Interview: Mark Fell

The acclaimed experimental electronic musician, installation artist and graphic designer speaks to Lisa Blanning about his latest solo effort Sensate Focus and the pitfalls of making transformative techno.

Aoki Takamasa

Mark Fell is usually known for his partnership with Mat Steel as the Sheffield-based duo SND. The two have been releasing records on labels such as Mille Plateaux and Raster-Noton since the late 1990s, taking a six year break (with only the pseudonymous Blir album released during that gap) between 2002-’08. They came back with a vengeance, opening an extensive tour for Autechre and releasing the triple 12" 4,5,6, followed swiftly by the album Atavism in ’09. But in 2010 and ’11, Fell released no less than four solo albums. Solo, the angular electronics and palette specificity were familiar to SND fans, as was the algo-rhythmic loveliness of his generative, techno-informed patterns.

In early 2012, Fell released his Sensate Focus project. The name also applied to his new imprint – distributed through Peter Rehberg’s Editions Mego label – as well as the title of the release, a two-track 12". While Sensate Focus sounded unmistakably like Mark Fell, it was a side of him always implied, but never before realised. Its take on house and techno makes those two decades-old ideas sound brand new. Employing a sensual warmth, appropriate for the name, and the familiar energy of dance music, the exploratory rhythm compositions are layered beat patterns with funk and flair, evoking an undeniable body response as well as igniting the imagination.

It’s interesting because I’ve been following your career for a while now, but it seems like 2010 was a big year for you. There was an onslaught of solo material, plus a slew of new collaborations from that point on.

I knew I was quite good at what I did, sort of, [laughs] but I thought, I’m not actually doing it, I’m not actually making it public. I’ve always made a lot of stuff, but I’m quite self-critical and so for a long time, the vast majority of what I did I never actually released. It was almost private experiments. And then I just thought, ‘this is really stupid, I really ought to get it out there’, so I just decided to focus on actually consolidating what I’d done and make a CD of it. I wanted to get my work out there and I just felt it was the right time to do it. I guess that happened twice in my professional career. In the late [19]90s, when me and Mat [Steel] started SND, I had a similar feeling of, ‘I really need to get my act together and make a statement’ about the kind of music I want to make. It happened in ’98 and it happened I think in 2010.

’98 was when SND first came out, but there was a big break in SND’s career. There was a six year gap.

Again, there wasn’t, because we kept doing stuff. All that time we were in the studio making stuff. For us, there’s music and the music world. I’m more interested in music than the music world, if you see what I mean. It might appear like there’s a six year gap, but it’s only a six year public gap. For all that time, constantly we were working on things, and music and making music. We were as active as we’ve ever been, it’s just we never put anything in the public domain. For a lot of musicians and people making music, music producers, there’s an emphasis, like success or progress is kind of equated with how many releases you’re doing, how many gigs you’re doing. I think, for me, it was quite a liberating thing to realise that you don’t have to do that. There’s a difference between making music and the music world. So my concern was to make progress in the music rather than make progress as an artist with a career. Obviously, the two are connected, it’s not like one happens in a vacuum, but I think you can have differences of emphasis. Just because there’s nothing public doesn’t mean that there’s nothing going on.

SND live at MUTEK (2009)

There’s this interview that you did for the Teeming Voice blog, I’m going to read this quote for you. You say, “I’m far more comfortable with an audience reacting negatively to what I do, than reacting positively. Like if I’m DJing and people start to nod their heads or move about a bit, I really find it quite unpleasant. And with music making, there is a definite emphasis on trying to disappoint the audience… [G]enerally I’m after a complete lack of energy in both my performances or how the audience responds. A complete lack of anything you might want to get into.” This interview dates from 2007 – fair enough if you’ve completely changed your mind since then. But how do you go from that response to the idea of wanting to bring out more of a techno flavour, which I think you’ve done. I think that Sensate Focus seems to be the pleasure centre of Mark Fell. And techno, dance music, there’s a lot of hedonism that’s associated with that, and the bodily pleasure of dancing, or of rhythm really, not just even of dancing. And then the response that you made in 2007.

