‘I think therefore I ambient’: Mixmaster Morris interview

Mixmaster Morris is the OG of the UK chillout room, an ambient pioneer who reworked the acid house experience to include soft landings alongside the all-night raving.

You can loosely file him alongside The KLF and The Orb – an ambient comedown mindset with one foot still stuck in 70s psychedelia, dub, new age and prog, upgraded with synths and samplers.

Morris Gould first started DJing in 1985, eventually becoming The Shamen’s tour DJ at the height of their drug bin days. After playing ecstasy catch-up with that pair for a while a chillout was probably needed. “I’d never seen a band that took drugs as seriously as them,” Morris said in a previous interview. “I actually got disciplined for not taking enough, and that’s never happened before.”

Morris’s three 90s albums as The Irresistible Force – Flying High, Global Chillage and It’s Tomorrow Already – are far out cosmic dub jams with less of the dread present in other ambient works by Aphex Twin, Autechre and Global Communication that decade.

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But his calling card will always be his DJ sets, which can range between two and 15 hours, and join the dots between dub, new age, minimalism, ambient electronica and woozy breaks. If you listened to the Blue Jam radio show at the tail-end of the 90s you’d have guessed Chris Morris heard a few Mixmaster Morris sets and thought, ‘that’s the music we want’.

This is an old interview I did for state.ie, when Morris was on the bill for Psychonavigation’s 9th birthday at the Sugar Club in 2009. He’d just come back from DJing at the now-defunct Big Chill festival.

You’re a man of many pseudonyms, who are you today?
I’m Mixmaster Morris as always, only with a slightly sore head after three days of partying at Big Chill in Wales. So please be gentle.

You’ve just played at the Big Chill Festival, which is kinda your spiritual home. How was that, and what acts did you catch?
This year was my 15th with Big Chill, I’ve played for them since the very first outdoor party in Wales 1995 and 2009 was a good one, with 40,000 people there. On Friday I curated a tent, with many guests including DF Tram from San Francisco and the Psychonavigation crew – Keith Downey, Ciaran Byrne and Enrico Coniglio, and the Big Chill’s own Bruce Bickerton and Laura B.

Saturday I wasn’t playing so I went to see Helios, Pharoah Sanders (who was amazing), Mulatu Astake, Penguin Cafe Orchestra, Orbital, Mr Scruff, John Xela, Quantic, X-Piano … there’s just too many things to choose from! Sunday I played at 3pm in the Disco Shed, saw Max Romeo and Animat, then played 10pm to 8am in 3 different places! So I never got to see David Byrne, Gong, Lindstrom, Metro Area, loads more.

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The Big Chill is officially “more than a festival, it’s a way of life”, with the spin-off bar and club etc. How have they kept the spirit alive after 15 years or so?
Big Chill Bar & House in London have been popular from day one, and they have a very active web forum of 2 million posts, which keeps people involved during the rest of the year between festivals. And now there’s a new Big Chill venue in Bristol opening soon.  Big Chill regulars often socialise with each other, go on holidays together, in a way that only Burning Man can match. There are many festivals on the circuit that are remarkably interchangeable, but Big Chill has something unique which keeps it popular all these years… and I hope for many years to come.

You’re known for playing a few sets at each festival, and is it true you just played a 15-hour set at Ambiosonic in France?
Ambiosonic I played from 10pm to 3pm the next day, after I got to 12 hours I thought, what the hell let’s go for a new record!

I keep it fresh by not doing the same thing every time, how boring would it be to be in an 80s band say and have to do the same old songs every night for ever? Also by travelling, I pick up tunes everywhere I go. After this party I’m off to a reggae/dub festival in Kent, then fly to Moscow on Saturday.

Last year I did Jazz and folk clubs, comedy sets and even a Christian festival! And many benefits like Festinho! and Drop Beats Not Bombs. So I get to hear and play a much wider range of music than in the early 90s when I was at techno parties every weekend.

How have your live show and DJ sets evolved to incorporate new technology?
I haven’t done many live shows in recent years, except a one-off at The Big Chill in 2008. I would love to put a new band together to tour with.

I have been experimenting with Ableton Live for a few years now and I want to do more Live shows using that. The key thing is to develop new ways of controlling the software, rather than just be stuck in front of a laptop all night. Recently I’ve been using a Wii controller to do music – it’s just another Bluetooth controller after all..

But it’s so much easier to take a few CD wallets than a truck full of fragile old analog synths.

How do the likes of Twitter, Soundcloud and MySpace compare with the old hands-on community model of organising festivals and club nights?
Social networks have already become a key element of running clubs and festivals, I find Facebook more useful than those ones.

