Lines of Communication open: Interview with Tom Middleton


WITHIN a few minutes of chatting to Tom Middleton, he jokes that Pete Tong used to call him The Professor because of the way he talks in “musical scenarios”.

It’s not long before I start thinking Tong has a point, when Middleton tells me DJing for him isn’t only about chasing the buzz in house and techno clubs, as he says: “This might sound like a load of old academic twaddle, but I’ve been data gathering and understanding the human response to the physiological, psychological and cognitive response to sound stimulation. DJing is like data gathering. I’ve been to 49 countries in 25 years, observing what happens when sound affects human beings, testing out theories I have instinctively developed over the years. That’s where I’m at now.”

Middleton’s head is teeming, there’s a world of knowledge he wants to share — whole virtual universes in the case of his upcoming Global Communication album, the follow-up to the iconic 1994 LP 76:14. Over an hour or so on the phone he flits between music psychology, psychoacoustics, binaural sound recording, nano-scale granular synthesis, sound geometry, learning the ropes in Aphex Twin’s bedroom in the 90s, and why music should aim to give you goosebumps. Don’t merely call them goosebumps though: “I’ve got a great science word for this. I want a full-body piloerection. A piloerection is when the hairs on your body stand up in response to a stimulus, whether you’re cold or you’re frightened or experiencing pleasure , it’s such a lovely word.”

It’d be easy enough to drag Professor Middleton into a music theory wormhole, but he never strays too far from the dancefloor. He’s in Dublin this weekend for the first edition of Interlude Festival at the Royal Hibernian Academy, and he’s fairly militant about getting the job done.

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He says the backbone of his set is usually “house in its various forms and shapes, but recontextualising other types of music to fit”, and assures us: “Just come with an open heart and an open mind… you know I’m going to play some stuff that’s going to entertain you, maybe even educate you. I genuinely think you need to be surprised and you need to be smiling at the end of the night. I want you to be drenched in sweat because you danced your ass off and I want you humming a tune on the way home and for years to come.”

This ability to implant collective musical memories has shaped Middleton’s legacy since the early 90s. He says he’s “an accidental DJ”, who’s “first and foremost a musical nutter”. As well as curating and collaborating on Aphex Twin’s first AFX EP Analogue Bubblebath, he blazed a trail through the 90s with Mark Pritchard, releasing electro-funk and house as Jedi Knights, while steering the influential label Evolution. The pair’s 1994 album 76:14 as Global Communication is on a pedestal beside compulsory ambient albums by Brian Eno, KLF, Aphex Twin, Biosphere, Pole and other greats.

His solo work as Cosmos and The Modwheel hits house music at oblique angles, with a remix CV that includes Orbital, Underworld, Prince, Kylie, Model 500 and Pulp. CD mixes The Sound of the Cosmos, The Trip and Renaissance 3D are a clue to his no-rules style – taking in house, electro, disco, funk, hip-hop and everything in between. He’s the kind of DJ who calls out for a lock-in — he’s a local legend in Derry for his Celtronic sets in Sandino’s, thinking nothing of playing three different versions of Walk On By while people are dancing on tables.

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It’s no surprise that he’s been classically schooled in the ways of Detroit and Chicago, and admits to still being “a bit obsessed with authentic 90s house”.

“Well obviously in my early clubbing days I specifically went out to listen to Masters At Work, Todd Terry, Frankie Knuckles… it’s a combination of New York garage, Chicago house and acid like DJ Pierre,… and Detroit techno like Carl Craig, Derrick May, Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson… that was my diet if you like,” he says. “Throw in some European electronic and labels like Warp, that’s the backbone of what was going on.”

Even as a classically trained pianist and cellist, Middleton recalls an early brush with Aphex, aka Richard D James, as a creative year-zero — a meeting that led to his first production credit as Schizophrenia, co-writing En-Trance To Exit. Middleton says he met up with James recently, and recalls his first time being floored by AFX acid at a sweatbox club called the Bowgie in Cornwall.

“Richard would be there, Grant from Rephlex, Luke Vibert — I went to school with Grant and Luke, we came together like a little community,” he recalls. “Richard had one night on rotation, Grant had a night and Paul Guntrip had a night. But the first time I heard Richard play, it was right at the end of the set and suddenly our brains got warped by the Sound of Music, like, ‘Was that Julie Andrews we just heard?’ It was all flanged and filtered, then suddenly this really filthy evil acid sound came in, and a slamming 808 beat. We were jaws agape… ‘What the FUCK?’ He pumped the room full of smoke and the strobe to epileptic levels and we were on the floor overcome by this white pulsing light, with this insane hyper-flanged Julie Andrews acid. He basically killed us. It’s now on SoundCloud after that momentous day Richard uploaded all his unreleased stuff — Human Rotation, one of the most bonkers tunes he’s ever done.

