Mid-90s techstep may seem to be a strange place for an ambient artist at the top of his game to hold true to his heart, but it's just one of many interesting facets to this forward-thinking producer. We find out how the Auxiliary label member ticks...
Summing up RQ’s sound is hard; one could approximate with other artists, such as Leyland Kirby meets Consequence in a Japanese coffee shop at 5am. But that would be trite journalistic cliché (even though I’ve done just that).
However, New Zealander Ryan Quinlivan’s music demands more attention independent of such lazy prose.
With his music, sometimes you’re facing off against the darkness; a grey shadow that casts unknowing nightmares and dreams across concrete structures, each timbre bouncing through metal, wood and glass, in the same manner as half-heard conversations while hiding at the bottom of a swimming pool.
At another stroke, his music beautifully mirrors the 9am, bright sunshine, no-sleep, fourth pack of cigarettes feeling as your fingers struggle to dance over your keyboard kind of feeling; the kind of cathartic moment of clarity through the clogging smoke that comes from seeing the sunlight break through the curtains, its rays as yet unblemished by the day’s exertions.
At another, your head is rested against a bus window in a post-work resignation, the world outside a smudged, blotched and watercolour-esque mixture of traffic lights and glitching neon lights – just you and the raindrops on the window, forming, disassembling and reassembling in a thousand different ways.
This year has seen his first album release on ASC’s Auxiliary label. Featuring a mixture of primary compositions alongside remixes from such luminaries as the label boss himself, Sam KDC and BVdub, “Memory Fields” takes you through a shimmering world where small gestures make huge movements.
However, (tech)step back through his musical history, and there’s more facets to his character, that perhaps shine a light into other areas of his sound. So, no better time to talk to the man himself…
What and who were your early inspirations, musically and in the wider creative field?
Musically, the one thing that has probably had the most lasting influence on me would be Jean Michel Jarre’s “Oxygene”. It was on fairly high rotation throughout my childhood, played through a truly massive set of speakers my dad had made. To get such an early and fantastic contact with electronic music (and ambient music at that) was no doubt a huge nudge towards where I am now.
Another thing that helped shape my aesthetic was access to a lot of great sci-fi/fantasy artwork. There was a lot of Frank Frazetta and Roger Dean artwork in our house (I still have one of the Roger Dean books, I can see it from here). That dark sludgy blend of futuristic and organic elements has been a fascination of mine from as early as I can remember.
How did you begin your music production odyssey?
Making music/sound had always been a very strong urge for me. Prior to my involvement in electronic music, I was a big fan of Einstürzende Neubauten and their early approach to recording and constructing pieces of music, and also the feedback/noise stuff Sonic Youth was doing in the “Confusion is Sex” era. Basically, a lot of the music I was listening to back then encouraged me to “dabble”, firstly with tape decks and home-soldered leads and so on, chopping up stuff I had recorded with shitty little microphones (mainly percussion based stuff), then borrowing guitars and effects pedals to incorporate feedback and drones. Another huge influence back then was Steve Albini. With Big Black, it seemed for a while that all you needed was a few bits and pieces and a drum machine, and you could create fairly solid slabs of noise that could carry a lot of raw emotion.
"Jungle was (in retrospect) a nice long transition out of hardcore etc, so that seemed quite natural to be around."
In between that and producing electronic music, there was a long period of DJing that filled that creative role for a while. When that ran out of steam, and my hearing started to get a bit battered, I was luckily in a position financially to buy a computer and actually start trying to make what I had been playing for the previous five or six years. It was the usual time line for back then (2000-01), Fruity Loops, Cool Edit... then Acid and on to Logic or Cubase.
You’ve promoted drum and bass and been involved with dance music for some time - what’s the biggest change you’ve seen on dancefloors over the years?
Jungle was (in retrospect) a nice long transition out of hardcore etc, so that seemed quite natural to be around, but things like the No U-Turn/tech-step era really seemed to come out of nowhere in the pre internet days. Trace just turned up here and played a bunch of stuff that had only really been hinted at previously and just absolutely changed the game (for me anyway) – that switch from a lot of quite upbeat jungle with ragga and rave elements to that dedicated dark sound really had a lot of impact.
More recently the whole Autonomic movement was a much-needed breath of fresh air in an otherwise quite stale corner of the music scene, and the ever-decreasing importance placed on genres has been nice.
What was it about techstep that appealed so much, and what was its effect on the scene at the time?
To me and a lot of people in my general age group, that was without a doubt the golden era of drum & bass. So much great music was released in that period between ‘96 and ‘99, from the No U-Turn sound to all the classics on V Recordings etc.
