Mike Harding interview by Bana Haffar, Brussels, May 4th, 2019 (transcript follows)
We’re sitting in the NH Collection hotel in Brussels, it’s May 4th —
Although technically we’re not, technically we’re in the restaurant next door, and it’s called Le Rossini.
Le Rossini, yes. Today also happens to be Oren Ambarchi’s 50th birthday —
It is, many happy returns to Oren. You made it! That’s my message to him.
Touch is coming up on 40 years —
Couple of years to go, we’ve done 37, got to that one so two and a half years to go.
Well, let’s get there first, before we start hanging out the bunting.
The first question I wanted to ask you is more of a personal one, when did listening transition from being a passive to an active act?
That I can very easily answer, I can remember very clearly when I was about 13 or 14, my parents gave me a shortwave radio receiver as a birthday or Christmas gift, or both, and I really got into putting the headphones on and dialing between the stations. I was interested in hearing stations with a foreign language. I ran a single aerial cable up onto the roof, I lived in the middle of the countryside so I had reasonably good reception, no too much interference from anything, but I was more intrigued by what was going on between the stations. I think that’s when I really started listening. But having said that, one of the things I used to do with my kid brother, which used to give us hours of entertainment, was record the audio from TV shows, particularly British comedies. I remember Monty Python, Stanley Baxter, The Two Ronnies, Morecambe and Wise. We would record the audio onto cassette through the 5 pin DIN outlet on the portable black and white TV that we had in our bedroom, when I shared a room with Paul. We used to have a lot of fun putting it on tape and playing it back because it separated it from the visuals. I was kind of getting little seeds of things in my early teenage years. I think they were the starting point for when listening became active rather than passive. I didn’t graduate to doing tape cut ups or tape loops but the active listening thing I think was starting then. It was the shortwave radio that really — it’s been great fun going back to that with the drone project I do with Mark Van Hoen where I’m culling a lot of samples and sound sources from that same process, but obviously much more extensively with a much wider field. I really enjoyed going back to that phase.
One of the things I personally respect about Touch is that it’s been fiercely independent throughout its existence —
Yes, fiercely, stubbornly, stupidly, you could say.
You’ve managed to operate outside what I like to call the musical industrial complex.
Yes, I think it’s making as few compromises as possible. We’ve never really applied for any funding, and the one time I did, it really felt awkward and going against the grain and we got turned down and I went, well that was a waste of time. I try to get each project to have its own economic self sufficiency. It’s a tall order but when it works it’s extremely satisfying and mostly it does work. So that gives us a lot of freedom to do what we want when we want. Whereas if you do apply for funding, and I do accept that it’s inevitable and in many ways it’s the only option, but for us it isn’t and therefore we have — oh look it’s, hail!
[ hail storm begins]
A heavy hail storm in Brussels. We should be out there recording it.
… I do understand that’s how a lot of people function, and that’s fine but it doesn’t work for us, for whatever reason, for all sorts of different reasons. It also gives you a fixed time frame within which you have to operate. We’ve never been very responsive to that process, we like to have an open end for projects which have to be allowed to develop in their own time. You can’t force these things. You can’t hurry art, as Jon Wozencroft likes to say. And he’s right, he’s absolutely right.
It seems like You and Jon don’t steer your artists in any direction, instead you support them.
There’s certainly an intensive dialogue. I mean when you say we don’t steer, we certainly might encourage, suggest, we might say quite strongly, actually that’s not a great idea because… Then it comes down to your relationship with them and how much they’re going to listen to you. But that’s extremely rare when that’s happened. I can’t think of the last time that it got even close to that. But, you know, you never know.
I remember a conversation we had in the tube the other day, you mentioned finding the art in the music.
Yes, ‘cus it’s not about music, really.
Is there a specific process that you use to find that, can you quantify it, or is it more intuitive?
Neither Jon nor I are musicians, neither Jon nor I studied music, never played any instruments ourselves, we don’t come from that background. We’re not in the same house as the artists who are operating in the way that they operate. But also, we publish books, Jon’s a graphic designer, typographer, writer, you know he’s a polymath. This is partly why we’re not a record label, it’s this whole idea of records, this whole sort of almost like you’re on a fixed journey, releasing records, trying to sell as many as possible, trying to, you know, that whole music industry — as you say, the musical industrial complex, doesn’t really work for us. We see ourselves much more as a publisher and we’re publishing editions and the editions can be any format. There doesn’t have to be any sound involved at all. Of course, largely it does involve some kind of recording but it certainly doesn’t have to, we’re not restricted. Hence the name, Touch is totally open. It doesn’t reveal anything about its format. We’re not Touch Books or Touch records, we’re just, Touch.
In terms of the curation, even though we’re all sick of that word —
I’m not, I like it, it works for us, and I think it’s important to underline its necessity as I did yesterday with that kid, who was dumping everything he did up on Soundcloud
We could talk about Soundcloud actually —
I’d rather not (laughs), but the ability to upload all your work without thinking about the implications of that, is interesting. Because of course people can so they do.
Nowadays, it’s so easy to go from inception, to recording, to releasing. You could essentially do it in a day.
You’ve got something on your table that used to cost thousands of pounds, and it’s now a few hundred pounds, or less. The whole mechanism of making something is now so incredibly easy and takes relatively a short amount of time to get something reasonable up into the public eye line or ear line. But to be a good artist is a whole other thing. So you’re getting an awful lot of people who are becoming efficient, proficient, at recording up to a certain point but, so what. If you haven’t got anything to say, what’s the point of doing that?
It seems like the gestation process is being bypassed because it’s so easy to release quickly
We’re almost in a negative gestation period. The gap between actually getting to a point where you think, oh, I’ve got something here, and it becoming publicly available is now almost naught, it’s zero. There’s absolutely no time for the artist to think deeply after they’ve done something, and ask maybe bigger questions that aren’t to do so much with the practical side of the project, come out of that and think more conceptually about it, if they haven’t done that before. And maybe going back and having another look later. Well it’s too late if you’ve already released it into the world then it’s harder to claw it back. My advice to everyone is take longer than you think you need.
When Touch first started, what was the general timeline for artists from inception to release?
There’s no formula for it, but it was obviously a very different process because you couldn’t email someone or upload a file or anything like that. It was all done, let’s say mechanically, through the post, or arranging to meet up, or going to a concert or whatever it was. Or even recording in a studio, booking a studio, going in there, the whole process was on a very different timeline. One thing I would say is that it was quicker and you a higher quality of vinyl. It was vinyl or cassette in those days. Cassettes were what they were but with vinyl you had a higher standard, a higher quality of vinyl, the compound itself was a higher quality. The pressing plants were really expert at getting good quality out. There were some failures, there always are with a mechanical process, but the general standard of vinyl production was higher than it is now. Not surprisingly because everyone was geared towards it. It was heavily invested in, and that was the main format until the mid ‘80s when digital arrived and changed things.
How do you go about deciding what format to release music on now?
Sometimes it’s a given. If it’s a cassette for example, you might have to remind the artist that there are two sides and they’ve got to think about that protention between A and B, like with vinyl which doesn’t apply to CD for example or even necessarily a file which could be separate files or one long file. There are automatically things to think about. But if you say you’re doing a new album really, you do a new album and see how it unfolds and think about the format at some stage slightly later on. Get the concept and the work in shape and see what form it takes and something comes out of that, normally.
At what point is Jon brough into the process to start thinking about photography?
As soon as there’s something to listen to, as soon as there’s something to reckon with. Jon needs to also conceptualize that aspect of it. He may not have the right photos, he might have to go somewhere and do a new shoot for that project whatever it is, wherever it is. He’s got a big library now so he can draw back and pull stuff out that he thinks are relevant. But that’s a discussion between Jon and the artist and that can take as long as it takes. It can be extremely quick or it can — there’s one project we’re working on which has been years, it may never happen, I don’t know. You just can’t force these things.
It seems like the mid ‘90s was the golden era for Touch. You started working with Mika Vanio, Ryoji Ikeda, Oren Ambarchi, Fennesz, Biosphere —
Philip Jeck, Chris Watson. It’s funny that, to see it as the golden era, is that unfair on the artists working now? Whom in their day might become as influential? That’s slightly, prescient to say that, I wonder, I don’t know.
But there was certainly an energy in the mid ‘90s.
I think there were certain liberating things that were happening by then. The laptop for example was coming and the software was coming. For the artists that was hugely liberating. Fennesz would be a good example. He would say himself that that was an important moment for him to pivot his career as a solo artist, definitely, more towards the late ‘90s. Chris Watson and Philip Jeck weren’t using computers. Ryoji Ikeda was using a sampler, I guess that’s a form of computer, but in a different way. The laptop and the software was maybe slightly later, was it ‘97, ‘98, ‘99? +/- Ryoji Ikeda was ‘95, Philip Jeck Loopholes was ‘97. Anyway, I think you’ve got to be a bit more — which artist are you talking about? What was their particular journey? Oren Ambarchi was later. Oren’s 50 today so that’s his timeline. The others you named are older, as indeed we are. I think was what happening also was the retail aspect of it, the wholesale, distribution side of it was becoming much more efficient and the impact of digital was starting to make itself felt and they were forced to become much more efficient. You could argue that the golden days of that was actually the ‘80s, the ‘70s and ‘80s, and in the ‘90s it broke, or it started to break because of digital. And then by ‘93 really, ’94, ‘95, when everyone started getting email and suddenly you realized you could send files, it cut out everyone. Huge changes, yes. But for the artists, many of them felt very liberated by it.
I remember I was complimenting your garden the other day and you mentioned its different phases, the current one being your favourite. Similarly, has Touch gone through different iterations of itself, what are they and where is it now?
It definitely has. Both Jon and I have been around a long time, longer than most labels and yet in many ways we feel like we’re just getting started. One of the reasons for that is that we can refresh ourselves by working with new fresh artists such as yourself, Zachary Paul, Geneva Skeen, Yann Novak. That’s how we refresh ourselves and we’re kept on our toes, by you guys. It’s always a shifting point, there’s never a fixed point where you can say, right, I’m satisfied, I’ve achieved this. Never, that will never happen cus we’ll always be changing and adapting. Some of the longer trends occur often driven by technology, economy, the geopolitical situation that we find ourselves in for example. When we grew up and when we started there was a record store or two in every town and now you’re lucky if you find one. That’s a massive social change cus you would go there for your information. Now you say, oh, well you can get it on the internet, only if you know where to look and you don’t have anyone saying, except your peer groups, check this out, it’s amazing. It’s a completely different way of receiving information and disseminating it. That’s been a massive change. We’re subject to these historical forces and we’re very good, I think, at dealing with these. Some labels and some artists get really stuck, and I don’t think we’ve ever got stuck. If we have, it would worry me a lot if I felt that or someone said that.
What projects are you excited about moving forward?
All of them. If I wasn’t excited about it we wouldn’t be doing it. That comes from a very good dialogue between Jon and I, we talk about ideas all the time. Jon says, this has come up or I go, this has come up, and if it feeds into our grander, general let’s say, world view, a bit like the Borg, it’ll be absorbed into the greater thing. And of course the great thing is that the artists can shift and collaborate. You might meet Carl Michael von Hausswolff and an idea might happen and you might start working together, which we won’t know until you actually put yourself in that milieu, to allow that to happen. Collaborations are key components of all of this and it’s wonderful when that happens and you just never know which direction it’s going to go in.
You have an interesting position because you have a bird’s-eye view of the artists that you’re working with and so you’re able to match them together.
You have to be on the ground level but also looking down on the whole thing and see who might work together. That curating process is also done for live events, where you’ve got to put people together and you’ve got to structure it. You can’t just say, let’s throw all this together and have a great night, there’s got to be a reason to it, a point to the lineup, it’s got to work on some level. And if you think of everything as though it’s a composition, we’re not composers I hasten to add, but if you think of it as it’s a composition so there’s some kind of waveform rather than all on the same level, you don’t get artists who are occupying the same territory following each other.
Like frequency ranges, you don’t want artists to occupy the same range.
Yes, you don’t want five acts who are all dealing with infrasound on the same bill, unless the festival is calling for that and that’s the preconceived plan, but that’s obviously not going to happen.
Playing live is still a very important part of all this.
It’s critical I think and it’s worrying that so many venues are having such a hard time. Look at last night, you did a show at AB Salon in Brussels, which was free, your name is not around the houses, yet, and yet it was full. People were prepared to have a go based on the integrity of the location and the quality of the playback system and a certain amount of other forces suggesting that this is going to be a good night to go to. It all matched and worked and you did a great show and the audience were fantastic.
Spaces like that are hard to come by, spaces that are free and high quality, with good monitoring systems, quadraphonic sound… it’s a shame that places like that are closing.
I think there’s a lot of interest in high quality sound playback and this idea of the listening rooms where you would play an album and play it to an extremely high quality and then discuss it is really, nice. A really interesting parlour game almost, it’s a lot of fun.
Do you feel that music comes from a different source when an artist is not expecting to make money off their work?
Financial pressure is an interesting one because it can work in both ways. It can really up your game but it can also really block you in. You see this a lot in TV and film with the time and economic pressures, often which are very negative, people assume that you’re very well paid if you’re doing high profile, it is not always the case, often the budgets get severely reduced even as you’re going along because they’ve had to suddenly spend over on something else to do with the film or the TV show or the production, whatever it is. You don’t know that people are being well rewarded for their work, so you have to be careful with your assumptions. Just like visual artists might have a very large production budget, but a huge proportion of that, if not all of it, goes on really high quality tools that they need for the production. You’ve got to be a good spreadsheet manager as well as an artist these days. You really see it when someone is on their fourth series of a TV show and there’s honestly nothing else to say because the TV show is tending to say the same thing and they don’t want anything very different on the soundtrack. Some of that work can get very boring and also you’re up against an ever increasing time restriction because the demand for new work is so great now with so many TV channels, many of which need a constant input of soundtrack. That’s not good for creative flexing of muscles and exploring ideas. You can get trapped in that world, and the other things that most humans go through with starting a family or wanting to live somewhere a bit nicer perhaps or having to move to a different city, general economic pressures. It’s very tough.
How do you think younger artists can find the art in their own music? There’s been an increasing obsession with gear rather than content, especially in electronic music.
You’d hope you have someone in your life to tell you, that you’re shit, (chuckles). That’s a mean thing to say, but you know what I mean. But if you don’t have someone in your life to whisper in your ear, remember you’re mortal, it can get very difficult and you can lose sight of that. Especially if you’re being given encouragement from people who may not know much about the world that you’re operating in that maybe want to help. Maybe they’ve heard about the name and think, that’s great, let’s do it! Maybe don’t spend as much time looking at the work as they should do.
When artists are able to self release and put things up online, on SoundCloud and other platforms, you get false feedback.
You do get false feedback, and you need someone around in your life to be really fair with you.
That’s what labels were back in the day, that was their function. Now people have become their own labels.
Exactly, there are pro and cons of all of this for sure. I think it’s very hard for an artist to self edit. Often you’re far too close to it and the ability to stand back and have a look from a different perspective, turn the telescope round if you like, that comes with maturity. The absolute masters of it I would suggest are Chris Watson and Philip Jeck. It takes decades and decades to get to that level of sophistication of looking at your own work.
And you can’t rush it like you said earlier.
You can teach. They have a lot to pass on, the two other artists. Chris has all these workshops, all his, it’s not unfair to call them, tricks of the trade, they might even be temporal shortcuts to save yourself a lot of time if you do things this way instead of this way and you use the materials around you rather than necessarily, going and buying the most expensive — he uses a coat hanger for his DPAs. You don’t need really expensive sophisticated stands with mechanical arms, the coat hanger is an amazing thing, you can hang it anywhere, and you can bend it, and shape it, and if you get the plastic coated ones, it doesn’t interfere at all. Things like that are incredibly useful and labor saving and time saving. Philip Jeck for years and years edited on minidisc, a medium that never caught on commercially in terms of releases but has been incredibly useful for editing, things like that.
By maintaining challenging relationships with their artists, touch have remained inspiring for more than 30 years.
There is a small, but quite important problem with creating a label profile on touch: It isn’t a record company. What might seem like a paradox is in fact a mission statement that has awarded the brainchild of Mike Harding and Jon Wozencroft a singular position in an otherwise glaringly standardised industry. Right from the beginning in the early 80s, Harding and his congenial creative partner Wozencroft made it clear that they would do things differently. Their personally layouted editions in a wide range of formats contrasted with generic, lovelessly presented CD jewel cases. Wozencrofts strikingly associative and beautifully ambiguous imagery quietly exploded into a world of cheap glamour. Explorative and inquisive sounds provided for an escape from conveyer belt produced bubblegum tracks. A catalogue built on passion and a love for many different forms of expression counterpointed the rigid genre-demarkations of traditional record companies, exposing probably more people to niches like field recordings and sound art than any one else. Even more importantly than these outwardly visible aspects of their endeavours, meanwhile, was what went on behind the curtains. Touch built long-lasting relationships with their artists based on mutual understanding, trust, respect and, most importantly, far more than just physical objects – Wozencroft and Harding importantly started representing their artists’ publishing rights long before it became fashionable again over the past few years. Despite the clarity of this vision, which has already landed touch various spots in design features and profiles in major music publications all over the globe, Harding and Wonzencroft have never dragged their feet, using the thirty year celebrations to further push Touch into a future that is as unknown as it is fascinating. The notion of not being a label has never been a mere slogan to them. It has been a constant reminder to adapt, change and inspire.