I guess to a certain extent I changed my mind. I’m not from a musical background, I’ve never learned music or studied music, so the whole way that music is presented, for me, I always felt a little bit like I wasn’t fully at ease with the idea of performance and entertainment. As an artist, for me anyway, I was constantly thinking about this relationship with the audience and trying to understand. It is quite a complex relationship that an artist has with their audience, so I guess throughout my professional life I’ve been trying to understand and make sense of that and find ways of articulating it. And I think the interview that you just quoted, I was probably on a bit of a downer or something. [laughs] I never make music in order to please people, or in order to make people feel happy or in order for them to be excited, or have a party or whatever. But if people do that, if people do enjoy the music, then that’s good, but it’s not like I make the music for that reason. I’ve seen a lot people that started off really good, and then started to play live and got sucked into this dynamic of just giving the audience a good time, so the music starts off really interesting, but then five years down the line, after five years of live shows, they’re just making really banal kind of party music. And that’s not really what I wanted to do. I think that as well, around the time, I did the DVD project Attack On Silence for Richard [Chartier]’s label [Line], which was very long, it’s incredibly boring. And also as a performer, all I had to do on stage was press one button every three or four minutes. So it’s kind of like a personal challenge to see if I could do as little as possible on stage, and it was like an exercise of trying to resist the temptation to do more and more and more stuff on stage, to be more and more active on stage.

You also talk about “the presentation of works that still feature people stooped over laptops nodding in time to a beat.” If you take out the last bit of that phrase, it’s funny because a) that’s what you do and b) that anecdote you just told me, it’s almost an exercise in taking that to the extreme, the idea of a non-performance.

Or the idea that the performer isn’t trying to display, or engender feelings of excitement or ‘getting into it’. Around that time both Mat and I made a definite decision never to nod our heads on stage in time to music. When we first started doing it, you kind of get into it, you start nodding your head, and it is a bit of a signal to the audience that the performers are enjoying it. But what’s going on in that kind of relationship? It’s like prompting the audience to respond in a certain way, or to have some assumptions about how we’re relating to the music. So yeah, since that point, neither of us have nodded our heads on stage in time to music. [laughs]

Does that come from wanting the audience to make their own assessment, or it to be about the music? I’m extrapolating here. What would it be in your words?

I don’t really know. I guess it would be something that I found a little distasteful about the whole ‘let’s have a good time’ kind of thing. I guess a lot of it stems from my experiences of going to clubs and parties and things around the late 80s and early 90s when the whole house music scene started to emerge in England. I was lucky that I was in Sheffield, there was a lot happening there, a lot of really good music being made and clubs and things. And I was at art college at the time that all the Sheffield scene was kind of happening, and the art college group of people were very much a part of it. So I’d go along to those nights, the early Warp – people like Winston Hazel who was in Forgemasters, still is in Forgemasters. So I’d go along to all that stuff, but I never drank alcohol or smoked cigarettes or took drugs, so I was the clean living one. So for me it was always like, I was there, but I could never really get into the total ‘off your face, going for it’ kind of dance type vibe. So I was stood at the side of the dancefloor, just listening to the music. Although I was quite involved in that scene as an audience member, I always felt quite removed from it. In my experience, the scene started to go wrong when people started to have way too many drugs and people started having nervous breakdowns and things. I guess the music I make now is still somehow related to that kind of critical attitude. On the one hand, really being into it. On the other hand, really being quite critical of how that can go wrong.

Model of Sheffield Mark Fell

Are you referring to all of your output or more specifically to Sensate Focus?

I think all of it. All of the music that I make is without a doubt grounded in house music and techno musics from that period, to some extent. Certainly the things I’ve done over the past three or four years, even though they’ve been kind of unusual rhythmically, I think they still kind of have their origins in that period.

How does your working process differ for the Sensate Focus material versus the solo material under your own name?

Well, there’s a very, very clear difference. All of the solo material that I do is made using generative systems. So, typically I use Max/MSP and I create something that generates patterns and I change the parameters and record the output. None of my solo work is ever constructed in a timeline using a grid that you might use to put beats in. So that was a very clear method. On the other hand, for Sensate Focus, everything is done using the pencil icon in Digital Performer, which is the software I use. So that was why the logo is a pencil – we had pencils made, because everything is made using the pencil tool. You know in this kind of software, you have a grid and you can put the notes it, draw them in and make them shorter or longer and stuff. So everything’s done with the pencil, so there’s a very clear distinction between the generative stuff that I do under my name and the other stuff with the pencil.

Obviously, they still sound related. One of the reasons they still sound related is the sound palette. At least 50% of it sounds like it’s the same sound palette that you might hear on a Mark Fell record or a SND record. Obviously the biggest change is the rhythms. The rhythms are a lot more explicit, but the thing that I think that’s really great about it is it’s really accomplished. It feels as though it is related to house and techno, but the rhythms seem really complex and they seem really flexible and they seem that they’re shifting, but it’s really dancey. So it works on a lot of levels, because it does hit those pleasure centres, it does hit the hedonism spot, but it’s also music that you can listen to and not get bored of because it’s not just repetitive four to the floor. It’s not these simple patterns, they seem complex. You might not think of them that way, but for a listener – I assume other people might feel the same way – the construction sounds a bit more complicated than your average techno.

