Andy Blake of Dissident/Cave Paintings recently interviewed Chris Carter around the re-release of his ‘The Spaces Between’ album on the Optimo Label. They got talking about drum machines, life in Throbbing Gristle and syths, synths and more synths. Over to Andy…
Recently, I had the chance to run a few questions past Chris Carter, a genuine musical and cultural innovator. His detailed and informative answers on the various topics make a great read and if I can persuade him to go for another couple of rounds there may well be a longer, more involved piece at some point. For now though, here is the raw Q&A.
Can you tell me a bit about the composing and recording process for the music included on the original version and this new release of the album ‘The Spaces Between’? Did you have much of a plan for the various tracks before starting work on them or was it more of a case of turning the machines on and seeing what they had to say for themselves?
My workflow for solo pieces hasn’t really changed that much but in those days, in the early 70s, it was usually a case of turning on all the gear and just experimenting for hours on end. I would usually begin with something rhythmic, a sequence, a bass line or a drum machine pattern to improvise over. But I’d always have a cassette deck and a reel-to-reel tape machine plugged into the output of my mixer so I could just hit record at a moments notice. As I accumulated recordings of these experiments I’d often replay them and reintegrate them back into new recording sessions, building up arrangements of live electronics, sequenced patterns, rhythms and earlier experiments.
I mostly recorded onto cassette but that was purely a financial constraint because although I had a day job – actually we all had day jobs then, all the way through Throbbing Gristle – reel-to-reel tape compared to cassette tape was relatively expensive, well it was on my wages. Which is ironic because I had some decent reel-to-reel tape recorders, a Tandberg, an Akai and later a Tascam but I couldn’t afford to keep buying fresh tapes for them and eventually ended up using the Tandberg and Akai primarily for tape experiments and looping or as tape-echo machines. Although I did also use them to supplement my income by editing (on tape) quite a few issues of Revealer cassettes.
What was the studio environment like and how much did it change over the period these tracks were made? Was there a fairly stable set up much of the time or were you experimenting with wiring things up in different ways and rebuilding in new configurations after each gig or other reason that meant you had moved the kit around?
I’ve never been one to stick to a rigid set-up for the gear I record and perform with. I’ve owned hundreds of different instruments: synths, keyboards, sound modules, drum machines, effects units, mixers and recorders. Although having said that I do keep the recording side of things unchanged for extended periods. Such as recording onto cassette, which I probably did for five or six years. Even with synth and effects gear I built myself, which was a lot, I’d refine or reconfigure things and re-build stuff again and again, or sell gear to fund bigger and better pieces of gear. Which I still do.
I moved around North London a lot in the seventies, from various bedsits, apartments and shared houses and my gear was set-up on a very ad hoc basis. The equipment I’d built myself could be very temperamental and once I’d got things working together and playing with each other nicely I’d tend to leave them in place for as long as I could, or until I had a performance to do or a jam to play across town. Of course getting a new piece of gear – which was fairly often – always skewed the arrangement somewhat and figuring out different ways to integrate it was fun, and is something I still enjoy.
What I did through most of the seventies would be to configure a set-up of some synths, a few sequencers, a drum machine or two, lots of effects, all going into a mixer and then a recorder of some kind, cassette mostly. I’d also often make a schematic of how things were patched together, not really because I wanted to get the same sounds again or because the set-ups were overly complex but because I like to sit down and visualise on paper how things are connected. It’s something I still do now. It all goes into some logical compartment of my brain that I access when trying out new set-ups. It’s the same with well written instruction manuals, I just love them. I read instruction manuals like people read novels, for pleasure. The downside of this of course is that people who know me know this and are constantly getting in touch asking for advice on this or that. I have a great t-shirt that just says RTFM. Which is an acronym for Read The Fucking Manual.
How aware were you at the time of what the rest of the world was up to musically and culturally? Did you pay much attention to what other people were doing or were you and the other Throbbing Gristle members very much living in your own world then?
I guess we were living in our “own world”, most bands are but then but we were all voracious record collectors too. And although we did share some tastes in music there was an extraordinarily wide range in what we individually enjoyed listening to. I know it may sound like a cliché now but we really did listen to everything from Stockhausen to Abba via Zappa and the Beach Boys. Actually we’re all still like that, only we don’t buy physical product now, just downloads.