What were your main motivations when setting up Touch?
When we started in 1982, it was a fertile time creatively and there was all sorts of cellular activity going on. The extraordinary energy unleashed during 1977 and 1978 gave a huge boost to creative thinking and opportunities and this period was crucial historically as well as culturally. The Soviet Union caught a bad cold in Afghanistan and their economy stated to implode. The United States ground them into the dirt with Star Wars and the ideological map started to be redrawn, culminating in the collapse of the Soviet Empire at the end of the 80s. So it was a time of opportunity of thinking and action and many groups and individuals took this up. At the same time, technology was starting its unfinished journey from analogue to digital and the concept of consumerism started to become inseparable from the cycle of seduction and addiction of which capitalism is the master.
So being around at that time it was hard not to respond to and become involved with what was going on in some way.
How would you describe the situation for Touch right now? What are the financial realities you’re faced with, for example? How satisfied are you with the exposure you’ve managed to create for yourself?
Well, of course you can never do enough, but we are a small organisation and as such you do have to be on the conservative side financially. But it is surely proven that if your economic model is oddly tight but flexible then you have a chance to ride through any storms which may hit you on their way through. We never have had any expectations of any kind of funding directly, so the experience of there being none available in the 80s has stood us in good stead now, when the conditions are pretty bleak.
The very act of survival and advancement over the last 30 years has, of course, meant that we have adapted and evolved and of course have witnessed many other organisations fail to make it. Often this is determined by simple lessons of life – its hard to start a family and keep going on this levels normally one of the family has to have a full-time job and so something tends to give. But those forces from the 80s were very powerful and the inspiration taken by many at the time is still playing out.
How, generally, do you see the role of a platform like Touch today?
We see ourselves as publishers and curators primarily – we are not interested (and don’t have the resources) to spend time on A&R.
Do you see it as a problem that so many people are setting up their own label nowadays – or artists selling their own music directly – thereby considerably increasing the overall amount of music available to listeners?
It depends what you mean by “problem”. In the 30 year cycle in which we have operated, we have witnessed saturation of the market several times. But perhaps because the economy is very small (well down from the substantial share of the independents in the early 80s), it is possible to start the cycle over again with fresh ideas without too much economic damage being done.
But I do also think now that we have to teach and learn from the pitfalls of over-production. It is so much easier and faster now to make an album – a product of digital technology – and this has caused serious issues for the consumer, the artist and distributor. People are full. There is a deep desire for cleansing and emptying, for mobile and wifi-free zones, for quality sleep and active relaxation rather than passive consumption. But these desires contradict capitalist forces and since these are the forces of reaction, they try to control and model them for their own ends.
How important do you rate the importance of distributors (including mail orders and outlets for digital downloads) for Touch? How hard has it been for you to find and work with distributors in the early stages? What, do you feel, could be improved in this regard?
We are very fortunate to have developed an excellent working relationship with a distributor, for both physical as well as digital, so the expansion into digital distribute was relatively seamless. The trust built up between Kudos and Touch has also enabled both parties to allow each other the freedom to evolve as needs and demands change.
How do you rate the impact of social media for your work? How do you personally work on creating a community around Touch and how would you rate the importance of these social factors compared to the actual music being released?
We are operating within a very small statistical bandwidth so it is very hard to assess any impact in these terms. Some are very active in supporting us on twitter and other social media and we are only happy to support this by setting up our own presence on these platforms. But without the artists and their work we would have nothing to say. QED.
Just like many artists and labels, the press have found it hard to adapt to the new playing field of the digital age. What kind of support and co-operation would you expect and appreciate from them?
Oh you are so right. The response of the press to the fascinating changes we are going through has been hugely disappointing. Few if any in the printed media have shown the necessary imagination to cover the crucial issues which are unfolding right now.
From your experience, has playing live – or organising live events – really, as many have claimed, been a positive factor for your activities? How would you describe the relevance of a direct communication with fans and supporters?
Yes indeed, this is hugely important. As the poor consumer gets saturated by an overloaded market place, its critical that we involve them and give them the room to breathe emotionally and creatively. Live events give the opportunity to escape the compression which occurs with the omnipresence
How do you define success for yourself?
By maintaining enjoyable and challenging relationships with the artists (who always keep us on our toes) with whom we work and emotional engagement with the work we publish.
Music-sharing sites and -blogs as well as a flood of releases in general are presenting both listeners and artists with challenging questions. What’s your view on the value of music today?
GOOD music never loses its value. The issues is, how are people supposed to know what is GOOD? There just seems to be only two responses available at the moment: “I like it” or ” I can study it at college”. Music seems to have become separated from its cultural and historical context and so it becomes another thing to be consumed. Too much tastes like candy floss.
How do physical sales and (authorised) digital downloads compare in terms of income for you? Do you see models like Spotify as a problem or a potential solution?
The bile attached to napster, last.fm, spotify and others is understandable, but they went about it the wrong way. It’s impossible to get away from the simple fact that artists need to be able to try to earn a living and expect royalties or some other payment if their work is sold. If that financial lifeline is cut off then there is no incentive to make “music” and so who will then fill the channels created for all this work? The same people who think music should be free will be the first to complain when only the rich make music. It’s a car crash unfolding right in front of us.
In how far do you see artful packaging as a way forward for you as a label? Are the objectification and value of music inherently related to each other, would you say?
It’s hardly a way forward because it’s something that has been intrinsic from the start. However, the idea is not to “objectify” the music but to give it a parallel narrative. It’s clear that the recent online/digital dislocation of cover art from music has been a disaster in terms of how the latter is valued as anything more than freely-downloadable ones and zeroes. Touch has always tried to bring another dimension to the music we publish by seeing the possibilities of cover art as a form of sonification rather than illustration.
From your perspective, what would be a workable model for the future for listeners, artists and Touch alike?
That is the challenge we are presented with now. As CDs become a passé format and vinyl, which is expensive to produce, regains former lost ground, there is no economic model available yet to fill the gap. This is creating huge issues for artists, labels and distributors as well as consumers. The tension between the growing demand for high quality audio and ease-of-use is where the future may lie …
As I said, fascinating times.
Touch, London, June 2013
Touch label profile interview by Tobias Fischer
The Liminal, 2012
[In 2012 Touch celebrated the 30th anniversary of its first release. To mark the beginning of their 30th anniversary, Jon Wozencroft and Mike Harding agreed to be interviewed by Scott McMillan for The Liminal – the first time they had been interviewed together for over ten years. Scott McMillan’s writing is archived at mapsadaisical.wordpress.com]
Part one: Ritual
In 1982, Touch was established by Jon Wozencroft, Mike Harding, Andrew McKenzie and Gary Mouat. Pointedly not a record label, they initially produced audiovisual magazines, in which the images and text were given as much prominence as the music on their cassette compilations. Over the years, they have moved onto releasing vinyl, CDs, and digital downloads, by artists such as Fennesz, Chris Watson, Philip Jeck, Phill Niblock and Oren Ambarchi, but their ethos is as it was when they first started.
Touch remains under the curatorship of Jon Wozencroft and Mike Harding. To mark the beginning of their 30th anniversary, which will feature a number of events around Europe and the US, they agreed to be interviewed by me, the first time they have been interviewed together for over ten years. Given that the number three is of symbolic importance to Touch, it seems appropriate that this interview will run in three parts. Part one covers the genesis of the project, and how their core creative values saw them through the changes in technology which took place in the 1980s.
30 years old? It seems longer than 5 years since the 25th anniversary celebrations. What do you consider to be the official beginning of Touch?
Jon Wozencroft (JW): The official entry is 4th March 1982, when I met Mike at the Moonlight Club in West Hampstead, though I had established the idea of doing some sort of avant-garde magazine with sound in 1981. I knew Andrew McKenzie [The Hafler Trio] when I was at University, and he was working the shrinkwrap machine in the Virgin Megastore in Newcastle. We were into the same sort of weird music – we both loved The Residents – and had the idea of doing something. Meeting Mike was the catalyst for doing something about it, because he had some kind of infrastructure that we could use as a starting point.
Mike Harding (MH): Unrelated in any way to Touch, I had a label which had published two vinyl releases. And around that there was kind of a small network, so we already had a little system.
JW: So then having decided to so something, my starting point was “what is my favourite band in the world right now?”, which was New Order. So I got the Granada TV number from directory enquiries, called the switchboard and asked to be put through to Tony Wilson, who told me to speak to Rob Gretton, their manager. They were doing a concert in Newcastle, so I went and by hook or by crook I got to talk to the band after the concert. I literally did a pitch in the dressing room to Bernard, Steve and Hooky, with Rob in the corner. I finally emerged at 2am, by which point all my friends had gone home and the transport had stopped, and had to hitch back from Newcastle to Durham, where I was staying, in the driving rain, finally arriving back at about 4:30 in the morning.
When did you hear back from the band?
JW: The following Monday I gave Rob Gretton a call, and he said “they’ll do it”. But do what? This was the really difficult thing – how were we going to pay for New Order to go into the studio? Anyway, I’d see them quite often at gigs, and Bernard said to me one day “we’ve got this thing that we’ve done that you might like, but on the other hand you might want us to go in the studio and record something new for you”. Given that my whole pitch had been that this project was going to be something different, when he offered me something different I felt I had to go with it. But we still didn’t know what this was going to be. In May they were doing a concert at Pennies in Norwich, and Rob told me he’d give me the master tape at the concert. So Mike and I drove up from London together, saw the concert and Rob gave us the cassette. We went out and immediately put it on in the car’s cassette machine, and went “what the fuck is this?”. It was a 23 minute long techno instrumental [“Video 5-8-6”], we didn’t know what to think.
Were you even sure it was them? That they hadn’t just given you a random tape?
JW: Well they had done “Everythings Gone Green”, but nothing else was like this at the time. I had some close allies who were New Order fans, and I played it to them, and they’d initially go “what the fuck?”, but slowly, one or two of them began to say “That’s amazing. That’s really amazing”. It was a real grower. We decided we’d go with it.
So you had this really special piece – how did you go about turning that into your first release, Feature Mist?
JW: We went round the houses with it a bit, because we didn’t know how to accommodate a 23-minute track on a 60 minute cassette. We had to get New Order to agree to let us split it into two parts. We gradually put the pieces together after that. One of the big things was getting Tuxedomoon to make something for it, who were very big at the time, and they did a beautiful track. And then there was this connection we had with the Riverside Theatre in Hammersmith, who were doing a retrospective on Futurism, Russian Constructivism and Mayakovsky. We then mastered the tape in the autumn.
Was the technological side of that a bit of a challenge?
JW: We were just learning as we went along. The biggest difference in those days was access to recording and mastering facilities – it was super expensive, there was no way you could play around with it and experiment. Andrew thought he knew what he was doing, and he had a four track tape recorder, and was starting to learn how to perform various tricks with it – editing and looping and what have you. So we went down to a friend’s studio with all our tapes, compiled it into two track Revox, which then had to be bounced back down to a cassette, which you would copy using one of these old high speed copying machines. And so the first real problem we had was dealing with tape hiss. Now everyone is trying to put it back, but we were trying to take it off!
You had told New Order that this was going to be something different – what was it that differentiated it?
JW: We had this big idea that we’d sequence the tracks so it was like a journey, almost like a documentary, by putting in these little inserts. It was before people started doing it with hip hop and sampling, because that hadn’t really arrived – I mean it was happening, but we didn’t know it was happening – so that turned out to be quite a revolutionary thing to do. Suddenly you had a musical item which was almost like a TV show.
MH: Or a radio show, rather. We were responding to what was around, the media at the time. It was a very different world.
Aside from the music, the visual aspect of what New Order were doing must have been a huge influence.
JW: Design is intrinsic to labels like 4AD and Factory Records. If there was a catalyst for me, it is Factory, and what that represented as an idea – not just the music or the artwork, but a completely wild and maverick idea of what constituted record company practice. I guess we’re like Factory but with better business sense! However I think a bigger influence comes from trying to work out what you could do that other people weren’t doing. Peter Saville and Malcolm Garrett and Neville Brody and all of these people were doing really strong visual work, but these were just simply record covers. I was struck most by the developments that Cabaret Voltaire and Human League had started to do with the idea of a visual element alongside the sonic. I asked myself what could be done to extend that into another area of practice? The whole idea was to make the visual element as much a compositional force as the sound. That is why we keep bleating on about how “Touch is not a record label”.
MH: We called it an audiovisual magazine in the early days.
JW: What Touch was set up to be was like a radio programme, and the booklet was like the Radio Times. You see it as being three components that the user or listener puts together themselves – the sound, the image, and the script. It becomes an interactive thing, the audience becomes a participant in the way something is digested rather than just a passive consumer.
And that is where the name Touch comes from, isn’t it, the idea of a meeting point between these different worlds? How did this idea develop over the next few releases?
JW: The name also relates to the idea of the tactile being potentially the most powerful element. The way the structure works, when we commission musicians or sound artists to do something, we give them some text or photographic input. When we commission a photographer we give them some musical input, so there are all of these interpolations, connections being made in the composition of the product.
MH: Touch 33 immediately followed Feature Mist, and that was in retrospect a really important release.
JW: That was just a cassette, and that was done in the most economic way possible, a two-colour cassette liner card, and all of the sound was made up of stuff that people had given us. People don’t really realise this, but we published the first ever Current 93/Nurse With Wound track. We didn’t realise how potentially important that was going to be. We also published the first Test Department recording. And Geoff Travis had been sent this stuff from Laibach in Ljubliana, and he said “I don’t know what this is all about, see what you can do with it”. So we used that as loops and elements of Touch 33. It was also the first item, through our connection with Soliman Gamil which expressly made the connection between world music and weird music. By the time of Meridians 2, our cup was overflowing, and we had to do it in two parts. So we did the weird part and what we thought would be the more commercial part, with the booklet.
MH: Which had to be put together by hand over many long days.
JW: That was a complete nightmare. Each of the pages of the magazine were separate sheets. They’d be in the racks of the Virgin Megastore, and people would take them apart, and try to stuff them back in the plastic sleeve. You couldn’t shrink-wrap the magazines because they came in these plastic wallets that we had custom made. If they got messed up, then no-one would buy them.
MH: And there were 5,000 of them, it took weeks to make and it cost a fortune. It was naïve, but it was a really tricky thing to do. We should point out that there were other attempts at cassette magazines around at the time, not just in the UK, but to this date no-one still has really cracked the combination of the audio and visual in a satisfactory way for me yet, shoving a CD inside the front of a book or whatever.
JW: The next release was recorded in 1983, released in 1984, I spent 2 months in Indonesia between Bali and Java just with a tape recorder, a Sony Walkman which was just out then.
MH: Then, as now, technology was enabling stuff that couldn’t have been done before without lugging heavy equipment around. This is also stuff that Chris Watson and David Attenborough talk about in relation to their work over the years.
Yes, I saw the great talk they gave last year at the Royal Institution, and the photos of David with his huge battery packs powering his recording equipment.
MH: And they couldn’t actually record anything because of the noise of the camera! So new technology was really opening up at the time what you could do.
Did it feel like you were involved with something revolutionary at the time – not just in terms of Touch, but in terms of the wider musical scene?
JW: The whole point of Simon Reynolds’s book Rip It Up And Start Again, was that post-punk was far a lot more revolutionary than punk. The music coming out at that time was much more experimental than what had preceded it just three years earlier.
MH: And the system in place to support it was strong, with Rough Trade and Chain With No Name, that was 17-20% of the market, selling large numbers of records. Unthinkable now. The structure was in place, the culture was in place, everything was feeding off each other, it was a really fertile time.
JW: There was an energy in the early 80s, an optimism that you could change things. It all started to change with the advent of that wonderful thing, the personal computer, which solved some problems, but created so many others. I was working very much in graphic design with Neville Brody, so we saw this coming, all of these dot-matrix and bitmap aesthetics that were hideous. It took us two years before we went “right, we’d better do something with this”.
You seemed to have taken a conscious decision to be somewhat outside of the prevailing system.
MH: It didn’t interest us. We thought we could exist alongside that. To this day, we are still ignoring it (laughs).
JW: We were in a difficult situation after Meridians 2 because it had cost a fortune. At a certain point you are forced into an economic decision about whether you are going to become a proper “record company”, and if you do, you have to work with bands, managers, personalities and expectations, and all of the infrastructure of the music industry, things we really didn’t want to deal with. It did become a problem because certain bands would say “we want to make an album with you”, and we’d have to say, “that’s great, but how are we going to do it?” We could have gone to Rough Trade and asked them for £20,000 so we could make an album with, say, Test Department. To this day we don’t make money out of Touch, which is biased in favour of the artists. It is easy to say that 30 years later, but in 1983 or 84 when we had to try to exist by whatever slender means we had, it was more difficult.
MH: Not just the costs of recording, but the sheer physicality of making it, you had typesetting and printing costs. Typesetting costs were huge, really huge, hundreds of pounds.
JW: And you had to get it right first time. You couldn’t afford to keep going back to the typesetter. You’d ask for ten point on twelve, they’d give it to you ten point on twelve, and you’d think “I really should have done that ten point on fourteen”. Also, people forget how expensive telephone calls were back then! We used to have situations where the phone bill would come in and we’d wonder how we were going to pay it.
How did this first era of your existence come to an end?
JW: The end of part one would have been Ritual in 1985. Until that point, Gary Mouat and Panni Charrington had been involved with the design and photography. Then Gary went off to live in Germany, and later Panni went off to live in India, so I was left holding the baby. We did 3,000 copies of Ritual, as we couldn’t afford to print 5,000. It came with a 100 page book, and took us about two years from start to finish. This was the first time anyone had mixed different paper qualities like this. Some of the paper was very unstable, it often cracked and tore, so the printers hated it, but we loved it, because it was matte on one side and glazed on the other. But the juxtapositions between this and the photography and illustrations and the stories and the artworks was like a summit for us. We really thought that this was as far as we could push the cassette magazine idea without bankrupting ourselves. We made a profit on this – for nearly two years work – of £200.
So then you moved from the tapes and magazines into other formats. How did you preserve the link between the audio and the visual?
JW: With The Sea Org, the first release we did for the Hafler Trio, you have this rather lavish booklet . The interesting thing to note is that we are still very much in DIY land, see all this Letraset text here, you can see that it’s a little wobbly. It is also very prescient, in that it also has The Hafler Trio incorporating sounds into the images – sonification before people were really up for investigating that sort of thing.
MH: You can also relate this idea to the split screen film that the Hafler Trio made that was played on Channel 4 called Alternation, Perception and Resistance.
JW: Another key release was Andrew McKenzie’s recording with John Duncan, Contact. This was for me really a breaking point, moving from working with typography and graphic form into the photographic., and taking the idea of noise within information as typography, putting it through all kinds of different visual distortions, using photocopiers and scanners. I just used to really love the way you could get this poetry out of distorted photography and images. This is also interesting as it was the year before Photoshop came out, so this was the last non-Photoshop cover.
MH: There didn’t even have to be music involved. We published a translation of Jean Baudrillard’s “Xerox and Infinity”.
JW: This was quite important the time because it was completely outside the realm of experimental music, but it was taking the visual languages we were trying to explore in the likes of The Sea Org to extremes, using just scanners and copiers again.
MH: The first version was homemade. I remember photocopying tracing paper, trying to get tracing paper through the apertures. It didn’t always work.
JW: Me and my girlfriend at the time, Catherine, who was French, were really into Baudrillard’s work, and we noticed that one of his works had been published in a magazine in France called Traverses, and no-one had bothered to translate it. As it was called Xerox and Infinity, we thought “lets just do it ourselves”. Catherine translated it, I edited, and we basically just doorstepped Baudrillard and said “we’ve translated your work, can we put it out?”. We got his number from the Paris phone book.
MH: And since it was called Xerox and Infinity, he could hardly say no!
How did you feel when the industry were getting behind the CD format in such a big way in the second half of the 80s?
JW: The funny thing is that, going back to our earlier point about hiss, the CD seemed to be a solution to all of these problems.
So you viewed it as a positive thing initially?
JW: Yes. We went to Abbey Road with our reel-to-reels and said “we want the best digital mastering that you can offer”. We did The Hafler Trio’s Thirsty Fish CD at EMI’s cutting studio in Germany, specifically because they cut Kraftwerk! I went on the plane with the quarter-inch masters. However when we came to do the CD of the Soliman Gamil record, which had been out on vinyl and cassette, I took the quarter-inch masters to the Exchange cutting studio in Camden Town on the tube, and during the journey they got demagnetised. It suddenly sounded really dull, the recording had lost its top end. So we had to master our very first CD from the vinyl! The next CD was the Hafler Trio’s Ignotum Per Ignotius, which was immediately an attempt to break the jewel case format, by using a booklet.
MH: Ugliness is a big influence of ours, we have to break it!
Part two: Contact
Part two of my interview with Jon Wozencroft and Mike Harding of Touch picks up where part one left off: the CD era. This was a fertile period for Touch, in which they linked up with artists of the calibre of Ryoji Ikeda, Philip Jeck, Biosphere, Chris Watson and Fennesz. During the 1990s, a number of important side projects and relationships with new collaborators also developed, though the most important relationship remained that between the audio and the visual. In this part of the interview, we discuss how these points of contact helped Touch to continue to grow and evolve.
The mid 90s seemed to be an important time for Touch, when you made contact with a lot of artists, and built networks which were to sustain you through to the present day.
MH: Yes, the building blocks you now see were put in place in the 90s. Philip Jeck, Chris Watson, Fennesz, Biosphere, Ryoji Ikeda, Mika Vainio, Oren Ambarchi.
JW: I think the late 90s was a golden age. This was a time when the music that we were involved with was quite revolutionary, progressive, and ambitious. mesmervariations was released on Ash International in 1995, and just look at the people on it: Ryoji Ikeda, Peter Rehberg, CM von Hausswolff, this is just before the laptop music thing took off. There was an optimism about the digital developments, a feeling between 1995 and ’99 that there was going to be this really critical engagement through laptop music. Laptop music is a misleading term in many senses, because it gives you the impression of a bloke standing in front of a laptop, playing Upstairs At The Garage during the late 90s, with nothing for the audience to look at, except the upside down Apple logo (the company changed this configuration on subsequent laptops – I like to think we had a hand in that). The important thing was that musicians could all of a sudden produce high quality recordings without recourse to expensive studio time. Obviously there is more to it that that, but we had been at the forefront of home recording initiatives – Mike even published a book about it with the other Mike Harding from the band 1000 Mexicans! Now we can see how home recording opens up the floodgates.
Philip Jeck is clearly interesting in that up to this point you’ve been talking about taking the crackle and hiss out, and he is putting it right back into the music. How did you come into contact with him?
JW: I saw Philip Jeck on a daytime TV programme in 1992 or 93 being interviewed about Vinyl Requiem, and I just thought it was amazing. We met him at a concert he was doing with The Hafler Trio at the Goethe Institute, said “we love your stuff, do you want to do a CD with us?” and he said yes. The significant thing about Philip is that his latest work is better than ever. His trajectory from Loopholes in 1995, through Surf and Stoke, to An Ark For The Listener is an extraordinary narrative. And that is such a lovely thing, that you work with someone over a period of time and the work just gets better and better.
And you’ve been working with Chris Watson for almost as long, 15 years, but you must have known him even longer, given his history in music.
JW: It took ages to persuade Chris to do something for us. I’d had little contact with him in his previous situation in The Hafler Trio, but then I had a three year correspondence with him to persuade him to publish his wildlife sound recordings.
MH: It took you even longer to persuade Biosphere to come out of retirement! You could say the same about Chris’s work as you did about Philip’s in terms of the way it has developed. The way Chris perceives himself is the key to that, as well as his relationship to us, and to the rest of his world. His role is so different in everything he does, it requires completely different mindsets. He has just come back from Namibia, one of the remotest places on the African continent, with his film crew, and then with us it is clearly a completely different setup.
Do you feel you’ve played a part in that development?
JW: Our role is to be like a framing device, and also this horribly overused word, curation. The artists are the ones that have the grapes that make the wine, and if we know the right shape for the bottles and the labels to put on it, that gives it some context, a way of it being received in the world. People often ask me about the artwork, but for me it is like a portal which you can pass through to experience and appreciate the sound. And the important thing about our work is that we’re not working with bands, it is by and large instrumental, there aren’t lyrics, there aren’t narratives being flung at you directly about what you should be thinking about when you listen to it. And so my work is giving it that aspect. It is like a location, taking the idea of field recordings and sounds, and applying it through photography. The first Fennesz release, plus forty seven degrees 56′ 37″ minus sixteen degrees 51′ 08″ is an example of this, you have you have two fields – the music recorded by Christian in his garden at home (the title of the release is the grid reference), and the images from a trip I was taking at the same time he was recording it (in Portugal, where I first met him), so you have this parallel journey.
MH: I’d go further than Jon. I know that when Philip is working on an album, he actively thinks about it as being “for us”. The inside of his record decks has little quotes, little prompts about us. So does Chris, he is out there thinking “this would be great for Touch”. I think we’ve given them confidence that when they do something, it will be treated in the right way. But that relationship takes time to build up.
JW: The framing is also about the way it is compiled and edited, even the titles. Some artists are very good at titles, some aren’t. And the cover is also like a title. The difference between the vinyl and the CD is that vinyl is very distinctly front and back in terms of its layout. Whereas with the CD, we use three panels very often, you create a narrative from that. The most important image might not be the one that is on the front.
Are some artists will involved more and some less in the dialogue about the visual side too?
JW: Just as Mike said, where our artists have a specific mentality when it comes to knowing that something is for Touch, I’ll make work for specific artists. I’ll find a location, take a photo and I’ll go “that is Fennesz”, or “that is Chris Watson” or “that is Philip Jeck”.
MH: Sometimes an artist will come in with their own imagery, and Jon will say “that’s a nice photo, but what about this?” and they’ll go “Oh god, that’s brilliant, far better than mine!”. Sometimes not though, Phill Niblock and Mika Vainio are very dynamic with imagery. Mika’s cover for In The Land Of The Blind – that was his image. And Phil, being a visual artist anyway, gives us about 100 jpegs.
Alongside the relationships with these artists, there are other side projects which have developed over the years – associated labels like Ash International and OR, projects like Spire, which have involved various collaborators. How important are these projects?
MH: It gives you room to breathe sideways. If someone is particularly busy doing something, it gives us freedom to do something else alongside it. As long as it is growing and evolving, everyone is happy.
JW: Ash was a way of getting Mike away from doing the accounts and talking to distributors. This couldn’t happen unless Mike and I were happy to do different things.
They are very collaborative – for example, Ash was started by Mike and Robin Rimbaud, aka Scanner. How did that happen?
MH: Scanner was the right guy in the right place at the right time. Robin (Rimbaud) was working in a library in Fulham. He’d had some books published, had his fingers in a lot of pies, and had lots of energy. He had a really good idea, in that he wanted to release a record of mobile phone intercepts. He became the face of this new thing, and the NME trivialised it by having him dressed as a gnome with a fishing rod over the city. As well as the Scanner idea, he also brought Runaway Train, which was an amazing recording, and oddly he also brought the idea of doing something with Electronic Voice Phenomena, because he has a cassette of it. I tracked down (EVP expert) Raymond Cass’s number and he had all these EVP recordings, so the Ghost Orchid CD followed, along with the Parapsychic Acoustic Research Cooperative (PARC). Ash is tailor-made to deal with things like that very well, the vinyl had such beautiful artwork.
And with OR you were involved at an early stage with Russell Haswell, who has gone on to become a significant artist in his own right. How did that happen?
JW: Russell Haswell was only 18 when I first met him, a total fish out of water. He is a networking genius, absolutely gifted with language, incredibly on the ball.
MH: Russell wanted to do a computer music label, experimenting with formats and design. I’d like to stake a claim for OR being one of the first artist-curated labels. Peter Rehberg is now doing it really well with Stephen O’Malley’s Ideologic Organ label. I really like that idea, it is a good way of doing it, because the artist doesn’t know how to make it work, you need someone to come in with that expertise.
JW: Russell has so many ideas, and in those days he couldn’t sit still for 5 minutes. He wanted to be in the art world, a noise musician, he wanted to be a fine artist, he wanted to be a graphic designer, and he is great at all these things. He got himself into a bit of a mix-up. But not in the bad sense, because he does what he wants and this is what we all want to do.
Given how extreme the music is, I was amazed to see a recent Haswell and Hecker album pitch up on the Warner Classics label! It reminds me of an interview with Christian Fennesz a couple of years back in which he said he felt that music which was considered difficult in the late 90s would be considered much more accessible now. How does it feel to you, not just across the decade, but across the 30 years of your existence? Have tastes changed?
JW: [Fennesz’s] Endless Summer was a freak wave at the perfect time. It was always in his work, that melodic element, but suddenly it came to the surface. The relationship between Endless Summer and the other things he has done is quite misleading. Plus forty seven degrees, where we started with Christian in 1999, was a difficult album, very demanding and abstract, but recently he has just had one of the tracks he recorded from that period, “Surf”, used for a Hollywood trailer, a film called The Grey! But this brings us back to another integral part of Touch and the range in which we operate. There is something I always tell my students about sound and music which has a very particular relationship to taste. When you play certain kinds of music, you get an immediate reaction based on taste – “I don’t like it”. How do you know you don’t like it? You are not even listening to it. But we have learned how to listen to and appreciate and enjoy difficult music. When you place certain things together alongside it, you can start to become more tolerant in the way you listen and respond to things, and out of tolerance and taste, one develops a critical mind. It is also to do with the time and space you give yourself to digest something unusual and to look at things from a different point of view.
MH: It isn’t the same world. An idea which worked then may not work in the same way now. 30 years is a natural cycle, a generation, an economic cycle. 30 is a magical number, with all sorts of properties attached to it.
JW: When you are 30, you go through what is called the Saturn return, which is meant to be the final shedding of your adolescence and youthful instincts. It is also a harmonic number, we always work in threes, everything we do is triangular in one way or another. You are tapping into something unpredictable, therefore in movement. One of my starting points is how to use sacred geometry as a way of trying to counteract the numerical fascism of digital, which is just ones and zeroes. In digital, everything is stuck in squares, in pixels, but if you work in the ratios of photography, which are 4:3 and 16:9, then you’re starting to work in 3s.
This idea of the audiovisual narrative is clearly of utmost importance to you, which must present some issues when we begin to talk about the move to digital formats.
JW: What we are really trying to defend isn’t the physical object as such, but the narrative you develop from a certain way of working. There is a highly compressed narrative in the relationship between the consumer and the object of consumption with digital downloads. There was a chain of events and a production process that one used to go through that was quite complex and involved, that was a narrative in itself. When you relate back to Ritual, which took 2 years to complete, now we are in the situation where everything has to be instantly delivered. It’s a concern to resist all of that and try to take a more painterly approach. In the old way of doing things, the investment of care and attention somehow becomes part of the thing itself, it is like a kind of polishing something until it is ready to be put out in the world. If nowadays you just put something on the site and someone downloads it, it is like everything is compressed and you are losing all of these stages. I’m not saying we are against downloading, but I do think that we have not found a way yet to create these narratives in a digital zone. And there’s obviously the musical equivalent of a drunken post at 3am on a Sunday morning!
MH: There has been a weird shift though. To illustrate this, when we first got the option to do digital commercial downloads through Kudos, I emailed all the artists about whether they wanted to do it and they all said no (except one). When I asked them again two years later, they all said yes.
I read a – seemingly very prescient – interview with Mike 7 years ago, where he talked about the “crisis of capitalism”, and the imminent collapse of the music “industry” as we then knew it. How does this collapse appear from your vantage point as outsiders of the industry, in particular in relation to what has happened in the digital era?
MH: It was pretty obvious, wasn’t it? It didn’t have any form then, people still had their heads in the clouds. But when Rough Trade went bust, the music business really changed for us, it fragmented. Now, it doesn’t exist.
JW: I think this is almost looking at it through the wrong lens, because the collapse of the music business and the incompetence with which they responded to the digital question is not nearly as important as the fact of what has happened to people as the result of digital. Music has lost its value, and young people today think they can get everything for free as a divine right. When we were coming up through the ranks, you had very little music on TV, you had John Peel, there were one or two embryonic pirate initiatives. If you wanted to find out about something you had to go out, get off your arse and go and source it, like my example of phoning Tony Wilson. And this whole thing about being a fan – I would be there on the day of release waiting for the album in the shops, and go “wow, it is the new Wire album, amazing”, and there would be this ritual and this relationship between you and the object and what it represented, and that has all been dissolved.
MH: Yes, but I think that old rituals have been replaced by new ones. I just feel like we’re in an in-between weird period where the rules haven’t yet been established.
JW: Digital culture is dissolving all of the steps on the path between the creation of a work to its distribution, and the understanding and participation in it. In the process, you have to go through various stages to do with scale. Everything starts in a room, usually your bedroom. Your bedroom becomes a rehearsal space, a mate’s place, a garage. The room gets bigger and bigger as you get better. You first start to play to 20 people, then you play to 50 people and so on. Then you start to branch out on a national and even international level. You go through making a demo tape to making a single, to a first LP. What digital tells you is that you can go from the start of that process to the end in one step, which is a total distortion. The thing with the music business is that is a behemoth, it has no way of responding to that disturbance in scale. Dubstep is possibly the latest and last example of this generative principle – rooted in the vinyl and now having to come to terms with commercial exposure and karaoke versions of the basic intentions. We like the idea of anti-commercial exposure, as we said before, we’re still quite naïve and idealistic! Kode 9 promised he’d do us a Touch 7 – he’s a busy man – but we did do an amazing concert together two years ago at the Atmospheres festival at the Museum of Garden History. There was a power cut half way through their set, but the energy levels remained.
Does this short-circuiting of the process in some way diminish the value of that end product?
MH: For the Phill Niblock generation, releasing an album is a big statement of their work, a serious thing, whereas to younger people it is far less important.
JW: We’ve always had a conversation with certain artists regarding the frequency of their releases. The Hafler Trio and Richard Kirk were the best example of this. They had the attitude that they were like journalists making reports from the front, and if they wanted to put a CD out every week that is what we should do. And we tried to create a mechanism for that to happen with the Hafler Trio, with the Spiral series, and Richard developed so many different personas for his work that you didn’t know which was which and what was what in relation to the other. One of the things that record companies always used to function as was as gatekeepers or editors or calibrators for what the market would stand, and the general rule was that a major artists would do a record every 18 months to two years.
MH: Accompanied by a tour!
JW: Now in the current era that no longer applies at all. We have artists like Fennesz who are incredibly ecological about how often they release, and you have people saying “Oh my god, when is the next Fennesz album coming out?” as soon as the last one is out. The audience needs to be given time to appreciate things and to let something resonate for them. I used to love as a young music fan those albums that you don’t get until you listen to them ten times. Whereas now I feel you have to “hit” within the first ten seconds of the CD.
MH: I’m not sure you need to “hit” within the first ten seconds, but I think you’ve got to intrigue somehow in that opening section. I’m also involved in drama, and at the moment it is hard to get anything commissioned if you haven’t got an immediate setup which intrigues. There is no drone in drama! No one would commission Waiting For Godot. No one would commission Beckett. It just wouldn’t happen now.
JW: I was a creature of the 1960s, and I bought records at a very early age, and I loved everything happening in pop culture at the time, The Kinks, The Beatles – so into it. Then at about 13 or 14 I suddenly started getting very intrigued by the idea of difficult music. So I bought Bitches Brew, because of the cover, and thought “what the hell is this?”. My favourite band when I was 15 was the Mahavishnu Orchestra because it was so challenging and kinetic and breaking all of the conventional ideas of melody and rock and so on. I always come back to these question when I’m listening to new works that are presented to us: what happens when you really dive into the depths of it? Does it reveal all of these other layers? Do you have to give something of yourself over to it? And this was the thing I thought was really fascinating with Burial. Here was something that was deeply introspective, almost misanthropic, very alienated and yet on the surface it was so nice. Of course everyone thought “Yes! This is it!”, because you had the idea of difficulty of emotion so superbly packaged within the zeitgeist of what was happening at the time with the Hyperdub scene. It was like Fennesz’s Endless Summer, but more towards the mainstream. But for me the latest Burial record sounds like the first one. It is the Burial sound. He was a friend of one of my students, and made a intervention at one of my Royal College of Art sound seminars, with Kode 9. I want him to do something abstract for Touch, but he is incredibly hermit-like. No difference to Christian in some respects, but Fennesz has a firm relation to his musical output in a way that I imagine a sound signature like Burial would learn a lot from. It’s an example of cross-fertilization that might take a while to develop.
Before we get further into discussions of digital formats, I just wanted to ask you about one more analogue, physical point of contact you have: what is Touch’s relationship with the mysterious Tapeworm?
MH: I just offer administrative support to that, The Wyrm curates it really efficiently, and calls for help when he needs it, whereas something like Ash is much more hands on. It is a stand-alone idea. We sell the product through our shop, and have opened up our contact books of artists to him.
When he came up with the idea, it must have been one that was very attractive to you, given your history?
MH: Yes, cassette culture! We are actually still waiting for Jon’s Tapeworm – number 33. There has never been a Touch 33 or a Tone 33 either – they are all reserved for Jon. He is slower than Chris Watson!
JW: Slowness is good, and potential is the most important thing, you need to have the knowledge that you are still learning, which is why Mike and I have the most dynamic discourse with our artists, we all want to make the work better. And to this day the relationship with suppliers, printers, the business side of things is more fractious than ever, so it’s a continual learning curve. As a wise man once said, it’s never perfect. For example, I still personally regret the printing error on the Ritual Magnetic North book that credited “Josephy” Beuys.
Part three: Vectors
In the final part of my interview with Jon Wozencroft and Mike Harding from Touch, we are totally in the digital age, with Touch adapting their modus operandus to new formats, culminating in their new app for iPhone and iPad. Their network continued to expand, and through working with new artists like Eleh, they built conduits from the present back to the past. As for the future, they tell me more about their plans for the Touch 30 celebrations in 2012.
30 years in, you are still making new connections, and hence the lineup of artists who have released for Touch still continues to evolve. How did you come across Eleh?
Jon Wozencroft (JW): I’ve a friend, Matt, who was a student at Imperial College and then working at Honest Jon’s record shop in Portobello Road, who used to come to my sound seminars at the RCA. When the first Eleh 12” came out on Important Records in 2007, he wrote to me and went “Jon, you’ve got to listen to this!” By that time it had sold out, because Eleh only produced 300 copies or something. So I got the second one, and I thought it was amazing. So I did the classic thing. It isn’t looking up someone in the phone book now, it is finding the email address, I sent an email to Important Records saying “Dear Eleh, your release is one of the very best things I’ve heard all year, congratulations and happy new year”. Just a fan email. And then he wrote back saying “Oh, are you from Touch? Let’s start talking”. At that time Eleh was dedicated to a particular way of working, everything was expressedly tone generated and analogue/vinyl. It took a good few months to convince him that we would do a good job with the CD format.
Mike Harding (MH): Eleh denies saying all this, he says he always knew it would work on CD – wise after the event maybe.
Have you met Eleh?
JW: Eleh and I have sent photos of each other, but we haven’t met yet!
MH: I haven’t met Eleh either, but I have spoken to him. Eleh played at Mutek, he asks for complete darkness, but there is always something, an emergency exit light or whatever, so you can tell that Eleh is of a certain sex, a certain ethnicity, a certain age group…but nevertheless Eleh does not want the personality to get in the way of the work. And, why not? Why aren’t all artists like that? It is not about them. A good artist is a vessel for ideas. It doesn’t matter who he is.
You can see why Eleh would appeal. I’ve looked at the waveforms for his records, even without hearing them they look amazing. This point about the beauty of analogue takes us back to your thoughts on the golden ratio. But I feel there is a lot more depth to his work than that – how does it affect you?
JW: It does have a particular sonority. Deep within a lot of the things we were coming out of – Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, and so on, as well as subsequent work with The Hafler Trio – was this idea not of the occult, but of there being something metaphysical, something beyond the process of capturing sounds on records and tapes – experiences we had. Psychic TV would call it “magick”. Andrew McKenzie [The Hafler Trio] was very frustrated that his work wasn’t always given the same level of attention as Psychic TV or Current 93, who both foregrounded this “magick”, whereas he didn’t in the same way, even though much of what he was doing was deeply entwined with that. One of the things that immediately struck me when I heard Eleh was that it had this purity, this kind of engagement with metaphysical concerns that was very straight, and not mediated with anything. And I thought this was a very strong development. Eleh is also a good example of the kind of work which slows things down, it has that meditative quality that gives you stability, yet it is like a magnetic field. On the one hand it’s indebted to Pauline Oliveros’s notion of ‘deep listening’. Eleh’s music functions almost like a standing stone, he just resonates this stuff, and you either get it or you don’t.
MH: Let’s talk about Stonehenge and Avebury and standing stones! I grew up around there, any time off was around Silsbury Hill. The only photo portrait of me I could find for university was of me in a long barrow.
JW: I’m doing this research project called Landscape and Perception. About five or six years ago Martyn Ware, who used to be in the Human League, got in touch to say he was involved with this project, The Future Of Sound, which was backed by the Arts Council. I agreed to take part in one of these events, which involved a whole range of people giving 20 minute presentations on what they thought was the future of sound and music. It was crazy and impossible. There I met this guy Paul Devereux, whose work I’d known for a long, long time. He helped invent this area of investigation called archaeoacoustics, which is the role of acoustics in prehistory. We set up this research into this phenomenon of lithophones, which are stones that are embedded in various sacred landscapes and elsewhere, stone circles et cetera, which have acoustic properties. When you hit them they sound like bells, or tin drums, or bamboo. We are working on a proposition that acoustics are or were a significant feature in the construction of these sites. We got some money from the Royal College Of Art to set up a pilot study, and we have been building this project up for the last five years. We are looking at the outcrops in Preseli, South West Wales, the long barrows of Avebury, and ultimately we hope to get access to Stonehenge to test the acoustics there. But we are not going to do that until we have firmed up our proposition and fieldwork – in any case, it could be a letdown, maybe Stonehenge has no acoustic properties. But it will do, I suspect. The thing with these lithophones, is we anticipate that they might sound best when they are free-standing, relatively speaking – ie. in the wild. Fixed into the ground, they could lose their resonant quality. So the acoustic aspect demands you think more progressively about what these sites might represent. Incidentally, Mike studied history, and a lot of what we are interested in concerns the rootedness of things, keeping those roots watered and supported!
Another interesting figure who came into your orbit recently was Tom Lawrence, who recorded a couple of Touch Radio sessions for you. He tragically died recently after releasing his Water Beetles Of Pollardstown Fen CD on the Gruenrekorder label. Could that relationship have gone somewhere?
MH: I’ve actually known Tom for quite a while through Chris Watson’s workshops, he is really good at capturing sounds in the time honoured field recording tradition. I think I was hoping over time to get a bit more of the artistic side out of Tom, rather than just capturing sounds– I think he was a little stuck in the academic world and didn’t have the confidence to move on from there. He had been doing a lot of recording round the famine tower in Ireland, a monument to those who died in the Irish famine, with their names inscribed in it. It is by the side of a quarry, and there is no public access to it, you have to get a key. The thing about the famine tower is that something really spooked him there, and he got a little bit obsessed by it, so would go there at all hours. One day he didn’t come home for dinner, so his wife sent out the Garda, and they found him at the bottom of the quarry. There was no-one else there… It is dangerous business this field recording. Chris fell down a crevice in Iceland, and was lucky to get away with bruised ribs, Jana is frequently going under glaciers and coming out to see a sign saying “Danger of death – do not go in here”. They put themselves in exposed positions.
JW: I remember a great story Strafe Für Rebellion told me. Bernd [Kastner] and Siggi [Siegfried Michail Syniuga] wanted to record aircraft coming in to land and taking off at Düsseldorf, so they got up early and negotiated the perimeter fence, lay down next to the runway, and recorded the aircraft. It is the most incredible sound – it’s on “Abendhimmel”, their Leonard Cohen cover version on the Vögel CD from 1990. There’s obviously no way you could do that now, and what is it, a little over 20 years…
Aside from the fan email situation with Eleh, how else have you come into contact with the new artists you’ve worked with recently? Is this partly where the support network we talked about earlier comes in?
MH: Hildur Gudnadottir was recommended to us by Johann Johannsson, in the same way that Fennesz recommended Oren Ambarchi. Our A&R is out there. Jana Winderen met CM von Hausswolff in Oslo where she had been involved with the freq_out project, but had since became involved with field recording. The Sohrab linkup on the other hand was a classic case of the right email coming at the right time in the right way. This man from Tehran sent an email with an mp3 attached, which normally ends up in the spam folder, or you have an automatic reply because you just can’t deal with them all. However, this one immediately got my attention, as the story behind it was so interesting. He is really pissed off at what is happening to his country. He is one of the 70% of Iran’s population who is under 30, it is a real powderkeg waiting to go off. If you form a band – and they have a lot of punk music in Tehran – someone will report them, the police go in, it gets busted straight away. So he went through all of that. It is important to realise that taking on new artists has to be done slowly, and there are only two of us. I’d rather say no if I think I won’t be able to handle it, even if it is really good, because if you do a bad job, it messes everything up.
Changes to the technology around the music are a big theme of this conversation, from Touch’s early days of duplicating batches of cassettes through the pristine CD era, to digital downloads, and now you’ve got the new Touch iPhone app. Does this feel like some sort of logical “next step” for Touch?
JW: It is quite tricky. If you think about the apex of analogue form, the golden section – how can there be some harmonic relationship established in the digital realm, which is infinitely mutable and totally chaotic? On one hand you’ve got the issue of scaling. You start with the 12”, then you go to CD, then down to the size of the iPhone screen, and eventually you go down to the tiny blob on the iTunes site which shows you the image that goes with the sound. Where is that going to end? There is a scaling down, one that is in inverse proportion to the scaling up which is happening to the distribution and the nature of the listening experience. However, what we have realised is that, for whatever reason, my work looks really good on this format. Maybe it is the recent updating of the image quality on iPhones and iPads, there has been a breakthrough in that respect. Maybe it is kind of to do with what I build in, and what the medium brings out. I hope so. Everything in print is based on a reflected image – the light hits the paper and bounces back to your eye. On a computer, there is no reflectivity, it is projected, sent to you through the pulsing light of the screen display. I found out that the nature and origination of these images lends themselves very well to being projected. I found this out because previously I always worked with slides, it is a fantastic optical medium.
MH: I had the great fortune to go to Manningtree in Essex the other day to interview two old codgers who work with the BFI on early films. One got out a home movie projector which had footage of the Kaiser from 1913 and projected it against the wall. It totally changes the way you see things, rather than being a passive medium, it seems like you are actively part of it. There is a Touch radio show up about this with some recordings of the machines, and how they developed. One of the guys I interviewed, Nigel, was saying that he doesn’t think that the innovation which is going on now, since the advent of digital, is anything like what happened in the 1890s and 1900s, when we had the aeroplane, the car, electricity, attempts to contact the dead through wax cylinders. Now, he is asking: “what is the fundamental change that is happening now?”
JW: Well, I don’t agree exactly.
MH: …and I’m thinking that Jon won’t agree. But is a very interesting point of view. There was such a fundamental change to society, to our perception, when we started seeing ourselves for the first time, hearing ourselves for the first time.
JW: I agree with that. But I think that the change at the moment is revolutionary because people barely realise what it is that is happening. There was an another example of that yesterday in the newspapers where they were talking about banning calculators in schools because kids can’t add up any more. We are in the digital age, and kids can’t add up? What is going on? Are everyone’s brains being scrambled by this stuff? Is WiFi the new tobacco? Susan Greenfield has been hammering on about this for years, and many people just think she is a crank.
MH: No, they don’t. But I would respond by asking if you watched Michael Mosley’s two programmes on frontline medicine recently? It is unbelievable what is happening. They did an operation with one guy who had lost his arm, they got a dead man’s arm, and they put it on, they attached the nerves. And he is now making tea and everything. There is a long way to go, but it works. But that was nothing compared to what they then showed you with the pig’s bladder matrix and the regeneration of dead cells. The pig’s bladder is thrown away by the agricultural industry. The medical establishment takes them, and scrapes off the skin tissue to give this pale hessian type thing which contains the ability to tell cells what to be, whether to be a nerve or tissue or whatever. They make it into a solution, inject it into the wound, the matrix then tells the cell to be a nerve, and the nerve then begins to regenerate. It was extraordinary to watch. You ain’t seen nothing yet, the whole prosthetics industry is going to be about regeneration not repair. I think future technology isn’t going to be about machines, or robots. It is going to be about artificial life. This is the most excited I’ve been in years about new technology. Historically in retrospect, I am not convinced by Jon’s argument that the fundamental change is happening. I think that is yet to come, we are on the verge of something.
JW: I agree that there is a revolution round the corner, but the engines are already in place, in the form of the algorithms and processing speeds used in the financial world.
You mentioned the Touch radio shows – I’ve listened a lot to those since I downloaded the app – live Philip Jeck sets, talks, field recordings – does that feel like it has become a catalogue in its own right?
MH: It is now a named collection in the British Library, which is amazing. Paul Wilson, the radio curator contacted us and said they were very interested in having it as it gave them en bloc a collection from the whole electronic era, and they thought it was well curated. We were frightened off by the legal aspect intitially, as they wanted a contract for every single episode, and there was 60 of them at the time. Once we got over that hurdle, we were up for it.
The funny thing about having your work available on this format is that I’ve read that Jon is no fan of the iPod…
JW: It isn’t the iPod as such but the way they are used. They shut people off, and in a world where there are all these amazing sound events happening all the time, you’re not going to hear any of them, because you are plugged into your own private world. And it is that which is the problem, not the iPod itself, the iPod just facilitates that. And I think it’s extraordinary to witness how the iPod and the iPhone have changed peoples’ behaviour in public spaces, which are themselves becoming increasingly privatized, and of course I think there’s a connection. People aren’t hearing themselves think, to get back to Mike’s comment! However, if you think back to our first release Feature Mist, that is a like an iPod shuffle playlist, you go from New Order to Soliman Gamil to Mayakovsky to Death and Beauty Foundation to early Simple Minds. That is the shuffle aesthetic 20 years before its time. Curated shuffling, that is what we do.
You celebrated your 25th anniversary by taking everyone down to Mike’s local boozer in Balham to watch Fennesz play live. What are the plans for the 30th anniversary?
MH: There are discussions to do something on that level again, something fun, more personal and more intimate. Though we only just got away with it last time, things started to go wrong with the equipment. I’d like to put a good multi-channel sound system into a place like that. There is a website, 30.touch33.net, and every two months or so the next batch of events will go up. The plan is that at the beginning of December, the anniversary of the first release, there will be a three day Touch festival with three curators: Jon one night, me one night, and then a guest curator. We’re also doing something for the AV30 festival. One of the best festivals I’ve been to in the near past was AV2010, that was really well organised and extremely well curated. It was a really well balanced festival, and I came back enthusing about the place of spoken word in an arts festival. After the Arts Council cuts, the money wasn’t there to get us up there, but Vicki Bennett (People Like Us) is curating a month long radio show, and we’ve got 30 hours of that, in the form of Jon’s cassette compilations of his favourite stuff, and I’ve responded to that with 3 hours of my favourites, three radio pieces. There will be a Spire event in St Botolph’s Church in London on June 21st, the longest day, with Philip Jeck and BJ Nilsen working with a singer for the first time – a tenor called John Beaumont. There will be a Spire event at the Passionskirche in Berlin too, with Jana Winderen, and Eleh.
And what new releases will there be in the anniversary year?
MH: The new Oren Ambarchi will be the first release of 2012. It is called Audience Of One; the front cover photo relates to Bletchley Park and the first computer, the Colossus. The CD has numerous guest artists on it: Paul Duncan on vocals, Brendon Salt, Elizabeth Welsh, James Rushford, Eyvind Kang, Joe Talia, Cris Cole, Jessica Kenney, and Natasha Rose. It is very different, he is really developing. Hildur Gudnadottir is also doing a multi-channel live recording in York University with Tony Myatt. If this is the end of the CD album era, one thing that is missing is the multi-channel, 24 bit file. Bleep.com did a version for Autechre, and they have approached us to do Touch stuff in multichannel 24 bit. So we are making sure that is possible with the Hildur one, as that is a good way forward. BJ Nilsen has been working on a new record for some time now too, but I don’t suppose there will be another release from Chris Watson for three to seven years! Two Touch Sevens, from Biosphere and from me are just out, and the next white label 12” is by Jana Winderen.
After 30 years of releases, and at the risk of asking you to choose between your favourite children, which is your favourite release on Touch, and why?
JW: You are absolutely right, it is like choosing one of your favourite children. It may not be my favourite, but I listened to Hazard/Fennesz/Biosphere’s Light last night, and it was really good.
MH: Someone asked me to submit a wish list for an event in Glasgow, and one of the first things I put down was to get Rosy Parlane over. He lives in New Zealand, and only gets over about once every ten years. It is a shame, because I think he’d have really developed as an artist. I think Fennesz’s Venice is my favourite Touch album, but Rosy’s Iris is one I keep going back to. There are others, it is unfair to name names, they all have something. It is very personal, we’re not in the music business, it isn’t about units and getting into the charts.
And what artist do you wish you could have worked with over that period?
JW: I would have loved to have worked with Rhythm & Sound, I love the work they did for Basic Channel. But they do it so well, there is absolutely no need for anyone else to be involved! Their aesthetic, their whole way of working is so right for what it is. It just works. Also I tried very hard to get Jon Hassell to do something with us – he’s another slow worker, so it might still happen…
MH: I’m more interested in spoken and written word, I think. I think I’d have liked to have been around to work with people from the 1890s to the first world war era, when there were so may different industries developing. The radio pioneers. I’d have liked to have worked with Eric Thompson, Emma Thompson’s dad, who was on the Magic Roundabout and Noggin The Nog. That generation where for them radio was the main medium, hence their use of language.
JW: I’ve always loved Ivor Cutler, especially his radio pieces. In 1982 or 83, very early on in the Touch story, I noticed that he was doing a performance at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn. So I went down there, saw the performance, went to the bar afterwards and waited for a quiet moment. I was really nervous, but went up to Ivor and gave him the spiel, just exactly as I’d done to New Order, saying “it would be really great if you could record something for us etc etc”. He went “Hmmmmm….why would I want to do that?”. What could I say? It really upended me. I rang up Gilbert and George once, I found them in the phone book. They invited me round for tea, and I made some recordings of them reading their writing. On a subsequent occasion, they took me to their local curry house in Brick Lane and ordered 4 litres of wine between the three of us. We got completely hammered. But to conclude: my three favourite bands when I was young were Wire, Joy Division and Cabaret Voltaire. And members of all those bands have recorded for Touch, and are now my personal friends. Wire’s last record, Red Barked Tree, is as good as anything they’ve ever done.
MH: We come from very different backgrounds. Jon is from London, and had access to all these bands. I’m from the countryside, I’m a farmer, I didn’t hear any of this until I went to University. But it is about how we see things. We express things in a very different way, disagree about things, but we converge on the most important things, like how to treat people and deal with people. The values are more important than the opinions. In the end it is how and why we do things which keeps us going in the same direction.
United Editions, 2011
To coincide with Bleep’s feature on Touch, they caught up with founder, Jon Wozencroft, and asked him a few questions behind his “not a label” that has been releasing music for over 25 years.
Can you tell us why you started Touch?
In 1981, there was a spirit abroad, a brief moment where it seemed that it was possible to be pioneering, critically-engaged and popular at one and the same time (as opposed to populist…). History tells us that the year zero of Punk, 1976 into 1977, was when (musical) culture was transformed and new forms of distribution emerged. 1979 to 1982 was when this truly bore fruit, in terms of achievement… Closer, Metal Box, 20 Jazz Funk Greats… These records were in the charts. Inconceivable now.
Secondly, along with the emphasis on film/projections used by the Sheffield bands Cabaret Voltaire and The Human League, there was the sense that Post-Punk music was reconnecting with the sensory ambitions of the psychedelic era. We took the cue that this could be extended into a publishing platform that was expressly audiovisual.
The precedent of Factory Records and Industrial/TG was obviously a big influence. The first manifesto and ambitions of the embryonic Psychic TV project were a major spur to action, as was the example of the Residents and Ralph Records.
Are you quite dogmatic about what kind of music gets released on the label?
No, simply that the logistics of our organisation means that we don’t have the time to sift through demo tapes – as it says on the T-shirt, we are not a record label – but we are always open to new ways of thinking about sound and music, and at the same time closely involved with the development of the artists we do work with. We never passively process the finished projects we’re handed, there is always a good deal of collaboration involved. Curatorial listening gives rise to a certain method of art direction, we can’t explain how it works, it depends on each artist and their work.
You have openly talked of your admiration for artists such as Joy Division, Augustus Pablo, which artists outside of the Touch catalogue do you admire?
Very many – the dedication of Arvo Pärt, the jouissance of Jon Hassell, the pulse of Basic Channel (especially Rhythm and Sound), the intrigue of Wire (though gloriously they have become collaborators in various different ways).
Recently we have made contact with Eleh, whose work for Important Records has been a revelation. The kinship we have with Editions Mego and Sähkö represents just two examples of a shared ambition, though the end results are quite different.
Returning to the question, is it conceivable that Joy Division and Augustus Pablo will be considered along the same lines as Bach and Beethoven in 200 years time?
The way that people have been consuming music has changed greatly and rapidly in the last half decade. Do you feel that this has had an impact what you do and the music that Touch has released?
Of course. We are not only doing this for the way things are now… It’s attempting to have a long term view of this compressed time we inhabit.
Where do you envisage music as a commodity and music consumption going in the next twenty years?
Evan Eisenberg wrote a very persuasive postscript to his book The Recording Angel when it was republished a few years ago. It’s one of the best books ever written about recorded sound, first published in the late 80s. He postulates that soon, there will be a global jukebox where everything ever recorded will be instantly available – well, this isn’t very far off actually, but there’s still no way that The Hafler Trio or the first Eleh 12 will fit any compressed audio format.
What in fact is being proposed, is that music will become like air. This is an extraordinary ecological condition that nobody really talks about. Imagine… one breathes music… Well of course this has always been happening and in some senses it’s a return to the essential condition, sound being part of the lifestream, but the difference here is in terms of mental space and perception.
You can imagine in 10 years time there will be a levy on clean air, just like there’s a levy currently on gas, electricity and broadband. Broadband – therefore entertainment – will become free, and everything else will become more expensive. Music will be needing its own version of Greenpeace.
Can you tell us more about the background of using photography over typography for the sleeve art? Visually and musically, from Philip Jeck, Fennesz, Chris Watson, to your own photographs, there is a strong connection with the natural world, can you tell us more about this relationship?
This interview with Philip Sherburne hovered well around this question.
Of course there is much more to say in retrospect about the strange disappearance of graphic design and typography as a way of expressing artistic practice. Graphic design, curiously, seemed to burn itself out in the mid-90s… This thing about being popular and experimental at the same time was neatly assimilated into mainstream visual culture, from Raygun and MTV to the High Street.
Photography somehow is a rogue development of postmodernism. Something that is fascinating, for example, is how one can possibly be a bad photographer. Also, look at the way people exchange photos set against the way people exchange music. It’s a time-based question. You can look at a photo for a nanosecond and get something from it, but in spite of the compression and the random shuffle mode, a 3 minute song still takes 3 minutes to listen to.
John Peel on the other hand got so many records and tapes that he reckoned it took him 15 seconds to tell whether anything was any good. Or was it 7 seconds? It doesn’t matter. When you have so much music, you can hardly tell the Beach Boys from the Bay City Rollers, it’s as Paul Virilio wrote, an essential loss of perspective. Or according to Baudrillard, The Final Illusion. You could say that the sense of perspective pioneered by the Renaissance artists, exploded by the Romantics, split in 3 by the Dadaists, finally ends up in a black hole of pattern generation and repetition.
So much for futurism! The only reference left is the natural world. It is natural, whatever Virilio, Baudrillard and Dworkins or Darwin says about it.
Photographs are a vehicle. The first idea is to try and steer an obvious illustration away from the music. These two should be contrapuntal, counterpoints, not in any way to do with the music, as such. This much I learned from working with Neville Brody, Peter Saville and others. They never paid that much attention to the music, but made beautiful responses to it. The main chemistry I had to add was only my way of listening, I also suppose intuitively I was choosing an area that nobody had really highlighted on — I wanted to study a subject that wasn’t harnessed to digital upgrades, but reflected all of those conditions. The natural world offers a mode of visualization as if it could be a litmus test of inner space.
Over the past 25 years, we have seen independent labels come and go; distributors go bankrupt and we witnessed other huge changes in the music industry. Can you tell us what the key has been to Touch’s survival over the years? And where do you see Touch in the years to come?
The key to survival is an open mind… how can anyone have any idea what will happen next? I guess we survived because we got this early lesson, it’s not about following anything. To love what you do in a progressive way is the main thing… To be prepared to go against the grain.
It’s 1981. Punk has arrived and dissipated in one white-hot magnesium flash, but what we now refer to as the post-punk period is very much ablaze, the country’s network of fanzines and burgeoning independent record labels expanding at a furious rate.
Out of this smoulder and smoke, student Jon Wozencroft establishes Touch with his friends Mike Harding, Gary Mouat and Andrew Mackenzie. Over the next 27 years it will become arguably the finest audio-visual label in the world, an imprint whose product, modes of transmission and philosophical concerns embody, but also critique, the fundamental transition from analogue to digital technology which has defined our cultural age. “There was just such great music being produced in 79, 80 and 81,” explains Wozencroft, London-based co-founder and art director of Touch, “and you had that sense of movement in the culture, and also very strong things around it – like film, the development of the Filmmakers’ Co-op, the distribution of art-house films, writing, journalism. The idea that you could bring all of these aspects together had been shown by groups like Cabaret Voltaire, and I just thought, well, what’s the obvious extension of this?
The obvious extension of this was Touch, an audio-visual “publishing project”, which has acted as a curator and disseminator of experimental writing, film, graphic design and music ever cine. Touch is perhaps best known for releasing paradigm-shifting electronic works by Fennesz and Geir Jensson (aka Biosphere), but its range of focus is far wider, its catalogue more rich and varied, than to be described as merely ‘electronica’, or ‘ambient’; the ideas it explores too prescient and important to get stored away in the broom cupboard marked ‘experimental’. And as its owners never tire of asserting, Touch is about more than music: “We’ve always tried to pay attention to all of those invisible feelings and ideas about atmosphere and space and presence that are difficult to talk about and need a context in order to be talked about.” Providing such a context is Wozencroft’s specialty, and his design and editorial work for the label is as much a part of the finished artwork as the music.
“I don’t know if I’d like to start a label now. There was a support system and a desire in culture for difficult music in 1980-1,” Wozencroft explains. “You were just coming out of the back of Public Image’s Metal Box, Joy Division, Gang of Four, Wire – all these bands that were very daring but also very popular. I think the fact that we came out of that scene gave us an idealism and a kind of faith – that you could produce really good stuff and that people would respond to it – which really kept us going through some of the more fallow years, between the early nineties and the early noughties, when music just became so devalued and so much part of a kind of factory floor mechanism rather than a passionate cultural moment.”
Touch’s early releases were cassette magazines, immediately distinguished by the editorial control and attention to detail with which they were presented. The inaugural edition, released in December ’82, featured music from Tuxedomoon, Shostakovitch and New Order’s ‘Video 586’, poetry by Vladimir Mayakovsky, with visual interventions from the likes of Neville Brody, Hipgnosis, Malcolm Garrett, Panny Charrington and The Residents. Subsequent issues boasted contributors as disparate and distinguished as Derek Jarman, John Foxx, Current 93, A Certain Ratio, Peter Saville, Gilbert & George, Einsturzende Neubauten, Cabaret Voltaire and Jon Savage. Around this time, Touch also played a crucial role in the import and distribution of so-called “world” music; indeed, the label’s first LP release was The Egyptian Music by Cairo-based composer and musicologist Soliman Galil.
Though the cassette magazines gradually gave way to CDs as the label’s dominant vessel of expression, their mixed media approach and exploratory values define the imprint to this day. Over the past quarter of a century, Touch has provided a platform for sound artists and musical adventurers like Richard H. Kirk, Geir Jensson, Ryoji Ikeda, Pan Sonic’s Mika Vainio, sometime Sunn O)) collaborator Oren Ambarchi, Chris Watson, routinely providing a visual and material aspect to the sound which is as beautiful and thought-provoking as the sound itself.
“Aura is the important thing,” Wozencroft explains. “It doesn’t matter where it comes from. It doesn’t have to be packaging, it’s about care, it’s about how you communicate art.” Whether it’s a book, a pamphlet, a cassette, a 7”, LP, CD or even mp3, Touch have always responded to the innate strengths of the given format, and has always sought out new ways to confer value on the musical product. As you can see from the images in these pages, Touch’s visual identity is complex and ever-developing, but nonetheless it’s Wozencroft’s wide-angle, almost supernaturally vivid images of countryside and nature which dominate. Why the pastoral imagery, when so much of the music on the label tends towards the abstract and electronic? “The idea is to give music which is primarily instrumental and abstract some kind of narrative strength. I thought it was important to place the natural, physical landscape alongside the dematerialized world of digital sound, in order to have a critical tension between the two, and to place them both in a human context. “The other thing about my visual work is that you rarely see people in it, because you are invited to put yourself in it, and so it becomes like an open space for this idea of ‘everyman’, rather than something which is trying to commodify you, to make you look at something in a certain way because it’s all about fashion, or clothing, or style, or cool. My work isn’t dealing with any of those codes and signifiers at all, so I suppose it becomes a kind of ecological statement. It’s trying to indicate that there is a bigger world and a larger dialogue out there than what you can hope to reveal within the confines of a digipak.”
In 1996, Touch released the first solo CD by Chris Watson, co-founder of Cabaret Voltaire and The Hafler Trio, former sound recordist with the RSPB and for many BBC Wildlife programmes, including David Attenborough’s Life of Birds. The album, Stepping Into The Dark, comprised field recordings of “special places” – among them Santa Rosa National Park in Costa Rica and Glen Cannich in Scotland – captured using camouflaged microphones. Watson’s art is emblematic of the spirit of Touch: working at the intersection of nature and technology, a curator as much as creator of sound, with a central concern for landscape, be it natural or man-made, and man’s place in that landscape. Watson is one of many contributors to the Spire project, which Wozencroft describes as “a creative conversation with so-thought-of ancient music and culture, using really special places to have collaborations between electronic and advanced musicians, and classical composers, in the context of the church organ – which is one of the biggest instruments ever.”
This is not the only dialogue which Touch has opened up between past and present. Often these dialogues occur at the level of tranmission. A recent project, Touch Sevens, sees the label invite contemporary musicians – not just Touch regulars but also guests, like sometime Sonic Youth member Jim O’Rourke – to produce two sides of music for dissemination on the “disappearing format” of the 7”. Affordably priced, adorned in Wozencroft’s sumptuous artwork and representing the breadth and plurality of the Touch sound, these 7”s are a fantastic entry-point for those as yet uninitiated into.
One established Touch artist who is uniquely concerned with vinyl is Philip Jeck. Jeck is a turntablist, but not in the sense that, say, Cut Chemist or Q-Bert are turntablists. Rather, Jeck uses record-players as instruments of great expressiveness, coaxing sounds from dilapidated vinyl to create his own musical language, a haunting, crackle-heavy sound that shares aesthetic concerns with The Caretaker, Pole and to some extent Burial – put simply, that the dust and dirt in a record’s grooves reveal as much as the music it distorts. It’s an exploration of memory, and of the way we communicate past, without recourse to nostalgia. Wozencroft: “I think the idea that you have to do something ‘new’ all the time is one of the great diseases of contemporary culture. Part of doing something new is also to have a sense of time and tradition and what’s gone before; I think it’s boring as hell to think that everything has to reinvent itself in three month cycles.”