For a start, in terms of sound palette, there are two different kinds of sounds that I use on the Sensate Focus stuff that I’d never use in any other context. One of them is vocal samples, and the other is very kind of sweepy chords. Me and Mat use nice little chords and I use chords, but I never use really lush, shimmery, kind of washy type chords, if you know what I mean. And those are done on Errorsmith’s synths, Razor. Razor is the new ingredient, although I used it on the Manitutshu double 12".

Mark Fell – First Algorithm Test (Manitutshu)

That was meant to be for Errorsmith, wasn’t it?

Well, he asked me to [make] loads of presets, which I did. And then Native Instruments rejected them all. [laughs] That didn’t bother me at all, but I thought, ‘this is kind of an opportunity to turn a potential negative into a positive’. So, I made a record announcing the fact that all the presets had been rejected. I like interesting stories like that. It actually created a bit of a feel around the record, sort of a context.

So anyway, there’s the sound palette and the pattern, the kind of rhythmic structure of the things in Sensate Focus. What I was trying to do was create rhythms that were still kind of driving and you could still feel the groove in the rhythm, but that wasn’t a kind of ’doo doo doo doo’ [imitates four to the floor] type of rhythm. And actually, to do that, for me personally, is the hardest thing I can do. It’s an incredibly difficult thing to do. Even though me and Mat have been working for maybe 14 years together now, it’s still something that we struggle with: the balance between creating a rhythm that has the right level of drive and the right level of kind of unusualness. With Sensate Focus, what is probably different about Sensate Focus to a lot of other house music or club music is that the time signatures are not four/four. I don’t really know about music, but in a grid you’ll normally have four beats, so you can break it up. You know there’s normally like four beats or eight beats or whatever; one of the tracks on the first 12", instead of looping over eight beats, it loops over seven.

And you know you can chop the bar into 16ths? Like the hi-hat will be like 16 of those in a bar? Instead of looping it over 16, I might loop it over 13 or 15. But what’s interesting is using those time signatures with relatively normal sounds, like kick drums, some nice lush chords and vocal sample, you can get away with it, and it doesn’t sound weird or abstract. But what’s actually good about doing that is you can create rhythms that have certain tensions within parts of the loop, which would otherwise be difficult to achieve or perhaps impossible, if you just stuck to a regular four/four structure. Often when you’re doing a loop, it’s like, ‘oh, if only I had a little bit more time at the end of the loop just to put this other thing in’, so it’s kind of like you run out of space or you have too much space. So kind of collapsing or expanding the loop point and just giving it a different time signature, it enabled me to do rhythms that would otherwise be impossible.

Arthur Russell – Arm Around You

So you’re talking about using certain gear and certain programs, there’s this other interview I read where you talk about how maybe the perfect sound for you is the JazzOrg preset on the Yamaha DX100, which is used on that Arthur Russell song “Arm Around You”. And I really can see why this would be something that you would like, it’s got this really lovely sound to it, but it’s a really dry sound, there’s no reverb on it and it just sort of stops. And I’m thinking to myself, I haven’t heard that exact sound used by you guys, but then I thought it’s something that I could hear on one of those records. But I never really associate you with outboard gear.

Outboard gear, I think, is favourable in a lot of cases. It does seem to have a quality that software doesn’t, but with outboard gear, it’s difficult for me to the do the things I want to do. Yeah, I don’t really use outboard gear, and also just the convenience. It’s much easier to open a laptop and have everything ready to go, without having to plug loads of wires in and things. I’ve got a studio space, but to be honest I never go in there. I just sit at the kitchen table with the laptop and look out the window and that. So I don’t really need a lot of stuff and I have a few sound modules that I’ve kept, but I don’t really need much equipment, I’ve just got a decent pair of speakers and a computer.

But I’m not from a computer science background or anything. I use Max/MSP and I think I’m probably quite good in Max/MSP, but I don’t really consider myself to be a computer programmer. I’m not some kind of… maybe I am some kind of nerd, I don’t know. [laughs] Like, I’ll just mess about basically, and see what happens. The vast majority of systems that I make are very, very simple, unbelievably simple. Because the music sounds complex, there’s an assumption that somehow the software or the systems are very, very elaborate or whatever, but that isn’t the case. It’s very crude pattern generating systems that just seem to make the kind of things that I want to make. But I think just down to the way I am and my way of working, the structures quite well organised on screen. You know in Max it’s a graphic thing where you can move things around and connect the lines, so they are very neat and organised and tidy.

