Interview: Global Communication

In anticipation of their headlining gig on the Academy's stage at SónarSound Tokyo this year, Tom Middleton and Mark Pritchard of Global Communication talk about their history - from early days producing tracks and the start of their Evolution label, to the reasons behind their numerous aliases.

Global Communication

As Global Communication, Tom Middleton and Mark Pritchard are one of the most successful and critically acclaimed electronic music acts that the South West of England ever gave the world. Global Communication took their influences from contemporary Detroit and European techno, movie soundtracks, krautrock, Chicago and New York house, and all kinds of soulful music, and expressed their own 'Emotions In Sound'. Working as Link & E621, Reload, Jedi Knights, and The Chameleon, they released music on Warp, Dedicated, LTJ Bukem’s Good Looking Records, and their own Evolution/Universal Language imprint. Here, Tom and Mark recount their story from day one, from the limitations of early digital sampling to hustling white labels in record stores, and bring us up to the present day with their revamped audio-visual performances at venues like The British Library, Union Chapel, and their forthcoming live show on the Red Bull Music Academy stage at SónarSound Tokyo. You can catch the full audio version of their Fireside Chat radio show here.

Mark Pritchard: So yeah, we met in Taunton, probably about 1990? I was DJing there, a friend of mine put on some parties there. Taunton is in Somerset, West Country of England, famous for cider and cricket. I lived in Yeovil at the time, and Tom had just moved up from Cornwall to study graphic design at Taunton University. It may seem like an odd place to move to…

Tom Middleton: Yeah, very odd place to move to.

Mark: Cornwall to Taunton isn't exactly a massive move, but it had quite a renowned graphic design section to the university. Anyway, I was DJing and at the end Tom came up and said "I really like what you're playing, it's just the kind of stuff I'm into," and he mentioned what he'd been doing, and then… did I come back to your hotel?

Tom: No, no that was way before hotels!

Mark: Yeah haha. We didn't have hotels then.

Tom: It was back to my student digs. I played Mark a bunch of the stuff that Richard, Aphex Twin had given me actually. Tapes of music he'd recorded from probably '88 through to '90, and some of the stuff he'd co-produced. Also a couple of tracks that I'd worked on, and learnt the ropes on - he was my mentor in the studio. Obviously Mark and I hit it off, cause we were totally into the same music. I'd been playing at a small night club called the Bowgie, with Richard and the Rephlex posse, and it was that shared love of real Detroit techno, Carl Craig, Derrick May, Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, Kraftwerk, European R&S, UK Warp, and Dutch Eevo Lute. It was all those influences that were similar - and even beyond electronic music. We were both into The Smiths and The Cure, U2 and The Police, and various classic, very musical, typical mid-80's big bands. Mark was into My Bloody Valentine and Meat Beat Manifesto, the industrial edge of things as well, and it was just a really interesting fusion. We got talking about our shared love of this music, and about how maybe there was an opening for our own outlet. Mark had already started a Reload project - did you finish the first EP more or less?

Mark: Yeah, I think so. I'd recorded the first EP with a guy called Head who produced PJ Harvey. The only studio in the area was run by this guy called Head, so I'd go in and work on stuff with him, for the first few things, cause I didn't have a studio then. So he mixed the first one, and John Parish, who still works with Polly [PJ], he mixed bits of the second one. He's a singer and guitarist, but he also used to play bits of metal percussion, kind of industrial style, he had a band years before that doing that kind of thing. And then the label, the name Evolution came from, well, I'd got the Fragile Carl Craig release that had "Evolution" and "Static Friendly", but the artwork was confusing. They were the wrong way round, so the one that we both really liked, like we were both "Wow this is unbelievable", so we named the label after that track, but it was actually the wrong track, haha.

"We were young and excited and wanted to do it... and just did it. Naively but with the right intention."

