It’s the same every year, the weather gets hot (30C today) and out come the Main CDs, although the march of progress has meant importing them into iTunes this time round. For some reason Main’s Hz collection (6 EPs, later a double-disc set) is especially suited to warm temperatures, partly due to remembrance of them being released one a month during the hot summer of 1995.
Main seem somewhat neglected now despite being in the vanguard of a particular brand of ambient abstraction that emerged throughout the 1990s. To redress the balance slightly, here’s a David Toop interview from The Wire conducted just as the Hz project was getting underway.
Main‘s multi-layered, mud-encrusted textures suggest everything from radio interference to insect chatter. The group’s Robert Hampson talks to David Toop about reinventing the guitar and the mystery of electroacoustics.
DRAW A STRAIGHT LINE on sand, water, skin, steam (and follow it). Main is texture: the interiority of the guitar. The electric, effects-augmented guitar is transitional technology, a mid-point between the dextrous physicality of traditional instruments and the imaginative space of the electronic studio. But also a return to the untempered crystal world of harmonic complexity, a reversal of the pure, precise clarity of classical acoustic guitar, back into the droning resonant strings of an Indian tamboura, bottle tops rattling on a Shona thumb piano, or spider’s egg sacs buzzing on gourd resonators lashed under a Central African xylophone.
Listen to “Corona”, the first instalment of Main’s new one-a-month six EP series called Hz (Hz being an abbreviation of Hertz, or cycles per second the physical measurement of periodic frequency, or pitch, in sound.) Of course the music exists in time, so drone is an appropriate description. The score for La Monte Young’s Composition 1960 No 9 was published as a straight line on a file card: draw a straight (or thickly textured, erratic, convoluted) line and follow it, which “Corona” does. Yet the music also gives the impression of rotating in viscous solids, iron filings, rattlesnake bones or television interference. I think of the photographs published in Cymatics by the late Hans Jenny, a Swiss scientist/mystic who investigated the effects of sound and vibration on solids, semi-solids, gases and liquids photographs which are gorgeous in their own right and more simply expressive of musical force than huge quantities of verbal analysis.
Your music is like nature, part of the natural world and its processes, I suggest to Main’s Robert Hampson. Rock group as geological strata. This is a tricky one. Shortly before one of his DJ sets at London’s Electronic Lounge club last year, I had heard Robert fire laser beams of eminently justifiable invective at the flood of Ambient records awash in the sound of burbling water. But hey, peace, man: now we are sitting in my garden, initially discussing burglary and violent pubs. Birds stalked by cats are broadcasting alarm calls, planes roar overhead, a sander is being operated over the road. He finds the ambience peaceful, not remote from urban noise but every sound in its place. Just like his work with Main, in fact.
I broached the comparison with nature partly because listening to Main had pulled me to that conclusion, but only after listening to Robert talk and gradually confirm my feelings. “Dense passages of mud,” he says, groping for an analogy that sums up the sound of earlier Main recordings: Dry Stone Feed, Motion Pool, Firmament, Firmament II and the remix CD, Ligature. Not brown mud, however. This mud is rich in mineral deposits, highly radioactive, striated with lurex ridges, glass fragments and iridescent fish scales, swarming with stridulators.
Draw a straight line, quickly. Improvisation and spontaneity counterbalanced with precise, considered sound design. “We’re trying to record as close to the release date as possible,” Robert explains. “We found after Motion Pool that we were getting trapped in the studio. I’m such a terrible perfectionist. After a while, I think I was going back to stuff unnecessarily. The looseness, the more improvisational sense of what we were doing, was starting to go. We were taking multitracking to extraordinary lengths, just layering and layering guitar sounds. On some tracks we had 48 guitars, meshed in but all meticulously worked out so that the frequencies would not interrupt each other. It was so time-consuming that we thought we would go the other way and basically play live to the multitrack, maybe overdub a couple of little pieces where we felt it needed something.”
Draw a straight line and chop it to pieces. “We also decided to change our way of editing ourselves,” he continues. “We went for the concrete textures of very fast editing, very sharp, for the new stuff. The pieces are still quite long but you don’t really get a chance to get a grip on the actual parts. Each CD is split into parts, into relative movements.” The reference to musique concrète is noted but ignored. Although this music is clearly informed by the disc and tape experiments of early electronic music, there seems very little point in discussing a relationship with Luc Ferrari or Karlheinz Stockhausen. “Corona” comes from a different universe, in which the market, along with audience awareness, critical feedback, promotion, packaging, the carrier medium (CD) and a refined sense of style and context all play significant parts. As one example, Main’s release schedule (a factor of business needs) acts as a conceptual edit (a factor of creative possibilities). The incision of the razor blade comes as the music ends; then a month of blank tape; then the music resumes with the next release.
