If like us, you were won over by the originality and 8-bit charms of their 2018 debut LP Insula, then you’ll be delighted to know that Proc Fiskal’s new outing, Siren Spine Sysex, takes all the editing panache and club beats of its predecessor, throws in some more frenetic sampling, drill beats, grime and even folk nods and lets Joe Power’s imagination unleash itself even further.
With tracks like opener Anti Chessst, or haunting Humancargoe Esst and the joyous 8 Mgapixel See Thru Phone, Joe Powers flexes his considerable editing and production talents with FM synths, jittering percussion and a variety of disembodied voices to create a sonic world all of his own.
Far from sitting in his hometown of Edinburgh amidst vast banks of state-of-the-art sampling tech and analogue keyboards, the reality is far more minimalist and, we might venture, all the more creative for it. We really could wax lyrical about Siren Spine Sysex all day but perhaps the best description comes from Hyperdub’s press release for the album which states: “it feels warm, inviting and sunny, exciting thoroughly modern album as well as a manic dissection of personal and cultural baggage”. Quite!
With that in mind, we were delighted to catch up with Proc Fiskal himself, Joe Powers, to find out what makes him tick.
Siren Spine Sysex feels like a quantum leap forward in your editing technique… has it taken you a long time to put it all together?
“A lot of the songs were done in really rough demo form maybe a year and a half ago. I would send a bunch of tracks to Kode 9, and he’d get back and let me know which ones he thought were fruitful and worth pursuing. When I went to finish the tracks then it only took about a month to do more editing and finish things.”
Do you find digging for samples a pleasurable part of the process or is it a necessary evil?
“The inspiration to use those sorts of samples was just that’s what I do anyway, spend large periods of time scouring the internet. So, it seemed kinda natural to use samples from that because that’s what I’m into anyway.”
How are you ripping things you want to use?
“I sort of play YouTube like an instrument and put things straight into Audacity. If you play something on YouTube, you can hit the number key….4…7…2 or whatever and it skips the video so you get a sort of random sample allocation. So, four or five of the tracks came about just by doing that and mashing the random start-points in a video.”
A lot of happy accidents then?
“I did a song on the last EP called Thurs Jung Youtz, which is a drill-ish type song with a My Bloody Valentine noise vibe so I wanted to run with that and all the Gaelic stuff came from me saying to people as a piss-take that I was gonna do a Gaelic album.
"The weird, shoegaze type stuff came together with all the other stuff and it just kind of made sense to me! I was listening to loads of Cocteau Twins during lockdown as I hadn’t really heard them before and I just really liked that ethereal female vocal thing.”
Aside from your new Mac, what else would we find in your recording setup?
“With this new album it’s been mainly that samples into Audacity thing but I did get into a bad gear-buying habit. It’s the most pointless thing, buying lots of synths but I do like it. I ended up buying lots of digital synths. It’s hard for me to talk about as it’s already over but, at the time I was just so invested in scouring eBay for good, cheap deals on synths.
"For the album I got a Yamaha V50 for next to nothing on Gumtree. It’s a really good sample-making synth, I just record loads of things, make big sample banks then manipulate it all in Ableton.”
So, you’ve got a big collection of samples on that new Mac?
“I learned mixing through using other people’s samples then I started thinking that, if you’re using a drill or a grime sample pack then everyone’s samples start to sound a bit the same so I wanted to explore making my own sample packs.”
The digital synth sound definitely comes through on the album. Do you think the old digital synths get a harsh deal compared to the love lavished on old analogue gear?
“Yeah, I think so. The whole analogue fetish thing seems a bit fucking stupid…[laughs] but then I guess the digital fetish thing is too! It’s really silly as they both sound good. The digital thing I possibly like more because it’s what I’ve grown up with and the sounds I heard used in computer games were mainly FM where maybe people who grew up in the ’70s were more into analogue.”
What else did you get your hands on during your online digital synth binge?
“I got a Kurzweil K2000, which is pretty good. Sounds confusing but it does really good ‘bad’ instrument replication… cellos that are distorted to fuck and flutes that don’t sound quite right.
"I really like that digital representation of real instruments. I looked up the original price for some of these things and they were like £3,000 when they came out and now you can get them for £10 or whatever! They’re really powerful but they’re huge and take up so much space. [laughs] If you could buy a VST of them it would be fine.”