I guess I’m trying to get some sense of your awareness and the relative influence – or lack thereof – on your music of things as disparate as; music from the top ten to prog rock and the all the way thru to the avant garde, the Daily Express, the 3 day week, those casual and very dangerous forms of racism, sexism and homophobia that the English seemed to perfect around this time, the heavy and seemingly never-ending hangover from the hippie 60s, punk as it was emerging, the beginning of the end of the job for life etc.
Well I know this phrase has become another cliché and I’ve probably used it too often about the 70s’ but (to Quote Dickens) “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”.
On a purely personal level it was the best of times because I just couldn’t get enough of it. I was fresh out of school and like a sponge – soaking up everything: knowledge, music, film, books, relationships, sex, concerts, DIY electronics, I was in different bands, I was performing – all good and the list is endless. It was the worst of times because I’d gone through some truly life changing and traumatic relationships and I was still trying to find myself, I’d had lots of poorly paid day-jobs, I got arrested, I got sick, I got burgled, I was constantly in debt, I was misunderstood, I had a car crash, I got beat up, I moved around a lot – another endless list of twenty-something angsts. The arrogance of youth and articulate self-confidence had completely bypassed me.
Of course, as you mention, we also had all those other 70s issues to cope with – sexism, racism, National Front, the hysterical press, awful TV, power cuts and also with us being ‘outsiders’ constantly getting harassed by the S.P.G., getting chased by Nazi skinheads one day, black gangs the next and punks at the weekends. Nobody seemed to like us then, well except the all welcoming All Nations club opposite our studio, that had the best sound system and played the best dub and ska in East London.
When the original cassette release of The Space Between happened in 1980 what was the main motivation behind bringing the music together into a collection? Did you listen to the tracks much over the preceding few years or did you rediscover them as a group at some point and feel that their time had come?
For years I’d made cassette compilations of my tracks, like mix tapes, but of my own music. I’d give them to friends, to Throbbing Gristle and later to people like Daniel Miller, Geoff Travis and writers such as Sandy Robertson and Jon Savage and journalists on Sounds, NME and Melody Maker that I’d got to know. I’m talking about a handful of copies, not hundreds. Anyway in 1978 shortly after we’d started Industrial Records and were looking for artists to bolster the label Cosey and Sleazy suggested I release some of my tracks as an album on IR.
Was there much that you left out of that release that could have fitted in with it stylistically and/or thematically? Are there plans for more releases and re-releases from the vaults or do you feel that you have covered the 70s and 80s period of your work enough now?
Oh yes there was a tremendous amount I left out, in fact for a long time it was intended to be in two volumes. But in the end I decided to edit it all down to a single 90 cassette. The original IR release also came with a small booklet of my collages and some texts and photos. What I’d like to do at some point would be to re-release the original IR version as a super limited double CD package with the booklet and maybe a couple of tracks from that period which were not included first time around. It’s just making the time to find all the parts and compile it together. But it’ll happen one day I’m sure.
Even by the time i began to spend time in studios in the late 80s the sounds of machines like the 808, 606, 303, 727 etc had already become part of the classic canon of electronic music building blocks and these days they seem as ubiquitous and easily identifiable to almost anyone into electronic music as, say, the piano, or the surf guitar sound or the grungy distortion of the heavy metal guitar. Can you remember what it was like to take those machines out of their boxes and use and hear them for the first time?
The first brand new ‘off the self’ synths I ever bought were an EMS VCS3 (above) and a MiniKorg 700 in 1973 and 1974. Actually you couldn’t get two more disparate synths. One was the pinnacle of keyboard-less experimentation the other was probably the most basic and simple to use home keyboard synth on the market. But buying, unpacking and plugging in both of those synths was like nothing I’d ever encountered before and even though I only owned each of those for a fairly short period (please don’t ask why) they were two of my favourites – each for entirely different reasons – and I’ll never forget that experience. Whereas going though exactly the same process with many of the other pieces of gear I’ve owned over the years has just faded from my memory.
But it’s an area that’s fascinated me for years. I don’t even know what you’d call it: “the psychology of buying new ‘things’ ” possibly? You know? – that new car, new synth, new TV, new fridge, new phone feeling. It’s a process almost everyone goes through at some point, although of course in different ways and usually with different outcomes, but it’s essentially the same for us all. That unboxing, plugging-in and using moment is going to be a different subjective experience for everyone. What may sound fantastic and inspiring to me may sound dull and uninteresting to someone else.
