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ALEXANDER TUCKER, synthesising sound & image, folding time & space, giving life to the dead

Interview by Agata Kik

Alexander Tucker & Keith Collins. Photo Credits: Zoe Miller & Howard Sooley.

First and foremost a visual artist, Alexander Tucker describes himself primarily as a painter, the artist is also known as a prolific musician, who incorporates disparate formats such as comics, collage, assemblage and film into his multimedia work. With his albums previously released on labels such as Chicago’s Thrill Jockey, ATP Recordings or U-Sound Archives, Tucker’s work has embraced the spirit of improvisation and collectivity, including a number of interdisciplinary collaborations with both visual artists and experimental musicians.  

Alexander Tucker’s collaborative projects include Grumbling Fur with the multi-instrumentalist composer Daniel O’Sullivan, who both worked together as Grumbling Fur Time Machine Orchestra and were also accompanied by the multidisciplinary performer and musician Charlemagne Palestine. With Astrud Steehouder, joined by producer Luke J Murray Tucker created NONEXISTENT, an amalgam of drone and electronic textures tinted by damaged hard-drive samples and modular processing. With Nik Colk Void they combined their individual modular synth systems at Void’s Demna Studio and under the name Brood X Cycles communicated their unique sound language, combining organic analogue timbres and machine rhythms.  

Cycles, loops and folds all characterise Tucker’s sonic oeuvre including genres such as drone, psychedelia, electro-acoustic folk or avant-synth pop. “I’ve never been comfortable with the folk tag, especially British folk which I pretty much detest”, nevertheless, the artist shares in his own words. His 2019’s ‘Guild of the Asbestos Weaver’ is a special synthesis of acoustic instruments and electronic sources, this kind of a fusion that is so pertinent to all of his music compositions. The album conceals sonic imagery from science fiction and cosmic horror comics or dream music immersing the listener into imaginary worlds of latent states of consciousness.    

The project MICROCORPS is an experimental exploration of electronics, cello and voice, in which Tucker himself tries to distort his own presence through defragmentation and dispersion of his own voice. “I love the way technology can completely stretch and distort audio into unrecognisable forms, I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of vocal manipulation I’ve begun with MICROCORPS and look forward to investigating this further” he explains. The album’s title, XMIT, refers to data transmission itself and the tracks embody electric velocity, body’s morphing induced by heavy metals’ poisoning or stretched speech of phantom beings driven into the unintelligible near future of human-alien creatures. 

While from Kent in the UK, Tucker’s practice is permeated by mystery, much familiar to the misty ambience of Romney Marsh and Dungeness. His most recent work Fifth Continent (Subtext/Multiverse, 2023)is a posthumous collaboration with Keith Collins. The work was conceived as a homage to British film director Derek Jarman and his partner Collins and the Kentish headland itself, where they all spent memorable moments at Jarman’s famous Prospect Cottage.

Reflecting on Jarman and his work, the album includes Collins’ slightly processed words. Released on Subtext Recordings, Fifth Continent is accompanied by an anthology, Fifth Quarter: Derek Jarman, Keith Collins and Dungeness, to talk about the past but also keep bringing all three subjects to the present, using archive photography and film stills, alongside newly commissioned artworks and writing by the circle of friends and colleagues close to Jarman, his life and work, done in an utmost collaborative spirit so particular to each of the gathered artists’ ways of working and living.

Your practice has oscillated between the analogue and the electronic, and the themes that weave through your work come from both the folk and the future. Could you share how you orientate yourself within these disparate realms? 

To some extent, I’ve always processed acoustic sound sources through some kind of electronics; in the past, I would use tape loops or loop pedals to layer guitar or cello compositions, this was mostly used for live performances, but the technology would often dictate the length of the riff cycle and amplify the phasing between the strings. There was a great limitation with some of this technology from the late nineties and early noughties, where the loop machines would only record around 40 seconds of audio before it would start looping back, so I’d have to fit a pattern into this short amount of time. When I’d record these pieces in the studio, I would just play the repetitions of the plucking or bowing patterns to mirror the loops I’d written with the electronic hardware.

I wanted to create these combinations of Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and John Fahey and bands like Faust, fusing acoustic guitar, cello, vocals and electronics to create these maximalist song cycles. I’ve never been comfortable with the folk tag, especially British folk, which I pretty much detest; I do love traditional American music; the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music was a huge eye-opener when I was younger; I love the hiss and sound of those wax cylinder recordings just as much as the music, I like the way that technology at different points throughout history leaves extraneous traces on and around the music itself, the grain of the actual structure of the machine components grafting onto the recorded sound. I’ve always been of the opinion that you can bring disparate elements together rather than decompartmentalise instruments or genres; why not have all these things present at the same time and hybridise them?

