Interview with Philip Clemo

Philip Clemo’s unique, multi-layered soundscapes balance precariously on a cusp where many different polarities meet: the figurative and the abstract, the acoustic and the electronic, classical, jazz, and rock, the traditional and the avant-garde, the composed and the improvised. His work, both live and over the course of four CDs, has been widely praised in the mainstream and music press, with adjectives like “beautiful,” “transcendent,” “mesmerising,” “indefinable,” “hypnotic,” “addictive,” and so on. Yet, despite all this acclaim, very little is known about Clemo himself, his influences, his way of thinking, and exactly how he creates his music. One simple reason is that interviews with the man have so far been non-existent. Reason for yours truly to meet up with Clemo, via Skype, and ask him some of the questions that his listeners and reviewers must surely have been asking themselves…

Paul Tingen (PT): Can you remember the very first time you heard music and what impression it made on you?

Philip Clemo (PC): As a toddler I used to carry a 7″ single around and I started buying stuff from around the age of 8. Around that time Top Of The Pops gave me regular doses of what was happening in the contemporary music scene. I would hear stuff on there and if I had the money I’d go and buy it. A lot of it was glam rock in those days – I guess that was where I started. My brother who was around 6 years older than me had stuff that I wasn’t necessarily exposed to otherwise, like The Beatles ‘Blue Album’ – the compilation of their later stuff. I remember hearing “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “I Am The Walrus” for the first time – I must have been around 8. I was really attracted to those tracks. Later I realised that it was the combination of accessibility and weirdness that drew me in. I guess I’ve always been attracted to that – where you have strangeness in accessibility.

PT: How old were you when you started playing guitar?

PC: Around 13 or 14. I had a friend who was getting lessons from a local singer-songwriter called Iain MacDonald, who brought out a couple of albums in the Eighties. He’s an excellent guitarist, and I wanted to have lessons from him too. Iain taught me all kinds of stuff – Neil Young, Dylan – mainly from the folk repertoire. I also remember learning how to play stuff like “Layla.” It was all acoustic though. Eventually I became a pretty good folk guitarist and started playing folk clubs. I abandoned that whole thing in the early Eighties and started playing around with processing and multi-tracking. I was getting influenced by the likes of Robin Guthrie of The Cocteau Twins – waves of sound rather than traditional finger-picking acoustic folk playing. But the techniques I had learnt as a folk guitarist served me well in where I took my music afterwards. Tom Verlaine of Television also became quite an influence at that time.

PT: I don’t think of you as a guitarist, but more as a composer and sound sculptor.

PC: I used to use the guitar as an initial composing tool, but I don’t anymore because I became quite bored with what I was playing on it. Instead I’ve become drawn to the piano as a starting point for pieces, which is the case with the new album I’m working on. But the guitar is always with me – it’s rarely up-front in the mix in my pieces, but it is in there a lot.

PT. Rewinding again for a moment to complete the story of your roots and musical development, did you play in bands?

PC: I didn’t until I moved from Scotland to London in the early Eighties. I was beginning to multi-track between two cassette decks. I would go backwards and forwards as many times as I felt I could before the quality became abysmal. Eventually I bought a four-track cassette portastudio. I was living in a shared house in Hackney in East London and one day in 1983 a prospective new tenant called Julian Lewis turned up who played bass. I was keen to start collaborating and we started doing work together. We created a band which was initially called Galerie and later became Box In The Sun. We never did a gig but we did several demos and had interest from EMI Records at one point. But it never went anywhere. I realised after a while that I needed freedom to explore ideas outside a band context.

PT: When did your exploration of a more abstract textural direction start to take shape and why?

PC: I guess the instrumental music thing came a bit later. Box In The Sun had two vocalists, so we were creating songs. When I left the band and started doing my own stuff it became more instrumental largely because I was no longer working with a vocalist. The textural approach came from listening to the likes of The Cocteau Twins and Japan and early David Sylvian. This was the early 1980s. I was starting to hear how pieces of music could be developed in ways that weren’t very traditional. I was listening to all kinds of stuff – Debussy, Patti Smith, Television – and I was taking ideas from many places.

