TaikaBox and Antony have a long history of collaboration. Antony has made soundtracks for a number of TaikaBox performances – sometimes playing live – and has contributed audio elements to some of John’s films. In return, John made a video for ISAN’s track Glass Bird Movement.
TaikaTalk: You share a lot of behind the scenes in your Instagram. Do you happen to have Hemingway’s portrait above your work desk?
Antony Ryan: There’s a nice story behind that portrait, although it’s not Hemingway – it’s John Peel – an amazing radio DJ who was the energy behind all independent music from the late 1960-s – early 1970-s onwards. He had his own radio show that ran for years on BBC, and we all were his fans. He played everything from techno to reggae and Japanese noise jazz. We religiously listened to his radio shows to find out what is going to excite us this week that he’s going to play… He died in 2004 and that’s a spraypaint stencil John Collingswood made for me and Robin Saville – my partner in ISAN. It is called ”Fades in Gently”. When doing the Peel session – something John Peel did for lots of artists: you go to the BBC, record the session live and then he’d play it out in the show – he introduced one of our songs saying: ”Listen out, because this one fades in gently”. John had remembered that and then when Peel died, he made this.
He hangs in the studio as a permanent reminder. Back in 1996-97 we released a single. There wasn’t much Internet, so you’d put your name, address and a telephone number on the back of records that you send out. One ended up with John Peel, he played it on his show, and shortly after Robin got a message on his answering machine, because his phone number was on the back. It was from John Peel who said he really enjoyed the track and that we should keep doing what we were doing. We have our own motivation anyway, but on those days when you think ”I’m just shit at doing this, I can’t do anything interesting anymore”, that’s a nice treasured memory to make you try again and keep trying to do what you do. Because we’re the only ones who can do what we do. So we have to do it.
That is a powerful positive message, mental health friendly – and one is likely to feel very much less depressed after having been listening to your music. Is it your conscious intention – to make people relaxed?
There’s quite a big movement in electronic music that goes back to new age and music made specifically for meditation, yoga practice, etc. We never intentionally did that. That’s just an unintentional thing rooted in a simplistic and naive approach to the way we make music in terms of melody and keeping elements simple. In many cases it just lends itself to that automatically. I’ve used this effect myself when my son was an infant.
It does work amazing with kids – there was a number of experiments proving that when preparing for this interview!.. You once told a story of how you entered the world of master engineering: in 2008 you were living in a Swedish village surrounded by trees and a lot of snow, in a place full of space and time and a plan to become a glass blower’s assistant. Your friends asked to do the mastering on a track, and there you were, in the middle of that snow, doing your first piece as an engineer. Such a beautiful story, but why the glass blowing?
There’s an easy answer: I met my now ex-wife when I played the concert here in Denmark, and I came here and after we got married she got a position in the National Glass School in Sweden. She was very passionate to learn to blow glass having done internships in Copenhagen, and there we were in Orrefors – in the best and only place to learn to blow glass, the village of 200 people in the middle of the Swedish forest, 180 of them over the age of 60. There was nothing to do there except going to school actually.
I got a position at school and learnt to be an assistant for the glass blower – and really enjoyed it. It was rewarding, fulfilling and challenging – even though there was no alternative actually. Realizing that I’ll never do it again, I found it totally worth doing. Especially for somebody who is not used to doing something with his hands – I was terrible at wood, metal work and ceramics at school.
Glass came after the music though, didn’t it?
We’ve been creating music since I met Robin in 1992. And it was the music that brought me to tour in Denmark and stay here… Having been always interested in mastering, I never in fact thought to do it until Simon Scott from Slowdive asked me to. When we’d released ISAN records, we would go to Berlin and sit in with the mastering engineer – a guy called Rashad Becker who’s just a genius and a wizard in mastering. The things he could do with our music, making it sound so much better than we could imagine, was mind blowing. So when Simon asked me to have a go with mastering an album, I was absolutely sure I will try. Here I am – 10 years and 1200 projects later!
Was there a turning point when you decided to make your own music?
There was none – I had been possessed with synthesisers and synth music since I was 9 years old, when I first heard a record by Gary Numan on the radio. I so badly wanted to have a synthesiser that I would even build one from lego from time to time and play along to the radio when I was little. I had a portable cassette recorder in which I had cassettes of Depeche Mode and Kraftwerk… Every Christmas I would ask my mom and dad: ”Can I have a synthesizer?” But they were just phenomenally expensive, so it was always a ”no”. Only one question remained: when can I afford to buy one myself? When I finished university and got my first pay I finally bought a synthesiser – it has always been a desire.
