Part of the growing Canadian diaspora now inhabiting Berlin, visual artist and musician Jeremy Shaw makes music that might just be the photographic negative of his more dance-minded countrymen. Although contemporaries Mathew Jonson and Konrad Black are concerned with proper 4/4 techno, Circlesquare’s sound is brooding and subdued, with an emphasis on songwriting, subtle electronic textures, and subversive pop-culture references. The easy categorization seems to be music for the comedown, but Songs About Dancing and Drugs is much more complex than its name would let on: It is carefully crafted commentary for the quiet, introspective moments following overstimulation or excess. Here, Shaw discusses his first release, his creative process and visual art.
Describe the process of recording the your first record, the Distance After EP. What incarnation of the band was that?
That was 1998 when we did that. Myself and my great friend Dan Wurtele were Circlesquare at that time. Technically, almost everything that wasn’t a guitar or vocal (and even some of those) was coming out of my Yamaha A3000 sampler, which was being sequenced by an old Atari 2400, then recorded into his Mac using what I think was Cubase VST -- one of the early home-audio ones, at least. The soundcard we were using only had a stereo in and out, so everything was mixed entirely within the computer itself and then sent straight to a DAT we would rent for mixdown. I think he backed it all up on .zip discs -- they were 100MB each.
Everything was recorded in Dan’s apartment living room in downtown Vancouver. He would leave the room when I would record the vocals and so on. I think all the guitars were recorded straight through a board and into the computer. Wow, that seems like a whole other lifetime ago…
We went to some crazy lengths to make things sound weird back then. Certainly were experimenting more with re-recording out of speakers and tracking and reversing and all that -- working via much more manual means. I was totally obsessive about certain/different things back then -- like playing the entire eight minutes of “Filtering Blue” without making a single clangy sound on the acoustic guitar, et cetera. These days I’d definitely just go in and cut the bad bits out, but I had this ingrained ethos of linear recording then, or of making sure I was able to play live what I was presenting on tape (an indie-guilt thing that I’ve since totally rid myself of).
At the time I was heavily influenced by the early-'90s shoegaze sound, 4AD, drum 'n' bass, and hip-hop. Slowdive and My Bloody Valentine were definitely the most prominent influences back then, but I was also really into Tricky, Can, Suicide, Spiritualized, Flying Saucer Attack and a lot of the stuff on Kranky at the time.
How did you initially meet Output's Trevor Jackson?
After recording the Distance After stuff (which was initially six songs and called the Filtering Blue EP), Dan and I went to London for the very first time and literally knocked door-to-door on our favorite record labels (4AD, Go Beat, Melankolic, Fiction, Lo, Beggars, even Parolphone/EMI), dropping off a CD and then calling them everyday for the next month to see if they’d listened. Our friend Ade mentioned that we should give it to his friend Trevor (Jackson) for consideration on his label. I had no idea who Trevor or Output was at the time, but we dropped one of to him and quickly forgot about it. A month or so later, we were just about to return to Vancouver when we found a note that had been written by a flat mate three weeks prior underneath a stack of magazines -- it said “Call Trevor Jackson.” So we did, and we went and met him and he told us that he wanted to release it immediately. I was a bit skeptical, knowing nothing about him or the label, but he gave us a stack of Output CDs, and after listening to Four Tet’s 36:25, I was totally sold.
Describe the balance between the visual medium and your live performance. What are you seeking to create? Is it possible to find the right balance?
I think I’m still trying to figure out a balance, to be honest. Currently there is a lot of "video" in the show -- actual footage of crowds, people dancing, et cetera, more akin to home video or video art than just moving wallpaper, like a lot of club/show visuals end up being. This is often quite demanding of attention, invasive even, which I really like, because I’m looking to create quite an immersive show with the visual element, something that can really work in tandem with the music in building a kind of hypnosis or creating a attraction/repulsion thing with the viewer. But I also like being able to pull away from that and simply have the band on stage with a couple of lights at times, and this is something we’re currently working on. So the balance would come from a slow audio/visual build to total sensory overload at times, and then a reduction to near-nothingness at others -- minimal/maximal, always the best way to fly.
