INTERVIEW: GARETH DICKSON: TOKAFI (2012)
After a couple of life-changing opportunities and brushes with death in previous years, 2012 looks to be a good, if perhaps a more quiet year, for genre-bending Glaswegian Gareth Dickson. Dickson has just released a new album, mastered by Taylor Deupree on 12k. Not exactly conforming to the 12k oeuvre at first sight, Dickson’s latest recording is neither electronic nor overtly experimental. Yet somehow his lo-fi brand of minimalistic, ambient folk seems at home amongst Deupree’s current stable of artists and growing fascination with acoustics. Citing influences that range from Nick Drake and Robert Johnson to Glenn Gould and Aphex Twin, Dickson has managed to discover and nurture his own unique style. Not one to shy away from experimentation, Dickson’s guitar playing invokes a subdued, harp-like delicacy that contrasts to anything you might find in the back catalogues of his folk and blues heroes. Dickson’s latest album Quite a Way Away is slightly more orthodox than his previous work. Each track is self-assured and seems to play out more confidently. Perhaps the excitement of his years in Argentina, during which he survived a small plane disaster and a bungled robbery, has added the heightened sense of urgency and tension found in his latest recording. After having the unique opportunity to tour with Vashti Bunyan as she dipped her toes back into the music pool after many years, Dickson had the epic experience of playing The Barbican and Carnegie Hall. He has worked with Max Richter and toured with Juana Molina and is looking forward to touring Europe in May with David Wenngren (aka Library Tapes). After such dizzying professional heights, Dickson is keeping a low profile for the next few months. Helping out with his new born nephews and working hard on the promotion of his new album, Dickson hopes that his efforts will go some way to towards helping him do the thing he loves for longer.
Hi! How are you? Where are you?
Could be a lot worse, things can always be worse... I'm at home in Glasgow, my sister and her boyfriend have come to live in the house where I live (my mother's house, much to my shame at my age) with their new born twins, so things are mental here, but good.
What’s on your schedule right now?
Apart from changing nappies and feeding babies (see above), I'm busy trying to organise gigs in Europe for a planned tour with Library Tapes in May. I'm spending a fair bit of time doing the kind of "admin" side of music in general actually, sending out CDs and emailing people in an effort to promote the new album on 12k. For around the past year I've been lucky enough to have had the time to concentrate completely on playing and recording, so now it's time to do some of the less exciting things which you have to do to have any chance of making a living at this and avoid getting a real job.
How would you describe and rate the music scene of the city you are currently living in?
Overall I would say that Glasgow is a great place to be a musician. There was a time when you could go to a different open mic night every night of the week (there's one I really love, and went to for years, in a bar called "Nice and Sleazy"), as well has having venues of all types and sizes. In general it's fairly easy for young bands to find somewhere to play which makes for quite an interesting and diverse scene, plenty of nice little places. I've played in a lot of European cities and many have funding available for music, Glasgow is not like that at all, it's kind of law of the jungle. You have to get out and make things work for yourself, and not expect a meal, or to be paid. It doesn't seem to have any negative impact on the music though, as Glasgow has a lot of successful bands for its size. Mainly famous for exporting indie bands like Franz Ferdinand, but not a bad place despite that. As well as this there are a lot of great clubs if one likes banging techno.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences?
To go right back I guess the first things I wrote were in metal/punk type bands when I was in my early teens, the way a lot of guitarists start out. The first pieces of music I wrote which I still play now were written when I was around twenty. At that time my big passions were guitarists like Nick Drake, Bert Jansch and Robert Johnson, followed soon after by ambient and electro like Brian Eno and Aphex Twin.
What do you personally consider to be the incisive moments in your artistic work and/or career?