That’s where the ‘sysex’ in the title came from?
“I kept seeing that word and really liked it and I also liked the idea of information transfer even though it’s a fairly outdated word for it.”
Does Ableton play its part in all the frenetic edits you have going off on the album?
“A lot of it is the direct sampling into Audacity that I mentioned. There is a lot of hand editing in Ableton as I don’t use any automation. That’s how I learned to mix, hyper-editing in Ableton Session view. Ableton makes it so easy to edit it as much as you’d like.”
Have you been using Ableton for a while?
“I learned on an Akai MPC500, then bought Ableton when I got my first laptop. I just got Live 11 and it’s good to have the luxury of supported software.”
Do you get involved with the big community that exists around Ableton?
“I never used to use Max for Live or any of the inbuilt synths before as I mainly just used Ableton as a sample editor. I suppose that’s why I ended up buying the hardware synths because I was a little intimidated by all the native Ableton stuff as I’m quite untechnical. So, before, I tended just to use it for cutting up samples and the idea of a physical synth always seemed more understandable.”
Is there much on your current gear wish-list?
“I’m thinking of getting rid of all my keyboards and as much gear as possible and getting some really good speakers and headphones as it’s all about fidelity now… I want as clear a sound as possible.”
When you’re in the box with all the endless tangents it offers, how do you finish tracks?
“That’s a hard one. Quite often it’s fatigue… I’m sick of working on it and want it finished! With some tracks it’s obvious they’re finished but even with several of the songs on this album I’ll listen to them and think ‘I could’ve done that’. Often the actual song structure [dictates] when something’s finished. The editing is different as you could edit things for 100 years! It’s the song that makes it make sense.”
Have you got your head around VSTs now?
“After the album was finished I’ve got really into all the VSTs and softsynths because I thought it would be a good move to get into a new thing. As I’m getting into it I’m realising actually how powerful it is.
"I’ve been getting really into the Granulator, which is fucking amazing and I’m over the moon with it. It’s just cleaner and clearer and I really like putting sounds from the time-period of the Kurzweil into it.
"You can end up with new ideas for these old sounds that weren’t meant to be granulised, which gives you a sort of weird, time-displacement feeling. It’s not the best example but, say, doing drill on a Kurzweil feels wrong. But you can mess with it and give it a real time-warped feel.”
Was the digital synth binge before or after you made Insula?
“Yeah, when I made Insula it was made purely of other people’s samples. The binge was because I wanted the means to make my own samples. When I got into electronic music I just assumed that you had to have synths… I didn’t realise at that time that I could just do it all on my laptop there and then. I did have a strange complex about synths for a while where I thought they were the be all and end all.
“I can never imagine going into a studio as I’ve never made my music in one. I like the idea of it but it just seems so luxurious now. It is the big problem with computers that there’s just so much choice now and it can be hard to make a decision when there’s that much freedom.”
Hyperdub just seems like the perfect label for your music and their quality control is impeccable, isn’t it?
“Absolutely and having their feedback on material has really helped, especially with not having had clubs to test stuff out in for so long. That’s where I come from in terms of making tunes but I wasn’t able to imagine any of these songs in a club environment. So, to be able to bounce tracks back and forth with Kode 9 has been brilliant.”
Is there the prospect of a live incarnation of these new songs at some point?
“Maybe at some point but I’m still a bit cautious about there maybe being another lockdown… or maybe there won’t be. I’ve not got any personal plans for any shows yet.”
Have you made inroads on the next project?
“A wee bit… I’ve got a few ideas but I really want to do something very clean and high-fidelity. I had a fancy of doing a pop record then I thought everyone does a pop record! I always appreciate how clean things are and I’ve been getting into spatial stuff. I have two good monitors with good stereo imaging and that’s such a buzz that I want to do something that’s that cinematically wide.
"I’ve been listening to all Autechre’s live shows that they’ve put up online and the spatiality of them is fucking wild! [laughs] My mission is to get a track TikTok famous. I’d like to go viral like that. I’d like to maybe get some more VSTs and to get out of minute hyper-editing and do more capture and edit stuff. The hyper-editing warps your head a bit!”