Not merely one-half of Belfast duo Ex Isles, James Joys is the music-making moniker of Belfast experimental composer James Thompson. Influenced by the likes of Ben Frost, Holly Herndon and Tim Hecker and more, his recently-released debut EP, Super_Tidal, melds electronic, ambient, noise, electoacoustic and rave across five tracks. Ahead of a busy 2019, Joys talks to us about conceptual distinction, confidence, collaboration, and crafting a release that translates the feeling of “being in a massive club with lots of different rooms, with all sorts of music blasting away”.
Your recently-released EP, Super_Tidal, is a work of “electroacoustic rave entropy”. Very intriguing. Tell us more about what that term means to you.
Well, to me it essentially means the persistent threat of disintegration, disorder and collapse. And I like playing with that, compositionally, and certainly in a few tracks the energy of the music kind of uses itself up by the end, in a process of entropy. And then really those two facets and cultures of electronic music that I love equally – electroacoustic music and electronic club music – were the vehicles that I wanted to use to convey that on the album. I really like the sound of those two dramas getting tangled up in each other.
You’ve expressed that it “encompasses your love of dancing in dark sweaty rooms to electronic, experimental sound art, synths, field recordings, and extended techniques on saxophones and oboes”. How did you set out to repurpose that love as standalone sound worlds?
Well, the way I thought about it was just to throw everything I love and been involved in over the years into it, and listen to how the sounds converse with each other, and work it all out from there. So there are a lot of recordings of improvisations, a lot of field recordings, and a lot of making daft noises on saxophones and other woodwinds. And then that’s all processed and warped and degraded in various ways. But I think a big driver of the work was how I could create something that is the equivalent of being in a massive club with lots of different rooms, with all sorts of music blasting away.
How could I translate that experience of competing frequencies and tempos and sibilance and pulses into something more than just a kind of record of nostalgic ambience or hazy reminiscence; how could I make it into a palpable entity in itself, you know? What monster could I create using those experiences of these liminal moments in clubs at 4am where you’re skulking from one room to another hunting for a different beat, or you’re in the cold with smoking strangers, or you’re coming up too hard in a toilet cubicle trying to hold it together, you know? Those bits where you’re in-between, and sounds are just beyond reach – behind walls, under your feet, filtered by doors opening and closing. That experience is so thrilling, and of course there’s also the threat of it all turning nightmarish quite quickly. It can be quite a menacing experience. And I can relate a lot of those physiological and psychological experiences – breathlessness, sweating, sensory overload, that focused golden plane on the dance floor when your body and the music and the sound system are just totally fucking conversant – to how specific parts of Super_Tidal make me feel when I listen back to it. It gets my heart racing, makes me want to figure out a way of moving to it. But I’m not interested in any kind of rave hauntology or anything nostalgic; I’m more curious about palpable sensory and sensual excess, especially that particular kind of excess you can only experience in a club, because you might also have a cocktail of alcohol, drugs, endorphins, adrenaline, whatever, coursing through your body. And you take a gamble on that collision of music, vibration, and chemical stimulants as to whether you’re going to have the greatest night of your life, or if you’ll crash and burn in a gurning heap of confusion and tears.
And so you know, I want to figure out whether it is possible to construct ‘sound worlds’, as you say, that aren’t nostalgic, aren’t for sad white boys mourning hardcore scenes they read about in Simon Reynolds’s Energy Flash, but are as kinetic, as evolving, as potent, as affective as club experiences can be.
You’ve said it took a long time to piece the release together. How long did it take, in all? And what was the most challenging aspect in terms of getting it over the line?
It took a long time in the sense that two of the tracks were started in about 2014, then abandoned for a couple of years or so while I was a music lecturer in a college in Bristol and the thought of coming home to make music was just too horrifying. But the time away from it was useful. There’s little resemblance to those early sketches. And really the whole process was one of building up the confidence to actually write something that wasn’t trying to mimic someone else, and, it’s daft really, that it’s taken so long, but it has taken me years – I’m 34 now – to start making the music that I can hear in my head. And Super_Tidal is probably the closest I’ve come so far in that regard, because I eventually permitted myself to do it without second-guessing some imaginary critic from The Wire magazine. So there are a lot of small musical moments in there that I’m like ‘fuck, I’ve wanted to hear something like that for a really long time’, and it makes me very happy that I made it. For a long time my biggest fear was someone calling my work conservative or safe or derivative, and it just paralysed me creatively. Maybe it is, but I care a lot less now. But these anxieties still flare up all the time, you know? Is it extreme enough? Is that beat a bit straight ahead? Would someone play this at Café Oto? Am I fraud because I’m not using a Eurorack? Shouldn’t I have written that plugin myself? Did I ensure a good balance between proprietary and open source software? I mean, really fucking daft things like that that tie your brain in knots. I think my time in academia in Newcastle ruined my noggin. You put up all of these obstacles for yourself because you read about how someone live coded an A.I. Pauline Oliveros into existence as a conceptual performance piece at a Goldsmiths lunchtime concert. But I give slightly less of a fuck about that now, less guilty, and I’m more confident that I have a relatively distinctive sound if you will, but I’m still terrified of putting it out there, because it feels more than anything else I’ve done like it’s the actual sounds I hear in my head when I go for my wee wanders or I’m lying in bed unable to sleep. I think I feel very exposed, actually, vulnerable, even, now that it’s out there. It’s almost like I’ve over-shared.