“So at the time we ran up to the booth and introduced ourselves and asked him what the hell it was, and he pulled out this C90 tape and told us it was his track and he was DJing with a tape. Unbelievable. We got chatting after that, we found out we had the same birthday, he brought me to his house and showed me how to produce. We used to do some really nuts stuff.”

Among all the myths, legends and self-propagated half truths about AFX, stories about his obsession with ripping circuitry to shreds are never challenged. Middleton recalls one time a synth wasn’t cutting it. He says: “I remember he modified a Roland SH-101. He got the lid off and basically tweaked the frequency potentiometer with a screwdriver. Humans can hear frequency ranges between about 20 and 20,000 hertz, but he wasn’t happy with the Japanese factory presets. He tweaked it to ultrasonic levels and subsonic levels, meaning  he could get the FH101 to reproduce frequencies of 1 or 2 hertz.

“He had speakers suspended from his ceiling, we couldn’t hear it but the speakers were pulsing. Then he would sweep it up beyond the range of human hearing. Our brains were getting warped beyond the range of hearing… local dogs were going nuts… bats were bashing into the windows… dolphins started singing. I’m joking of course but this was the kind of mind we were dealing with in 1989 — he was really a sound scientist from a very young age, he wasn’t happy with conventions.

“And yet he showed me how to make tunes. En-Trance To Exit was quite an eye-opener, he helped produce and engineer it for me. I then I came to him with my ideas about what we could do with equipment. I was bringing classical samples, jazz samples and proto-hardcore breakbeat tracks. I would think, ‘What about a crazy Beethoven sample and some Janis Joplin and some Ella Fitzgerald?’ I suppose I was trying everything out, exploring the possibilities of sound manipulation.”

After years getting tangled in wires and knobs, Middleton has extrapolated this sound exploration beyond analogue into the digital realm. More than 20 years after 76:14, he’s reviving Global Communication and “putting it back on the map” as a solo effort. After a blissed-out remix of Dusky’s Skin Deep in the summer, Middleton casually reveals that he’s very nearly got a new Global Communication album ready to go — with my initial WTF multiplied when he offers to send me on some finished tracks and works in progress. As with 76:14, we’re dropped into a fully realised world without a compass, initially welcomed by gentle pulses, delicate electronic droplets and Oxygene-type synth swirls — a further evolution of his other ambient solo album Lifetracks.

However, this time Middleton says he wanted it to be a “bigger challenge” – a less forgiving terrain. The bliss and beauty is ever-present, but occasional brittle breakbeats, metallic stutters and abstract ghost-in-the-machine vocals creep under the Global Communication comfort blanket. And where titles on 76:14 were just named after track lengths, the follow-up is sign-posted by titles like Outpost, Seraphica, Evunstaa, Totality and Aznyte Falls. Middleton reveals: “It started life as a beatless project, just textures and dimensions from other planets, I just wanted to create the atmospheres first.

“Imagine a plasma ball as a future of transport… you’re in the middle of this plasma ball, going at the speed of light around the galaxy, exploring new realms and planets — it’s a soundtrack to that. I’ve created an immersive experience… it’s actually 360 degree sound. I am using binaural microphones and surround microphones, using very specific locations for sound in space. So you as the listener, you may hear a sound that starts behind you and then travels over your head or through your head, or you travel through the sound. Normal stereo is 180 degrees in front of you, between left and right, but to get the sound to move above your head, below your head and behind you is very difficult to achieve without using these particular algorithms.”

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Tom says that Global Communication has always “been about an ethos of pure emotional integrity”, but he doesn’t mind throwing us off course a bit with the upcoming release. He adds: “It can be very edgy at times, unsettling, dystopian. Not quite the ride you got with 76:14, because as one evolves you want to explore different landscapes. It’s not to say the new Global Communication is unpleasant, but it’s really exciting for me to bring you the listener to different territories.”

He says after the impressionistic groundwork and creating the sound palette, they’re now “developing into fully-fledged tracks… one of them is like a Transformer metallic-sounding alien battle ground, or maybe it’s a dance-off. You’ve landed on this metallic planet and the lifeforms have evolved into metal based hybrid species and so this soundtrack evokes how they’d move and respond to rhythm.”