But I wish people would learn to be selective, 90 per cent of the invites I get are for parties abroad in the US or Australia, and i’m not likely to get on a plane for them.

Facebook is going to lead to much more specific targeted nights, there is no style of music too obscure to have its own groups on there.

Soundcloud is brilliant for posting mixes, the downside is I get another 50 demos every day, with 8,000 friends on Myspace, 2,300 on Facebook, 250 on Twitter, 1,200 on Mixi etc I am completely overloaded with mail now, so I have to just turn off the machine and go and sit in the garden with a cup of tea.

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With AFX, sometime in the 90s

Your ambitious projects like Mad House and work on the Shamen’s live show in the late ’80s helped kickstart the idea of the live band dynamic in an acid house environment, how do you think this has evolved?
In the mid 80s we didn’t even have CD players let alone all the fancy tools available to DJs now. I wanted to play the sampler on stage, so I would take my Emax to gigs, and then drop scratches and hits over the DJ. To load another bank from floppy disc took about a minute but it felt like eternity. Later I took my Commodore 64 and Atari ST out as well to run sequencing software.

By 1990 I was doing eight-hour live sets with each track lasting an hour. This led to things like Midi Circus, live techno parties with no DJ back in 1992. Since 1993 I have been a loyal Apple user, and since then home computers have brought all the power of a huge music studio right onto the desktop of a billion users. Yet electronic music hasn’t evolved as fast as the technology, particularly at the commercial end.

You may be sick of this one, but: “I think therefore I ambient” is a quote that has followed you around for years. How would you define ambient music now?
Back in 1992 I meant that ambient music could be the antidote to mindless rave music, and I still think it’s true.  Ambient back then was everything electronic that wasn’t just house, techno, rave, whatever. Nowadays electronic music surrounds us all the time, and chillout music has swung far more towards acoustic and orchestral sounds. One of the biggest records for me this year was Suite For Ma Dukes, an orchestral tribute to the work of J Dilla.

I always tried to avoid defining a formula for ambient music, that only leads to generic cookie cutter tunes like a lot of today’s dance. To me it’s an attitude rather than a genre, and part of that attitude is an eclectic open-minded approach.

Many credit Brian Eno’s Music For Airports as the first ‘ambient’ album, but your work as the Irresistible Force seems to be more inspired by the pioneering sample-based My Life in the Bush of Ghosts with David Byrne. How do you rate Eno’s influence on modern electronic music, and who else would have influenced a young aspiring Mixmaster?
Brian Eno was certainly a big influence on me as a teenager, I saw him playing with Roxy Music on the Old Grey Whistle Test, maybe the first time I ever saw a VCS3 synthesizer used.

The key thing was his non-musician status, he was doing his studio geekery live on stage and all glammed up as well. If he had just looked like a hairy roadie it wouldn’t have the same impact. He pre-empted punk rock with his attitude of, ‘I can’t really play but I’m going to anyway’.

I loved Low and Heroes, and Baby’s on Fire too. Bush of Ghosts was a classic, can it really be almost 30 years ago? Its interesting to compare with what Holger Czukay was doing at exactly the same time. I appeared in a documentary tribute to Eno on C4 a while back, alongside Bono and Lou Reed! Following his example I went to Germany in the 80s and immersed myself in Krautrock and Brecht songs, Berlin is still one of my favourite cities.

Growing up in Lincolnshire, there wasn’t much musical life except through the radio, and it was of course John Peel who had the biggest influence on me and so many others. He showed conclusively that there was a huge wide world of strange music to discover out there, way beyond the top 40. Playing with Uncle John at Glastonbury a couple of times will remain one of my fondest memories.

In the 70s and 80s I saw many bands discovered by Peel, including This Heat, who I still rate as one of the most exciting and challenging bands the UK ever produced.

and a key missing link between early 70s experimentalists and early 80s new wave. Their influence can be heard in many modern bands especially Sonic Youth who are avowed fans. I went to see them play about a dozen times, and Charles Hayward’s follow-up group The Camberwell Now as well. Their use of taped music and sounds in the gigs was particularly innovative, and represented a kind of analogue sampling years ahead of its time. In fact I have many rare recordings of both bands, and I’m hoping to get some of the material released one day.

Laurie Anderson was another inspiring figure, she took avant-garde music to the top of the charts and then did amazing live shows where she held thousands of people spellbound for five hours on her own. She loaded quarter-inch tapes into a violin bow and then did analog scratching with them. I was definitely influenced by seeing her shows in the early 80s.

Robert Wyatt was another early hero of mine, and I still treasure his huge discography, the fact that he returned to the live stage this summer fills my heart with joy.

