Shackleton interview (Dijon, Kill Your Pop festival, april 7 – 2011).
Sabotage just knew how to please us during their Kill Your Pop festival by inviting Sam Shackleton, producer of an experimental kind of dubstep. The man looks like a geek in his thirties, hiding behind round glasses and a shirt with heavy patterns. A little shy at first, he then feels more relaxed and let us snacth a glimpse at his complex personnality. Don’t worry, we also talked about lighter stuffs, like how our grand parents delt with marriage, facebook and the reading of the Bible by Johnny Cash…
Sparse : How come we can’t find anything about you on the internet ?
Shackleton : I really never wanted to do a lot of promotion, I find it a bit distasteful to promote myself, and I think Internet is a really great thing in a lot of respect, but personnaly I don’t really like it… something about the instantaneousness of the medium that lends itself to a certain kind of promotion than a certain kind of discourse and I don’t really like that with my own thing. I never really thought that I would become, obsviously I’m not really famous , I never felt that more than a few people would be interested in my music.
I suppose because I make music because I like it, I know it’s not so conventional, I just didn’t expect it to translate so well.
Don’t you think that some people are only searching for non conventionnal sounds ?
I never really thought about it, I suppose so. Perhaps if i was a different person and I had a different approach, maybe I would ‘ve done the promotion thing but I didn’t see any reasons for that. I always thought about the way I personnaly would like to hear the music, would be perhaps in a record shop. It’s interesting to put it a on record player and think « I like it ». That would be a good way to get to the music. So I can’t really speak for other people, but for me personnaly, I never liked the myspace or facebook things, it’s not my cup of tea. I’m maybe too old for that.
I think the average age for the users on facebook is 36 or 37…
That’s exactly my age (laugh)
You won’t make a facebook page tomorrow then ?
That is not the medium I grew up with and I’m not saying I dont understand its users, but just seems not to my taste. I don’t really have the desire to be telling people what I’m doing every minute of the day. I don’t know why people would be interested.
Don’t you think that most of the people who actually know about you discovered you through the internet ?
I’m not sure. Well, let’s say that even if I wanted to go to a record shop in Dijon, I could’nt find your music there.
I suppose the point is that I never thought I was gonna sell outside of records shops in some cities in England.
So you’re not making a living out of it ?
Obviouly I don’t want to discuss that, but I’m very happy with my living.
I think it’s just a question of sensibilities, I’ve always taken the opinion that you can have the width and perhaps you need to sacrifice depth for that. My email account is spammed because a lot of people know what my address is and send me things, but it’s impossible to listen everything. Podcasts and whatever. I just think perhaps there is too much information there.
You’d rather have people come up to you , meet them and be willing to listen to what they do ?
That could be the case. Some things need to grow organically, and they seem to have done that, which is great and if you really push these things … i mean you have to understand that quite a lot of people listen to music and they’re not confident about their own taste and will go along with what other people like and then, a couple of years later say « i used to listen to that but i’ve realised it was a lot of rubbish actually » and i wouldn’t like that. I like people to get into it because they came to it, had to seek it out, and they actually like it. Tha’ts why i always wanted to do these things.
The other thing is about how the artist or the producer perceives music and how that person would like to present that music. For me what i make is dance music and i don’t care if some people think you can’t dance to that, that’s their problem. To me it is dancemusic, first and foremost. In dance music i don’t think it should ever get confused with rock music.
Now see, in rock music you have a projection of the individual, and it’s almost like the extension of a performance art where you have an individual being / doing a very egotistical thing and in that context it’s wonderful… because of course that person is venting something and the crowd can enjoy that, in that context. But i think i’ve never really seen it like that, the artist isn’t so important.
That’s probably why i’ve shied away from doing interviews and this type of things, it comes to something when, you know, you play in a small town like Dijon for exemple and the promoter (Sabotage) who’s taking a big chance on booking me for people who might not know me. I would feel rude and say « well don’t you understand this not where i want to perform ! »
Do you understand what i mean ?
