INTERVIEW: ANTHONY PRODROMOU
PHOTOGRAPHS: DOMINIC GOODMAN
Tackling all of the ambiguities of the cyber-age head on, Joshua Sabin is a musician who isn’t afraid to ask the big questions. Juggling strikingly unique electronics with genuinely engaging concepts, the Scottish native has emerged like a beam of light through the murk of the digital-ether he is capturing with one of the finest albums of 2017 so far, Terminus Drift. Its head-turning sound design is made all the more impressive when you consider that this is Sabin’s debut LP, and his first appearance on Subtext – the constantly dependable Berlin label that’s headed by James Ginzburg of Emptyset fame. Composed of field recordings gathered from subway systems in Japan and Europe as well as the invisible electromagnetic waves that surround us daily, Terminus Drift is an intricate ode to our relationship with the digital spaces that increasingly dominate and determine our lives.
Sabin’s sharp craft is compelling because of the way in which it captures the conflicts and grey boundaries of the digital space we occupy; it’s at once delicate and heavy, ominous and beautiful, dangerous yet alluring. Lurching from the cold sheen of a metallic subway to the familiar warmth of scrolling blue screens, his contortions of twisted field recordings sound like they have been plucked straight from the galactic re-fuelling docks of the far future, a long way away from his hometown of Leith, Edinburgh.
Combining the Vangelisian warmth of Blade Runner’s romantic mystery with the cold futurism of an unfeeling cyber-future, Joshua Sabin is one of the most exciting prospects emerging from the Scottish avant-garde. RCRD was lucky enough to have some time with the brains behind one of our sure-fire favourite albums of the year, Terminus Drift:
Right – to get started I thought I’d ask about story behind the Terminus Drift itself. I find your commentary on humans’ evolving relationship with the environment and space in the digital era really interesting – could you expand upon this? What drew you to this?
It’s tricky to really isolate a ‘catalyst’ that led to the creation of this album as it formed quite naturally through a combination of experiences and ideas personal to my own way of thinking and perceiving the world. Personal experience was really the foundation and then I extended outwards from there. I’ve always found exploring new places to have an awakening effect, I’m made acutely aware of my relationship to my environment and to others within it – past, present and future. Growing up with the internet I’ve increasingly felt not only its shrinking effect on the global exchange of information, but through this an expansion into tangible online spaces and hubs free from material limitations – distances and borders. Simultaneously we navigate our physical world and these cyberspaces, not separately but in a mutually influential way – our material activities impact on our online activities and similarly in the opposite direction. This psychological shift is fascinating and was a conceptual jumping-off point for Terminus Drift.
The album sounds quite dark at times – foreboding, or dangerous almost – do you feel that as the digital era changes our perceptions of the environment (build or otherwise), that it is having a fundamentally detrimental/negative effect?
I guess this album could be perceived that way for sure – for me though I’ve always been drawn to music that is really direct, be it dynamics, texture, or emotional intensity. The most aggressive or violently bombastic of music/sound works can be quite uplifting and euphoric when balanced with restraint and consonance. Battering-ram stuff bores me almost instantly, I need to feel as if I’m on a trajectory of some kind. I try to bring this balance to my work not as a calculated structure but that simply I need to feel a narrative in play as I write.
Terminus Drift isn’t a sociological commentary first and foremost, it’s more a gut expression of how radical and limitless the implications are of our incorporation of, and expansion into, these new online spaces and environments. I think most would agree where we are moving to is probably both enlightening and terrifying in equal measure – anyone reading this that hasn’t yet seen Herzog’s ‘Lo and Behold’ check it out – it does a good job painting this picture! To answer your question though, no I expect and naturally hope for the opposite, that the freedom to communicate globally in new ways afforded by the internet will have a diversifying and unifying effect on positive ideas, culture, and politics.
Picking up on that point of moving through physical as well as digital spaces, is that why you chose to use field recordings from subway systems? Does the physical movement they illustrate reflect (or symbolise, I suppose) that movement through digital cyberspaces? What is it about these sounds that drew you to them?