For about 10 years I wrote a lot of in-depth equipment reviews for Sound On Sound. But because I’d been sent so much new gear to review I got very blasé about getting hold of new equipment, particularly if I’d been reviewing a run of things I wasn’t especially impressed with. It’s a shame because that definitely affected my enthusiasm for seeking out new gear for new inspirations and the whole unboxing ritual. Although I think that’s pretty much worn off now.
Was there any sense of the impending paradigm shift due to the sounds themselves and/or the new ways of programming or were they each just one among many new boxes to experiment with?
In 1971, or 1972, the magazine Practical Electronics (above) published some articles on electronic music and synthesis theory complete with diagrams, and photos of experimental musicians: people like Daphne Oram, Delia Derbyshire and the EMS studios. After reading those pieces I went from hearing electronic, or electronically produced music in the abstract to seeing the absolute logic and sense of it all in those printed schematics and flow charts. It completely entranced and fascinated me and I instantly “got it” and started building my own electronic instruments. Those articles probably set me on this path I’ve been following ever since.
But in terms of equipment and gear I suppose for me the first paradigm shift was buying my VCS3 synth. Although it didn’t really have ‘a sound’ as such, unlike say a Moog synth, I think part of its appeal to some people was that it could sound completely different every time you turned it on. But for me it was as much an aesthetic thing too, presenting all these sonic possibilities in such a complete self-contained package. The next significant shift was when I bought a small Roland sequencer (a 104), a Roland drum machine (a CR78) and a Roland synth (an SH-3A) which could all be interconnected a synchronised to play together, in tune. That was such a major step for me because although I’d already built a basic step sequencer and synth all they could produce were relatively unrepeatable experimental sounds, and I wanted to take my compositions a step further.
And what about modifying things?
In the early days, mostly the Throbbing Gristle period, alongside building much of my own gear I did modify some of our equipment. In that period we weren’t exactly spoilt for choice and the range of things available was either very limited or out of our price range, which was pretty low anyway. And I’m talking about a time before programability, when a lot of things either had a basic set of sounds or a handful of presets built in. So by modifying equipment and instruments beyond their normal comfort zone we could make them sound different to how everyone else was using them. Basically we felt our sonic palate was limited with what we had, so I adapted them. Then by the early 1980s’ there was a boom in new audio manufacturers and gear started to get more sophisticated and prevalent and also more programmable. It was around then that I really got into programming complex sounds, and for a while continued modifying the hardware too. But by the time samplers took off in 1985-86’ish my hardware modifying phase had ceased altogether.
Were you excited when you first hooked a couple of boxes together with sync24 and they locked together? I can vividly remember nearly crapping myself with glee when I hooked an 808 and a DMX together and ran them in sync for the first time even though this was a fair while after it had become possible. It must have been thrilling to do this kind of stuff when this was the vanguard of technology.
I first got into syncing and triggering in the mid 1970’s, I had built a couple of step sequencers, a whole bunch of CV synth modules and a basic trigger-able analogue drum machine. These were all interconnected and being triggered, or triggering each other in sync. For a DIY system it was quite a complex set up at the time, but also quite temperamental, actually you can hear the fruits of me using some of that gear on ‘The Space Between’ album.
I started using Din Sync24 when I got my Roland TR-808 in 1980, shortly before Throbbing Gristle split-up the first time around. Which I should add, was one of the very first units in the UK. I went to pick mine up at Rod Argent’s store and their very first consignment had literally just come off the van and into the stock room, an hour later I had mine hooked up to a Roland CSQ sequencer (above) and some synths and I was recording tracks. Within weeks I’d bought a Roland MC8 sequencer (from Richard Burgess) and I had a technician at Roland who I knew retrofit a Din Sync24 socket to it. At last I could sync up all of my modular system, my keyboards to some decent drum sounds with rock solid timing… and sync it all to a reel-to-reel multitrack tape. Those were really exciting times and the floodgates had opened so to speak.