The first pieces I wrote which I still play are "Harmonics" and "Trip in a Blanik". Two instrumental pieces, written on my nylon string and later recorded with steel string and some effects. That was my starting point, that's when I realised that I wanted to spend my life doing this. Maybe a couple of years after that I started trying to write songs, I spent a lot of time writing songs and discarding most of them, I think "Two Trains" was in some ways the end point of what I was aiming for at that time. That became a turning point and I began to experiment again, with a vague idea of trying to emulate the feel of electronic music, but with my guitar. The track "Technology" was probably the first useable piece from that direction, and that opened the way for the tracks on the album The Dance. More recently I have been aiming at combining some of the rhythms from the dance with vocals, which has lead to the new album.
"Career-wise" probably the biggest opportunity to have come my way was being asked by Vashti Bunyan to tour as her guitarist after she had been away from music for a long time. That lead to an amazing adventure, touring the world and meeting some great people, which will hopefully continue again some time in the near future.
What are currently your main compositional- and production-challenges?
Difficult question for me to answer because I don't really think in terms of compositional challenges. Most of what I do begins with an improvisation which I then build on as intuitively as possible until I feel I have a finished piece. I guess in the past I have had vague ideas about wanting to combine different elements within my music, for example trying to combine ambient feel with folk type guitar and singing. I never really saw it as a challenge, more just an avenue to go down.
Production challenges I can relate to more easily. I have spent a lot of time recently getting familiar with computer based mixing. Mainly thinking about EQ and mastering type effects such as reverb and compression, trying to figure out how best to avoid things sounding muddy without brightening them too much etcetera. Basically how to get a reasonably polished sound out of my own equipment, without having to rely on others to record my music, which would make the whole thing in to something else much less fun for me. I was fortunate this time to have Taylor Deupree (who runs the label) do the mastering which improved my recordings massively.
What do you usually start with when working on a new piece?
I think my approach here must be common to a lot of musicians. As mentioned above, I always begin with improvising on the guitar. I will play for a few hours usually, messing around with different tunings, not knowing the names of the notes or chords, until something jumps out that I like. This is rare and I am lucky if I get an idea a month, on average, which I will use. Once I have an initial idea for a melody I will play it over and over until it leads somewhere else. Sometimes it will remain an instrumental if I feel it stands on its own. Other times, if I feel it needs it, and I have something I think would make an interesting first line, I will add that and then try to add another. Not very scientific, just one step after the other really. I never have a plan for a piece before I start.
How strictly do you separate improvising and composing?
Well, all of my compositions begin with an improvisation, but I tend to hone them until they are relatively, if not completely, fixed. On The Dance
there is a little more improvising going on. The tracks were recorded immediately after they were written in general, which meant they didn't have time to develop a fixed form. I did have the riffs in all cases, and an order to put them in, I just hadn't completely fixed the number of repetitions and where to throw in extra notes. I think I am too much of a control freak to allow any great amount of improvisation in to my work. In general I prefer to think about what exactly is the most effective way to structure a piece and then stick to it reasonably closely.
How do you see the relationship between sound, space and composition?
This is something which probably applies less to my work than it does to someone who composes electronic or ambient music or whatever, where sound and space are far more an integral part of the composition, and are elements which you have to choose. A lot of my heroes are guitarists who probably never had to consciously think about this relationship at all. For example, Robert Johnson may not have known that he would ever even be recorded, when he started out, so the only sound he would have thought about really would be the timbre of his guitar picking and his voice. Space wouldn't have come in to it until he was recorded and then it would have been an engineer thinking about that. In general I think more like a guitarist when I am writing, in that I am after melodies and ideas. I then try to fix the sound, to the best of my abilities afterwards. I do use effects while I'm playing but I have now come to think of those as part of my instrument. Having said that, there is obviously a very important relationship here, I think it's maybe one which defies explanation though. In the same way as it's impossible to say exactly what makes a melody good or bad, it's impossible to say why certain sounds work well together, or why a given melody is well suited to a certain sound.
Do you feel it important that an audience is able to deduct the processes and ideas behind a work purely on the basis of the music? If so, how do you make them transparent?
No, I probably think the opposite actually. I think all that matters is the end result, what the music manages to express. I don't think that it's important that the audience know what processes or techniques you have used to get there. Ideas are different - in a sense the ideas are the music, in that you have an idea and express it musically. In this respect, yes, I do think the ideas should be made clear by the music alone, and not have to be accompanied by a description of what you're aiming for.