Did you associate synthesizer sounds with space? There are a lot of universal space sounds in much of electronic music. Could it be your alternative to the standard kids’ dream of becoming astronauts?
Totally! When we first got an offer to do a single for a small label called Wurlitzer Jukebox, the cover of that was an illustration of what a Moon landing might look like. It was a piece of artwork from the 1950-s. Some of those first singles were very much informed by a record – a child’s storybook record called ”Bobby and Betty Go to the Moon”, – that both Robin and I had copies of. The bleeps and bloops just fuel and filter into you…
So you became an astronaut through buying a synth and becoming a musician.
How did you come up with the name ISAN?
Robin and I met in a city called Leicester in England: he lived there and I studied in the university. We got introduced through Robin’s sister – I was working with her and she knew I liked synthesisers. “My brother really likes synthesisers,” she said, – “I should introduce you, you’ll get on like a house on fire.” And we did – we’ve been friends since then.
When we were making music together it was techno music, we were trying to imitate Jeff Mills, Aphex Twin and some artists who were doing much harder techno. We really were into acid techno. The stuff we made was fun for us but was rejected by every label we sent it to (laughs). Robin eventually moved away with his girlfriend at the time to a different part of the country and started making electronic music with another friend he met down there. Of course, I was really jealous because I had nobody to play with anymore. So I started to send him tapes of tracks I made, he sent tapes with tracks he’d made, and I suggested: if we pick the good ones, why don’t we put them into a pile and we can be a band?
I was working in telecoms at the time and ISDN was a big Internet and digital communications infrastructure: Integrated Services Digital Network is what it stood for. I suggested ”Integrated Services Analogue Network” because we’ve been playing with analogue synths. It was funny at the time, now it seems a bit old and tired, but here we are, ISAN. We used to have dots between these letters – you’d see it on all of the early artwork, because we were integrated services analogue network!
In Finland isä means father, so the literal translation of your band’s name would be literally ”Father’s”…
It sounds like you have been practicing distant artwork creation years and years before the Corona came.
It’s been the only way we work. If we try to get together in the studio it would normally end up being – well, not a disaster, but something that is never happening right. We actually work much better being able to hear what the other person has done, think about it a bit, come back with a response – there’s no pressure then. When you’re in the studio at the same time, you’ve got to make it work – there’s a pressure to do something that’s worth listening after you’ve finished. I think we only did one or two tracks and a couple of remixes in the same room which worked quite well throughout all these years we’re making music…
Does it make you laugh when people complain about having to work distantly – since this is what you’ve been doing, with consciousness and joy, your whole career?
It did make me think ”welcome to my world”, although I didn’t laugh. I’ve never made a total living from being a musician: I was working in telecoms till about 2003 and actually since 2001 – 20 years! – I’ve been working remotely, as well as always making music remotely with Robin. The Corona did make me aware of how used I am to this. Honestly, I’m quite happy to spend a couple of days completely on my own. I don’t miss or need that input of connection with colleagues…
The ”welcome to my world” vibe quite accurately describes the Corona effect for some who realized there were always people locked down more or less – the disabled people, people with mental health illnesses, single mothers, etc. Do you think Corona has nourished the empathy and solidarity?
I would like to think so. However, I think about how quickly people will move on when this is all over and they suddenly realize they have all this cash that they didn’t spend on holidays – they’re just going to forget this all has ever happened… I’m a bit cynical about other people maybe… It’s modern age, isn’t it: people are wrapped up in their own issues. To be fair – so am I. I’m totally self-employed, the mastering is the most important element of earning money for me…
Even though I’m used to being remote and distant from everybody, there were new challenges that came along, and that made me think about how much more difficult it is for other people to deal with that. My 9 years old son is really good at doing homework and all kinds of schoolwork, yet during the lockdown he needed something every 20 minutes. For mastering work I like to be focused for two or three hours, I take breaks, of course, but I got my mind focused on the job and the music that I’m working on. I found that quite a challenge and I was not very productive at all. That made me think about all of those people who suddenly have to work from home and who got bosses who are picking on them – and they might have two or three kids, including babies!