Tom: The tracks actually called "Galaxy". But it wasn't for quite a few years that we realized the naming on the record was wrong. But that was the thing about those records on Transmat and Fragile, and their artwork, there was a mystique to it, you didn't know who the people were who made it. But it was very evocative, and the music spoke volumes. It was deep, it was thoughtful, it was seriously funky, edgy with bundles of attitude, really next level electronica from our perspective. That, combined with our love of artists like Black Dog, was a whole bunch of stuff that inspired us, but equally, we knew we had our own perspective. I'd always wanted to create, and it wasn't until I met Richard and learnt the ropes in the studio, and met Mark and realized that we had quite a lot in common musically, that I thought we could actually do something and release music. Mark had some great connections with Great Asset Distribution, so the inroad to actually physically producing records and getting them into the shops was quite easy. My experience before that was helping A&R the first Aphex Twin record for Mighty Force. So my initial experience was working in a record shop, bringing Richard's music to Mighty Force and them deciding, "yeah let's do a label." I remember going to London on the train with boxes of white labels and taking them round the record stores on a sale or return basis. That was my introduction to the actual physical distribution of music, and it was interesting that we both did the "schlepping it" on the train to London with boxes of records, and selling them… for cash!

Mark: I suppose [the label] was kind of natural. We just did it without thinking really. The artwork side of things, well, Tom trained to be a graphic designer, so he did all the artwork. We kept a similar mystique, the artwork is all hand-done, which gives it a nice quality, and also you can tell we're both into Op Art, so a little bit of that was going on. Classic logos too, from the 60s and 70s. But we were.. young haha! Young and excited and wanted to do it and just did it. Naively but with the right intention.

Tom: Big time. I mean the manifesto was "Emotions In Sound" but we didn't even realize at that point what we were doing. There was a kind of purity to that creative process, and there was no agenda. We weren't really aspiring to be Carl Craig or Derrick May, but we wanted to express ourselves in that realm, and we felt we had something to say as well. There was a lot of exploration and research, but equally the stuff we were doing was different. We really liked certain sounds, the palette for Detroit techno. But it was what you had access to, and in fact we were really ingenious and we both grasped that concept that the world is sound, and anything you hear has the potential to be made into music through sampling. I remember Mark heading down to local factories to do sessions of recording of industrial machinery and those kind of textures. Also sitting with Richard in his garage while he was beating the hell out of bits of metal and wood, and using those as rhythms for his Surfing And Sinewaves album. Once you get your head around that concept of "record it, sample it, turn it into rhythms and harmony and melody," then you're off. The likes of Mathew Herbert have made a career out of that. I think that's one of the key things that people should wake up to - not to rely on what's pre-set in a computer now. Actually you could record something and you could make music from scratch with just what's around you, what's in your pocket and what's in the room, what's outside your door. There's quite a lot of laziness, I think, a lot of reliance on other people's decision-making, and we were very resourceful with the tools we had. Mark's first set-up was minimal in a sense.

Mark: Yeah the Casio FZ1. It's the sampler which Richard used as well, LFO also used it. It had really good filters, and the bass that you could filter in there was massive. But the filters were interesting, lots of limitations, not much sampling time. So if we wanted to sample something that was quite long, we had to sample it, then speed it up maybe two or three octaves, and then put it back on DAT, and then sample that again, and then slow it down. Things like that at the time seemed like a pain in the arse, but through doing that you started getting some digital aliasing character, cause you're downsizing the sample…

Tom: It's great!

Mark: It gives it character. So using that old gear and the limitations, that was what made that stuff sound really good.

Mark and Tom in Madrid 2011 Mark Pritchard and Tom Middleton

Tom: We worked hard. I mean, doing a mixdown was actually choreographed. We'd do versions, and check them out in Mark's car and check we had the balance we wanted. Then we would go back into the studio, and it would literally be at the desk, and we both knew that throughout the mixdown when we were hitting play on the hardware sequencer - this is even before computers - that we were ready and poised for bar-whatever-it-was to add reverb or delay, ride the levels etc. It was just a really hands-on process. A lot of that's lost now, again we rely on computers to make decisions and choices for us. It's the same with the analogue to digital, I think we've been really lucky to come through that transition, and obviously it's reflected in the musical repertoire. Maybe we should talk about some of the specific tracks and go through those processes, because as a starting point creatively, it's always interesting to see what initiated that path to get to an end result. Whether it was a trip to a club to hear LTJ Bukem, or Todd Terry, or just getting vibed up and inspired by other people selecting music, or whether it was just getting a bunch of new records, or CDs or hearing a radio show, or gong to a concert, or even art, TV, or films. I mean we were big into films as well, I think that had an impact on a lot of the music of Reload and The Collection of Short Stories, and Global Communication's 76:14, you can hear there's clearly Vangelis, Eno, Jarre, Kraftwerk, a lot of Tangerine Dream, those sort of influences are definitely there. It's more respectful admiration than blatant ripping off - we didn't sample anything. We always created original music from scratch, and I think that's one of the keys to longevity. If you've got musicality in your blood… Mark, you were in a band, weren't you?