Coincidentally, I once met him in the queue for Laurie Anderson’s first gig at Hammersmith Riverside! Of course Eno crops up on his records as well sometimes.

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Your Irresistible Force remix of Coldcut’s ‘Autumn Leaves’ is in virtually every DJ’s chill-out top 10, have you any other personal favourites you’re particularly proud of?
I think my Barbarella mix is still very popular, and the one I did for 6th Sense is destined for 100 chillout compilations for sure.   The Aural Xpansion one is good, I notice Andy Weatherall licensed it for a mix CD.  Nuno Felipe’s Julia is another one ripe for rediscovery, certainly I spent the most time ever on this mix, about 30 days in the studio!  The shortest was when I did a top 20 mix for INXS in about 2 hours. It’s about time we made a compilation of all the remixes I’ve done….. yes even that Stump record from 1989, Charlton Heston!

KLF’s Chill Out was one of the first classic ambient albums to emerge from the acid house movement. What do you think of Bill Drummond’s The17 improvised choir project and his manifesto that states: “The very urge to make recorded music is a redundant and creative dead end”?
I have a lot of love for the KLF, I once went to a memorable party in their house, and I performed at the Robert Anton Wilson Memorial show last year with Bill Drummond. DJ Yogurt from Japan has just remixed the entire Chill Out album and I believe the result should be released soon – it’s certainly good enough!  I haven’t kept up with their work the last 18 months though.

Speaking in the Modulations film over a decade ago you said: “The techno revolution was very necessary, but it allows the music industry to do a lot of scummy things.” What’s your opinion on the so-called digital revolution, and the music industry’s dealings with the ‘scummy downloaders’?
The music industry was too dumb to understand the internet back then, and always saw it as a threat more than an opportunity. This allowed Apple to eat their breakfast. Now they are playing perpetual catch-up, currently the business model seems to be hitting individual users with multimillion dollar lawsuits they could never pay. It’s clear that entirely new ways of consuming music and video, news and art will emerge , and that everyone is a prosumer now.

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You were also quoted saying, “the revolution seems to be well and truly lost.” In the decade or so since then have the dance and festival scenes become too far removed from the warehouses and Castlemorton-style free parties?
It’s not possible to travel back in time, and if we did we would be surprised at the grotty venues and lack of amenities that were typical of early raves. What was exciting about that time was the sense of generational change, that 88 would be a turning point like 77 or 66. That pop and rock had suddenly ceased to matter and would wither away. That choices we made now would shape the next 20 years. It was an age of innocence and boundless possibilities, and dancing in the streets…

What is lost for ever is the power that independent labels achieved in the 90s, when a tune could suddenly catch fire and become a national hit without any airplay.

You’ve always seemed to be a music ‘fan’ rather than a star. How did it feel to be writing for music magazines like Mixmag and DJing on Kiss FM when rave culture was taking off?
I’d rather be a legend than a star anyday, stars tend to burn out too quickly. Although I think I a might become a star in Japan, where they are about to launch plastic figurines of me!

Mixmag in the early days gave me lots of freedom to write what I wanted, and I used it to introduce people to a lot of new artists such as Black Dog, Squarepusher, Herbert, Biosphere, Boards of Canada, Kirk Digiorgio, Ian O’Brien, Oval, Atom Heart, Spacetime Continuum, Nobukazu Takemura, Rei Harakami. Equally I was able to do some wild ambient mixes for Kiss FM that went out at 4am on a Saturday night, tapes of which are still circulating today.

But in both cases the pressure to conform became too great, and I’ve never been one of the herd. Nowadays I do shows for Samurai FM and sometimes Purple Radio – and put mixes on Beatplexity and Soundcloud and Youtube, overall I reach more people than I ever did on the radio.

If you were taken out of the running have you got a shortlist of your favourite chill-out DJs?
There are so many around the world, especially in Japan where ambient music is very popular. I have enjoyed playing with DJs like DF Tram in San Francisco, DJ Olive and theAgriculture in New York, Ambient Daan & Circus Hoffman in Amsterdam,  MFOC in Hamburg, Global Chillage in Tokyo, Lenny Ibizarre in Ibiza, Inspiral @ Synergy + the Glade, Derrick May in Ghent.

Then there are people like Matthew Hawtin, Clark Warner, Neil Oliverra, Jon Sa Trinxa, Erden Tunakan, Jose Padilla. And of course Big Chill regulars like Ben Mynott and Mr Tom and Pete Lawrence. I do think that if you want a good chillout room, you should hire a chillout DJ and not just some trance DJ who couldn’t get a main room slot. Just get someone with great taste to play music they truly love.