Of course, for all its continuing interest in the ancient and the analogue, few labels have explored the vanguard of “computer music” like Touch. In ’96, the same year as Watson’s solo debut, the label released +/- by Ryoji Ikeda, a foreboding masterpiece of electronic minimalism. 1998 saw the arrival of the Apple Powerbook, and with it the so-called “glitch” movement that, for a time at least, was synonymous with the operations of Touch and its continental friends Raster-Noton and Mego. Christian Fennesz, formerly of Viennese proto-post-rock group Maische, had already established himself as an electronic musician of great repute, but his 1999 album +47° 56′ 37″ -16° 51′ 08 (named after the coordinates of his backyard garden, the site of the open-air studio where the album was created), and subsequent full-lengths Endless Summer (released on Mego) and Venice, remain high-watermarks of electronic music, at once intensely formal and free, expressive, at times even sentimental. His most recent Touch offering was a serene ambient collection recorded with Ryuichi Sakamoto; his next solo album is due later this year.
For all the sonic and graphic innovation digital technology has enabled, Wozencroft remains concerned about its usage, and the artificial, quick-fix DIY mentality that this technology has granted so much modern-day artistic production. “Twenty-five years ago you had to be very determined and dedicated to get music out there. It was difficult to get a record made, it was difficult to get studio space, it was difficult to afford good pressings for your vinyl – which is one of the reasons we used cassettes. “The idea, now, that everything can be done at the touch of a bottom looks, from a distance, to be a very attractive proposition; but it’s just resulted in this glut of things being released. You have be really hard on the editing side of things, and be willing to say, ‘No, that’s not going to work for the label, we’re not going to release that, you can do something better than that. The distinction between playing music and producing and releasing music is an important distinction. Nowadays it’s commonplace for musicians to have their own record companies, which is great, but…It doesn’t allow you to have that objectivity, or the distance, that makes for the best work.”
We shouldn’t forget that Touch is essentially, and emphatically, a DIY undertaking. But for Touch, simply doing it yourself isn’t enough. You have to do yourself and you have to do it well, honoring at all times your founding ideals: “It’s very important to get away from this idea of perfection. What you should look for is refinement, but with mistakes. And frailties. I suppose it’s like writing – the true art of writing isn’t in that stream of consciousness or flash of inspiration at 2am, in so much as it’s in taking out those bits that clog it up, putting fifty pieces of paper in the wastepaper basket and editing something down so that it becomes this very clear and rich statement.” Touch is an example to us all of what can be achieved with collaboration, commitment and an intelligent sense of restraint, or, more accurately, control. Twenty-seven after its inception, the singularity of Touch’s vision, and the multitude of ideas contained therein, is as remarkable as ever. Its history of responding to change, and seriously evolving, without ever giving in to the petty comings and goings of fashion, is infinitely admirable; in contemporary audio-visual art, its successful synthesis of style and substance is without parallel.
© Kiran Sande. Originally published in FACT Magazine, issue 27 – August/September 2008.
Rebels in Control, 2004
You began as enthusiasts who found an audience.
When we started out, the system that supported the underground was flourishing. Seventeen percent of UK sales were run by Rough Trade and the independent scene. There were small record shops in every town, a thriving underground. But I think that these days, the underground is too divorced from and cannot challenge the mainstream. Instead there is a collection of groups, such as the goth market, the nu-metal market and so on. They used to be part of a collective underground.
Each group is servicing itself with its own niche publications, niche websites, niche forums…
With so many fragmented niches, it is hard for any of these groups to reach a large audience because the retailers have been concentrating exclusively on the biggest selling artists. Meanwhile the distributors are owned by massive, megalithic companies. There used to be lots of different major labels, some of whom were quite small, labels like Island and so on. They had more of an equal shout in the large stores. And there were independent chains too, at one time.
Did you expect to keep going for twenty five years?
Oh yes. Right at the beginning, we sat down and said “if we want swimming pools and nice houses, forget it. It is just not going to happen, go and become a plumber”. We were all fine with that.
I learned about Touch by reading Paul Morley in the NME, reading people who were theorizing about something that was more than music, something on a bigger cultural spectrum that went right back the way through 20th century art.
We wanted to change the world. We thought we could change it for the better. It’s no coincidence that almost all the people we work with are in their forties. Because they did have experience of the eighties, of the analogue world if you like. And they know the sort of work you have to put in to get something worthwhile out.
Over time, the people we have worked with on the basic template of ideas we wanted to express, have also developed and matured. So we have ended up working with artists who can contribute to our development, to what Touch is about. So hopefully they are as integral to us as we are to them. I hope that Touch is showing people, younger people in particular, what is possible. What they can do with dedication and time and commitment.
How much involvement does Touch have in forming an album?
I think Jon Wozencroft is really good at showing an artist how to turn a collection of pieces into an album. And I think Touch is really good at showing them how to make it into a product. The whole thing is based on collaboration. The artists that we’ve ended up working with at this point, after twenty five years, are the ones who are receptive to collaborating. If you take that away, it’s just no fun. The collaboration is an essential part of what we do, but it should really remain invisible.
Surely lots of artists think they know best how to execute their own vision?
Yes but grown up artists know their own weaknesses. And the weaknesses tend to be “how can I communicate my ideas?”. Some artists are brilliant communicators and know exactly what they are doing, right through to the end stage. But some need help.
To be a good artist you have to be a good listener, you’ve got to absorb everything around you. Artists are often treated as something separate and apart from the rest of society. Much of the public hates art. They aren’t sure what it’s for, they resent it because it eats up resources, they despise it when it gets into the media. The media encourages this and likes to depict artists as strange or mad.
You have done this for twenty five years. What keeps you interested?
There is a certain personal security in doing what you know you can do well. I am sure that is why people become whatever they become, painters or plumbers, they carry on doing it because they like doing what they are good at. That is the way a human being fulfills him or herself. The problem is most people don’t get an opportunity to find out what they are good at because they are herded into a certain lifestyle. I am quite good at organizing creative production, where I can put two people together, and say “why don’t you work together, off you go”. There is a certain amount of ego because there is a bit of reflected glory when it works but mainly I like it because the creative juices are flowing. I feel very privileged working with our artists. Sometimes people can be difficult but I understand the artist’s temperament much better now than I did when we started.
You have to ask everyone why do they get out of bed in the morning. What is their motive? I think it’s important to know what drives you. It is so easy to say “oh I want to be a writer”. Well no one who wants to be a writer would ever say that, they would be writing, getting up in the morning, and doing nine hours of writing, working on the craft, out of which you hope comes something.
Are you ever tempted to opt for an easier life, by signing a deal with a major label, for example?
No. We have never been approached by a major label. Maybe they steer clear of us because we clearly know what we are doing. Perhaps it is the crisis of capitalism. It doesn’t have any critical judgement. I think major labels would be tempted to throw money at our artists which is not really what it’s about. We don’t taste nice to the majors so they don’t try and eat us. They look at us and go “eugh I don’t like olives”.
After all we are not a record company. We are not Touch Records. Touch is an art project. Most record labels have one agenda, which is to sell records that will get into the charts and everything they do is geared towards that. Whereas none of our daily routine is to do with that.
You project an expensive image, very controlled. I always felt that Touch represented very high quality, the fact that the paper was the right stock and that kind of attention to detail.
We give equal seriousness to the artistic process as we do to the production process, and the manufacturing and the distribution and all that. For us, it is all part of the recipe. Our agenda is fairly well set now in terms of how we do things, how our products will look, and how they will be presented to the world.
Because the music is quite severe and strong maybe the major labels and the mainstream media are unsure how to react.
If we suddenly got into the colour supplements, if somebody did a feature on Jon Wozencroft, would that be a good or bad thing for Touch? I am not convinced. If all of a sudden five hundred people went to the TouchShop and bought cds, of course I would be thrilled because we want to sell as many cds as we possibly can without changing the product. We are unashamedly commercial in that sense. But we are not going to change the product to do it. Each product has its reason for existing. We do get reviewed in some of the mainstream papers occasionally.
Do you feel that you will have to change the business in the future to take into account online downloads or are you very much interested in the physical product?
It would be throwing the baby out with the bath water if we did that. Part of Touch’s attraction is that it is physical, is that it’s beautiful. But I think that runs alongside downloading. I think if it’s done right, they can feed each other.
But it feels like there are too many bands, too many products, too many albums available so no one can keep track. That forces people into buying only what they already like. If you have got ten thousand releases a month and you are interested in fifty of them, you can’t afford to buy fifty, so you are going to stick to the five that you know. When there were two thousand cds a month of which twenty might have interested you, you were more likely to experiment in your choices. Now I think people are overwhelmed. But the internet is crucial to keeping people aware of what Touch is doing.
What do you think will happen?
The big distributors are starting to go bust. The retailers and the majors are under terrific pressure. One company starts to put in bad figures, and someone else buys them, and then they fire half the staff, half the artists, slim down. I think that the current system is in danger of collapsing. So I think we are in for a really interesting time.
© Rebels In Control, 2004
Many have lamented the shrinking of the album-cover canvas that accompanied the shift from LP to CD, but few have done anything about it. Jon Wozencroft, on the other hand, in his innovative typography, design and packaging for labels like Apollo, ~Swim, and above all Touch, the experimental music label he runs with Mike Harding, has refused to give in to the design coffin of the jewel case. There’s no single look to a Wozencroft release, but you’ll know one when you see it. Pan Sonic member Mika Vainio’s Kajo, for instance, tucks the disc into a lovely, matte cardboard pack adorned with cryptic images – a still life for the front, murky landscape on the back; further untranslatable landscapes are revealed inside. Or consider Fennesz’s bafflingly titled Plus Forty Seven Degrees 56’ 37” Minus Sixteen Degrees 51’ 08”, cased in an oversized folder depicting pastoral landscapes – images seemingly quite at odds with the dissonant machine complaints of the recording.
In a chain-store world, the decision to package a compact disc in a 4”x6” cardboard folder, rather than the industry-standard jewel-case, is a minor refusal, a gesture of dissent that suggests, almost synechdocally, a vaster plan for working against the grain. And the music presented by Touch, running the gamut from pop to noise, operates hand in hand with Wozencroft’s subtly subversive packaging and design.
At this year’s Sonar, the annual electronic music festival in Barcelona, Wozencroft presented a sort of “greatest hits” showcase. On a sweltering summer afternoon, 60 or 80 listeners lay back in reclining beach chairs while Wozencroft guided them through a history of the label-that’s-not-a-label. Despite the predominance of sweeping drones from artists like Biosphere and the Hafler Trio, you couldn’t really call it an ambient set – colliding Ryoji Ikeda’s sine-wave water-torture into dancehall reggae, in turn careening Scala’s four-dimensional pop into an archival blast from proto-post-punkers Wire, the mix stood in stark contrast to the seamless morphology practiced by most DJs. Wozencroft’s set highlighted the contradictions at the core of the “difficult listening” scene by challenging one of its givens: the immersiveness of sound. Highlighting chafe over flow, Wozencroft gave new meaning to the term “soundclash,” even as he preserved, minus the label’s essential visual component, the signature of the Touch experience.
How does Touch differ from your typical, multinational record label?
When we launched it, we envisioned Touch as the world’s first “audiovisual” label. We repeat, endlessly, “Touch is not a Record Label!” We work on Touch all the time whilst having to make money from other sources. We do not get grants or any other financial assistance. We depend more or less on a long-developed support system with the artists with whom we work and the key people who act as our antennae. It’s all based around collaborations. We publish music and artworks in small editions just as a printmaker or photographer might make an edition of their work to sell in a gallery. Except we have to put up with the vagaries of the distribution system open to us, and its perception of where we should “fit” – or not.
What makes Touch, well, Touch?
Its aura. Walter Benjamin proposed that mechanical reproduction had destroyed the “aura” of the original work of art. We propose that this might not necessarily be the case. As an equation, Touch represents an inverse relationship between the amount of resources and the scale and commitment of the project. I think what makes Touch pretty unusual is that we have maintained a dialogue and a narrative through our work over nearly 20 years that is growing stronger and stronger. For some reason I have never been able to fathom, Touch makes commercially-minded people very nervous. It’s the perceived need to put something into a box that doesn’t want to go in a box. It’s not petulant. We just want something more intelligent, more considerable. If I were to say what made Touch Touch, perhaps it is simply understated passion. But then that’s no different than 101 other small labels. So you tell me. I’m repeatedly struck by the way that density figures as a recurring motif, both sonically and visually.
The density comes from the first definition of art, which is to give structure, form and expression to lived experience in a way that radiates far beyond its source. The density comes from taking time and care over details that many would not bother with – a very close attention to the art of editing. And as an art in itself, editing is barely out of its diapers, and needs to grow up very, very quickly. At this time, people don’t necessarily learn how to edit when they get, say, a camcorder and a DVD-iMac, they are simply encouraged to imitate. The computer has ushered in a karaoke culture. For want of a better way of putting it, Touch is also a moral statement and a demonstration of a certain standard, a way of viewing the world. On the surface, you can see that Touch dedicates a lot of attention to the design and packaging of its releases, but this is simply a way of communicating care, and the straight expression of the love of what we are doing. It’s a project about beauty; I can find myself working on it as a gardener would. I’m not about to lay it out on a plate, in the form of a “message,” and have it be another consumable item.
Whether as a designer or an educator, my role is to decide to what extent you can help anybody “break through the plastic.” I insist to my students it’s more important to show politeness and good grace to someone working at the checkout in the supermarket than it is to do something wacky in Photoshop. I’m both approachable and quite strict with the students I teach. Wallpaper is not an option. I see my role as being, first of all, a catalyst. Second, a receptacle of difficult-to-find information – but that information is not given away freely. Third, my role is to serve as a very good question. People need to ask better questions. I do think the current situation is quite critical, because the language of resistance has been thoroughly watered down and made into advertising, and my present students have no vocabulary of their own with which to move elsewhere. The “defeat of socialism” might actually be called “the triumph of celebrity.”
Are you a sound artist yourself?
Maybe, in the sense that I commission, sequence and create the transitions for all the material included on Touch compilations. Obviously, there’s a massive difference in the emotional effect of a one second gap and a five second gap between two pieces of music, so the role of silence is crucial. I do recordings credited as AER. These are similar in spirit to Chris Watson’s atmosphere recordings, with the crucial difference that Chris’ are essentially carefully prepared and meticulously documented situations and phenomena, whilst mine are more like “action paintings.” Generally, concerning any pretensions I might have towards music and sound art, I prefer to keep things very low profile, if not anonymous, because I’m happy to rest in the shadows of far greater musicians than myself. One of the aspects of digital media that concerns me is the supposition that, because everything from sound composition to moving image can be generated from the desktop workstation, then anyone can do it, and should do it. It’s a nightmare, an ecological problem of the first order. Most of the graphic designers I teach these days want to make films, or make a CD, or both, and there’s no stopping them. I just tell them that when the time comes, they should hope they don’t get a heart surgeon whose previous training was as a plumber. Neville Brody and I used to joke that graphic designers would be the plumbers of the 21st century, fixing leaks on the dodgy pipes of corporate communication, and charging a fortune for the privilege. I would actually love to be proved wrong on this point.
Is there a typical working method in selecting images for your covers?
The music is the leader. First, become familiar with the music – ingest. Then, what is it in this particular composition, that suggests a subject I can move with? Forms of travel feature a lot in my photographs. A fruitbowl, a still life, is itself a form for travel.
Why so much landscape photography?
It’s a response to the tyranny of the close-up of the human face, for one thing. So it’s also a response to a sexual question. Next, it’s based around a feeling I have about sacred images. It’s the way that, as a subject, “natural” landscapes can invoke wonder and respect, which hopefully feeds back into human behavior. There has to be a way that images can teach, but all the didactic methods have failed in the face of mass media, so my concern is to find a language that is the opposite of meta-this, techno-that, and try to get to elemental concerns in a softer way. These landscapes are atmosphere recordings, and they are forensic. When I really started making photographs, at the beginning of the 1990s, I started by photographing material that I’d shot on video off the TV screen. I worked a lot on what could be done with abstraction, and as soon as the PC made it so easy to output abstraction, I decided it was time to make the subject central. And it seemed to me that photography could take the opportunity that Photoshop offered to sleigh off its skin. Maybe documentary photography, and a painterly approach to the medium, could be combined with a choice of subjects that were non-representations. It is the camera, it is the moment, but alongside a series of other processes parallel to the mechanical aspect that make it unique to the viewer, and the only manipulating factor is the light. Questions for the eyes, based on beauty. Saturated beauty.
Your name is well-known in the context of typography. Have you moved away from it?
No, I give typography the same care and attention as any other aspect of Touch. Right now, this aspect is quite understated. However, there was a time, let’s say between 1988 and 1995, when typography was the perfect medium through which to explore issues relating to literacy and visual perception – how the advent of the personal computer might be mutating the traditional structures and processes of visual language. I wrote two books about this, centered on the design work of Neville Brody, with whom I started the FUSE project in 1990. FUSE publishes experimental typefaces and encourages designers to extend/adapt/reinvent the basic form of the Roman alphabet, as a means of promoting a new understanding of the way those forms color every communication. We also wanted to create a forum that extended the work William Burroughs and Brion Gysin had done with cut-ups in the 1960s. Early 1990s typography was a vivid demonstration of their contention that “language is
a virus.” Raygun was the apogee of this, where David Carson could replace a writer’s words with dingbats and have everyone believe this was “radical.”
So, my question is almost ridiculously predictable: You run a label based on difficult music, hard to procure and tougher to learn about, packaged in fairly subtle design. Does your aesthetic work have any relation to your personal concerns for social justice?
