The past has never been more popular than it is at the moment; one needs only look at the popularity of Instagram to understand that. With its deliberately disfigured and discoloured interpretations of modern day moments, perhaps this sort of reaction was necessary to the ultra-high definition world we live in, a place with no chance to hide in those dark recesses at the sides of a memory fragment caught in celluloid.
It’s this same thinking that has led deliberately lo-fi approach to music making that’s becoming more apparent – and not just loading in sampled vinyl clicks. The works of Basinski and Jeck and are influences across the spectrum of modern electronic music, and have been for a few years. Perhaps against the highly processed forms excreted from the mainstream, such aesthetics are a sanctuary for those who believe music shouldn’t just be played by a laptop?
The imperfections in such sounds remind us that we’re all imperfect, and all the better for it. It also allows us to reflect on a pre-digital age, when ‘things’ had an intrinsic, physical value. And while that may just be a Photoshopped, cross-processed view of the past, for all the melancholy and respective joys it may conjure, it’s a much warmer and welcoming place than a life at 320kb/s.
One prime example of this ethic is the work of Craig Tattersall, aka The Humble Bee/The Archivist, and many, many other aliases – and his label, Cotton Goods. Strictly limited edition, and quick to disappear from availability, each release is an exquisite dip into soundscapes that tug at the very essence of emotion, from across a wide spectrum of feeling. That’s backed up with lovingly crafted physical items, which again key in to a feeling of a warmer past – as one example, which holds more intrinsic emotion – a weather-worn letter from a dear friend, or an email?
We speak to Craig about his music, inspirations and approach.
How did you start making music?
I started making music by accident really – well, it wasn’t a conscious decision anyway. When I was about 14 my brother bought a guitar and I started to pick it up every now and then. I thought it seemed pretty easy for someone who was pretty much considered tone deaf at school. It all happened from there – I discovered the school had a basic four-track, which I borrowed, and soon realised I could record and make this stuff at home on my own. I was away...
What were your early influences?
I guess The Smiths were the first, but really for the guitar. I would spend hours trying to figure out how to play tracks by The Smiths. Then came the Field Mice/Northern Picture Library that kind of reinforced the idea of home recording. I suppose if I where forced to go further back, then I would say Glen Campbell. I have mentioned him as an influence for many years, and I think people think it is a little bit of a joke, but I still listen a lot to his music – the guy is a genius. My dad pretty much wore out two copies of Glen Campbell’s “20 Golden Greats” on cassette while I was growing up – I had no choice in the matter, I was destined to love him. The Carpenters too – I think many of the musical lilts in my songs are probably lifted from Karen Carpenter’s vocal lines, subconsciously you understand.
When and why did you make the decision to start the label?
In short, I didn't. Andrew (Johnson), my long time friend and musical partner (The Famous Boyfriend/Remote Viewer/Hood/On Fell), had always had the idea of running a label and because we always did these things together – then we started Moteer:: Together, then came Mobeer::
It was really through Mobeer:: that I figured that I could hand-make releases and people actually seemed to really like that about them. In some respects, I think Mobeer:: happened at the right time, just as music was really moving over to a digital format. There was obviously a lot of people who still wanted to hold the music they bought.
How do you find the artists for the label?
Generally they find me (us). Most artists come via demos or are already friends that are creating music, and it seems natural to work with them. Email is great – people tend to get in touch for one thing or another. I become friends with them, then they let it slip they have a few tacks and they tend to be beautiful. I think I make friends with these people as they share the same aesthetic as I do, so it follows that their musical outpourings should be up my street.
Is there a release that is a particular favourite?
Tough one that, I fall for them all – that’s my way of telling whether or not to put it out. I have no strategy for the sound of the label, but I must fall in love with the music. I get an urge to release it – I also have to feel I can respond to the music in a visual way, as there needs to be something that I can work with in creating the packaging, something inspiring.
If I had to pick one, I think it would be the Then Dof “Mycrocosmycs” mini 3"cd (Cotton Goods EP 004), amazing stuff.
The packaging of the releases is fantastic - was this a conscious decision from the start, and why?
