle ran over into his production, as he trimmed away any excess fat, concentrating on achieving deft live and expertly chopped drumming, alongside strains of the strongest sound design of his career.
”I was really getting into just those two elements, without anything else,” says Clark. “And I would just let that run. Getting this really sort of cold, Florian Hecker-type sound. That kind of weird sound design. But, with really loose jazzy drums over it. And that was a really strange mix, and I hadn’t heard that before.”
It was like Can and DJ Shadow made an uncompromising library album, full of atonal modern drone music. And, it worked. The album pricked up ears at the time, making many ‘Best Of’ lists. And, today, producers like Rustie and Hudson Mohawke have cited it as an inspiration. Something Clark, back then, would have been pleased as punch to know.
“I was really engaged with it,” he says. “And it just absorbed me so much, the making of it. It completely absorbed me, and I really enjoyed it.
“So, I remember thinking that if I felt that way, then some one else might, too. Be it 10 people or 10,000. Who knows? But, if it’s even just one, then that would be really gratifying.”
“I was living in Birmingham. I had an MPC. A Revox tape machine. And you could add the Atari ST in, because that was around [debut album] Clarence Park, and some tracks came from then.
“I also had [the band] Broadcast’s drum kit, which was a really nice Ludwig with an old ’70s snare, quite a boomy kick, and jazzy toms. Then a music box. Arp Odyssey, but that was on the more jungle stuff on the EP surrounding it.
“Then, mainly soft synths, processed on tape a lot. And probably re-amped. It’s quite a common technique, but if you push it, it’s always surprising. It tricks your mind into that, ‘Is this even digital?’.
“Then I had Logic, and a really wicked old program called AudioMulch. And then quite a few gate plugins. The plugin chains were ridiculous. It was probably excessive.
“Then a Sherman Filterbank. Sony dictaphone. MiniDisc. PZM mic. A Viola. Waldorf Pulse synth. James from Broadcast’s Korg MS-20. A Yamaha CS1x. And an out-of-tune piano.”
Body Riddle, track-by-track
“I remember this being quite painful to write. I had everything down, apart from the drums, for about four months. And then something just clicked. I just played some more drums and it all just sat in really nicely, and then it became a track.
“With tracks like this I’d just keep checking back in. I was less experienced, then. So, I used to get stressed. I had loads of drums that I would mix in a bit of an annoyed state of mind and then delete them. But, when I played it for that last time, that was the one that popped in, and everything was just chiming in. I think I’d mic’ed the kit quite nicely and it worked. Short answer – it took a long time. But it was fun.”
“This one was always really murky. It’s like if Sting’s drum engineer was listening to it he’d go, ‘Well, that’s not got very high production values’. But, if Kevin Shields was listening to it, he might quite like how murky that is.
“That was the point. With Herr Bar I knew I wanted that to pop off and be slick. And I thought it would be a bit much if the next track did the same thing, so it’s this counterpoint.
“I also got really into just re-processing. Like, re-photocopying sounds. I just used a sine tone patch on the Logic sampler, recorded to tape. Then back to computer, and back to tape. About five times, so it’s just got all this hairy gristle around it. I was getting really into that, too.”
“It’s recorded onto a dictaphone. Again, with a sine tone patch. And, retrospectively, I’d call this a palate cleansing short track.
“Originally, it was probably six or seven minutes long, and I cut it down. I usually make these edit decisions when I’ve just got stuff on in the house, and I’m not really listening. It’s better to do that, while you’re pottering about thinking of something else.
“Quite often you think you’re in a focused state of mind, but actually you’re sort of hoodwinked by a technical detail, staring at screens. They give you this sort of cosplay idea that you’re really working hard on your music, when you should be using your ears. So, yeah, just playing stuff and walking about. It’s definitely a much nicer way to make big decisions.”
“The Waldorf Pulse synth, layered. Fake analogue! Can’t beat it. And then more tape. And the same Sony dictaphone, with that stab that comes in. You can’t get them anymore. It’s got pitch vari-speed on it. Then there’s a percussion track, a sleigh bell, I think.
“I remember the seeds of that. There was a time when I was forcing myself to get up at 3am and immediately play something on a synth, half asleep. It worked a treat. Everything at that time sounds great. Your ears are unbelievably fresh, uncorrupted by travesties of the day.
“Yeah, so the demo was written at 3am. It was like it was pretty crap, but it had the seed of something magical. But, took about three months to finish.”
