Interview: Omni Trio’s Robert Haigh

David Keenan talks to one of the most fascinating and liminal figures in the UK underground.

Best known for his radical re-tooling of drum & bass as Omni Trio throughout the ‘90s and ‘00s, Robert Haigh’s musical activities trace back to the late ‘70s when he founded The Truth Club and Fote Both: groups committed to melding a funked up, post-punk attack with a radical DIY stance, which manifested via one of the more fugitive independent labels of the ‘80s, Haigh’s Le Rey Records.

The early ‘80s saw Haigh connect with the emerging industrial music scene, recording for Steven Stapleton of Nurse With Wound’s United Dairies label under his own name, and radical electro-acoustic persona Sema, before going on to contribute to some of the key Nurse With Wound albums, such as 1985’s The Sylvie & Babs Hi-Fi Companion and 1986’s Spiral Insana. Parallel to his better-known work, Haigh has produced a series of obsessively wrought and desolately beautiful solo piano works that have drawn him into the orbit of contemporary drone minimalists, like Andrew Chalk and Daisuke Suzuki.

In a rare, career-spanning interview, Haigh tracks his musical evolution from his first glam-punk band through his role in the genesis of the UK’s drum & bass sound, to his current guise as a hermetic, instrumental soundist.

Faust - J'ai Mai Aux Dents

How did this transition into Sema? The name references a collection of artists with a connection to Paul Klee; was Sema envisioned as a more “painterly” or abstract approach to crafting sound?

Sometimes it can be a bit tiring working in a group – and I’d been in groups for six or seven years at this point – so it was freeing to be able to just work on my own. I had the freedom to do something much more minimal and atmospheric, and also work with the knowledge that I had no intention of playing this stuff live. And yes, was more like painting with sound; for the first time, using the studio as an integral part of the creative process as opposed to merely the means of recording a conventional set up.

Le Rey Records has a pretty fascinating catalogue. Were you running it entirely on your own? Were there any labels you particularly modeled it on? And what size of pressing runs were you working in on those records?

Initially it came about as a collective project involving me, Trevor, Deborah Harding (of Truth Club) and John Murphy (of Whirlywirld.) But mainly due to logistics it quickly became my thing. It wasn’t modeled on other labels at all. It was simply a platform on which to release our ideas. We pressed 500 of each release apart from the last one, Robert Haigh and Sema’s “Three Seasons Only,” which was a run of 1,000. Although, a couple hundred of those ended up in a skip a few years later when I moved house.

What is the difference between Robert Haigh and Sema?

There was no big concept. I just wanted to make a distinction between the different approaches. Sema was more about textures, layers and collage style production, whereas using my own name seemed appropriate for the stripped back, solo piano stuff.

Nurse With Wound - You Walrus Hurt the One You Love

You worked on several key Nurse With Wound sides. Can you tell me how you first became aware of Steven Stapleton? And what do you recall of the group sessions?

I got to know Steve when I worked (along with Jim Thirlwell and Trevor Reidy) in the Virgin Records on Oxford Street. This had become a bit of a gathering place for experimental musicians at that time. Steve worked in a graphics studio just down the road, and would sometimes hang out there during his lunch breaks. I had been a big fan of the first Nurse With Wound album, Chance Meeting, and we used to play the entire album in the store when the manager was out. We both shared a love of experimental music, particularly certain Krautrock records.

Steve was interested in the music that Trevor and I were producing as Truth Club, and asked us to provide a track for the United Dairies compilation album, Hoisting the Black Flag. From there, we went on to have an involvement in some of the early Nurse With Wound albums. I remember turning up at various studios, particularly one basement studio in Shepherds Bush. I have hazy recollections of experimenting with percussive sounds, pianos, and in particular crouching under pianos manipulating the strings. But these were, shall we say, very relaxed sessions.

The newly formed Warp, R&S Records and Mute were releasing material that made a direct connection with certain innovative post-punk outfits.

