Clark’s Idea of Success Is Not Having a Job

Piers Martin

By Piers Martin

on 11.19.14 in Features

Chris Clark is one of the unsung heroes of contemporary electronics, an artist whose formidable body of work reveals a driven composer constantly striving to out-do himself. In the 13 years between Aphex Twin albums, Clark has released seven full-lengths and a dozen EPs. But it’s on his latest, self-titled set of rave-hardened psychedelia and emotional techno where he hit his stride.

Clark is an album as satisfying as it is dazzling, a volatile, malevolent affair shot through with a voracious energy that the English producer at times appears to struggle to contain. There are moments of joy, as frazzled arpeggios burst through “Winter Linn” and “The Grit in the Pearl.” Elsewhere, synths curdle and the tone darkens; “Sodium Trimmers” feels like it takes place in a nightmarish nightclub. There is the sense here of Clark finally stepping out of the shadows cast by his Warp idols — Aphex, Autechre, Boards of Canada — to command proceedings on his own terms.

“I wanted the album to be released in November because I find it to be a completely wintry album, quite monochromatic,” he says over coffees at the Sourced Market café in London’s St Pancras railway station. “I hope November gets freezing.”

You’ve been on Warp for quite a long time now. Was there ever a moment where you thought you might need a gimmick or an angle to get some recognition?

Not really, no. I’ve never thought of having a gimmick, but I know what you mean. Those things can backfire, because then people uncover it, and it’s a gimmick. I think solid artwork, solid assets, a solid video and an amazing live show should be enough. When people realise something is good, the word spreads. I’ve been fortunate with my fan base — I’m not sure they read much music press, and it’s grown organically. I haven’t had many heavy promotional videos.

Ted” has had a lot of YouTube plays.

Oh really? I’m not that into the video, it didn’t fit. But it’s had loads of plays? That’s what I mean, you can’t judge which way it will go. Like, I thought some of the stuff on [2012’s] Iradelphic was easily better than Body Riddle — I could point to specific moments. But something happened with the presentation of Iradelphic. I was in Australia when that got promoted, so I was away, and the release felt different to how this record has been set up, it felt less tight.

Last month I attended a mastering session with the engineer Guy Davie at Electric Mastering in London, and he mentioned you had dropped by with a drum track that you wanted him to master. This got me wondering about your production process and how it might have changed over the years.

I went to Guy with a load of files, as I wanted to suss out his gear — he’s got some nice old EMI stuff and some stereo spreaders. My process has become less fixated on gear. I’ve got a really nice studio in Berlin, where I live, that I spent ages putting together. But this album I wrote in Lincolnshire, in the middle of the English countryside for four months with hardly any gear. I had some analog synths, but mainly it was just a computer — and it forced [me to reconsider my] ideas of what’s important.

‘If you take the internet off your laptop, it’s the most powerful machine in the world. I use it for music, and you can’t fuck with it.’

You get to this point in producing where you can make a sound in as many different ways as you can skin a cat. So gear is less important, and it’s kind of uninspiring — people hide behind it, and it supports this materialistic idea of music. It’s not exactly how punk was born: “Ah yes, I’m just going to master this through £18,000 worth of valves…” So I’m quite anti-gear, and I just love my laptop, as much as that sounds quite ’90s. If you take the internet off your laptop, it’s the most powerful machine in the world. I use it for music, and you can’t fuck with it.

Why record this album in Lincolnshire?

I needed a different space to make music in, needed to get out of Berlin. I’d just finished a residency in Leipzig with my girlfriend [the Australian choreographer Melanie Lane], where there were really nice rifle mics and I got quite good at field recording and processing in real time. So I went straight to this barn and was only meant to be there for two months. It was near this village called Newton, a very fucking mediocre right-wing part of England. I found it on Airbnb. It wasn’t a proper studio, it had a kitchen and living room and studio all in one room, all sealed off, like an igloo. It was a really nice space to write music in — small, but cosy with a little log burner.

I was meant to be there from February to the end of April, but I kept pushing the deadline. I drive Warp mad, but it’s ultimately because I get compulsively obsessed with the work, and if it’s not finished, then it’s not finished. In the end, I delivered it in July. The lady, Judith, who owned the barn, was absolutely lovely, so I must give props to her. We had a few barbecues.

Did you enter the barn with a clear idea of how you wanted the album to sound?

I had the core of two tracks when I went in, but I wrote nearly all of the album there. The ones I spent longest on were “Unfurla” and “There’s a Distance in You.” I spent ages on all of them, two weeks on each track solidly. There are so many versions. It’s always really telling what you get rid of. Everyone who creates something should look at it as a subtractive process, otherwise you’re playing god a bit, building all this stuff. You should force yourself to ask if this should really be there.