As for the “piecing together”, did you have a strong sense of what each track would sound like in advance, or did it all become more lucid as time went on?
Not really in terms of overall structure, but I could hear quite clear gestures and morphologies of sounds that I wanted for each piece, and I could absolutely hear the textures I wanted. And it felt almost like a necessity to get them realised, you know, like just excise them from my head. I just didn’t really know how to actually make those sounds. I knew I wanted to do something that edged away from what I’d done on previous records, which was generally always to begin with multiple drum machine patterns running at different step lengths, and building a piece up from endlessly shifting patterns that ran underneath. There’s a useful concept coined by Denis Smalley called ‘spectromorphology’, which is essentially an analytical toolkit for describing the shape, structure and interrelationships of sounds through time. It’s generally helpful for listeners of electroacoustic music to kind of unpack and parse complex sound pieces for analysis, but I’ve found a kind of bastardised version of it helpful in reverse, as a compositional aid. It allowed me a to construct a framework of gestures and movements and relationships, which I used as a vague suggestion of what to do musically at certain points. So I basically had a graphic score, full of certain signposts, which I abandoned pretty quickly once the music started to take shape and started pointing towards where it needed to go itself. But generally the things that transformed the most were the structures of the pieces. Quite commonly I thought I was working on the middle section, but was actually working on what would become the last 2 minutes of the piece. So lucidity really only emerges quite late on in the process.
Some artists, from Blanck Mass and Ben Frost, to Wendy Carlos and Merzbow, passed through my mind when listening to the release. That said, this very much of its own realm. Which artists do you think have informed your sonic palette applied here?
Ben Frost’s Aurora, Holly Herndon’s Platform, Tim Hecker’s Virgins, all of Rashad Becker’s work, Valerio Tricoli’s Miseri Lares, Freddie Hubbard’s Sing Me A Song Of Songmy, Helmut Lachenmann’s string quartets, Georges Aperghis’s Machinations, Georg Friedrich Haas’s in vain, and his two string quartets. But also things like the sound design in 2001 Space Odyssey and its super-tense patient minimalism. And then, also, the visual artists Anselm Kiefer and Ryan Trecartin. Kiefer is all sediment and mineral, and Trecartin plastic and pixel, and I love how I am pulled in and seduced by both of them, despite quite dramatic aesthetic differences, but I think it’s because they’re both quarrying the same seam of excess and alchemy in different ways; with material and image just spilling over. And it’s that interrelationship of sediment (breath, saliva, glottal noises and other vocalisations) and plastic (digital processing, synthesis,) that I wanted to try and develop in my music.
The release is accompanying by a wonderfully vivid accompanying paragraph (on Bandcamp). Did you compose it to obliquely convey, literarily, what the music concerns itself with, but doesn’t communicate with words?
Yeah it was part of a larger piece I wrote while working on Super_Tidal, generally in moments where I was feeling a bit uninspired or my ears were a bit tired of working on it. It’s quite an intense sound world to be inside for any length of time, and on more than a few occasions it took a bit of time to psych myself up into opening up the arrangement, turning the monitors on, and getting going, you know? So instead I’d just sit and write something down in an intuitive way or stream of consciousness way, and sometimes I’d spend quite a while just distractedly working on whittling that material down to something that I felt had some innate correspondence to Super_Tidal. I can’t really say in any detail what that is, because I don’t know to be honest – perhaps something to do with the process of mining for meanings and interrelations from a surplus of material – but when I read that paragraph now I can hear a pretty sensible resonance between it and the music. I guess it has just become part of the overall writing process. A friend of mine runs an online experimental label of mainly improvised music and sampler collage called Felt Beak, and he tirelessly writes similar pieces for each release. Maybe he inspired me.
Compared to, say, your more pop-leaning work alongside Peter Devlin in Luxury Mass, Super_Tidal presents frequently quite abrasive experimental electronic and noise. Do you enjoy exploring extremities, from project to project? How crucial is it for your own sense of creative fulfillment?
I certainly like a project to be reasonably sonically and conceptually distinct. Super_Tidal was one where I was keen not to temper the more abrasive ends, and to pursue them with a bit more vigour. And as I’ve said, there’s a lot more frankness to it, where I tried to make something where I just loosened up a bit and gave myself license to experiment more. It does point towards where I’d like to go on future releases though, and I’ve already sketched out what the next thing will be, and I’ll definitely be continuing to pursue the more extreme ends of things. It’s fun. But yes, it’s undoubtedly creatively fulfilling to pivot and go, ‘I’m going to try that next’, which is what happened with the choral work and Ex-Isles. I think I do inevitably get frustrated with a project at some point during the process and my ears start searching for other things to do, and it can be as simple as the opposite of what I might be working on at that moment. So the lush harmonic ambiguity of the choral work and the melancholic despair of Ex-Isles, both of which allowed me to write some words, were probably responses to certain exasperations I felt when I was doing Super_Tidal. And it probably worked the other way round too. Sometimes I just needed to make some fucking angry noise.
