Exclusive Interview with Simon Scott

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Simon Scott is a musician working mainly in the field of electroacoustic and soundscape composition. Although he started working mainly with musical instruments, he also has done an extensive use of field recording, exploring sonic forms in a very interesting and rich way, resulting on works released at places such as 12k, Miasmah, Low Point and his own label Kesh.

I’ve personally enjoyed his work a lot and thought it would be interesting to explore about it by talking directly to Simon, who kindly agreed to answer some questions for Sonic Terrain:

Simon, please introduce yourself to our readers and tell us how you get started with sound, how has been your career evolving over the years and what are you doing these days. 

I am a British musician, songwriter and sound artist based in Cambridge, UK. I started writing songs on the acoustic guitar and for my voice when I was about thirteen years old. I took up the drums in 1985 and was in a band called The Charlottes until I joined Slowdive in 1990 and signed to Creation records. In 1994 I left and worked as a session drummer but that very quickly became tiresome as I realized I wanted to compose and not just drum. I continued to take small drumming jobs that paid the bills, including recording one song for Lowgold and touring with a few other bands, but songwriting was my main aim. I then took up digital workstation recording and music production once I had finished exploring the possibilities of the 4-track tape player I was working with. In London I formed a band called televise but after one album in 2003 I took the project in a solo direction. Navigare was released on Miasmah in 2009 and that was my first Simon Scott record.

So you played with Slowdive. Could you tell us how the experience of being there affects/influences the way you work today? Do you still play drums?

I still play drums, there are lots of live drums on Bunny, and I have an exciting collaboration as the drummer coming up on Halloween in Paris with James Blackshaw and Duane Pitre. Being in Slowdive for four years taught me how to play a valuable part in drumming to compliment the song and sit in the track. My listening skills improved and I enjoyed the live performance and travelling internationally when touring.

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And what about your label Kesh? Could you tell us a bit about your work there, what are your criteria for publishing and what kind of plans you have for it in the future?

I simply release music I love and try to work with artists that have a unique musical voice or special artistic talent. Kesh, as a record label or platform for releasing audiovisual projects, is evolving, as I am as a musician, so things are open to change. Recently the projects have been installation based but if someone sends me a collection of great songs I am happy to manufacture a limited run of vinyl or CD’s and put that out for other people to enjoy. I like to keep the Kesh them small, limited and special. I am in no way able to compete with bigger labels so I view Kesh as a Boutique home for its artists. I also put on shows in Cambridge that come under the Kesh umbrella.

How did you started integrating field recordings in your work? What led you to take that decision? It was after you started making your own music, right?

I was frustrated using an electric guitar and other traditional instruments to compose on to be honest. I made a contact mic out of a piezo and some Plastidip and found unseen sounds in objects around Cambridge. After a while I became excited by the ideas of recording a landscape but the city was too complex and impersonal. Then one day I took went into the fens, which is just outside Cambridge, and found a whole musical orchestra in the air waiting to be harnessed. It was inspiring and it totally opened my ears to the sonorous beauty of that sunken landscape that I’d visited as a child.

When listening to your music I always get surprised by the awesome and wide variety of sonic forms and structures. There you can find lots of sounds blended between organic and synthetic textures that shape very special aesthetics. What’s your approach on that and what are your choices and interests regarding the palette of sounds you use?

For ‘Below Sea Level’, released on 12k in 2012, I wanted to combine organic recordings and synthetic sounds. I’d go out into the Fens and record with hydrophones underwater and other microphones on or above the surface of the water and then, in post production, run parts through software (Max MSP) to expand the textures and reveal micro sounds that were captured in my field recording equipment. The hard part was to blend actual recordings with digitally processed sounds so that it never becomes too synthetic and loses the character of the Fens. Most of the melodies were written on an acoustic guitar, of which I would generally take out of the mixes once each song took shape, so that each song has a compositional and melodic flow. It did take two years to capture all the field recordings I wanted and I ended up out in middle of the night miccing up sheets of ice, bridge supports or freezing cold little streams but it was definitely worth it in the end!

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I wonder if you have any specific workflow. Do you have a particular way of composing or are you always improvising and trying new things? Could you mention some processes and how results are achieved from them?

That changes from record to record to be honest. For Below Sea Level it was different from Bunny (2011) and Navigare (2009), as they are guitar albums. I’d built a nice looper patch in MaxMSP, as I literally heard sounds in my head and wanted to create them to use as timbres to write songs with. Sometimes the patch would reveal unexpected melodic loops or textural passes that I would improvise on top of , such as on Sealevel_2. Or I would have a few nice guitar parts I’d keep refining until it was time to put them through a few pedals and then take the nicest part away to begin composing with. Recently it has been complete compositions on an acoustic guitar that are inspired by field recordings or an environmental sound. For example, if I go down to the river and play my acoustic I may hear a harmony from a barge passing by that inspires a chorus or key change. It all depends on where I am when I write essentially.

Do you have any specific way of recording and listening? How’s normally the recording process in the field? Also, do you have any specific way on guiding you to listen and focusing on any particular sonic event?