So you came to Dijon because it was a small venue ?
Yeah, i liked the idea of being on a boat, i though « wow, that sounds great », you know.
Can we talk about Skull disco ? Why has it stopped ?
I think the first release was in 2004/2005, something like that and as i said, at that time i didn’t expect so many people to buy it. I thought maybe i’d sell to 200/300 copies and i thought it to be great actually ! And then it seems to have gotten quite popular which is also wonderful of course.
So it was first released in the UK ?
That’s right, then it went on to do 10 12inch releases and 2 cd compilations and that was fine over the course of couple of years. But it was interesting because, at some point…and i suppose you should expect that with growing popularity…it became kind of strange, it seemed to get some kind of symbolism with certain people that i never really intended.
What kind of symbolism ?
The way journalists would speak about it would be very profound and it was just music to me. It seemed to become a hype and « there are these guys doing some kind of dubstep and techno cross over thing » which is not really what i wanted to do at all. At some point i just got a bit bored of that and the record was selling, there were two impulses there for me. The first impulse was that 10’s a good number, you’ve done 10 vinyl releases, it’s a nice thing for people if it gets into their record collection, they could say « oh these 10 records, i really like that » with nice sleeves…
The artist for Skull disco, always made sleeves with some kind of skull theme, skeleton or whatever. And i think at some point you have to be conscious of the fact that the idea runs out… there’s a big tendency when you’re making money from something, to keep the wheel turning. But it’s not good for your creativity perhaps.
I wouldn’t have liked it if it came to Skull disco number 11 and people who’ve liked the first 10 say « SD 11, what was that ? , that was really rubbish ! ».
With so many of my favorite bands, and i’m sure you know this with album types bands, it’s generally the first two albums and then it’s more of the same which is not as good. I did not want that to happen.
I wanted to keep it special for the people who bought the releases.
The second aspect is that it became some kind of strange journalist trend in a certain area for music press, championing skull disco as being this kind of…
I do think you were elected by RA as being the mix of year 2010.
People seem to like it and it’s good of course. Sounds a bit silly to say, « oh i didn’t want it to get too popular » of course it’s great. Anyone who make music would like for its music to get popular.
Once it gets far tagged, it becomes a little bit uncomfortable, especially when it represents something you don’t feel so good about. It’s just good, like a challenge to break things down sometimes and say « let’s start again ».
So are you proud that they can’t really tag you and put you away on a shelf ?
Hum…well…proud’s a word with a lot of connotation. To be honest it’s a relief more than anything. I always felt uncomfortable when, you know… the idea is that you wouldn’t like to think you’re taking anybody else’s scene, or you’re taking anybody else’s glory. Does that make sense ? If people could just take the music in its own right and say « well, we don’t really know what this is but we like it anyway », that’s surely a nice thing.
But « proud »… You know i live in Berlin and they don’t use this word, they really don’t like it. And i think as a result, i’ve stopped using it myself.
You started making music like what, six years ago ?
Yes, that’s right.
Why now, you’re in your late 30’s already, why didn’t you start as a teenager like most people do ?
I don’t know…circumstances…just the way things fold sometimes. I moved around quite a lot between the ages of 20 to 27, i’ve lived in different countries. I was with my firts wife, we lived in Hungary together and we eventually broke up, maybe we were a little bit too young for each other…people are selfish these days, aren’t they ? When you think of our grand parents getting married, they just stayed together, and they married young maybe because they didn’t have that much expectations. So when i say we were too young, that’s not particularly accurate, i think maybe we were too selfish. So anyway, it didn’t work out, i moved to London. started up some kind of weird electronic project with some friend of mine who was on the squat scene. It was a bit crazy, some kind of dance hall with drum machines, dressing up as egyptian gods and making crazy beats on drum machines, playing to very few people (giggles), couple of hippies… (laugh), Oh it was fun.
Then my partner went to the other side of the world and converted to Islam and left me on my own.