Looking back we can see now that this was a (short lived) precursor to MIDI, not as versatile but it was a standard way of synchronising rhythm instruments. And I’m not alone in the opinion that Sync24 still has the tightest, most solid sync, much tighter than MIDI. But even at the time I don’t think people outside contemporary music had the slightest idea what a major step the introduction of Sync24 was having on music production, and not just in electronic music. If you look back at the music charts the very early eighties there was an explosion of electronic based contemporary dance music. You’d had the introduction of Din Sync24, the 808, the 909, the Linn Drum, the Oberheim DMX, the Roland Bassline. It really was a golden age.
For you, how revolutionary was the idea of having multiple percussive sounds simultaneously programmable with the now fairly standard 16 step system for the first time? Was this new territory for you or had you been fortunate enough to have access of multiples of sequencers like the Korg SQ-10 and the Arp sequencer and your own similar creations and been able to do something similar before this?
It’s no secret I was a fan of German electronic music, and not just the Berlin School. I suppose it’s fair to say Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream probably had some influence on my sound with their multiple threads of sequences and percussion but the introduction of a standard for syncing everything certainly made life easier for us ‘sequencer heads’.
As I said earlier I was doing the whole ‘sequencers and drums thing’ back in the early 1970s so I guess there wasn’t really a “first time” for me, It kind of crept up on me slowly. The Holy Grail for me, for many years, was being able to synchronise all my different sequencers and drum machines and synths. That was another reason I got into modifying gear. Adding clock and trigger inputs or outputs to things, building weird little interfaces to keep things locked together. I couldn’t afford to buy an Arp or a Moog system, not even a Mini Moog but I had the wherewithal to make an attempt at something that could sound as good as those, well in my own ‘Heath Robinson’ way.
When I could finally afford to buy some ‘real’ gear, shortly after I bought the VCS3, one of the first things I bought was a Roland 104 Step Sequencer to act as a kind of ‘master-clock’ to control my home made modular sequencers, then I got a Roland CR78 drum machine and although all these different modules and units only had trigger ins and outs I could sync them together to each other – after a fashion. Even when playing in Throbbing Gristle, for some studio sessions, I would send Sleazy a constant trigger pulse from my set-up so we could sync up a step-sequencer I’d built him for triggering tape loops and drum sounds. Although the accuracy could be very hit and miss, which sounded fine – it was Throbbing Gristle after all. In retrospect it’s obvious that these methods were an early form of multi-tracking, but without the tape – and without Sync24 or MIDI.
There’s a great quote from Cosey in the Red Bull session where she talks about hearing some other people’s music a few years down the line and wondering if you had been influenced by them before realising that due to the chronology it was actually you that had influenced them.
I know, isn’t that the weirdest thing? We don’t listen to a lot of contemporary music, never have. It’s that old chestnut: the last thing you want to do when you’ve been in the studio for hours and hours is to start listening to someone else’s music when at last you’ve got some free time. We’d rather read a book, watch a movie or listen to Classic FM.
But recently we’d been watching some 80s music documentaries and every now and again we would hear something and say “hang on… that sounds like one of our tracks, which came first”. Thank goodness for Google – because we realised again and again that we’d written ours first, sometimes with a decade between our track and what sounded like it was influenced by our track. Which I suppose is nice, in a “sincerest form of flattery” kind of way.
In the 70s and 80s did you ever have a sense that you had become part of the continuum of influences and incidents that defines the progress of electronic music? Do you find it liberating or limiting in any way or is it just something that you find vaguely interesting and amusing?
It wasn’t until the mid 1990s’ that we really started noticing in interviews that people were referencing me and C&C as being influential or inspirational with our music. Or my use of electronics in both my collaborative work with Cosey and Throbbing Gristle and my solo projects. Of course we’ve been aware of our part in that continuum of influence for years with our work as Throbbing Gristle, although more often than not it was for different reasons and probably less about the electronic aspect of Throbbing Gristle’s music. But by the early 2000s I was resigned to the fact that I’d become part of this nebulous ‘electronic music’ historical timeline, increasingly being referred to in academic crusty tomes and such. It seems as each year passes I’m becoming more a part of it, not that it bothers me – in fact I do find it quite amusing – I guess it’s part of who I am and what I do now isn’t it?
The new release of ‘The Spaces Between’ containing a previously unreleased track is available on Optimo Music.