I first met Robin Rimbaud aka Scanner when he visited Toronto during a vacation to the States in the summer of 1992. We had a mutual friend, Anthony, in Buffalo, New York, who had corresponded with Robin after he released the Peyrere compilation tape which featured Coil, Current 93, Nurse With Wound, Test Dept and others. Robin and his brother Tony had tracks on this rare 1986 tape as well, as a band named Dau Al Set after the post-war Spanish avant-garde art group. From the sound of their two tracks on Peyrere, Dau Al Set were a hard-hitting Test Dept-style project and Robin now admits to having two small edition albums and a couple international tape compilation appearances.
Robin was the first person I had met who had Halfer Trio videos, and although we never arranged a trade, we corresponded as the Scanner project was launched on his Ash International label in 1993. Soon his use of the scanning device to incorporate radio telephone conversations into his long-form electronic pieces caught the attention of the British media.
Robin benefitted from being in the right place at the right time when he became a focal point for the discussion of issues of privacy and voyeurism as the (uninformed) use of such mobile phones grew. And he certainly rose to the occasion, being a great conversationalist, brimming with enthusiasm and knowledge of art and music.
He used his new profile to promote post-industrial and DJ culture music through his club night, the Electronic Lounge, running since 1994 at London's ICA (the scene of infamous actions by Neubauten and SPK, who's concert "riot" was hinted at by the foreshadowing sound byte from a bootleg, heard on Ash 1.1).
Robin's dedication to the artistic side of things was put to the test when Bjork sampled a bit of his 1995 album for the New Electronica label, Spore. From the label's point of view this unapproved sample on a world-wide best-selling album was worth a nice bit of change to them in publishing royalties, but Robin insisted they not put him on the corporate side of the copyright issue, especially when his source material is illegally scanned from the public airwaves, effectively ending his deal with New Electronica.
That year Robin had enough commissions to work on Scanner full time. He left the Ash International label to be run completely by his former partners at Touch, but still threatens to complete the Beacon release that was announced but never finished. Since then Robin has been very busy working on several levels at once, including both the independent music scene and the international art world.
After the first three Scanner cds his sound production has also gone in several directions. A series of live recordings released by Sub Rosa continued the industrial-ambient environments of the Ash International cds (although Sub Rosa Live Sessions #3's borrowed exotica rhythms reportedly had the Belgians on their feet!).
But it was Spore's opening track which moved him towards producing rhythmic-oriented pieces. Soon he was working with trip hop as Trawl, drum & bass as Snappy Sid (with Kiss FM DJ Paul Thomas) and collaborating on techno with GTO's Michael Wells. He's also made potential floor-filling remixes for Bill Laswell ("Low Membrane Mix") and Bump And Grind ("Hooked Atoms (Scanner Remix)") - to highlight just two of the best of his many remixes (he just did Mike Ink for the Sub Rosa Vs Kompakt soundclash).
What does the title, Lauwarm Instrumentals, refer to?
The title is an ironic English joke which unfortunately doesn't work for anybody outside of England it seems. It was originally called Lukewarm Instrumentals because I had a review in Option magazine, the late Option magazine. And it said about the Delivery album that "this Scanner album is dreadful, it's merely a collection of lukewarm instrumentals."
And I was actually talking to John Balance of Coil at the time, and he said "what a fantastic title." And I said: "yeah, you are right. I have to use that for a record." So for two years I've kept that title in mind. And suddenly it dawned upon me in the last few months, and I've talked about it to some people, and they said "that is rather a negative term, isn't it, for a record?" And I thought that America might perceive it as really negative, I don't know. But America can be so conservative about these type of things. So I changed it to Lauwarm, which is German for lukewarm. And I like the fact of having an album title that even the label can't pronounce properly. They just go something like loo-or-warm. It's lau-varm. It's a soft "w", that's important. So it's meant to be a deceptive title. A bright, slightly witty title in it's way if it was Lukewarm. But Lauwarm is poetic enough and doesn't tell you anything about what it is. And even the first track doesn't really give you a clue as to how the album is working and what genre it is fulfilling.
There is a large element of very sad string chords on it, where were these tunes coming from?