PT: Some of the people you have mentioned as influences, David Sylvian being a good example, but also Talk Talk, never let go of songs. I presume you don’t sing?

PC: I do! The new album has got some of my singing on there – that’s the first time I’ve done that. They are fragments at the moment but I don’t know what they’ll turn into.

PT: You’ve done 4 albums – two are technically collaborations with the violinist Mee. Listening to these albums in succession it seems like you’ve had a particular theme from the time you did your first album, Inhale the Colours (1997). Your latest album, 12 years later, The Rooms (2008), is maybe the most realised, with the greatest sophistication in the arrangements, sound and the textures. Would you say that you have over all this time been pursuing a singular vision of your music?

PC: I am always intrigued about how my music develops because I’m not always sure where it is going next. I had a sense about a year ago that I might want to do an album with vocals on it but I wasn’t sure when it would happen. And it’s interesting that it’s starting to happen on these new pieces. It’s spontaneous, coming out of listening to my piano improvisations, which are then interpreted by pianist Kevin Pollard. I’ve also put down some guitar parts and then decided to record some voice as well. Sometimes the words aren’t fully developed yet, they’re just sounds. So, as far as the vision is concerned, I guess it’s all about development. As long as I am growing and learning on each album I’m happy. But I’m not sure I’ve got a big picture of what I’m trying to create. One thing I am clear about is that I’m not interested in following any furrow that already exists. I’m interested in creating my own direction. Sometimes it feels like I am an archaeologist – a piece gets revealed to me – and my job is to uncover it without messing it up or breaking bits off. That’s where the skill comes in.

PT: How do your pieces actually come into being? Extended melodies seem to be rare, you work more with motifs that you develop and build textures around.

PC: I should really talk about The Rooms then I’ll talk about the current album – which is still coming into being. As far as The Rooms is concerned, I had 12 or 15 pieces where I had been using a technique called convulving where you take different sounds – for example water coming out of a tap and a piece of Ravel’s piano music – whatever you want – and you put them together and combine the common frequencies and discard the rest. But it’s very unpredictable as to what it creates. Back in the days when I first did it – on my sampler – I would use the longest samples I could work with – about 8 seconds – and it used to take about 8 hours to do one convulve. So I’d set them up before I went to bed and leave the sampler crunching throughout the night and then get up in the morning and hit ‘play’. Sometimes it would be awful and at others it would be wonderful. Thankfully on The Rooms I worked with software that was a lot quicker.

So I would lay down an atmospheric sound that changes slowly – building and growing and dying down – over maybe 20 minutes. I also had some recordings from previous percussion sessions and I made shaker loops and laid them under these atmospheres. And then [engineer] Phill Brown and I went to Prague with a drummer called Dirk Wachtelaer, who is an amazing musician. We spent two days in the studio with these pieces. Some fragments, like what became “Dream of Shattered Mirrors,” already had a guitar loop and became a more structured piece. I’d give my fragments to Dirk and he’d drum over them for maybe 20 minutes – he’d play a pattern for a while then he’d change it – build it and pull it back. And I ended up going back to London with 2 days of drum recordings.

I then edited the drum structures down to the kind of lengths I wanted to work with – one ended up remaining pretty long – the piece “The Place” is around 16 minutes. But I created the structures I wanted from the material provided by Dirk. Then we recorded Simon Edwards, who played double bass, guitaron, marimbula (a kind of thumb piano) and electric bass, followed by percussionist Martin Ditcham. So we were building up the whole rhythm section. But the initial response had been to the atmospheres.

I then worked with Kevin Pollard who played piano, Hammond and Fender Rhodes, and B J Cole on pedal steel, and then we started working with soloists. I use that term loosely because there aren’t many solos on my albums. I’m more interested in ensemble playing: in harmonies and how the instruments interact, rather than who is stepping up front. None of the musicians played together – they were all recorded individually but they all responded very well to each other’s performances. I wasn’t always playing them all the other elements that I had already recorded. I heavily edited every single performance sometimes down to 10% or less of what they had played originally. So you’d end up with a distillation of each session. That gives every instrument space in the final mix.

