Squarepusher has never been an easy man to second guess, and his new project will surprise, delight and appal fans in equal measure. Michael Wylie-Harris grills the enigmatic Tom Jenkinson
by Michael Wylie-Harris, first published in LondonTourdates #067 ,19th November 2010
You should have got me earlier when I was more on the case,” says a mildly beleaguered Tom Jenkinson, on the phone from Warp Records’ London HQ. “This is interview number six,” he continues, “so let me know if I’m drifting off into meaningless, pretentious nonsense...”
Amid putting down the phone to say goodbye to fellow Warp-ites, presumably leaving the office for the day (it’s just after six o’clock), apologising and assuring me I now have his undivided attention, Jenkinson just might have inadvertently reeled off the quote of the day.
With so many moments of soaring musical genius in his 14-year long career as one of dance music’s true innovators, there have equally been frustrating times when he might have benefitted from someone being around to dutifully fulfil the above obligation: letting him know he was “drifting off into meaningless, pretentious nonsense” (his words).
Jokes aside, under the guise of Squarepusher, Tom Jenkinson has been a constant boundary pusher, the type of artist from whom you truly don’t know what to expect. As each album is a foray into the unknown, an experiment in a new genre or with a new way of working, life as a Squarepusher fan certainly isn’t boring. Detractors, though, have called Jenkinson’s work frustrating, saying his constant dabbling in different genres is ultimately unfulfilling and the work of an artist who isn’t committed to any one, specific style.
With his latest project, Jenkinson is making perhaps the boldest leap into new territory of his career. He has been utterly committed to working alone since his debut album, Feed Me Weird Things, came out in 2006, but the jazz infused drum‘n’bass vigilante has for the first time incorporated a band into his musical set up. Breaking with his traditional thinking that working with other people smacks of compromise and a subsequent lack of freedom to experiment, Jenkinson has assembled a group of musicians – many from rock and metal backgrounds – under the name of Shobaleader One, releasing their first record (there are plans to make more), Shobaleader One: d’Demonstrator, on 18 October on Warp.
Writing and recording the album between October 2009 and February 2010, Jenkinson says that a lot of that time was spent getting to know the musicians, understanding the way they worked and finding out just how they were going to interpret the compositions that he’d presented them with. While the record is the work of the band, the music was all written by Jenkinson, and, ultimately, he still maintained complete creative control of the project – acting as a kind of conductor, or overseer in the recording sessions...
“They’re all my compositions,” he says. “In the end, for better or for worse, my taste is the arbiter of what gets put down on the recording. If I’m not into it, it doesn’t get recorded, that’s that. So it’s still my stuff in that respect.”
Asking what prompted the sudden turnaround from someone who was famously averse to working with others in the past, he tells me that – with the same motivation that has prompted so many other creative decisions in his career – it was all about breaking rules.
“Every time I make a record I try and make it different from the last,” I’m told. “I will set out specific rules, like I will say: ‘This time there’s no live instruments... No guitar, no drums, nothing. It’s all got to be programmed’. That was a rule on Go Plastic (June 2001). That was a rule that I set at that time and for the next record I put that rule in the bin. It has its life span and I think a part of the art of it all is to know when the rules have exceeded their life span, so to speak.
“So I’ve had this aversion to working with others because I think it’s something that might limit my capacity to experiment, but in the end if something has become such a hard and fast rule then you have to start wondering about it, you know. Thinking you should break it.
“This is quite a substantial change,” he continues. “I now have other people’s input to consider but in a way it seems perfectly continuous with what I have done in the past – breaking rules again, doing new things. It actually makes things a bit easier and quicker too. I’m not trying to be four people at the same time. Over the years I’m sure I’ve thrown good takes away that are better than the ones I’ve ended up using because you’re so in the zone with playing that you forget to take a step back and take a look at what you’ve done, and in the more conventional format that doesn’t happen. I think really I’m just freeing up my faculties to be able to step back now and make better judgments. It’s different; I don’t see it as better.”
So then, this isn’t so much a band in terms of a group of players writing together and coming up with a sound that’s truly a joint effort and a collaborative process, as a collection of musicians that are there to give Jenkinson the freedom to step back and get a broader overview of what he’s creating, without having to play every instrument himself. Control freak? Maybe? Most geniuses are...
Subsequently, despite the added personnel, you wouldn’t really expect this to sound like a huge departure from what he’s done before. Because it’s Squarepusher, though, you would. Every album he’s done has been completely different from the one that went before. It’s why he inspires devotion and frustration in equal measure.
What we have with d’Demonstrator is a decent enough venture into the world of robotic, electro-pop-rock from a masked foursome that are – you suspect – nothing more than a session band for our main man. It’s good, and catchy enough in places, but what is unfortunate is that the overriding feeling you are left with is that you’ve just listened to a Daft Punk record – something made all the more regrettable by the fact that it’s the work of someone capable of such originality and brilliance.
Asking Jenkinson for his impression of the album, he’s characteristically evasive... “In a way that’s something that I would have to wait and see about because I have been up to my eyeballs in it. Having that level of involvement makes me reticent to pronounce judgments on it without it being at least a couple of years from when I did it. When you still have that very emotional involvement with it, it’s very difficult. I’m happy to make quite brutal judgments on stuff I’ve done a few years ago, but inevitably you get attached to things – for reasons other than them being good – and that makes it hard to make a judgement so quickly.
“I might be attached to a certain part because it was a great technical feat, a masterpiece in engineering. You don’t hear it in the resulting music, but because I have those memories it has a certain meaning for me and that makes me biased. Basically, give me two years and I’ll let you know.”
Right then... We’ll get back to you in 2012. For now though, Jenkinson is planning a tour with Shobaleader – the chance to get out and play with a live band being among the main motivations for the project – so it’s perhaps this that will be the main event of his decision to form a band, rather than the release of the record itself. Jenkinson tells me it’s that sense of camaraderie and the collective responsibility of the live show – rather than being the only one on stage being scrutinized – that he’s craved, so the tour is something that’ll have him and us salivating.
The dates, though, remain unannounced, and with his tendency to keep us on our toes, let’s not count our chickens just yet. We might find by Christmas that he’s forgotten the idea about a band, lost interest in the tour and is busy writing his first opera...
Shobaleader One will be touring the UK in the New Year: