Richard Youngs INTERVIEW transcript :
Martin : Hello Richard, glad to have you here - at a safe distance though, as social distancing commands it. Though I've known about you and your music for some years now, I've only recently started to scratch beneath the surface and go deeper into your vast discography, and most particularly during quarantine. And in fact, you clearly didn't stop making music during quarantine. You've even been quite productive, putting out 2 experimental anthologies, a percussion project, a glitchy/droney album and a series of EPs with a core compositional concept and ever changing instrumentations. So I guess my first question is: how did you live through quarantine, did it impact your artistry in any way?
Richard : Pretty early on I developed something like a routine. Most mornings, I walk the dog, get back for a coffee, and hang with the family. I try to do some online course-work for my part-time library day job - I can't go into the building at the moment. And then later, I often make music. In the evening, maybe watch a film. I've really got into procedural police dramas, and I've enjoyed cooking too.
When I don't make music, though, I feel frustrated and get irritable, which isn't good. So, actually, I'm probably recording more in lockdown than before - I miss playing the piano, I used to go to a studio for that, but I have other instruments in the flat I can use. Obviously, no concerts, and that's strange. It's also weird not playing with others. Just before, lockdown AMOR recorded some new material, and I was also involved in a community arts project - so things were very sociable. But, hey, I enjoy pottering around on my own.
Martin : You mention that not making music is bad for your temper, I imagine that explains - at least in part - how you've managed to put out so many projects over the years! About that, do you have some sort of "self-discipline" (apart from the specific one you've developed in reaction to the lockdown) that allows you to channel your drive to create into actual music? Like, do you decide on preset rules for composition or improvisation?
Richard : I can do whatever I want, which is always a good starting point. So, nothing is too ridiculous, too difficult, too pointless, too easy, too time-consuming...but, then again, I rarely go into something without some kind of concept. So, the recent LP on VHF Ein Klein Nein was recreating music I'd heard in a vivid dream. Vistas, that I made in lockdown and is up on Bandcamp, is all about trying to make sense of a free 90 day trial of Ableton - it's my first laptop album. It's like I'm needing to hear what happens when I carry out a particular idea. It's not all good, mind, I can launch into something and realise it's crap. You've got to have a bullshit detector.
Martin : Well Vistas happens to be a serious contender for my favorite album of yours... at the time we're talking I'm actually trying to write something about it. Feel free to try any audio software you like in the future! Quick question here since you mention Bandcamp: when browsing on NoFans, your own label, I've seen lots of your records disappear. Do you regularly erase some of your past works from the internet? And if so, why?
Richard : Thanks. Yeah, a lot of the Bandcamp music I see as pop-up releases - the digital equivalent of a small run, you know, like vinyl limited to 100 copies. Some of it, mind, feels more permanent - Vistas does, for sure. I mean, often putting something up on Bandcamp is a way of getting closure, and I feel I don’t have to dwell on it anymore, I can move on. I don’t really care if I’m producing masterpieces, it’s more about keeping myself amused, albeit in a compulsive kinda way.
Martin : That will to keep yourself amused led you to tackle so many different styles or genres that in the end you seem to have labeled yourself under the "no genre" tag. Quite a good find, it sounds even more punk than "no wave"! But - to my ears anyway - in most cases there's something about your works, however diverse they might be, that makes them unmistakably recognizable as Richard Youngs records. I guess one major point is your voice, but not so much the voice itself as the way you use it as a compositional tool. For example, I feel that a lot of your songs could function very well as a capellas. I'm not sure how to articulate this as a proper question, but I'd like you to talk about how important the voice is in your creative process.
Richard : I think a turning point was playing at the Kraak festival in Hasselt way back. I'd gone with the intention of doing something quite austere and experimental with an electric guitar and effects, but as the night went on I was hearing set after set of austere and experimental music, a lot of it on laptops, and I felt: I don't want to do anything like that. Which is kind of a common thread for me, to react against stuff. When I came to perform, all I remember was my set was pretty chaotic, but I was singing - lots of things I couldn't even remember the words to, but it felt more of an experiment than anything else I could have done. And, I realised I enjoyed singing.
Since then, yeah, I have done a cappella shows, even an an unaccompanied voice record. I hear the voice as an instrument. Some people play it more to my taste than others. Even if there are words, they've got to have some substance I feel, but rather than something that conveys literal meaning, the voice has all the same variable elements as any other musical component. It's all up for grabs really, I'll use anything that makes sense.
Martin : I haven't been to one of your shows yet, but I've heard a lot of different opinions on it. Some say it's confrontational, some say it's inviting, alienating, unpredictable and so on... That leaves me with quite uncertain expectations! There's certainly a mysterious aura surrounding your concerts, I hope I'll be able to see you around once the situation gets better. How do you tackle live shows? And has your mindset changed over the years?