I’ve clocked that you’re drawn to tides and tidal features in both this project and Ex-Isles. Is it, as it seems, a dominant preoccupation?
Yeah it seems to be. Strike and withdrawal, wound and repair, the respiration of it all, oceanic lungs, heaving shores, formation and disintegration. There’s a coincident beauty and cruelty that I’m drawn to. The edges and borders of things that harbour peril or luxury, depending on who you are, and literally where you’ve come from. The same vistas that are sublimely beautiful for some presenting sublime terror for others. It’s definitely a preoccupation, all of that. I think it’s probably shot through all of my work, and it’s something I’ll be figuring out for a long time to come. I would say it’s presented more palpably lyrically in Ex-Isles, and sonically in Super_Tidal.
You presented the Super_Tidal at Belfast’s Sonic Arts Research Centre last month. How was it re-presenting this material in a live setting?
It’s difficult to do something as complex and compositionally fixed as Super_Tidal as a live proposition. Unfortunately I don’t expect that many people will end up listening to Super_Tidal, so I was more at ease conceiving the performance as a presentation of the work in a really incredible space, through an incredible sound system, rather than as a live reworking of the material, and I think it’s interesting enough without me trying to mess too much with it. There was a little bit of live diffusion going on, which allowed me to subtly shift the spatial scale and focus of what was coming through their system. We also blacked out the lights, and had everyone sitting in concentric circles, so there was a nice emphasis on the menace and claustrophobia of the music, which I thought worked really well. The thing I wanted to avoid at all costs was an audience facing a man standing in front of some gear, and sometimes attending to things as simple but crucial as seating arrangements and ambient lighting, can produce a really positive listening experience.
Having said that I would love to build a live set up in MAX/MSP or something that will enable me some flexibility in terms of performance, but because I spend so much time writing the music and producing it, doing side of things gets a bit left behind. But I am thinking about planning on integrating some of that work into the compositional and recording process of the next project.
It was released in collaboration with Moving On Music. How has their association and involvement helped?
They’re all just such a great bunch, and so supportive of any daft ambitions you might have. I mean, I went to them going, ‘I want to do this Super_Tidal album of noisy extremes, but I also want to score a big fucking beautiful choral work for choir and soloist and I want it performed by a great big choir in a huge gorgeous church’. And they were just like, ‘yep, go for it, let’s do it’, and it was almost as if they’d called my bluff. But, after a lot of really hard work from everyone, we did it, wrote six scores of very harmonically dense music, and it came together, and their support was invaluable. And obviously it was helpful to work with people so well connected, because after moving here in 2016 I found it quite difficult to make contacts in the scene, so having their backing and their faith in my work was just really lovely. And they opened all sorts of doors here too. Just amazing people. Shout out to Paula, Mick, and Brian!
Finally, what are your plans for the coming months, solo-wise, in terms of new material and performance? And are there any other collaborations on the horizon?
I’d like to write for dance or film, or telly, or even theatre. I’m a bit tired of hearing the same tired old tropes in modern dramas at the moment, you know? Stick a sad piano chord and a bit of ambience under anything and it’ll make even the most laboured, obtuse bit of screenplay seem profound. Cod-minimalism is mistaken for subtlety and sparseness for poignancy, and most of the time it’s just really fucking boring. I’ve watched so many great films and plays and modern ballet thinking, ‘fuck, I really could do a much better job of the music here’. It feels like there is a lot of missed opportunities, and not much ambition, which is a shame, because each of those forms offer so much latitude to do something wild and fun. I think Nils Frahm has a lot to answer for in terms of the boring old bollocks coming out of a lot of electronic composers at the moment. Some of his stuff is, you know, fine, but this weird modern post-classical yawn-fest that has permeated a lot of new music seems explicitly written to audition for algorithmically curated Spotify playlists called ‘Diluted Pseudo-Classical Nocturnes For Lazy Music Supervisors’. But then there have been some really intelligent film soundtracks recently by people like Colin Stetson, Mica Levi, Oneohtrix Point Never, and Scott Walker, whose work really tangles itself up in what’s going on onscreen.
Anyway, there will be another James Joys album coming out at the end of January 2019 called A Constellation Of Bargained Parts, which is a recording of October’s performance by Pete Devlin and the Codetta choir. We’re editing that at the moment, and I think we’ll be re-writing those scores a bit and getting them out there at some point. I’m planning a follow up to Super_Tidal, dependent on a funding bid, in which I’m hoping going to use a lot of the choral recordings including rehearsals and all sorts, to make an album of deep, pixelated noise-tsunamis. There’s also a second Ex-Isles album, funding-dependent, to write and produce, and, again dependent on funding, a collaboration with Pete Devlin on an album we’re calling Devil, Repent! So, with luck, the next year will be busy.
Go here to stream and buy SUPER_TIDAL