I’m gently outraged by the way our culture has sought to erase any engagement with “difficulty.” Difficulty is crucial, and ever-present. What could be more difficult than the moral questions posed by genetic engineering? Corporate culture refuses difficulty in favor of infantilism. The reason why Touch is the way that it is has loads to do with “the political economy of music,” but it’s also trying to maintain the need to “find out,” rather than to be spoon-fed. Difficult can be dark. With the dark, it is necessary to adjust your eyesight, your mode of vision. But it’s not unaware of the need for entertainment. I just insist that it’s crucial to create a context where long-term strategies and objectives will reveal themselves to those who pay attention, which is not much to ask from a person who seeks to learn something, but a hell of a lot to ask from a culture that wants to be mindless. As Buckminster Fuller wrote in 1969, all part of the ongoing struggle between “Utopia” and “Oblivion.”
Barry Nicholls, 1992
When was Touch established and why?
It started in 1982, on March 4th. I had just left the London College of Printing and had begun working for a big publishing company, writing miniature travelogues and arts reviews which was erratically interesting: often getting bored silly, but learning some of the tricks of the trade. I wasn’t particularly challenged by their way of doing things. Punk had shown that not only could you do it yourself, you could quite evidently do it better. Punk also opened up possibilities in media other than music – how new combinations and interventions could be made. There is always that possibility, yet in the context of the late 70s, the ‘visual’ side is still underestimated: it reconnects to the turn of the century, to the Dadaists, and to Kandinsky, who developed a new kind of ‘almanac’ which he called The Blue Rider, a collection of artworks, poems, essays with great attention to detail and an awareness of what one might call ‘the overlap’: how one medium might interact with another. It wasn’t a magazine as such, and had a great effect upon the way people thought about form. For better or for worse, all this would later develop into the Bauhaus, but here lay the origins.
There were two major catalysts to what was happening then: firstly, the invention of photography, which threw fine art into abstraction, and secondly, the First World War, which had much the same effect upon everyday reality. Cinema was already a dominant influence upon peoples’ perceptions. The end of the old world, as it were, which to me matched the present situation – computerworld, the cultural trauma caused by the conversion to digital technology. Anyway, the Dadaists etc. had a very original attitude to the way printed information could be used, which linked closely to their experiments with sound and language. Kandinsky also did this book called Sounds, a collection of poems and woodcuts, published the same year (1912) as his better known Concerning the Spiritual in Art. The real revolutions in perception might usually be ascribed to individual artists or genres (and nowadays to the High Art of new technology), but they are all fundamentally linguistic. We can only guess at the initial impact of simple assertions, which we take completely for granted, such as – the word is an image…I was obviously inspired by punk, as were most people of my age. When I was at University, I had known Andrew (McKenzie), who was one of the few people I met at that time who understood its ramifications implicitly. I was involved in promoting concerts at University which brought me into contact with a lot of music biz types, and you would think that the obvious points of contact were there, but no. Andrew was 15 and working illegally as a shrink-wrapper at the Virgin Megastore in Newcastle, where I used to hover about with promotional posters, on the look-out for strange items. We shared similar tastes in music – Pink Flag, Metal Box, The Scream, Cabaret Voltaire etcetera – which might seem obvious now, but not in the North East in 1977/78. Heavy Metal was what real men listened to. Punk was just about OK, as long as it was Stiff Little Fingers!
At the time, we were both frequent tapers of John Peel sessions and we’d make swaps. I knew Andrew was involved in tape experiments of his own – Ben Ponton, now of Soviet France, used to work on the singles counter there, and they used to bash it out in their bedrooms. Andrew also had his own band, Flesh, who ended up supporting The Clash at the Mayfair. The Clash crowd in Newcastle were like Reservoir Dogs with bad haircuts; their previous concert at the Poly had caused a riot, Richard Hell got a bottle in his face – that sort of audience reaction was quite common. Anyway, when I left University and went back down to London and the LCP, we kept in touch. Soon after, Andrew got fitted up by Virgin on some trumped-up charge which culminated in him getting compensation for unfair dismissal and enough of a pay-off to buy a 4-track tape recorder.
Roundabout then, by a strange series of co-incidental meetings in a very short space of time, I met Mike (Harding) who was running a small music publishing company in the West End. It turned out that he had been at the same University, but I had barely known him there. We bumped into each other at the Moonlight Club in West Hampstead. He said “I’m doing this” and I said “I’m planning that”, so he said why don’t you come by and we’ll see what happens. Mike had been working with a designer called Garry Mouat (who worked for Assorted Images, Malcolm Garrett’s company), and it turned out that Garry lived just up the road from my parents’ house in Barnet. I was full of all this punk/Kandinsky/Dada stuff which Garry was also well into. Anyway, Mike and Garry also knew this bloke Bob Pearce who was running a pirate radio station called “Greenwich Free Sound” or something (incidentally, later to broadcast the first Hafler Trio recording); he was also doing this indie cassette magazine called “Morrocci Klung” – this, we must recall, was the time of SFX and the “C-30 C-60 C-90 Go”! So we thought, all the rest is shit, cassettes are a great, underdeveloped medium, because you can’t see what you’re getting, unlike a record where you can see how many tracks there are on it, and roughly how long they will last. So bearing in mind all the above, the power of TV etc., we had this idea to combine sound with image in order to demonstrate and develop new ways of using media. With the accent on the word ‘demonstrate’. We not only wanted to show that it could be done better (the ‘quality’ of any item is not necessarily a matter of opinion), ours was also a demonstration in the active, political sense. As it happened, around this time BBC2 were showing a season of Samuel Beckett’s work. ‘Quad’ and ‘Not I’ stood out in particular. Andrew talked about different applications of the Burroughs/Gysin cut-up tech-nique and turned us on to that. I had been taping weird sound-bites off TV which I used to drop in to the tape compilations I made for myself and friends, and I sent some of these off to Andrew for further treatment as it were. Even at this stage there was some pretty wild stuff flying about. I come from a print background – my Grandad used to do woodblock and letterpress, my Dad was an early litho fanatic – 8 or 10 colour jobs on a 2 colour press was his forteacute in the fifties. The obsession with precision – print registration, the overlay of colours etc. But from an early age I was mad about music (as the saying goes) and this was a touchstone when I met Andrew: we had a similar sense of adventure. Garry knew a photographer friend, Panni Charrington, whose processing work was exceptional. Mike became our manager. So that was that really. We got a small bank loan on the back of this business presentation we put together. Went out and bought the best tape copiers we could afford, dodgy nonetheless, as it turned out. Went on from there.
It soon got to be quite involved. After this rush of events, I rapidly realised that Touch (as we now named it) was not going to compute with my 9 to 5 job. I arranged to get myself sacked so I could claim unemployment benefit. Went to live in a squat in Islington for as long as it lasted. The next thing was that Mike’s publishing company’s main act fell out, leaving him holding the baby. Bob decided he preferred to advance the cause of pirate radio. Andrew was penniless up in Newcastle wondering where the next cat food was coming from, meanwhile developing the first Hafler Trio stuff with Chris Watson.
Touch has always mutated dependent upon the personal circumstances of those involved. It has always been a very personal thing. It had to be. The decisions made early on – not to accept advertising, for example – meant that to a large extent, and for an unforseeable time period, it was going to be a labour of love. Why do we do it? Why not see what is possible? That’s the beauty of it. In many ways you could say that it’s naively idealistic to try to put out a clear product in a totally manipulative context – not that there’s anything wrong with manipulation as such, but standards are standards, or should be! We liked what had happened in the late 70s, but by and large, by 1982, it was all watered down, and now it was up to us. Did you ever see that episode of ‘The Prisoner’ where Number 6 feeds a riddle into the computer – “W-H- Y- QUESTION MARK” – and the thing starts making all kinds of strange noises, sparks fly and the machine blows up, unable to process an answer? We produced Feature Mist which sold out its 5000 print-run very quickly. All about TV and the mass media. I can’t remember exactly how we put it at the time, something like “clearing the mist from the projectionist’s window” or something portentious like that. It was really a simple idea, the cassette was like a broadcast and the booklet was your radio times messed about a bit. Garry put it well: the idea that we supplied the soundtrack, script and stills, and the audience edit their own film. To us, the notion that the dynamic of film can exist in printed and audio media is still central, a form of storytelling that doesn’tneed a multi-million dollar budget.
Anything was game: I sent Andrew absurd items on Survivalists or professors talking about drug abuse, he matched it against Molly Sugden or a noise made by some tapelooped tenth of a second. One thing Punk musics had largely overlooked was the possibilities inherent in Steve Reich’s ‘Come Out’. Do you know that one? “…open the bruise blood to come out to show dem to come out to show dem…”. Andrew did one with the line “It’s almost nothing you just hardly can see it” – repeat that to yourself 50 times and you’ll see what I mean. There’s a lot of strange humour involved. We thought “Oh wonderful, it’s a great success”, so we went on to produce Meridians. Instead of repeating ourselves, we thought right, what’s next?. At the same time, things had got a bit loose-leaf. Meridians was about the fragmentation going on at that time, revolving around the argument “do you beat them by joining them or do you beat them by not joining them”. An old classic. Meridians as different points on the same body, so we divided it all up and people went “what the fuck is this?”. They’d open the package and think “what do I look at first? Where am I?” (Laughs). Actually, the whole thing does fit together, you never know what the order is and how, let alone why – you have to make it up for yourself. This is very basic: using the idea of editing, not to uncover, experiment with or to “reveal the word”. Simply be your own editor. Generally, people prefer not to, but who knows what will happen when multimedia becomes easily affordable.
You didn’t give a set of instructions, then?
Why should you? The idea of ‘use’ in a product is a strange beast when it always has to say “do this” or “do that” on it. Another theme of Touch is that each thing we do is a response to what has happened in relation to the items before that – not in terms of sales, and seldom reviews. A narrative grows. Touch Travel has got four maps that fold out, yet they fit together to form a structure which is shown in miniature on just one of them. You have to get the whole lot out at once, preferably onto a wall, and match them up. Garry worked on this design with Neville Brody, who’d been contributing stuff since we started. How much do you give away? We don’t explain everything because it kills creativity. We wanted to see how far things could lead. We’d had punk, yes great. The independent system was falling apart with success, putting all its eggs into one basket, which at the time was the Smiths. Then it all came to a grinding halt. We survived it all by just concentrating on what we could reasonably achieve, getting on with it as best we could.
How did you market Feature Mist to enable you to sell so many?
We didn’t, because to us, the choice has always been stark between spending money on marketing, or spending it on the quality of the actual product. Also, to provide a service for artists – the opportunity, should any so wish, to release material in an unusual context, where differences can be observed. For Feature Mist, we more or less instantly decided we wanted to ask New Order to contribute. The group, at this point in time, 1981-82, was highly unusual, innovative in a number of subtle, mysterious ways (building up to ‘Blue Monday’), and we tapped in to an enormous network. At the time, the definition of the word fanatic was the New Order fan-base, full of strange tales. I went to see them play in Newcastle, the night after Leeds. I knew Dec, who used to drive half the night cross country from Bedford to see every gig, even if it was in the North of Scotland; he introduced me to Hooky and we went backstage. I told them that we’d got this idea in a mumbling nervous mumble and would they help out by contributing. They said yes, and were very generous about the whole business. Basically a short discussion, then a few weeks later Rob (Gretton) handed over a tape and said “there, off you go”.
Did they receive any royalties for that?
No. We spent so much money setting up Feature Mist that what money we made went in to doing Meridians which, although it wasn’t a disaster, took us a long time to recoup any costs from. Colour printing was not such a good idea. Then we did Travel, which did well enough to enable us to do Ritual, which for us at the time was the last word on that particular subject, combining a tape and magazine. It has all been very hand to mouth. We paid recording costs in some cases, but we never sorted out all the royalty stuff until we started to put out CDs.
Do you have any kind of basic philosophy or manifesto which you adhere to in relation to Touch products?
If you get a strong feeling from it, if what you produce inspires you, almost from a fan point of view, then this feeling transmits into what you put out. Simple energy transfer. If you’re a consumer, as we all are, it’s obvious when something has been done with care, is original and not coated in advertising, or is trying to be something it’s not, or is having to portray something you don’tfeel. It’s not work to us, though of course there have been times when it’s been bloody hard work…
Do you make a living from Touch?
No, not from Touch, from freelance work. It’s a juggling act, keeping a balance between the two. I’ve also started teaching part-time (at Central St. Martins) which is the first ‘regular’ employment I’ve had in 11 years. Amongst ourselves, we’ve tried to create a support system. It is most difficult for Andrew who depends almost entirely upon income from sales. It makes me laugh when people say ‘”there are too many Hafler Trio releases” – it’s a bit like making a blueprint and then accusing the builder of using too many bricks. People don’t get it. The Hafler Trio is not a group that puts out its new album once a year. Why can’t music, or more accurately sonic information, be published, even as if it were a daily newspaper? Imagine – you don’t read about the situation in Bosnia, you hear it. There’s a recipe for instant revolution. People would know.
Money is never plentiful. Once you have got round the usual problems of how to divide the cake, if the cake is quite small, or non-existent, it’s not a problem. If it gets to be quite juicy and sugary, you get into all these arguments about who gets what, and then what’s it all for? More of the same cake? A different cake? A bigger cake? Or the end of cake? I’m not saying our situation is going to hold out indefinitely but it’s worked so far.
Would you say that there are Touch fans as such? Do they buy everything you put out?
Yes, we have a hardcore of people who buy the lot, which is quite a responsibility, and a liability in some ways. I’ve been in the situation where I would always buy anything that, say, Joy Division, or Augustus Pablo did. It was like seeking essential nourishment. I could quite happily spend all day, and maybe the next, seeking out a particular record I’d got wind of. And most of the time I’d not even bloody heard it. But that’sreally no big deal – you buy a book without knowing what’s written in it. You listen to the author. Aged 5, I was totally into the Beatles, then Jefferson Airplane, then some of the 70s German and American stuff – before we all got woken up. Punk was a perfect lesson in modern consumer-ism. When you buy something that is actually crap, you try and convince yourself that it’sworthy, that all the reviewers have got it wrong – it’s yours, so it must be good! (Laughs). Consumers are always making do with shoddy products, pretending something is fab when you know deep down it’s crap. Music for fantasy for assumed pleasure. Then, all of a sudden, there is a period of intense activity and dynamism, maybe three great records in a week. The sense of engagement. If you understand the way that process goes, you are easily persuaded, when you have such limited resources, to put as much care and attention into the releases as possible. Major companies, by definition, cannot do that. A 45 year-old accountant does not give a shit about whether such and such is like this, or like that. Quality of content is not the criterion. A concentrated volley of first-rate independent releases at the end of the 70s really did expose the majors, and they will do anything not to let it happen again. In the future, everything will be smothered in Sony and sons!
The things we release are not by definition top-notch wonderful, but a good many have been. Nothing we have ever done, I would say, isn’t worth the money. It’s all a bargain. Which is important, really, if you consider that a CD costs 10 or 11 quid – you get far better nourishment from a few good meals for the same money. Some people think we price ourselves too low and should take a leaf out of the art world. Charge them a fortune. Actually, Andrew did mention the idea of doing a limited edition CD of one copy. Feature Mist was £3.50 when it first came out. It flew out of the window…
I’ve never actually seen that one. I discovered Ritual in Compendium Books in Camden Town. I suppose I’ve been a fan ever since, although at times it’s hard to keep tabs on what you’re going to be doing.
Many things we have to play by ear. Touch Language was meant to come out in 1987 and might just make it for the year 2000! Most releases happen relatively quickly, others, such as z’ev’s One Foot in the Grave took over three years. We sat on Mastery of Money for nigh on two years because we didn’t want it to get in the way of the first two parts of the sex trilogy and the Mute re-releases. We always have a pretty clear idea of what we are doing, but not necessarily the order we are going to do it in. We’ve had a collaboration with Wir planned for ages: hopefully that will bear fruit in the near future. In the past, poor distribution has caused us no end of trouble. With Ritual and its precedents, record shops wouldn’t like it because there was a book with it, bookshops wouldn’t like it because there was a tape with it. Then you had something like Meridians which, if it’s displayed in some-where like Virgin, people come along, open it up, have a gander, the whole lot falls out because they didn’t know it was loose-leaf, shove it back quickly in case someone collars you, stick it back on the shelf but by now it’s looking in a real state. Who’s going to buy that when there are all these shrink-wrapped wonders just begging to be torn open? We’ve made our fair share of mistakes like that. Nevertheless, there is still something to be said for the great unexpected find in the record shop. The fact that we don’t get much media coverage means that it’s usually out before anybody knows what it is. Some will rightly proclaim that “silence is death”, but you seldom hear its compaginate – “too much publicity is death”. A death to surprise and discovery, that is. Hype causes a kind of blindness: you can become like a rabbit frozen in the headlights, if you see what I mean.
What about art galleries, have you considered them as an outlet?
