Clark: "I wanted this album to be monolithic; vast"
Ahead of his appearance at Simple Things in Glasgow next month, Clark discusses his upcoming album on Warp, his evolving approach to technology, and live performance as a vital form of feedback
“If you’re going to have the balls to do an eponymous album, seven albums in, then it better be good.”
Chris Clark is fully aware of the gallantry involved in simply attaching his surname to his latest album, due for release on Warp next month, and he’s evidently weighed up all of the considerations involved in making such a declarative gesture. Often an approach adopted by debut artists introducing themselves to the scene, or those releasing retrospective compilations of their life’s work, an eponymous album coming from an artist as established and celebrated as Clark suggests a fair degree of personal faith in the purity of the material. “It felt like the best move,” he asserts.
Having already had several acclaimed releases – including 2006’s Body Riddle, the brilliant IDM offering which many regard as his finest hour – fans of Clark will be keen to hear what exactly makes this upcoming effort so definitive. The producer himself admits that the project had to evolve from its initial foundations before he saw its full potential. “In the first two weeks, when I just had the early thin and wispy sketches, I was like ‘do I really want to go with the Clark album?’
“Then I just started warming to the task, burning through material at a ferocious rate. The computer just heated up to the task and everything else just slipped out of focus. I know it sounds a bit OTT or something, but me and the album became one. At the end, when I was finishing There’s A Distance In You, it was like, ‘Yep, this is definitely the eponymous record I needed to make.’”
"Computers as music-making tools are just too good to ignore these days" – Clark
The album certainly has the feel of having had Clark’s heart and soul poured into it and is perhaps his most cohesive work to date – tracks merge together seamlessly, even with the considerable variation in pace and intensity evident throughout. “It's one long slab of electronic music that’s been condensed into a single piece,” he explains.
“I wanted it to be monolithic; vast. I don’t think of the tracks as separate things really. It’s a unified slab of techno, distilled into various forms, but still ultimately techno. I wrote it all in one protracted four month session, which I’ve never done before. Quite often albums are collections of tracks but this is the work of one experiment, obsessively tweaked, chiselled away at and finally abandoned over a set period of time. I think it gives it a unity. I want it to play like a film.”
His success in creating something akin to a cinematic experience is clear from the first listen of the album. The brooding backdrop, for what is arguably Clark’s most distinctly techno-focussed release to date, is one awash with ambient textures sourced from the natural world. The interplay between these peripheral organic elements and the mechanised groove which forms the album’s core is particularly striking. “There's lots of thunder and snow, weirdly,” he reveals.
“I knew the album would come out in winter, so it was quite strange making this crisp, atmospheric winter sounding record on pretty, balmy spring days. I love those ‘WTF’ moments you get when you hear something that sounds like distant thunder, but it's actually a close mic'd pile of snow being scrunched by a boot. I love that total acid, trippy space where the sound source is completely oblique, but adds this widescreen grain and texture to the overall feel of a track.”
What’s remarkable about the album is the way in which it alternates between moments of immense beauty and more raw and powerful material, without ever losing the sense of coherence that Clark has evidently worked so hard to instil in it. He admits that he agonised over the ordering of tracks for some time before committing himself. “But it’s a delicious kind of agony,” he adds. “It’s like a workout; the more thought you put into it, the more it just all opens out, like planning chess moves or whatever.”
Given his past testimony regarding the number of unreleased tracks he has to draw from – he now estimates the figure could lie somewhere in the thousands – one might have expected the album to have formed through Clark recalling these ideas and moulding them to suit his current agenda. But, save for a couple of hooks on two tracks, the entire album was cooked up from scratch in four months, and he is quick to downplay his considerable cache of unreleased ideas. “It feels a bit flippant to boast about that; a bit like boasting that you own a sketchbook.
“It’s all about the album for me – the discipline you need to put this thing into a coherent whole. It’s much harder than simply just ‘boshing out tracks.’ I mean I’m sure Gordon Ramsay makes himself baked beans on toast every day but it’s not what he should be presenting to the public.”
Fans of Clark’s work over the years will have become accustomed to a particularly resourceful production approach which makes extensive use of live instrumentation and analogue machinery – for his last album, Iradelphic, he utilised a modular synth setup and employed the vocals of former Tricky collaborator Martina Topley-Bird. At that time he was clear in his intention to move away from software as much as possible, which is why his approach on Clark may come as a surprise for some. “This is basically a computer album,” he reveals.
“Computers as music making tools are just too good to ignore these days. This one I'm on now kind of feels like an extension of my brain that I’ve totally customised. I rarely use the internet on it. In fact I'm thinking of totally disconnecting and just typing out emails on a different machine. I just use it like a massive sampler/synth/tape machine. I used a few top rifle mics on the album and, sure, there are field recordings all over it, but it’s all heavily processed and tweaked.
“I also hired some old 80s synths, which was fun, and because I hired them I used them really thoroughly. People seem to get a bit annoyed when you tell them you mainly use a laptop, like they've bought into this pernicious myth that music making is about equipment – status symbols. It can get a bit Top Gear very quickly.”
At this point in his career, Clark seems to have fully settled in his methods and his approach – where once there may have been a more dogged commitment to avoiding computers, now there is an understanding that their use may better serve his needs, used in tandem with his beloved synths and outboard gear. His settled approach may also have a lot to do with his enduring relationship with Warp, the label through which he has released all of his albums. “I just get so turned on by people who are fully committed to creative things,” he explains, when asked about his loyalty to the label.
“I mean I go to those places every day and can sometimes be so relentlessly anchored in music that it seems a bit OCD or whatever. Warp always seem to be a magnet for this type of person. They have good business sense too; they’ve helped me turn that weird loner type creative and nervous musical energy that I had as a ‘yoof’ into a... product”
He jokes about how ‘clinical’ that sounds – the notion he has been turned into a product, but such is the way with music promotion and, truth be told, Clark seems to have maintained a commendable level of humility when compared to some Warp artists that spring to mind. His music has always been there for people to dip into and engage with – and he has earned much critical acclaim over the years – but crucially, his music itself has mostly done the talking and if anything, you could reasonably argue that he is a rare case of an artist who is drastically under-hyped.
Chris himself explains that he believes playing gigs is the best form of feedback he can get and he uses live shows as an opportunity to “recontextualize the album for huge soundsystems.” For him, too much discussion around music happens online and creates what he calls a “saturated mess.”
“At a gig, I can look out and see one person losing it in (or on) ecstasy with dance moves, one angry looking person who looks like they want to kill me, and someone else who looks like they are about to have multiple orgasms on the spot. That’s the best sort of feedback you can get; real and totally in the moment. I'm old school in that I prefer real time conversations, I guess. I like being in a room with another human – the real time biology of it. I like knowing that their brain is in relative proximity to mine, fizzing away with friendly or combative empathy. Skype chats, Facebook [and the like] don’t really do it for me in the same way.
“I'd get music software installed in my brain at the drop of a hat though,” he adds. “...As long as it wasn't connected to the internet.”