Lee Gamble Gets Deep With Philosopher Robin Mackay

The PAN stalwart and Urbanomic boss discuss Britney Spears in a conversational match made in heaven.

Lee Gamble’s breakthrough LP for PAN, Diversions 1994-1996, famously used the detritus of forgotten jungle tracks to construct a personalized rave history. Seen as a standout moment in a tradition of thoughtful deconstructions of club sounds, the Birmingham native has long been keen on exploring philosophical and scientific concepts as musical organizing principles, from binary code to social engineering. And while on paper, that might sound stuffy and academic, it’s his music’s hallucinatory quality that has people paying attention the world over.

The same can be said of English publishing house Urbanomic. Founded by Robin Mackay in 2006, Urbanomic places leading philosophers into freewheeling dialogues with musicians, chefs, mathematicians and artists. Equal parts esoteric and seductive, the publishing house’s Collapse journal (and the #ACCELERATE reader that PAN alum Heatsick recommended in the Winter 2014/2015 issue) has struck chords particularly in the worlds of music and visual art. So it makes sense that in conversation, Gamble and Mackay don’t come across as ivory-tower types; from Britney Spears to the ghosts of dead stars, it’s all subject to synthesis.

Robin Mackay: Lee, I’m not sure if you agree, but I think there’s a lot of great pop music that’s sophisticated and complex. Pop has to continually innovate and open up new kinds of sensation. For a while I was absolutely obsessed with Dr. Luke’s work with Britney Spears, and the early Ke$ha songs; he’s really creating some extraordinary abstractions. We instinctively recognize these songs as “Oh, that’s a girl singing with some guitars and drums, but the internal mechanics of it are crazily complex. There’s this sealed, polished, artificial skin that makes it seem like a simple pop package, but on the micro scale, its construction is incredibly dense and tweaked in every possible way. I’m sure that takes a lot of thought.

Lee Gamble: I’m with you on these hidden innovations in popular music. What you said got me thinking about that ’90s Memphis rap sound. A lot of it is underpinned by a phantasmagorical, horrorfairytale, tales-from-the-crypt type lyricism—these fables of creeping around in the bushes, stalking the streets dressed in rags, whispered vocals, the graveyard imagery; perhaps it’s indicative of America’s fascination with the hyperreal and an imaginary sense of place. Or the presence of a hidden devil?

Robin: Gravediggaz, horrorcore—why did that happen in America at that moment?

Lee: Who knows, but they nailed this oddball aesthetic. It was an expression of horror in something. These distinct sub-genres and concepts bubble up in the social broth like byproducts. I think pop music’s subversive qualities are sometimes underrated and overlooked exactly because of that polished skin you mentioned.

Robin: One of my all-time favorite albums is GZA’s Liquid Swords, which has an atmosphere that’s utterly compelling and coherent. It doesn’t have a “setting,” in the sense of referring to one time or place. It’s an entirely abstract space that involves sound, language, references and sensorimotor qualities. At their height, Wu-Tang had built their own mythology that superposed their lives, the banter of their crew and the microculture they developed just hanging out, onto this sound that RZA developed. Plus, there were the comic books, the gangster and kung-fu movies, and so on that were intertwined with that. From one point of view, those elements are just contingent; it’s the stuff they happened to be into, stuck together with beats. But they made it gel, and it created a whole new reality. Is that a “concept”? I think when things gel like that there’s a consistent concept at work, even if it’s not articulated as such. The points at which those superpositions lock in, the point where it all hangs together—that’s a concept. Liquid Swords is a concept album in the best sense.

Lee: There’s never been a point where I wanted to literally transcribe something I have read, be it philosophical or otherwise, into a piece of sound design or music. Having said that, I’m constantly motivated by things outside of music. I don’t have any kind of formal musical training, so I look for other ways of organizing sound. For example, I was reading Philip Ball’s Critical Mass while working on the releases I made for Entr’acte, and that book became very important to my mindset. It helped shape how I approached the overall structures of the pieces and the sound design of the individual sounds.

