Perfect Sound Forever

Spring Heel Jack

Interview by Jason Gross
(January 2001)

Sometimes what makes a great mystery is not ever knowing any answers for sure.  That's how I always felt about Spring Heel Jack.  I knew that I always found their music 'engaging' and 'interesting' just for the fact that they were fairly unique, even among the drum and bass crowd that they had been lumped into so often.  But what was it really that these two English guys (Ashley Wales and John Coxon) were up to?  I had already interviewed them once under less than ideal circumstances (see the first interview) so I wanted to have another try at it to finally get to the bottom of what they do and how they do it.  For some reason, even though I was able to interrogate much more throughly, I have the feeling that I'm still not closer to any answers.  Is that good or bad?  Probably both.  As I said, imponderables can make art extremely savory.

I can spit out a handful of facts that I know about them but what does it add up to?  The duo started working together in the late '80's from fairly disparate backgrounds.  Ashley was a classically-trained composer and John was a pop producer.  It so happened that they both had a unique attraction to dance music.  What they crafted together could be considered that but on such a damn cerebral level that it pretty much transcends the term.  Technically, you had rhythms chugging beneath the music but not all of the time and what was on the surface was so evocative and suggestive of other-worldly soundscapes and images that it constantly challenged you to put a name (or names) on it.  So again, what are they up to?  Even after hearing them describe their equipment, techniques and philosophies I was still no closer to an answer.

The boys stopped into town to do one solitary gig in the States and get some record shopping done, in lieu of their latest release, the gorgeous, spooky Disappeared (Thristy Ear).  Praise be to Laurie Statler for her help with this.

PSF: John, could you start off by talking about your background as a producer?

John Coxon: I met somebody with a sampler and I never used one before, never really had heard of it.  I was into soul music, dance music.  This machine just seemed to me to be hipper.  It was an Akai 900, just been invented actually.  S-Express had been doing all this kind of house stuff and they had a studio sound, using a sampler.  I had played these things on a master keyboard that sounded like a string quartet and that was really exciting to me.  I got involved with Rhythm King and worked for Warp for a little while.  I kind of went from there really.

The samplers remain what I'm really interested in.  Obviously it helps a lot because now we don't have to hire a string quartet. (laughs)  I'm not against musicians though.  The first sampler I had seen was a little Casio when I was working with children at that time, around the late-80's.  One of them had this little machine and they were into hip-hop.  I just thought 'this is amazing.  You can talk into this machine, play it back and then play it over the keyboard.'  Then when the Akai (samplers) came along, it was amazing.  They had large memories and you could sample anything in a second.  Now we use Emu's, good American machine, better sound quality.  The filters are fantastic.

PSF: You find that this gives you more freedom?

JC: Sure, because it has more outputs.  Both of us are into all kinds of technology.  Samplers are just what we use for Spring Heel Jack and it's how I first got interested in production.  I've been working on an album that involves a hundred musicians and I'm just as interested in that as I am in recording samples.  For me, when we make Spring Heel Jack, it's with the samplers and a mixing deck- it's pretty straight-forward.

PSF: Do you feel that you'll keep working with Spring Heel Jack in that way?

JC: Well, we use synthesizers and drum machines, anything we can and play samples live.  Anything to make music.

Ashley Wales:  Anything to fill the sampler with.

JC: But the sampler is not a means to try to make something sound realistic.  It's an instrument in its own right.  It's not that we can't afford a string quartet!  It's its own means to an end.  If you start cross-pollinating that with live recordings, it starts becoming a pop production, which is not what we do.

PSF: When you first decided to work together, what was it about each other's work that clicked?

AW: For me, it was John's enthusiasm because I've played in bands in the '80's and I was pretty disillusioned with the whole thing.  When it met John, he was someone who was really enthusiastic and it inspired me.  Also, we were completely devoted to music- what we do is absolutely everything.  If we go out to show like at Carnegie Hall, it's understood that we'd both be interested in it.  Then we might go to a gig but it's all the same thing, it's all music.  That kind of broad range thing and interests in music.  It's hard to find people like that.  I'm not saying we're the most adventurous people in the world.  It's like if you're Grandmaster Flash, you're not going to go and get some live sax- it's not what it is.  It's hip-hop and you're rapping over decks and that's what makes it.  That kind of dogmatism is important sometimes.  We're quite dogmatic in the sense that we don't want to make live music.

PSF: What kind of idea did you have when you formed Spring Heel Jack?  What kind of music did you imagine it would be?

JC: We had no idea.  At the very beginning, it was just to make tracks to play at a club.  I was so fed up with not being able to find records that I wanted to hear that our main agenda at the time wasn't to make records.  We wanted to hear our 16-minutes of samples, records that we actually wanted to hear out.  But there was no manifesto.

