Above: Mark Fell, photographed in Chicago by Satoki Nagata.
Dance music deconstructions are a dime a dozen these days, alternately appearing as noisy four-to-the-floor embellished with unpredictable sonic artifacts or industrial, reverb soaked meditations on atmosphere. Not so the music of Mark Fell. The Sheffield-based artist and electronic musician has long been doing things bone dry in an attempt to get as far away from “representational” music as possible. Fell sees spatial effects—in contrast to pure synthesis—as an attempt to evoke something beyond music itself, of which his own compositions function as modernist critique. This is the common thread in his repertoire, which spans the avant-house of Sensate Focus and SND (his duo with Mat Steel) to the borderline academic analysis of house music’s component parts—its peaks and troughs and the spaces in between. As Fell told A.J. Samuels in the Winter ’13 edition of Electronic Beats Magazine, his highly sculpted dance music reference points are as shaped by philosophical considerations as by British alternative music culture’s anti-Thatcherite history.
Mark, like a number of electronic musicians you have at least one foot in the art world. How do you see the relationship between your music and sound-related art installations?
I think the music industry has a sort of baggage—that music is about having a good time, being an emotional release, being “universal” or getting lost in the moment. But I’m not primarily interested in trying to achieve these things. On the other hand, in the art world there’s a reaction precisely against all that. The art world’s baggage emphasizes critique and meaning. When you visit a show, interpretive notes are intended to guide the visitor through the work by explaining the meaning of things. So when I make art installations, even though I read a lot of philosophy and I’m involved in the theoretical aspect of the work, I still don’t think the point of the art I make is to understand a theory of the artwork. For me, art is something ideally one should be able to engage with in phenomenological terms. So my work in both music and art is usually a reaction against both those kinds of baggage. I just did a performance at Krakow’s Unsound Festival where I have a bottle of water next to the mixer and my bag, and about thirty seconds before the set ends I take the bottle and put it in my pocket and put my bag on. I do it in a way that’s very contrary to the climax or the idea of a musical crescendo or some massively involved ending. I was showing the audience that I was thinking pragmatically about getting off the stage, doing it in a very matter of fact way. I’m not sure if everyone picked up on it, but I was actually quite proud of it.
You can see that especially in your Boiler Room performance with SND on YouTube. You’re wearing your backpack the whole time, too.
Exactly, I did that to look as untrendy as possible, which for me is not too difficult. Trying not to show enthusiasm is important for me. Even though I am enthusiastic about the music, I am actively trying not to prompt the audience to share my enthusiasm. They should decide for themselves.
What do you think that achieves?
It’s a really difficult question to answer. I guess for me house music has really meant a lot. I grew up in a part of Sheffield that was really falling to bits when house and techno music arrived. It was towards the end of Thatcher’s government and it was quite a repressive time to live in. So club culture here felt like a reaction against that state of affairs in a very real sense. Now, some twenty-something years after it seems as if club culture has become overwhelmingly commodified. I’m not interested in displaying wealth, taking drugs, driving fancy cars or trying to have sex with lots of women, and it seems this kind of music now promotes those things. So my music is a response to the commodification of club music culture, which is something that I kind of object to.
Terre Thaemlitz has similarly criticized the Madonna-ization of house music—i.e. the popular white washing of its roots in urban poverty and queer culture. I know you’ve said in previous interviews that your views on house music were the only thing you two really had in common.
Well, Terre and I actually have quite a lot in common in that we’re both pretty antagonistic about a lot of things. We’re very different kinds of characters, but we share concerns about wanting to question things. I can’t speak for Terre but I think he’d agree with me. We don’t want to present just a really engaging, “fun” experience. When I first met Terre I had invited him over to Sheffield to perform one of his electroacoustic pieces. Then he told me, “Oh, I can DJ at the party if you want too.” I was like, “Sure, DJ in the bar.” Then I told Mat from SND, “This Terre guy wants to DJ, it’ll probably be awful, but whatever.” And then when we heard him that evening we were laughing like, “Wow, he’s actually a pretty good DJ!” I expected him to just play a whole bunch of really eclectic stuff and for it to be a big mess structurally or whatever—a fair description of my approach to DJing, by the way. With Terre you could tell it was all a very considered and consistent approach, and he played a bunch of records that were very important for me at the time—very specific house music from a very specific period.
You mention growing up under Thatcher. What was your reaction to Thatcher’s passing this year?