There seem to be two fundamental tendencies in music today: On the one hand, a move towards complete virtualisation, where tracks and albums are merely released as digital files. And, on the other, an even closer union between music, artwork, packaging and physical presentation. Where do you stand between these poles?
I know a lot of people will want to shoot me for this but I feel that virtualisation is not a bad thing. I have plenty of mp3s on my computer with no packaging whatsoever, if I like the music then I don't feel the need to hold the object. One of the amazing things about music is that it is not of the material world. This is separate to the argument of illegal downloading incidentally. Having said that, I completely understand the need for record labels to create a nice object, now more than ever before, precisely because mp3s can be acquired illegally for free. I also think that if the music is to be packaged and sold as CDs or records then it's important to get that part right. For that reason I have paid a lot of attention to the packaging of the CDs I have released, and again was very lucky to work with 12k who have made a really beautifully designed pack for the new album.
The role of an artist is always subject to change. What's your view on the (e.g. political/social/creative) tasks of artists today and how do you try to meet these goals in your work?
I'm slightly old fashioned here in that I think the role of the artist is not really subject to change. For me the role of the artist is to create art. I absolutely applaud anyone who gets involved in trying to make this world a better place, whether through politics or by charity work or by campaigning or however they can. And I'm not against people like U2 using their celebrity to try to improve things, but I don't feel that this is the role of an artist any more than it is the role of any other human being. I think that when people start with a purpose or political aim for their art it just makes for bad art. Speaking generally of course, there are exceptions. I kind of feel that art is something which is bigger than politics and society.
Music-sharing sites and -blogs as well as a flood of releases in general are presenting both listeners and artists with challenging questions. What's your view on the value of music today?
I think that music has as much value now as it ever did. People need and value their favourite music as much as ever, and there are plenty of great contemporary musicians creating it. I'm not completely convinced that people value something less because they haven't paid for it, I think a great piece of music should knock you over however you have acquired it. That doesn't mean that I think it's right to download music illegally, people can make their own decisions on that. Another difference now is that there are countless people with access to recording equipment that would never have had the opportunity to record in previous times, and plenty of sites which allow them to share the music they make freely and easily, which means that the music world is completely saturated, as your question suggests. So the modern world is a double edged sword for musicians - yes it's easier to record and share your music than ever before, and the internet allows you to find opportunities you may never have found, but it's also very easy to get lost in the sea of music out there, and very difficult to make a living. I think the impact may be felt even more heavily by labels than by artists as their main source of revenue is selling music, artists if they have some degree of success can make money from touring and radio play. I think it's something people easily forget - that being a musician is, among other things, a job. Musicians have to be able to pay bills like everyone else, and having a regular full time job does not leave the necessary time to experiment and create music.
How, would you say, could non-mainstream forms of music reach wider audiences?
I'm probably not the best person to ask - if I knew that I'd have reached a wider audience.
Please recommend two artists to our readers which you feel deserve their attention.
There are plenty of Glasgow based musicians, many of them friends, who I feel deserve more attention. So I'll limit this to people I've been lucky enough to see while on the road ... Ned Collette is amazing, he toured with Joanna Newsom for a bit. Hard to describe, kind of Bowie-esque in a way, maybe something of Leonard Cohen too, but a modern spirit. And The June Rise is amazing too, fantastic guitarist, and I'm not normally a fan of talented guitarists : )
Many artists dream of a “magnum opus”. Do you have a vision of what yours would sound like?
What a difficult question. Answer that and stay fashionable, as they say. I could try to describe grand visions of the most amazing work of art ever to exist, but the discrepancy between that work and my actual works would leave me looking not a little silly. So I'll duck that one and just say ... stay tuned for my next 40 minute epic.
Intro by Lara Corey
Gareth Dickson Discography:
(Sleeping Man) 2005
The Amber Goose Dance
(Drifting Falling) 2009
(Sleeping Man) 2010
Quite A Way Away