Can you recall your first exposure to what became drum & bass? Were you living in London at the time?

If I had stayed in London, I may have not taken the route that I took. The whole thing started when my first daughter was born in 1988. We decided it best to get out of London, so we moved just outside to Ware. I carried on working at Virgin and commuting, but it soon became unworkable as I never got to see my daughter. We decided that we needed a re-think. My wife and I had always fantasized about opening our own record shop and decided, “If not now, when?” So, in the summer of ’89, we opened Parliament Music in Hertford – and something unexpected happened. The sort of stuff that I was used to selling in London wasn’t doing at all well in Hertford. Instead, the kids that were coming in were into a whole different world of obscure house and rave imports, and hardcore white labels – and this is where it started.

I began to immerse myself in this music and by late ’89 or ’90 some of it was really connecting with me. The newly formed Warp, R&S Records and Mute were releasing material that made a direct connection with certain innovative post-punk outfits, like Cabaret Voltaire, 23 Skidoo and Daniel Miller. Tracks by the Forgemasters, Nightmares On Wax, LFO, Renegade Soundwave, Joey Beltram and later Orbital, and the Nu Groove label were giving me the sort of buzz that I’d known in the post-punk era.

The next piece in the jigsaw fell in to place when a customer and DJ told me about a track he’d made on his computer. I was impressed and I offered to put it out – and started a label on the strength of it. I was also intrigued as to how he’d done it. It was all done on a £250 Amiga computer with freeware tracker software. I found this inspiring. It really appealed to my post-punk D.I.Y ethos. I immediately got an Amiga and started to fuse my existing ideas with the new possibilities of sequencing and sampling. Omni Trio grew out of this experimentation.

Meanwhile, a whole bunch of other people were doing something similar and in a short space of time. Rave had become hardcore – from which a strand called breakbeat house developed. This morphed into breakbeat techno, which became jungle techno. And I turned around to find myself part of a movement that was now known as drum & bass. This further splintered into (labeled by journalists) jump-up and “intelligent drum & bass,” darkcore, artcore, and so on. But the point was that it was always pushing forward; trying out new ideas, never settling on one definable style (throughout most of the ’90s, at least).

Omni Trio - The Deepest Cut

How does – if at all – your work as London Steppers/Omni Trio et al. relate to your solo work and your Sema guise? I wonder if your more surreal studio based work with Nurse With Wound and the Sema experiments influenced the obsessively orchestrated sound of Omni Trio? And what was your equipment set up on those early Omni Trio sides?

Apart from the things mentioned above – the DIY attitude and the post-punk connection – throughout my musical output there has always been a leaning towards minimalism, atmospherics and experimentation. Also, juxtaposition has always been important: in my early stuff the dynamic between pure sound and music was key, and later it was the juxtaposition of speed and chilled soundscapes. Lately I’ve been exploring the intersection of the tonal and the atonal, harmony and discord. The early Omni Trio EPs were all done on an Amiga 500 with a copy of ProTracker four-track software and an old TV as a monitor. I already had a Yamaha keyboard, and I got hold of a secondhand sound module. It was a luxury for me to have a four-track studio of my own.

Omni Trio - Ghostrider

How did you become involved with the Moving Shadow label?

This was another case of being in the right place at the right time. I was in Hertford, and Moving Shadow were based just down the road in Stevenage. Sean and Simon from 2 Bad Mice frequented the shop and we made a connection. Also – and not many people know this – but I’d originally sent a cassette tape demo of my tracks to Warp Records, but I never heard anything back from them (I’m sure they must have been receiving hundreds of unsolicited jiffy bags at that time – so I tell myself). Anyway, I was thrilled when Moving Shadow signed me for a couple of EPs. They were renowned for releasing cutting-edge stuff, and were so well regarded that people would buy everything they released at that time. In a sense, I was allowed to get away with my own, often peculiar, brand of drum & bass.

Was jazz a big influence on Omni Trio? Even the name sounds like a futuristic jazz group.