Richard : My earliest live shows when I was a teenager, back in the 80s were at St. Albans folk clubs. These were great for me because you didn't need to pass an audition or send a demo, you could just get up there and do your thing for 10 minutes. They were very democratic that way. I was young and angry and - yeah - they were quite confrontational, in a quiet way. You can hear a recording of one on the No Fans Compendium - the Nineteen Used Postage Stamps track where I just kept on playing until I was physically removed from the stage.
I was, really, though, unsure and nervous about what I was doing, the confrontation was a defence mechanism probably. After those shows I didn't play out much at all, maybe as much as a decade. When I started again in Glasgow, I was really trying to work out what to do. Which is, I think, still my approach. I'm trying to make sense of being in a room in front of people...someone said to me after a show "it's not about entertainment, is it?" And, no, it isn't. I mean, I want to find it interesting. I'm not into presenting a body of work to an audience, though I can fall back on that. I think playing live can be an experimental experience. I've "failed" dismally in a live situation many times, but - you know - so what?
Martin : I agree, a reason why I don't go to shows as much as I could is that I don't care much for the "playing the album on stage" approach. I enjoy it sometimes for sure, but I'd much rather go see artists who I know will try something different every time, like The Necks, Jenny Hval, Pauline Oliveros, and generally most improv concerts I've been attending. Even that time I went to see Aine O'Dwyer at Le Guess Who? festival, I was appalled and had the impression she trolled the audience big time - but it was still a very unique experience, I don't regret choosing her performance over someone else even if I ended up being annoyed.
Richard : What did Aine do? Sounds great!
Martin : My memory's a bit blurry, but she was playing on a church organ (we couldn't see her), playing long high pitch notes, doing strange vocal feats (some admittedly nice throat singing), throwing things into her cabin and making wood noises, throwing her music sheets over the balcony. Now that I'm phrasing it that way it does sound like a pretty fun time... maybe it was and I was just having wrong expectations.
On another topic, how do you feel about traditional music? (I guess specifically British traditionals) On some of the "folkiest" side of your music, or when you do acapellas, like on albums such as May or Summer Wanderer for example, it feels like you're singing secular traditional songs.
Richard : I've mixed feelings about traditional music. There's that Scottish Tradition series of LPs on Tangent which are just sublime - some of my all time favourite music. Just about all of those records are incredibly rough, and I feel this just adds to the magic.On the other hand, I just can't get into the slickness of so much traditional music - the kind that's often made by professionals. The melodies are frequently great, but the vibe doesn't work for me.
Here's a link to the Scottish Tradition entry on discogs: https://www.discogs.com/label/360447-Scottish-Tradition
My favourites are the Gaelic Psalms, the Calum Ruadh, and the Waulking Songs LPs.
And, here's a couple of great pibroch LPs:
I've actually got an album with a piper, Donald WG Lindsay, coming out at some point - the pandemic got in the way. It's me on electric guitar and him on the small pipes, recorded live in half a day at Green Door, which is this analogue studio in Glasgow. It's 3 originals, and a 20 minute version of an obscure traditional tune. Sounds more like the Velvet Underground than traditional music, really.
Martin : Great news about your duo album, here's to hoping it'll come out sooner rather than later! That leads me to ask you about the way you deal with putting out records. It seems like you've put out music on dozens of labels over the years, not counting your own. How do your records end up on this or that label? And which ones do you keep for yourself?
Richard : It's pretty random. There is a certain kind of release that feels like a No Fans release. I can't quite explain it. And, well, I get a lot of opportunities for other stuff too. There are certain labels I keep coming back to. I've known Bill at VHF Records since the 90s. He's put out some lovely releases - the No Fans Compendium was his idea, he kept nagging me and finally I gave in. So glad I did. Richo at Fourth Dimension, I go back even further with him. Actually just got through the post this morning a few copies of a lathe we did together. I've got another record coming out on O Genesis - a duo with Daniel O'Sullivan. What I look for in a label these days is some kind of relationship.
Martin : Nice to see that the flow of collaborative works isn't stopping anytime soon. I have one last question before we get to the second and last part of this exchange, and it's one you may or may not care for: it's about public recognition. Like I told you when we first got in touch a few days ago, I spent many years knowing your work through just one album, "Sapphie". From what I've gathered hanging around musical sites and forums, that also seems to be the case for a lot of people. And when they know a bit more, it's generally through your Jagjaguwar-related material. Which obviously covers merely a very small part of your catalogue. Do you care at all about how your work is known and appreciated by the public? About "having fans" (despite how you named your label)? I'm not asking about peer recognition because of how many collaborators you worked with.
