Pushing Buttons

5 July 2012 | 8:00 am | Christopher H James

The last thing you want to do is ask what he thinks of the “drill‘n’bass” tag journalists and musos applied to him in his career’s formative days. “It’s just more static, window dressing, polishing, waffling, missing the point,” he dismisses. “Fundamentally, why the fuck would anyone concern themselves with that boring shit if they were able to thrive and enjoy making music themselves? But why??

More Squarepusher More Squarepusher

I like trying to make the impossible work,” Thomas Jenkinson vaunts. It's perhaps the best way to explain the perpetual twists and turns that his career as Squarepusher has taken for nearly two decades. Arriving in the mid-'90s, his impossibly fast, fluctuating beats, aligned with strong jazz sensibilities, seemed to position his music somewhere to the far left of the thriving drum'n'bass scene. However, his organic, almost post-rock 1998 album Music Is Rotted One Note stunned many followers. Since then an unpredictable deluge of releases has ensued without any seeming long term masterplan. Jenkinson has been as likely to release a live solo album of jazz bass as he has bewildering machine breaks, lustily pursuing whatever parts of the musical map he feels are yet to be fully navigated. “It's just that when people speak so confidently about this or that in music, how this kind of music is just bad, how this instrument can't do certain things, it just gets my imagination going,” he explains. “There is so little that is genuinely final and certain in music.”

His latest, Ufabulum, is a personal rule-breaker once again, as it's his first album to be entirely programmed - not a live instrument in sight. This is a record that was “envisioned” rather than jammed out. “Playing parts live makes the process more laborious and stressful,” he elaborates. “That's not to say that I haven't enjoyed doing that over the years, but as it adds a requirement of technical expertise in terms of playing instruments, it certainly complicates and intensifies the recording process. This album was quite quick to make due to leaving out those live elements. Sometimes it can take days to get the sound right playing instruments. When it comes to playing instruments live, you just have to get it right there and then.”

Strong reviews for Ufabulum and praise for tracks such as Dark Steering and the remarkably brutal Drax 2 have rekindled interest in Squarepusher following the lacklustre reception for 2010's Shobaleader. One might think Mr Jenkinson is looking forward to regaining places on those end-of-year lists. “I don't care about ranking things,” he declares. “To me such things are just static, hot air. It's ok for people who can't develop their own opinions to have music stratified into best-ofs and charts and so on. But to me it's like turning music into sport, as if satisfying certain statistical criteria makes a piece of music good, like you've sold that many records, so you're good. What that completely misses is the individual qualities of each listener's experience... it seems obvious to me that one person's hit on YouTube is not equivalent to another, so adding up those numbers and forming a comparison between pieces of music on that basis is utterly meaningless.”

Jenkinson's singularity has undoubtedly made him hard to pin down. In particular, his advanced musicianship is exceptionally rare amongst bedroom boffins and studio wizards. “I would love to have a group of people I could call peers or contemporaries, [but] quite frankly I've never met anyone that I would genuinely describe like that. I have yet to meet anybody who has a comparable command of both electronic and live instrumentation and harmony. I don't care if it sounds arrogant; it's just how it is. But I don't know about doing something totally unique; I wouldn't make that claim. And I've made some duff tunes over the years, I'd never deny that.”

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The odd duff tune may be the reasonable by-product of a rampant, almost “one album a year” prolificacy, but certainly his sprawling output consistently defies pigeon-holing; no matter how tempting it may be. The last thing you want to do is ask what he thinks of the “drill'n'bass” tag journalists and musos applied to him in his career's formative days. “It's just more static, window dressing, polishing, waffling, missing the point,” he dismisses. “Fundamentally, why the fuck would anyone concern themselves with that boring shit if they were able to thrive and enjoy making music themselves? But why??

“I really can't believe you think I'd have anything to say about this,” he continues, rather miffed. “Terms like this are attempts to nail down and pacify the messy activities of musicians. Partly it's to do with non-musicians trying to operate in a musically territorial way, to divide up the land and signpost where you should and shouldn't go. Again, it's ok for shepherding people who just consume music in a somnambulant way, beyond that, maybe it's journalists and critics organising and stratifying the work of musicians to assert power over music and musicians for the sake of it, or maybe it is itself like a kind of music-making, where individual pieces are the minutiae of a gigantic canonical work organised by commentators. To me it's generally stupid to pronounce verdicts. Of course, we're now surrounded by exactly that given that the Internet has made critics out of everybody, but the ensuing sea of nonsense only seems to show that in the end so little can be asserted unequivocally in music.”

Ok, I think we'd better leave that there. Regadless of how anyone seeks to define his work, his achievements over the years certainly stand up by themselves. They are enduring statements of technical expertise and far reaching vision. Although with such a cerebral canon, one does wonder what Jenkinson's guilty listening pleasures are when he wants to switch off his brain off and just feel happy? “Ha ha good question,” he concedes. “I have been known to listen to ... oh no, time's running out. What's the last question?”

Grrr, denied. Well, how about confirming if the whispers we've heard that he'll be heading down under for a festival appearance in the not too distant future are well-grounded? “Nothing is confirmed as yet, but it's certainly looking likely,” he nods. And quite a show it promises to be, featuring an ambitious LED “videosynth” display. He's still having a bit of tweak and a tinker, but “at the moment the imagery is shown on a large screen behind me and on a small LED screen mounted on a helmet, worn by me during the performance,“ he explains. “The basic motivation on the imagery side was to try to articulate some of the mental images that came to mind when I was making the record. The images were made using a home-made bit of software that uses mathematical functions to generate images. The images are influenced by the audio. The videosynth is operating in real-time, so that as I process and change the audio signals on stage, the images that are generated change accordingly. But probably best to wait and just see it for yourself - by the time I get to Australia it'll probably be quite different!”

Whatever forms his live show takes, no doubt it will embody the overriding characteristic that's been consistent throughout Jenkinson's zig-zagging career path – unpredictability.