When Jamie Teasdale and Roly Porter released their 2005 album as Vex’d, Degenerate, their musical world was pulsing with the half-step dub exercises of the DMZ label and club night, and the spliced-up riddims and breakbeats of labels like Hotflush and producers like Oris Jay. Degenerate straddled these sonically distinct camps and was praised for its full throttle sound design, becoming a cult classic, but Vex’d didn’t commit to any one style during the rapid splintering of UK electronic genres in the late 2000s. The pair called it a day and Teasdale moved to Berlin to escape the franticness of London and work on solo material, which became his 2011 debut album as Kuedo, Severant.
Lauded for a romantic vision of ’80s melodic synth music which folded in contemporary trap music tropes, and compared in great detail to science fiction film soundtracks, Severant was framed as an album-as-exercise: of drawing from purposefully limited sources to create a distinctive narrative arc. In the five years since he’s released two EPs (2011’s Work, Live & Sleep in Collapsing Space, 2015’s Assertion of a Surrounding Place), started his own label, Knives, and this month, returns to the full-length format with Slow Knife.
In a rare interview, Kuedo speaks to Lauren Martin about working within genre, the semantic mess concerning futurism, bodily anxieties rendered in sound and more.
It’s been five years since Severant was released on Planet Mu, and I know that you’ve been working on music for film and TV in that time. Has anything you’ve done in that field influenced Slow Knife?
I’ve always written music for adverts but I became more active in the last year or so, around the time that I was finishing Slow Knife. The soundtrack project that I got into most deeply was for Metahaven’s film The Sprawl, which was the first time that I got to move beyond a 15- to 30-second advert and towards something that was of the form that I listen to most. I’m most intrigued by the soundtrack as a set piece, as a musical idiom. It dominates my listening. In terms of writing my own music, I’m not a playful musician. I have to construct a film-like framework around it before it comes together. (I don’t think that’s an essential part of making music at all, though. It may be more direct for me to make a film, but music and audio is what I know.)
I collect images and bits of text, and write a lot of notes about what the music could be about, but I don’t want to give the impression that the music comes directly from other media. Most of the time it comes from walking around, thinking it through. I particularly think about the idea that if there’s not some element of your own life within the music, then you aren’t truly part of the music. It’s not important to me that I transmit myself in the music. It’s more of a priority to have the person listening to the music to get something out of it.
People often talk about their own music in this way – “It just comes so naturally to me, this music is an expression of my personality,” and so on – and I often think, “I know very little about you after listening to this.” A narrative for talking particularly about electronic, non-lyrical music has developed in which people feel like they must impart their autobiography as literally as possible on a piece of music, or they risk being criticised for being insincere.
Yes, absolutely – and there’s something particularly strange about this within music when you think about it in comparison to other forms of art. Music is so often framed as a singularly intense mode of self-expression, whereas other mediums are given all this scope to be purposeful beyond that: to be open to the ideas of others and describes the experiences of others, as well as imaginations and complete works of fiction. Somehow, with music (in our electronic world, at least), it’s become preoccupied with this transmission of an emotional state directly from producer to listener (or of personal history). It’s not the function of my music, but it’s still how most people want to discuss it with me.
The narrative arc of Slow Knife feels like a threatening one. How would you describe this arc?
There’s a relationship inferred which reaches a dissonance – not as far as a trauma, but a kind of impending collapse, or imminent threat or event. When I was sorting through the sketches I had and was sequencing Slow Knife into a cohesive picture, I knew that I needed to reach a moment of intensity. That moment was always designed to be there.
You’ve said that the soundtrack to Manhunter has been an influence on Slow Knife, and I find that very interesting because Manhunter has this almost gaudy way of having the music insist itself upon the film. There’s the liberal use of soft, bamboo flutes during very tense scenes, for example, and you use this woodwind quite dramatically on Slow Knife. Do you feel like you’re dragging the ghosts of your favourite soundtracks along with you?
I would defend the idea of using genre deliberately. I don’t shy away from genre to the point where there are recognisable symbols as preset sounds within my music, like the trap percussion on “Floating Forest.” These references aren’t supposed to be winking at you, though. You don’t need to know about trap music to enjoy that track, but I don’t see any need to disguise my input points, either. The music can be in thrall to these input points. All creative works talk about their forbearers, but most seem to be locked into genre in either this pathological, endless attempt to escape cliché, looking for a “pure essence” of sound, or in wanting to be deliberately situated within genre (which can be super boring when it’s rooted in a lack of imagination, of course).
And yet, we often make the mistake of describing any works similarities to something else as deliberate “references.” That reduces the work to a kind of Easter egg hunt of “where does it all come from?” to me. I think of genre references as more like mimetic inheritance – one piece births another, which creates lineages. There’s a programmatic predictability to how form creates affect, so certain generic forms cluster around certain types of affect. It gets interesting when those forms become genres and people make judgements about people who like certain genres of music. Genres start accruing all this extra baggage, so genre itself becomes this rich, layered and weird thing to use.