I don’t hate Thatcher as a person, I just disagreed with most of the policies she and her government stood for. In the village next to where I live they were dragging effigies of her through the street and performing quite degrading acts on those effigies. And although I sympathize with the motives of those people, that’s beyond what I would say is acceptable when someone dies. Having said that, when we found out she died, it sounds terrible, but for most of my family and friends there was a celebration. There were parties; not because a person died, but rather because of the memories of everything that had happened in those times. It was a horrible time and a very repressive government. We all lost friends as a result of those policies: people committed suicide, people got into drugs, lives got screwed up. So the celebration, if you could call it that, was in memory of those people, and in reflection upon those times. A woman on the local radio summed it up very well: “When the oppressor dies the oppressed celebrate.”
Which policies are you referring to specifically?
It’s hard to say specifically which but what I can say is that there was a general mood of uneasiness. I grew up next to the village of Orgreave where in 1984 the Battle of Orgreave took place between police and miners. Jeremy Deller actually made a reconstruction of the confrontation, which is quite interesting. Around the time, when I was sixteen and leaving school I was thinking, “What the hell is going on?” It seemed like society was falling to bits. My dad lost his job and couldn’t find work again. It was so oppressive. I was brought up with certain kinds of moral beliefs about how you should contribute to society and things should be getting better and people should treat each other with respect. You know: you get a job and it… works. But when I was finishing school I realized it was all bullshit. It’s not what I observed in the world and society around me. That’s when I encountered Throbbing Gristle. For me they weren’t “wreckers of society”, as they’d been portrayed in the press. Actually they highlighted the fact society was being wrecked. I was just this uber-alienated school kid from a crumbling town in the North who saw things falling apart and got obsessed with electronic music and alternative culture.
It’s a common narrative that artistically exciting things come out of eras of crisis, but it still feels crass to think about it like that.
In my town, Rotherham, none of my friends worked for years and people just made their own culture. There was music every night and events all the time. There were maybe fifty or one hundred people that would just hang around and do stuff. Between leaving school and starting college in ’87 or ’88 it was culturally the most amazing few years because everyone was doing stuff. And maybe that was a consequence of the terrible socio-economic state the country was in, but I don’t know.
Mark Fell blocks the light. “Seeing the medium as a way of representing something else is not something I really do, like the idea of using paint to represent a landscape. I would rather get a bunch of colors and put them on the canvas and see how that works.”
What did your dad do?
He was a steel worker and his whole family worked in the steel industry. Between central Sheffield and Rotherham is this corridor of factories, and he worked there from the age of about fourteen for around thirty-five years. This was when you got a job and you just had it forever. He was fifty at the time and never worked again, and he suffered quite severe health problems as a consequence; he had a stroke because he was trying to work so hard doing other things to survive.
Were you expected to follow in your dad’s footsteps as a steel worker?
No, I was quite lucky in that both my parents, although they were from this very traditional Northern working-class background, had other interests. My mum was quite into literature and was more of an intellectual person. As a child from a very poor background she won a scholarship to grammar school, and this was a kind of step into a more intellectually engaged environment for her. Similarly my dad won a scholarship to study art at Ruskin College, but was unable to go because he had to earn money to support his siblings. They always encouraged me to do art and music and never pressured me about anything else. It was a very liberal upbringing and I always felt very lucky to have had that support.
I know philosophy is important to your practice both in music and art, and you’ve written in the past about the importance of phenomenology for what you do—specifically in The Wire about Martin Heidegger’s positing the primacy of practical knowledge of tools and systems over theoretical knowledge of the same.
Well, I studied philosophy for two years and after a few twists and turns eventually became obsessed with Wittgenstein’s later work. After college I went on to study fine art at university, I found myself looking at things from a philosophical perspective. But this was quite in contrast to the mood at the time, which was heavily influenced by the French post-structuralists—Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and so on. In contrast what I liked about Wittgenstein was his matter-of-fact approach to language, that there’s nothing scary or problematic about it. If you think of people like Chomsky who say language is the way it is because of deep structures in the brain, or you think about any of the French post-structuralists where language is framed as something problematic and restrictive, Wittgenstein’s description of normal, everyday language seems free from this paranoia. Anyhow, I eventually got heavily into Richard Rorty and through him I got into Martin Heidegger. Actually, my ambition was to learn German in order to read Heidegger. Hubert Dreyfus, whose lecture series is downloadable as podcasts was quite helpful. I bought the same version of Heidegger’s Being and Time used in his class and sort of remotely attended the lecture series. This was really engaging because you could actually listen to students in the audience going, “Hey! I know German—I think I have a better translation,” or whatever. The podcasts really helped with understanding the subtleties. Then at a certain point I met electronic musician and artist Yasunao Tone and soon realized that he was also heavy into philosophy and Heidegger. That also gave me a new way of understanding his work and performances using technology.
