The Quietus APRIL 13, 2016 - by William Doyle


Before he releases his new album The Ship, the composer, producer and artist gives William Doyle a tour of some of his favourite records and tracks, reflecting on how they've shaped his own approach to music.

REVEREND MACEO WOODS AND THE CHRISTIAN TABERNACLE CHOIR The Dynamic Reverend Maceo Woods And The Christian Tabernacle Choir In Concert

Reverend Maceo Woods was really the way I discovered gospel music. I was in the Bahamas recording with Talking Heads, the first album I did with them [More Songs About Buildings And Food] and I used to listen to the radio in my little apartment I had there before we started recording, and I'd tune into these distant mainland American stations and one morning I tuned into this song, which was called Surrender To The Wheel. I thought, "Wow! What does that mean?" and those words kept going round in my head, it sounded so sort of Inquisition and medieval or on the other hand, cosmic. Surrender to the cosmic wheel of things. Anyway, I didn't record the song but I could remember the chorus, so I remember going into shops singing it to people and finally someone said, "Oh, that's not 'surrender to the wheel', that's 'surrender to His will'!" [repeats in affected accent] "His weeyill!", and that's how I bought this album.

I loved this album so much, and in particular this one singer on it, this voice that just drove me insane. That was was Doris Sykes. So after buying all the Reverend Maceo Woods albums I could get - and they weren't that easy to get - I started thinking that, really, the thing was Doris Sykes, that was what I was interested in. She has this real insane vibrato, it's just dizzy, kind of mad. It's like somebody who is completely gone [laughs]. Something that you only ever hear in Gospel music really, and in early rock & roll you hear it sometimes as well.

With gospel, why do you feel so deeply affected by it? It being a religious music and you -

- not being religious. Well, there's something I like about it as a music form, which is that it involves a lot of people who aren't professionals. Most of the people you hear in the recordings are not being paid anything. I think that really makes a difference. They're there as a kind of community who are there for some other reason than 'this is my job'. Nearly everybody there has a day job and so I kind of like the idea that people really are doing this for the sheer commitment of it. They don't have to do it. They could be doing something else with their time. This is the one time of the week for those people when, suddenly, they can be this person and you can hear that incredible liberation coming out of it.

I was worried about it at first. Why am I so moved by a music based on something that I just don't believe in? What I started to think was that one of the things we humans like doing is surrendering. We love to be in a situation where we're out of control, in a sort of controlled form. We constantly pitch ourselves into situations like books, or films, or sex, or drugs, or music, where we're taken somewhere where we didn't expect to go and it's amazing. It's lovely to do it with a group of other people who are also being taken.

I think that kind of consolidates something very important in humans, which is the idea that we are good at two things: we're good at controlling - we know that because of all our technologies and our ability to take over the world and fuck it up - but we're also good at letting ourselves go and being carried along with things. If you think about it, that must be what animals mostly have to do. Animals can't take control of their affairs in the way that we can. But what they can do is learn how to go with the flow. They pick up on things, they're sensitive, they're intuitive in ways that we admire and would like to be. But to be like that you have to surrender. You have to stop trying to push the control button all the time. You have to say, "Okay, I'm not in control anymore. I'm going with it."

Ideally, what you're doing on the axis between control and surrender is you're finding the right place to be at any moment in your life. Sometimes you can take control, sometimes you can do precisely what you wanted to do without interference. There are lots of times in your life where that isn't going to be possible so you have to have another strategy and that involves some kind of surrender. Partly having faith in the other people who are with you, but also having faith in everything. The basic message of gospel is 'everything's gonna be alright', and that's a fantastic message. A message of optimism. All of these songs, if you listen to them, even the ones that are quite gloomy, they're really saying 'it's gonna be alright'. You'll get through it. That's the message I want to hear.


The way you discovered gospel music, that kind of thing doesn't really happen anymore does it? Finding things by accident is really difficult. Do you think something's been lost there or is it just different now and that's the way it is? There are plenty of funnels that are tailored to you as an individual, and that's incredibly convenient and allows things that are unfamiliar to you to come into your world, but that's not the same as happening upon things by accident.

I think the idea is happening upon something without any clue as to what context it comes from. That has been the important thing to me. What do they think about this? Is this pop music to them? Is it religious? One very good example for me was I was in Ibiza listening to North African radio stations and this Arabic song came on and I thought: "Fuck, I've never heard anything like that." I had a cassette recorder in this little ghetto blaster so I managed to record a little bit of it, but I couldn't figure out what the name of the artist was or anything, so again I just used to walk into record shops where they sold Arabic records and I would sing this song, but I never found it like that.

