Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Music by real people for real people (in real airports)

As soon as we first heard about the new album on Soma from the Black Dog - 'Music for Real Airports' - we were instantly interested. The more socio-political dimensions of this project immediately appealed to us. Luckily it was more than just a conceptual exercise, as it happens to also be a really excellent album. It is tempting to describe it as 'ambient', but i don't think this is quite right, there is some 'oomph' to it. Regardless, definitely one of my favourite releases of 2010. I strongly urge you to check it out, if you haven't already.

One thing we took from 'Music for Real Airports' is that the Black Dog seem like an interesting bunch, and this motivated us to do the first proper interview mnml ssgs has had in a very long time. Here are the results. We sent through a bunch of questions, they picked some to answer. Big thanks to the Black Dog for taking the time to engage with us.

Is "Music for Real Airports" made for listening in real airports?

Ken: That's entirely up to the listener, surely?

Martin: I know a lot of DJs we’ve sent it to have listened to it in airports, a couple have reported back saying that it's very surreal and that they'd just missed their flights!

We didn't write the album with a view to having it played at or in airports. It was always a double edge sword. It had to stand-alone and also work as part of visual presentation with Human. The important thing for us was ensuring that the "document" made emotional sense and that it left space for the listener to be involved.

Richard: It was never intended to be a companion piece to that environment, but a reflection on the experience as a whole.

Ken: Being in an airport is bad enough. Listening to music for real airports in a real airport would make me want to punch somebody, I think. Nothing makes me more incandescent with rage than a jobs worth barking orders at people. I appreciate that to a certain extent 'customers' have to surrender their individuality and personal freedoms for the sake of greater safety and more efficiency. But, my favourite place to listen to the album is in the bath, or out on a walk, watching the contrails of planes going/coming from London.

Martin: I think that depends on which airport really Ken, I can see it working in somewhere like Barcelona or Rome, the vibe is very different there - I think I'd enjoy playing it at people in Heathrow, you could do the "punching" bit .

Ken: You've seen more of them than me. I dislike the way that all 'romance' has been stripped from the modern flight experience. Aviation should be wonderful. You're up there, temporarily defying gravity, in accordance with the laws of physics. It should be an awesome experience. But it's often mundane and regimented to the point of boredom. Seaports are much more fun.

Martin: True, the early days of flights leaving from Croydon looked amazing, pretty much like when they opened the M1 Motorway, people actually went out on it for the day out!

What are some of the personal political contexts that encouraged you to focus specifically on the space of the airport, as opposed to other generic, ubiquitous spaces such as the shopping mall, the gated community, or the immigration detention centre?

Ken: I have a real loathing towards being treated like a meat parcel. When you arrive at the airport, to some extent you have to surrender your individuality and your uniqueness. That's not something I’m comfortable with, personally. Nothing in life has angered me more, than having orders barked at me by a man in a brown shirt.

Richard: And we have to pay for that privilege. For a service industry, there's a distinct lack of service.

Martin: I see airports as a microcosm of what society is about to become, what people will accept for a couple of weeks pleasure in someone else's misery - this is the price we'll pay.

I can usually last about 20 minutes in a shopping mall. They're just design by lazy modernists who think this is what we want and this is what will work - they seem to have learnt nothing - it's not what we want and it's certainly not how we live.

Ken: I've seen a lot of changes since the 1970's. Since Brussels has decreed there should be no more duty free shops, the range of full price products you can buy and expensive things you can eat has increased so much, the airport has become like a mini-mall. And the people who design planes, have obviously never sat in them. They probably looked great in a CAD program, but the real life experience sucks. I'm not a giant, but I always end up sitting with my knees under my chin for four hours, because some twat wanted to squeeze another seat in. Or catching a cold, because the airlines are too miserly to scrub the air regularly. They're not jolly places anymore. And all this, is before we even start talking about terrorist paranoia and security measures.

Martin: I've also wanted to do it because I didn't take to Eno's version. I've always had a thing about it and it's bugged me for years. Ken and Richard will tell you that when I get into something it has to be thought through, made and then done. I can hold onto an idea for years, in this case since 1979, but that's the way I work. I'm a bad person to pick a fight with because I will come back even if it takes 20 years.

How do you understand/define the music you make and play?

Martin: Techno, simple as that really. I think it stands on it's own and holds it's own, that's enough for me.

Richard: Techno is about the closest "genre", although I'd describe that in quite broad terms - forward thinking, exploring future technology, the involvement of machines in creation and performance. It certainly doesn't mean "relentless 4/4 bangers". As Martin says, we're confident that the music will stand on it's own, regardless of what category anyone wants to push it in to.

