This summer when 6 Music’s Tom Ravenscroft was reporting live from Green Man 2018 he spoke with Graham Dunning about Mechanical Techno and listener James Wadsworth was fascinated. With time constraints of radio, it was unclear exactly what this meant so he did some research online, then put his jaw back in his mouth after being amazed at what he had seen and sent Graham an email. After a short back and forth James got him on the phone and this is what Graham had to say…
You’ve just come back from some festivals in France how was it?
It was interesting, 2 totally different festivals both AV festivals so very similar in some ways but the one in Nantes on Thursday was really professionally organised and loads of paperwork to do to sort it out and then the other one was really DIY and lowkey. It was nice to have opposite ends of the spectrum, I met some nice people and saw some good music.
It’s winter so I’m guessing they were indoors?
They were indoors, the one in Nantes was in a media centre live venue thing and the one in Nice was a DIY party space. They were both mechanical techno sets, that’s what I get booked for most.
As someone without a formal background in music or art tell me how you first came to making music, what were some of your first music creations and how old were you?
I’ve had some music lessons, my parents made me and my sister go for keyboard lessons [after] we got a Casio keyboard one Christmas. I absolutely hated it [the keyboard lessons] because I couldn’t read music and the only way I could keep up with the group as to work it out one note at a time and then memorise it for the next session. My music teacher was really good because I could play a bit of keyboard I didn’t have to do the group keyboard lessons. They had one music computer I could use so I used to try and make beats with this really basic music software where you have to put the notes on the stave to programme beats. Later on, I played in bands, I was in a punk band when I was at secondary school playing bass guitar. At school they had a tape 4-track so one summer me and my friend were allowed to borrow the 4-track to basically learnt how to record. Those bedroom recording experiments were a big part of learning to enjoy the production side of music.
When I was at uni I had some money from my student loan and was able to get a computer to do music recording. I’ve just always been in different bands and things. I got into more experimental music in the 2000s with electroclash, but I was also into very noisy rock music. I got into more experimental music a bit later going to ATP festival.
I was in a band called Blood Moon which was a noise duo and started getting into more experimental music and improvised music. The first person I knew who called themselves a sound artist was Gary Fisher and I realised that if you call yourself a sound artist you can do lots more different things and present your work in lots of different ways. Then I started doing live sets with numerous turntables and different effects and modified records in about 2008; that was more noisy and abstract performance.
In 2013 I started putting things together in a way of viewing it as a music machine and a collection of contraptions called Music by the Metre. I had several turntables and tape players and things looping all at different duration’s of loops, so they go in and out of phase. [I] usually [had] a microphone out of the window to pick up some random environmental stuff [too]. I would set it all up until it sounded good and leave it to run not changing anything, so the loops weaved in and out of each other and make that be the whole composition.
Do you ever work with others or always solo?
I often play improvised music with a sax player called Colin Webster and we do lots of extended techniques. I jokingly refer to most of what I play as scraping noises but that’s one of my favourite ways of making sound with a turntable.
Can you try and explain to our readers what exactly is Mechanical Techno and its technique?
It’s a machine built on top of a turntable and the rotation of the turntable drives the whole thing so if you switch the turntable off you don’t get any sound; it looks a bit like a wedding cake made out of vinyl and each layer produces sound in a different way. Some of them work as a mechanical sequencer playing drum sounds, some of them play samples off records using a normal tone arm, I use an optical sensor to trigger bass lines and I play a normal tambourine and a shaker as well and a couple of other things. It’s a modular system in that if I think of a new idea of how to make sound then I can add it to what’s already there and interchange things.
How can tell me the moment it came to you and talk to me about how the idea developed?
I did a tiny YouTube video that was 30 seconds long called Mechanical Techno. I was using drawing pins on records to hit contact mics to make some percussive sounds. Another key thing was getting the Nord drum, it had 4 inputs and you could play all sorts of drum sounds just with triggers and it worked really well. The first gig I used it at was Splitting the Atom a noise all-dayer in Brighton at The Green Door Store. I played mostly an abstract set but brought in some turntable stuff.
I never had the idea of the final thing it evolved through lots of small steps to get to what it is today. The key moment was the workshop where I plugged it [record crackle] into the synth and it was making a bassline. It just developed over time and each part was developed one at a time. I see it as having separate manifestations [studio and live]. I can use this technique in studios to write new tracks with, each song is made by building the machine in a different way by using a different set of records with different samples and patterns. I usually configure the mixer and peripheral devices in different ways as well. It’s great because you start with one thing and you don’t know how it’s going to sound by the time you get to the end which is how I work with everything. I build the machine in a certain way and do takes and mix it down when I choose the best one or best bits of those.
Another key thing was seeing Vinyl Terror and Horror; they have a system where they have a tower of records and I realised seeing their setup that I could [do my own take] and have more than one record on the go at the same time.