I didn’t really know what to do after that. So i bought a computer, i thought « well i can’t do a one man karaoke outfit it would be awful » so i started making music on a computer and i really liked it. This was 2003 and i spent a lot of time doing that, really finding my own sound i suppose.
So you were listening to electronic dance producers before ?
Yes, i’ve always had a very broad range of tatses and i don’t make a distinction…
I started going to a club named Forward in London, it was Nekta selecta, Appleblim, a guy called Engine room and I. At first it was once a month on a thursday, we used to go there and play what was called garage at that time, or dubby two step or whatever, some people say grime… But it’s not the point, we just liked the music, the athmosphere, small club, not more than a 150 people in there, the sound system was excellent. We felt comfortable there, cause we make music, in a very diy way…
Appleblim released a 7 inch by me, and because somebody else had liked the music, i think i felt confident enough doing my own thing.
With him, we used to go ravin’ together, we would start at Forward and the last the whole w e. And probably the best time was when we were going to somebody’s house after that, playing music…i’m sure you know the scenario…that was very formative.
Now he was making music as well, i liked what he did and i did offer him to do a AA side with one of mine and he was keen…there was no master plan, that was it !
I just had these ideas for « Skull disco »…i’m a big fan of an english humor called « puns » (play on words), so Skull disco sounds like school disco. Because i’m a notherner, i speak with very strong vowels so people would hear school disco when i’m saying skull disco. And it’s funny because it’s a complete antidote to what a school disco is : a lot of horrible 30yrs old, wearing school uniforms and listeing to awful music from the 80’s, and hopefully going home with a girl. It’s the antithesis so it worked on that level as well.
It does sound like something pretty dark though….
I would hope the « disco » part offsets that. I never intended dark.
But then what about the graphic identity, it’s pretty dark as well ?
There was something very basic that was being communicated. I was reading an anthropological book by Nigel Barley. It was about a tribe in Cameroun in which the ancestors would be dug up, and put in a circle to watch for party. I really liked this idea cause especially in clubs in London, people are very conscious about their own space… which is a good thing i suppose. But also they’re very conscious about how they dress and perhaps don’t feel comfortable to dance. And i liked this as a complete antithesis of that. I mean,when you have a bunch of rotting skeletons there, to me it’s a very liberating thing. so that’s the idea, rather than dark. True the visual does look a bit gothic but that’s more of a sensibility of the artist.
So what about the new label ?
It started four months ago, i’ve put out a 12 inch, the label’s called « Woe to the septic heart ». You hear « woe » normally in the biblical usage and it means « bad to that ». So if you read the Bible, i really like certain parts of the New Testament. We also have a wonderful reading of the Bible by Johny Cash and he’s got such a great voice. He starts repeating those passages from the Bible, you must know them and it goes like « Woe to the Pharisees… »
I thought « what a great image a sceptic heart is », as a graphic you could imagine a heart all rotten or decayed, but as a concept, it means that someone is malevolent in their actions or their ideas. I know by choosing that time it was going to seem dark but i’m trying to communicate on happiness, celebrations, feeling at ease with yourself and being good towards the people. So that’s why when i heard, the reading of Johny Cash of the New Testament i thought, that « woe to the scpetic heart » communicates exactly how i feel. it says that the scpetic heart is a bad thing, let’s have pure hearts, let’s be kind to each other. I mean it’s like for Skull disco for god’s sake, i mean…if it was like Skull Moshpit then i could understand that people feels it’s a bit agressive.
Are you planning on having real instruments again in your tracks ?
That was a long time ago that i had a percussionist on my music. I think what i do is more of a studio project. I’ve heard too much electronica that seemed formed by conventional musicianship and i find it a bit boring. It’s hard to bring those things in, in a tasteful way.
And the other thing is that i’m a big fan of a certain kind of percussion but then i’m also some geeky white guy from the north of England…I don’t want to start passing myself of, for something that i’m not. It’s a very difficult sensibility to reach.
Some people would say it’s just a question of sound, which i would totally agree with but it’s very difficult to divorce your ideals about the world, and your ideals about aesthetics, from the sound itself. There’s no such thing as neutral sound, everything brings up ideas, associations.
