In the second of two interviews conducted with Powell at the beginning and end of 2017, he discusses his Beta releases, the evolution of his working process and his collaborations with Wolfgang Tillmans.
We last spoke early in 2017 after Sport but before the Beta releases. Do you feel like things have changed in the way you have approached making music in over the last year?
When you’re emerging as an artist , (it’s) non stop, more more more, yes this is great, I’m a musician, yay, can’t believe I’m doing this. Then after doing a record last year and feeling mentally exhausted really and reflecting a lot, I deliberately wanted to step away from doing so many shows and spend the year trying to fall back in love with music almost. It wasn’t like I was out of it but I needed an injection of something. I needed to find some other way of working because I wasn’t even enjoying the process of making stuff anymore, which can be really depressing if that’s what you meant to be doing with your life (laughs). Beta was like this idea of a work in progress over the course of a year, as in beta being the idea of something that’s constantly moving. To release this music without putting too much pressure on it, to keep generating stuff and not just keep it on my hard drive. The idea was you get to the end of the project and it would feel like there was some sort of conclusion in a way. Even for my own sake to be able to say “that’s how it sounds when it started” and “that is how it sounds when it finished”. It would be great to feel like “that’s a years worth of music”.
Is that why it was released as two EP’s rather than one album?
It could be like “this is what I’m making now…..this is what I’m making now”. This stuff (music plays) is meant to be going on beta 3 and then XL are going to package it up and put it out but then it’s always,…. do I want to dwell on the music that’s already come out?
It’s a bit of a change in direction from where you were with Sport.
I think I just wasn’t enjoying the process of making stuff. You want to keep it exciting and I felt like I was just recycling the same ideas. Not necessarily on Sport but Sport was definitely a point in the end of my creative feeling. I was so wedded to having a sound, which is quite a beautiful thing to have as a musician, but equally if you become too wedded to it you start to recycle the same sort of ideas and ideas become tropes…
Though I guess if it working then it’s quite frightening to change that?
It does but what you learn is that it’s not.…Jimmy Prostitutes you know, James Donadio is a really good friend of mine. One of the few people I send my music to and he said “Oscar, you need to remember that it’s not those sounds that make Powell music, it’s you that makes Powell music”. What I found actually exploring new sounds is it’s always got that signature because you don’t know how to make music any other way you know and that was a really liberating feeling to have. I thought, fuck, I can explore loads of other sounds and it will still sound like me. He always gives me great advice. It’s nice to have people around you like that that you trust.
And the new approach/equipment came alongside feeling you needed a new sound?
Yeah, it all happened quite naturally but it was only because I had the time this year to not think about gigs and sort of be a bit freer that I could take a few months to learn new bits. For so long I was just using that box, sem pro, and a computer. It’s so nice when you have a small setup you can explore it inside out but now I feel like I’ve got the same with just a couple of new bits and I’ll focus on them for a few years until I start driving myself mad again (laughs).
Are you approaching it in the same way?
No I think naturally the modular forces you back into listening more to sonics and tone and modulation and movement in music rather than always starting with the idea of what a track is on a computer. Even if I was doing crazy intros and weird breakdowns it was still intro, drums, breakdown you know so it doesn’t matter how much you fuck it up it’s still not really fucked up. Whereas now you let the machine sort of take you into places and you let that set what the track is about rather than this pre-programmed thing, which I think has been really lovely.
The Beta stuff perhaps feels freer than Sport. It plays with melody in an interesting way.
I mean melody was not something I thought I would be into. Well not into, but I was always scared if it because I didn’t really know how to do it but then, if you get some good machines they do it for you (laughs), then you put your own spin on it you know.
You’ve worked a lot with Wolfgang Tillmans this year. How did that relationship begin? You did some live stuff at the Tate and then he did your video….
