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Future Music
May 1997

Mind your language next time you use your mobile, because Scanner, aka Robin Rimbaud, might be listening and you might be starring in his next album....

A team of builders are pulling apart a block of flats in Battersea. To be fair, they're dismantling an exterior staircase, but with the amount of noise and dust they're producing, you'd think the whole structure was about to come down.

Robin Rimbaud, safely cocooned - for the moment - within the block, has already recorded the industrial ambience of outside and used it on a Mouse On Mars remix. In fact, he's undoubtedly recorded everything that goes on around his immediate environment, because he is the eavesdropping, cyberspace-pilfering, mobile phone menace known as Scanner.

I first encountered Rimbaud's work on Warp's highly-acclaimed Artificial Intelligence II compilation. Hidden away at the end of the listed tracks was a nameless bonus: a conversation between a male and female which, after bimbling along quite ordinarily, took an uncomfortable sexual twist; meanwhile, eerie pads and sub bass heightened the tension of the text. It was a bizarre and intriguing discovery, but only the merest glimmer of what Scanner was capable of.

Since giving up his job in a music library specialising in spoken word records in early 1995 ("an amazing education, but seven years was too long"), Scanner has produced around a dozen albums and been involved with numerous experimental music projects including a monthly residency at London's ICA.

In a much-publicised story from a couple of years ago, his record company objected to an uncleared Scanner sample on the Björk album Post. (Robin didn't want any fuss, or any money - and the label dumped him.) But to most people, Scanner remains that bloke who tapes cellphone conversations and turns them into weird electronic tracks.

I'm here in Battersea to talk about Scanner's forthcoming album, and his wealth of side projects. Robin is animated, instantly likeable and garrulous beyond belief; he constantly apologises for digressing, and adds, "I speak really quickly which is a nightmare for you..." I started by asking about his recent activities.

RR: I've been doing work that is sort of on the perimeters of commercial music: I've been working with a Belgian label called Sub Rosa, for example, a live series where we do concerts in an environment, somewhere in Paris, somewhere in New York, and a group of us play, do our individual sets, then improvise sets together, then that's recorded and edited down to a release that's available as an edition of 2,000.

I like doing these modest productions, because studio albums like Delivery are a major engagement, and the other work sits around it. I like working on a commission basis: I've been doing installation work in galleries, last year I did a lecture tour in Australia, things that would make you laugh, seriously... One of the nicest things is being offered curator roles: I'll be asked to put events on, so I'm doing ones in Holland and New York this year, and my role is to put whatever I like on, which allows you to get other experimental artists on show, who wouldn't normally get to perform.

FM: Do you see yourself as a resource of ideas?

RR: I always wanted to be a catalyst, rather than a musician or a writer. I can never make great claims for the Scanner work - some of it I'm proud of, some of it is appalling - they're more like sound broadcasts, documents from my thinking mind. The best position ever is when someone quotes you as being an influence - someone in Belgium told me that one of my albums helped them through a really bad time in their life - one of my albums! He must have been suicidal or what!

FM: Arena magazine recently said you are shaping up to be the next Brian Eno.

RR: Probably because I've got no hair [laughs].

FM: But you are generating this catalyst image you desire.

RR: In a medium like 'media', you realise that lots of people have heard of the artist but have never actually heard the records. Take the banning of Cronenberg's Crash, when many hadn't actually seen it. It's flattering that people say those kind of things. I have met Eno, and he's a really good person. I'd like to be like him when I'm 50.

FM: Apparently, when young, you used to tap phones.

RR: Yeah, I've always been recording voices. I was given a reel to reel when I was 14 and I used to record tape loops of my family eating their dinner - for no reason other than I could. I'd record voices off the radio, used my Walkman to record people off the street, on the Underground, record my friends on the phone then cut and paste with the pause button...

Then I discovered this scanner device, about five years ago, which is basically a radio receiver. I got it from a hunt sab group who were using it to see if the police were saying things about them. I supppose if I'd bought a tape recorder I'd now be called Tape Recorder [laughs].

FM: What was the original purpose of the scanner?