Then I was in Egypt about twelve years later and I was in a market, and there was a guy selling loads of cassettes so I sang this song to him, and in the meantime I'd changed all of the lyrics, which were in Arabic, into English. In fact, the lyrics I've since found out are "hebeena, hebeena", but I was singing it as "heaviness, heaviness". So I sung this whole song in English to him with this Arabic melody and he was cracking up. He called all his mates over from the other local stalls and was getting me to do it again. So I sang it again and then asked him, "What is this song?" and he said that it was Farid El Atrache. He picked out this cassette and that was the song, I'd finally found it. So to have that experience is almost impossible now.

[Brian can't find the cassette with Hebeena, Hebeena on to play me so instead selects Farid El Atrache]

What I think is so interesting about this Arabic music was the fact that they didn't do harmony. Farid had a whole orchestra, as did Oum Kalthoum, she had a sixty-piece orchestra. But they never harmonised; what they did was use the orchestra as a texture generator. They'd have a melody played by clarinets and then played by the violins and then the organ, the same melody repeating every time with everyone in unison but with a different colour to it, and I thought that was a brilliant idea. The singer lays out the song, and then the instruments just follow it.


Actually you'll hear that a lot of my choices, I realise, are to do with singing and people whose singing styles just so engaged me. I was walking past a kebab shop in North London and I heard this song, and this singer just made my stomach go funny. So I went into the shop and said, "What are you playing?" and what he was playing was one of those CDs with about a thousand MP3s on them. I asked him what track it was and he didn't know. I thought, "I must find this singer", so I said, "Can I buy the record from you?" He didn't want to sell it, you see, because it was the only music they had in the shop. So I gave him £55 for it. He saw a sucker [laughs]. So I got this CD and I went through track after track after track, and I finally find the song, but of course there were no names or anything because it was just a burnt CD. So I went back into the shop with one of my ghetto blasters and said, "Okay, this is the song, what is it?" He didn't know so I asked him if he knew anyone that would know so he said, "Well, I'll ring my dad." So I'm holding it up to the phone and his dad is down the other end and he says, "Oh well that's Belkis Akkale, obviously."

She's singing here on the last track of this album (Ötüşün Kuşlar) by a songwriter called Arif Sag. There's three great singers on this track and Belkis Akkale comes first. It's very interesting hearing the difference between their three voices. It's like a glossary of contemporary Turkish singing. Her voice is the one that does it for me. The other two don't have the erotic wobble that she has.


This song that I'm going to play you is really interesting. To me it's the birth of funk guitar. This is a song called Go Where I Send Thee and was recorded in 1937. The Golden Gate Quartet are an a capella group, so this is a capella, but listen to what happens with the rhythm. It's an amazing thing that four guys, no overdubs or anything like that, could make this amount of rhythm. For me they were one of the most important musical forces of the twentieth century. The style of singing, which is called jubilee singing, was all originated in this one town in Virginia and there were lots and lots of groups in that town that could do this way of singing. Partly a way of harmonising but it's also a way of creating rhythm by making voices slightly hit off each other so they don't all land together. It's incredibly hard to do. You're pushing the beat by a 16th or 32nd to get that flam.


I didn't know much about Sly and I'd only heard the two hits that he'd had, which were Everyday People, which I loved because of that bass line which goes all the way through without changing once, and Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin), and I loved them but I didn't think that much of them. Then one evening in 1971 I was round the house of this bunch of London musos who I'd kind of fallen in with and they were all sort of jazz-influenced people. They used to smoke a lot of grass. I didn't, but the room was full of enough stuff to probably affect me. They were all talking about this album and how it set the scene for something totally new, and I was interested because they were the very serious people who were into Coltrane and Charlie Parker, yet this was a pop record. It's so sketchy, the whole thing, it hardly holds together. It's like little flicks of paint. Instead of an organised composition, it's just people throwing in these little touches and somehow it coheres. It's like the first time I saw a Jackson Pollock or something.

Another interesting thing about this is I had just started experimenting with rhythm boxes, which were considered completely beyond the pale by most musicians. They had like six rhythms on: bossa nova, Latin, rock & roll... something like that, and they had these terrible sounds [mimics rhythm box] but I really liked them and I was starting to write things over them, and everyone was asking me, "Well, you'll replace that, won't you?" and I said, "Actually, I don't think I will." Then I heard this (first track, In Time), where one is playing alongside Andy Newmark, one of the great drummers of all time. But there's nothing really holding it together except the rhythm box.