How does the music you make with your girlfriend inform your own work?

‘My idea of success was doing something I loved on my own terms, that I could pay my way with. That’s still what it is, and if you judge it by that, it has been a success story.’

Well, my girlfriend is a choreographer and likes detailed, but not necessarily melodic, sound-design stuff. She does amazing abstract contemporary work, and she is very anti-melody — her favourite album is probably Confield by Autechre.

The stuff I do with her isn’t anything like my albums, it’s more free-form, the commercial value is negligible. But I love making it and I love the fact that she’s the boss — it keeps my ego in check. She says, “Do this” and “Make it like that.” Can I do it like this? “No, you can’t.” But it’s actually really relaxing being told what to do. We only work together for brief periods, maybe a month a year, but it’s weird how that time spent not dancing to your own tune feeds into your work. The last piece we worked on together was called Spacekraft, in Leipzig. I think people assume you make what you want to listen to, but there’s loads of music I adore that is the total antithesis to what I make. Shellac, Mogwai — I love all that shit.

What was your idea of success in 2001, when you were a 21-year-old English student at Bristol University about to release Clarence Park?

Not having a job. My idea of success was doing something I loved on my own terms, that I could pay my way with. That’s still what it is, and if you judge it by that, it has been a success story. But there are times when you see other artists reach a certain level of ubiquity and there are compromises, I think, that I just don’t feel I’ve had to make.

You must have been thrilled when you signed to Warp.

I was really thrilled, yeah. I was really happy about it, to the point of being a bit embarrassingly behaved. I gave everyone my album, put my album on whenever I could, played my music whenever I could. I never do that now. When you finally get recognition, something weird happens to your ego, and you just have to get it all out. Whereas now if someone puts my record on at a party I’m like, “Argh, get me out of here.”

When you shortened your artist name to Clark in 2006 for Body Riddle, were you aware that your Warp labelmate, LFO’s Mark Bell, who died last month, had released techno under that name for another label in the mid ’90s?

I was aware of it, but I don’t think it’s something I’m going to get dissed for. I felt more like a writer. Like, a painter wouldn’t have a pseudonym, so I felt like, if I’m not in a band, I can just go under my own name and history will be the judge of it. There’s lots of Clarks. You become another Clark and they all do different things.

Mark was a lovely chap and I remember he was so genuinely humble, quite removed from that world of ego. I saw him play at the end of July this year and he fucking rinsed it. It was all improvised, on Ableton, the most angry techno that sounded so full and dynamic. Then he comes backstage and he’s like, [softly] “Alright?” What a lovely…monster.

Playing live is where the money is these days.

‘I don’t get people that don’t play gigs. I don’t want to use the word, but it’s cowardly.’

Yeah, totally, and it’s good that I enjoy playing gigs. I can’t imagine not doing it. I know people who release an album and don’t tour it, but how do they create the next chapter? If the only feedback is reviews, whether good or bad, that’s like living in this holographic world of bullshit. If you do a gig you can see people giving you negative or positive feedback in real-time. And if you tour you get sick of playing the songs and so you want to write more. I don’t get people that don’t play gigs. I don’t want to use the word, but it’s cowardly.

You’ve moved from the sleepy suburbia of St. Albans to Birmingham, and then to Berlin. Notice any differences?

Well, the cliché of boring cities is there’s not much to do. In Berlin there’s too much to do. But there’s no way I can go out for days anymore. I cut it off. When I first moved there, that’s what you did, but it becomes boring after a while. Some of those peak drug experiences in clubs can be really helpful, but it’s more about trying to create those chemical responses naturally, and I find music-making and loads of exercise can get me to that MDMA high.

I think MDMA is an amazing drug, and sometimes you want to express that feeling of oceanic warmth, but other times you want to express something more antagonistic and deliberately distant, and that’s valid as well. I like coldness in music. It’s kind of a paradox that people want to listen to something that sounds cold.

Why is your Twitter handle @throttleclark?

Well, I have a track called “Throttle Furniture” [the title of a 2006 EP] which came about because, one, I really like the idea that you could throttle furniture, and two, I like the idea that you could sit on a chair and it would blast off. And then I thought, “Oh yeah: throttleclark.” But then I did an EP called Throttle Promoter and all of a sudden people stopped booking me. I’m not joking. Promoters were coming to my agent and saying, “Has he got a problem with us?” People do take stuff personally. Be careful.