Tell me about your earliest moments creating music.
My earliest moments creating music (beyond playing bassoon in the school band as a kid) were with my friend Phil and I. That was the original Circlesquare, him playing bass and me doing some kind of Basehead-style talk/rapping over A Tribe Called Quest instrumentals. We then progressed to writing songs over top battle-break records with a real DJ and recorded the Standing on Marbles EP at my mom’s house in North Vancouver. Todd (Konrad Black) and I worked occasionally on drum 'n' bass songs in the late '90s together -- that’s what he was super deep into and I loved as well. Yes, there was a time when he hooked his VCR up to his sampler and lifted a ton of Tie-Fighter sounds; I’m not sure they ever made it into a released tune, but I do vividly remember him working with them for awhile. He and I also worked as Headgear for a few sporadic moments in the 2001–03 days. Actually, we wrote a song called "Believer’s Goodbye" in 2001 that was only ever released on a Swayzak mix but is finally going to be put out on Wagon Repair at some point this year.
To what extent did the early, Vancouver creative community inform the artist you are today? Describe the environment at the time.
I wouldn’t say very much, really. I wasn’t ever much of a part of any scene in Vancouver and tended to hang out more with an art crowd than a music one. (The visual-art community definitely had more to do with the artist I am today, really.) I mean, Todd and I were always together, so I guess we kind of had our own scene, technically speaking -- and he was more a part of any electronic/techno scene than me as he went out more, but even at that, it wasn’t exactly some super-undergound bursting with energy. Vancouver was most definitely a house city back then, and for the most part, a type of house that I had a relative aversion to.
There were obviously some great exceptions to this like the free outdoor full-moon parties where a deeper, more minimal house was the norm, and the early Summer Love parties and so on. But as a general scene, it was really not very inspiring or informative to me. I could never really get down with the favored "deep, sexy house," for I always found it neither deep nor sexy. In fact, pretty much the opposite. Vancouver is a wonderful city, but it’s a middle-city, and therefore it can be really difficult to keep strong undergrounds alive. There just simply isn’t enough of a crowd willing to give what it takes. My trips to London during those periods were much more informative to my musical practice.
How do you compose? What does the initial sketching phase look like? Do you mix down in headphones?
No, never. I only wish I could trust a pair of headphones as obviously everything sounds better in there. Actually, Matt Jonson told me that he has been mixing in headphones lately, so I should really look into what those are he’s using. Mixing in headphones would be a dream.
I don’t have a set way of composing at all. Sometimes I will have written an entire song in my head years before ever recording it (like "Hey You Guys," which has been in my head since 2002), and other times I’ll sit down to write with literally no idea at all. I do often start with a loop of some sort -- a bass line or a vocal hook I’ve been thinking of -- and then just build from there. But there’s no set way I go about it, and often I will end up combining different parts of half-finished songs together, or loading on layer after layer, only to strip it all back to again. I find that often to be the most effective way of writing. I do write down a lot of ideas for songs that I come up with outside of the studio in my book, but it is very rare that I ever can figure out what I was thinking when revisiting them later on.
Your songs and visuals are strongly influenced by the darker fringes of youth culture. Explain.
These are all things I’ve been involved in somehow or interested in for years, via both music and art. I’ve always been attracted to the fringe elements of culture, albeit in a romantic and celebratory way. I’ve also had an ongoing interest in the juxtaposition of image and sound that seem at odds with each other -- beautiful and violent, slow motion of fast, cathartic events.
Circlesquare has often used this strategy as a device. Slowing down violence, playing beautiful imagery to dark music. Very divisive gestures in some sense, but also acknowledged as such, and to me, still a very compelling way to comment on deviant activities and proposition of there being more than what’s often taken at first glance or a recontextualizing of something, giving it more space to be more things.
Your songs are grounded in electronic sounds, but also accented with human elements. Are you interested in the balance of frailty and imperfection and machine music?