ME'SHELL NDEGÉOCELLO Plantation Lullabies

I used to have a studio in Brondesbury Villas up in Kilburn and there was a little book shop that I used to go to and one day they were playing this record. I think she is one of the great musicians alive at the moment; she plays bass but she plays it with such ferocity. She's a very interesting person to work with because she doesn't think at all in terms of chords or anything. You just play a track to her and she just starts to do something. She comes up with the most amazing riffs that are just completely unlike anything anyone would think of doing.

The go-go scene she came out of was a particular approach to rhythm, and it's very contained. It's not at all splashy. It's all about really intricate, tight and accurate rhythm. I was in Montreux in 1995, I was working with David [Bowie] on that album, Outside, and the festival was on. I heard this music coming from the festival place and I thought, "Wow, what is that?", and it was her with her seven-piece band, who were the meanest looking people you've ever seen. This giant on the drums, two guitar players with these kind of slitty shades playing the meanest funk guitar. It was the probably the best show I ever saw. I was shivering with excitement.

It's so harmonically dangerous. It's so strange what the instruments are playing. If you heard them in the abstract you'd think you could never put these together into a song. They're off on their own trips and somehow they just cohere together.


This was probably the most important pop album for me in that I think it's the moment where I realised that I could be a musician. It was partly that this band was semi-non-musicians, but it was also because the songs borrowed a lot from what I knew about experimental music at the time. I'd been playing experimental music with various outfits in England and with Morton Feldman and Christian Wolff and all these people that had come over from America to visit us, thirty-two people who were into the experimental music scene in England. La Monte Young was one of the big figures in everybody's cosmology at the time and The Velvets, both Lou [Reed] and John [Cale], had worked with La Monte. So the first album came out, I thought, "Fantastic, amazing." Second album I thought, "Great, amazing." But the third album was the one that really killed me. The first album was quite wild and dark and weird, the second album was mad and intense. But the third album was so gentle and beautiful, but because you knew their history there was that undertone of violence and rage, something trying to burst out. Even on the love songs on this - and many of them are love songs - you hear that real tension.

What made me think I could do it too was that the songs were simple and the playing was so simple. There's very little artifice at all in this. But also the mood was something that I thought I could kind of connect to. The difficult thing about pop music as I was growing up, and I was twenty, I think, when I first heard this, was that it dealt with young teenage emotions mostly, and that just wasn't interesting to me. I loved the music but what the songs were about was sort of childish and it was all about 'me' and 'you' and 'love', and I just wasn't interested in that really. At the same time I'd been working with Cornelius Cardew and all these kind of quite heavyweight experimental composers. But I didn't want just that. I wanted that [pop music] and that [experimental]. So I was always looking for anywhere that somebody was making some blends that started to be interesting. I didn't own this record for years and years. I just didn't buy this album because I never wanted it to become casual for me. I bought this one about five years ago. I never owned it before then. I would only hear it at other people's places because I always wanted it to be special.

It's so hard to protect the sanctity of those things. When something sounds so fresh and strange to you, that's what you spend most of your time doing when you're making your own work isn't it? Getting back to that place.

That's exactly what you're doing. You're trying to find that point at the edge of your knowledge or the edge of your understanding. That place where you're excited but you don't know why. You don't know what it is that's doing it. The edge of innocence.


I could easily talk for several hours just about this. It was particularly this piece called 'It's Gonna Rain' that I heard with my friend Peter Schmidt, the painter. I'd met Peter while I was at art college and he was a very, very distinctive and unusual character. He was a German Jew who'd come over to England in the '30s and was a very good poker player because it was impossible to know what he was thinking. He was a very inscrutable person. Most people found it very hard to be with him as you'd say something to him and he'd just look at you. But I liked him a lot and we got on very well, and it turned out we'd been thinking about a lot of similar things. One of the things we used to do was sit around at his place in Stockwell and explore new music. Generally it was he who would play things to me and one day he said, "Have you heard this?" and my life changed.

Reich recorded this in '65, so that's fifty-one years old and fucking hell, what have we been doing for half a century? The first thing that happens when you're listening to that is that the repetitive element of it gradually makes you start to lose focus of the pieces that keep repeating. You start hearing the little differences. It's a little bit like the way a frog's eye works. It doesn't scan like ours do, it stays fixed on a scene and very quickly the rods and cones get saturated with everything that doesn't move. So as soon as something does move, like a fly, that's the only thing that the frog sees. I think the ears behave like that when they're presented with something highly repetitive like this. Your ears quickly saturate or habituate with the common stuff and they start to pick up details. I remember the first time I heard It's Gonna Rain, I started to zone in on the pigeons, because this was out in the street, it was a recording of a street preacher so you can hear cars and horns and then you start to hear these birds but only after a while, after the other stuff has cleared out of your consciousness. That's amazing because what was making the music was my brain and that was the first time I'd realised that, as a composer, you could co-opt a listener's brain. So suddenly, wow, that's another hundred per cent of the universe opening up.