Ken: I'd like to think we're a part of the electronic avant-garde. I have tremendous respect for the pioneers of acid, house, and techno. But I love psycho acoustic music and musique concrete the most. Those people weren't afraid to experiment or be ridiculed for stepping out in their own direction. And I don't know if Martin and Rich would agree, but there is also an element of 'punk sensibility' about what we do. But we have a dance floor presence too. I think that's our anchor, and where we're grounded. Are we just "techno"? I don't know. I've never thought about it that much. Don't fancy being pigeonholed as anything, much. Normally, I just say "artist", if people ask what I do. That's what's in my passport.

How open is "techno"/ this music? Are its creative possibilities limited or still open? Are there any dimensions that you feel constrained by?

Ken: No, if there are any limitations, and I can't think of any off-hand, I'd try to work round them.

Martin: None that I can think of, perhaps other people’s attitudes and opinions, which have got worse since the Internet took off. I look at some of the comments left on YouTube/Forums and do wonder what happened to intelligence. I guess it’s much easier to be hateful and spiteful these days. That said, there are still many creative possibilities to explore and rules to break. I don't feel limited by anything other than the limitations of the media we are supplying the recording on, or the human ear.

Richard: There really shouldn't be any constraints. Those that exist are just social, cultural and artistic "rules" defined by others. We do need to do our own thing. If you set out to try and please everyone else, you're bound to fail. There'll always be someone who just wants you to repeat the tone or style of an earlier release.

Is equipment important?

Ken: It used to be. But it would be a cliché to rely entirely on an 808 + 303 + 101 these days. I used to enjoy making patches on the Pulsar modular synth system, but now everything is entirely laptop based, because a tower system and studio full of synths would cane the boat batteries. I enjoy squeezing new sounds out of such a basic system. It's a challenge, and it keeps things fun.

Martin: Not really, we have enough equipment and only add to it when we need to. We don't constantly buy stuff because you end up getting distracted from the important bit - writing music. We get asked a lot to do interviews about our studio and how we do things but I find that really boring and have no interest in that side at all.

Richard: There can be some fun to be had playing with new stuff but it is a distraction. At the end of the day, they're just tools. If they get the results that we need, that's what really matters. 

Ken: It's nice to be asked and flattering that journalists would take an interest in TBD's collection of equipment. But I don't have any 'tricks' to pass on to people. Music production is hours and hours of listening to the same thing, over and over again while I tweak it a little. Watching me make a cup of
tea would be more exciting.

Richard: People have also been slightly shocked when we've pointed out that many of the ambient recordings were made using just an iPhone. Although I also think we'd have been arrested if we tried to record in airports with anything bigger.

What equipment is important (if any)?

Ken: I have a fondness for VST instruments. Purists may scoff at having to twiddle a knob with a mouse button, instead of the time honoured tried and tested hands on approach. But I think aural fidelity to the originals has improved considerably over the years. They're fun to use, and don't require lots of electricity to run.

Martin: The Laptop. It means we can go anywhere and play, record or make music. That freedom is fantastic, without it Music For Real Airports wouldn't have been made.

What's something that you've learnt (about music, your work and yourself)  as the hard truth of bitter experience?

Ken: I don't have any bitter experiences. Everything that's happened on this road has been a part of a progressive journey. There are good and bad times, naturally. I think the whole thing has been a learning curve.

Martin: Nothing bitter at all, one thing that did surprise me in the last 6 months is that I don't like people messing around with our music, that seemed to come from nowhere and I'm still not sure what I'm going to do about it! I like the idea of things being final at the moment, done!

Richard: Only one thing from me, although not really a bitter experience, but spending a long time working on a track doesn't guarantee that anyone will appreciate the track. Some of the best feedback we've had has been for small tracks and ideas that were quickly bashed out in an afternoon.

Who/what do you think your 'sound' is?

Martin: People do try and lock us into a sound or time period but we're not having any of it. You can't say that kind of shit to an artist and if you do, it just shows that you don't understand what an artist is. What they actually want is a designer to do the same thing over and over - that is not The Black Dog.

Richard: It really isn't fixed, it all depends on what we're into or thinking about at any given time (which can also change on a daily basis).

Ken: I don't paint or sculpt, so for me, music is a means of artistic expression. I like the fact that music is invisible and intangible, yet it can still physically move people to tears, laughter or anger. It's a very powerful medium.