Do you see Yasunao Tone’s work with malfunctioning MP3s as an example of the kinds of disturbances in a system that modify a tools function—and for Heidegger also highlight its relationship to the tool’s surroundings?
You could give it that reading, but I think with Bruno Latour you can also get an interesting reading of Yasunao’s practice, especially his ideas about the connection between humans and non-humans and how action is constituted in networks, instead of human action always driving networks of things.
It seems ideas related to object oriented philosophy—investigating the psychic reality of objects and non-human systems as opposed to just human knowledge—has been especially relevant in the past few years for artists and musicians dealing with independently evolving electronic artifacts.
Having looked at this quite superficially I didn’t see what was so special about it. For me, philosophy isn’t about trying to understand the absolute truth of things. It’s about how we understand things under different, perhaps even contrary descriptions. Like when Copernicus pointed out that the sun was the center of the universe and not just some yellow thing that goes around the earth, it’s not like the planets started behaving differently—they didn’t suddenly adopt different positions. It was just a different description. And actually we could still describe the solar system as moving around us. It would probably be a bit more complex and not mathematically as elegant. But it would still be meaningful. I’ve also been obsessively watching Richard Feynman’s lectures on YouTube and one struck me in particular about gravity and centrifugal force and why the moon revolves around the earth. He said that initially people thought it was angels that were pushing it. And after a long complex description of the forces involved he concluded that the angels are pushing it, but just in the opposite direction we thought.
In your solo work I often hear repetition as a tool to display all of the variations of a closed system of sounds. The approach seems pretty scientific and focused on multiple perspectives and sound-variables in all its possible combinations, especially on n-Dimensional Analysis.
Well, somebody said one of my records sounded like an n-dimensional analysis which I thought would be a good name for a record. For the piece I made quite normal house tracks using a bass-line sound, a chord-like sound and percussion. It’s important to me that in the production, things sound authentic. I’m not into making “weird” sounds; I am into using very recognizable sounds and production techniques, but creating unusual patterns. If the sounds were unfamiliar, I wouldn’t be so interested. What’s happening on the record is all the different ways I undid or deconstructed the original track. Something that recurs in my work is that an object can be seen from many different angles, and that’s also what I tried to do with Multistability. It’s a way to prompt the listener to encounter the work from multiple points of view. But it’s also about a practical question of how you structure a record. In dance music you might consider how things are introduced and the peaks and troughs, and what happens in the eight minutes of a track. But this is something I find really difficult to do. I also find this structure problematic from a musical perspective, even if I could do it really well. I wanted to try to develop other ways of structuring that kind of music.
Was that always the case?
My kind of journey into electronic music started with Human League, hearing “Love Action” in August 1981. At that moment there were loads of breakthrough British new romantic acts: Soft Cell had “Tainted Love”, Duran Duran had “Girls on Film”, Ultravox had “Vienna”; but “Love Action” was what I really loved. Then I realized they were from Sheffield as well, so every weekend I would come into the city to try and spot them but never really did. And that’s how I got into more esoteric electronic music, like Throbbing Gristle, Chris and Cosey, Clock DVA, The Anti-Group and Cabaret Voltaire. For me, if anything had a guitar on it, I was like, “No, that crosses the line.” If the kick drum wasn’t right, I wouldn’t listen to it. And for me the perfect formula was “Love Action”. You could judge how much I liked something based on how far away it was from that song.
I know that last year you did an installation in an anechoic chamber at University of Salford. That seems like a perfect atmosphere for what you do because the sounds you work with are so incredibly dry and pure and without any spatial effects.