So even though when i’ve tried to work with a percussionist, when it’s just straight in the mix, somehow it doesn’t fit right with me…sounds too, i don’t know, too hipic maybe, I can’t explain. Maybe it’s the associations i don’t like, like hippies playing bongos…you know what I mean…
A studio project is something that’s very hard to build and doing vocals… A lot of people when they get a certain level of popularity in the underground want to perhaps take it to another level and the obvious thing is to get some female vocalist and then it might go on the radio… It doesn’t really appeal to me. It would have to be done in a way that’s suitable for the music.
These things can sound very token and even though, it’s the only way for some people to listen to music. I know that, it just doesn’t really suits me. That said, i want to get better as an artist, i’m always trying, i spend a lot of time in the studio, i go there every week day when i’m not away. I spend a lot of time on the sound and i hope to find a better way to present that sound, you know just get better and better in my own mind.
So where do you find your creativity ?
I don’t know, it’s difficult to say isn’t it ? The ego is a very strange beast and it manifests itself in a lot of different ways. Then you got the subconscious which is very difficult to comment on because of its nature.
On the surface i would say, if I was to think about in rational terms, i’d hope there’s some kind of libetarian ethos behind it. I hope that when people dance and listen to the music they can get transported out of their own existence for a short amount of time. I don’t want to sound too grand about it, because it’s easy to take it too seriously…but at the end of it all, when I look over at all the wonderful political ideals in the past and so often it has come to nothing, it seems perhaps, people don’t know themselves so well. And i hope the music is part of the process where people can get transported out of the regularity, normal thinking and just be vacant for a while. And maybe when they come back to theirselves they can be eased and know something, not even in a conscious way…and hopefully it’s a liberating thing. That’s what I really like. And sometimes when i play, i get this feeling that people have been…
Like some kind of therapy…?
Yes, exactly like that. And i feel with myself, and i know it’s the same way for other people.
Music being an outlet you mean ?
It’s very much a therapy and i can’t explain why but i think that in our every day lives, people are pretty screwed up, it’s like a normal process like linguistic structure, social structure… This is quite normal the way we compartmentalize ourselves and it is a wonderful thing of course, because it means we can implement technologies…but this is a kind of strange paradox…it also creates these weird tensions within a person and i feel it myslef very much that in my every day life, i’m polite to people, trying to be nice to people, and trying to be conscious of others, but i don’t know if it’s a real person. It’s the same about language, the way we have our gramatical structures, i think it shapes a person, doesnt it?
So when i make music, i don’t know what makes me do it, cause i don’t take drugs or anything like that, well don’t get me wrong, I have done, like most people…you know what i mean by that.
But it’s almost like scratching some part of my brain and i’m feeling so much better for it. but i can’t explain why it’s not rational. And then you think that, if it’s working for you on that level, maybe it’s working for other people on that level as well.
Anyway, ultimately it’s a mystery… and the ego is a funny thing, maybe i’m just saying all that to make myself look better. So, at the end of it, who fucking knows ! (laugh).
One last quick question, and i know you’re going to hate it already…
My favorite biscuit ? (laugh)
Well, it is about your last big musical discovery, what was it and why ?
It’s a really good question… Yeah, that’s interesting.
I think as i get older, i don’t find music quite as cosmic as i did when i was very young. Everytime i heard something then i was transported in a kind of different world, something like that. So if i was to say a musical discovery that had that effect on me in recent years, it would be something that is very special…I haven’t heard that much that had this effect on me but there’s a couple of albums by
Coil, it’s a poject with one of the members of Throbbing Gristle who died quite recently and another guy who died five years ago. There were lovers and i guess you could say it was experimental electronic music but it has very raw emotional quality to it. And it’s absolutely psychedelic in my opinion. These albums from Coil which i have been listening to a lot are very profound, they’re called « Music to play in the dark », vol 1 and 2.
Interview : Sophie Brignoli
Photos : Vincent Arbelet
French version : click here.