Robin: Producers have concepts, even if they aren’t ideas that you can write down as verbal propositions. To create a concept is to carve a new slice through reality. Your record Diversions 1994-1996 is a really startling example. You have these expansive sonic landscapes that introduce drum ‘n’ bass tracks, which you usually wouldn’t hear when a DJ’s playing; because at a rave, you’d rarely hear a track played from the very beginning. On the other hand, for the DJ these intros are kind of an intimate space where you cue up, where you do your work. You’ve taken these in-between spaces and brought them into the foreground, and the tracks are arranged so as to isolate and examine them in a very concentrated way. It’s almost as if you can hear reflective thinking at work in the music itself. It’s quite an achievement arranging sound in such a way that it starts thinking about itself, a fragment of a track reflecting on the history of its genre.

Lee: I’m aware that my music can sometimes seem overly lofty. Sometimes I’m interested in using theory and concept as practical tools to trigger me into making something. I use concepts as guides for myself, but they also provide a framework that can lead people to alter their mode of listening and approach the record in a different way.

Robin: I think that artists often have a vague perception of what they’re interested in. It’s only afterwards that they can extract the concept, give it a name and see how it fits with other ideas that are floating around. Sometimes you experience something new, and it affects the way you organize reality. It takes some work for your brain to adjust. I remember how amazing it was to hear footwork for the first time. It was the first thing I’d heard since jungle where, on the first listen, it just didn’t make sense at all. It actually hurt my brain. And then within a couple of days it’s totally reprogrammed you, and you’re totally into it.

Lee: I can vividly remember having an epiphany as a kid when I realized that an atom has a nucleus with electrons orbiting it. My teacher told me that this is pretty much the smallest thing we know. The the solar system sort of works and looks the same, with planets orbiting the Sun. I remember that totally fucking with my head and sitting there thinking “So, are atoms tiny little solar systems, or is the solar system an atom in another physical space?” I don’t think moments of utter bewilderment like that ever leave you.

Robin: Listening to some of your music, especially your record Dutch Tvashar Plumes, is like seeing the light from a dead star.

Lee: I think the analogy to light is spot on, considering the fact that the majority of starlight we see in the night sky isn’t actually there any longer. We look at stars as a type of ghost. They appear as a hallucination, and our ability to understand them as actual things is a mental projection. It’s only due to the vastness of space and the speed of light that we can see them. We’re witnessing time that’s obscured, processed and re-projected to another point and place. It’s exactly that blurring of the moment that’s interesting.

Robin: Do you think this reflective distance in your work is a sign of the times, where what had seemed like the unstoppable force of dance music has reached the end of a cycle? Do you see a sort of hiatus where no one’s really sure what’s next, apart from reprocessing what’s come before?

Lee: I agree with that in a sense, but I also think it’s a tricky argument. We see historical scenes in hindsight, and that helps us to frame them favorably. That said, it’s obvious that there have been surges of great ideas at specific points in the history of electronic music. I think these accelerations can’t be sustained, and more often than not, they’re aligned with the emerging technologies of the time; it’d be wrong to say that people themselves are inherently more or less creative at certain points. There may be peaks and troughs, but I don’t align these to a lack of ideas.

Robin: But it seems to me that there’s no collective project right now in electronic music. Everything appears so fragmented.

Lee: There have been points in electronic music history where the future seemed welcoming and hopeful. There was trust and curiosity in the future or at least an ability to reconfigure its negative aspects. You can see it in the dystopian techstep of the late ’90s or in Afrofuturism’s use of science fiction to explore the possibilities of a black future. A more pragmatic question I’d ask is: If we were to map out these points where we’ve seen particularly fertile periods of creation, are they aligned with similar socio-economic factors and pressures? Are people more likely to create when they have some reason to escape current times, or when they’re more settled?