I immerse myself into the landscape before I hit the record button. I listen intently and try to do the obvious field recording stuff such as set up away from the area I am recording, wear noise-less clothing and comfy shoes. It does take time to get good at and I found it often really hard to slow down and focus for a while, until I really found sounds that inspired me musically. There are a lot of distractions and I’d be regularly appalled by the amount of human noise people make, even when strolling around nature reserves or in a remote area where you expect to be alone. Sometimes a paradoxical lucky accident happens, such as being attacked by a dog in Holme Fen (the lowest location in England), that reveals great sonic material.

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In that fantastic release called Below Sea Level you published at 12k during last year, you also included some very interesting thoughts about your process of listening, recording and also how those practices influence your philosophical way of understanding life and enjoying it. It seems that listening and field recording play kind of spiritual-philosophical role in your life, at least in the way they influence you to contemplate reality, not only sonic. Could you tell us a bit about that? How listening and recording/processing environmental sounds affects the way you live and think about reality and yourself?

Field recording essentially requires you to listen and intensely focus on the sounds that are pouring into your ears via headphones. Our brain learns to discriminate sounds and, over time, blocks the “unwanted sounds” but headphones reveal these sounds so I found making the album very enlightening. I reconnected with the environment around me, which coincided with moving out of London and back to Cambridge, and it took me mentally back to a child-like state of wonder and discovery. It is a very healthy activity for a person, as it makes you more mindful and aware, and it even led to me teaching young wildlife enthusiasts how to record sound. Your perspective healthily shifts from internal, the ego if you will, to the external. You are able to absorb an environment and really connect to the sounds and landscape (or object) that you are recording. Of course the recordings are a tiny fragment of the environment you are capturing, and it is an abstraction of reality, but you are able to feel “in the moment” of a heron taking flight six feet away from you and you can re-live it with your recordings. I am certainly more aware and perceptive to how everything sounds and notice thing that happen in nature, such as the seasons changing, more acutely since those two years field recording.

There you also mention several things about your interest on acoustic ecology, mentioning for example about Bernie Krause. What’s your take on acoustic ecology and what’s the role of it in your sound work?

Krause, the World Soundscape Project, Russolo, and many others, all wrote important manifestoes and books on this area and provided me with an essential background into the art and aesthetics of field recording. Bernie Krause I adore and found myself having moments that were Epiphanies similar to how he felt when he was learning to listen and become adept at field recording. Tuning Of The World by Schafer is essential and discusses the important area of environmental noise in it. These people refreshed my interest in sound art inspired me to investigate more of the work by Annea Lockwood, Alvin Lucier, John Cage and what had occurred at RTF and WDR.

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There’s also another beautiful release you had at 12k called Between, collaboration with other great artists like Taylor Deupree, Corey Fuller, Tomoyoshi Date and Marcus Fischer. I found that release pretty well structured, sounds combine together in a fantastic way. One almost doesn’t feel its duration, it takes you out of time! I wonder  how was your approach on collaborating and what where your aesthetic decisions on preparing and performing? It’s very interesting to see how you never go saturated and masked each other. Giving that amount of artists, the release keeps a very subtle and minimalist feeling. How did you manage that?

That was a very special night (the day was pretty good too) in Kyoto where we decided to play a free show on our day off. There was no agreed plan about the composition and no discussion prior to the actual show about who would do what. I think the musicians involved all have an acute awareness of what one should and should not contribute when collaborating or creating music. Listening skills plays a huge part and these guys are masters at restrain and building sound textures of beauty. We created a delicate bubble of sound that hovered around the room in musical form, each musician mindful of not popping it or manipulating it into an out of context entity. That whole Japanese trip was a personal favorite tour of mine, with really great people travelling together and I happily do it all over again.

What would silence mean in your life/work?

There is no silence, Mr. Cage is well documented for explaining this, but I am silent, mentally, when field recording. Only afterwards does the thinking and creative work begins. When you are ontologically following a startling sonic occurrence is when your mind is silent and you are deep in the moment. When there is no mental distraction, no chatter, I feel it is perhaps similar to meditation when your ego disintegrates, you are totally alive but calm and there is a silence within. I don’t differentiate work and life, as they are one and the same to me.

What’s for the future? Are you preparing something right now? We would listen to more field recordings at some of your next releases?

I am writing new songs and working on some scores. I am collaborating with a few people and have many things on the horizon. I also plan to record a lot more in the Fens and I always record the city or environment where I visit to perform live. I have a constantly expanding sound bank of field recordings from Istanbul, Gdansk, Japan, Seattle and Cologne and  from wherever I am booked to play live..

Finally, could you recommend us some sounds, places, field recording releases, labels, films, books and/or artists you personally think our community would enjoy?

David Dunn wrote an inspiring book called Why Do Whales And Children Sing that gives you some biological facts that are useful if you want to know more about how humans and animals hear and create sound. Read Tuning Of The World (book) by R M Schafer, listen to Ludwig Koch’s recordings on BBC Records (Wildlife Series),  read An Antidote To Indifference: Issue 6 – Field recordings special (fanzine), Wild Soundscapes (book) by Bernie Krause and go check out Jez Riley French’s hand made microphones.

Simon Scott website

Soundcloud