That was me having a bad year (laughs). No in terms of...actually it was the Derek Jarman homage (The Garden Is Full Of Metal, released under his own by Sub Rosa in 1998) that was the first where I really felt like this. Which was like "just do it Robin, just make a record that means something to you very personally." Obviously have ideas and think about structures and narrative, etc, etc. But at the same time make a record that is quite passionate. And not worry about how a critic, how a public might perceive it. And so that's what I've done with this record. It hasn't been a good year emotionally for me. I just tried my best to work through those feelings with sound, which is something that I haven't done sometimes. Maybe I've intellectualised a bit too much, I don't know.
I'm always drawn to string pieces. I'm working...I've been invited to work with a symphony orchestra next year in Norway. And if that happens that is a brilliant opportunity to work with traditional musicians in a very unusual way. But for this, you know, there is something that has always appealed to me about the passionate quality of the use of strings. And hopefully it works. It can be quite seductive around the more abstract textures. The second track, the "Passage De Recherche" track is all processed voices, all the sounds apart from the strings. All those strange glitchy noises and everything, is all people on the telephone. Everything just melted within the sampler.
Ah, I was wondering about that because there are not too many obvious telephone samples used.
I've often processed these kind of indiscriminate signals that I pull down. When I do concerts I use the voices far more at times, but on a record I'm aware that on repeated listens you don't want to hear the same thing again and again. You start tuning in maybe in the wrong way. I like using the sound palette that is available from the scanner and seeing what I can do with it.
You mentioned personal problems, can you can speak about it?
Probably not really, no (laughs). It's not worth talking about honestly. But enough to fire me up. Like the first track, "Immemory," is my closest...I remember listening to the Swan's final album (Soundtracks For The Blind), that amazing double cd, before I made that first track. And that album is just completely...it just washes me away. It is incredible. It is just an amazing record and an amazing band still, I feel. This record is almost my subtle tribute to Swans.
The monster drums there...
Yeah the kind of monster drums in 5/4 time. With a static keyboard drone and organ just sitting there floating away. Just building and building in tension, but never releasing it. Just getting faster and faster and more and more intense, but never actually releasing that tension. Which is something that the Swans were always incredibly well capable of.
Absolutely. Do any of the new cd's tracks have interesting backgrounds?
One of them, "Sonnenlicht," means "sun light," and actually I moved to a new place last year on Sunlight Square. So that is named after the place where I now live, which was a quite important step in my life. So it's about change and new movement and everything. The other pieces all reference something. "Vertical Line" is the line that goes through history. The way we trace our line through history in terms of memory. The way we cut lines into the earth's core, you can do it to your own human stance and work out your own personal history. They call that the "vertical line."
"Passage De Recherche" is actually like passage of memory, basically. Using all these voices as sources of memory. And they are all sourced from old cassettes, so they are like archiving. A lot of the sound on there is actually taken from old four-track recordings of mine, and Walkman recordings - that kind of thing. It's quite a personal record in that way.
There is one thing I noticed, first in your remix of Bump & Grind and now on the new album, the use of Terry Riley-style organ elements.
That's funny, yeah. I don't know how that happened actually, just one day I started playing these patterns. Actually that Bump & Grind mix is so old (found on a 12" and the Init Sequence cd from Sub Rosa). That is about four and a half years old, that track. Really, really old. They are friends of mine from Belgium. It just took so long for that to come out. I've never had anything that's taken so long to come out. But that use of repetition is something that has always appealed to me. I've always been a Terry Riley fan. I've always been a Steve Reich fan. I haven't been a Steve Reich remix fan, I must confess.
But, the original work has been an influence on me. I've always been a keen listener to the 60's minimalism. Charlemagne Palestine too, that whole group of artists. So this use of the little organ patterns...I like the fact that the palette is just gently changing over the length of the piece. Obviously I'm not as dedicated as Riley or Reich, who take thirty minutes to establish a piece. I sort of get it over with in eight or ten, but they are definitely an influence on me.
In that Bump & Grind remix did you sample Riley or were you playing in the style of?
No, it is all played, there is no samples, just me playing. Me just sitting there, you know, playing fast.
Tell me about why you started the label Sulfur/Sulphur and how you hooked up with Beggars Banquet?