Richard : I've mixed feelings. It's great that a record like Sapphie can mean so much to some people. But, I'm not motivated to, I don't know, capitalise on that. I could have at several points over the years decided I had a style and stuck with it, somehow "grown" an audience, I don't know. Maybe what I do, could never be that popular. It's too unfocused, anyway. And, I'm not sure I have the personality type to put myself out there to be better known. I feel life is complex and in the grand scheme of things, public recognition is not really that important. No fans was a statement of fact when I started, I'd faced a decade of indifference towards my music, so while I have a few fans now, I think my default position is a belief that whatever I do is going to be of peripheral interest to most music listeners.
Martin : Thinking back on why it took so long for me to try the not-Sapphie part of your discography, I think one thing was that I just didn't know where to start. Facing more than a hundred releases without some sort of guide, or someone recommending you to try this one or that one first can be intimidating - it was to me at least. I eventually stumbled of that article (https://daily.redbullmusicacademy.com/2015/03/richard-youngs-guide), from Red Bull of all things, which helped me get into some of your early stuff. So I thought it might be a good idea to let you speak about some of your most recent stuff (from 2010 to 2020). Maybe that will entice some french guys from XSilence (or elsewhere) to try those out. I've selected a few albums I connected strongly with, I'll present them in a chronological order.
The first one would be Atlas of Hearts (2011, Apollolaan), a very hypnotic and multilayered fingerpicking affair, with quite a psychedelic feel to it. What can you tell us about that one?
Richard : Ooh, interesting choice, I'd forgotten about that one. It was pretty low on concept, just sitting with an acoustic guitar and trying to make music. Some of it was done on a reel to reel, other bits on a computer. The delay effect on a lot of the tracks is a reel take duplicated out of sync several times on to the computer. And, the end result is an edit of different sessions.
Martin : Yeah, it's one of those albums that feel very "edited", with layers upon layers and dynamic interplay between the different tracks. I seize the opportunity to quickly ask: when did you start using computers in your work?
Richard : Probably around 2000. They're glorified tape machines, in my mind, with easier editing.
Martin : The next album would be Core to the Brave (2012, Root Strata), a much noisier one, also one of your most "rock"-sounding albums I think, though I wouldn't call it straightforward. Do you recall this one?
Richard : I'm fond of this one. I recorded it on 4 track reel to reel. It was loosely a metal album with what I thought were riffs. I think they were generated in a pretty random manner - you know taking a random integer generator to determine what frets I should play. Obviously, I'm a poor mimic and it got lost in the attempt, just as well really. I wrote some metal style lyrics by cutting up existing metal lyrics, and then I tried reversing the vocabulary. So, instead of going on about eg death, I was singing about life. In the course of recording it I blew an effects pedal I was really fond of called a sonic alienator, I really miss it. The sleeve is a painting my son did at nursery around the time. He called it 'Road'. The nursery teacher joked about how dark it was.
Martin : Wow that's such a fun concept! I was wondering what was your mindset (or "moodset") while recording the vocals for that album. Because on one hand the instrumentation feels pretty dark, noisy and weird, but on the other there's a contemplative/appeased quality in your singing. As you said, you were more in a "singing about life" vibe.
The next album I'd like to talk about is Red Alphabet in the Snow (2014, Preserved Sound), which features two long compositions and some of your most layered and expansive arrangements. A very sweet record to my ear, with soft psychedelia.
Richard : I was playing at a festival in Krakow that was organised by Richo of Fourth Dimension and Hayden, who runs Preserved Sound. They lived in the same block of flats - Richo directly above Hayden. I was in the city for a few days, and one evening I went round Richo's, Hayden brought up his laptop and a microphone, and I played some acoustic guitar improvisations infront of a small audience, which got recorded - and these recordings were the basic tracking. Back home in Glasgow I overdubbed every single stringed instrument I had - so that's how it ended up with the dense sound. The cover is a double exposed photo I took in Krakow with my Holga camera. It was leading up to Christmas, and the market square had a wonderful festive atmosphere - so those are Christmas lights peeping through.
Martin : Another nice story, thanks for talking about the captivating and haunting art as well. You seem to have so many instruments at home, it must be quite a sight!
The next one would be The Rest Is Scenery (2016, Glass Redux), which also has an interesting concept, back to basics (with friends). I'd also be curious to know about that cover art's history, what are those esoteric coordinates?
Richard : I set out to make one chord songs, having a track for each of the 12 frets on the guitar. So the first song is Em, the second Fm, then F#m...all the through to the Em on the 12th fret. So, it was quite high-concept, but at the same time I tend to like things that are quite simple - and these are songs I could've played when I started guitar. Infact, when I was 11 or 12, I was in a band with Pete Aves. We drifted apart then around the time of making this record, we were in touch again, and it was great to have him play on it. I always felt he was so much better technically than me, and - what do you know - in the intervening years he had become a session player - had worked with Lee Hazelwood, which is pretty incredible.