Where do you see the relationship between sound, text and image? As a musician, you have also turned to texts and graphic techniques previously. Would you share in which way these visual mediums are expanding to your practice and what else they have brought to your sound and music? 

I’m first and foremost a visual artist, and in some way, I still feel like I’m a painter, but on the whole, I like to use sound to present my ideas. Although at different points, I do feel the need to choose one over the other, they are both part of the same world. I often stretch the same ideas across both mediums. Recently I’ve been publishing my own comics in short runs on my Undimensioned imprint, enabling me to be quite free with relatively non-linear narratives.

That also connects to the way I create imagery in songs. The Fifth Continent LP and Fifth Quarter Anthology on Subtext is my first attempt to combine the same project across music and a publication. The ideas contained within the project felt too big just to take place within an album; I wanted to contextualise Keith Collins’s life and work whilst also investigating Dungeness and Derek Jarman. My work up until recently was almost exclusively an interior world through which I’d transpose emotional states. With Fifth Continent and Fifth Quarter, I had other people’s lives, work and memories to take into account, so I had to be really careful with how I handled the work. 

Within your project MICROCORPS you have extensively explored the ideas of language and synthesised voice. In the day of AI voice cloning, would you share your reflection on what it means to lose ownership over your presence and where the agency seems to be shifting with the machine cloning of identity?

I’ve actually been trying to erase myself with recent work like MICROCORPS and NONEXISTENT. Although there’s a lot of surrealism, fantasy and Sci-Fi in my solo songwriting, a lot of that work was very heavy in an emotional sense and represents quite an unhappy time in my life. In the last four years or so, I’ve been enjoying masking my hand to a certain extent and enjoying the combination between myself and my interaction with electronics; although I’m still quite rudimentary with my process, I’m using reasonably state-of-the-art gear to achieve this.

Not that I’m a gearhead, I’m just as at home with a dictaphone tape recorder as with a modular system. I’m a little bit bemused by the fear of AI, I understand people’s issues with it; this fear has been investigated time and time again within science fiction and people’s horror of somehow being erased, a kind of living death where they no longer exist in their waking lives. Especially now we are so reliant upon our digital selves, the fear of this being corrupted is interesting because we are using machine technology to already distort who we really are.

I actually think this is quite fascinating in itself, but I’m sure if AI were somehow weaponised against me, I wouldn’t be too happy about it, but let’s wait and see what that would even look like. I love the way technology can completely stretch and distort audio into unrecognisable forms; I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of vocal manipulation I’ve begun with MICROCORPS and look forward to investigating this further. 

Your projects, music pieces and performances have involved multiple collaborations with other artists. Would you share your experience of working collectively? What are the challenges, and what can one’s practice gain from outside influences?

I’ve never really felt like a musician, not to say that I am not one, but I’m untrained and work primarily with my intuition, so it’s always a pleasure to work with people who are ostensibly musicians and have knowledge that I feel outside of. I feel really lucky to work with artists like Daniel O’Sullivan, who has been hugely inspiring and supportive of realising what is possible. Charlemagne Palestine is a great teacher of expectations and flipping what you think a certain situation is or should be about.

Most recently, I’ve been working with saxophonist Karl D’Silva on a series of cello, saxophone, clarinet and electronics compositions and for the Fifth Continent project working with Kenichi Iwasa and Maxwell Sterling. Whether it’s composing or improvising, there can be great freedom to these relationships and the melding of sound and ideas. I like the level playing field you get with group improvisation, where each individual is swept up into the collective whole, and a kind of automatic composition can appear on the spot.

Of course, there can be challenges with working with other people from all walks of life. I think that’s why most of my work is solo or remote to a certain degree, I need to return to the solitude of solo work, or I get a bit overwhelmed. I try to treat working with others as gifts that you bestow on each other; whenever I receive recordings from other artists try to treat them with respect and want to amplify them to make sure everyone is heard.

Your work seems strongly rooted in your lived experiences and geographical places you inhabit or briefly pass through. How do you tend to get inspired, and how do specific locations and surroundings influence what you make? 