RR: I wondered that. It seems they commercially sold them so people could listen to aeroplanes going over head. You park your car outside the airport and listen in to the pilots. [Shrugs and smiles] Make your own opinions about these people. Anoraks and shaving problems. The scanner picks up a lot more than phone calls - anything that transmits, it can pick up. As you travel through the frequencies, you pick up amazing things you forget about - the noise of fridges and baby alarms. You get this extraordinary concept of environmental architectural space. At the top you get mobile phones and radio phones; at the very, very top you can get astronauts, apparently - I don't have an aerial big enough though. And I became interested in the banal anonymous voices that exist out there floating around in the ether.

FM: So you then turned these into tracks?

RR: I always would cut names and addresses out, and build up a kind of narrative with it, or use it more as a texture.

FM: Your Delivery tracks aren't so overtly 'scanner conversation with backing' any more, apart from Heidi and Affaire.

RR: I realised that all people were talking about was the voices, and there was music there as well, by the way - stuff that I was quite proud of, but no-one ever mentioned them. Most of the records over the last two years have had hardly any voices at all on them - I've just done a track for the Big Issue Foundations album, I'm really proud of it, but there are no voices on it at all - but maybe there are some things there, because there are some really tiny, tiny voices there in the distance, but I'm not saying. Also, on the newer work, voices have been much, much lower in the mix, because I've been thinking about the way we listen to music, the way that we now listen to music in a more disposable way: you take a Walkman with you everywhere. I like using voices which are really quiet and in the left hand speaker and you think, was that on the tape or was it in real life? Mixing footsteps in and that kind of thing, it just plays with what you are hearing. It takes sounds into different spaces - you can hear beautiful music where there isn't really music. I read this story about a bridge they'd built above a motorway, and the way the wind blows through a staircase, it's waking people up 25 miles away. Now wouldn't it be brilliant if you could have bridges along the motorway at different pitches? You drive along and it could play a tune. But I'm interested in these disposable sounds - a lot of Scanner work uses sounds you wouldn't otherwise use, glitches and mistakes, noises that Dolby B is supposed to eradicate.

FM: You use recording blips and debris too?

RR: Sample them into the S1000 from the headphone minijack on the scanner, pitch shift them, put them through the SE-70 and you can get some extraordinary sounds.

FM: Tell us about Heidi, the overtly 'scanner' track on Delivery featuring a dodgy sounding geezer admonishing his ex.

RR: You never hear the woman. He's an unpleasant character, an aggressive male cliché. "I don't care if you sleep with a thousand men, I just wanna know". He doesn't mean this at all, he just wants a quick shag, that's what it sounds like to me. So I put this brooding jungle thing behind it - insects and flies and so on, and artificial clapping and cheering, a theatrical effect to play on the fact that he's acting. A lot of what throws people is that I'm producing music from non-standard musical equipment. There was an amazing program on Radio 3 with Stockhausen talking about Richard James, Richie Hawtin and me. He said, [in mock German accent] "Their music is designed to be played in disco bars, I do not like it," but he liked my stuff, because he couldn't quite work out where it was coming from, there was no traditional structure, but he said I should transform sound more. It's amazing to have a composer like Stockhausen talk about my work! Wow! He sent me a signed CD.

FM: Have you listened to it?

RR: Yes. It's horrible. [Much laughter].

FM: Your lack of studio equipment is noticeable.

RR: Yeah, disappointing, isn't it? I'd like an S3200, but I can't really afford it! But I don't feel I've used the full potential of the instruments I've got, really. I don't think anybody does. There's so much more I can do with the S1000. And until I've exhausted that, I don't think I'll move on.

FM: But I thought you'd have more memory storage, certainly for some of the scanner conversations on your early tracks...

RR: I stuck that on the four track, cos I couldn't think of another way. I quite like the concept of working with hard disk recording - I can talk about it and think, 'fabulous', but I actually find the reality a bit of a nightmare. I've got VST but I haven't worked out how to use it yet.

FM: Is there any gear you intend to buy?

