ALEX BAIN, originally from Dublin but living in London for a year, creates abstract noise through working with his guitar in unexpected and untraditional ways. Locating value in sound’s transience, Alex prioritises live performance over recordings – even if this means he might never hear the exact noises created again. MATILDA SYKES chats to Alex about how he came to work in this way.
There are loads of ways to generate affecting noise; are you mainly acoustic or electronic? Are field recordings important to your work?
I got into it because I’d gotten unbelievably frustrated with guitar playing, just started to hate it. Guitar was the first instrument I picked up, my first soiree into music – self-taught, at fifteen learning Minor Threat songs. There was a point where I was loving it, the point where you can play the song – you’re bashing away and it’s great. But then I got into professional music and just met more and more people who were really bogged down in ‘How to Play’. Guitar’s bad for that. You meet so many guitar players who worship the altar of Eddie Van Halen or Kurt Cobain, who insist ‘This is how you play’. I couldn’t do it anymore and didn’t touch my guitar for months on end. Months and months and months. Then I thought, ‘Well, how can I play the guitar like I’ve never played it before?’.
My idea was to not touch the strings at any point: ‘I’m going to pick up the guitar, crank up the volume, run it through pedals, not touch the strings. See what else there is.’ I feel guitar has been restricted by the people who play it: same chords, same tapping, same solos. I thought, ‘There’s more to it than that.’ The thing with guitar is – excuse me for getting nerdy – you have the pick-ups, which act like microphones. If you’re hitting the neck of the guitar off a wall those vibrations are picked up, creating entirely new, weird sounds. That pushed me towards making the sort of music I do – the question of whether I could reignite the excitement I used to have for this instrument.
So it’s an environmental, spatial thing? Does it change from room to room, from space to space?
Absolutely. Different materials create different sounds. Glass will make a different sound than wood. I try not to prepare too much, not bring in too many props, otherwise I’d end up repeating myself. If I’m playing somewhere that has tables, it’s ‘What can I do with tables?’ If there are no tables ‘What can I do with the floor?’ I’m not claiming that I’ve revolutionised the guitar but I think it’s nice to get people into a different space.
Can you reach a point of mastering abstract noise?
That’s what’s nice about it – it’s a very anti-mastery kind of style. I don’t see the process as just me, but me, the guitar, and the pedals. The guitar will do what it does, the pedals will do what they do, and I’m just pushing it in certain directions. I like that I can’t control it – especially with pedals, I really enjoy the sound-sculpting you can do. You take a delay pedal and turn the knob knowing vaguely what it’s going to do, but it might do something completely different, so it can’t be perfected. The whole idea of mastery is a bit egotistical. What’s the joy of being the best? Where do you go from there? I like that you can’t reach that point.
I suppose the physical aspect is important too, as people might not even know where the noises are coming from.
Yeah, it creates tension. When you’re just listening you don’t really think about it. It’s just sound, you don’t necessarily think about how the sound is being created. That’s one of the most interesting parts, when you watch and see how rubbing the headstock of the guitar on the floor creates a sound almost like church bells. People question how the sound is happening.
I like the immediacy, the impermanence. Recording these sounds gets you too into songwriting. I like that it’s just an expression that happens there and then. Sometimes I’ll get an amazing sound and never be able to recreate it. I’m very into punk and hip-hop. A lot of the early artists of those genres never recorded. Parties, DIY shows, they never recorded, didn’t want to, didn’t care. A part of me wishes I could hear them but another part of me thinks it’s cool that you had to be there, that you and a hundred other people got to hear it and no one else will.
You were in a band before, what was it like moving into a beatless realm?
It was interesting, because with bands it’s all about compromise, which can be great. I’d been doing solo songwriting and I hated it because it’s just your ideas, and that’s what’s great about a band because it’s other people coming with their ideas. But moving into improvised stuff – just me on the guitar completely making it up as I go – has a really nice freedom to it. You’re here, do it, make it sound good – if it doesn’t sound good, work around it. I think I needed that as an artist. I’m a perfectionist, so I needed to just throw myself in and go, ‘Well they’re all here now, and you’re playing. Go out and play.’ You can run in circles a bit with a band; if you’re not with the right people, you’re just clashing.
I’ve been describing your music as ‘abstract sounds’, but is that how you’d describe it?
‘Abstract sounds’, yeah, I like that phrase. I have a few plates in the air. I do my songwriting, and I’m looking to get back into band stuff. I like that and I have it as a part of my musicianship. But then I also have my abstract noise as a kind of balance. If I’m getting too in my head, too frustrated, I whack out my guitar. It kind of cleanses the palate – you just have to work with the instrument. The instrument does just as much as you. There are times when you’re fighting with the guitar and there are moments when you’re absolutely working with it. I like that, I like that it’s not planned, you don’t know what’s gonna happen. What I found out about music is that if you worry too much about getting it exactly perfect it’s never going to sound good.
How do you know when to leave it?