I’d never really considered jazz until the Pop Group came along. In their interviews they would mention Miles Davis and John Coltrane as influences, so I checked them out. Also around this time the whole No Wave scene was blowing up, with people like James Chance and the Contortions and Arto Lindsay, so there was something in the air. At this time I also discovered Keith Jarrett, whose freeform piano style had elements of Debussy and Chopin alongside completely atonal improvisation. This became a big influence for me – as did the music of Bill Evans – and looking back, I can hear traces of on my 1987 Valentine Out Of Season album.

What made you eventually can Omni Trio? I remember reading somewhere that it kind of blew up bigger than you ever expected it to?

Oh yes, I never for a moment expected this thing to blow up the way it did. It started as a kind of side project after I’d opened my record shop, and suddenly it was all consuming. That period was a really creative and exciting time, but towards the end it started to feel a bit claustrophobic – as if there was a certain expectation to adhere to what were becoming drum & bass conventions. By the time of (2004’s) Rogue Satellite I was itching to take it more minimal; to experiment with time signatures and different compositional approaches, incorporating more space and silence. It felt right to make a clean break at this point and, in effect, start from scratch.

Robert Haigh - The Silence Of The Ghost

The piano sides feel very intimate, very connected somehow, with ideas of memory and place. When did you start working with the more modern classical focused solo piano work? And how much of the pieces are composed and/or improvised?

Side two of (1984’s Robert Haigh and Sema LP) Three Seasons Only was my first real excursion into solo piano. This was followed up with two piano only albums: Valentine Out of Season (1987) and A Waltz in Plain C (1989). Throughout the time of Omni Trio, I was still improvising and writing for piano. After Omni Trio I thought it was the right time to develop this type of material and by the time of the Siren releases, I was enjoying the challenge of basically writing for piano only, with treatments. Although it’s my primary instrument, I won’t rule out other approaches.

I would say that all genuine music is to some extent autobiographical – but it’s possible that, as I get older, my music is becoming more overtly reflective of where I am. One of the first tracks recorded for my latest album, the title track, “The Silence of Ghosts,” reflects a recent personal upheaval and the consideration of things passing. And last year I got struck down with a serious and prolonged ailment, which impacted on the mood of a couple of the later recordings on the album.

It’s important to me to not let an intellectual principle get in the way of a more engaging sonic outcome.

Most of my compositions start from freeform improvisation at the piano. Later I revisit the more compelling themes and from there, structures start to emerge. I never use formal notation: just the odd rough diagrams and written reminders. Contrasted with this type of improvisatory approach, I have a more systems (or pattern) oriented approach: starting with a precept, method or limitation.

For instance, there’s a track on the new album called “Twelve Tone Poem.” With this I set myself the rule that I could only play white notes with my left hand and black notes with my right hand. I’d tried this a few years ago but abandoned it, yet I knew there was something in it. I came back to it, but this time I allowed myself to cheat just a little bit: the rule is in place for over 90% of the track, but I allowed myself an occasional white note with my right hand and with this it all fell into place. It’s important to me to not let an intellectual principle get in the way of a more engaging sonic outcome.

How did you first encounter the music of Andrew Chalk, and how did the relationship with Siren come about?

I’ve known of Andrew for years but only got to make contact through Siren. And yes, I’m a fan. I love his fusion of the desolate and the poignant. I think he is sorely underrated. In 2007 I received a beautifully handwritten letter from Japan. It was from Daisuke Suzuki, the founder of Siren. He was being generous about my music and complimenting me on From the Air, my first post-Omni Trio release. From there, a strong and enduring friendship has developed.

I’m always fascinated by how artists survive, especially in this day and age – are you a full time musician? How do you manage?

It’s impossible to make a living out of this. After over 35 years of recordings and publishing, I still have to work a couple of days part time in order to supplement my music income. And even then I have to lead a frugal existence. But, I’m not really complaining. I’m happy that I made the choices that I did.

By David Keenan on March 27, 2015

On a different note