Robin: I would say that a very particular dynamic characterizes the history of electronic dance music: Engineers have conceptualized music or sound in a certain technical way, because in order to build a machine, you have to structure things, and you have to decide how to organize the materials for processing. But then you’ll have an experimental stage where people are using the tools, exploring the space they open up, testing the boundaries of what can be done and “misusing” the technology.

Lee: This makes me think of the early 2000s, when I was making music solely with a computer and no external interfaces—no internal sequencer, no soft synths and no samples. I was playing around with code a bit and exploring what the computer sounded like “in itself.” Rather than using the computer as a vehicle for software that emulates hardware, I was interested in the ones and zeroes, the binary code beneath it all. I had the cheapest Mac I could get at the time and worked out ways of crashing the sound engine. I’d record the sound of the crash and then re-work it. Now I can’t get the newer and better machines to do it. I imagine that any form of crash is seen as a problem by Apple engineers. A raucous digital racket spurting out of your Mac isn’t the image Apple wants, regardless of their slogan “Think different.”

Robin: I find these moments some of the most thrilling revelations in respect to how human creativity works, when technical systems and experimentation feed off each other. Look at the way jungle producers abused time-stretching: Instead of using it for subtly correcting errors, they went totally overboard and created an impossible sense of attenuated time. Those early Rufige Kru tracks really felt like time travel. Electronic music has continually drawn out the “surplus value” latent in these machines, and not as a dispassionate exercise, but in order to provoke new sensations. I think at their best, those sensations are something like signposts for those who are inclined to follow them, vectors that point toward future concepts.

Lee: Will we continue pushing forward if we’re rehashing famous old tools? Is their surplus value spent? “New” Roland 808s, 303s and ARP Odysseys are being made. How will these remakes be used? For pure replication and repetition? Or will we unearth something fresh? There’s this expectation for electronic music to be futuristic in its essence, whereas other styles are static by nature. I think futurism in music is at a really intriguing point. Perhaps modern music is sick from the horrors of the real future and is more comfortable re-cranking the wheels of history? Maybe there’s history in the new futurism? What does futuristic music sound like anyhow? I’m confused. Anyhow, I don’t think this is an ailment confined to music. I’m guessing it’d be possible to transpose this argument on to many dimensions of society right now.

Robin: I was studying at Warwick University during the mid-’90s, when jungle and drum and bass were getting very abstract. We had this unofficial renegade group, the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit, which included Steve Goodman (aka Kode9), Mark Fisher and Nick Land, who was probably one of the last really original philosophers to survive inside a British university. We’d do conferences, and instead of reading an academic paper, we’d read out these blunted, cut-up texts over some dark drum and bass mix. We’d talk about cyberpunk fiction, sci-fi movies and the early days of the Internet; all of that was precisely what we called “abstract culture.” I had a whole philosophical deduction about the transcendental significance of time-stretching!

Lee: You can certainly see that lineage passing through the material from your publishing house, Urbanomic.

Robin: I’ve come into contact with lots of electronic music producers who have an affinity with what Urbanomic is doing, and appreciate how the Collapse series presents the bleeding edge of philosophy. I started the Collapse journal in 2006 out of frustration at the shortcomings of academic philosophy. I still believed that philosophy was important, but in its professional form it’s highly constrained by its institutional setting, and by the battle of egos and marking out of territories that goes with that. The idea was to try and bring together people from different disciplines and practices to create a dialogue on philosophical questions that isn’t limited by those constraints. There was also this vague idea to create an overlapping structure in which people are talking about the same subject but from very different perspectives.

Among others, we’ve done volumes of Collapse on horror, geophilosophy, cookery, and most recently, gambling and risk. Each volume produces this structure by connecting thinkers and practitioners who otherwise would never have encountered one another. On one side you’ve got a mathematician, on the other side a chef, and they’ve got nothing in common except that they’re connected through this series of other, overlapping pieces by other artists, theorists, and practitioners. It’s a montage. I feel my role is like a film or audio editor, basically. Although Collapse can be a bit dense and forbidding, that’s probably something that’s appealing. A certain audience is excited, rather than scared off by the overwhelming density and complexity.