Yes. I wanted to make things that people would want to own, as I had seen what was happening to music. Digital downloads were becoming the norm and physical releases seemed to be dying on their feet. It seemed as if everyone was happy to accept music in a format that was inferior in quality in order to access it quickly. We seemed to be losing the passion to own objects and collect “things”.
I remember as a teenager, developing a passion for music, I would save money for weeks so I could go shopping for releases/rare items ands bootlegs – the bus journey alone was around one-and-a-half hours to get to Manchester. Although the money saved would be small, hours would be spent trawling around the record shops looking for the best buy you could afford, then once you had made the purchase you would rush for the bus home – and that's a good one-and-a-half hour back, if you were lucky, with the buses being every two hours. You would have at least two hours to acquaint yourself with the package before you even got to hear the music. You would read every last bit of text, study every picture, feel the weight of every record, check the grooves, everything about the item would be studied just to help kill the time (and, of course, to build the excitement of the release).
This has all been lost, as things are so throwaway now. It upsets me to think that an artist can spend hours, days, months and even years working on every last note or sound for a release, struggling over running orders and how tracks sit together on an LP – care and consideration at every choice – only to have the LP sold as individual songs. Someone might just buy track eight on an LP, completely out of context. There seems a lack of respect in this, not consciously by anyone, just a slow erosion over time.
I could see what was happening and I didn't really want to release music that way, which is why I won't release Cotton Goods as digital.
Where do you source the elements for the physical items?
All over, online, shops, jumble sales – you name it, I’m there. I have a constant eye on materials. Every aspect of the package should be considered – choice of paper, how does it feel, does it suit the music, how will it print, how old is it, has it been used before, does it have a history and does that relate to the music?
I have lost track of how many times I have bought an LP by an unfamiliar artist due to the artwork and thought “with such artwork choices, the music must be great,” and it's shit. This puzzles me, why are these things not thought through for a release? “Does this artwork/package look like the music sounds?” The answer should always be yes.
Like any piece of artwork, the presentation is very important and needs to be considered. I suppose it is like creating the best painting/photo/print etc and then putting it in an inappropriate frame on a wall, like the wrong colour at the wrong height.
For those who may not know a great deal about tape loops and field recordings, could you describe the techniques and why it appeals?
I started on tape – I am from that era, tape was (and is) amazing.
I bought my first cassette four track when I was 18, and all of a sudden I had a home studio. Of course I moved through new equipment, such as minidiscs and a digital eight-track, and finally a computer.
Like most people I was sold on the computer as “the” music production tool. I got hooked up with a laptop, plug-ins and so on, but it never felt right. I missed buttons and knobs – real ones, not ones that controlled the computer, but real ones. I missed having physical things in front of me I could manipulate. I still use a computer, but it is just at the end of all the outboard gear, the things with dials and sliders. Sound seems to me to be a very physical thing, as it has a weight, a mass, a body, and I feel more comfortable controlling it physically.
I think a major part of the creative process for me, whether it is music, packaging or art, is that I like to make “things” with my hands. I see no reason that this should be different when it comes to recording.
As The Humble Bee, when producing, do you go in with a preconceived idea, or is the process more organic (pardon the pun)?
Well, I suppose there is always a basic preconceived idea at the start of a project, a loose thought that acts as a catalyst. The journey from there to the end piece is always organic – sound is organic. A lot of the process is building sounds up, adding loads of information, then reflecting and removing things until you are happy with your choices.
Again, I think my art training still affects the way I work – we were always taught to be aware of all the “mistakes” while working. By this, I mean if you wanted a picture that was a clean red circle on a yellow square and when you put the paint together they bled and created interesting interactions between the colours, then you shouldn’t ignore this to find a way to create the image in you head, you should explore the possibilities of what has just opened up to you in the accident.
The same should always be applied in writing/recording music.
Could you describe the thinking and processes behind "Morning Music"?
Morning Music started as a bigger thing than the end release. It was an idea. It had hit me that there was time in the day I was wasting by sleeping, those hours after 6am before I have to set off to work were a waste if I just laid in bed, so I thought I would try to do something with them.
I had been speaking about this to my work colleague and fellow artist Steve Oliver, and we said we would both attempt to record music/sound in the mornings, before work, and meet up at work with our pieces. We tried it the first time one October, but the idea was ill-thought out and crumbled after three weeks.
