05. “It sounds too much like a personal story” – The Position Normal interview
Sometimes it’s hard to put your finger on your particular reasons for doing something. Normally when I hear a new intriguing sound from an artist I’ve never encountered before I will just start writing. Yes, I do a little googling but mostly just rely on the feelings and ideas I get from the music. Not so with Position Normal. Very soon after I got bowled over by Position Normal (also known as the cassette album) last year I wrote to Chris Bailiff, the man behind the band name. The questions I asked now seem to be ludicrously pretentious (so pretentious in fact that I edited out the worst in the following), considering that Chris least of all is a pretentious person. The replies I got were elaborate and extremely open about the personal nature of Position Normals music.
One year after the interview was started Chris has been to Sweden on more than one occasion and made a huge impact on both me and others and it was time to bring the story up to date.
I completely missed out on your earlier stuff when it was released and first heard of Position Normal when Matt Ingram and then Simon Reynolds mentioned you in their blogs. Simon Reynolds even dubbed you “the Godfather of Hauntology”, so my first question would be if you if you feel that title is justified and if you feel an affinity with Ghost Box and that whole aesthetic?
Being dubbed the “godfather” probably suggests that I’m getting old. With my music I have always kept myself to myself. I listen to a lot of sounds but I’m not aware of what’s going on around me musically so I had no idea of Ghost Box or “hauntology” until very recently.
But then that’s how my first album happened. By me not caring at all about making “music of now”. I suppose other people with their ears to the ground became aware of what I was doing and were influenced by it. It did feel a bit weird after what I suppose is so many years of other folks being influenced by my sounds and me not knowing anything about it. But I guess this sort of thing must happen a lot. I’m not bothered as to whether being the “godfather” is justified or not, I just respect Simon Reynolds a lot for saying it and thanks to him for helping to put me back in the picture.
I can see that someone like Julian House must have been very influenced by how you splice together found sound from various sources and the odd bit that you play yourself. (Because you do, don’t you?) I’m trying to think back now and can’t really think of anyone working in quite a similar vein back in the 90’s. Were there? Can you name someone who influenced the way you put together your music?
I think that Stop your nonsense sonically suggests that I had absolutely no idea of what musical scenes were happening around me at the time. But there were much more personal reasons for making music rather than wanting to be in a scene or part of something. If anything, I made my own sound because all I could hear was sounds from people that wanted to be part of something as opposed to being themselves. I was listening to easy listening, electronic music, T Rex and whatever caught my ears. Church bells, fruit and vegetable markets, old music radio stations, the world service or radio interference or anything. You never know where the next lovely sounds are going to come from and what style or from what era they will be. There is no way of knowing, before you hear it, how you are going to feel or react. I was going to boot sales and charity shops to buy the cheapest music i could afford with beautiful artwork and photography /illustration.
I seem to remember reading somewhere that you had a background in rave culture. Is that true? If so, in what way do you think it has affected what you do as Position Normal?
I was aware of a lot of electronic music in the 90s and lived in a house in East London with a DJ friend who had loads of incredible electronic music but I was not interested in making anything like it. Instead I needed to make music that was connected to my life and personal to me and this has always been important. Escaping through dance music was and still is great but it’s only one way of enjoying life and sounds and also only one way of coping with some of the shit times or things that happen. I was having a massively shit time in my mid teens to my early twenties. My family fell apart and my dad got Alzheimer’s. It started to get to me and I found it incredibly difficult to the point of impossible to leave the fucking house. I used to have to force myself to leave the house just to go to the small local library. My head buried down into my chest and sweating like a madman. When I got to the library that was just around the corner I was too damn nervous to even read.
There was never any intention to make or release an album or to be famous. In fact the thought of being out and about in the public eye was enough to make me physically sick. I just loved and needed the concentrating, therapeutic motions and the focusing activity of making music.
What kind of qualities are you looking for when you decide which sources to use?
My dad went into hospital and had to sell the family home, I had to move out and whilst doing this I found so many old records of his and records that he bought for me. Nursery rhymes, documentaries and jazz. I didn’t want to throw anything away so took them with me. I started to listen to all of them and recorded on to tape my favourite sounds and made incredibly varied mix tapes. I then edited them down and down until there were what I suppose are called samples. I borrowed a Tascam 4 track tape machine from my college and a Marantz field recorder. It was in fact a college for graphic design, not art as such, but we did do a lot of art history and painting. They must have seen the look on my face because they let me borrow it constantly. If anyone needed to book the equipment the a.v. guy would tell me and I’d bring it back into college and pick it up when they’d finished.
Another college friend lent me his Amiga computer which had a very small memory sampler. Everything changed for me right there. Before that my loops were made by pressing and releasing the pause button. My brothers mini cassette machine would record and my dad’s tower hi fi would play, I would play guitar or a little keyboard and cover it all over with my duvet to soundproof it. So the four track and sampler was a mind blow. The world was recordable. An incredible feeling. Thanks to the field recorder I began to leave the house. I had a good reason to get out and about.
In all your publicity shots you’ve been wearing the yellow heads. I immediately understood them as a nod to the Residents and their eyeball heads. Was I right to think that?
My mind was blown when I first heard the Residents’ Meet the Residents album and also Negativland’s Escape from noise. They are American and have there own set of influences but I think listening to them was a great affirmation in relying on my own background and making sounds based on my own experiences. I heard the Residents first, then Negativland about five years after.