PT: Where did the figurative bits come in? I notice that there are the tracks where vocalist Chloë Goodchild is credited and also tracks where Simon Hopkins, Dirk Wachtelaer and Kevin Pollard are credited as co-writers.

PC: On the tracks where I have given co-writing credits a musician has brought something to the piece that has significantly changed the direction of it. With Simon Hopkins, on one of the tracks he worked on his guitar parts helped form that piece. I had a kora loop that I didn’t want to keep and we replaced that with his guitar idea. And Kevin was giving a new direction because of what he was doing on the Fender Rhodes or Hammond. It’s not so much that their input is figurative, it’s more who is taking the piece in the clearest direction.

PT: When did you put your own stuff on – the guitar and things?

PC: Well, it depended on the piece, but I guess around two thirds of the way through the recording process. My contributions were laid down around the same sort of time as the Hammond, piano and B J Cole’s parts. I recorded all my own guitar parts myself.

PT: Have you used the convulving technique on other albums?

PC: A bit on Soundzero (2008) and on Ambiguous Dialogues (2004) but mainly on The Rooms. I haven’t used it at all on the new album so far.

PT: Can you talk about the compositional process on the new album?

PC: The pieces have developed from playing the piano for the love of it. I had a little solid state recorder sitting on my piano and when I played something that inspired me or I liked I recorded it. I ended up with around 20 recordings that I had selected from maybe 40 or 50. Then I edited these down to around an hour of music. These were sketches – some more clearly formed than others. I then asked Kevin Pollard, to come into the studio and interpret them. I am now working with those new recordings – adding guitar, string arrangements and some voice. Some of it will end up being exposed piano and other pieces will have more musicians on them. But I don’t think I’ll be going in the same direction as The Rooms.

PT: Is this music that you have in mind to use for your forthcoming movie project Breath?

PC: Not necessarily, no. I see it as a separate project. Whether some of it will end up on the movie or not I don’t know.

PT: Have you already written the music for Breath or will the visuals come first?

PC: I see them both developing together. I will shoot some material, do a rough cut and write some compositional sketches to that cut. Then I’ll go and shoot more material. So the imagery and the score will grow at the same time.

PT: Do you see your music as ambient? I don’t mean as a marketing term but do you see your music as an ‘environment’ or ‘aural wallpaper,’ to speak of Brian Eno?

PC: I don’t really think about it very much. I create music that I want to listen to, music that excites me. When I’m working on a piece, I know that it’s working when I get excited by it. I then hand my music over to people who are much better than I am at getting it into the market place – I have a great press agent and distributor. They worry more about the ‘market’ than I do. But I leave it up to the listener to decide how they are going to respond to what I do. In the process of creating a piece of music I never think about how a listener is going to hear it; it would get in the way and I wouldn’t be able to create my best work. I think the audience can deal with stuff that they’ve never heard before. If you try and second guess them you’ll start creating music that they already know.

Regarding the idea of music as aural wallpaper, what I really like, and I get feedback about this quite a lot in relation to my own work, is that I like music that I can listen to for 20 years and still hear it fresh – something with a lot of complexity but that doesn’t feel dense and has space. Nature can be like that. I remember being in the Malaysian rainforest doing some of the recordings that ended up on Ambiguous Dialogues around 11 years ago. I was recording in a hide by a waterhole at dusk and I remember listening to all the different insects and creatures and the soundscape was incredibly complex but every single call had its own space because if it didn’t the creature could become extinct. If a mating call could not be heard then that would be pointless. You’d have a high frequency chirp from one area and a low burr from another. And then one group would die down and another would emerge. And I remember thinking, ‘this is like a symphony, and everything knows what it plays in that symphony.’ That is what I’m really interested in: a complexity in which you are not even aware that there is a huge amount of layering going on in there. Some of my favourite albums I can listen to on headphones and hear tiny little details that I hadn’t previously heard. I like to create music that you can discover over time.