Totally. Transport hubs such as train-stations, subways, streets etc have an interesting dynamic in that in amongst these crowds of people are individuals carrying their own stories and objectives, passing through fleetingly in solitary pursuits. The scale and complexity of these individual trajectories and relationships, for me at least, forces a grander perspective and appreciation of our global networks of travel/movement, communication and information dissemination. Online networks and communication structures augment this experience even further, cyberspaces, although radically different in form, exist as parallel environments to that of our material world. It was for these reasons that I was drawn to record and capture ambiences in countless stations and transport nexuses around Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Berlin, Glasgow and Edinburgh. You are spot on to highlight the ‘physical movement’ of this transport – I’m sure everyone finds travel of this kind in at least in someway a slightly magical experience. We enter these vehicles and are transported to another place. Subway trains are almost portal-like in how they plunge you into darkness and transport you somewhere else entirely.
Sonically, these environments boast a blend of mechanistic growls, squeals, piston bursts, sirens, reverberating tannoy systems and the buzz of people traffic. If you spend any time length of time just listening in these spaces you become aware of all kinds of long-form patterns and repetitions, trains coming and going, lifts rising and falling, escalators humming, the explosion of people noise as the subway train doors open followed by the relative desolate silence as trains then depart off into a distant tunnel. There is a wealth of texture and harmony here, the composition of which in many cases I translated directly into components of the tracks on the album.
I also found the idea of using electromagnetic field recordings really interesting. How did you get hold of these? What were they like to work with as sounds?
I owe this exploration to Christina Kubisch, a German sound artist whose solo show I was fortunate to experience when in Berlin summer 2015. Her investigative ‘Electrical Walks’ are crazy interesting, the conceptual search into a hidden sonic world chimed with me. Where as Kubisch and others involved in similar work use custom built electromagnetic receivers, I used what is essentially a telephone pickup, a copper-coil in a casing that converts EMF’s to audio. Headphones in and the pickup threaded down my sleeve, this was my setup – from then on it was trial and error searching for the electromagnetic fields, not knowing exactly where to find them or indeed what form these would take. Recording a source you can’t actually see was a new one for me!
Compared to the straight up microphone recordings, the EMF audio files are bizarre. They bleep, squeal and exhibit really unexpected textures, rhythms and harmonies. Some are static while others are wildly erratic – it is pretty fascinating to experience as you explore these spaces. Working with these sounds compositionally was in some ways much easier as they are usually very ‘clean’ as of course they do not pick up the usual offenders; wind, handling noise, and so on. The challenge was that these recordings were completely abstract, lacking any visual suggestions or stimulus and so conceptually I had to process and handle these in a slightly different way. Vivo Wish is actually the only track on the album that uses these recordings however this approach is something I’ll likely explore further in future.
Moving on to your own musical background; is this the first time you have used field recordings to this extent, or in this way? What kind of gear/software are you putting these sounds through? [forgive my technical ignorance here!]
Yeah definitely, Eki was the first track I wrote for the album and the first time I had decided not only to exploit field recordings for musical aims but also to use these exclusively as the sole compositional material for the work. It wasn’t too radical a move though as for years I had been developing a process whereby I would create almost a library of short audio fragments recorded from various instruments and would then process these into a larger composition. So rather than recording an instrumental ‘performance’ I would construct a performance with attack, dynamics, and rhythm such that the melodies and chords I was creating would breathe with a human quality as if they had been performed. The results were interesting in that the quality of the sound was quite alien however felt very natural and almost choral. Field recordings are broadband captures of usually pretty noisy and complex environments (at least if you spend your time near transport) and so aren’t inherently musical. In order to extract pitches or individual textures you need to be pretty surgical in your processing of this audio – multiple layers of automated notch EQs are often what it takes to strip out unwanted elements just to reveal something workable! In this case there can be quite a lengthy preparation before the fun stuff can get going. The flip-side though is that through this process you can discover really interesting and unique sounds that you might struggle to get close to with an instrument or synth. I’m not a gear guy at all, as one; it’s fucking expensive, and two; I really need to have the opportunity to go back and edit every single detail if I want! My set-up then is just a standard DAW (AVID ProTools) and a bunch of quite basic plugins. I don’t use anything too wild as I like to control how each fragment of audio is gradually shaped, so, my go-to effects are; EQ, distortion, reverb, and pitch/time shifting – I like to keep it reduced as possible.