PSF: So you just thought that you'd work together and you'd see what happened?

JC: Exactly.  At the time, we were going out all the time to listen to music but the best music is the stuff that you make yourself.

PSF: When you made the first record (There Are Strings), did that just come about organically or did you have some pre-conceived ideas?

JC: Before we made the album, we had been making tracks together for about three years.

AW: We made a lot of fucking tracks.

JC: We have about nine or ten unreleased hours of music that we made prior to There Are Strings.

PSF: So how did you decide from all of that what would be on the first record?

JC: Breakbeats.  The whole emerging breakbeat scene.  Jungle.  Most of my friends were into techno, which I'm slightly disillusioned with.  Of course, that's the music that I was going out to listen to.  Belgian Hoover music.

AW: The early R&S stuff.

JC: I was more interested in the early Warp stuff at the time.  The first single released never appeared on the first album.  I think the first record is good but it's a little bit flawed.

AW: I like nearly all of it but there's some of it that I think.... ooooh.  I know what John is saying, maybe some of the beats could be a bit harder.  We were finding our feet.

JC: We would make something and then we'd say 'right, what are we going to do next?'  Only after listening to it do you know what you're going to do next.  You got breakbeat tracks on there but you got a track on there like "Derek," that's purely strings and vibraphones and bells.

PSF: I loved "Lee Perry."

AW: Yeah, it's kind of an odd track as it's got many disparate things.  By the time that 68 Millions Shades and Versions came along... I think they're better records, they're more successful.  But it's funny 'cause so many people like There Are Strings.  All of my friends say There Are Strings is the best thing we've ever done.  Funny, isn't it.  I say "Yeah but we made six other albums."  Apart from the recent stuff, which is still fresh but which I'm really proud of...  I'm really proud of Disappeared.

PSF: What made the second album (68 Million Shades) more successful in your mind?  What changed?

AW: It got easier but it also got harder.  We know each other so well that we really don't argue at all.  We just don't talk to each other.  (laughs)

JC: I'd be like 'what are we going to do?'  I'm so neurotic about this and Ashley's much more relaxed about it.

AW: I'd say 'let's see what happens' and John says 'yes, but what are we doing!' (laughs)  I'm like 'I don't know.  I can't see the future, I can only see the past.'  I don't have that kind of vision.

JC: I've learned now not to try and force things and just to let it happen and cobble it together. (laughs)

PSF: How do ideas start flowing when you begin working on a song?

AW: We go into the studio every day, apart from weekends.  We go in at 11 and knock off at about 6.  We try and make music every day.  It doesn't always work but you have to start from sort of a palete of sound.  I like that Shostakovich quote- 'it's better to write bad music than no music at all.'  That's what you do.  If you make music, you have to make music!  Sometimes things will happen and sometimes they don't.

JC: That's why we've got so much unreleased.

AW: What's bad comes from only what you think of it, not what other people think of it.  It's only what you think is bad for yourself.  Of course, you can say 'that's so unimaginative.'  What Schostakotivch meant was what's bad for him.

JC: But what I take to mean from it, is that's your craft.  That's your painting.  You don't exhibit everything when you paint, you just sketch it.  You have notebooks.  You don't make an album and then take a year off.  You just carry on and go on to the next thing.  You continually hope that you're moving forward at the time.

PSF: That's an amazing schedule you set out for yourself.

JC: It's not really.  We're not lazy, we make a lot of music.  We don't have to clean towels and then make our music.  We don't go out gardening at five in the morning.  It's not work like that, it's what you want to do.  It's what you have to do.  It's not like 'Oh, all this stress of making all this music!'  It's nothing like that all.  We're lucky to be able to do it. We're really lucky.  You constantly remind yourself that you're privileged to be able to do it.  That sounds a bit swarmy.  It's not a rough schedule.

My brother is a fiddle player and I was looking at his tour dates.  You had the whole of 2001 and 2002 already laid out.  I mean, that's hard.  We're just here for a show, speak to Thirsty Ear, speak to you, go to a radio station.  It's nice.  We're extremely lucky to survive, doing what we do.  Privileged in a way.

PSF: How do you hone down all the work that you do every day into songs for singles or albums?

AW: It's more that we come back to them now.  Before, we used to finish them, put them away and then compile them into an album.  'Let's finish this track,' then a bit of extension, a bit of arranging, a bit of mixing.  It'd be about four days for each track.  Now, we tend to be a bit more suspect about it- 'let's see how it sounds in two weeks' time.'

PSF: Would you also try some of it out in clubs or just play it for a few friends to see what they thought?

