×
×

Un Magazine 7.1

Ghost in the speakers: Interview with Philip Jeck

Dan Rule

Top

17/22

Article

Mentioned in the same breath as anyone from Christian Marclay to David Shea and Grandmaster Flash, British avant-garde turntablist Philip Jeck has built an oeuvre via the act of pillaging, appropriating and manipulating a record collection that traverses a vast span of music history. But Jeck’s approach to records—and the devices he uses to extract their embedded sounds—is far from conventional. Using scratched, cracked and warped vinyl and decrepit, antiquated turntables from the 1950s and ’60s, the Liverpool-based artist’s wraithlike, ambient compositions focus on the accumulated damage, detritus and static that haunt these ‘memory discs’ as acutely as they do the musical source materials that underpin them.

In a career spanning 10 solo albums (such as the celebrated Surf, 1999, and Sand, 2008), countless collaborations, commissions for theatre and dance, and a wide-ranging installation practice (including his award-winning 1993 work Vinyl Requiem, which comprised 180 turntables, 12 slide projectors and two film projectors), Jeck’s work has skirted notions of accumulation, appropriation and a kind of non-linear, improvised research. Having trained as a visual artist at Devon’s Dartington College of the Arts and made his name as an early dance music DJ, playing London warehouse and art scene parties—mixing, warping and looping sounds from two alternate turntables—Jeck’s practice operates on the peripheries of various modes, genres and forms. He mines not just music history, but the history imposed upon the musical object.

DR
Tell me about when your interest in records and record players started.
PJ
I started collecting and buying records when I was a teenager and that was the 1960s as I was born in 1952. My uncle used to live with us—my mother’s much younger brother—and he was the first person to bring music into the house that I really liked. He brought Chuck Berry and Elvis and Fats Domino into the house in the 1950s, when I was very young, and since then I’ve been hooked on records. Out of all the art forms, the one that’s the most powerful to me personally is music. As a teenager I learnt a little bit of guitar, but what I could do with it just couldn’t satisfy what I wanted to happen. I didn’t have the technique with an instrument like that to make something or encompass something that I wanted to happen. I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to happen, but it certainly wasn’t what I was able to do. If I had any sort of talent, it was in drawing or painting, so I ended up at art college. But all that time I was always a big fan of music and bought a lot of records, right from the time I was about 13 or 14.
DR
How did that interest in collecting begin to morph into a music practice as such?
PJ
I started working on my own sound in the late 1970s and early ’80s, when I started hearing the first DJs and people who were not just playing records but also actually mixing them. Although I really like early hip-hop like Grandmaster Flash and all that stuff, it was more people like Larry Levan and Walter Gibbons, who did stuff with the long, drawn-out percussion sections and cut up the percussion sections from different records. So when I came across that stuff, I was like, ‘Oh, I could do that’ [laughs]. I started by, in a way, copying those people. I soon discovered that no, I couldn’t do that, because those particular people had something special that was happening in their own way. If you tried to do it, you’d just sound like a Larry Levan copy or something. I think that happens in every field of the arts; you start off by admiring someone and trying to do something like that and then… you start to move on and you start discovering your own voice and your own vision.
DR
So it came out of early dance music in the beginning?
PJ
In a sense, yes. But after originally doing that, I soon moved away and started doing not just dance records and stuff, but all sorts of records. All of a sudden, the music I was making wasn’t for clubs. The dance floor has particular needs—beat and rhythm—to keep people dancing. But I was in London at the time and I was around people who were involved in performance art stuff, dance and improvisational musicians, so all those things had an influence on how my stuff began to develop.
DR
You were returning to your art school roots in a sense…
PJ
That’s completely right, I did. My art training and background came more and more to the fore. And I’ve also got to say, one really fortunate thing that happened for me was that I teamed up with dancer and choreographer Laurie Booth from about 1984. He’d seen me do a couple of things and asked if I’d be interested in playing a gig he had going in Brighton. That seemed to work okay and then he got an agent in Holland and suddenly we just got loads and loads of work all over Europe. I actually developed what I did on the road with him. I spent about six years working with him and touring—not all the time, but quite a lot—and so I feel like, hey, I got paid to develop my own work, which is just a pure case of the right place at the right time.
DR
Your work is very much marked by the accumulation of sounds and materials. How do you feel that your work relates to the idea of research?
PJ
The actual making of stuff is a form of research. I never go into something with an idea in my head about what it might sound like. It comes out of the things that I use, which are for the most part sourced from vinyl. It’s not always vinyl—sometimes I might record something from the radio or some other format of recorded sound—but ninety per cent of it is all from some piece of vinyl. It’s definitely research, but I don’t know where I’m going with it [laughter].
DR
There seems to be quite a direct emotional component to your work. It doesn’t feel like you’re searching around without a rudder or compass…
PJ
No, that’s right. I don’t have a plan necessarily, but it has to resonate with me first and foremost. Something’s got to resonate with me and then I go from there and try to draw that out. If it doesn’t resonate with me, how can I expect it to resonate with anyone else? Primarily, you do it for yourself, but you hope that other people will be moved by it. That’s the primary aim and that’s the sort of music that I listen to a lot. Music is the one art form that can immediately just get you—absolutely get you right on the spot—without you even expecting it to. You can be just listening to the radio or be looking on the internet and you’ll hear something and it will just stop you in your tracks, gobsmacked and can move you to tears, or whatever the case may be, very, very quickly.
DR
It’s a bit of a morbid analogy, but it’s like when you’re at a funeral and you can hold it together until that song comes on…
PJ
That’s right. That’s why I really like good country music, because it’s just so pitiful [laughter]. That’s the whole object of it sometimes—how quickly it can get you to cry or think that there’s no hope left. It’s a safe way of letting those feelings out of oneself, I think [more laughter].
DR
What about your records? How do they fit into that idea of research?
PJ
I very rarely look for records anymore. I mean, I’ve got boxes and boxes here at home and even if I live to be 150, I won’t get to the bottom of those boxes. And people actually give me their old scratched records and stuff. The only time I do go out and look for stuff is when I’m working with other people, or for a commission, and they might want something in particular. So I’ll then go out and try and hunt down some copies of that. But I’ve got so many records that, in a way, I’m drawing on pretty well the whole history of music, which is very overwhelming and it’s very hard to know where to start sometimes.