Without a breather to process the grand return of Global Communication, Middleton skips onto another project with Japanese composer and flute player Eliko, whose classical and jazz-stylings are a leftfield starting block for an electronic project. Generally flutes and synths are a tough pairing — Tangerine Dream just about get away with it. But banish the new age nerves, Middleton’s project with Eliko is an obsessive exercise in wringing every last particle of sound out of a classical instrument, without any of the academic pitfalls.

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He also passed on the Eliko album and it sounds in some parts like a companion piece to Global Communication 2, with added deeper house tracks and floaty drum & bass. But the album’s main concept is that it’s based solely on the flute — based on performance of the instrument, tones, breathing technique or Eliko’s voice, morphed and edited into drums, bass and melodic and harmonic parts. And here’s one for genre-spotters — he’s dubbed it ‘flutronica’, there probably won’t be many other acts in that Venn diagram.

He says: “Basically we decided to take the flute as the starting point. Sample it, take every single sound you can naturally get out of a flute. So I took all the sonic data from the flute and created an entire backing band, an orchestra, made from flute samples. It’s got beats, basslines, keyboard lines. But every single sound starts life as a morphed flute sample.”

Eliko is accompanying Middleton at Interlude for live flutronics after he DJs for a while to “evolve and build up to her entrance”. This entrance sounds like a few steps above a regular live PA introduction, as he explains: “She’s got this crazy interactive LED kimono, a mad sonic processor, so on stage she’s incorporating traditional Japanese dance, traditional flute playing and she is kind of glowing with the sounds, and the soundtrack is next level. It’s contemporary – you can dance to it, absolutely, it’s really lush. but yeah, she’ll take you on a journey into flutronica.”

He’s also working on a project for Thunderhead — a “customer experience digital platform” — remixing a track from an ad which involves a Techno-Viking type character breastfeeding a car salesman, and he promises to play that on Sunday. “Maybe the crazy Viking can come along for the ride, depending on whether the art space lets us,” he jokes.

Wearable sonic processors and binaural geometrical algorithms seem lights years away from the young Tom and Richard getting stuck into a Roland with a screwdriver. But where AFX has largely ditched software composition since Drukqs — and has a eye-watering list of analogue gear in the liner notes of his Syro album — Middleton is all about his laptop these days, even as analogue fetishism hits peak 1980s levels.

“I’ve enjoyed basically owning every single piece of equipment available to own, the classic Detroit studio of Rolands and Yamahas and Moogs,” he says. “I put it back into the system and gave it back to people who really wanted to use it.” He admits: “There’s no way you can replicate electricity through circuits digitally – Not yet anyway. A lot of the subtleties and nuances are impossible to reproduce through algorithms, but I don’t think that’s the point of digital. I think digital is a new level of exploring sound design using maths, you don’t have to think about the old ways of producing sound.

“You can take sounds beyond any possible definition of normality… I can actually fuse the grains of my voice or the harmonic rhythmic content of my voice, and impart that onto a guitar or a piano keys or drums, you’ll get the rhythm of it, but also the tonality of my voice, it’s always a whole new realm of sound design.”

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Of course if you haven’t the time or the brain computational power, or you haven’t got your own personal AFX mentor, there are a few shortcuts. The presets on Tom’s Loopmasters packs Deep Bass House and Dub Bass House sound suspiciously like many of the UK garage-based house that’s taken over the charts and festivals over the last few years. Just last week Funk D’Void called out Tom on Twitter to say he used a “sub bass from your fab sample pack”, to remix Martin Eyerer’s The Rolls.

Middleton laughs when I bring it up, saying: “It’s good and it’s bad. I really have heard my preset sounds on a lot of the kind of chart house music, that garage square wave ‘donk’ sound. Gorgon City, even Dusky used my sample pack. And you know that David Zowie track House Every Weekend, it’s playing in every retail outlet on planet Earth — I think I’m responsible!

“It was a labour of love, it was a conversation with Lars [Funk D’Void] back in 2009-2010, like ‘What if techno and drum & bass and deep house met at 125 bpm and you took the best of Detroit and LTJ Bukem jungle — and lo and behold what do you think is going on now? You’ve got the Dirtybird house movement, Julio Bashmore, Eats Everything… if you listen to that stuff you’ll hear references to particular tracks.

“That was 2011 so it looks like I was four, five years ahead of the curve. So my head is now stuck in this immersive 3D soundscape binaural world – maybe in about five years time I’ll sound current.”

  • Tom Middleton plays Interlude on Sunday. Interlude runs tonight, tomorrow and Sunday from 5pm-2am. Weekend passes are €25 from eventbrite.ie. See interludefestival.com for the full line-up.@conradio37Original version in Irish Daily Star

 

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