The following interview took place between Michael Begg and Kate MacDonald sometime during April 2009, a mere cluster of months after the release of Human Greed's third CD album, Black Hill: Midnight at the Blighted Star, released on Lumberton Trading Company and featuring a number of collaborators such as Julia Kent and David Tibet. During this same timeframe the duo (also comprising phenomenal artist Deryk Thomas) have also played their first ever live shows (in Poland) and plan to embark on more...
AE: Start with a basic: What was it that originally made you want to start Human Greed?
MB: To tell you the truth, I have no recollection at all of wanting to start it, probably because there was no real start. It just kind of grew out of what had been going on before.
The start Start START was when Deryk and I met, aged 12, sat down in a room with my father's electric guitar plugged in to a hifi and tried to pick out the theme music from John Carpenter's Halloween. Fast forward through years of aiming two cassette recorders at each other to create primitive multi tracks, a few effects boxes, a propensity for sticking a guitar into the back of an amp then kicking the amp to make the reverb wires crash together in the midst of the beautiful howl of feedback and the recipe for disaster was pretty much there.
We were good suburban boys though and had no conception or notion of taking this racket out to the world. It just kind of hummed in the background while we got on with other things.
The whole brew I suppose began to surface in the late nineties. I was writing at the time, and had my own theatre company, and was looking to do a new kind of performance. I didn't quite realise at the time how far I was subsequently going to come into personal dispute with the act of writing itself. I was just feeling my way forward in the dark, as it were. I had these ideas of pure sound leading to pure emotional response, and arrangements of sounds that would lead to some form of direct narrative that somehow would evade the negotiated meaning inherent within language. It was as vague at the time as it is pretentious now!
I travelled to Morocco and I was lucky enough to meet Paul Bowles. We had some nice chats: about dogs and dentists mostly, but sometimes writing. He, of course, was a composer who was unsatisfied at music's limitation at presenting negative emotions. Which these days seems an extraordinary thing to say. We have come to appreciate music, sound, as being very well equipped to present negative feelings. So he turned his back on musical composition to address his negativity in poetry and prose. I turned my back on poetry and prose in order to face the same demons with sound.
Round about this same time a friend introduced me to audio applications on the computer, and so I found myself tinkering with early versions of Cakewalk, Wavelab, Cubase, Sound Forge, etc.
I was like a kid in a sweetie shop. I sunk deeper and deeper into a dark pool of delight, where I would swim around, shredding, stretching and twisting synths, samples and instruments. It took a while, but I soon gained a reasonable degree of competence and began arranging and sequencing the results. It was exactly what I was after. Purity of intent, non-negotiable emotional response. I never thought of it as music, or noise, or anything really. I just knew it was right: and that is a feeling that I rarely ever have.
It just so happened that a play that was being worked up at this time was called Human Greed: A Mortality Play in 3 Courses. When I heard that Steven Severin was, at that time, composing work for theatre I decided, more or less on a whim as I recall, to send him a cassette of these arrangements, and Human Greed was what I wrote on the side of the cassette. In retrospect it seems outrageous that this approach should lead to the first HG album, but there you go. Says something about Severin too. Either that he has great insight, or is more desperate than I thought! Ha!
AE: After your first album, you started your own label, Omnempathy and then moved back to releasing music through another label for the third album. How would you compare the experiences of releasing your own material versus having it on someone else's label?
MB: Omnempathy was just a word I came up with and I wanted it to be something - a nom de guerre, a website, a publication, a family motto. It just so happened that the way fate wandered from day to day it presented itself, at the right moment, as a name for a record label.
I am enough of an enthusiast to say that I really liked being involved and in control of the whole enterprise, but on the other hand I have enjoyed not having to put capital up front for the work that appears on other labels.
That said, the general level of incompetence that sits under the administration of the majority of boutique labels is quite astonishing to me. There's no doubting the enthusiasm there but the marginal audiences involved in this kind of enterprise seems to allow them to give up entirely on any will to market or promote the artists in any way whatsoever. You end up with this weird scene where label owners act like artists, and that just doesn't work.
AE: Your music has a very strong visual and literary component ("the musical investigation of a writer and a painter"- stolen from your website). How do you think the other artistic pursuits of the HG members shape your sound? Are there other elements you'd like to add to Human Greed for future recordings? (kabuki-style puppet shows during live performances, slow-moving can-can dancers, kazoo orchestras...)
MB: I'm not really sure how to answer that one. It's not possible to separate one element of your life entirely from another so there is always going to be some kind of bleed. It would be difficult to pinpoint a single source for a particular intervention. As a writer I have a good grounding in narrative structure and that certainly informs my approach to composition. But its questionable whether it has any more or any less impact than my response to the sound of trains in the morning, or the way that a road drill fills me with profound melancholy - both direct examples that have informed HG recordings in the past - I really can't be sure. Deryk is an illustrator and there is a similar formality to his approach in that work. But it also demands a huge capacity for patience that is also valuable in navigating the long gestation periods of HG recordings.
