________I seriously doubt vistors to this site need an introduction to Mark Spybey. Dead Voices On Air is a project held in fervent esteem worldwide. Mark made time recently in his extremely busy schedule to share some of his views on subjects I have long thought about asking him. Not yet having the opportunity to perform with him live, I was fortunate to receive soundscapes from him when compiling my Anhedoniac album. The song , ‘Honey’,for example, is perfectly offset by the agitated element Mark created – that I placed before and after the song. I then added the sounds of bees at the end of the piece….The effect of all 3 elements either upset or paraphrased all hope of ‘Honey’s potential sentimentality. The result is in my opinion, a powerful and sucessful collaborative. To see Mark Spybey perform live, I flew to Philadelphia and was not disappointed. His set was mesmerizing.
Jarboe: Can you site a particular event and/or moment in your childhood that you now see as foretelling a future pursuing the realm of music/sound?!
Mark Spybey: I am from the north of England. I wasn’t able to hear much music as a child except for my Mothers Jim Reeves records and Top Of The Pops. A very good friend of mine, Richard Sanderson, had access to his Fathers record collection which included works by people such as Cage and Stockhausen. We also had the John Peel show. So I was led if you like, by Richard into hearing different kinds of music. Eventually, once punk reared it’s head, it became a kind of challenge between us to discover the strangest music. I was rarely enticed by commercial music. Although I obviously didn’t know this at the time, I saw art, politics and education as a way out of living in that town for the rest of my life. As a way out of feeling stuck. My Father was a chef. He died when I was eleven years old. He worked long hours and we didn’t see alot of him. He had numerous eccentricities. He would routinely bring home pets, late at night. We would get up in the morning and find a snake or a hamster or rats or a dog curled up in a box near the fire. He took up oil painting and would disappear for a while in the kitchen. He was a passionate man, with a beaming smile and a fierce commitment to other people. He would buy classical music occasionally ( I guess when he had the money ). I was proud of his eccentricities. I cherish those memories of him. I have always had a strong sense of my Fathers presence in me, something I ascribe to genes rather than anything flaky. In a way, I think my way was paved by him and I can remember identifying with him strongly. If I was to pinpoint one defining “musical” moment however, I would say that as soon as I heard “Oh Yeah,” by Can from Tago Mago, that my musical goals were defined. It was tremendously liberating to know that this music existed. I can recall feeling goose bumps down my arms as I heard it for the first time. I was about fourteen when that happened. My first concert was Kraftwerk . Four silhouettes on stage, booming music. I can still remember the windows of the hall shaking uncontrollably to Kommetenmelodie 2 from Autobahn. It was 1974.
J: Is there a soundtrack in your head for moments in your daily life? Do you ever hear shifting tones or melodies ‘out of the blue’?
M.S. I’ve always heard music in my head. Imaginary and real. I can summon up melodies or counter melodies of my own. Sad little tunes. I’ve concentrated lately on being able to make these “real”. As a non-musician, I’ve naturally had difficulty creating melody. I need to work with someone who can translate my thoughts and write music down to paper because I consistently relate to the sounds of strings, notably the cello. There are certain songs also that I simply cannot get rid of, which are always bubbling around somewhere. One is ” ( I keep A ) Close Watch,” by John Cale which is a beautiful song. I have to confess that I often have difficulty preventing myself from lapsing into musical daydreams. I know why though. I don’t get enough time to work on music and often have to engage in tasks that I find frustrating and non-productive. So music can be an escape route for me but the act of music making itself is never an escape. On the contrary, it’s about determined confrontation.
J: What could you reveal from your personal endeavors as several important impetuses /criterion’s for exploring and /or engaging in improvisation?
M.S.: Improvisation is not an exclusive terrain.It’s not specifically concerned with technical skill and as such it’s not owned by anyone in particular. Improvisation is a skill we all have but tend to bury once we “become” adults. Once we learn how NOT to be children. Secondly, we learn about our world, our reality, ourselves and others by improvising. It is a powerful learning tool. Just as a child learns about their world, their reality, themselves and others through the act of play. I can have deeply significant relationships with people by working together musically. Often we may find it difficult to interact verbally, we might not necessarily feel “that ” close to another person but we can develop a bond through improvising that feels strong and perhaps less fragile than relationships based on other mutual concerns. I can generally predict musical compatibility based on ability to improvise. I might not always use this as a criteria for collaboration but it certainly seems to be important. I am not at all interested anymore in just “jamming,” for enjoyment sake. In fact “jamming” has become a dirty word for me. I have to be motivated by outcome. Also, Michael Karoli from Can taught me a great deal about this issue. Can “spontaneously composed.” They did not jam. I have always felt motivated by structure and composition. Never by randomness and chaos. Even within the depths of freeform improvisation, one is continually searching for compromise and cohesion. For dynamic structure. With cEvin Key for example, I have an ideal sparring partner because we relate to each other musically in an aggressive way.