Mark: Guitarist, originally.

Tom: So Mark guitarist, I trained classically, originally played cello in an orchestra, played piano, and then kind of got into the synthesizer thing later on. Mark obviously a bit of drummer as well, I'm a bit of a frustrated bass player, so we're both really musical. We're very lucky in that respect to have that gift of musicality, and the rhythmic sensibility, and the harmonic side of things, they're really important traits. Some people have no idea what we're talking about when you break it down into those fundamental components. And to make music, yeah there has to be something natural inside of you that can kind of kick things off. Would you agree?

"... you could make music from scratch with just what's around you, what's in your pocket and what's in the room, what's outside your door."

Mark: Yeah. I suppose when we met it was Detroit techno, Chicago house, early New York house, and then there was what was happening in the UK, which was like the early breakbeat records like Meat Beat Manifesto, and 2 Kilos ?, and that eventually morphed into what became jungle. By the time it got to that point, there weren't that many records coming out of Detroit, by the time what we were into it. That stuff was just a bit before we started DJing, then there was the drum'n'bass thing. I think I heard "Music" by Bukem about '93, at some massive rave. I remember walking out of the place, and then hearing this track and walking back into the place, 'cause I just heard this bass line and drum beat and I was like "what the hell?" I actually walked back into the rave, I was about to go home cause I was tired, and I walked back in thinking "this is unbelievable". That was '93, so for us the Detroit techno and Chicago house thing, I mean there wasn't loads of it. Taste-wise I guess I wasn't hearing stuff coming out of there that I liked, and there was always stuff coming out from the UK and Europe that was exciting. That was the time when jungle was really exciting.

Tom: It was so new. Fusing reggae sound system culture, with sped-up hip hop breakbeats, and the MC culture, and that whole kind of movement that exploded in the UK. Well, see where it's left us now, with all the bass-rooted hybrids and genres. At that point we were absorbing everything, and it wasn't just dance music or stuff that we were listening to in clubs. We were both listening to other music outside of that, you know? Contemporary classical, soundtrack scores. We were big into Talk Talk at that point, weren't we?

Mark: Yeah.

Tom: Mark Hollis' album came up on the radar at that point...

Mark: That was '94?

Tom: Peter Gabriel's soundtrack to The Last Temptation Of Christ, amazing album that, so deep! And you gather inspiration from hearing how other people tell a story in sound. We were really excited by what we could do in that context. That lead to these Global Communication explorations, and finding the "Emotions In Sound" concept, using the natural rhythms, like the heartbeat for the very first track, as the backbone to the track rather than a drumbeat, and then exploring dub reggae echo patterns, cinematic textures, and… Bingo! Wayne from GPR was the first one to pick up on it, wasn't he? He was managing Black Dog at the time, and I remember Renaat at R&S just freaked when he heard it, and we got quite a lot of press from that. It was flattering being based in the South West of England, to us was like we were in no-man's land.

Mark: It's just farmers down there!

Tom: We couldn't believe that the magazines like NME were picking up on the music we were releasing. Suddenly we'd made this connection. Fat Cat Records was a really big stepping stone for us, Dave Corely and Alex Knight championed our music, and from that point things grew. We started meeting new people, started getting out of the West Country and up to London and started DJing a bit more, and it grew.

Mark: But the reason why we had the different names, was because we were always into different music, and we wanted to make different music. I suppose that's the simple way of putting it. We were aware of the purists, and I'm definitely quite purist on the genres that I like, but we had to come up with different names for the people who were purists. If you were into techno, then all of a sudden if that person made a house record, the techno people would diss you, or they wouldn't bother listening to you. "Oh, those guys are doing house now, they've lost it." Then if you did another techno record, they'd say "Oh, we're not checking you guys." That was happening, and so that was the reason why we had the different names. It wasn't something we wanted to do, I like a little bit of the unknown, secret names, building the mystique - but having to have the amount of names we had was stupid really.