Yes, definitely. I like the ghost-in-the-machine idea for sure. But a balance would be the operative word as I’ve never liked it when music has sounded like that’s what it’s going for. Like, a lot of acts were doing these things in the early 2000’s, combining electronics with acoustics and so on, but that was always such an issue. That was the focal point of the sound generally, rather than a melding of them. It’s a tough one, as much of what attracts me to such a concept is the polarities in the cold/warm spectrum, but it’s not something I am interested in constantly pointing out, or referring to. I would love the sound of Circlesquare to end up be a melding of these things -- an alchemical kind of thing, where it ends up being a new sound rather than a series of genres with dashes in between.
Why did you cite mid-'90s drum 'n' bass as an influence on the newest record?
It was a quite big moment for me in my musical development, and the sonics, and emotive elements of those songs that really resonated with me back then still do to a certain extent. I really loved what was going on then. The whole tech-step stripping down of the chaotic jungle form was amazing, and the first time I’d watched a genre evolve like that. Songs like “Shadowboxing” and “Cells" were huge influence on the Circlesquare sound -- easily as much as minimal techno has ever been.
There was also a restrained aggression in those records of that period that I really felt an affinity with. I always likened it to the American hardcore that I loved as a teenager in its aggression -- although it wasn’t nearly as explicit and far more unpredictable and sinister.
How will this tour differ from previous ones in terms of visuals and general approach? Will there be uniforms and a general air of formality?
Well, there’s now three of us onstage instead of two and then the one offstage running the visuals. So we are using drums, guitar, keyboards, and vocals on top of a couple laptops and video projectors. The feel of these shows is far more aggressive and upfront than before; the drums obviously being a major reason for that, but that’s also just what came about with the sound of this record in a live setting. The guitars are turned way up but played very sparsely -- a much more alive sound than the Pre-Earthquake-era shows, and oddly enough, to me, it feels more stipped-down and raw. There are new outfits, yes -- they're formal but less rigid than before. We have very simple, clean outfits we’ve been wearing that border on preppy -- they really just look like what I wear every day, but I make the guys wear them, too. I’ve always liked a crisp, clean outfit -- like a high school pep band or the like, but by no means appropriating something like that. It’s not intended as irony, just another unifying factor in the overall presentation of the show. I like how our outfits could lead you to believe were going to sound a way that we probably don’t. I mean, not like wearing death-metal makeup and playing country, but I think we look like we’ll be playing something quite twee. I really like a good presentation myself, however that may be.
Tell me more about the title of the record.
The title is meant to be one of those really direct, laid-out-for-you titles, similar to a lot of '60s folk records or albums that appear to be more a collection of songs than a concept album. I always felt like the title was sort of an afterthought to a period of work, and I like that idea, that it wasn’t fussed over. Songs From a Room, Songs of Love and Hate, Songs About Fucking: Something about the absolute bluntness of them always made them somewhat subversive to me, like there just had to be more to them than that. Dancing and drugs are obviously key themes to this record, but there’s more in there, and that’s what I was playing off. I also like using both those terms in relation to my music, becuase it’s not generally "dance" music, nor necessarily "drug" music (depending on your scene, I guess), but it’s very commenting on both those subjects, hence "about" and not "for."
Do you find the entire "album" process to be tiresome? Would you ever consider releasing your creative output on the fly, in the form of digital singles? How important is format to you?
Yes, I do find it tiring, but I also really love albums and have a deeply ingrained sense of worth in them -- possibly quite dated, yes, but I love the idea of the album in its letting an artist really work through something to make a whole. I still listen to albums cover to cover as much as possible. I love the narrative arc they can create -- even if it’s created by the listener. It’s the same thing that makes me love watching movies, too. That said, for me making them personally, I am not a fast nor prolific songwriter, and so releasing shorter, more readily available things is definitely appealing. Even with SADAD, it was finished in late 2007, and isn’t seeing light of day till just now, so there’s something to be said about dropping songs digitally within days or weeks rather than the months of even years the whole physical/digital album thing can take.
I do love EPs as well, though. They’ve always been like half-statements to me, between albums that would be more of a complete thought. I think the EP format might be the answer for me in terms of how to get things out quicker while maintaining a bit more of a body to the recordings than just a single.
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