Warp Week: Chris Clark & Tim Exile – The Performer Versus the Perfectionist

Two of Warp Records’ most innovative young producers talk about their experiences of working with the label, and where their differing approaches to electronic music have led them.

Feature by Bram Gieben | 30 Oct 2009

Chris Clark and Tim Exile are two of the more recent electronic signings to Warp – Clark is the longer veteran, starting with his LP Clarence Park in 2001, and notching up four more albums (including the seminal Ceramics is the Bomb) before this year’s Totem’s Flare. Tim Exile meanwhile is on album number three with recent release The Listening Tree, but has also released a raft of singles, EPs and another album on labels such as Planet Mu and Moving Shadow.

The two producers couldn’t be less alike, both in terms of approach and sound. Clark’s highly finessed studio productions are slick and sonically inventive, with a high-gloss sheen that displays the producer’s obsession with the finer points of studio wizardry and technical innovation. Tim Exile is no less of a sonic visionary, but his focus is on the immediate, live creation of loops and samples, often from organic found sounds, and their use in his mind-bending live performances. What the two artists have in common is their wide-ranging yet uncompromising approach to their work – something that makes them the perfect Warp signings, and places them among the ranks of the most exciting electronic producers working today.

Clark talks about his experience of signing to Warp: “It was really smooth – I just sent them demo tapes, and they put them out. I was the last artist to send demos in on cassette: I think after that, everyone started getting MySpace profiles. It was really easy. I wrote the first album I did for them in about… two weeks, probably. I don’t know… I kind of take it all for granted now. At the time, it felt amazing for about six weeks, then I just thought: ‘Better get to work!’”

For Exile, it was a case of moving to a label that better suited his sound: “I wrote an album of music that – well, at the time I was on Planet Mu, which is an electronic label. So was Warp, at the time. But anyway, I wrote this album and it was a lot more vocal, a lot more pop-sounding, and I felt it deserved a different label, so I approached Warp. It was a good experience – it was really good to have a big team behind it. It was definitely a very different experience from working with a one-man label.”

Clark is a self-confessed perfectionist when it comes to his music, and he feels Warp support him in this: “I’ve got to a point with them now where if I give them music, my standards are so obsessively high that it always gets to a point where they are begging me to just finish the album, and I’m just saying no, it’s not good enough. But they know that those artists are the kind of people they want to deal with – the more perfectionist they are, the better. I think artists like that gravitate to Warp. They don’t really interfere with what you do too much. Or at all, really.”

The famously liberal approach of Warp to their artists has also benefited Exile: “Steve (Beckett, head of Warp Records) is totally hands-off. My first two meetings with him, I was really surprised with how he handled things – kind of like, ‘It’s your album, so you can do what you want with it.’ I was like, ‘Woah!’ That’s really refreshing. I was surprised at first, but now… since doing my first album with Warp, I’ve learned a lot about how they work. It’s very much a blank canvas. They sort of invest – financially, emotionally, whatever - in people, and what people do. It works best with them if you have a complete A to Z idea of exactly what you are going to do, including the press, the shows, the look and so on.”

Clark is currently in a hectic phase of touring and remixing: “I’m working on loads of remixes at the moment. I’ve been asked to do quite a few. There’s a Health one I’m doing, plus Nathan Fake and a few others. There’s possibly a Massive Attack one… other than that, I’ve got loads of gigs on as well.” He describes his live setup: “It’s all my own tracks, played off old hardware – synths and stuff like that. I will be doing lots of DJing soon, too.”

Exile meanwhile is jumping up and down with excitement as he continues to innovate his approach to performance: “I make machines to play and improvise with. I work with software and off-the-shelf hardware… I guess I’m going for the cyborg, man / machine effect. If you see me play, my hands are all over the place – literally I’m doing every single thing. Everything that happens on stage is being played and created live. It’s very interactive. So in that respect, it is very much based on live instrumentation. That’s the route I am going down now – trying to take the whole process out of the studio, even the writing of songs.” To understand what he means, you’ve got to check his performances out on YouTube, or at his blog here. Tim Exile is the kind of producer who could probably fart at a microphone and make a killer beat (in fact, we would be surprised if he hadn’t already at least attempted this technique. And succeeded).

Neither artist seems to be intimidated by following in the footsteps of the likes of Squarepusher, Aphex Twin and The Black Dog: “I was pretty young when all of that stuff was coming out,” says Clark. “It was kind of the generation above me. I was only about fourteen when I heard Black Dog, which was the first thing I heard on Warp. It’s still my favourite album on Warp, I was a massive fan of that… but not really exclusively of Warp stuff. Of the electronic stuff I listened to, it was my favourite. I listened to a lot of old hardcore.”

Exile meanwhile sees the legacy of these artists more in terms of a difference of approach, rather than of direct influence: “The precedent of that seminal nineties electronic music… it was much more of a voodoo thing. It was very much a top-down experience, and there wasn’t much interaction – it was the artist on stage, doing this crazy stuff, and no-one really knows what it is, but it sounds amazing. The standpoint I’m coming from nowadays, I guess I’m interested in bringing electronic sounds – the understanding of live electronic performance – into the lexicon of your average punter, but in a way that they can understand it. In my shows I have a wireless mic. Part of the show is that I give the mic to the audience, and they pass it round. People will be saying stuff, singing stuff, beatboxing or whatever, and I’ll be sampling stuff and making tracks with what they’re doing.” Sounds like fun - where do we sign up?

They might be the opposite ends of the spectrum of electronic producers – Clark a studio ingénue with a focus on clarity and aesthetic brilliance, Exile a courageous explorer, attempting to find new avenues for producing and performing his increasingly improvised and constantly reinterpreted body of work. Nonetheless, they both characterise the spirit of Warp as a label – indifferent to the mainstream, wary of pigeonholing and uninterested in limiting genre categorisation. Most importantly, they are both innovators, committed to their own approaches and unwilling to compromise on their high standards.

Neither can imagine a world without Warp: “It would be a pretty dull world if Warp didn’t exist,” argues Clark. “They are continually evolving – they’re flexible, nimble, and a bit unpredictable.” Exile sounds a cautionary note: “I think any kind of brand like Warp, in order to survive it will have to diversify massively.”

As the conversation draws to a close, Exile explains why he won’t get into a long, drawn out discussion of the Warp legacy: “I don’t really spend much time thinking about the past,” he says, smiling enigmatically. “I’ve got lots of ideas about what I would like to do tomorrow!”

The future, as always, belongs to those who have the best ideas. Clark and Exile are most assuredly among their number.

The Listening Tree by Tim Exile and Totem’s Flare by Clark are both out now on Warp. 

To read more of Bram’s writing, visit www.weaponizer.co.uk