When you put something out into the world that is kind of incomplete and it takes your consciousness and the errors of your perceptual mechanism to actually make it into something, that totally changed my idea of what music could be. The actual amount of material used is tiny, the loop of "it's gonna rain" is not even a second, and that's the only element used in that section. You think, bloody hell, that's economy, and I've always loved economy. At the time I first heard this we were in a period of maximum indulgence in pop music. Sixteen-track recorders had just appeared so suddenly so many people were just putting so much shit onto everything just because you could. Every spice in the cupboard. Suddenly I heard this and it was so stark and effective. The other thing about it is that within it is a mechanism that I've subsequently used a lot, which is the idea of having things running out of sync with each other. Again, your whole experience of music until then had been to do with synchronisation. Everything sticks together and then at this point everything changes together. What happens in this piece is that you get the same cycle but running so that on each repetition they're in a slightly different place in relation to each other. So you have an automatic generator of variety and I use that on so much of my work. That became my go-to technique for making something interesting straight away.


I found a very interesting thing out about Tony Allen. I was thinking, "How did he get to that music?" In my opinion, Afrobeat really grew out of his drumming more than anything else. I mean, Fela was of course totally important to it and realised what you could build around that, but I think there was nothing else you could find that sounds like Tony at that time. So I was asking a friend of mine about this, Joe Boyd, the record producer, and he said that the story with Tony was that he was the only subscriber to Downbeat magazine in West Africa when he was about eighteen or nineteen. In one edition there was a supplement by Max Roach, the jazz drummer, about hi-hat technique and Tony got completely fascinated by this article about how you balance the hi-hat with the rest of the kit. So Tony came from the history of Nigerian drumming and then he saw this article by Max Roach and that was the sort of thing that galvanised him really.

Afrodisiac has four songs and they're all absolutely brilliant. There's no disappointment on the album at all. On later records there's quite a lot of fat, the pieces go on and on and sometimes they're a bit aimless, but Afrodisiacc I suppose was being made as an attempt to push Fela over here, so instead of a piece taking a whole side it takes only half a side. I used to go to this record shop just off Tottenham Court Road called Sterns and that was a place where you could buy records from other countries, so a lot of Africans went there because you could buy West African records there. I used to sniff around there as I was just fascinated by all the covers. All these people with amazing headdresses on and you think, "Christ, I really want to hear that record, I wonder what that sounds like." So I saw that cover and bought it entirely on that. I thought, that sounds good, it's got the cheesiest title you could have. I took it home and just thought, fuck, the vigour of it and the Nigerian strength [laughs], the rudeness of it. The horns, when I heard them, I had this picture of these huge trucks on the Trans-African Highway and they have these enormous compressed air horns and that is what the horns on the record sounded like to me. They were so un-glamourised. They didn't have that kind of 'jazzy' soft, smoochy sound, they were just "fucking get out of my fucking way!"

When I first met Talking Heads, the first meeting I ever had with them, they had been playing in London and they came over to my flat to talk about me working on their next album. So I said, "This is the future of music", and I played them Afrodisiac, and to their credit they were incredibly impressed by it. If you listen to the third album we did together (Remain In Light) it's so influenced by that. It's sort of shameful in a way.


I was doing a lecture tour mostly in California and I was being driven from place to place by my friend David Snow. I bought this CD [Glider], I don't know why I brought it with me, I hadn't heard it, I'd just picked it up on the way over from England. I put this first song on (Soon) and I never played anything else. I don't know if I ever have ever played the other songs on it. I just put that thing on and it's just such a sonic experience, and in a car it's amazing. We had a hired car with an amazing sound system, and just being inside that music actually has a lot to do with what I'm doing now with this three-dimensional thing. You get that feeling in a car where you're really inside the music, you don't really get it in a room very often. It's such a statement. I remember that experience in the car so strongly as we hadn't actually used the hi-fi before in the car and it was turned up really loud. Oh my god. It's so chaotic, and recording doesn't capture chaos very well, it usually tames it, it contains it in a way.

Again, it's about voices. One of the things that I really love in that is the fact that there's singing in there but you have no idea what it's doing. You can hear that somewhere in that thicket of noise there's somebody doing something but you have no idea what it is. I thought that was great, that singing could be like that. It doesn't have to be this person at the front with all the articulation and every word clear. It can just be a person in that mess and that was a real liberation for me.