The artwork...my Dad worked as a soil physicist, and the writing on the sleeve is from some overhead projection sheets he used, probably for lectures. They're overlaid on a multiple-exposed photo I took in Berlin with my Holga camera.
Martin : Yes it's simple yet very effective, a favorite of mine. A good reminder that sometimes less is more.
Now let's view some of your most recent material, and specifically your productive first half of 2020. But before that... Let's talk about one that got some public attention, and maybe got you a few more fans! Anyway it was the one that motivated my discovery of your discography, right before 2020: your collaborative albumin with Raül Refree, All Hands Around the Moment (2019, Soft Abuse).
Richard : I was asked to be the support for Lee Ranaldo on a short tour he was doing of Britain. He had a band that included Raül on guitar. The first night I did my solo thing, the next Raül joined me for a song. By the end of the week we were performing as a duo. We just clicked, and stayed in touch with an idea of recording together. Raül's day job is a flamenco producer so after he came over to Glasgow and we did some basic guitar tracking, we went to Barcelona and shaped the material into an album at his studio. The guitars were done to tape, and length of the tracks was determined by the length of the reels of tape we recorded on.
Martin : On that album the songs give the impression that they could go on forever, now I know they could have.
Your first album of 2020 was Fanfares (soon to be called Fanfares (Schwebung Master)), a very surprising instrumental suite for synthesizers.
Richard : In my mind, this is almost a new age album. Texturally, it's soft - mostly a cheap Casio keyboard through an Eventide harmoniser. Actually, the Casio is the same model I had when Simon Wickham-Smith and I started recording. I got rid of it at some point, silly decision, ended up re-buying it off eBay for about £10. The drum machine is a hip-hop pre-set from an RY9 drum machine - which I bought on account of the name, you know its initials being the same as mine, and it was another eBay bargain. It ended up sounding so nice, though, because I put it up on Bandcamp and Stephan Mathieu (who has mastered other stuff for me) heard it on a rare day when he had no mastering jobs, loved it so much and downloaded it, then just went ahead and mastered it, without being asked to. So, there are a few people out there who have a raw unmastered version before I put up Stephan's master in its place...what's the digital equivalent of a rare first pressing?
Martin : Yes I'm one of those few, you don't see day-one remasters every day! I can relate to that new age feel, that album soothed some of my quarantine days. Just like Vistas, which I planned to ask you about but we already did in the first part of the interview. So I'll skip right to that very mysterious quartet of EPs you released every few days in May. They're respectively called Five Songs, Four Verses, Six Texts and Five States and are self released. From one EP to the other the vocals remain the same, with high pitched wordless singing mixed with spoken syllables, but the instrumentations keep changing.
Richard : All these use a text to voice converter. It allegedly is a Scottish accent, which appealed to me. And, so it's reading some texts I wrote that are then digitally stretched, and you get this strange echo. Each EP has its own sound world - mostly quite distressed, stuff like guitars recorded on to very low grade cassettes, or there's a Casio keyboard tape-echoed with quite a lot of feedback. They all struck me as quite strange when I was making them, which I think is a good sign if the music I am making puzzles me a little.
Martin : I do expect to be puzzled when I encounter an album of yours for the first time, I'd say it's part of the fun.
For the last spot I thought I'd let you choose one work that you'd like to introduce. Doesn't matter if it's recent or old, an album, an EP, a song, anything goes really!
Richard : I'm always most excited by what I'm doing now. And, I love it when things move fast. Last week I made an album, Metal River, this week Fourth Dimension have sent it to the pressing plant. I'd been meaning to make something new for the label for a while, but nothing felt like it belonged there. Then last week, Richo said: how about a 'noise' record, and I realised I was making one already. Well, obviously, it's not really 'noise', it's me with certain textures. Side A is recent ring modulator recordings - playing shakuhachi, oboe, and singing while I controlled the ring modulator with a foot pedal. Side B is something that had been puzzling me for a while. When Richo said 'noise', I immediately realised it needed a different mix, something more focused, and it was there. The music seems new and wild to me. The cover shot I took a few years back just outside Warsaw - like so many of my sleeves it's an unprocessed, multiple-exposed Holga photo.
Martin : Nice move, finishing the interview with a tease for future works. Something new and wild huh, something else to look forward to. Maybe Metal River will be out by the time I finish translating our messages, we'll see!
In any case, thank you for taking the time to chat, it's been a pretty long list of questions/albums. It's been a pleasure!