Jason Swinscoe has been doing business as The Cinematic Orchestra since the late ’90s. Across a collection of albums for London’s Ninja Tune, the producer has found a great deal of success trading in exactly what his project’s name suggests: Cinematic, emotional and textured tunes often overwhelming in their melancholic grandeur. Late last year, we invited Swinscoe to chat about his career at the RBMA Bass Camp in Vienna before a performance later that night. What follows is an edited and condensed sketch of his illustrious career thus far.
We owe you some really nearly painfully beautiful pieces of music. Now, beauty is one of the most difficult terms in arts. What’s your hold on that? Where does beauty in music originate from?
It’s quite a very open and difficult question, that one. Beauty … well, I studied visual art from a very young age. I was drawing frantically when I was five, six years old and playing music. I think beauty is something that comes from the soul, from within. It can be abstract, it can be pictorial, it can be image-based, it can be sonic, it can be sculptural, it can be 3-D, it can be something you touch, but it’s like … I don’t know how else to describe beauty apart from it’s something that’s from within.
When you started, one of the first pieces that you published as Cinematic Orchestra, you sampled a really big classic tragic milestone, “Strange Fruit” from Nina Simone.
That’s right, yes. On my first record, Motion, it’s kind of like homage. There’s quite a few big samples on there and I’ve actually paid the price for sampling them, been caught a number of times. All of them have actually been cleared now but, yes, “Strange Fruit.” It just somehow seemed to fit into that piece of music I was writing at the time. I suppose the inspiration on that first record, as I said, was like a homage to classics like Coltrane and Miles, Ella, Nina Simone and film composers like Bernard Herrmann, Lalo Schifrin, Quincy Jones, people like that. Sampling a lot of old jazz records for rhythms and basslines, and film scores for string sections and electronics and weird sounds really.
You’ve said in the past that you had no musical upbringing. Your parents did not put you on a musical path. What actually brought you to rather eclectic pieces of music?
It started with an acoustic guitar when I was about six. I just kept pestering my mom and dad, I was like, “Please, could you just buy me a … I don’t care how shit it is, if it’s secondhand. Just, can I get a guitar?” They took me into a music store and I sat down and I was like … I was tiny at that point. I was trying to put my arm around this acoustic guitar and I couldn’t reach the strings. I was like, “Jesus, do you have anything smaller?”
When I graduated, people were asking, “Are you doing any more visual arts?” And I said, “Well, for me, it’s the same thing. I’m just translating the ideas to music.”
They pulled this little guitar out of the back room. The guy must have had it for years, and it was out of tune, but I was like, “That will do.” I spent literally two years just listening to the radio and trying to play along to pop songs. I was stretching my fingers trying to work out the notes and chords, and it took me forever. I was like, “This music business is really complicated and difficult.” I was like, “How does it work?” Then it wasn’t … the penny dropped after a couple of years. I think it was maybe a teacher at school who tuned my guitar for me and then I was off.
What brought me to music, I don’t know. I was doing art and film and sculpture at art school, but for me visual art or music is the same thing really. When I graduated, people were asking, “Are you doing any more visual arts?” And I said, “Well, for me, it’s the same thing. I’m just translating the ideas to music.” For me, music’s the one that’s a little bit more universal.
Why would you say didn’t you end up in a rock band?
Well, the first band that I was in while I was at college was a punk rock thing. After I graduated, I started exploring music in a very different way than as a performer or as a musician. I started researching bass players. That led me really deep into the jazz world because I wanted to listen to virtuoso bass playing rather than just rhythm playing. People like Charles Mingus and Stanley Clarke, Jaco Pastorius.
On your first album you were quite a solitary producer, there wasn’t a lot of output from outside.
On the first record, it was just a total exploration on my own, to be honest. There were musicians involved doing live overdubs and a couple of drum things, but it was generally all sampled. I used an old Mac Performa 630 and a S3000 Akai Sampler and Cubase and it was all MIDI. Back in the day I had a maximum of three seconds of sample time, and that limitation was actually a very good thing. Three seconds was the maximum I could have. I was working in mono, I didn’t even have stereo at the time. [laughs] One speaker.
Do you still use samples?
I like to hear some noise and some grit in sounds.
It’s funny, I’ve spent the last seven years in the States – the last two in LA and, before that, I was in New York. I was writing a record then, which I actually ended up scrapping. I’d written all these songs on a guitar or piano, and then got the band in to perform them. It just wasn’t working out. It became too rock-y and a bit too live. For me, there was too much other influence. A whole album that was ready to come out... I just scrapped it, ditched it.
I moved to LA, and when I packed down my studio and then set it back up there, I unboxed my Akai S5000 and I started sampling again. I basically went through my whole record collection. I was like, “I didn’t hear that little bit and I didn’t hear this little bit.” It gave me a lot of inspiration actually. The way a lot of virtual instruments are now, it’s all clean and so digital. I like to hear some noise and some grit in sounds. When you set up some loops, you’ve got these little artifacts in there that you don’t want to get rid of. In a way, they add a lot of character. You can hear other things within it that can give you inspiration to actually write some chord progressions or rhythms. Yes, I’m back sampling and it’s great, it’s a lot of fun.