I’m a big fan of Chris Watson’s work, a sound-recordist who has worked a lot with people like David Attenborough on nature programmes. He’s also done these soundscape albums of natural environments and they are beautiful – everything from a close up recording of a cheetah snoring to all kinds of insect soundscapes. I love that – I love hearing a soundscape of a natural environment out of context. So you’d be sitting in your living room listening to a waterhole in Mozambique and part of you can be there. I remember when I was doing some filming and sound recordings in India in 1989. I came back home and I’d look at the film and intellectually I’d be back in India but not emotionally and then I’d stick the headphones on and I’d play some of the street-callers and market-callers and then I’d emotionally be back there – I’d physically feel that I was back in the streets of India.

PT: One thing I want to cover briefly is playing live. How do you direct a live ensemble? PC: Well it’s a combination of processes – I guess you could re-create the album live but you’d need a huge number of musicians and a massive amount of preparation and I’m not really sure that I’m that interested in doing that. Those spontaneous interactions happened because of how a musician was responding on a particular day. I don’t really want to keep repeating that. I am more interested in the reaction a particular musician would have on another day. The Rooms has never been performed live but I am certainly open to that as a possibility. To do that I would use some of the structures that exist on the album – the individual ‘rooms’ – each piece has its own space. This might be coming off a laptop. The drummer would then respond to a pulse from those recordings and I’d be working with live percussion, bass, keyboards, guitar and soloists.

PT: Would you be looking at a fair amount of improvisation in a live situation?

PC: Yes. But you have to be very disciplined about the structure and form of the pieces. If you have a lot of musicians on stage things can get rather dense and chaotic. It often works better if you strip things back and create more space. You don’t often need eight musicians playing at once.

PT: When you play live does the guitar become more of an actual guitar for you or is still very much about the texture and getting a mood for the piece?

PC: No, I think I become more of a guitarist! And I enjoy that. When I hit play on that laptop I don’t then do a lot of re-configuring. I may jump on to next sections or drop parts out, and I’ll often decide how pieces are going to end by stripping out the laptop parts. Other than that I go back to responding from the perspective of a guitarist.

PT: Tell me a little bit about the project Breath.

PC: Breath is my feature film project that I have been working on for around a year and a half. That seems a lot to me but I talk to people in the film industry and they laugh and say it’s nothing! I saw a premier of a film at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival and it had taken something like 16 years to get made! It’s a good time to make a film like Breath – it’s about consciousness and how we react to our environment. It’s also about perspective – we’ll often be filming in ways that you are not used to seeing in cinema such as extreme close ups of the human body and using energy field cameras to film human auras. We’ll also be working with gyro-stabilised rigs on helicopters capturing very different perspectives of landscape. And we’ll be wiring up the audience so the film will interact and change direction with how the audience is feeling.

I see film as an extension of the way I am creating music – I approach film from the perspective of a composer. Since the ‘talkies’ pushed out the silent film era it has become the accepted belief that we have to have words in films – that films have to be verbal. I don’t believe that. This film is non-verbal and that is not an alien world for a composer. I’m also really interested in synesthesia where people can experience things across several senses at once – where they might hear a chord of music and ‘see’ a colour related to it. The film’s working subtitle is ‘symphony of the senses’ so I guess that says it all.

PT: Like in your music there is a lot of textural information in your imagery. It appears that we now have the technology to bring things into focus in a way that we have never been able to do before – both sonically and visually.

PC: There is an area of film-making that is moving away from pure entertainment to something that actually shifts human consciousness, and I think that’s really important. I think we need more films that explore issues of consciousness, and that also have very high production values and use cutting edge technology. If you are expressing an idea through imagery and sound, and you have technology that can help you to do that at very high quality, I think you have a more powerful transformative experience. This can shift perspectives.

© 2011, Paul Tingen.

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