Together with TaikaBox you were connecting studios for live performances long before the Corona pandemic came. In 2015 you played live from Denmark for a TaikaBox performance in Oulu – and it all was happening as one piece despite the miles between you. The pandemic has forced more people to consider online international collaboration. Have you felt the change in people’s attitudes towards this form? Has there been a certain evolution of it – in your artistic experience and generally?
I think the evolution has been on two tracks: technological and practical. When we did that performance, John was manipulating video and working on the computer linking my sound in, and Tanja was performing while I was getting feedback. This was six years ago, and it worked perfectly at the time. We had different technical challenges with getting the sound and the whole feedback there and back in real time – enough for Tanja to be able to respond to me and for me to respond to her. We struggled to find the solution that did good quality stereo full range music – not just Skype which has got very narrow compressed audio range – those solutions weren’t really there at the time. That all worked, because I hope we had a good commonality of the vision of what we were all trying to do – because we know each other well. The desire to do that kind of performance has been there, but the technology to support it fully – hasn’t. Now there is a whole load of technical solutions and things can be worked out easily.
Do you feel the same dramatic evolution happened with the content of what is practiced with the new technology – more intimacy, no border between the political and the personal?
I’m not sure that art became more personal. There have always been artists who have done online performances. Now everybody scrambled to stream online this and online that – all out of genuine desperation as suddenly all the tours were cancelled and all the income was lost.
I personally can’t feel engaged with that kind of presentation of music. It’s not something I would pay for – I’d much rather go to a concert than watch a stream of a concert. The personal connection comes from performing for an audience and getting the feedback – that becomes impersonal with online presentation. In the example with the performance with John and Tanja I couldn’t get any feedback from the audience in Oulu while being in Denmark, yet there was that personal dynamic going, because they were there and they could read the audience – and I was reading them.
When it’s completely online, I don’t see where that personal dynamics comes from. In the same time it has given more people the chance to present things online in a different way, to bring in political aspects into the work that they do. There’s an audience that is hungry for some input, inspiration and feelings of commonality.
You have a YouTube channel ”The ISAN Workshop” dedicated to showing behind the scenes of ISAN creating music. How hungry is the ISAN community and what does it look like?
It hasn’t changed much – we have a lot of fans who’ve just been following us since we started and we’re thankful for them still being with us more than 20 years later. We did find new fans as well. We started the workshop partly because the ethos of ISAN has always been for Robin to come to me with a new trick that he thought of and for me to do the same in the other direction. Once I grabbed my phone and took a quick Whats App video of this synth connected to that synth connected to a sequencer and sent it to Robin saying ”Look what happens if I do this”. He would do the same the other way. We just thought: it could be fun to share that with everybody else. I guess we both thought it would be nice to try to stretch our legs a bit and make something with some video editing tools – just for fun actually. There’s so much of that kind of content out there now on YouTube: how to do this and that with synths – it’s difficult to make a noise in that world. But the people who come and watch seem to be those who’ve been with us all along the way, and many of those are producers themselves.
This seems to be quite the opposite of the mainstream capitalistic approach of not sharing, branding and hiding the ”secret technology”, etc. Do you think the open, sharing, community building approach is likely to win over in the art world or do you feel more like an outsider in this context?
There is a big number of hobbyists out there who purely do things for fun (of course everybody hopes to get a record deal and make a number one smash). The equipment is just so ready now. The synth I got here in my studio was out in 1981 and cost thousands of pounds – in 1981 money. Now you can buy things for 90-100 euros. Millions of people are just experimenting and having fun with cheap gadgets available nowadays. Thousands would grab that gear to create something that people would gravitate to. Those who do make an impression on other people would be those who got their own voice anyway.
Last year we released a sample pack for sale – people can actually buy some of the drum sounds, tape loops and things that we’ve created and have been using for two decades. We launched a competition so that anybody who uses that can send a track to us for a prize. People have sent in submissions using the sample pack – and they sound a million miles away from what we sound like. Without wanting to sound big headed I don’t think there’s anybody out there who sounds like ISAN. I can’t sound like Robin and he can’t sound like me. We somehow sound like each other when we put our stuff together…
One of the pieces in ”the ISAN Workshop” features Debussy’s ”Claire de Lune” and started as a cassette testing. The video says ”Accidents are typical starting points for ISAN pieces”. What accidents were your favourite so far? What is the environment fruitful for such accidents to happen – how do you create it?