I tend to not treat sounds. I’m more of a synthesis person and for me, clarity is a really important consideration—which, again, is because of “Love Action”. I don’t use artificial reverberation—the room adds spatial qualities; and I don’t process sound with effects. I come from a contemporary art background instead of a music background, and I have an affinity with very untrendy ideas from modernism. Seeing the medium as a way of representing something else is not something I really do, like the idea of using paint to represent a landscape. I would rather get a bunch of colors and put them on the canvas and see how that works; just a presentation of shapes and colors. Representational aspects creep into music production in terms of how sound is processed to create the illusion of space. But music has a non-representational tradition. In the history of music there haven’t really been so many instruments built to sound like an elephant, say. Creating instruments to represent those sounds is a pretty recent development. In visual art it’s different, of course. But in the end, it’s a kind of ideological stance. Like if an architect is building a wall out of concrete, they wouldn’t go and paint bricks on it to make it look like bricks. If I make something that exists in a computer environment, why make it sound like it’s in a cathedral or something?
So reverb is kind of the trompe l’oeil to the abstract expressionism of pure synthesis?
Yeah. It’s like the “Truth to materials” slogan in architecture. But in academic electroacoustic music, the approach is very different. If you read Denis Smalley, who’s a prominent electroacoustic composer, you’ll see he talks about sonic forms in terms derived from real world landscapes—for example a river with points of bird song along it, and things moving in and out of focus, et cetera. What I do isn’t entirely formal—rather, it’s a critique of that kind of approach. I also dislike the idea of intentionally trying to create a specific emotional response. This is a belief that a lot of people have about music: that the composer is inspired by something and that they want to convey that feeling and to elicit the same response in the listener. I’m not saying people don’t have emotional responses to what I do. That would be stupid. I’m just not trying to create a specific emotional response. In contrast, when you listen to classical music, these cues are at the forefront. It’s like, “Feel this! Now feel that!” But there is a lot of music that doesn’t do that, like Indian classical music, which I really enjoy. The emotional direction is not so clearly enforced.
But does the emotional content of the music have to be translated into something linguistic-conceptual? Can’t some complex emotions best be “described” as the music itself, as opposed to an emotion that is translated into music, and then converted back by the listener?
I think our backgrounds, personalities, and cultural beliefs are implied every moment of the musical experience. That isn’t to say that you might not experience a direct sense of that emotion, or that music isn’t the medium through which the emotion can be articulated. Just that this doesn’t happen outside the cultural world. I listen to all kinds of music, a lot of which is emotional. But I’d much rather be taking people out of the direct experience of emotion and have people wonder what’s going on and get them to ask what they’re supposed to be feeling, and why and how they are feeling it. I’m much more interested in curiosity and people saying, “What was that?” than coming out with some resolved emotional or conceptual outcome.
In the past you’ve said that drugs had a negative effect on music in England in the late eighties and early nineties. What were you referring to?
I’ve never taken any drugs, I’ve never even smoked a cigarette. And until I met my girlfriend I very rarely drank, and I still don’t drink much. I’m not interested in taking drugs at all, but I’m not anti-drugs. If someone wants to take a substance and change their head state or experiment, they should be able to do that in a legal and safe way. I’m for the legalization of drugs. Many of my friends take drugs recreationally and they should be able to do it without being turned into criminals. I suppose in relation to music it’s more of a personal thing really, because I would go out to parties in Sheffield and the music was simply going in a direction I didn’t like. It was getting harder and darker, and techno in the style of something like Jeff Mills and Underground Resistance was emerging as an identifiable form. I respect those people, and there are a few Underground Resistance records I like but I wouldn’t listen to it for pleasure. I had already been through Einstürzende Neubauten and stuff, and I’d had my dark, hard brutalist interests. But in 1990 with techno and hardcore, I realized I just wasn’t interested in listening to that specific kind of dark, tense experience anymore.
What turned you off? Did you think it was frightening?
No, I just didn’t like the music. It’s like with punk: although Throbbing Gristle were aggressive, but in a very articulate and carefully constructed manner. The Sex Pistols and their whole swastikas thing was something I didn’t get. I was a little bit too young mainly. And spitting… Well, I had a polite upbringing where if you spit on the street you’d get hit on the back of the head by your mum. So when Soft Cell and other similar things came out, it was a radical shift from that kind of aggression, and this was implied in the production of the sound and the character of the music. And later from techno to hardcore I just moved to other interests, which at the time was primarily New York house music, staying home, drinking tea and reading books. ~
Mark Fell appears at the Beyond Pythagoras Symposium in Huddersfield with an installation and an artist Q&A on March 21st and performs at the Présences électronique festival at Paris’ GRM on March 28th. This text first appeared first in Electronic Beats Magazine N° 36 (4, 2013). Read the full issue on issuu.com or in the embed below.
Published February 25, 2014. Words by A.J. Samuels.