The experimental songwriter discusses how influences such as H.P Lovecraft’s science fiction writings helped to shape his most recent album
During a musical career spanning just over two decades Alexander Tucker has delved into a variety of sounds, from post-rock to something more electronic in nature. His most recent record, Guild Of The Asbestos Weaver, his fourth on the Thrill Jockey imprint, focuses on mantra-like verses and lo-fi synths that intertwine in a decidedly folksy manner. We asked Tucker some questions about his creative process, his inspirations, the way he views music and more…
What’s the normal creative process for a track, if you have one?
“It all depends on the project. I have a lot of ideas that float around for a few years at a time. I have a cache of current influences and things I want to try out, but I don’t focus on these directly, they are more like a mist or an image I keep in my peripheral vision. Even though this is important to the work, it always changes when I start to compose the pieces. I’ve always been spontaneous when writing material. I keep a clear mind and go directly to something that I feel is already there, like plucking information out of the air and forming it into my own way of working.
“If I’m composing on guitar or cello, I often start with an open tuning, this in itself starts to dictate where the piece might go. This is my methodology when playing stringed instruments or keys, but if I’m using electronics like a sampler, sequencer or modular, the process is much more cerebral. When I work this way there’s an interesting interaction between machine and mind, you’re being guided but there are also all these chance encounters that point you in directions you hadn’t planned on.”
How easily does lyric writing come to you
“I used to fill up sketchbooks with writing and then take sections that fitted songs. For some reason, a few years ago this stopped working for me. Now I write the music and then sit down to compose the lyrics to fit the song. I really enjoy writing. I like to create these abstracted scenes using dream-like imagery with snippets of everyday scenes. I imagine films and comics I’d like to make, lyrics can be a great shorthand for much larger ideas.”
Lots of the tracks on this new record have a repetitive, almost hypnotising structure. How much of a role did traditional folk music play in the album’s creation?
“None whatsoever. The cyclical nature of the music comes from my love of contemporary classical, like Penguin Cafe Orchestra, Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Michael Nyman. Also bands and artists like Faust, Spacemen 3, Earth and Oren Ambarchi. I used to draw a lot of inspiration from traditional American music, and still have a great love for that stuff, but I’ve never been a fan of traditional British folk music, something about it really bores and annoys me.”
Your love of science fiction is well documented. What is it about H.P. Lovecraft, Alan Moore and Ray Bradbury that specifically inspired you this time around?
“I like the metaphysical nature of Lovecraft, he is able to put me in this dream-like state whilst still being totally engaged with the writing. His Dream Cycle pieces [a series of short stories set in an alternate dimension only accessible via dreams] are some of my favourite pieces of literature. Whenever I read Lovecraft I think, ‘How is he tapping into this stuff?’ It’s almost as though it’s being transmitted through him onto the page. I’ve been a fan of Alan Moore since my early teens, I draw a great deal of comfort from most of his work, however gruesome it may be.”
At what point did the concept for this album form?
“I wouldn’t say there is ever a concept at the beginning of working on my records. For many years I wanted to use that Guild Of The Asbestos Weaver line from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 but it didn’t seem to fit the other records I was working on. As soon as I started working on the material for this album I knew the title was right.
“The themes for my albums develop over the period of making them, each piece suggests the next. I started off using a sampler to create these long repetitious rhythms. I would record myself playing cello, strumming or hitting the strings with mallets and then re-sample these, the same goes for the beat patterns. I then added synths and over-driven bass and finally vocals. I wanted the lyrics to have these vague references to Lovecraft and Alan Moore but still be open-ended and non-linear. As the album progressed, these long repeating cycles started to develop. The idea started to come together of drone, classical, pop and electronic manipulation to take the form of unravelling songs, where the information is pared down but also has this kaleidoscopic layering effect going on. This is also an extension of my work in Grumbling Fur [his group with Daniel O’Sullivan] that uses a lot of the characteristics.”
What’s your favourite synth to use?
“I bought a JEN Sx-1000 when I was 18 from a car boot sale. I’ve borrowed synths and equipment off of friends over the years and I’ve used the microKORG a fair amount. For this album, I used the MiniMoog Model D, Sequential Circuits Prophet-5 and my JEN. I’ve been producing a new project called MICROCORPS using a modular system, so that probably my favourite synth right now, I love the Future Sound System modules.”
Do you think the meaning of a song is up to the creator or the listener?
“For me, it’s definitely up to the listener, that’s the reason I leave things open-ended. I know the reference points, but they are all collaged together into this assemblage that can be read any way you like. There’s no beginning, middle or end and no direct narrative as such.”
How do you feel your music has developed since you starting releasing records?
“I feel like things have always improved over the years. I’ve played and recorded at whatever point I am at, regardless of where I am in my knowledge of instrument or equipment. I’ve always looked at the tools of making music the same as the materials I use to make visual work. You can use anything to make a mark or create a pattern; if the intent is there then the idea should carry through.”
Do you see yourself as a maximalist or a minimalist?
“If I had to choose either, I think I’m probably at the maximalist end of the scale.”
From listening to Guild Of The Asbestos Weaver, Brian Eno’s influence is instantly apparent. In what ways has he directly inspired you?
“It’s funny, I’ve never collected or owned Eno’s work. My dad has Apollo: Atmospheres And Soundtracks which I love, but Bowie’s Low is probably where the Eno influence comes through for me. People sometimes equate my voice to Eno’s, which is always very flattering, maybe it’s because we both sing in this very plaintive way, almost like a sung spoken voice.”
Are you generally happy with how people have been reacting to the album?
“On the whole yes. It’s been a little more polarised in terms of reviews. I’ve been very spoilt with good reviews over the years but it’s always good to hear different points of view – this often feeds back into the work.”
Do you have a preferred way to listen to music?
“Sitting by the record player listening to vinyl has always been my favourite.”
Lastly, what’s been your favourite record of the year so far?
“His Name Is Alive’s All The Mirrors In The House (Disciples)”
INTERVIEW: BEN DEVLIN
Alexanders latest album Guild of the Asbestos Weaver is out now. For all the latest news and tour dates, head to thrilljockey.com/artists/alexander-tucker