The thing that got me was the shift to that real otherworldly sound, like it hadn’t been made here, that focus on the sci-fi and futuristic feel... and of course it got a lot darker, which suited a lot of people with a similar background to me. Tunes like Piper and Shadow Boxing remix in a club like Ministry in Christchurch (famous for its sound system) were bordering on brain altering – compared with everything that had come before it tech-step was a glistening chrome robot stomping through the city.
That stripping away of all the positive jungle influences and replacing them with a more sinister, paranoid feel – coupled with the use of sharp, almost harsh drums – marked a definite and maybe intentional move into new territory.
It had a lot to do with context as well, actually being there when it was happening was amazing, when you didn’t know every tune months before you ever heard it in a club – it just seemed so fresh and forward thinking, a thing that has been lacking since, outside of a few artists.
Drum & bass has always been in a state of flux between the mainstream and the underground, the dance floor and the artistic, but never more so than now. As a seasoned veteran, can the “family of styles” of drum & bass ever get round the same table again?
I honestly don’t think drum & bass will be a cohesive whole again, but I really don’t think that is such a bad thing. People are coming at it from so many directions for so many different reasons – and that’s fine. It looks like it is at a tipping point again, with some people thinking about moving on from their association with the genre completely, as opposed to last time this happened when they only kind of moved sideways within it. I don’t think it will fall to bits quite the way the dubstep scene has, with people actively distancing themselves from it.
How did the album with Auxiliary come about?
Out of the blue to a degree – I had been sending tunes to Geoff Wright (Presha) for a while, just as a by-product of being in such close contact with him doing work for Samurai, and he had been passing some of my stuff on to James (ASC) as he thought it was something James might be interested in. Luckily for me it was and he approached me with the idea for “Memory Fields”. For my debut release to be on Auxiliary was, of course, pretty mind blowing, but it was also a very natural process. I have always believed in things happening at their own pace, sending stuff to just a few people I trusted and just “let it happen”. I had seen a lot of people just forcing their music on people and battering listeners with their music, and to me that was not the way to go about it – I always wanted to get traction because my music was good/ different enough for it to spread on its merits, not because I had rammed it into someone’s face.
You also work as a graphic artist, how do you find the two mediums, music and graphics, work with each other?
So many parallels, it is just ridiculous. Working on a big collage-type image in Photoshop is so similar to putting a track together that I find myself trying to use Cubase shortcuts. From building up a nice base of texture and tone, to all the fine detail work when finishing a project up, the two experiences share a lot of common ground. Also your taste and love of things outside of that medium have a huge impact on your work and, for me, design and music inform each other on a lot of levels.
Outside of the technical side of things, there are also plenty of similarities, the way you gain clients is often the same as the way you get tunes to people, and they pass them on to someone else that might be interested... most of my graphic work came about in that exact same way.
How does the creative process work - are ideas formed from a set criteria, or are elements brought out of the ether and honed?
It seems different every time, but if someone was watching over my shoulder it might look fairly assembly line-like, I guess. I usually start with drums and build from there. I used to leave melody or any really musical elements till last, as they were my weak point. I have always found drums quite easy, and started relying a bit too heavily on them to carry a track, and that is a part of what led me to making ambient stuff. I started building tracks the other way round to challenge and fix that side of things, and I found that with some tracks I didn’t want to spoil the end result with drums. Also with the ambient tracks, I base them quite strictly on drum & bass or dubstep skeletons structure-wise, sometimes for my own benefit, and also when making something as sparse as those tracks I like to have a little undercurrent of stability for listeners to anchor on to.
"The thing that got me was the shift to that real otherworldly sound, like it hadn’t been made here, that focus on the sci-fi and futuristic feel..."
Listening back to tracks though, I sometimes have no idea how I made them... how did I make those drums? How the hell did I make that pad? Why did I structure it like that? So there is a certain amount of stuff coming out of the ether for sure, and a certain amount of trust in myself to do the right thing with it.
Creatively, the actual spark for a track can be anything... A sample that jumps out, a photograph, a memory... Anything.
As a collector of vinyl, what’s your most treasured, and your most peculiar?
I haven’t had my vinyl at hand for quite a while now, it is all stored away so my memory is a bit hazy. I really treasure my jazz records – I mean “double/triple bagged” treasured... However, I also have a lot of 1960s and 1970s folk and psych that are dear to me.
The strangest would be a record of emergency beacon tones from a lighthouse here in New Zealand – no idea how it was used back then, played into a two-way radio or something? Also, I have a great recording on vinyl of a psychologist’s seminar on sex and sexuality in the 1950s – it’s so utterly sexist and outdated now it’s hilarious. There’s probably some great samples on it if I get into making some wobble.