AW: We used to do that.  We'd try things out.  We're a bit more self-contained now.  We do what we do.  We don't go out of our way.  If you don't like what we do, that's not a problem for us.  We did it in the beginning.   "Derek" and "Day of the Dead" and whatever... they're hardly going to upset the dancefloor, are they?

JC: But we still play them.

AW: (laughs) Yeah, we'll still play them but they're not designed for a function.  Therefore, we don't detest them.  The function just isn't there.  The only test is whether we really like them.  But playing them at home is quite good.  Although it can really put your nerves out of joint, if you're playing it for someone who you like and who you respect, then you say 'oh, I don't really like that.'  Then you have to come back and it's like 'I do like it.  You're wrong!  It is good.  You don't know what you're talking about.'

JC: You could just flip a coin 'cause it's not good for anything else.  It was just good for what you wanted to do.

AW: It's kind of difficult to talk about this without sounding a little bit pretentious.  'What we're trying to do is...'  There's nothing really mysterious.  We're trying to make music together and we've done that for a long time.

PSF: The first time I interviewed you, I asked how you felt about drums and bass and you said that you didn't think you were part of that.

JC: We aren't.  You can understand the association because there's a heavy influence from the first three or four albums.  But then, as I've said, we've done (things like) "Day of the Dead" and "Galapagos 3" and tracks on Treader and Disappeared.  It's not cause for us.  We're not a part of that.  It can't be our cause.  I mean, we enjoy it fine.  There's nothing I like better than going out and playing some of the nastiest, hardest kind of things I can find.  But we're not part of any scene, we never wanted to be really.

AW: You can get trapped and I don't want to be like that.  I don't want people to say 'You can't do this.'  I like to feel that we can do what we want and not put anyone's nose out of joint.  'Oh, they're not drum and bass anymore.'  We never said we were.

JC: I read a review on the Net of Oddities, which had a lot of things which had been unreleased.  The reviews said 'I put this CD on and there's no beats on it!  What the fuck is this?'  But then at the end, it said 'But then, I did give a listen and it's alright.'  It kind of irritated me...

AW: We apologize to anyone who's disappointed!  But too bad, sorry, it's the album we wanted to make.  It's a good album, it stands up for what it is.

PSF: Ashley, you've had a background in classical composition.  Could you talk about that?

AW: It was because of my dad and my mom, they were huge opera fans.  My dad loved Maria Callas.  I was lucky enough to grow up listening to classical music all the time.  My dad was quite adventurous- he'd bring home things like Shostakovitch and he got to see Karl Berger's electronic opera from Sweden with about ten people there.  He'd say 'I didn't really like it' but he'd go just to see it.  Also my sister was really into Motown and the Beatles so she brought me The White Album and Sgt. Pepper's.  I'd play those from beginning to end and then again, all day long.  So I was kind of into that also.

So I wanted to make tracks but I also wanted to make classical music.  I didn't see why I couldn't write classical music.  I couldn't play anything but I didn't see that as a hindrance! (laughs)  I just wanted to do it.  I would write it then with the advent of samplers, I found that I could make classical music.

PSF: Do you still compose as such?

AW: Yeah, when I have the time.  I've got projects in mind, years ahead, of pieces I want to write.

PSF: Does that sensibility effect your work in Spring Heel Jack?

AW: Oh yeah.  It's the kind of influences you bring into it, the same way that John's into soul music, which I don't have a lot of but he introduced me to.  And vice versa.  I like the sounds, that's what I'm interested in.  Textures and such.  I like the idea of 52 strings playing in the bridge.  I love listening to sounds.  I like the combination.

I always think of this story about Morton Feldman.  Someone came around his house and he said 'listen to this chord.'  He played it over and over again.  Imagine it's one trombone, one flute, one clarinet.  He's playing and playing it.  I like that idea of combining instruments.  What happens when you have four trumpets playing almost inaudibly?  I like those kind of ideas.  It's kind of conceptual, I guess.  But I like the idea of these loud instruments playing as quietly as they can.  At the same time, even without any amplifiers, they can still be deafening though.  You have a huge orchestra that plays almost inaudible, like blowing through their breaths and then you've got this celeste which sounds like it has been inside of Big Ben, completely drowning out this orchestra just by touching the strings.  I love those kind of ideas.  So some things are quite conceptual for me.

But I think the one thing that sonically defines a lot of our stuff is that there's definitely a dynamic between things which are very pretty and things which are very harsh.  I don't mean musically pretty.  It's pleasure and pain. (laughs)  I've got a friend called Dan and I always say to him 'Before any pleasure, you must have pain.'  He says 'Why is your music so unlistenable?'  I say 'It's because at the end, it comes out but before you get to that, your ears have to suffer.'  I mean, you look at There Are Strings, 68 Million Shades and Versions, there's no separation there at all.  They're very melodic and calming.  There's no pain.  'No, I was just talking personally.' (laughs)

PSF: Do you find that your later work does have those kind of elements put together?