There is a mutual respect, an acknowledgment if you like that transcends our relationship. I think this kind of chemistry cannot be bought and it cannot be effectively explained. It is literally magical in a sense that it can certainly feel outside of your conscious control. cEvin is someone I have an implicit musical trust with and this was born out of simply engaging in music making together with no specific product in mind. There is a playfulness which is inherent to collaboration. If it is absent and humour is absent, I simply do not feel comfortable.. I consider myself eminently fortunate to have met many people such as Darryl Neudorf, or Tim Olive or Origami Replika or the people associated with Can, because we have been able to establish a palpable rapport. Finally, of late, I’ve become quite aware of how difficult it is to improvise with someone who insists on filling in the blanks between silence. It’s the death knell of improvised music and unfortunately there are many people out there who seem to be making a career out of it.
J: How much of a factor, if any, is recreating a recorded work for live performance?
M.S.: Hasn’t really been that important to me to be honest. This is changing now, with Dead Voices On Air, in so far as we have made songs that feel strong enough to be explored in a live setting. Prior to Piss Frond, I really didn’t feel like recreating recorded material. However, one has to balance this with what the audience wants. With Download we had to reproduce certain songs and we did this earnestly with the ability to veer at random. Ideally, I would like to work with live musicians who can compose spontaneously. This might mean using certain elements from recorded songs but having the ability and potential to dynamically develop or veer at will. This requires a great deal of skill and a rigid adherence to the group ethos. It’s rare to be able to get to that kind of level. Much easier if you’re working by yourself but sadly less satisfying. It’s something to aspire to. I can’t guarantee it will happen.
J: What makes for a satisfying collaboration? How necessary is a shared vocabulary?
M.S.: Well I think to be honest, for me, there are a number of elements that have to be in place A shared vision. An agreement on direction. Satisfaction with the outcome. Apart from practical matters, I like to feel challenged. I think that working with someone who manages to compensate for some of my weaker areas is also a good strategy. For example, I am not a “technical” person and loathe fussing over the act of making music but it certainly helps to have people around who can tidy up after you, in a constructive way. It’s a very important role.
J: What value do you place on random elements? Do ‘mistakes’ ever make their way into your recorded work?
M.S.: I’ve never recorded anything without a mistake. Random little accidents are part of the beauty of music and I tire of hearing sounds that are audibly “perfect.” The musical equivalent of a beige carpeted house. It is just longing for someone to spill something nasty on it. I agree with Tristran Tzsara who said in one of his manifesto’s that beige should be banned.
J: What is your ideal performance atmosphere?
M.S.: A performance is a ritualised event and it’s important to feel that I have a strong engagement with the audience. I can’t abide hearing people talk when I’m playing and drunkenness is a difficult problem to contend with when you’re not catering to it. So I prefer an atmosphere that aids concentration, both for the audience and myself. I also like to feel in control of myself and my equipment. I tend to prepare very thoroughly, which helps as I often have no idea of where the performance might go..
J: Do you ever hear sounds as specific colors or textures? Music is emotive , of course, but isn’t it also actually ‘visual’?
M.S.: I can relate to textures. I’m interested in how the audience interprets my sounds. People have referred to my music as being visual and I don’t feel as if I’m in a position to disagree. I believe in the idea that we can create the possibility for free interpretation to occur. I also associate music with places or memories. Much of Piss Frond relates to my thoughts of England which was inevitably about the landscape that I grew up in. As such, I’d say that much of my music relates specifically to landscape in the way that for example, Thomas Koeners “Kaamos” refers to the urban landscape.When I hear that record I immediately feel an affinity to the city. I live in an area which is surrounded by roads and urban noise. So Koerner can actually make me feel as if I want to take note of the sounds around me and I think he actually enables me to study my environment. I have tried to explore this dynamic.
J: I’d like to hear your opinion about the concept of music created without human input other than selecting a ‘random’ programming pattern in a computer with sampler or keyboard slaves? As technology gets more and more sophisticated, are humans even needed at this point in creating soundscapes or melodies? Are people only needed to hear and react but nor create? Indeed, can machines ‘create’?
M.S.: I can’t comment objectively, I’m not that familiar with technology. However, I have a strong feeling that machines are only as good as their operators. I enjoy what machines do. I get a buzz if you like, about certain machines especially when they transform the ordinary into something more interesting. I’m vaguely intrigued by the concept of artificial intelligence but I’d hate to think that conscious human thought and emotion could be reproduced by a machine. I simply don’t believe it can happen. I’ve never felt motivated by the dogma of technology per se and science fiction has never interested me. No, the key seems to be in the control and use of machines to make ends meet.