"We kind of shot ourselves in the foot by not sticking to one project name."

Tom: I think on reflection, and knowing what I know now, if we'd stuck to one brand it would have been a lot easier. We kept people on their toes for many years, and still, people are like "Oh! You did that did you?" Great in many ways, but we kind of shot ourselves in the foot by not sticking to one project name. The evolution of the sound would have been natural under whatever name anyway. But because we quite liked the naming of a project, and giving it its own niche, we stuck with that for years. Just to try and make it easier for people to keep up with us in those niche markets, and as Mark said, there was definitely a lot of musical snobbery at that time. If you were perceived to be doing another style, that was it, you were getting dissed left right and centre. So we had to go under the radar with certain projects.

Mark: Yeah, it was hardcore. I remember walking into record shops and people asking me about what I was into, and if I'd say jungle, or even just other electronic artists, they'd just laugh, like I was joking. And I'd say, "no this stuff's amazing!" There was a lot of that going on, especially in the electronic and techno side of things, and the purist house people. Drum 'n' bass people seemed to be more open in a way, most of the drum 'n' bass producers I met, a good amount of them were really into Detroit techno, and were really into house - Grooverider used to do house sets. Doc Scott was a big Detrit techno fan. You can hear it in what they were sampling or the inspiration in their music. They were also into hip hop, and drum 'n' bass came from reggae UK sound system culture, Public Enemy were a big influence on that, speeding up drum breaks and energy. It came about from all these different things, so that's why I suppose we were drawn to that style, because it was more open, in a way. Then it became more purist, and got boring.

Tom: There are those pioneers that are paving the way forward and exploring new territory, and then suddenly something clicks with a universal consciousness. Then it starts getting watered down and watered down, and then you have Skrillex.

Tom: The first [ambient] project was actually a b-side to(Mystic Institute's The Cyberdon EP, and we didn't even realize what was happening at the time, but actually we were exploring a pretty new territory. I think there was a bit of ambient going on at that time, The Orb had just started doing things, but we weren't consciously making ambient music. We love Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, and a lot of that Opal Music, EG Records, that was a big influence, we loved it. But there wasn't a decision 'yes, let's make ambient'. The project evolved naturally.

Mark: There wasn't even a real genre for it. It later got called chill out, which is terrible.

Tom: Oops.

Mark: Chill out rooms, Mixmaster Morris… There was only really two ambient DJs, weren't there? Mixmaster Morris and maybe Alex Patterson and then maybe some Goa beach DJs, but there wasn't exactly a movement. But I suppose that track on The Cyberdon EP, "Ob-Selon Mi-nos", it was a remix of a track done by another guy, but we'd added so much and changed it, it was our own track, wasn't it? Then before that we'd recorded the first Global Communication 12" on Evolution Records, and from then it was the Chapterhouse remixes that happened. This indie band Chapterhouse really liked the first few Global things, and one of the guys from the band, called Andy Sherriff, he had the idea to give us the whole album, all the parts of everything, and then say do what you want. Just use the reverb of one guitar and detune that and make a whole new track. So we did a whole new album of interpretations of their album, and that led us to getting signed to Dedicated Records, which is like an indie label really, they have Spiritualised, Chapterhouse…  Who else did they have?

Tom: Slowdive?

Mark: Yeah it's a shoe-gazey, indie kind of vibe. But they ended up dropping Chapterhouse and signing us, which was a bit of a shame.

Tom: Rather ironic!

Mark: We didn't want them to get dropped, they were really nice guys. But I suppose it was that really, the Chapterhouse remixes, and then the album, and then the Warp 69 remix.

Tom: Remotion? A compilation of our remixes… The japanese loved our stuff! Quite a bunch, Navcats, Soft Ballet, some interesting remixes. The Grid...

Mark: But yeah I think Warp 69 was definitely a big one.

Tom: Yeah that's a key track, and that got played by the drum 'n' bass DJs at the wrong speed! Which was another testament to that connection into different markets, and we've always been like that. Being able to connect with different people in a scene, and not being so purist was actually an asset, and has actually given us longevity in the industry.