This is a record I love so much. I remember the first night that I heard this I put it on and I was working late on some visual stuff and I left it on for about seven hours and I just didn't want to change it, and I had it on random shuffle so it just kept coming up with surprises. Track two [Keep The Dog Quiet] starts with the oddest note that any song could start with. It really is an off note. The main thing about this album is that I'd never heard anything remotely like it - when I heard it I just thought that it was really one of a kind. Still is, actually. This harmonic danger that he puts himself in, of just creating a world that is sonically so tense or dangerous. It's the opposite of secure or comforting but it's not the dangerous of someone like Boulez where, to me, it's sort of contrived danger - "Ooh, wouldn't it be original to put this like this?" It's not that. It's got something that's more intuitive and organic than that. It's having a taste for the other side and a feeling of, "Wouldn't it be nice to be in a place like that?" I love the darkness of it.


Whenever I listen to this I find myself quite overwhelmed by it. There was an interest in the '70s in that Bulgarian folk singing, the kind of singing where they sing in 2nds. One of the harmonies they use a lot is a 2nd, which is a very unusual interval, and I remember that being around and there being a great album called Le Mystère Des Voix Bulgares, which is an amazing record, so I think I was aware that that part of the world had interesting music. I don't really remember how I got this one other than I bought it in France.

The softness of the male voices is like softly blown flutes. If you grow up in England with the disgusting operatic tradition we have, where the men's voices have to be so manly, it makes you violently ill [laughs]. Hearing the softness of this was so touching to me. There's one section in one of these tracks that is too amazing, where the voices that are all woven together gradually separate out so that all the voices above a certain register keep on going higher and higher and the ones below keep going lower. It ends with this incredible chasm between the voices that is just startling.


An almost perfect album. Apart from one mistake - there's a joke song on it. I think jokes should never be on records, they just don't last. The record is such an incredibly serious record, it's one of the most grown-up records ever made in that the things she's talking about and thinking about are such serious and complicated emotional situations. It's one of the only records where I actually care about the lyrics. I really listen to the lyrics and think about what she's trying to say. I've always said that country music is grown-up and she came more out of country than out of pop. Whereas pop is always about the problems of adolescence really, hooking up with someone and whether she really likes you or not, when you get to country music it's about mortgages and divorce and things like that [laughs]. It seems to me to be about real-life, grown-up issues and so seems much more interesting to me lyrically.

This one is kind of a curveball it feels like, then, because it's not rooted in the musicianship necessarily, and it's kind of, but not really, about the voice is it? Not in the same way that we've been looking at with your other choices, in that they're singular voices.

Yes. In a way this breaks all the other rules of all my other choices [laughs]. It's incredibly complex. I remember buying this album when it came out in 1974 because I know it had a big impact on what I was working on at the time, which was Another Green World. When I heard this record I really thought that I've got to change what I'm doing. But the change was actually to do with recording practices as much as anything else. It is the best engineered album you've ever heard. The engineer Henry Lewy was obviously one of those great engineers like John Wood who just really understood sound and really understood how you could have that frequency there but not that one so you just shave that little bit of frequency off and you leave room for another one. These alchemists of sound. I'm sure he would have been working in the same studio for a long time and knew exactly how it worked and how it sounded. It was a set of circumstances that all came together correctly, her amazing songwriting talent and that gentleness of that Canadian feeling, rather than that American feeling, so there's restraint and slight self-effacement about it, a modesty about it. Then when you mix it with all these super flash session players, it makes it even more modest.

I think I learned a lot from that album and have listened to it as much as any album I've ever owned. It was about professionalism or something like that. If you're doing an album, someone's going to be engineering, get somebody good! Get somebody who is going to approach that task creatively. I was working with this great guy, Rhett Davies, and I gave him much more leeway after hearing this. I thought I should let him deal with the sound world, let him take it somewhere. Push that out of the side of picture as not what I'm interested in, because I wasn't actually very interested in it, I just wanted to get these compositions and songs down. I wasn't thinking at all about how it was going to sound on the radio or all those things that engineers are good at. More and more as time goes on I realise what a big contribution Rhett made to those records; he's such a gentle, quiet person, he would never impress that on you at all, he'd be mortified to think you'd ever draw attention to yourself in that way. But when I listen to things where I gave him the chance to do something, he did such beautiful things and I think it was because of this album. I learnt that some people can do certain things really well so just let them do it. Don't get in their way.