Which label art project have you enjoyed the most?
The Samurai sleeves for sure – the way Geoff has approached his releases, from day one, has been a great thing to be involved with. We have just the right balance of input from him and his trust in me to eventually get us the right product, that it is, dare I say it... Fun.
I was also stoked to be part of Joe (Mosus/ Need for Mirrors) Moses’ ZOLTAR project – he had a very definite vision for the label, one that was so aligned with my aesthetic and so far removed from anything that anyone was doing within drum & bass that I would have been upset if I hadn’t been asked to help.
Do you have a particular favorite piece of musical equipment, and why?
My laptop I suppose, it is literally all I use. I hope to have some actual gear at some stage, but for now it is all tucked away in the laptop. It might not be the best set up, but it means I can produce anywhere, and I have. Also, as cliché as it sounds, a turntable when used for sampling was a favorite of mine. I am in a pretty happy place sitting with a bunch of musty, dusty records looking for samples.
How much do you feel your surroundings influence the music you make?
In a way I like to think it doesn’t, mainly because I work anywhere I can at the moment, from the dining room table at my parents, to my inlaws’ couch. Having no fixed abode for so long now, with no dedicated space for producing, I almost hope that it doesn’t matter too much. However, if I plotted tunes and events on a graph, I think there would be definite correlations. We lived in a small apartment in Edinburgh for a while, in the dead of a Scottish winter, and when I look back on the tracks I made during that time, they are noticeably darker and more introverted. Also, since I have been back here and surfed a lot over last summer, there is a distinct aquatic vibe to a lot of the tracks I have been making... A bit more positivity.
What trends do you see emerging in music?
Two things stand out for me, in both electronic and pop/rock etc.
One is the absolute laser-focused bandwagon jumping that is going on, no artist development, just straight into making/ playing what is popular, no questions asked, no influences required or encouraged, just copy, copy, copy.
Within pop music it doesn’t really matter, it has always been an opportunistic environment. Within drum & bass and dubstep, it can be a recipe for rapid growth, but that is usually followed by total stagnation.
Luckily every time that has happened within drum & bass, someone or something has come along and freshened things up and balanced it out, reminding everyone why we loved it in the first place. All the copycatting just squeezes out any innovation and experimentation, which is what the genre was built on and why it has been so successful.
The other trend would be the flip of the above, a kind of “non trend” really, just people making whatever recently. As mentioned earlier, just less importance put on genre, whether in producing or at gigs. It is such a nice change to be able to go to a club and hear someone like Pearson Sound playing whatever works, as opposed to a whole night of one genre. That of course is a personal preference, and it has been going on forever, but it has been nice seeing that leak into normally firewalled scenes like drum & bass.
Have you considered taking your sound into a live setting?
For sure, it has been on my mind a lot recently. My problem is that everything has been so distilled down into my laptop that I am not sure if I can expand it out into anything worth watching on stage. I have a very limited set of skills outside of using a sequencer etc, I have no musical training – for example, if I want a nice housey chord, I have to Google one to see how to play it, so the addition of any external gear like a keyboard would be either redundant or badly utilized. I have been trying to find a way of doing it that is honest and interesting though.
Also, with the more ambient stuff, it would be a very rare combination of venue and punters to make the sort of environment conducive to sitting around listening to music that stripped back.
Are you planning to do more shows, possibly in the UK?
I have not been playing at all really for quite some time, maybe 10 years, outside of a couple of nights playing 96-98 tech-step recently. I have savage tinnitus in both ears and one ear is fairly rubbish hearing-wise, mainly from DJing with overly loud monitors, but also from years of going to death metal gigs and then raves, sometimes in the same night. When I realized that it was getting pretty bad, I hung up the headphones and had no desire to get back behind the decks, until recently. The last couple of times I played out it was really fun and that has lit a bit of a fire under my ass to get back out there.
"I get an incredible amount of inspiration from architecture, especially brutalism and a lot of the Bauhaus-related design work also strikes a chord."
Also, I haven’t played as a producer yet, if you know what I mean, and I have no idea what that would entail, even just playing records my taste is all over the place and I have never tried to put it all together in a cohesive set... what I produce and what I like to play out have no real resemblance to each other. There is no plan to head back to the UK for now, I haven’t even thought about playing locally yet, but I am definitely keen to get back over there at some stage.
What pieces of art outside music influence you?