"We both grasped that concept that the world is sound, and anything you hear has the potential to be made into music through sampling."

Mark:  We did a remix for Depeche Mode as Jedi Knights, and then their lawyers contacted them saying 'you can't use that name', not realizing that it was an act, thinking they'd just done their own' Jedi Knights' mix. So we then had to just not say anything. They unfortunately had to withdraw all the records, luckily we didn't sign a contract or they could have sued us for that. Then all the press got hold of it, and they wanted us to comment, and we were like… 'No!' haha

Tom: Yeah. Shhhhh run away!

Mark: Apparently George Lucas was not a fan of any link to club culture. I don't know if he'd gone to clubs, but maybe he'd been advised that it was linked to drugs, and he didn't like that.

Tom: Unsavory.

Mark: He didn't want his brand to be associated with that, which was a bit of a shame really. In that generation, we grew up with his films.

Tom: We own his content, if you like, we made it our content. Star Wars and everything it stood for at the time, that's something that we've grown up with, and it was paying respect, nothing more. Just a shame that Mute Records had to foot the bill for printing 20,000 units. Ouch. Big Ouch.

Mark: I think someone from Mixmag knew that I was into Azymuth, and he said 'Oh, do you know Joe Davis is doing a reissue of that? I'd never met Joe Davis, who runs Far Out Records. But I  think I just called him up, and said "are you doing this re-issue? I like Azymuth, we'll do a remix."  I think we did it for nothing, didn't we?

Tom: Whoops! That was a mistake.

Mark: Basically we did it and it did really well. But then I suppose later down the line, I ended up working with him, so that's a good thing I suppose. But I suppose you're still owed something for that… haha!

Tom: Yessss. You learn.

Mark: But at the end of the day, we were just doing things to get our music out there, and as much as maybe there wasn't any money, you just put the things out there and you hope that in time, you'll get it back in another way. You're putting the energy out there, and maybe you don't get paid, but something will happen in the future from that.

Tom: Like the other Tom Middleton in Canada, who's been getting my royalties all these years that I've only just found out about. I kid you not!

Mark: Oh Jesus!

Tom: So anyone who releases music, make sure you get registered and check those numbers.

Mark: That's crazy.

Mark: There's a series Back In The Box, they're based in Bristol. I've known them for years, and he thought we'd be good people to do stuff with. We've had various tracks on Back In The Box through the years, different people have put our tracks on there, but yeah we thought what can we do? It's difficult, cause when you're looking at that era and what we were into, we thought it seemed a good idea to take the Detroit music that inspired us, and then England, Holland, and Belgium's answer to that, and just keep it at that. I mean we could've gone into Chicago house and other stuff, but there's no way we could've done it. So we thought that was a nice way to do this first one, and see if we could do more at some point.

Tom: All of the tracks on that compilation are basically representative of the "Emotions In Sound" manifesto, from our perspective. What it was about those tacks that connected with us was that we were feeling the same the same things that the producers were feeling when they produced those tracks. We made the decision to put the bulk of the tracks that were quite club-focused on one disc, and the stuff that was deeper and more subliminal on the other disc, to differentiate the two. But even within that, it's heavy-duty emotions in sound. Electronic emotions in sound, it's really representative of a time. We've got some fantastic feedback from that, come the end of the year, I think a lot of people will be waving that one, saying this is an important document. You need curators and archivists to be digging and preserving this stuff, that actually has more than just two-dimensions. This is something I'm particularly fascinated by, dimensionality in music, and how you quantify emotions in sound. A lot of those tracks, even if it's just the raw funk of Kevin Saunderson's track, there's something about the way that he put that together, and mixed it down, just the attitude behind it so funky and so sexy and so emotional from that perspective that you have to highlight that in all the tracks he wrote. Also Derrick's archive, very difficult to get anything from Transmat, so we had to go for his collaboration with Steve Hillage, System 7.

Mark: I think he's planning a comp, that's why he's holding off…

Tom: Oh is he? Ahhhhh, OK.

You can listen to the audio version of Tom and Mark's Fireside Chat radio show here.

By Red Bull Music Academy on March 27, 2012

On a different note