The best way to create an environment to have accidents is not to care whether you have accidents and just plug things together (laughs). Within the experimentation something completely unexpected happens, and that’s the bit that you grab onto. Sometimes, however, there are just pure accidents. Once I was recording a windmill – I wanted to get the ”woof woof woof” sound of the thing turning around, but suddenly it changed direction and there was this hugely metallic creaking and cracking. Of course, I recorded that and kept it, but it wasn’t what I was expecting at all. When I was working on a piece some months later, I just dropped the whole recording of this windmill really low down into the mix, from the start of the song – and let it run through to the end. The point which this metallic howling sound came from this enormous metal tower in the song was completely unpredictable and totally accidental. When I heard it I knew the track was finished! You can hear the windmill ”bark” exactly at 3 minutes 9 seconds in “Lace Murex”.
Has anybody told you there is a lot of jazz in your music? The rhythmic structure, the punctuation, the syncopation – they all produce this sophisticated simplicity and intense relaxation the freedom of jazz would give. In the same time you use piano melodies allusions – very precise and classical. How did you come up playing with this combination? Or is it also an accident?
It is an accident in some sense. I don’t think either of us were directly informed by jazz, although my dad was a jazz drummer – maybe I got some genetic imprint on that. He never played when I was a kid though, because he didn’t have room in the house – because he had kids (laughs). When my brother and I left home he bought a drum kit again and used to play – he did love jazz… That was not something I ever gravitated or listened to (with a possible exception of a couple of interesting classics like ”Take Five” by Dave Brubeck).
Robin and I are programming machines to play percussion elements. The most interesting way to get away from one-two-three-four pattern is to have one of the machines do five of those and the other one doing four, and then let the two overlap and get this kind of polymeter evolving – that gets you the syncopation – due to the conflict between the two machines running different types of pattern.
As to the melody – I never played an instrument at school, I was never trained and could barely read music. For me those simple melodies come from the fact that it’s much easier to use all the black notes because they all work together – you can’t really make many mistakes. Simple melodies, simply constructed, have a pleasing resonance to me. I don’t have to think about getting to complex chord shifts, different modes or anything like that. Things that carry it all forward evolving and bringing that complexity in the rhythms and other elements – that’s a happy accident I think, the one that makes us us…
Debussy, one of your inspirations, was called the first impressionist in music – at least he opposed the authoritarian style of Wagner (curious how Wagner was picked up by the nazis). Would you call yourself impressionists?
He always composed pieces enforcing the impression on the listener… I don’t know if we think so much about that, but we do think a lot about how we title our pieces and how we construct and title the albums – that is a big part of the creative process for us when we get together and decide on this.
The songs are usually called ”Difficult arpeggio number 5” or something like that, because that’s what the file was called when we started saving things. Then we come to title the tracks for the album and bounce back: we usually got post-it notes all over the place with the folder name written as well as the thoughts that we’ve got behind it. It could be a giant ship sailing out of port, for example – because that’s the feeling I get when I’m listening to this piece. The moods and the feelings get the titles emerge from them. I wouldn’t say we try to paint an album in that way. But we do try to construct, assemble, collage those things in a way that has a meaning to us.
There is a lot of nature in your music – you address the waves, the cats, the birds, etc. in the names of your albums, songs and in the very sounds. Electronic music is often associated with the cyberpunk style, robots opposing nature and technology taking its place. Do you recall how you have chosen the opposite – to organically synchronise the electronic and the natural?
It was an evolution really triggered by Robin and the evolution of technology that we had access to. Robin always has been very interested in nature and he was a gardener and garden designer for many years – he was very much hands in the soil working with plants and growing his own food to eat as well as just being enjoying nature in all its broader aspects. And I was living in Sweden surrounded by forests and lakes. We both bought portable Zoom recorders at the same time and spent a lot of time recording the ambiencies of the places we were in – this is something we still do nowadays.
I live really close to the sea. On a quiet day when the air is still and there are no waves, the sound doesn’t carry from any trucks or buses. I can go down to the beach and be almost in complete silence except for the rustle of a bird hopping through the grass, or a tiny little wave lapping on the shore. I can easily record 30 minutes of that and put it into a track. You wouldn’t even hear it explicitly in the song, but it’s like a bed of pink noise somehow, it just softens everything.