Yes we did, but the problem is limited manpower. Anyone who helps us out with admin doesn’t do it for the money. Maybe a tenner and some free copies. There hasn’t been the wherewithal to employ somebody on a regular basis. In any case, you pay a distributor their good margin to do – would you believe? – distribution. The trouble is, they don’t do it, but of course it’s not their fault entirely. The press and retail trade are so fucking dumb. Anything new needs to be loaded off a juggernaut for them to notice it. But “The Chain With No Name”! What a joke. This stupid generalisation, again, that if you promote the big fish, the little fish will get fat on the crumbs that neatly distribute their way downwards. The backbone of current Tory thinking. Maybe it works for Depeche Mode and Mute. For a long time, New Order kept up Factory, but look what happened there. But these two are very much the exceptions, I think, special circumstances. So you go around distributing things to shops yourself, like the Acid kids do now. It’s all very well when the network/medium is fast. Tons of mates involved and all that. But if you go round distributing things to shops that don’t know what they’re selling, you usually have to make a bloody speech to leave 5 copies on sale or return. It’s pathetic. And incredible how inflexible the petty English shopkeeper can be. If you do this kind of distribution, it becomes very soul-destroying. You don’t get anything else done. The problem with galleries and shops was that I’d take in a pile of Touch’s, Mike and I would trail around in the car, one eye on the traffic wardens, then the shop would sell out and they’d never ring to tell you, or least of all send you the money. Why not? Basically they don’t give a shit. Most of the retail trade is lazy and lackadaisical, especially in London, but it’s really a national disgrace. But on the plus side, there’s Compendium, Rough Trade Shop, These, and a few more outside London. Not a lot. So once again, we just get on with it. Fuck ’em. As a result, most of our stuff sells in America, Japan and on the Continent, and this country is to us a lost cause. We have tried. People ask us, “why do I never hear about your stuff, it’s brilliant”, but we send things to newspapers, music papers etc. They go “yeah great” and what do they do? Bugger all. What generally happens is that a freelancer presents a review to the editor, who says “oh, sorry, we can’t run that this week after all because there’s this big feature to fit in” or whatever. So you either end up with a tiny review two months later, or the freelancer gets into such a backlog that nothing ever emerges. This might sound like a whinge, but it affects everybody who’s releasing ‘experimental’ music. All the time we are told that “nothing is happening”. This is absolute rubbish – what this really means is that the press choose to play it safe, whether for the benefit of advertisers or their public, I don’t know. But distributors, radio etc. still tend to follow the press – it seems that they don’t know any other way of finding out about new stuff.
Another thing to bear in mind – everything that we’ve done has not been editorialised, anybody who reviews our stuff has had to think what it’s about, has to actually give something of themselves; and in the critical media/popular culture/rock circus, nothing is worse than to be seen to have got it wrong, especially if you’ve had to think about it a bit rather than regurgitate a press release. This, especially with regard to The Hafler Trio, and the jokes therein contained. One of the things about The Hafler Trio that people rarely get is that they are conjurors – here’s the rabbit, oh look, where did the rabbit go? Ignotum per Ignotius is a serious joke. It’s not a con-trick, as some people have thought. It’s about illusions, perceptions, energy. Reviewers are worried that they might look stupid.
So what do they do? Ignore it?
Are there any particular criteria or sets of rules which have to be met by potential Touch contributors, or are you just looking after a bunch of friends?
Yes and no to both. We get some extraordinary things from the ‘news from nowhere’ network and we’ll think “what the hell is this?” and follow it up. We get far more than we can effectively deal with, demo tapes, interesting artworks etc. It is often difficult to keep up, especially now that we are not really doing compilations, which were a good way of honouring some of that. Good compilations take so much time though. Hassle, a lot of the time. Mike and I have to do everything and still earn a living. It’s all down to time and degrees of obsession. In general, we have set up a narrative, or a set of possibilities. We’ll have a hardcore of activity based around the work with The Hafler Trio, which we obviously want to continue. So if something is presented to us, it has to, in some way, be the match of this context, this proposition. Otherwise what’s the point? We often find that we are sent things which people think we’re going to like, but are just versions of things that we’ve already done. It’s good that people take the trouble and it’s always nice to receive things – a barometer of some sort. But we have to be careful not to overstretch our resources, to what we have already committed ourselves to. If someone sends you a dodgy cassette with doom-laden industrial imagery all over it, you don’t generally go “Wow, I can’t wait to put this on the deck”!
OK, so you’ve got a batch of demo tapes, artworks etc. in front of you. How do you decide what’s in and what’s not? Do you necessarily have to like it?
As Gurdjieff rightly said, art is not for liking. Or shouldn’t be, exclusively. Sometimes I really don’t “like” it: for instance, some of the things that The Hafler Trio have done I think are brilliant, but I don’t immediately like them. How could anybody say they “liked” Picasso’s ‘Guernica’? Would you listen to Xenakis while you’re having your dinner? I know what you’re getting at, but you can see that this idea is really quite ridiculous. At the other extreme, I know a bloke who used to listen to demo tapes for Virgin. He’d give each one 10 seconds to connect, max. The criterion is, does it move you? Not move you in the emotional sense necessarily, but does it advance anything? This is a difficult area, again for no good reason, because there are certain taboos in our culture, especially in downwardly-mobile Britain. The first is the notion that you might demand some intelligence and input from the listener. Terrible! How dare you! How pretentious! (Laughs.) So we either have to ignore that one or get on with the serious global quest where we all drink Coke. The second taboo is to adopt an instructive stance, however tentative, and say, well OK, I know a lot about printing and editing and design language, I might actually be able to show you something you haven’t considered. How dare you! The word ‘didactic’, with the emphasis on DIE! It’s the reason why we are inundated with so much crap and drivel in our wonderfully-seeming egalitarian culture at the moment, giving us all this so-called choice. The gravy train trickles down all our chins, babbling nonsense. We have so many writers who are actually publicists, so many designers who are stylists, so many musicians who think they are “creative” when in fact they’re copyists. But people are easily persuaded to like crap. Maybe it makes them feel more worthy, unchallenged, and secure. But all that is straying off your question a bit. Demo tapes are great when they demonstrate something new. If they do that, then somebody is going to pick up on it, and if you’ve overlooked it, then it’s tough shit.
Would you say that you’ve got a finger on the pulse as far as the underground/counter-culture network goes?
I do not think that would be possible, nor desirable. Who would be a dragnet? Religious fundamentalists and media moguls…
But people like ‘Empty Quarter’, ‘EST’ etc., you are obviously aware of their existence?
Yes, but this is another thing that fits into the distribution situation. This might be getting better at last. For years there has been nothing that covers this kind of music or endeavour. The basis of the last ten years has been to divide and rule. It’s so easy. If you split up the communication channels that developed out of punk, if you turn people on themselves, and make living a question of survival, then people are in no position to communicate as best they might: kids to feed, mortgage to pay, gas bills, everything else becomes secondary. You can’t be 20 forever, whatever the media image pretends. What, in effect, you are left with is a totally fragmented set of people who spend their energies fighting against this, fighting against that, and when they come up for air and look about for where the opportunities lie, often the first thing they fix upon is how different everybody else is from them, the class system of sufferers and all that. Fighting against each other for the same piece of cake. It’s totally self-defeating. One of the ideas behind Touch – inside the very word itself – is to focus upon points of contact, to build new possibilities, and to accentuate the positive, as Bing would say. Touch is not a negative word. When touch becomes negative, you use the word ‘molest’.
Do you find it difficult to be objective about your products?
I suppose I find it relatively easy. When something has just been finished and released, I could talk for hours about it, about how meaningful the whole panorama of detail might be, but that’s because I’ve spent so much time immersed in it, thinking about different approaches – then it reaches the stage where I don’t think about it anymore. Andrew could write a book on each and everything that he’s put out. The best state to be in is one not of unthinking, but one where you just don’t have to think, and you follow your intuition. We all tend to think too much, or too rarely as the case may be. Easy also in the sense that I’m one of those boring perfectionists, and easy also because I see few other people doing it, very few. So you can be objective because that model or grid doesn’t have the interference you get, say, if you’re a record label like Creation, which might be a very good one, but then it’ll get compared to Factory, is it as good as 4AD, etc. etc. For us, it’sa kind of innocence, but this also has a downside. It’s difficult to compare, to sum up in a catchphrase.
The thing is – it’s impossible to imitate. You take the surface off it and say “well, I’ll copy that idea” or “like the recordings The Hafler Trio make, so I’ll have a go myself, it sounds a bit like traffic noise” but not what lies behind it, it’s impossible. So it’s like a carefully prepared set of circumstances with the random factor built in. We are very self-critical. We can then be objective about it because we are always entering in and out of other worlds, other situations. The criticism, perhaps, is that after a point you could argue that it does becomes a self-sufficient cell, as you suggested earlier, but if that is so, then you’re arguing about the whole basis of human existence. You also have to remember that most of the people in such situations think we’re barking mad to start with, to even bother with all this. “When are you going to get a proper job” and all that. As for Andrew, his Dad’s an ex-policeman.
So you are not competing with anyone, or trying to corner a market?
We would love to sell bucketloads, but to do this, it appears you have to devote a great amount of energy and money to worrying about the bucket, rather than what’s in it.
From the feedback that you receive from your audience, would you say that you’ve succeeded in changing peoples’ lives, attitudes, or perspectives to any degree?
Yes, there’s no doubt about it. You could say how much evidence do you need, but that would be telling. I love the idea that we can change or enhance peoples’ attitudes, have them demand higher standards, even if this makes me sound reactionary. We do it for ourselves, primarily. But we don’t say that everything Touch does is something everyone has to aspire to. We just want a better diet and hope others will agree. To all of us, new information and experience is profoundly entertaining. Instead, people tend to opt for processed rubbish. I mean, look at U2, not that I’ve got anything against them particularly – no doubt Eno says plenty of Hail Marys every time he gets a royalty cheque! U2 think they’re being radical. If anyone is radical in all this, it’s Sinead O’ Connor, but she gets crucified anytime she doesn’t knuckle down and play the girly game. Crucified. I hope she has the last laugh, as it were. A Janis Joplin wig would sort them out!
But U2 obviously believe in what they’re doing. Do you think they’re aware of what they’re doing?
Doubtless with all that’s at stake, but it’s a doppeldanger that does not work. It presents itself as being critical, but it presents itself in a form and context which is so effortlessly assimilated into the status quo. It’s pointless, and it achieves nothing. Good record sales in the short term, of course. The babe of your choice! It sets a false image of what people think of as being subversive or experimental. It’s not very convincing. All this Zoo TV bollocks with anti-TV slogans, broadcast via satellite. You can just see Rupert Murdoch quaking in his boots can’t you, as everyone laughs to the bank. Did you see the MTV awards? That was a good one. U2 were playing their ‘Real Thing’ song or whatever it’s called, with Garth from ‘Wayne’s World’ playing drums via satellite from LA. Bono didn’t look happy at all. Poor Bono, the things he has to do in the name of celebrity. He’s said to be a really nice bloke. Who needs it?
Do you necessarily endorse the attitudes and opinions of all the Touch participants, or is Touch simply a soapbox for those individuals or groups?
Ha ha ha – haven’t you asked that one already? OK. If I completely disagreed with something, then we probably wouldn’t release it, but as I’ve said, I’m not a total control freak, although I do like to be involved in the things we put out. If, say, Mike or Andrew put up a good argument as to why something should be followed through, I’m happy and willing to be convinced. There are certain things that Touch has put out that I’ve had very little involvement with. Generally, we are not in the business of doing things that do not reflect our vital concerns in one way or another. Sometimes in a more hidden way that others, more metaphorical, more layered. What it seems to be on the surface is seldom what it is. Or isn’t. I’m not trying to be clever, but it’s as if you were criticising us for sticking with what ostensibly works well. All our artists do exactly what they want. If I don’t like it in totem, which is very rare, it’s usually this idealistic streak rearing its ugly head again. Andrew’s artistic instincts I trust totally. He’s had this disco record in mind for a while, which is going to work up a real lather, but we’ll keep the lid on that for now. Look at it this way: most bands start off by wanting to be in the charts, and then, if successful for a while, they get this big idea of doing an ‘experimental’ album. Who says it cannot work the other way around? It might look like we are self-sufficient, but this is only true up to a point. As I said before, we never work with things that do not interest us. If that makes Touch a soapbox, you do not have to be an known participant to stand on it. I wish more did. As long as it didn’t cave in. (Laughs).
Does Touch make a lot of money?
Do me a favour! Ritual, for example, cost us a lot of money to do (with ourselves personally liable for any losses). I seem to remember we made about £200 profit having sold every copy. In a way this is pretty stupid, I know, but we learnt a lot from doing it. Even then, we didn’t make Touch into a limited company for another few years because of all the accountancy stuff involved. I suppose, because it may look accomplished, people automatically think that we must have loads, “Christ, they’ve made a fortune, I’ll tap them for whatever…” Amusing situations have occured when people have come from overseas with either my address or Mike’s, and then say “where is the Touch HQ?”. It turns out to be one of our flats.
Not some huge complex in Milton Keynes?
It’s not always so useful to be well presented. People like John Peel seem to have a problem with it. The other drawback is because we are not considered part of the indie scene, even by Rough Trade (now RTM) who have been our distributors for 11 years, when it gets to the NME or suchlike they can cast it aside and say “oh, it’s not us, it’s not our scene, therefore we don’t have to think about it”. As you said before. It’s all very rewarding as long as you’re not expecting a swimming pool in the back garden as your star prize. Once you’ve decided that you are really not doing it for that swimming pool, everything is progressive. If we did have lots of money, we’d spend it on our artists, and get composers like Arvo Pärt and Giya Kancheli to record something for us if we could.
Another common misconception about Touch is that you’re quite a distant or aloof organisation. Is this justified?
You’re sitting here in my front room, and anyone can call us up. True, I sometimes hibernate when I have a lot of work to do. I hate the deadline culture, rushing from one ‘job’ to the next, and sometimes I appear to be dead busy when actually I’m charging up my batteries. True, Mike usually meets more people than I do, his is the central office. The address is on the back of all our products, and that of The Hafler Trio on theirs. We’re easy to track down. People love to think that you are aloof. For example, those great aloof artists Gilbert and George – I got their number out of the phone book. Very generous people, again. Like New Order. You’re taught to make these assumptions all of the time, and you usually do. The Hafler Trio and the Dr. Moolenbeek story – another prime example.
Do you think you’ve made any kind of impact on the mass media in any way?
Yes. Put it this way – we do what we do very purposefully. It gets out. We don’t do it for a laugh, although it often is. We are totally serious about it in a very light sort of way, which may be a form of commercial suicide, because everything should be fun, simplistic and groovy, all us individuals in this great, groovy modern world. Difficulty, or confusion of any sort, is verboten. But everything turns, and comes around. At certain stages your whole energy is devoted to keeping the flame alight. At others, it burns unattended. To answer your question more specifically, I would say yes without a doubt, but others might say that we’d need a good lawyer. It depends upon what you count as being of value. Do you know about Rupert Sheldrake’s theory of ‘Morphonic Resonance’? A Bag of Cats? This suggests that if you have understood and focused something, even if you have not transmitted it into a medium of communication, that focus is going to transmit itself to other sympathetic recipients. Nothing comes from nothing.
I read your editorial at the end of ‘Vagabond’, and I must say I agreed with it completely…
Ah, but at the end you noticed. Details like that are important.
Finally, how do you see Touch progressing over the next ten years? Do you have an all-encompassing vision of where you would like Touch to be?
Yes, I do have a vision of how I would like things to be, but it really is quite an obvious one. As soon as you put it into words, it ceases to be a vision and starts to be a mirage. On a pragmatic level, my life is chaos. I have only a general idea of what I will be working on in a month’s time, which is both exciting and in a way frustrating. Anything for a quiet life, as my old aunt used to say. To always do what one is best at. I hope that The Hafler Trio will one day get the adulation, screaming girls and the chance to smash up the hotel of their choice. I hope we’ll be interviewed by Wayne or Garth – we’ve already had Paula Yates, so anything would be an improvement. As Magnus puts it so succinctly, “I’ve started so I’ll finish”. We’ll keep doing the same thing for as long as it is relevant. But I think it always will be relevant
Is that because you constantly react to current situations?
If anything, the opposite: we are well aware of current situations – only a few of them are worth engaging with. In any case, there’s a difference between reaction and response. If somebody comes up to you and intimidates you, you’d go “Whoah yer bastard” and probably chin ‘im. Fair reaction. The man about to be arrested for demonstrating against a war, gently placing a flower into the barrel of a policeman’s gun – that is a response. It becomes an image that lasts forever, because somebody kept their sense and responded to a situation.
We do not by any means always react or respond directly to a situation even if it directly involves us. There is no desperate hurry, as such. Last year, a Scottish magazine, ‘Variant’, slagged us off for ‘Vagabond’, accusing us of being a load of has-beens whingeing on about the non-existence of punk. A dubious assumption actually, the standard knee-jerk, Burchillian drivel. I, for one, am a hasn’t-been-yet-been. My co-editor, Jon Savage, is a has-been-a-fair-bit-so-far-been. Obviously they had a nice suit they wanted to try on us. Anyway, the editor wrote to Jon and said there was going to be a slag-off of ‘Vagabond’ in the forthcoming issue (as editor, quite amazing that he didn’t realise that his magazine was already out), and would we like to present a reply in the next issue after that? Sorry, better things to do. That’s what the media want, to get everybody snapping at each others heels, which makes for good sparkling copy, they think, but we all know it’s a complete load of bollocks. This, from a magazine that exists on an arts council grant and witters on about Situationism. What a joke. But more and more people are making a considered response and engaging with what we do. The momentum is good.