The yellowheads are a definite nod to them. A very cheap budget terrible version of them. It cuts out the need to wear the right clothes for a photo shoot or have to look cool and stylish. They never grow old or need a haircut or have a bad day or go bald. The yellowheads don’t give a shit but in the nicest of ways. I think of them as friendly. Photographers love working with them. They change the feeling of a place. I’m very into location hunting for photographs. We did a “hello from London” series where the yellowheads were standing outside Westminister, Buckingham Palace, Tower Bridge, etc.
What other kinds of influences, musical or otherwise, do you think shine through in your music?
I love old rock and roll, classical music, electronic music and grew up on pop. I also love weird sounds and difficult noise. I just like hearing peoples characters and if their personality and who they are comes through in their sound somehow then that’s superb and good on them. The activity involved with making sounds and learning and playing and learning and recording and learning guitar was and still is the most important thing for me.
I have played the guitar since i was eight and learnt all the bad habits of how not to play properly. There was a comedian in the UK in the 60’s/70’s/80’s called Les Dawson. One of his acts was to sit down at a piano and play a serious song at the end of his act, a little cabaret-ish. As he started to play he would hit bad notes, off keys. he kept singing seriously but his playing would gradually get worse and worse. I used to piss myself laughing at him. Naturally funny man.
The only and biggest potential problem with the sounds I was and still making is that it was and to some extent still is difficult to categorise. Stop your nonsense came out when there was, as far as I am aware, nothing like it around. You can obviously categorise something when there is a lot of it about, or at least more than one, but at the time I felt that music lovers enjoyed it. It was about London history to them. It seemed to reflect how they felt about their own background. but then recently someone from Paris told me that it reminds them of growing up there which I thought was awesome. Until this recent album I have had absolutely no idea at all if anyone has been buying it or if anyone at all gives a fart. I had no record company or website.
But your two first albums were released by “proper” record companies, weren’t they?
The label that released Stop your nonsense seemed to keep a lot of the cards quite close to their chests and Goodly time, the second album, was mostly bought by the Japanese fashion company that printed the sleeves. I saw some reviews and articles for Eley Kishimoto in Japanese fashion magazines. I saw my album in womens’ magazines on pages full of handbags, broaches and scarfs along with all the “must haves” this season but nothing about the album itself. It was totally received as an Eley Kishimoto product. So now I have a website for the third album I am hearing from a few people around the world and it is amazing. I am shocked to say the least.
Stop your nonsense comes from after The Bugger Sod, my first band, finished. An a&r sole asked if i would like to sign a deal. I thought it would be OK. It seemed like a tiny independent but later found that it was being bank rolled by Polygram who were just a big bag of egotistical arseholes and coke heads. When the bosses of Polygram found out that Position Normal was on their label they went ape shit. They spent the next five months trying to kick me out.
I worked part time in a design studio, downstairs was the management for Massive Attack. He heard me playing my music and asked if I would like a publishing deal. I said OK. The owners of the publishing house was Tim Clarke, who used to run Island Records with Chris Blackwell, and David Enthoven who was managing Robbie Williams. It was massively fucking weird. Too weird. They paid for the first position normal 10″. They stormed into Polygram unannounced and tore the shit out of the executives and got all my music back off them and I got paid as well. I still can’t get my head around those days.
Goodly time was paid by the Princess trust, a grant funding for small start up businesses. I told them i wanted to be a web and audio visual business. I’ve paid it all back. In the same design studio I was working in was a fashion designer and i made fashion shows music for her and then Eley Kishimoto and that’s how i got the nice sleeves.
A year has passed since we started this interview. In this space you’ve done a number of gigs around Europe, including two successful ones in Sweden. I have also learnt that you took most of 2010 off from work in order to concentrate on your music and the live shows. Has it been worth it?
Definitely. I’ve met so many lovely people this year. Totally dedicated and inspiring types. The two musicians for me this year are Paul Metzger and 10 (Itta Marquido). They’re hard working and positive and that’s encouragement enough. Both utterly different from each other but incredible for their own reasons. The self gratification of concentrating and playing music for a year has come at a cost but I didn’t want to look back in a few years time and know that I didn’t even give it a go. On the other hand though, I look at my heating and electricity bills and think “how the fuck am I going to pay that?” But at least i did it.
When will the next Position Normal album be out? How will it differ from what you’ve put out so far?
All of the tracks that I’ve played at the gigs this year are completely remade. They’ve become so different they’re just new tracks. It’s taken me a while to get that new sound together. I don’t want to turn up to a gig that good people have payed for and then all I have for them is a quirky video and me sat there, triggering samples. I’ve always kind of understood why acts have done that but I can’t help feeling a bit short changed. And I’ve played guitar and vocalised for years, so I should share that. There’s a lot more effected guitars and real vocals now which is what I’ve been doing all along anyway. In fact my recorded sounds have grown closer to how I play live. When I make sounds and then play out I want to somehow present myself and it’s important to me that my thoughts are much more than just a critique of other peoples applied creativity. Samples are still cool but only if the result is the that of the “musician” offering themselves and their thoughts and samples are a part of it.
For 15 years I have been making music and putting stuff out when I feel like I’ve got something worth putting out and that’s it. I most definitely do not put out sounds just for the sake of having an extensive back catalogue or to stay in the public domain. Constantly maintaining a profile or persistently pissing people off on Facebook is OK if you’re consistently releasing your best work but I’m convinced it’s got much more to do with poxy marketing ideals. In a way I feel great about not releasing all the time because I really feel that I’ve been doing it all for the right reasons. I’ve met loads of artists that think the same so that’s reassuring.
It sounds too much like a personal story but that’s my music. That is what makes it what it is.