As you probably know yourself, it doesn't matter what kind of work you do it's about access to materials and distribution. And the worst thing ever for me, the most frustrating issue in anything that I've ever done, is when people say to me "I've heard about your stuff but I can't seem to find it anywhere." You know I live in London and that's fine if you want to have access to materials, but I have friends outside of London even who can't get lots of materials that you or I would otherwise get access to. For me that has always been a problem so I always wanted to set something up, but I wanted to do it professionally. I didn't want to just do a fly by night record label.
It's taken 18 months to set Sulfur up and Beggars are a strong enough network that we can work together on this. It's not meant to be a commercial pop label or anything. It's meant to be a shape-shifting..., you know, a nucleus where anything can happen. So the first record that came out, the Future Pilot A.K.A. Vs A Galaxy Of Sound compilation, was all over the place. It wasn't a techno record, it wasn't a rock record, it wasn't a dub record - nor did it tell you anything about the nature of the direction of the label. My record is the next release. Then there is a Michael Wells (GTO/Signs Ov Chaos) record that comes out in October.
I'm always nervous about "electronica musician sets up electronica label" and people just thinking it is the sound of humming radiators and fans and that sort of thing. I plan a whole host of different sort of collaborations, and none of them attend to particular genres. I've got one by Stephen Vitellio, this New York guitarist who is working with Hahn Rowe. And that is fantastic, very processed, improvised guitar, which is quite radically different than anything else I would have released on the label. So I'm excited about that. The label is really a catalyst for myself to get other people to work together and push them to do these collaborations.
So what was your connection with the Future Pilot guy?
Sushil Dade I've known for a while, he used to be in the Soup Dragons. And, you know, England is a small enough place that you would sort of bump into him. And he first contacted me three years ago and wanted to do a collaboration, and we did that. And that is, in fact, the track that ended up on the album, a three year old track! He just seemed to get more and more eccentric. It's funny, because he used to be in the Soup Dragons, they split up and now he is a professional driving instructor. And he teaches all the young Scottish musicians how to drive. So whether you are in Mogwai or some other band, it seems he's taught you to drive. I like him. He's a really nice bloke actually, he's really down to earth. And it looks like in the next twelve months we're actually going to do a tour together across the States, which will be nice.
So he had these various collaborations which you decided to stick together.
The original idea was an EP, this was like three years ago. And it just accelerated as he kept contacting people and contacting people. I actually thought it worked really well, the whole album. There is the band, National Park, who's work I really like. I was really pleased they did something together. And on each piece Sushil does something quite different. On some of them he's playing just bass, other times he doing drums, whatever, it is very different. It was all recorded on four track, which appealed to me as well.
I really liked the Two Lone Swordsmen track "The Gates To Film City."
Oh yeah, that's great. Really quite funky. Kind of filmic, mellow dramatic trip hop piece that works really well.
So what does Sushil normally play?
He normally plays bass or drums. He's one of those multi-instrumentalists who just seems to be able to pick up any instrument. Sickenly talented at times. But he's really nice, he's very funny, you know. And I always wanted to release a record by a driving instructor and here's my perfect opportunity.
And one who's into psychedelic music too.
Yeah, yeah absolutely.
How did he hook up with the legendary Kim Fowley for the "Night Flight To Memphis" track?
Well apparently Kim Fowley did a tour of Scotland and he was looking for people to back him. And Sushil played with him at a gig. Afterwards, Sushil, in his funny little way, said (in a high, Scottish voice) "oh, do you fancy doing a record with me?" And apparently Kim is a completely psychotic character, so it wasn't easy work. But they did it and it's all done and thankfully I wasn't part of that process, you know.
So the Future Pilot cd was a very brave record to start your label with. A double cd to begin with and one that has so many different focuses.
Yeah it's a difficult one in that sense. And at the same time I like it because it doesn't tell you anything about what the label might be. If I was to release my record as the first release that would be, to be honest, ego-centric. Nor do I want to release an electronica record in particular. For instance Terre Thaemlitz is doing a record for us. And if that came out as the first record I think people would be just perceiving it in the wrong way. I also think it's a bit good, especially for, the critics of the bigger magazines to get a bit confused. That's always helpful.