How do you describe what you do to people who have no background/understanding in electronic music (like your grandmother)?

Ken: I came from a musical family, so funnily enough, my grandmother played me all sorts of music when i was growing up. To people who have absolutely no idea, I say "recording artist", or "I'm in a band". I used to say, "Record Producer", but that sounded too overblown and pretentious.

Martin: Our house always had music, my father would buy ex-jukebox singles for us to play and I always had records as kid. I just explain "I make music with machines", it's not a big deal.

Ken: My mum used to DJ at Mecca. So we got the singles too.

Richard: I gave up trying to explain it a while ago, it's easier just to hand over a CD.

What excites you about electronic music at the moment?

Ken: It got assimilated into the mainstream quite rapidly, but it was strong enough to survive media saturation. It's inspired a whole new generation of people who've picked up the torch and are finding happiness making their own tunes.

Martin: So much, lots of good Dubstep, I'm waiting for UK Funky to turn the creative corner. I love music so much and I'll try anything really. But right now, the label Downwards are doing some really interesting stuff. Kyle Hall, Fever Ray, there's so much good stuff out there.

And what frustrates you?

Ken: People downloading our entire back catalogue from sites like rapidshare, megaupload, etc. two days after the promo comes out. 'Try before you buy' is fine, but artists such as myself have a hard time surviving in an almost total theft environment. I suspect that many other artists are similarly affected. And I do find that aspect of modern internet life frustrating. I don't have any suggestions or fixes, but thank you for this opportunity to have a little moan.

Martin: People trapped in the past, although it's useful as a device to learn when not to engage with people. Rapidshare are the new EMI, I'm surprised people haven't sussed them yet but the tBd fans are pretty cool and support us direct and for that I'm very grateful.

Ken: Good point, Martin. It's hard not to sound like an old bollock, when going on about piracy. Considering our early records were almost entirely samples, it's thin ice. There are a lot of good people around, you're right there. Making music purely for money is not a good place to be, anyway.

Martin: It is hard to sound like you're not moaning, but I worry about the new people starting out, people who just need a "bit" of something back and there's a massive difference between a "head" doing a blog with the odd track and these new blogs that are churning 300-400 releases a week. It's important to me that younger/new people get supported. I often wonder how many people have just given up because they have to "worry" about the wrong things. It's also very strange when someone mails you to say how great something is and you know they've download it because it's not out for 8 weeks. Some of the magic has gone, perhaps people aren't interested in watching the trick anymore, perhaps all they want is to know how it's done - Jung wrote a lot about that actually.

Richard: "Music by numbers" - Bands that churn out tunes based on a set formula tends to irritate me. I'm always surprised why people buy the following singles when they all sound the same. It's just lazy and uncreative.

Who inspires you? What inspires you?

Martin: Art, Music and Spirit. I've been enjoying Autechre's new release’s and looking into the history of Matisse and his art but it's different stuff every single day, you have to let other artists in and be influenced.

Ken: Rock and roll inspires me. Nature inspires me and also the bizarre and surreal.

Richard: Sound design in cinema and other media, plus experimental music and noise. Outside of music, the work of James Turrell is interesting. Very minimal but effective use of space and light.

After doing this for such a long time, what keeps you motivated/excited/interested?

Ken: The thrill of the unexpected, and the feedback from people who enjoy it.

Martin: I've actually been involved in bands a lot longer than Ken, but for me music is a real chance to express what can not be spoken - that's where the magic is for me and that flame still burns very strong and it hasn't so much as flickered yet.

Ken: Much longer?? pffft... I apologise for waiting a year after 'Never Mind the Bollocks' to start a band, but I was only 12. Jeez, I started as soon as I could mate. But the paper round dosh only stretched to florescent socks, not a guitar.

Martin: Ha-ha. My first band didn't even have any instruments, just a name, 1978 Ken. Can't believe you had florescent socks tho, we dreamed of such things.

Do you feel you've made a contribution to techno music? If so, what?

Ken: Yes, I do. Amongst others, we've helped shift the focus away from the dance floor, which at one time, held the monopoly. Not that the dancefloor isn't good fun but there's many more facets and interesting angles to explore.

Martin: I don't really look at it like that, as a contribution that is, it's just what we do really.

Ken: You're forgetting about those 'Music Industry' lectures you did in Glasgow where the audience applauded what you said. That was a contribution. And if even one of those people goes away and makes their own tunes, that's another.