What has been the feedback from this work?
People get a lot of the fact it’s very visual and a lot of the developments have come from doing live performances and working out over time how to make it better. I did a show in 2014, [organiser] Sam Underwood noticed that during the performances I would put on a new record put everything in place, so it would make sound and only then I would fade up the mixer, so you could hear it. There was a bit of a disconnect between putting the record on and hearing what it sounded like so he suggested to fade the fader up first so that as soon as you put the record and [it] gives you the immediate connection between the visual and audio. From that I started doing that and being more conscious which led to making the records more colourful. You could see if it was the black part of the record making the sound or the blank [coloured] part of the record. The optical records work really well because the records are black, and I just put white stickers on the records so you can see what the patterns are going to be before it starts playing.
One of the bits people seem to like most in the live performance is when I put ping pong balls on the top of the tower so it makes a random rhythm and that just came about from happening to have a load of ping pong balls, most of the developments came about by chance.
What is a sound artist and what is an experimental musician, which are you?
Some people get quite hung up on what the distinction is but I’m quite happy with the fact that I see all definitions as fuzzy round the edges, I think being on the edge of genres of music or types of music is quite an exciting place to be. I’m happy to sit somewhere between being an artist or a music producer or a sound artist or a musician. I definitely consider some of the stuff I do to be more musical that others and some of it to be more sound based.
My primary focus isn’t that I think of a tune and I work out how to make that tune it’s more I put some sounds together and take out the bits that don’t work. I approach it from thinking about sound and sonic elements rather than musical elements
Often if you think of a sound artist people aren’t sure [what you mean] by that and the term experimental musician can be difficult because the music that I’m making doesn’t sound that different to what people recognise as normal music and that’s partly why this project [mechanical techno] is accessible as well. So yeah, I’m happy to be called anything but often do get called a sound artist.
You have lots of different works including found tapes, can you talk me through your found tapes sampling? Where do you find the tapes?
It tends to be reel to reel tapes or cassette tapes, reel to reel tapes generally you pick them up at car boot sales and they’re all home recordings of some kind. They’ll often be labelled correctly or incorrectly or not at all. It’s useful to pick them up to use as blank tapes to record onto anyway but sometimes it will say something that will give you a clue, I got one that was labelled wedding which had the whole of someone’s wedding on it.
[Recently] I picked up some cassette tapes for a project from a charity shop because I really like blank cassette tapes which have really interesting graphic design or really occasionally you’ll find someone has hand made their own cover. I picked up some tapes and was telling [someone] about the project and how you find tapes with people talking on and how they’re lost memories and the first one I put on [was a home tape] of someone’s 1985 Christmas; you get a feel for which tapes are likely to be [interesting]. It’s totally by chance and that’s what I find exciting about it.
Stuck Trax was your Autumn 2017 art exhibition and release where your music was swapped for other cassettes, can you tell me a bit more about how this was conceived and some of the interesting tapes you received in exchange for your work?
It was literally recorded in a bedroom, I’d gone out to play a mechanical techno set in Montreal and I decided to stay for a few days after. Unfortunately, straight after the festival I was full of a cold and was too ill do go out much which is part of the reason I called it Stuck Trax. I had some equipment with me but I had no turntable or mixer and my sound recorder to mix with. [With this minimal equipment] it felt nice to be doing literally bedroom production with a 4 track. Also, I called it Stuck Trax because it felt like being stuck in the past a little bit.
I released it in September 2017, but I recorded it in August. I did the exhibition in France where I wanted to focus on partly collecting and the collecting people do around records and tapes, so I had a video where I would ask people to contribute their record collection and had that on show. I was also thinking about bedroom production and had a diorama of a typical bedroom studio and the album was playing in that space. I wanted it to be like a crappy museum, part of it was about DIY culture I wanted to make the album available as a swap version. I did 100 copies and I have 50 left. My plan was to do something with the swapped tapes so actually I don’t know what I’ve got, some people made compilation tapes, a couple of people recorded some stuff just to exchange. I haven’t listened to any of them yet.
All your work is quite unique, what are some of the artists you like to listen to?
All sorts really, most of the music I buy is from bands that I see at gigs and I do a lot of rooting around in charity shops so that’s the other side of my music listening. I’ve just started collecting fairground organ music which come up surprisingly often in charity shops, that’s for a current project. I like early 90s rave music and acid house.
I currently believe there is only Permanent Location Archive One, how many more places have you lived since then? Will there be a volume two?
I wasn’t planning to, but I like the idea of forcing it to be an archive, I’m into the idea of obsessively collecting and cataloging things. I was thinking about what does it mean to have a personal collection. I think I’ve been in about 5 or 6 places since [the archive one] so maybe I’d have to wait till I’m up to another 10 or 12.
What upcoming live dates do you have?
There’s various things coming in, but I still mostly get booked for mechanical techno.