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Step Right Up: Matt Robertson

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Interview with Matt Robertson.

There’s just something about the way analogue sounds can develop over time that really fascinates me.”

—Matt Robertson.

Words: Mark Carry


Matt Robertson is a composer, synthesist, and producer, working with a collection of vintage, modern and DIY synths, and combining electronic music production with classical composition and cinematic soundscapes.

My first introduction to Robertson’s synth-based explorations came in the form of Cillian Murphy’s guest mix, which featured the gradual bliss of synthesizers in the ambient tour-de-force ‘Urdu’ (appropriately) sandwiched between Brian Eno and Holly Herndon.

The studio album ‘In Echelon’ showcases a gifted producer at the peak of his powers, effortlessly encompassing techno, ambient and modern classical realms of sound (think Nils Frahm, Jon Hopkins and Kiasmos). In addition to his body of solo work, the UK composer has been the Musical Director for Bjork, Cinematic Orchestra and Antony Hegarty as well as working with Lamb, Emiliana Torrini and Bat For Lashes.

‘In Echelon’ is out now on Tape Club Records.


Interview with Matt Robertson.

Congratulations on the incredible solo record ‘In Echelon’. One of the great hallmarks of ‘In Echelon’ is the masterful fusion of organic and synthetic elements and what forms is this stunningly beautiful and expansive envelope of divine soundscapes. Please take me back to the making of your latest solo venture and the recording itself of these nine glorious compositions? I wonder did you have some primary aims or concerns from the outset as to what sonic terrain you wanted to venture down?

Matt Robertson: Thanks a lot for your kind words! From the outset, the idea was that this was a record that I could ‘perform’. What that actually means in terms of electronic music in 2016 is a bit of a grey area, but that was a general goal. The side effects of that meant that a lot of the ideas I was coming up with were things that could happen “real time” and not rely too much on playback systems when I did live shows. Ultimately, I ended up with a fusion of some things being triggered for playback on my live shows, but at least that was a creative direction when I started out!

I was also trying to have a constant sense of some kind of instability with the compositions, sometimes in terms of the individual sounds, but more so in the harmonic progressions. I have this goal of making things that could be totally happy or totally sad at the same time, depending on how the listener wants to frame it. I try and make the harmony a little ambiguous.

I am a fan of analogue synths, and some of the inherent instability of those instruments seems to lend itself well to the sounds I was trying to make. I was also really trying to focus of the theme of Surveillance. This idea that we are under scrutiny all of time, but somehow, we are either unaware of it, or apathetic to it. For me this creates a sense of ambiguity about everything. Who we should trust, what news sites we should read, what we choose to send in an email or not. That was the general theme of all of these tracks – that sense of uncertainty and ambiguity.

A dichotomy of mood, atmosphere and colour all flicker across the record. A dark undercurrent underpins ‘In Echelon’ yet a serene beauty beautifully hangs in the ether. Do you have particular processes or recording techniques when it comes to firstly creating the electronic components of the music and secondly, the organic and classical composition side to the musical oeuvre, so to speak? I’m intrigued to learn at what point do both these worlds collide and blend together? For these tracks, what would often form the starting point?

MR: For a track like ‘In Echelon’ I started with the piano elements and worked backwards. The slightly instable mood of the piano inspired a lot of the other sounds on that track, basically I mess with stuff until I come across a combination of parts that I hope always pushes the track in the direction it needs to go. The long drone note throughout the piece was a kind of accident, I think it was stuck notes on my Oberheim Xpander, but happily when I left it in there all the way through it ties together the first and second halves of the track.

Strangely, the whole intro section was also inspired by some visuals I was putting together for a show. A friend of mine found these great high speed images of colours dispersing in water, and the way he cut them together meant that I reworked the intro and made it much more sparse to make more sense with the visuals!

As the track develops it lands in its root key and just does a bit of a wig out to the end – which was an excuse to use a really old VCS3 that was lent to me for a short while. So, all in all, a combination of lots of approaches and ideas, lots of elements inspiring other elements. Definitely not a linear process!

The title-track feels like an integral part to the record, and I just love how the electronic layers continually build momentum and there are all these immaculate analogue synthesizer elements soaring across the atmosphere. Can you talk me through the construction of this particular track? Also, I assume the layering of tracks can also be big challenge whilst retaining to the vital components you need for a track to fully evolve, on its own terms? For instance, I feel there is a beautiful minimalism and sort of restraint at work throughout that creates such a compelling voyage.

