Tom Jenkinson, a.k.a. Squarepusher
“[My music] started out as a hobby, messing about with pieces of old junk . . . I soon found out there were ways to modulate sound in even the simplest circuits, and I started making home recordings full of filtered sounds,” admits Tom Jenkinson, a.k.a. Squarepusher.
“As I progressed,” he continues, “I felt myself coming up against brick walls, as the bands I played in were never my bands, so my ideas were often sidelined in favor or populist gestures, or just replicating things that were currently fashionable. My disappointment with those types of musical endeavors was inversely proportional to my own endeavors at home.”
Jenkinson has taken a zig for every zag. Starting with tape deck spindles and soldered capacitors, he has maintained a carefully measured approach to recombinant musicianship, dipping into new avenues long enough to achieve fluency, rend tonality, divide opinions, and garner acclaim.
First introduced to the convergence of rhythm and harmonics through picking up a bass guitar in the late 1980s, Jenkinson pursued self-taught jazz-fusion virtuosity, then spent the better part of two decades subverting the more obvious intentions of his increasing cadre of instruments—both physical and virtual. Since gaining recognition on Rephlex Records, and soon after finding his ongoing home at Warp Records, the musician has interpolated all manner of sonic excesses, recesses and abscesses, including drill n’ bass, breakcore, gabba, spunk jazz, acid house, musique concrète, and other atonal signal processing.
Counterbalancing his conceptually specific algorithms has been a penchant for electro-acoustic improvisation. “The push and pull between live performance and programming . . . these are the two principal poles I’ve always oscillated between,” says Jenkinson. Now he has recorded Ufabulum, a full-length immersed in the “pure . . . very melodic, very aggressive” electronic music he last explored so thoroughly on 2001’s Go Plastic.
“The new album is totally geared toward live performance, but also a reaction to all the live instrumentation I’ve been incorporating of late,” says Jenkinson, whose last output was Shobaleader One: d’Demonstrator, an album that features input from four additional musicians. “There’s a peculiar type of stress associated with engineering, and at the same time delivering performances of drums, bass, what have you. Obviously, the idea is that none of that stress leaks into the recording itself. I felt, however, that continuing to combine the writing process with performance, engineering, and recording had the potential for burnout, so it seemed the perfect time for a change. And, obviously, programming is never absent from my work; it’s fair to say, though, that it’s taken a back seat for quite a while.
“The longer you spend at one end of the spectrum, the harder you fly to the other when you snap back, I suppose,” continues Jenkinson. “However, even more importantly, with this album I wanted to take an uncommon approach for myself and compose the entire album with the concert setting in mind. For several years I’ve been using LED screens [including a vertigo-inducing, specially designed helmet-mounted faceplate] with imagery generated from the audio and control data. Now I’m consolidating how something like pitch and color relates. I’ve worked on graphical, pictorial representations of the sounds while making the tracks, and while I’m actualizing those images I’m allowing them to produce analogous journeys back into the music. Say, for instance, if a drumbeat inspires a picture, will that picture then inspire a bassline? It’s an experiment, and the big risk was whether the picture would end up superfluous or a distraction, as ad hoc imagery with no intrinsic link to the sound is something I really, really hate.”
Ufabulum is a tightly arranged balance of emotional response and rational construct, but Jenkinson is broad in his own description of the recording. “Listeners will make different things of the album, but as for the process of sound organization, it’s a monolith of controlled data.”
At the core of the monolith’s conduits (which take up two rooms of Jenkinson’s home) sits a Euphonix CS3000 digitally controlled analog desk, integrated with three DS 108A units for a total of 24 channels of compression. “The whole desk is automated—the EQs, levels, aux sends—along with the way the compressors are set up, so that all the parameters are set to modulate a continually dynamic picture,” says Jenkinson. “A big part of the mixing process is getting exact control of the dynamics of each instrument, to set the amounts and parameters of compression so that when one instrument is swelling another is clamped down. For instance, on the song ‘The Metallurgist,’ the bass drum is the sidechain source, and each time it drops, the dynamics for other instruments are being changed to permit a sense of fluidity.”
The sound of Squarepusher balances the roles of volatile performer and man in the white lab coat, as Jenkinson explains: “Music often makes me think of astronomical phenomena. My longstanding intention before getting a record contract was to study astrophysics. I started trying to generate images akin to flying at immense speed through space, encountering strange nebulae and galactic formations along the way. I made the bass part from millions of tiny particles of sound, rather than steady pitches, akin to how a galaxy is formed by vast amounts of individual bodies. I should have called it ‘The Astrophysicist,’ but it sounded naff. So I called it ‘The Metallurgist,’ which is even worse.”
Key to this type of song creation is gear that has been in Jenkinson’s studio for decades. Mainstays include a Roland TB-303, TR-909 and SH-101, Eventide Orville and DSP4000 harmonizers, a Yamaha QY700 sequencer, and Yamaha CS80, TX81Z and FS1R synths.
Jenkinson likes the challenge of coaxing unfound sounds from gear, even as he recognizes the shortcomings of something like the QY700’s timing in comparison to a digital sequencer. He doesn’t crave perfection, which he considers an old-school approach. Exact timing would only retain its meticulous nature for so long once the outboard units are coupled with the self-taught programmer’s “hacks,” which he cobbles together in SuperCollider, Pure Data, and Reaktor. “These are not examples of rigorously worked-out DSP principles,” says Jenkinson. “It’s messy, very much necessitated by a particular part in a piece of work where I find no existing path to realize what I need. For instance, ‘The Metallurgist’ is one of the simpler tracks and the bass sound is a TB-303, but it’s processed.
“I set up a program so that the synth was receiving processed MIDI data rather than data straight from the QY,” continues Jenkinson. “So, for example, I set the MIDI processor up so if you hold a note, it issues a couple bits of control data that would tell the MIDI processor to repeat that note at a certain rhythmic interval, and then issue another bit of control data that tells it to modulate the pitch each time a new note is triggered, then to vary the pitch of it according to a certain pattern that might just be something like an oscillator, or it could be a more complex function which you’d draw into an X/Y. Now, instead of holding a note down and getting a single note back, I can hold down a note and get back a sequence of notes, or a note pulsating at a particular frequency, which allowed me to make a bassline out of thousands of sounds.”
Jenkinson programmed additional patches that give the album its balance of in-the-pocket concentration and mangled resonance. For example, another MIDI-triggered virtual synth features filters in an elaborate path that retunes frequencies. “In a sense, it gives the feedback path a hot spot so that when you wind back the gain, the signal circulating around the feedback path will jump to the hot spot that you’ve essentially defined by the usage of certain kinds of filters,” explains Jenkinson.
It’s through these custom-crafted mechanisms that Ufabulum achieves Jenkinson’s goals, which include tidal waves of polyphony, bass sounds sharp enough to rip through concrete, and synths that sounds like the hum of huge power generators and disorienting amounts of static electricity.
While Ufabulum makes sense in the historical context of Go Plastic, it is an album more unabashedly engaging in its use of explicitly catchy, relatively curvilinear timbre, perhaps a convention held over from the Shobaleader One project. Adding to Squarepusher’s contrarian heritage by saying no to marrying concepts of both studio and stage, Jenkinson has managed to make his latest left turn a right now.
Tony Ware remembers when every other rave visual was an animated Mandelbrot set, so he’s happy to see more pixels and fewer fractals.