I get an incredible amount of inspiration from architecture, especially brutalism and a lot of the Bauhaus-related design work also strikes a chord. In terms of visual art, a couple of people stand out and they are Rothko and Richard Long. I hadn’t known a hell of a lot about Rothko until my wife filled me in and we saw his work in the flesh at the Tate Modern. To say being in the same room as some of those paintings had an impact on me artistically would be a massive understatement. I know that sounds like an incredibly over the top statement, but some of his work resonated so heavily with me that I was almost overwhelmed. I do not remember how I came across Richard Long’s work, but I have been a fan since high school. His outdoor works are just fantastic, if I could point to anything outside of music as a metaphor for my ambient work, it would be that. Natural, yet with some order imposed on it.
Who do you look up to in the music scene at the moment?
Pearson Sound, Fis, Actress, ASC (and the Auxiliary team in general) and, more recently, Bandshell. They are all doing exactly what they want, and how they want by the sounds of it, and getting praise for the right reasons. There a loads of peoples stuff that I really like, however, not many that stop me in my tracks to ask “who the fuck is THIS?!” when I hear their tracks in a mix.
What other styles of music would you like to try?
I’m not sure to be honest, as talked about before I have been enjoying not worrying about the genre so much, just making stuff that is nice and letting my background and influences dictate what the final product is. I haven’t sat down opened the sequencer and thought “right, time for a dubstep tune” for a while... But instinctively drum & bass and dubstep tend to be the frame that I hang things on, so things definitely lean that way most of the time, which is fine, that’s the route I took to get here.
Before jungle/drum & bass, I was really into minimal techno, stuff like Mono Junk on Trope and a lot of acid stuff like Integrated Circuits, Labworks etc, and that vibe has been creeping into my music lately, which is awesome, a real full-circle thing going on there.
So, I think a lot of stuff I would have liked to have tried over the years has been slowly making its way into my music anyway, without me intentionally referencing it.
Also, if I had any musical skill at all and could play piano or flute or something, I’m pretty sure I would have tried at least once to start a little jazz band.
You have two albums out this year - what are these projects, and how has the approach differed between them?
The first one is my debut and it is on Auxiliary, that was released a couple of months ago. With that CD I was approached by James who already had the format in mind (four original tracks and the remixes) and selected from a group eight or so ambient tracks that I had written with a similar theme running through them, the result is amazing... when James started sending me through the remixes I was just freaking out at how good they were and how honoured I was to have that bunch of guys remixing my work. It was quite surreal.
The second release is on N-Type’s ‘Terrain’ imprint, which is up for probably up for pre-order as you read this. It is a 14-track album of original tracks and is more on the “bass music” (for want of a better term) side of things, mostly at dubstep tempo, but it is pretty laidback stuff – just my take on that side of things.
"People’s determination to carry on, and carry on in a way that is an improvement on what went before, is a amazing thing."
I was put in touch with Mark through via a series of contacts that I had been working for and sending tracks to over the past few years, and I started working for him doing the artwork for Wheel and Deal. Mark had been told I also produced and, after a while, asked if I could send some tracks through, which of course I did, and it was never mentioned again, I just kept working and kept sending tunes until one day he emailed and said that he would be keen to put an album of my stuff out, if I was keen. Silly question! As far as I know, he was quietly putting the tunes together in a tracklisting and adding new ones he liked until he had enough to release as a cohesive whole. The tracks he has chosen are a great snapshot of an eventful period of my life and the things that had been happening – lots of awesome stuff and lots of shitty things. I really can’t wait for it to “hit the streets”, as it were, as I think there is something on there for everyone, giving people that little space to explore is one of my favorite things. People message me a lot telling me what they see when listening to my music, and it’s always different... Which is perfect.
How is New Zealand as a society now after the (major) earthquakes? Aside from the practicalities, has there been any shift you can see in people’s perceptions and attitudes?
Well, outside of Christchurch I don’t think it has had heaps of impact, being outside of the city and even outside the worst-affected areas, it is very hard to grasp what has happened.
Once everything settles down here and people get their lives back to some semblance of normal, when all the insurance claims and demolitions have been done, and everyone has a house again, there will be a large number of people who will be effectively bulletproof.
People’s determination to carry on, and carry on in a way that is an improvement on what went before, is a amazing thing. The amount of shit people have had to deal with here, outside of actual earthquakes, is just unreal – so for people to even rebuild is deserving of praise.
If anyone wants to see a great example of “the tough getting going”, Google James Meharry and his story of keeping the local university radio station (RDU) going in spite of constantly being told no, don’t, you can’t, it won’t work...
How would you describe the RQ sound in a sentence?
This is tricky! It is quite hard to hear your music from the point of view of the listener sometimes, it’s like stepping back from a painting and standing in the same place as the public. Sometimes people will hear influences or references that you did not put in intentionally, or at all, and people have said “oh, you must have listened to a lot of (particular artist)” and I will never have heard of them.
That said I suppose I can describe my general intent;