Although the results of the first three weeks just remained on a hard drive somewhere, it meant we had a good idea of what we could do and how to proceed. So we planned a new start the first Monday in January, before work.
What happened then was something much larger – I did Morning Music for a month, but the project didn't stop there, we both continued making artwork in various forms for the whole of the year, right the way through the end of December, and there were drawings/ audio/ video/ photos/ collections etc.
We are still not sure how to bring the whole things together, and I’m not really sure that we can... We had a small exhibition of the material, again this was more an experiment in how the work sits as a body, a working process for us, rather than a finished piece of work for people to come and look at. Some parts worked and others didn’t. One day we will no doubt accidently stumble on the correct format for it, but these things take time.
The resulting LP “Morning Music” taught me that the time of day I record at affects my output to a much greater extent than I thought. Restrictions are imposed when recording so early and so soon after sleep, as quietness is all encompassing at that time. Every sound is magnified, so you do everything as quiet as you can so you don’t wake others, or to some extent wake yourself from the semi-sleep you are still in. This creates a closeness in the sound and allows the output to be more reactive, as opposed to considered.
What does the future hold for the label, and for your productions?
Less releases this year for sure. I think at the height of production I was releasing a CD once a month and hand-making all of these was pretty time-consuming. It has got to the stage that I spend so long making releases that I have pretty much no time for my own music.
So this year I have only three releases lined-up – there may be more added to this, but I am trying to leave lots of spare time for creating music. I have too many projects floating around in my head that I need to make real. That’s the plan, but then I have a tendency to get distracted by things, so I guess I won’t stick to it 100%.
You produce limited runs, and people have to be quick to strike. What's the best way to keep up to date, and are you looking to produce larger runs?
If people email me on email@example.com I will add them to my mailing list. I will then send them one mail per release a few days before it goes on sale, and the odd mail here and there in support of other artists/labels working hard to produce releases with the same aesthetic as myself.
As for larger runs, I am afraid not. When I started making limited-run releases the emphasis was not to make them limited so that they would sell better, the main reasons were the timescale it takes to make a release and knowing that the market for these things was pretty niche. But don’t get me wrong, I am fully aware that the limited nature of the release helps them sell, but in turn this helps the label as I can then afford to buy stock for the next release, and so on and so on…
In addition, I am not keen on the business side of running a label – having short-run releases and selling through one retailer only (boomkat.com) helps me keep it simple, as I only have to write one invoice per release and I get the money on a really quick turn around, so there’s no need to track how many CDs went where and creating a never-ending paper trail for each release.
With Being - Quiet Rain, you've expanded the label's repertoire to film and other mediums – could you describe more about that and if you're following it up with more?
For a while I have wanted to release a DVD of films, I had been working towards my own DVD release for a couple of years (http://boomkat.com/cds/471122-the-humble-bee-the-indescribable-brightnes...), which finally saw the light of Day in November 2011. So when Russell from Being sent me his film and we started to discuss how we could release it, I finally felt that I had found my own way though the complex world of video and DVD encoding. I felt confident that I could undertake Being’s release and cope with the technical side of it. That had been a major learning curve for me, and still is. However, it seems natural for the label to produce films and audio. I have always felt there is such a strong link between sound and vision for the label, the physical releases obviously are very visual items, so it was great to finally be able to bring that back into the content of the releases too.
As for following it with more of the same, nothing is planned, but I am, as always, working on new projects that involve film and installation, so if these work out there may well be more DVDs released this year.
I also long to produce a cassette tape release, but am a little scared of alienating my current audience, as I am not sure how many would actually still have a tape player, and of course with my dislike of digital, I wouldn’t feel right giving a download code with it.
All that said, I know it is coming - it seems the right time for a tape release…..
What other projects are you involved in?
Okay – I feel a list coming on… The Boats, Our Small Ideas, Moteer::, On Fell, e+I, The Remote Viewer, The Archivist…
There is also a cross-continent recording project with a friend that is set to last all of 2012,which is loosely based on response and the posting of objects and cassette tapes to each other. I am sure there are others, but I cannot recall.