At least you and I ...it's good talking to you because you know the context that it comes from and can understand it. You imagine some people...I met a press officer the other week, this woman who is the Arts editor for the Times newspaper in London, who kept raving on to me about this new artist she'd discovered called Moby! And you realise that she is the chief editor on one of the biggest newspapers in England and that is quite disturbing that she believes that Moby is the new Messiah. And she really did believe it. That is disturbing.
So did you have any connections with the people at Beggars that you made the deal with?
The woman in charge here, Lesley Bleakley, we met through a mutual friend, Robert Hampson from Main. And I've known Robert for like 18 years. So he's worked with Beggars for years and years, although not anymore. So it was just a natural connection in a sense. And they seemed interested in supporting it. And I've liked their history of working from a strong independent basis, which is still very important. It's not a major, major label. They have major distribution which is the important thing. And they have good people. It is a small enough network and they're really nice people. So bland as it may seem, it is important to work like that, as you can understand.
You've worked with a lot of small labels and you know the pitfalls, so how do you avoid some of the problems?
Ultimately I was getting frustrated because I never even got a copy of my own album with some labels. At least if I'm doing it myself the only person who is ripping me off is myself. The only person I can really complain about at the end of the day is myself, a lot of the time. So let's hope it will work out at the end of the day.
Tell me about the Michael Wells album.
Yeah I'm actually really pleased about that. It's under the name S.O.L.O.. We've known each other for years, and you've probably got an idea about all the Greater Than One stuff. And the Signs Ov Chaos work. This is something different. This is more in the line of the German scene in Cologne. Very stripped-down electronic music, but very listenable. Quite funky in its way, but never four-to-the-floor. Kind of suggestive rhythmic pieces. But a fantastic record, I'm really please with it.
And you've signed a Japanese group, Eureka!.
Oh yeah, Eureka! are basically the Japanese Combustible Edison sort of exotica band. But it's beautiful. Actually they are more like a pastiche of Astrid Gilberto and Stan Getz, it is far more in that kind of field. It's a sweet record, it's very innocent and naive in it's way. In fact I was introduced to them by Terre Thaemlitz. They heard I had produced the last Combustible Edison record and they said "oh we would love you to release our recordings." So it is going to be a six track release with two remixes on it by Terre Thaemlitz and one by myself. It is a fun record, really good natured. Very bright and very summery - it is pop music.
And you will be working with DJ Spooky?
Oh yeah, we've done this record that was originally an EP. I said to Paul let's do this EP - that was over two and a half years ago. Paul in his particular way, he's just crazy like this, decided to deliver a 75 minute album with the pieces I sent to him and his mixes and everything. Which is now being reduced to something like 60 minutes and I hope in the long run will end up at about 30 minutes or something. So what I'm going to do is actually, with a lot of the tracks, put them left and right - split them in strict stereo. So two tracks will be playing at the same time through most of the record. Kinda humorous.
What is the music like on that one?
Ah, there is going to be like maybe three or four really heavy breakbeat-y hip hop distorted beat pieces. And then just a whole sort of abstract textures, cut up. I'm actually really, really happy with it.
You are spelling Sulphur in a different way for the American market, was there already a label called that over here?
No, no, we've got the name legally under both spellings. We're actually just being playful. Unfortunately it is that English humour again. I thought it would be quite funny to spell it differently in America because people don't spell things correctly in America. Sort of a dig at their sloppy use of the English language and I quite like going along with that for the label. And also sometimes each release will be different for each country. I mean the packaging will be different in each country.
I'm actually doing things like a series of 7"ers. They will be under Sulfur still but I will be doing them direct mail to record shops and people. It will be a series called Autopilota, which will all be at 128 bpm and interchangeable. It will be a series of a half a dozen 7" singles over the next 18 months. I will be doing most of them, but Terre Thaemlitz will be doing one. And I think Lawrence from Bowery Electric is doing one, and maybe Robert Hampson as well. The a-sides are all rhythmic pieces that I've be making with a live drummer. And the b-sides are all strange textures, still at 128 bpms. The idea is that you won't have to be a DJ to play them because they will always fit together. So the b-sides, no matter where you start them, will always fit with the a-sides. It is just like a big jigsaw puzzle. And I like the idea of ultimately doing a gig with just the six of them. The idea originally was a bit like a record being skipped and just sitting there, going round and round at the same point, always at the same speed. So I like the idea of someone using it as a DJ tool. I'm trying to work those out at the moment.