Martin: Well I don't see it like that, that's just talking to people in the hope they find something interesting and carry on doing what they want rather than working 9 to 5. I think my biggest message has always been "take that risk and do it".

Richard: I think that's a question best answered by others.

What's something that people often ask you about you and your music (that you find unexpected or strange)? What's something that people never ask or notice about you and your work (that you wish they would)?

Ken: *shrugs*

Martin: I think people tend to get the wrong ideas about a lot of it but then they're people who you could never explain inner space or the values of "dance" to.

What kind of music would you make in a world without electricity?

Ken: Even if the power went off forever, you've still got the whole classical and orchestral palette to play with. I guess in a situation like that, I'd be drawn back to pagan music. Always fancied having a go at being a percussionist. Reed flutes, drums, bells, and brass are all easily achievable without watts and amps.

Martin: Yeah, "human" music.

Ken: I thought you hated bongos?  LOL.

Martin: I do hate bongos and the flute mate.

What do you wish for the year ahead?

Ken: Less rain. More sunshine. Good health and no periods of illness.

Martin: Just to get a little better at what we do, I'm not after much :)

What’s something you know now that you wish you’d been able to tell yourself ten, fifteen years ago?

Ken: Chill out you twat. None of it is important enough to make yourself ill.

Martin: Buy shares in Apple! I guess I wish I hadn't spent so much time working for other people and just done what I wanted.

Richard: Everything that they said! And "Other people's advice is often bollocks. Keep making your own decisions and learn your own lessons."

What is important to you in life?

Ken: Happiness. Going with the universal flow, but not being part of a herd.

Martin: Same. Family and a close circle of friends. Space to be alone with my thoughts and music.

Richard: One more vote for those. It's the simple things that matter.

Thanks to the Black Dog for talking with us. All the photos were taken from their flickr. You can directly buy 'Music for Real Airports' digitally from the Dust store for just 6 pounds. At that price you really have no excuse not to get it! You have the mnml ssgs guarantee on this one... The album is also available through other digital retailers and, of course, in physical format. More on the 'real airports' project can be found here, and for info on the Black Dog, including a wealth of really interesting and worthwhile mixes, make sure to check their homepage.


  1. Glad to read it. This album was one of the best things that happened in 2010. After listening to this several times, I keep having very similar feelings to what SAW or Oleva "generated". Though so different too.

    Full package, full suport!

  2. Thanks for this interview--it really sheds a lot of light on these guys as a humble, hilarious and rather thoughtful group. It also helps me get into the album from a different angle--more about the loss of romance in airports and the moods associated with that, rather than a simple opposition to what Eno did.

    I will go out and buy this on CD if I can find it; probably that won't be so hard here in Tokyo. The last Black Dog album I bought was back in 1998 or so, a nice little blue 2x12" that had the pieces "Glossolalia" and "Vanttool" on it. I recorded it straight to cassette (gulp!) so I could listen to it over and over at school (as an architecture student)... and was really impressed by the fearless musicality of it. To put it into context, this was the time when hard compressed techno was coming full-force--Beyer's Drumcode, Joel Mull, Lekebusch, Ruskin, Oliver Ho, Bicknell were all filling my crate. So this was really a surprising and refreshing direction.

    Anyway, great interview. I'll dig deep to pitch in to their craft.

  3. Update on that: the album I mentioned is Parallel from 1995, which just shows its longevity!

  4. Great choice for an interview and an interesting read.

    Amongst the other insights I found it refreshing to hear people that have been at it as long as this to be praising the virtues of laptops rather than the usual drone about owing it all to a mountain of antique synths.

    Totally agree that this is a quality album too - another excellent addition to the great body of work that is The Black Dog back catalogue!

  5. really nice interview.. an engaging read
    i've been enjoying this splendid album for a couple of months now and i was wondering if anyone knows where to find the vinyl version. it seems its sold out on their site?

    also could anyone suggest a couple of their albums.. i'm relatively new to their sound

  6. @giorgio http://www.phonicarecords.com/product/view/63499

  7. makes me wish I had an extra $50 to spend on a record. Cause the conversion rate is killing my desire to buy the vinyl. And they apparently do not have a US base of operations.

  8. @ giorgio

    while MFRA has a slightly different feel to their older stuff the original Black Dog lineup produced some awesome material and Bytes (http://www.discogs.com/Black-Dog-Productions-Bytes/release/11566) and Spanners (http://www.discogs.com/Black-Dog-Spanners/master/30081) are both very good albums to start with - you can further your explorations from there (be sure to check out Plaid too)


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