Chris Clark has been unleashing barrages of twisted, noisy techno on the world for nearly two decades, primarily via cult UK label Warp Records. On his latest album, ‘Death Peak’, he coaxes the listener in using saccharine, enticing melodies – in his words, “the fun bit” – before building to a stormy crescendo and finally, a haunting melancholia.
“The start of the album is actually quite friendly and familiar,” he tells me over a cup of tea at Warp’s north London HQ. “It’s like ‘ooh this is quite friendly, borderline pop, quite mellow, not that taxing…’ But it was really important for me to have it as this gentle ascent that becomes really gnarly at the end. Because ‘Un U.K.’, I don’t wanna sound too OTT, but I just don’t think it’s been achieved before in music. There’s nothing like it structurally. It’s got elements of familiar forms but the structure of it is really new.”
This is certainly an album that takes the listener on a head trip – a journey described in the press release as being from butterfly filled meadows up to a ‘fearsome mountain peak, surveying a shattered landscape below’.
“I’ve always wanted to tell stories more than just expose technical aspects of electronic music,” he explains. “I still find it quite appealing at the end, I don’t want it to be full-on, repulsive shock, it’s got to have some softness or emotional coherence.”
The idea that the album is made up of contrasting parts is not just conceptual, though, it partly reflects the fact that it was recorded on both sides of the globe. “I made half of it in Australia and finished it in the UK in December – I finished ‘Hoova’ on Christmas day at my mum’s.”
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It’s got to have some softness or emotional coherence.
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His previous, self-titled album was made in a very remote, rural setting, and I wonder what kind of impact location had this time around? “It’s such a cliché, like, artist goes off into the wilderness. The fun part was Melbourne basically. It was fucking ecstatic; waking up at four in the morning while my girlfriend was asleep and literally dancing around the kitchen like ‘fuck sake this is amazing!’ – just overwhelmed with excitement.”
And the UK half? “It was basically UKIP-land – Lincoln. [Coming back] was like this weird way of holding onto this element of UK rave heritage. ‘Cause as great as Melbourne is, there’s not that much of that there.”
So if the first part was fun to make, does that mean the second part wasn’t? “The rest of it’s… not hard – I dislike this idea of it being frustrating – it’s difficult, though. It’s always difficult finishing an album. I think if it’s not difficult you’re doing something wrong and I think if it’s frustrating you’re also doing something wrong. It just takes time to filter things down and make those decisions. It’s more what you leave off, you know. There was this ravey banger at the end that, after ‘Living Fantasy’, was just like eh what, why is that there?
“There’s always material that falls away. It’s just getting that time on an album right – you can spend too long. I could have extended the deadline and it might have been a bit more finessed but you lose something in that as well, you lose that rush of adrenaline, of having to finish it, it just brings something to it. In the same way in the studio in the old days when you’d record something to tape you have to get it in that set amount of time. You can give yourself longer but you do lose something. It’s good just to close a chapter.”
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For his previous album he switched from using Logic to Ableton, a piece of software which he stuck with this time around. “Ableton, and then I sequenced a lot on tape, weirdly. I know that sounds fucking ridiculous in this day and age but I spliced some sections together on tape. I just love that idea of reduced form, and having the limit of 20 minutes to record a jam, pick the best bits, and that’s a track. If you can’t make music on cheap tools I don’t think you should be writing music.”
“It’s ridiculous, the reliance on expensive tools – it’s the opposite of punk rock, in a way, and I don’t think it makes people push themselves musically. It should start in your head – in your imagination.”
Clark’s music is certainly imaginative. On ‘Catastrophe Anthem’, he deploys a choir of children to chant “we are your ancestors”, a line that echoes over the track as an eerie mantra. “The idea was they’re singing to AI, basically, that they’re simulations. It’s the Matrix idea embellished and made into this intellectual, rational argument: that there’s a one in three chance that we’re living in a simulation. I love it ‘cause it’s not this kind of wishy-washy psychobabble – oh is that a glitch in the Matrix? – it’s this really concrete and logical argument that there’s a one in three chance we are.
“So I love this creepy idea that they’re actually simulations singing to the AI creator. I didn’t tell [the choir] that though! [laughs]. It was sort of awkward enough as it was. It was quite hard to get them to sing in tune.”
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If you can’t make music on cheap tools I don’t think you should be writing music.
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In less experienced, less self-aware hands there would be a danger of this high concept approach metastasising into melodrama, but fortunately Clark has a keen sense of humour. “I find vocals quite hilarious on some level, especially when I use my own voice. I started getting quite confident with it, if I just let go of the idea that I’m a singer or something, ‘cause I’m not, but I still just find the texture of it really inviting.”
And while he acknowledges that using choirs might be a cliché – something bands do when they’ve taken too many drugs, he says – he wanted to try it anyway. “The idea of censoring ridiculous ideas – I’m allergic to that, I’m really allergic. And I think people are far too cautious. Give it a try. I’m not heartbroken if things don’t work; I’ve got a thick skin. And it’s really exciting when it does work, that’s the win of that situation – when you pull it off.
“I mean there’s this thing in dance music where it’s just like who would’ve thought, meat and potatoes, they go together. It’s just so prescriptive; you’ve got this microwave fucking plate of food and there’s your meat, there’s your veg, there’s your pudding. It just bores me to tears.”
Is his confidence something that’s developed over time, Clash asks? “I think I’ve just started appreciating that people listen, and let go of that sort of angsty thing. If someone doesn’t like your music, fair enough, you know – it’s fine. I’m not gonna get a bruised ego about that kind of thing, it’s ridiculous. I mean the fact that people are even listening and I’ve got this really organically developed fanbase is really amazing.
“I feel like I haven’t had to compromise, I’ve just followed my instincts, and that’s really rewarding. I’ve just got nothing to complain about. I’m having a really fun time and I guess that gives you some sort of confidence.”
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I feel like I haven’t had to compromise, I’ve just followed my instincts...
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Recently, his instincts resulted in him producing the score for The Last Panthers, a TV series about the Pink Panther jewel thieves. It happened, he jokes, following “bribes and blackmail and Warp manipulating it”.
But it’s a medium that gives him the chance to explore alternative avenues creatively, he tells me. “One of my tricks is to build these really horrendous noise pieces, where there’s no melody and there’s no rhythm, but if you just have that dead quiet under the picture, so it’s barely audible, there’s just that tension. Ostensibly it isn’t there, but you just sort of suggest it. So you can do these really wild tracks for film that you wouldn’t necessarily put on an album. It’s just another outlet.”
Whatever the project, though, you can be sure that he won’t be abandoning his experiments in head-pummelling instrumentation any time soon. “I’ve been thinking about [drumming] again recently, but there’s something quite limited about drum kits. I just love drum machines. They always pull me back in – like the mafia.”
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'Death Peak' is out now on Warp Records.
Words: Alex McFadyen
For tickets to the latest Clark shows click HERE.