I’m just interested in trying to record where I am – simple as that. Everything is so fleeting I guess I want to document that. In a way, it’s incredibly sad that time moves so fast, especially the older you become, but even as a young person, I was aware of the transient nature of things. I like to experience life as if it’s the last time I shall see a specific point in time. Life is magical and barely makes any sense; sometimes, it all feels completely pointless but also incredibly important all at once. 

Locally, I spend quite a lot of time walking and cycling around the Lee Valley, Walthamstow and Hackney Marshes. I’ve spent a lot of time over the years drawing upon walks around the city, and I’m particularly interested in the back roads and forgotten corners around central London; it’s a good time to run over ideas and let new seeds grow. Whenever I get out of the city and down to the coast, this always seems to trigger new chapters in where I’m heading with new work. 

What does it mean to be alive to you?  How do you negotiate between work and everyday eventfulness – do you see any boundary between them? 

That’s a difficult question because it changes all the time. Each day I just try to be focused on whatever project I’m focusing on and try to stay positive about it and not fall too deep into self-criticism. But I do feel incredibly excited about what I do, be it music, comics or playing live; I still feel like a kid who can’t wait to get to the drawing board. There’s still so much I want to do, and there never feels like there’s enough time, but the main thing is to keep pushing through. I’ve always had this fascination between the mundanity of the everyday and how this can be subverted into something preternatural; it comes from a desire to bypass the banal but also uses it to amplify the unknown.

What was your motivation behind the anthology Fifth Quarter: Derek Jarman, Keith Collins and Dungeness? How have you approached your relationships with the people and places that your work features? 

The book is an extension of the Fifth Continent LP; I wanted to contextualise Keith Collins’s life and work around his relationship with Jarman but also his work with film, music, and being the custodian of Prospect Cottage. I also wanted to collect ideas around the Dungeness and the Romney Marsh landscape whilst discussing Jarman’s work and legacy. Initially, I thought I might make a small publication about Collins, but James Ginzburg at Subtext suggested we make plans to create a wider publication. I thought an anthology of material made the most sense because of the breadth of the subjects.

I roughly split the book into three subjects: Collins, Jarman and Dungeness, and then I went about asking Jarman and Collins collaborators to bring forth their stories and recollections. I also asked people who had a deep connection with Dungeness to write about the place itself. We wanted to talk about the past but also to keep bringing all three subjects to the present. Jarman’s work still feels sharply contemporary in subject and form. The more abstract and dream-like films have a structure and style that I find continually exciting and inspiring.

The book has quite a large focus on Jarman’s film The Garden (1990), partly because it was my introduction to his work but also because it’s both a portrait of Dungeness and a melding of Jarman’s life. The film also contains his battle against the establishment, homophobia and HIV, and Keith Collins is central to the film as one of the star-crossed and persecuted lovers. Music features heavily throughout the book, Jarman’s use of it in his films and who he worked with. Simon Fisher Turner, who created the majority of his soundtracks, also lent me a huge amount of archive material.

In relation to your latest album Fifth Continent could you reflect on how your collaboration with Keith Collins developed? What was it like to work together? Would you share any specific concepts and ideas that brought you together or any specific differences that you were able to share in between? 

Fifth Continent was made after Keith’s death from a brain tumour, so it’s both a posthumous collaboration and a homage. We did collaborate together when he was alive for a BBC Radio 4 program about Dungeness but that was all done remotely and was the seed of our wanting to do more together. Sadly we didn’t get around to it. Whilst Keith was in the hospital, he tasked me with looking after his vast music collection housed in two great cupboards inside Prospect Cottage. After he passed away, I’d go down to Dungeness and carry out my task and help Keith’s husband, Garry Clayton, with the Cottage. Garry suggested I bring down some music equipment to record in the cottage, so I brought down my cello, vocal microphone and modular system, set up in Jarman’s writing room and recorded improvisations over two days.

Garry lent me a digital dictaphone that contained Keith’s spoken word pieces and field recordings which I then took and knitted into new tracks. It was a strange experience to make an album with someone who is no longer here, you always hope you are making the right decisions, so I think it makes you tread extra carefully. I didn’t want the LP to be too morbid, it is very much about grief, but I wanted it to be a celebration of Collins, Jarman and Dungeness. I also brought in trumpet player Kenichi Iwasa who lent his horn and electronics to some of the tracks titled The Spring Room. This project is about many people and subjects, stretching from the living to the now departed, but always about the seeds sown that continue to grow.

What’s your chief enemy of creativity? 

Tea and Tunnock’s Caramel bars.

You couldn’t live without…

Roast dinner.

(Media courtesy of the artist)
On Key

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