AW: Yeah, there's definitely both of those elements and as you get better at what you're doing, you're able to do it better and understand what it's about.  The meaning in the music is there but there's meaning in everything as there's always contrast and dynamics.  There really is and that's what we're about.

It's like if you keep your eyes still long enough, you stop seeing anything.  I've been working with this engineer in London.  When he's in front of the speakers, he moves his head around and he's hearing differently.  I don't even know if he realizes that he does it.  It's just automatic.  If you just move around, you hear different things.  If you move your eyes, you see more.  That's why your eyes always move.  If you're completely still, you stop seeing edges.  You stop seeing anything.

JC: You're frightening me! (laughs)

AW: Don't worry.  Just keep bobbing your head!

But it's true.  Your senses work right by perceiving dynamics.  That's important.  As we got better at making music in the studio, we got better at representing what we really wanted to represent.  There are dynamics there, both sonically and harmonically and melodically.

PSF: When you sample, do you ever feel that you're recontextualizing?

JC: That is what's happening, but it's not conscious.  We never think about it.  In an interview ages ago, I was talking about... (pauses)

AW: Move your head, you'll get it! (laughs)

JC: Thanks. (laughs)  There's something about combining things across space and time in a sampler.  You've got strings which you've sampled from record done in 1928 and you've got drums from a record done in 1971.  And you tear them all to pieces and you put them back together again.  There's something sort of... interesting about it.  We don't call it 'recontextualize' but that's what it is.  Just putting it in a different context.

PSF: How do you see it then?

AW: We just look at it to say 'does it work or doesn't it work?'  That's it.

PSF: When you're initially working on an idea or song, do you visualize your work?

AW: I think I do all the time.

JC: I'm really bad at that.

AW: John's really good at hearing the notes.  I kind of have a picture in my mind.  It's really hard to explain.  It's like, what's going to happen here with a rock piano for instance, and the only way to know is... you just get to know, over the years.

PSF: Do you also see that you're evoking certain moods or landscapes?

JC: To be honest, we've cut down on that.  'Oh, this reminds me of such and such...  Let's try to make a picture of Estonia.  Or let's try to make a picture of bar in Greenwich Village where they play Muddy Waters.'  We never try and make a sonic picture like that.  We never do.

AW: "Midwest" was about traveling through Montana for four weeks on a bus.  It just reminds me of sitting on the bus, talking to our driver.  But it's post-rational.

JC: Yeah, when we wrote it we weren't actually thinking about that then.  When we were sitting on the bus, there wasn't any music then.  There were just mountains and background.  It kind of reminds me of that when I think of it now.

PSF: What about evoking moods?

AW: Your moods do affect you.  We try to be fairly stable, mentally, to make music. (laughs)  It's a mixture of conscious and unconscious.  You can't really just say 'yeah, it's a completely unconscious stream and we do it and out it comes.'  At the same time, it's hard to say 'It's absolutely meaningful and we have a picture that we're trying to match musically.'  Neither of them are the case.  It's a mixture of both things.

I spend so much time playing music and listening to bands at clubs and DJ'ing.  If you've been out all night or drinking, you think 'Let's do something calm.'  And it's as simple as that.  'Let's not have any drums.'  It's not like 'Oh, what shall we paint today in sound?'

JC: Black, black, it's all black! (laughs)

AW: Right!  Sometimes, it's like 'How about a tune?  We haven't had a tune in a long time.'  It never works out though, does it?  Dong-dong-dong-dong.  It's beyond our comprehension.

PSF: So you think that you're adverse to melodies?

AW: No, it's always handy to have a melody.  We don't deliberately pass it off.  I'm just saying that when you deliberately set out to write a tune, it usually never happens.  What happens is you start out saying 'Let's do something without drums, that's really, really calm.'  Then we come in the next day and say 'Fuck, let's put some drums on it.  This is really good.'  Then you take all the kind of environment stuff out of it and say 'Let's take the drums out.'  Then you're left with absolutely nothing.  It's that kind of thing.

JC: No melodies, no chords, no beats.  Nothing.  Silent.  Virtually nothing.

AW: (laughs) Yeah, that's us.

PSF: You actually work that way sometimes?

JC: A number of the environmental songs are like that.  The things that people perceive as 'soundscapes.'  We might think 'There's a tune in there and it's really irritating me.  It's too much candy-floss.  Let's take it out and see what happens then.  Oh, that sounds good, leave it like that.'

PSF: So do you find yourself listening back and saying 'Let's try drums here' or 'Let's add string there'?

AW: Yeah, we do that a lot.

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