A couple of weeks ago Berlin resident James Shaw, better known by his alias Sigha, dropped by the EB office.
His latest album Living With Ghosts, released through Scuba’s Hotflush imprint, had caught our attention with its pulsating, granite-cold rumination on techno purism with tracks like “Puritan” “Dressing for Pleasure and “Scene Couple” capturing a particularly British sternness: this is music made for massive spaces, for bodies slick in chemical sweat, for six feet-thick concrete walls and Monday mornings that could be Saturday nights or Sunday afternoons. There has been, of course, a recent appetite for techno of a more pummeling stripe, with the continued influence of Regis’ bruised limbed industrialism (and, of course, the return of British Murder Boys) and Blawan’s subterranean schlock gaining traction. Living With Ghosts, despite its citations of techno past, feels, in its mood, distinctly contemporary. We wanted to find out more, so when we invited James to come by to do an interview we decided to add a twist: ever-inspired by visual art he suggested he would bring some pictures of his favorite pieces with him. The only brief we set was that they must have some resonance for him and his own art. The hope was that by appealing to a more personal narrative we might trigger discussion on subjects that you never expected to broach and in turn gain greater insight than a usual Q&A session might usually allow. We hope you agree that it was a successful experiment.
You’re from south London originally. Right now there seems to have been this swing towards south, in terms of a party scene.
99 percent of my friends when I left were living in North London and were all, “Yeah, I don’t wanna go south of the river” and now everyone’s relocating to Peckham. It’s the new East London.
What brought you to Berlin?
The thing that first brought me here was definitely music; I was coming out to play and to hear techno, but the more time I spent here the more I started to realize how cheap it is compared to London. There you’re struggling if you’re an artist, but here it’s possible to really live. Since then I’ve started to fall in love with the city. Since I’ve moved here, I’ve also thought of living in different cities as well for short periods of time—taking the opportunity to soak up different atmospheres that you might not normally see when you just come to a place, play a show and leave. Berlin is the first city I’ve lived in abroad, and it’s opened my eyes to that massively.
Last night someone asked me what was going on in the Berlin scene, a question that I actually found quite difficult to answer. Is there a Berlin sound anymore?
Everyone’s going to have a different idea of what a certain place sounds like. Maybe my idea of it is ignorant; I’ve only been here a year, but it seems to me that if you’re looking at the broader electronic landscape in Berlin, techno and house still have a massive stranglehold on the city. I can only compare it to London, where people are so obsessed (consciously or unconsciously) with newness, freshness. That has positives and negatives, of course. It means that some scenes never get a change to grow or develop in a way that would allow them to reach their potential. Suddenly, all the followers disappear because the sound or scene isn’t hip anymore, and it collapses. On the other hand, it’s so inspiring creatively. You get something like dubstep, which has completely changed the musical landscape.
You started out making dubstep, but you’ve moved into the realms of almost purist techno with your new album Ghosts. How do you feel about dubstep, about what happened to it?
For me, the early wave of dubstep, the sounds that were just emerging out of the collapsing garage scene, the sort of sparse halfstep sound was what drew me in. In a way that’s also what attracted me to techno. Producers were doing so much with so few elements. Every week I’d be down at Plastic People and, for me, that time was so exciting. It was this amalgamation of sounds I loved: huge amounts of bass, sparseness, it was hypnotic… it was like a drug, you’d get drawn into this deep sound in a black room, losing yourself to it. But quite quickly, and I suppose this was when the genre was still developing and people were finding their feet, it grew in popularity and started to follow certain rules and patterns. Unfortunately this kind of energy that had drawn me to it started to disappear.
Maybe this is just me, but I feel like people started to lose interest in that halfstep sound when the smoking ban hit. I’ve always wondered how much of an impact not being able to smoke weed in clubs anymore had on people not wanting to listen to slow, spacious music. Suddenly, the energy changed, the whole wobble thing picked up and the mid-range vibe came in.
And what about your own development?
It was a natural progression, really. Even around the first time Scuba hit me up, and I sent him the first load of tracks that resulted in the first EP, I was more interested in playing and writing techno than I was dubstep. At times it’s been frustrating because for a long time I’ve played what I would call purist techno, but people I guess have had this perception of me as something different. Even after the first few Hotflush releases, there were a couple of EPs like Rawww, which was dubby kind of house, and then Shake. Those two EPs I actually made after a trip to Berlin to see Cassie play in Panorama Bar and losing my shit at ten in the morning.
How did you first get into electronic music?