[For Sensate Focus] I use Digital Performer, which is the digital audio workstation, and within that I’m running Razor to produce sounds and Battery to hold samples sometimes FM8 as well. So actually it’s all Native Instruments stuff. I should be sponsored by Native Instruments. [laughs] I think that FM8 and Battery are just great bits of software – like Multistability was all FM8 and Battery, basically. And Erik [Wiegand, aka Errorsmith]’s Razor thing, I just think it’s a really good bit of software. So they produce the sounds, Max/MSP produces the patterns. But I like normal types of sounds. In a lot of my work, I’m not really that interested in producing weird sounds. Like, I’m interested in producing weird patterns with normal sounds. But then there is some work that I do which is more about the exploration of synthetic sounds. So, in that case, I might develop synthesis algorithms in Max/MSP. For example, for sound installations or the UL8 album that I did on Editions Mego, a lot of that is not using – in fact, none of it uses FM8. And all of it is either just samples or synthesis that I’ve made in MSP.

Mark Fell – Death of Loved One (UL8)

I think it’s interesting that you can use a really wide array of different programs in various combinations and still manage to retain an identity through it all, which I think you do.

Well, I think a lot of it is to do with the sounds that I choose. I do tend to have very clear choices about which sounds are right and which sounds are wrong for the kind of thing I do. And actually, when I started doing the Sensate Focus thing, the first 12", it was really difficult because every choice I made, made it sound much more like a Mark Fell release, if you see what I mean. So I’d kind of end up choosing drum sounds which were the kind of drum sounds that I’d use on my solo work. So it’s like I had to start making decisions, like for example the kick drum sounds on Sensate Focus are very different to the kick drum sounds I’d use in my solo work. I had to resist the habit of doing certain things to kick drums to make them sound certain ways. Also there are certain percussion sounds on the Sensate Focus – actually it’s a CD of Aboriginal music that I sampled lots of percussion sounds from. And that’s used on Sensate Focus, which I’d never use that on my solo work. And also, there’s use of reverberation on Sensate Focus, which I’ve never used reverb on my work, either.

Because I had no money, I’d read music technology magazines. I knew exactly the structure and synthesis architecture of nearly all the synths that were released in the 80s without ever having touched one, just because I was so obsessed by them.

Yeah, these are all the things that really do sound different. Especially the drums, and the fact that there is reverb. And also there’s bass, too. Because with SND bass is really more of a frequency exploration.

Well, I’ve never really been able to do basslines, so SND, I think there was one track on a compilation CD that once had a bassline, but apart from that we’ve never done a bassline and none of my solo stuff ever has basslines. And the Sensate Focus stuff doesn’t have a bass sound in, but maybe it’s just some kind of bit of some other sound you can hear. But there is one sound from the TX81Z called Lately Bass which is a fantastic sound, so I use that quite a lot on most of my work. The other thing is the FM8 synth by Native Instruments can input sounds from the TX81Z and the DX100 – they’re Yamaha’s FM synths, by the way. Sorry I’m going really nerdy! [laughs] So Yamaha made, around the late 80s or something, I can’t remember, they brought out the TX81Z, which was a rack mount module, and the DX100, and they were very similar kind of synthesizers. Both use [four operator FM synthesis] and FM8 by Native Instruments can import those sounds. So that’s what I do with them. Sorry! [laughs]

This does prove that there is an element of gear geek going on, as well.

Oh yeah, when I was a kid I was completely obsessed. Because I had no money, I’d read music technology magazines. I knew exactly the structure and synthesis architecture of nearly all the synths that were released in the 80s without ever having touched one, just because I was so obsessed by them.

What happened to me was I spent a long time craving synthesizers, and then I met someone while I was at university who was from a much more affluent background than me, and he had a studio and lots of equipment. And all he used to do basically was talk about what equipment he was going to buy and he never made any music. And I think that’s still probably the case, he’s probably still hoarding equipment. I kind of learned a lesson about the pitfalls of being obsessed with equipment, so I tend to use just one piece of equipment. When I do use an external module, it tends to be just one module per track or per album, so like on Atavism for example, Yamaha made a thing that’s called FS1R synthesizer, which is a rack mount, so that more or less does all the sounds on Atavism. Apart from the percussion sounds.

SND - 05:36:58

You’re giving away all your secrets here.