Let me apologise for a very boring question – one that I think is still very worthwhile, however – but what is your musical background? Do you have a grounding in a particular genre – anything you will always keep going back to?
Like most kids interested in music I always played in bands but it was at about the age of 13 or 14 that I discovered DAWs and computer based composition – so I’ve been composing this way for about 15-years now come to think of it! My home environment was always musical, my parents, though not trained musicians or anything, had very broad tastes be it early punk, kletzimmer, dub, choral works, and everything in-between and I listened intently to it all. I didn’t grow up within a single musical culture or tradition however and still today I could not easily align myself with a particular genre or world of music.
Leaving school I went straight into a composition degree and then followed this with a masters in what was essentially audiovisual music studies. Throughout that time it was just pure experimentation and teeth-cutting as far as my process and honing my understanding of different musics – a huge amount of time was spent composing for short films, experimental animations and installations. Composing Terminus Drift was like nothing I have ever done both in terms of technique and I guess ‘genre’ too. Despite this the album could not be more genuinely me.
FACT’s T.D. announcement describes you as a “sound artist” – something that has been echoed a few times. What do you think of this as a descriptor? I think it’s quite an interesting distinction if there is one.
‘Sound artist’ as a descriptor isn’t a controversial term as far as I see, I know the art world more broadly can at times look down on the discipline but for me art is sensorial exploration followed by an understanding and appreciation – whether it’s visual, physical or sonic I don’t believe makes a difference. Now whether or not I’m a sound artist per se I’m not sure, I wouldn’t immediately refer to myself as such. Terminus Drift is of course musical in ways but the concept has driven and shaped the tracks to such an extent, from the recording stage right up to completion, so it is difficult for me to see them as purely musical. If I had to reduce it I would describe them as abstract reconstructions and imaginations of experiences and places. I agree it’s an interesting distinction though, I feel it’s often employed simply to elevate conceptual work but regardless there will always be those that kick-off when it comes to stratification – composer, artist, producer whatever, it’s the artefact that is important and moves me.
The way you describe your creative process – in terms of constructing a performance – really does give that added visceral feel to Terminus Drift; I can certainly hear it. Does this translate into a live set up of any kind? Will you be performing Terminus Drift live?
I’ll definitely be performing live this year around Europe and at this minute I’m currently working on how this will take shape. It’s quite a shift though moving into a live context – the tracks obviously took painstaking hours to bring together, so naturally that level of control is impossible in a live scenario. Instead my focus will be more on how I deconstruct and fragment the album to enough of an extent that I can flexibly control the narrative on the fly. It’s tempting and would be very easy to simply mix the tracks together but that wouldn’t afford me much freedom of expression and wouldn’t I’d imagine prove very captivating. Recontextualising the components and textures on the album is something I’ll really explore, there are so many details in there that I’d like to expose and play with more explicitly. Live performances can be a very different listening experience and I feel striping back large homogenous soundscapes into raw elements can offer a more visceral presentation of the work. Emphasising the dynamic between reduced elements and saturating textures is probably vital as extreme subtleties and stereo interest are often compromised on venue systems such that a certain amount of compensation for this is needed elsewhere. This doesn’t have to be damage control though – it just forces a different mentality and creative approach to form which is really exciting.
Moving forward, are there any other projects you are working on or excited about? Do you think you will explore similar themes to those you’ve delved into on Terminus Drift in the future – has this project sparked off anything in particular?
Nothing specific yet actually, not conceptually at least. Form-wise I have an idea of where I want to go next but I don’t like to invest too much time in sketches etc if I’m not 100% committed to a project. For Terminus Drift there was nothing surplus at all really. It’s usually through a lot reading and exploring new ideas and experiences that I begin to hone in on something and I’m probably in that mode at the moment. Dead keen on the live side of things right now though and plan to explore that for the rest of the year!