In Manhunter, you hear this certain, weirdly artificial slow trance that you only seem to get in ’80s films and upmarket cafes. It’s fucking creepy, and there’s something about artificial sounding music that’s good at describing artificially formulated or presented characters. This sleazy affect is interesting to play with. Part of loving a genre is that knowingness. The best films and the best film soundtracks know exactly what they are.
I wanted to move from a detached perspective into a more embodied one.
Slow Knife feels removed from the narrative that was built around Severant, which concerned a kinship to the Blade Runner soundtrack and the idea of “futuristic” music. What do you think of the idea of sounds being packaged as futuristic and has it had any impact on the making of Slow Knife?
There are things within that which interest me. People tend to use futurism in two ways and little distinction is made between them. One is of futurology, as in predictively future. The other is, for want of a better description, sentimentally futuristic, which is kind of a genre term in itself. Those two meanings collided and got stuck into without much clarity when people talked about Severant. I think that when people say that a piece of work or a setting is “futuristic,” they tend to mean the opposite of “pastoral.” They mean that the thing – the book, the music, the place or the product – describes or even yearns for a more technologically advanced situation, rather than a push backward towards a less technological situation. They frame the work as an imaginative orientation toward technological situations, including impossibly speculative ones.
What I think they don’t mean is “this is an accurate depiction of the future.” That would be futurology, and would discount most of the cultural products that we recognize as futuristic. I don’t believe it’s the essential job of music that calls itself “futuristic” to literally attempt to reach into a future and bring us back a piece of it early. When people do claim that this attempt to reach has happened with a track, they tend to point to something that sounds like radically alien to most people: something unfamiliar, atonal, cybernetic; Autechre, Bernard Parmegiani, or a syncopated rhythm or sound texture they’ve never heard before. This is particularly interesting to me since, in all likelihood, the musical future is going to mostly sound more like pop music than any of those sounds or artists.
It’s fine for something to be generically futuristic; it’s just less interesting to a neophile and probably less pertinent to the contemporary. Severant partly took on some classic euro synth music as a kind of romanticised futurism with some contemporary counterpoints. I found it conceptually interesting to use these grandiose futuristic tropes to describe domestic scenarios. By re-imaging personally lived or witnessed experiences into a fiction, it becomes depersonalized and therefore more open for the listener to relate to it in their own way. Slow Knife follows that fantasizing principle. There a bunch of early classical tests that I did with guitar, for example, from pre-Renaissance experiments, which didn’t make the final cut of Slow Knife, but I listened to them a lot while thinking about [the album]. I like the idea of being dislodged from or in transit when it comes to time.
As well as playing with genre, fiction and time, there’s an extraordinary sense of movement in Slow Knife: of anxieties, bodily tensions and violence; parts of it make me feel like when you try to swallow a nosebleed, and can taste the copper of your blood in the back of your mouth.
I’m glad that you have evocations of bodily movement while listening to it. I wanted to move from a detached perspective into a more embodied one. You can hear ambience in it from environmental recordings of sound, I think.
Are you looking at an ecological sense of fear and disruption through soundtracking, then? What are these environmental recordings?
I like the logic that Slow Knife is a kind of decayed version of Severant. I think you’re always writing reflexively and Severant was very deliberately restricted, because that was a reflection on what I’d been doing with Vex’d. I’d got so caught up in the sound design of Vex’d that the harmonic song writing was secondary. Severant was very anti-sound design – not as a stance, but in the logic of that project – even though sound design is one my favourite activities.
There is a rumbling sub within Slow Knife that comes as a repeating event which, when twinned with high tones, has a psycho-acoustic effect that creates a sense of presence and dis-ease. I was trying to create a sense of tingling on the skin and to push the feeling of the body. That’s one aspect of the reason for the sound design – what it can do to the listeners physically. A sub in itself is a bodily thing.
Do you use instruments on the album and if so, how do you use them?
There’s only one track on Slow Knife with human vocals – “In Your Sleep,” which features Hayden Thorpe from Wild Beasts – but I used the flute and the saxophone elsewhere because they are so voice-like in their articulations. Both have some really heavy processing on them, to make them transform and give a sense of strained vocalisation. The saxophone first comes in as a noir genre piece, but by the time it comes to the latter parts of the album there’s barely anything of the noir remaining because of the heavy processing. That’s part of the decay.
And there’s this aggressive ticking sound that keeps coming up, too… like a huge insect appearing over your shoulder, gnashing its pincers together, ready to kill.
I like that you thought of creatures, but I don’t think of this in terms of literal, evil things. There’s one sound that Koenraad [Ecker, of Lumisokea] came up with that’s really high. It sounds almost glass-like – knocking, but fluttery – which was amazing. I tried to bring to the fore as much as possible. There are bass resonances that Koneraad also made with the cello, on “Broke Fox – Black Hole,” which are awesome, but he also played found objects with the bow as a kind of manipulation.
I want to capture a series of sonic structural collapses which, bringing it back to the idea of the domestic, would thematically capture a psychological collapse. I’ve been working closely with J.G. Biberkopf on his album, and that’s so intensely about the fear of ecology, but I don’t think there’s a deliberate perspective beyond societal or even planetary ecology with Slow Knife. I really wanted it to feel intimate, almost in spite of itself.