We use analogue equipment and digital computers. Neither of us are afraid of that or think that’s a bad thing. Yet you can add this organic feeling – this magic, imperceptible subliminal aspect of the real natural world just through those kind of simple ideas.
We did one track (Hedge Found) that was specifically focused around some black birds eating apples that have fallen from the trees. I remember one snowy day, dead silent because of the snow. It was very still, and the black birds were just eating all of the moldy apples that had fallen from the tree from the previous season. They made such funny noises!.. Then there is this particular little bird that just goes ”chip chip chip chip” – so perfectly, beautifully syncopated triplets! I can’t help but use that in pieces of music. And if I don’t, I’d still programme the drum machine to go ”chip chip chip chip”…
(here is the original recording of the blackbirds)
Speaking of animals and particularly cats. Maneki-neko, the Japanese lucky cat, often appears in your artwork. What would be the perfect lucky cat to the world – the one that makes it less about the pain and injustice and more about love and freedom?
I’ve got thousands on shelves! The story behind it is that back in 1995-96 I was – and still am – very much into video games. I bought a Play Station when the game of the time was “Wipeout” – a racing game set in the year 2097. It was amazing, having music by the Prodigy, Photek and all these really modern forward-looking electronic producers. The graphics in the game was done by an amazing graphic design company called the Designers’ Republiс: total futurism. There was a video sequence at the start of this game: a camera swirling through a future cityscape. On top of one of the tower blocks in the night time city there was a giant Lucky Cat with its eyes moving left and right. I watched it over and over again – I became completely obsessed with this giant multistorey lucky cat – and the ultra futuristic vision of a city. Since then I have been collecting dozens and dozens of those cats…
You have to be very careful with them, because each detail – the colour, the pose, etc, – are all very important symbols bringing particular things in terms of your good fortune, health or whatever. So I don’t know if you can have just one lucky cat for the world, rather I can’t imagine that a world would be a worse place if there were lucky cats everywhere: on letter boxes, on top of police cars… Then people would be less angry and a bit nicer to each other. Maybe…
Could Corona pandemic be a lucky cat in a way that people rethink some things that they used to do in a wrong way?
I’d like to think so, but I’m a bit of a cynic – I’m worried that they won’t. There has to be some good come out of it, however. It’s hard to see that given the divisiveness of everything – from the US politics to Brexit politics, which has been running throughout the whole Corona period. The divisiveness of the Corona itself is a phenomenon… It’s really hard to see what good comes out of that when we have got all this stuff going on. It’s also a bit difficult for me to form an opinion about it because I am at home and have been very fortunate to have a lot of work this whole period. A lot of artists have hunkered down at home and finished projects and made new projects. Also – in Denmark the situation has been relatively easy. We haven’t had the hardest of lockdowns. I dearly wish that the pandemic would make a difference – that people would think about each other.
One of your pieces has an allusion to Isao Tomita and his version of Debussy’s ”Claire de Lune”. Do you feel that the era of big heroes – Marvel scale heroes in art and elsewhere actually, like Isao Tomita – has ended, having evolved into the era of communities? That the world is becoming less about personalities and leaders, but about communities that develop and implement policies – in art, environment, human rights, etc?
I don’t know whether heroes are gone, but there definitely are fewer and far between – I personally don’t have many people I would look to for inspiration anymore. There are definitely some, notably already superfamous and super achieved – people like Thom Yorke, who is constantly pushing for something new, and Jonny Greenwood, his more quieter partner in Radiohead. They are heroes that continue to inspire – I’m not sure about the new generations, but they keep inspiring us old.
There’s more need for community inspiration now. This is possible: you can have quite a tight community online distantly, when you’d have never even seen the person’s face – and still feel part of a circle or movement. There’s a multinstrumentalist and producer in Australia who started as a client of mine for mastering work. He’s working with people in New-York and around Australia and now is writing an opera around Corona and asked me to do a few remixes. I am sitting in my little box in a corner of Denmark and feeling excited of how inspirational his drive, desire, energy and willingness to do everything and see what’s working are. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that you need to open your eyes to look outside of your existence bubble, but there’s definitely a lot there to grab onto when you make that effort.
Antony Ryan was talking with Lölä Vlasenko