Draw a straight line; add nothing. It’s hard to be simple, I suggest. “It really is sometimes,” Robert agrees. “That’s the beauty of AMM, which I don’t think many other people touch upon. It’s so painfully simple. The way that John Tilbury will take aeons to get from one note to another is beautiful. Hopefully, as Main mature, we’ll get more into that thing of not wanting to put so much in there all the time. But that was one of the original ideas anyway, when we formed—to make very dense soundscapes of totally intricate sound. You probably wouldn’t hear a lot of them, but to us, they were there and to us, they were important.”
Music which picks its way slowly, almost imperceptibly, through the crystal world of overtones and distortion is subject to caricature. Is all slow music necessarily spiritual or gloomy? Can slow, thick music be ecstatic, joyful, sexual? “So many people say that they find Main really hard to listen to at certain times of the day,” Robert admits, regretfully. “They can only listen to it at certain times, or when they’re in certain moods. A lot of people have said it’s too dense to the point where it can be depressing. People find it too dark.” Yet I remember listening to Motion Pool twice in a row last summer, late afternoon sun painting a streak of light across the floor, dust particles floating in the air, clusters of invisible amplified string overtones immersing me in the pleasure of pure sensation. Centred, for a moment, in nature.
Draw a straight line, over and over again. Study it intimately. Main is rather obsessive: the attitude of a fan, extrapolated into the exploration of sound “Unfortunately, the music industry dictates so much…” Robert’s words tail off, nothing quite adequate to describe the gap between business and the relentless pursuit of a creative ideal. “It doesn’t really fit into the old way that I perceived music years ago. When I was a kid and getting into punk rock, you’d go and buy your records on Saturday afternoon. On the way home on the train or the bus you’d be getting them out the bag, just absorbing every single piece of information you could get before you even got home. Put ’em back and five minutes later they’re out again. I like those kind of emotional ties. Even now, you hear a piece of music and you warp straight back to some moment in time, either when you first heard it or you bought it. I hope people feel that way about our music.”
Precious little to absorb from Main packaging, or perhaps a great deal? Lo-resolution colour fields, chopped by hard lines. Type, bold yet tasteful. Catalogue numbers, credits, barcode, logo, titles evocative: “Crater Scar”, “Liquid Reflective”, “Pulled From The Water”; or titles enigmatic: “I”, “II”, “Ill”, “IV”. A clue: “Drumless Space”. “I like a little bit of mystery about it,” says Robert, smiling. He suspects that his own adolescent enthusiasm for musical minutiae, his approach to music listening as a near religious experience, a dedicated act of absorption, has all been lost in some cultural development of the times. Maybe so, but who can tell, once they have become a professional?
Live is another problem. Nattering for one thing. “I hate playing and hearing people talking over what we’re doing,” he complains. “We can play extremely loud if we want, but all the delicate pieces and the natural balance go out the window.” Half-seriously, he blames the rave generation. Problem two: “I’m what promoters call ‘a temperamental artist’. I find fault in everything.” Robert and Scott Dawson, both guitarists in Loop, now form the core of Main, so problem three: studio music. “Originally, when we started out, we never really had the intention of playing live. We thought, we can manage. We can both do bass duties if need be. There was an element of being a control freak with both of us as well. We didn’t want drummers. That idea of percussion had completely left us. We still have to use a backing tape because of all the samples. Maybe if finances get better we might start taking more of our computer gear outlive.”
Take a straight line and amplify it. Main percussion: chains and stones, amplified by contact microphones; increasingly, all guitar generated sounds. “I even sing through the guitar,” says Robert. Musique concrète, free improvisation and electroacoustic music aside, Main’s roots are located within the history of the over-cranked, non-theorised, distressed guitar, from Paul Burlison, Ike Turner and Link Wray to Bo Diddley, Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson and Lou Reed, from Jimi Hendrix, Elmore James and Hubert Sumlin to James Williamson, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Neil Young and Buddy Guy. “The working aesthetic was that we were still using something that was such a rock icon,” he says. “The guitar. To get people to look at it in a different way. I really hope that people listen to it and say, ‘Is that a guitar or what?’ I think that’s like a modern approach to electroacoustic music, the way that the sound of everyday utensils was masked.”
Draw a straight line until it becomes a circle. “My mum, she was into such cool music,” Robert says with pride. “Her and her brother were just total music freaks. My gran’s got a picture of the family sitting around the table at Christmas and in the middle of them’s Sonny Boy Williamson. My uncle was a big blues fan and he knew The Yardbirds really well. They used to put up Sonny Boy Williamson when he was in the country. To me, punk rock was the bee’s knees but then your uncle comes along and goes, ‘listen to this’, and gives you a Stooges album and a Velvets album. You listen to it and it’s mind-bogglingly beautiful.”
Draw a straight line. Draw a jack plug on the end of it. Plug it into a fuzz box. Play.
The Wire, issue 137, July 1995.
See also: roberthampson.com