J: I know that DVOA maintains a thorough web site and that you are accessible via the net, What have you learned from the contact with fans and others via the net? Do you enjoy the live ‘chats’ experience? What do you feel is the future of the net and musicians/sound artists?
M.S.: I’m absolutely not interested in placing myself on any kind of pedestal. So many musicians seem to court this, consciously or unconsciously. It seems part of the “rock star”: mystique. What separates one “successful” musician from another who is less successful? It’s often the record label. It’s promotion. It’s money. It’s the fact that we seem mesmerised by beats and song structures. It’s an adherence to the “established” way of marketing a band. The more money thrown away, the more ads taken out in the right circles, the more press worthy the stories or fables are, the better the artist sells. I thought “underground” music would be different but it isn’t. It’s just the same. Cliques are formed and certain labels are ignored and artists suffer because of who they are associated with. You could say I’m bummed because I haven’t had the same kind of success that others have “enjoyed.” It may be true. However, early on I made a commitment to the people who told me that they liked my music and I’ve generally stuck to that way of working. As a result I may well have hurt my career but I can’t really say that bothers me. I spend a lot of time talking to the people who buy my stuff. I’ve made good friendships this way with people and engaged in many fruitful projects as a result. The truth is that I am not special. I’m just the same as anyone else. I have my problems and foibles I’m not different. I’ve had to work full time in a day job for years to make ends meet and music is a hobby for me. I know how disappointing it can be to experience the brush off by someone whose work you admire. There is no excuse for it. I may well have offended someone somewhere but I’ve probably suffered more as a consequence myself. So it seemed entirely appropriate to make myself accessible to my listeners, if only to destroy the perception that musicians are special. I can’t say that it’s always fun.
J: What are three ‘truths’ -you can share with us- that you have learned in life and you hold close?
M.S.: 1. Survival. I’m ultra cautious. Touch wood. 2. Impulsivity. ” I wouldn’t be where I am today without taking the odd risk,” a quote bastardised from the show, “The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin.” As good as the BBC got, gets. 3. ” Anger Is Holy,” a track by Mark Stewart. I’m not into being a punch bag. I rarely lash out in response to attack but when I do my passion and lust for self preservation can take over. It’s always a verbal thing. Try as I may I can’t make myself look tough…period. I despise bullies, tyrants and despots. Part of my working class background. My Father used to say, ” When someone hurts you, take a good kick at their balls and run away as fast as you can.” Hah!
J: Please describe some of the projects you are developing at the moment. I understand some German collaborative/projects are in the works?
M.S.: I am managed by a very wonderful guy called Thomas. Ziegler. He is German but lives in Vancouver. He is closely affiliated with Can, Michael Rother, Dieter Moebius amongst others. Late last year I managed to bag a support slot for a Damo Suzuki tour of the States. Damo brought Michael Karoli from Can with him and we clicked enough for me to be able to guest with Damo’s band several times. I also met Messrs. Rother and Moebius and supported them at a show in Vancouver and we established a strong relationship. I was tremendously impressed at their ability and desire to work with others. Really in awe of their skills. Several months later Michael Karoli asked me to play in his new band Sofortkontakt ! as part of the Can solo projects tour in Germany. This was to celebrate their 30th anniversary. It was a great honour and after it finished Michael made a commitment to involve me in any future engagements. Since then I have played with him at a festival in Germany and more shows will follow soon. I adore this kind of music. It’s thrilling to be involved. I am also doing a remix for Faust at the moment and intend to tour with Karoli, Rother and Moebius in various combinations over the next few months. I also became involved with Gvoon through this tour who are a German based new media group. They were working with Holger from Can but I have become their resident musician. Gvoon is difficult to explain but if you imagine a hybrid animal, part digitally created and projected image, live computer animation, performance, interactive media and music then that would be a convenient if brief description. It is powered by a plethora of computers. State of the art technology but solidly based on improvisation, as is Sofortkontakt! Gvoon is also a very tight unit. My very good friend Stephen Collins from Chicago who has supported my work for several years is also a member and Arthur Schmidt, the Gvoon founder is a very engaging and loyal person to work with. I have produced a cd for Gvoon, utilisng some pieces that were recorded live in Chicago. and another Propeller release. I’m collaborating with several people around the world. We’re also starting to assemble another DVOA cd. There are several tours proposed with various combinations, DVOA, Gvoon etc. All provisional at the moment.
J: I enthusiastically await their fruition…