tue 20/10/2020

Q&A Special: Musician Tim Exile | reviews, news & interviews

Q&A Special: Musician Tim Exile

Q&A Special: Musician Tim Exile

Warp Records' latest electronic maverick, Tim Exile, talks percussive noise and the fall of capitalism

Electronic music is all the rage again as artists such as La Roux, Lady Gaga, Little Boots and Calvin Harris hark back to Eighties electro-pop and Nineties club classics. Meanwhile, there are also darker crannies where synthesized sounds have evolved into stranger forms, the sonic equivalent of those bizarre fish that lurk at the bottom of the ocean. The internet has allowed whole non-geographical scenes to bloom where club music, avant-garde noise and punk attitude collide. Tim Exile used to belong here, crashing the gnarliest drum & bass into abrasive sub-genres such as breakcore and gabber then releasing the results on the Planet Mu label.

Now 30, however, he is broadening his palette, no longer simply a wilful cacophonist. Exile - born Shaw - grew up in the Cotswolds near Cheltenham, the son of a girls’ boarding school headmistress and a healthcare advisor to developing countries. Classically educated, he achieved Grade 8 violin and went on to complete an MA in electro-acoustics at Durham University. His latest album, his first for electronic music mainstay Warp Records, is an extraordinary work called The Listening Tree. It combines his years of interest in noisy "drill & bass" music with his previous, more traditional musical education. On one level it's a percussive assault but at another something lovely is going on, opulent and original music topped with thought-provoking lyrics. Now based in Berlin, Exile is currently on tour with concerts in France and Belgium forthcoming.

THOMAS H GREEN: Was classical music thrust upon you as a boy or did you willingly embrace it?

TIM EXILE: Both. Acquiescence is one of my weak points.

Can your early career be seen as a rebellion against classical music?

I was a music scholar and for quite a few years after leaving school I developed a resistance to voluntarily doing things pertaining to classical music. I became fixated with electronic sound when I was twelve and only a long time afterwards realised my attitude to it was mainly informed by classical music structures and performance. When I was a small kid I mostly heard pretty straight up classical stuff, as in Bach, Handel and a bit of Mozart. At school I was introduced to the romantic era and also to early music, both of which were far more influential in terms of my recent output. I guess now I don’t feel like I have much to rebel against in terms of music. I feel more at liberty to go with the flow of a wide range of different influences.

How did you discover twisted electronic music such as drill & bass?

I've always been attracted to works created by people whose minds are fixed on wonders of the universe not yet understood by the linguistic norms of their time. For me drill & bass was once like that but soon became commodified and regulated. Probably the rebellion against classical music, which I already mentioned, also had something to do with it.

In a warped kind of way, the new album is pop – was it a conscious decision to start making more melodic music?

Yes, very much. My previous album was wild, rough and noisy and I'd really had enough of that. I felt like that route had yielded enough in terms of possibilities for new expression. It was a very conscious decision to focus on melody and harmony and to sing.

The album contains critiques of contemporary culture – "Pay Tomorrow" and "Carouselle", particularly, seem like satires on consumer capitalism. Is there political intent in your music?

Recently I've become very aware of the unsuitability of financial capitalism to today's world. Personal and social independence has been undermined as control of more and more nodes in the network of life are annexed to large and powerful non-elected entities. The model of capitalism is very effective at promoting one species above others and creating steep curves of development within its own population, but on the flipside it's unable to comprehend limits. Capitalism which cannot find new value-creators to join its pyramid scheme will not be able to satisfy its requirement of growth to survive. It will instead cannibalise its lower ranks to the point of their systemic collapse. This is happening now.

I reconsider daily where to draw the line between self-expression and creating an encouraging and hopeful message that doesn't alienate people. This album strides that boundary as I saw fit at the time. On one side there is the political message which is a warning veiled in satire – "Pay Tomorrow" or "Carouselle" - on the other there are tracks which encourage people to become aware of the huge power and intelligence within the universe which we can all access in order to transcend our current obsession with dominance and enter a new era of cooperation and unity, tracks such as "Family Galaxy", "Fortress" and "Listening Tree".

What is a listening tree?

I discovered it in a dream. I was walking on a path through a thick forest of aggressive trees which were shouting at me. Then the forest gave way either side of me and tucked under itself, forming a high ridge with the path atop. At the end of the path was a listening tree, quiet and attentive.

Are your live shows representative of your new album?

They are half representative. The other half is completely improvised using machines which I made myself for jamming [Exile recently developed a keyboard-controlled effects processor called The Finger with Native Instruments]. I have a lot of collaborations coming up plus quite a few solo shows too. At the albums launch party in London earlier this year I played a set with the cellist Bela Emerson, then a show at the Ether festival shortly afterwards where I played with pianist Sarah Nicolls.

Are you interested only in the music or is presentation important to you?

Anything goes. My principle medium is sound but I'm not fussy about what else can be used to augment the experience, so long as it's not an association of mere convenience. A lot of visual imagery added to music is created largely for the purpose of commodification. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. I wouldn't have commissioned the sleeve artwork for Listening Tree myself but, as it is, I think it's the most fantastic representation of the music and vice versa. I think the artwork makes the music sound better and the music makes the artwork look better.

Tell us about the work you did with Hamburg's Elbipolis Baroque Orchestra?

It was a short project this January which we'll be repeating again. We had about five hours total set-up and rehearsal time which was not that much at all, so we improvised a lot of it. I had mics on all the instruments going into my jamming machine which I used to sample and process them live.

When all's said and done, are you a rave nutter or is it high art?

If the executors of art claim it to be high then you should ignore them. If the public deems art high, specifically in the sense that they don't get it but feel they should, then it didn't successfully communicate what it set out to communicate. Art and creativity happens on the border of meaning. It's what connects the things we feel but can't express in existing terms. It makes and breaks connections and shifts our consciousness. I'm not exclusively a rave nutter and it's definitely not high art. Out of the two I believe less in high art.

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