My first electronic epiphany came when I was wandering into a warehouse squat party and just hearing techno blasting in this massive room. I was 16 at the time and had never heard club music in a club environment. I’d played in bands and was studying guitar, and that was what I was into then: more traditional music, however abstract you want to consider it. I’d listened to some Warp records and such, but I had a bit of a low opinion on club music. I remember hearing the cool crew on the bus playing their garage mixtapes and thinking, “I just wanna hear some Nirvana.”
But when I stumbled into this party—I had just come to pick a friend up—it just blew my mind. I’d never heard that music in the right environment. It totally changed the way I thought about electronic music. I started hanging out with more producers than guitarists, and I was picking up bits and bobs from different people. My knowledge of electronic music was next to nothing, and suddenly this whole vast sea of unknown sounds was opened up to me. When I started making sounds it was honestly the result of taking too many drugs and the result of that was some very strange music.
In what way?
I wanted to make music not for parties, but for after-parties—things that would mess with people’s heads, basically. That was my logic.
Art is an important influence within your work and the first picture you’ve chosen is a very familiar one.
Sir John Everett Millais, Ophelia
This, obviously, is Ophelia by Sir John Everett Millais which is one of my favorite pictures ever. Maybe it’s a bit weird because it’s not the sort of image you’d ascribe to techno, but I just think it’s so lovely. I’m a massive fan of pre-Raphaelite art, and this is the painting that started that. The story of her singing while she’s drowning, and her expression while it happens has such a melancholic beauty to it.
Do you have a tendency toward melancholic impulses in your work?
Massively. I don’t know if it’s a good thing or what it says about my psyche, but I tend to dwell on things a lot. I’m a solitary person and I spend a lot of time thinking heavily on things. I guess my way of getting it out is in music and writing. There’s something i just find incredibly attractive and appealing about this beautiful sadness.
This is a picture of a sculpture by Cornelia Parker called Mass (Colder Darker Matter)and it was nominated for the Turner Prize. I remember going to see the Turner Awards with my mom in 1997, and she was always really into art and galleries—that’s where I get my obsession. This piece has resonated and stuck with me. A church in Texas was struck by lightning, and Parker collected the charred wood and suspended the pieces in a way that looked like an exploding cube. It took up this whole room in the Tate, and the negative space between the charred wood… the impact was incredible.
Next, this a still from Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising. Anyone following me on Twitter will recognize it as my default pic. I’m just a big fan, basically, and I think this photo is such an incredible capture of male strength and beauty. So I hijacked it for my Twitter profile.
I’ve always been intrigued by that version of masculinity fetishized in leather boy culture.
I think when you’re not involved with a way of life that’s sufficiently different from your own, it makes the fascination toward it even stronger.
This is perhaps the most striking, unsettling image.
This is by David Noonan, a multimedia artist who works with prints and embroidery. I stumbled across him last year at the Great British Art Show last year. There were a couple huge, grayscale and sepia embroideries hanging there and they were incredible. I think he sources images from all over, film, photography, anywhere he can find and just makes this surreal pieces. I find them very evocative.
The final picture I’ve chosen is Kohei Yoshiyuki’s Untitled, Plate 18 by Japanese photographer Kohei Yoshiyuki, who in 1980 released this book called Dokyumento: Kōen (Document: Park). There was this park in central Tokyo that people would go to at night and just hook up, and he documented this scene. And it wouldn’t be just couples; there’d be three or four people sometimes, or people actively standing there and getting off on watching others, and basically he just immersed himself in this culture. I’m fascinated by how people can just let go, not worry about the judgments of others. I’m also interested in the work of Miroslav Tichý, who was a Czech photographer and a real voyeur—if he was taking the portraits he did today, I reckon he’d be locked up. He basically went around with a homemade camera and took pictures of women when they didn’t know he was looking. He’s now become an incredibly influential photographer. I love the voyeuristic attitude of the pictures but also the composition, the untouched rawness of the shots due to the nature of them and the rough equipment he was using as well as intentional processing mistakes meant to dirty it up further. He once said, “If you want to be famous, you must do something worse than anybody in the entire world.” And it worked for him.
Your last choice is a video.
This is a collaboration between Gareth Pugh and Nick Knight. It was also used for the imagery for a feature that Dazed & Confused did on Pugh—who I absolutely love. In a kind of similar way to art, fashion is influential to me. Not all of it, but someone like Pugh… The clothes he makes and the ways in which he showcases them are amazing. He has this vision of a universe, and he creates it. ~
Hotflush Recordings released Sigha’s Living With Ghosts on November 19th, 2012.