So a guy called Roddy McDonald who is a producer at XL, he’s a good friend of mine as well, met Wolfgang at Arca’s birthday party I think and Wolfgang was talking about maybe wanting to work with musicians. He’d always been involved in music, right from when he started making his name as a photographer for ID in the 90’s he was documenting musical subcultures. A lot of his work has been about that. So he’s always been involved in music, always been working with his voice, and via XL we talked about me maybe being able to produce something for him, then I realized I’m crap at producing anything for anyone because I don’t really want to do what I’m told (laughs). I don’t mind the idea of it but I can’t physically make music that isn’t my own thing, it just takes away the magic. Maybe I’m just too selfish or something. We enjoyed working together so we thought why don’t we work on some music as a collaboration. Then we did some shows and one of them was interesting and one of them was quite good (laughs). There is a great range of stuff, some of it more tracky but I actually prefer the more freeform stuff because I never get the chance to make music like that to be honest.
What’s your process when working together?
Well we did a session last week. I set up my modular and my synth in the control room with the engineer and he’d be in the vocal room listening to the music coming back. We’d use CV envelope generators and pitch mapping so that when he sings his voice changes what’s going on on here (points to modular) so you get this natural talking to each other.
Are you working on more stuff together? Is there going to be an album?
Well, I don’t really want to put that much pressure on an album. It will probably be a 5 or 6 track EP.
And the next steps for you is finishing this work that may or may not come out as beta 3?
Yeah, it sonically sounds so different I don’t know whether it fits. I wonder in the day and age where everyone has minute attention spans whether a series works. How easy is it to maintain interest over an extended period of time. In the old days you could do a series of records and nothing existed inbetween those releases as there was no internet. It was like, wow, there’s another one. Now it’s like, ok, we get it, it’s a series.
It’s not just attention span either. Maybe it’s just me as an artist you just feel like you’re on the wrong end of the internet in many ways because you’re so involved in it. You get a sense of how these things emerge, trends and patterns in music and you can see how things happen in wider life in a way.
I guess you don’t get to experience that enjoyment of people putting the record on. I that’s part of the challenge, you don’t get to connect to that.
I used to be more obvious. When you do your first record and you hold it in your hand and you’re like “fucking hell, this is incredible, I made this”, but you lose that perspective very easily. I’m continuously releasing music but you’re right. When I released those records earlier this year I did feel that sense of pride as opposed to feeling like, “how’s thing going to go” how are people going to react. Is this going to make or break my career. I think that was a dangerous way of ever thinking about music. It’s not like I was ever like that but I could sense myself becoming like that. You don’t want it to become where your happiness in music is dependent on what other people think about it. Or your perception of other peoples perception. You need to just remember that you make it for yourself.
It seems like an exciting time for you. Like you a point where you are being quite introspective about your process and on the outside and
Perhaps you’re right. I spent so long in my own head this year. Sometimes you don’t realize you’re on to something creative. I mean, you know all about the context, I’ve talked about how I’ve been feeling this year and as an artist I love to find a way to be able to communicate that really succinctly. So people understand what this record is about. It’s so difficult to say all this stuff sometimes with a record (laughs).
People that know your music can also hear the development. We talked about the progression to Sport from the earlier stuff you made and then on to Beta. It makes it interesting when they have interacted with your work over a period of time and it becomes something it never could have been if it was released out of that context.
Your right, I think it is nice people can draw those connections themselves. You don’t want to explain everything because then the mystery goes. You want people to take what they want from it. Part of it was like, because XL said they wanted another record, and I said this is what I wanted to do this year, do this series and you talk about albums having concepts and for me. I’ve been thinking about this as a collection. I like the idea that once this is finished, that is the record. It’s not 45 minutes long and it’s not 10 tracks but it’s a different way of making what I perceive as an album.
It’s interesting hearing the progression even through the three EP’s because they were done over a span of time giving you the chance to reflect on them. I guess you don’t have that opportunity with an album. Perhaps it becomes interesting that the next one is influenced by how the one before is received.
There is something nice to saying here is all the music I made in 2017. Conceptually that’s a really interesting idea I think. A year’s worth of music.
And it has chapters to it already.
There is something powerful about volumes too. I always loved it when artists seem like they can generate so much music. Like when Aphex just dumps three thousand tracks on soundcloud. And if you are really serious about what you do you do have all this stuff you do generate. Of course there has been curation on this project but people say an album should be x amount of length, the Autechre album last year was 3 ½ hours or something. It’s not meant to necessarily be consumed from beginning to end. Why do we have to fit with what feel like these frustrating parameters sometimes. Like, what is a good record length? There is a beauty to making a perfect record but it does always fit the way some artists work I guess.