You can feel it. You start working in these parameters where it gets very emotional and energetic and that’s what I like about it. It’s very much feeling the music and feeling the performance. I could be playing the loudest part of the set and then all of the sudden decide ‘No, it’s got to be quiet now’ and you just bring it right down, and right back up if you want to. With live performance, you have your hour or half hour and you just go ‘Okay, I’ll work within that.’ There are things I might do once and then never do again, because when I tried it out I just didn’t like it. I like the freedom of improvisation, especially solo improvisation, because it’s learning to accept… not mistakes, but that you can make everything work, even if it’s not going according to plan.
It’s funny because it seems you’ve sort of recreated that band set-up: a little tricky, unpredictable and hard to coordinate! Can it be collaborative? Are you interested in working with others considering your performances are quite intimate and personal to you?
I would definitely look into experimenting and collaborations, but it’s very intimate, as you say. The only person I’ve ever discussed collaborating with is my girlfriend, again because with her there is that intimacy that I really like. I don’t really talk during my performances, I might say thank you at the end and that’s it, because I like keeping the ideas intact.
How does the Dublin scene compare to the London one? Where have you performed, what sort of spaces and venues?
From my experience, because I make quite fringe music, you either play to five of your mates in your garage and that’s your gig, or you might get somewhere on a bill with some other local bands in a small venue in a pub. The Dublin scene is interesting. I am maybe one of five noise musicians. I think I know all the other ones.
That’s pretty nice, then? Or hard to navigate?
Yeah, it’s… swings and roundabouts. I like being the really unique one on a bill, but it also leads to a lot of people looking at you really blankly going ‘What’s this… not sure about this’. London’s interesting because there are just so many more people. Even if weird music is still weird, there’s more people who’ll be into it. Already, only being here two months, I have met more people that get it. And I like that, that’s nice. I will always be that Dublin musician but I don’t mind being around some more like-minded people.
Absolutely. So, who are some of your inspirations and why? What do you get from them?
I think one of my big re-discoveries was Sonic Youth, who got me back into thinking ‘Guitar music can be interesting’.. I liked them a little bit when I was sixteen, but never completely got them. At nineteen the switch flipped and I started to think ‘Oh my god, Sonic Youth are the best band ever’. What I like about them, and what got me into them, was that they played terrible guitars. They were all broke artists, they bought the worst guitars, the cheapest ones. Some of them would only sound good if you shoved a screwdriver under the strings and hit it off a wall. That taught me that a guitar can do whatever you will it to do. You can work around ways to make it sound how you want it to sound. And it doesn’t have to sound like a guitar – it can sound any number of ways. And I discovered Merzbow – very much on the harsh end of noise music. You could define his music as unlistenable, and I like that. I like this idea of confrontation in music. This idea of saying ‘No, I’m doing this. Maybe no one likes this, but I can do it so I will do it.’ That challenge.
What, if anything, are you hoping to make your listener’s feel?
I think what I like about it — especially with it being abstract — is that it sort of becomes a channel for people to put anything into. The noises that you make and the sounds…really all you can affect is how loud or quiet it is. That’s your only control of the mood. When I talk to people after I play, they seem to all react differently. Through that abstraction you can coax out feelings, you’re not guiding people in any way. I have no control over how people feel about what I play and I don’t want to have any. I might play a piece that I think is so magically beautiful but someone in the audience will say ‘That was the most depressing thing I’ve ever heard’. Sound is the most abstract thing in the world to me; it’s so ephemeral, you can’t pause it, you can’t stop it, it’s there and then it’s gone. I just think that’s really powerful.
It’s interesting you say that – do you ever record them?
I’ve recorded little pieces of soundtracking. Sometimes my friends want backtracks to visual work – then I’ll begrudgingly record because I am a nice friend. I really don’t like recording my noise music because I feel it ruins the point of it. For me, the point is that it’s completely un-recreatable.
Sort of crystallised in time and memory.
Yeah, I feel that in the internet age especially people get a bit obsessed with everything being recorded; everything must be there for all posterity. You need to be able to pull up any Ramones gig instantly on YouTube. I also have this thought process at timesI sometimes have to force myself to go ‘No. You can’t hear it again.’ I think there’s something at least different about that, a bit powerful.
And of course there is the physical aspect. Do you consider it performance art? Could you be completely out of sight and achieve the same impact, as you would be if you recorded your sound?
I think it would detract. There is definitely an aspect of performance art to it. There’s a lot of physicality to my pieces. I don’t play with a guitar strap, I am just holding the guitar the entire time – there is a lot of broad movement. There’s a brutality to it at points – moments when I will be on my knees, just strumming till my fingers bleed, and that adds something too. That’s the physical aspect right there.
And what’s coming up, what are you thinking of next?
I’m hoping to get into gigging again. That’s really my big thing. I’ve not got any set in stone but I’m just looking to get live again because I’ve missed it so much.
Yeah, I’m here for a bit now. I want to expand what I do with music, too. I haven’t experimented with it for a while because it’s hard to do noise practice in your flat. I kind of wanna save it for live anyway. I’d like to get gigging, playing again, and that’s where I’ll try out new things.
An extract from Matilda’s interview with Alex features in Era Journal’s Issue 14, ‘Get Real‘.
Featured image courtesy of Alex Bain.