RR: In Japan you can buy a toy Volkswagen car, about the size of a fist, and it has a stylus in it and a speaker and you can put it on a record and it drives round and plays the record. And I was thinking of doing a project with a whole load of those. And ultimately I would like a hard-disk recording system: and someone to show me how to use it.

I find it funny that I don't know a lot about technology: I don't know what all these old synths are, I don't understand about oscillators and so on. So with the 1080, what I use consistently are the organ pads, or the string sounds - they are really beautiful - the bass sounds and drum sounds, and that's it.

When I bought it I was using everything; I bought a Quasar, the Spore album is full of it, but it was such an unreliable machine... the 1080 is quite stable, but I don't take it with me, I'm too scared, it's too shiny and new.

Performance gear

At this point, Robin goes off and retrieves a large metal briefcase. Inside is the gear he takes out when he performs on stage. There's a Mackie 1202 mixer, an ART FX1 processor, a Roland PMA-5 ("fantastic machine, use it all the time, program my tracks in there"), a Yamaha SU10 sampler, a Walkman, a CD player ("I have CDs made with bass tracks written to different bpms, and I do a live mix between them") and plenty of leads and cables. And of course, there's the scanner itself, much like a mobile phone itself, but with a ridiculously long aerial. A live set will often comprise of the backing DATs, triggered samples, rhythms from the PMA and random sounds from the scanner.

We sit and scan for a couple of minutes. First, nothing; then a conversation between two women drops out of the airwaves. "If you get this place of your own things might be different, Sue. In a few months, Sue, we might be able to go on holiday, d'you know what I mean?"

RR: See? Life threatening stuff.

FM: I feel quite voyeuristic doing this.

RR: Undeniably. But you don't feel that with TV culture featuring ordinary people off the street.

FM: It's the intimacy thing.

RR: The vulnerability of the human voice not hiding behind an image. You're working out what these people look like and where they come from. The morality thing: it's curious that our entertainment culture has evolved to such a stage that you are presented with TV programmes where you are fascinated by somebody being screwed over by some camcorder game, you can sit there and laugh, but you wouldn't want it to happen to yourself. With this you're happy to listen in, but you wouldn't want to be listened to. That's the element I enjoy.

It has an edge to it that I can't describe. A friend of mine says he can only speak to me because I know how other people communicate: coming from a distance and approaching a very initmate situation, empathising with the characters, though they're not actors, and the way I work with the material and the listener interprets it. I've put records out and people have got things all wrong.

FM: As in the infamous text on Strom on Spore between the woman trying to get money from her boyfriend, or ex-partner, or housing authority, or whoever it is...

RR: I know at the end of it what's really going on but I edit it quite heavily so each time you listen you get a new edge: the way new things come through, the way one person manipulates the other one and so on... it's terrible in the most traditional male-female relationships, the manipulation that goes on is really horrible, it's so unsettling.

FM: Scanning in a live environment is important to you.

RR: What fascinates me is 'sound portraits', what I call 'sound Polaroids' of the surrounding area. You get these special moments that exist in the most mundane situations. I did a show in Glasgow at the weekend for example, and I was playing this really gentle piano piece with this dance company, lush elegant movements, then I mixed these voices in, completely randomly, that said, "Yeah, I'd like curry... egg... two beers..." and it completely cut the thing through, such a beautiful moment, and that's what I really enjoy about working live, because I don't know what's going to happen. I'm mixing CDs, voices, short wave radio, everything live. I don't write tracks to play live. Hit singles are completely removed from the Scanner ethos.

FM: Is there anything you'd like to scan which you can't?

RR: I'd like to be able to amplify the human body - like the stretching, squeaking sounds in your head when you get really stressed, the electrical hum of the body's processing. I'd love to be able to use that in a track - but God knows how you'd record it. I've been talking to Coil about recording escalators in the underground, and creating a map of London. There are a million and one projects I want to do - I'm a workaholic, as you may have guessed - I just wish I had more time.

FM: Have you picked up the builders on the scanner?

RR: No, but I should do, it could be quite funny. But they start at 7.30 in the morning and swear a lot. They pick up the phone and go, "Yeah, c*** of a mornin'". It would be the opening line of a track. You'd think, My God!