One of the milestones of your career to my mind is “To Build a Home”...
Not that one.
…which is really… I mean, you must have heard it a thousand times.
I feel I’m shackled to that tune for the rest of my life.
Can you tell us about this song? It has a different approach to rhythm, because there are no drums. For a guy coming out of club culture, it must have been quite a step to leave out the drums completely.
It was definitely a considered thought. I was in clubs a lot at that time, and what I think was happening around Ma Fleur was that I was actually losing interest in the club scene. And so I wanted to write a record which was a little less beat-oriented. For me, it got to the point where it was just all about the beat, it’s like, “Where’s the music?” I was consciously trying to do more songwriting stuff.
Music is such a strong language, and it’s one that I’m just going to continually explore.
With “To Build a Home,” I had a chord progression in Paris, and I went to Montreal, where my manager Dom put me in touch with Patrick Watson. Patrick was introduced to this guy Jeff, who was running Ninja Tune in Montreal at the time. He used to be on the same hockey team. Yes, because they’re Canadians. They love their hockey. Patrick was, I think, quite a pathetic hockey player. He was the goalkeeper, that’s why he got the shit position. But Jeff heard this guy singing occasionally, and he was like, “You should check this guy out.” I got in touch with him and he was doing his own music at the time, writing music to short films.
I just went to Montreal for five days, and we sat down and just wrote that tune. We did it in the first couple of days really. It was a very collaborative experience. I was like, “Patrick, I’ve got these piano chords,” and he just came up with the melody and we wrote the lyrics together. It was just one of those magical combinations of right time and right place.
I have one final question before we open it up to the public. As an artist, you have quite a privileged work situation. You have a lot of time to think about yourself and what you want to make in your life. All these young folks here, they might be in the same position as you one day and they also might ask themselves, what is your role in society as an artist? Do you see yourself just as an entertainer or could there be more?
Interesting question. In terms of making music, I make music not for myself. It’s for other people. It’s not just about entertainment. For me, it’s great to perform and great to be playing here in Vienna tonight. To kind of share love and just share … just connect with people. I think music is such a strong language, and it’s one that I’m just going to continually explore.
Now I’d like to open it up to the public. Does anyone have any questions?
Audience member #1
I was just wondering how, when you sampled more obviously, how the whole clearance process went?
Basically I would submit the samples on the actual original record to the record label, to the publishing side of Ninja Tune, and they would work out whether it was big enough of a sample to then get in touch with the copyright owner. Ninja Tune was a label that pretty much started out as just sampling, with Coldcut, DJ Food, a lot of the Herbaliser stuff. At some point, as their career as a label grew, they had to start clearing stuff. They had to become professional in that sense. They had to clear a lot of old samples or delete records.
You actually don’t really need that many bits of kit to make music. It’s more how you think about it.
When I was starting to put out stuff on Ninja, they were like, “Where’s this from and where’s that from?” They were being quite diligent and some of it got through the net, but then there was a show we did – it was probably about five or six years ago in New York. A journalist from the New York Times came down and was just sample-spotting throughout the show. His review was going, “Oh, this one’s from Jimmy Castor …” Basically, that newspaper went onto the desk of some publishing house in New York and they were just like, “Oh, look at that. We’re going to just slam this band for it.” Because of that journalist, we got slammed for a Jimmy Castor sample and they pushed it really hard. Everything had to get cleared, because what goes around comes around really.
Audience member #2
What does your production set up look like?
It’s an interesting question, because I just packed down my studio from LA and moved it back to Europe. While I was in the States I bought a lot of equipment, a lot of old keyboards, a big Steinway piano and loads of electronic equipment. What I’ve packed it down to now, I’ve got one of the new Macbook Pros and I run Pro Tools.
What I’m just using at the moment is a little thing called a Pocket Piano. It’s got a metal box, metal casing, little wooden keys... It’s got some great sounds in it. They’ve also brought out another one: This yellow box, which is an eight-bit sampler, so you can play stuff. It’s got a little mic on it. I’ve just got these little toys and that’s all I’m using at the moment. Then I’ve got a little something from an Indian company called Radel. There’s like 99 different presets of different rhythms. You can change the BPM, you can link it to your tune… but I’m just recording these things and then messing around with the sounds. I’ve actually stripped right down to very little. It’s the laptop and a few toys, that’s it.
That’s what I need actually. It’s actually quite inspiring. My studio, the rest of my kit, is in storage until I know what I want to do with it. I’ve got loads of guitars and basses and keyboards and I don’t really need any of it now actually, which is quite interesting. You actually don’t really need that many bits of kit to make music. It’s more how you think about it.