Well, they’re not secrets! Like I’m not particularly worried about people knowing what I use or how I do it. I think, ‘let them have a go’. [laughs] And they’ll come up with something different. Like I think most of the music I make, I kind of start out as trying to copy things. Like when Mat and me first started making music, it was like, ‘oh, let’s copy a bit of Mike Ink, let’s copy a bit of Thomas Brinkmann, let’s copy a bit of New York house’. And we tried to copy these things and did a very bad job of copying them and came out with something a bit different. I’m not really interested in being territorial or protective about what it is I do. So if anyone emails me I’ll give a hopefully very full answer about how to do what I do, technically. People should teach each other and if those people pick up the technology and do something better, then that’s really good.

Yeah, but I like that people can sound distinctive. And you’re right, a lot of it is the sound palette thing. How much time do you think you spend constructing samples, modifying them?

A long, long time. I don’t sample loops, I might sample specific sounds, and they tend to be from drum machines rather than records, I don’t really sample from record or CD, I tend to use drum machine sounds. I work really quick, so it might take me like, normally I might take like three days to make a 12" single, or maybe a week and a half to make an album. So I work very, very quickly, because I think time restriction is a very healthy thing for me. But with Multistability, I actually took 19 months to make the album, which is unbelievable. I’ve never worked that long on anything, I actually spent a long time just making exactly the right kick sound, exactly the right clap sound. Really what stops people is laziness. I find it really hard to concentrate and just work for a long time on the same thing, but I thought, ‘if I want the quality of my music to go up a gear, it just comes down to hard work, basically, and concentration and just perseverance’. So that’s what I did, I spent a long time on every specific sound. Like really, really long time, [laughs] which was probably a waste of time, because you can’t hear it. But the good thing is that now I have those sounds and I can use them quite quickly. And I have the techniques that I’ve kind of worked out how to make specific things.

Mark Fell - Multistability 7-B

You might not be able to hear it in the sense that you can’t tell how long you’ve spent working on a certain sound, but you can hear it in the sense, ‘oh that sounds like Mark Fell’, or ‘oh, that sounds like SND’. And the source material from the first Sensate Focus 12" came from your collaboration, which isn’t unveiled yet, with Terre Thaemlitz.

Well, the thing with Terre, I don’t know why that’s not out yet, because we did that last December. Terre was playing I think at Cafe Oto, he was playing in France or something, and I said, “Look, try and get over to England,” so I put him in touch with Cafe Oto and that got him his travel to England. He came to stay with me for a week. We’d been talking a long time about making a house music record together, but actually I think the collaboration was quite a tense few days, really. Like Terre’s very focused, a very intelligent person, very clear about what he wants, and I guess I can be quite narrow in my thinking as well. So I think we did have some problems about where our tastes met or overlapped, and I think I wanted to take that project in a different direction. So when Terre went home, I kind of took the files [laughs] and thought, “Okay, this is what I feel like I would have done if Terre had not been present.” So that’s kind of what happened. Basically, I think I took a vocal sample and a kind of synthesizer sound and that became the starting point for the first Sensate Focus 12".

Do you think you would do it live?

I’m not really interested in getting up on stage and having a big party or whatever, but I am interested in presenting those patterns and sounds and things in that context. So I think that Sensate Focus live will happen at some point.

The 12" sold out pretty quick.

I don’t know how many Peter [Rehberg of Editions Mego] made. It’s nice that it sold out, but I’m surprised that it sold out. [laughs]

Why are you surprised?

For me, although house music and techno music, probably more house music, is the thing that I listen to a lot – like I’d say if I had to pin my flag to a specific genre and say, ‘this is what I’m into’, then it’d be house music from like early to mid-90s. And this is why I get on so well with Terre Thaemlitz, it’s probably the only thing we’ve got in common. So house music is what I’m into, it’s my favourite kind of music, really, but I’ve never successfully made any, and I’ve always tried. When me and Mat made the first SND 12", we thought we were making house music. We thought it was a house music 12” and then we listened to it and realised it wasn’t. [laughs] So with Sensate Focus, it is a learning curve for me, it’s not like with my solo work or with SND, I feel very confident, I know exactly when things are right or I have a bunch of techniques that I know I can use. But with the Sensate Focus thing, it is like I’m kind of almost learning as I go along sort of, and doing that in a public arena, as well. For me, the progression of 12"s as they come out will really be a documentation of me learning about those materials and patterns.

Listen to Mark Fell’s live set at ECO Festival in Madrid at RBMA Radio.

By Lisa Blanning on May 10, 2012

On a different note