Occasionally I might go through some of my boxes and just play bits and whiz around and find parts I like and I’ll put a mark or a little sticker on the record so I know where it is. Then there might be a record that has lots of good stuff on it, so that whole record goes in the good pile [laughs]. Then, other times there’ll be a record that I won’t feel anything from, so I’ll put it away for later, get it out again and notice something that I didn’t notice before. So my solo live set has consisted of a gradually changing, evolving set of records. And if I’m playing the record a lot—because I use old record players with heavy styluses and stuff—it really does wear the record out until there’s nothing left of it, like CRRRRR [makes static sound]. Then they go out and new ones come in and it starts all over.

DR
I’d love you to expand on that relationship between the source material on a record and the accumulated material. How do you draw on each of those elements? To my ears, your work tends to centre on more of a formal or gestural idea, rather than that of referencing a particular sound or moment in music history.
PJ
That’s right. It’s about making a start—you have to make the first move. Like painting on a canvas, it’s easier once you’ve made the first mark and it’s often the peculiarity on a record—the jump or the damage—that’s the mark and as long as it’s an interesting mark, then I’ll go from there. It tends to snowball very quickly from there once I’ve found a good moment. And actually, in the end, sometimes that moment will become lost. The work doesn’t need it anymore because it’s in the spirit of that mark, but it doesn’t need to be spelled so clearly anymore. As you know, I trained as an artist in the visual arts and often the first marks you made on the paper were covered up in the end, but they were there in spirit. So whatever it was might be swallowed up into the sound, but there’s still a thread of it there.
DR
Your record players themselves perform a crucial role in the sound as well…
PJ
The record players that I’m using are old—they’re not high fidelity and their speed is not that regular—they already change or distort the sound, so immediately they bring their colour to it. I love that with a record player, what you see is what you get. You put the needle to the record and that’s the sound. You put your hand on the record and it slows the sound down; you see how the thing works and you can understand what the function is. If you see someone sitting at a laptop, unless you can really see the screen, you really don’t know how the hell they’re making those sounds. And the CD, the CD goes inside the player and you don’t see it; it’s all a little bit of a mystery. So I really like that about these old record players. It’s all really tactile and I really like the way I can manipulate the sound directly.
DR
What about your installation practice? Where does that stand at the moment?
PJ
It’s really occasional now. In a way, it’s like my hobby. In the early days, after I finished art school, it was the other way around. I was trying to be an artist, but in the end music and sound took over.
DR
I remember you describing records as ‘memory packages’ when we last spoke, which really resonated with me. When I saw you play live, I remember you throwing each record you had used over your shoulder when you were done. It seemed to relate to this idea of accrual: the records were constantly accumulating new scratches, detritus and information atop their source material. They were collecting new memories with every performance.
PJ
They do sort of carry their history with them, which is part of the attraction. When you think about the amount of information that can gather on them, especially compared to recorded sound now, they really are little memory discs. Each one of them has so many different things stored in their grooves. In quite a crude way, they have history on them because of the scratches and the damage and the warping that has occurred over time. They have all that in them, and even if you don’t recognise the actual original record, there will be some sounds in there that will conjure up some memory or feeling from some time. I do feel like I’m playing with memory and history when I’m playing these records.

Dan Rule is a writer, critic, editor and publisher from Melbourne.