MR: This track in particular came about from a perspective of live performance. I put it together on an Elektron Analog Keys synth, which has a 4-track sequencer. So, there are 4 main elements, and a lot of the time, they do the same thing over and over, but by constantly tweaking the elements of the sounds on those four tracks, you can get a good build happening. So, it’s not so much about layering more and more stuff, but more about leaving the parts the same and changing the sounds of those parts to get the build. The iPad app Animoog was key to this one as well, quite late in the day I was messing around on Animoog and came up with this air raid siren melody which became key to the whole track.

So, I can keep the bass line going with my left hand, play the iPad with my right hand, and bring in some other parts like the drums and apreggiators on the sequencer. 90% of the album version was taken from a live recording I did of this track, and then I tweaked the mix a little and made it a bit shorter! There’s also a little piano on this track. I have a really old piano that I love – it has this really mellow tone that gels really nicely with some of the analogue synths, and adds a more organic flavour I hope.

Can you discuss your love of analogue gear and the synthesizer(s) at your disposal for ‘In Echelon’? Please discuss your love and fascination with the older synths and the range of possibilities you see with analogue? I’m sure you have been slowly amassing quite a collection of gear and parts over time?

MR: Yeah for me, there’s a lot of magic in the old synths! Although I also have been getting really into the new side of analogue with the Eurorack modular explosion in the last 5 years or so. For me its two-fold. Firstly, there’s the sound. But secondly and for me I think more importantly, it’s how you make and perform with that sound. For the most part, there are no presets, so you are starting pretty much from scratch each time, and also the infinite control and tiny degrees of tweakability over the sounds means that for me analogue is still king! (having said that, the Elektron stuff does have presets, and that’s a huge bonus for live stuff).

I have always been able to lose hours of my life listening to two oscillators with varying detune amounts from unison. It’s a sad fact… but there it is. There’s just something about the way analogue sounds can develop over time that really fascinates me. I try to have elements of that in most of my tracks. The tiniest amount of pitch change of one element of a big patch can make a huge difference to the sound, and given the opportunity to listen, I think we are really sensitive to tiny changes in sound. There’s something intriguing about things changing really slowly.

‘Flight’ represents the beating heart of this mesmerising record (the closing orchestral section is perhaps the album’s gorgeous crescendo). The soft, angelic piano tones beautifully drift amidst the electronic bleeps and noise, conjuring up the timeless sound of Germany’s Nils Frahm and UK’s Chris Clark. Can you recount for me the writing of ‘Flight’? It feels like some considerable time must be poured into the creation of a compositions such as this. Furthermore, what is the writing process like for you and would your compositional approach vary depending on the context? 

MR: Yeah this was a journey! The orchestral element came from a love of string writing and also a desire to wrap that into a more electronic sound-world in a way that made sense to me. I wanted to create a feeling of escaping, or trying to escape, but never quite getting there. The Strings at the end try and resolve that idea, but again never quite get there, which I hope leaves a slightly unsettling feeling, even though there is some beauty as well (?)

The writing process for me is pretty slow. I have to leave something for a while and come back to it to try and have some sense of perspective. I don’t think you really can get any perspective unless you leave it for probably about a year and then come back, but then it would take a really long time to put a record out! I also wanted to create a bit of a journey with this one, so when you get to the end, you’re not quite sure how you got there from the beginning. Maybe….

Collaboration is another important part in your wonderful musical life, having worked in the role as Musical Director for luminaries such as Bjork, Anthony Hegarty and Cinematic Orchestra. Please discuss the art of collaboration and how you work on projects such as these? The sum of these experiences must provide such profound musical developments for you?

MR: Totally yes! I have been lucky and privileged to work with artists that I have admired and respected since I was a kid, and it’s difficult to over-estimate what an impact that has had (and still does have) on how I work on my own projects, and how I work with other people. The people you mention are so far ahead of me in terms of their approach to composition and general artistry. But it’s amazing how much you can learn from being fortunate enough to spend some time in these artist’s aura. One of the main things is how incredibly focused they all are on their own direction, their own statement. I find it so easy to get tied up with comparing my work to that of others – “is this progression as good as x’s” or “is this mix as good as y’s” – but somehow the really great artists I have worked for don’t put emphasis on that because the honesty and integrity of their own thing outweighs any of those concerns. Well – that’s my interpretation anyway!

Lastly, what have you been listening to the most of late? What are your plans for 2017?   

MR: Well – I’m writing more stuff – so lots of listening to detuned oscillators!

‘In Echelon’ is out now on Tape Club Records.

Written by admin

January 24, 2017 at 7:29 pm

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