“This had similar percussion, with that sleigh bell, layered. And then Logic and soft synths, on tape. I did have a compressor as well. Maybe a dbx? It was silver. I didn’t like it.
“Another one made in about five minutes, then about a year mastering. Some ideas you need to pollute in order to know if they’re good.
“That’s so much of what I do – deleting what I’ve done to it in order to realise that the first version was best. It’s very common.
“With Ted, there’s just the right amount of melody in it. And probably the structure of it works. It’s divided, you know, because I play a bit of jazz piano. And the temptation is to always just add more chord changes.”
Roulette Thrift Run
“Yeah, live drums, on this one. This track also used James from Broadcast’s Korg MS-20. He also played guitar.
“And, ah, there’s sort of a saxophone sound. An Ornette Coleman-style thing. Which is actually a door hinge, recorded at 192K, and then pitched down by four octaves. So, it’s stretched, but it maintains quite a lot of depth and high definition. When I did that it was properly like, ‘Fuck, that sounds amazing! It sounds like a saxophone’.
“Oh, and then there’s some singing. I think I sing on that. But, it’s basically live drums, MS-20, that ‘sax’ sound, me singing... Oh, then at the end it’s me, drumming, but I think I pitched it. I was really into Krautrock bands like Can and would drum along to them.”
“My main memory of this is making field recordings in a cave in Wales with Richard Roberts, who’s in Letherette, and Steve [from] Bibio. We were all just chanting this weird drone in a cave. We probably sounded like we were in a cult, which is fine.
“It’s mainly about that piano riff, and having some sort of evocative, insistent tune. And, with quite a few of my tracks, it goes to an intense point. It’s almost too much, and then it does something completely different. The ending’s pretty sombre. I was also just discovering that it’s quite fun slamming stuff in out of time. But, if all the contours are nicely done, it works.
“It was quite a good one to play out. I remember playing it a lot in live shows. And I don’t know what the title means. I’ve got no idea. It’s not that specific. It’s just evocative.”
Dew On The Mouth
“Some tracks took a lot of work. They were never really a pain. It’s more like there’s a workload, with a lot of stuff to do. But, this one, I don’t remember having a huge workload.
“I probably made it in about two minutes. I definitely make tracks in about two minutes, sometimes. And, after that I just spend about a year worrying about what to do with them. Then just end up using the two minute version.
“This is quite similar to Springtime Epigram, with just a sine tone played on it. And a synth, recorded on dictaphone. And then there’s some sort of mad field recording that was put through a Sherman Filterbank.
“And that would have been recorded around the time of [making debut album] Clarence Park, in 1997 or 1998.”
“I used an out of tune piano for this. A PZM mic. And then it’s me drumming. The strings are from a real viola. And I used the Sherman Filterbank on the bass.
“The bass isn’t actually a bass noise. I mean, it’s not from a mono synth. I remember, with that Filterbank, you could tune anything through it and fake a mad, Reese-style, bass. I love the idea that you’re using something that isn’t what it is, and tricking people.
“I’d never bother taking the bass out of anything. So, all those sounds have this... cotton wool behind them. You can care too much. I just sort of do it pragmatically, but not, ‘Oh, it has to have all the low taken out to be a clean mix’.”
“This was an unused demo from my first album. I wrote that when I was 18. The sounds are from a [Yamaha] CS1x, because that’s what I made Clarence Park on.
“To be quite honest, it was this track that brought Body Riddle together. Before that I had nine tracks that really complemented each other, but it needed something else adding. And I sat on the album for six months, just fucked off beyond all belief because you can’t magically write another track that finishes the album off.
“I like my records, from start to finish, to tell a coherent story. And if it doesn’t, I just won’t release it. So, I was just sitting on it for ages and then it was like, ‘Oh, yeah, this Night Knuckles thing!’ And it just somehow really, really worked as the penultimate track.”
“This is me drumming. And I wanted this track just to be really sad. But, not just sad. Aggressive as well. There’s something about that sort of sour synth sound that I really like, as you can probably tell.
“As soon as you have a cold, sturdy synth, you can get away with murder, vocally, because it’s such a sort of a ‘fuck you’ counterpoint. The sentiment of the voice has just got this thing underneath that I’ve personally never really clicked with. Voice and guitar, for me, is too much. It’s like, too much sentiment. Whereas a synth is just the right amount of, sort of, grit. And it made sense to end here.”