Lee: Sometimes I’m not sure whether the content in Collapse is pure fabrication. I like the way the publication links things together and forces you to think about them from under a single banner. Things are not quite as they seem, or feel a little uncanny. Whether that’s the intention or whether I’m misunderstanding, I don’t know. It’s not important. Collapse fires my brain in certain directions. I don’t expect to completely understand everything, but that doesn’t stop it from potentially infecting me as an artist.

Robin: It’s interesting and really encouraging to hear how the books become part of the creative process; how they “infect” it, as you say. Most of the time, I think philosophers are trying to ignore the signals that you’re talking about because they’re trying to reduce the experience of reading down to a series of propositions, so as to evaluate and judge it. That’s quite right if you’re trying to make some progress in philosophy; but there’s definitely another way of reading on the part of people who don’t have that kind of investment in the material. They pick up these signals that are both conceptual and affective. There are very weird short-circuits that happen sometimes, when words and ideas can become linked with a particular set of sensations, without it being explicable. I think the confusion is absolutely a positive thing. A lot of my own pleasure in putting Collapse together comes from being on the edge of bafflement and everything almost falling apart.

Lee: I remember reading Nick Land’s collected essays Fanged Noumena every day for about ten days when I was on holiday. I would wake up really early, make coffee and read; it became intriguing to frame my day this way. I became a little lost in it, certainly. But in part, the confusion led me to writing a lot during those ten days. Some of this research became very important for me in sculpting and formulating the ideas behind Dutch Tvashar Plumes. There was this out-of-body-like aspect to reading it so intensively.

Robin: When you’re working with synthesized sound, you’re already in the realm of hallucination, where you have sounds without sources. Or rather, you have to hypothetically deduce what the sources might be. What’s really exciting for me is when you can’t listen to something without other thought processes locking in, even if they’re only subliminal: What exactly is it that I’m hearing? Why am I choosing to listen to this? What relation does this have to other musical and nonmusical sounds? Is this music, and if not, what is it? Triggering those thought processes isn’t about relaxing the sensory experience; on the contrary, it’s about intensifying it. I only really like music that makes me ask “Why am I listening to this, and what is it?”

Lee: I was intrigued to hear that you’re interested in seeing philosophy escape from it’s professional, academic setting.

Robin: I’m for the idea that anyone can engage with philosophy, and that people from different backgrounds and practices can contribute. Yet there has to be an acknowledgement that a lot of pretty smart people have already thought about this stuff before you. There has to be something to test concepts against. No doubt there is a parallel with music: There’s that mad scientist stage of brewing shit up, but there’s also got to be some kind of reckoning as to whether you’ve just ended up making something that sounds like bad ambient techno from 1990. Ultimately the question “Does this add anything new?” is also the question, “Does this open up any kind of interesting conversation with what went before?”

Lee: It seems to me that we’re in such an intriguing time for philosophy and thought. New political structures, new technological advancements, landing on comets, exploring Mars, developments in robotics; it’s all happening.

Robin: Yeah, and most of that isn’t being explored in university philosophy departments, that’s for sure! The interesting thing is, who or what is thinking today? Most of these endeavors—robotics, artificial intelligence, space travel, distributed software, telecommunications—are achievements of humans enhanced by technology. Now the human part is increasingly little more than a facilitator for machines working on other machines. On the one hand, the horizons of our knowledge extend beyond anything we could have dreamt of. But on the other, it’s certainly not “knowledge” in the sense in which it would have been understood before the Industrial Revolution. What we know today isn’t contained mostly in the head and certainly not in one person’s head.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine. Click here to read more from this issue.


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