You have to think of it, and I'm sorry to go on about this, the purity of the emotion. What is the emotional impulse and what happens to it on the way to expression? Language distorts because of its need to negotiate meaning in its presentation. Sound and image are much more representative of the pure thought. The prerogative of expression. As an illustration, think of a child at a kitchen table drawing pictures. They seldom do this in silence. They make all these lovely sounds as they scratch out their lines. They are expressing the same little thought in two representative mediums simultaneously. We tend to lose that approach as we get older. Probably round about the time we begin picking up writing skills.
I have been quite down on the written word for some time now. Though the ongoing experience of HG seems slowly to be resolving itself back towards some kind of embrace of language. We'll see, we'll see...
But it seems to me that the written word in the 21st century serves only a single purpose: To take something from you. Your money normally, but increasingly, your trust, your faith, your mind. Oh, I could go on, and I do. But I am tiresome, and pretentious.
How about this? Deryk and I set up an idea for a live routine that would involve us standing on stage and opening a cardboard box brimful of puppies. Then amidst a blizzard of noise we would shave the puppies with electric shears and set them loose, pink, terrified and pissing themselves into the crowd. That seemed to be a good way of generating the desired emotional response from an audience - that heady cocktail of disbelief, horror, pity. Of course, we could never follow through on such a plan. Not fair on the puppies, of course. And you can't really get puppy actors to consent to perform it as a role.
You will have read about the artist whose work amounted to a stray dog in a room that over the course of the exhibition starved to death in a pool of its own ordure. Who was it, Vargas? Costa Rican, I think. There was a huge outcry. Its not art, its cruelty, they screamed. It was absolutely very cruel, but it seemed to me a perfectly valid artistic statement. Who's to say what is and what isn't?
To be perfectly honest, I am now familiar enough with the process of recording an HG record that I can safely say at this point I have no idea whatsoever will make its way onto the next record! There are certainly new elements that pop into my mind on a daily basis, particularly since undertaking the live shows in Poland late last year.
But if you do happen to have a can-can dancer among your friends, pass on my number.
AE: You have comparatively recently started to perform live. Have you been (generally) happy with the results? How does the live environment change your sound (if at all)?
MB: Very, very happy. It was so thrilling to be able to take it all out on the road. And I love Poland, so it was just perfect. Those doomed, winter-savaged flatlands, those beautiful, sad Slavic faces, those late night smoky basements under the mediaeval squares - and there, tangled up in the Christmas lights, little old us with our fistful of sounds. Quite, quite beautiful.
As you say, we have only looked at this aspect of our work recently. That's on account of three things I suppose. The advances in software, the experience of my playing with Fovea Hex all over Europe, and the introduction of the visual element brought in by film maker Neil McLauchlan. He is another old friend of mine who is based out of Galway, Ireland.
I'd like to do more. In fact, I am in London right now and I'll be meeting a promoter later in the afternoon to look at possibilities. A London show would be good. And I'd like to go back to Italy. I've played there several times with Fovea Hex. I think they'd go for us there. From what I can gather we have a bit of a following there - largely on account of a pirate copy of Black Hill leaking out onto the Italian bulletin board communities.
The live sound is, necessarily, I suppose, much less contemplative, much more immediate. There is little room for subtlety, but there is still a lot you can do with these soundbeds of ours, particularly at high volume, that shifts the material in a whole new direction.
It was always a concern of mine that a show of beat-less, melody free laptop generated music would be the most boring thing in the world. God knows the world is jam packed to the gunnels with duos staring intently at computer screens and indulging in the ludicrous practice of improvised electronica. Everyone we met on the road always seemed to say that same thing; "Ya, ya, I'm, like, into doing improvisational electronica right now, ya!" Fuck that!
I had to think in a very traditional way about what works on stage. Instruments. Visuals. Vocals!
So, I configured the set to afford Deryk as much time as possible to work with a treated guitar. Neil composed some very effective visuals to be projected behind us, and I invited Gosia (Warsaw's Brenda LeeDVD) to read some texts from 'Moonsuite' (a piece of writing that has been occupying me recently). It worked really well, but sadly she could not make it with us as far south as Krakow. We still had a mic on stage and at some point during the Krakow show I picked it up and began singing, after a fashion. It was not so much catharsis as purgative. Kind of like what I was saying earlier about children making noises with their mouths because the gateway to the pure emotion wasnít being opened quick enough by the act of drawing. The surge needed to get out fast, and in this case it just came from my throat. I don't know if it will ever happen again. Its not something I can envisage working up in rehearsal or introducing in any substantive way to the recording process. But it worked on the night.
I am pleasantly surprised at how flexible the performance set up was in the end. I didn't expect there to be so much room for improvising. Oh shit - improvised electronica!
For more information: http://www.omnempathy.com