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Squarepusher Comes Alive!

on May 04, 2015, 11:00am

Component is a section of Aux.Out. for one-off pieces, special editorials, and lost orphans of the music discussion. Today, Gary Suarez speaks with Tom Jenkinson about his newest album as Squarepusher, focusing on the live experience where Jenkinson tries to engage with his audience.

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The sun was still out when Squarepusher took the stage, one he shared that day with Plaid, The Orb, and Tricky, among other mostly hip-hop and electronic acts. Then in his mid-20s, the shaggy Englishman named Tom Jenkinson mugged for the Coachella crowd and for himself, swigging Absolut straight from the bottle and scratching at his scraggly bearded visage. Arguably the most difficult artist in the entire lineup, he leered at the audience from behind his gear, taking particular delight in the noisiest passages, sounds trampling other sounds underfoot. Though his album Go Plastic was still two months away from release, they cheered when the unreleased track “Boneville Occident” temporarily downshifted from frenetic drill ‘n’ bass to something closer to distressed hip-hop, the exhausted “Amen break” sighing toward an unattainable normalcy. All eyes were on him. It was 2001.

Fourteen years later, Jenkinson would rather be invisible than be a rock star, which makes it all the more odd that he scheduled the stateside debut of his latest Squarepusher live show at Coachella 2015. Over the phone just days before performing, he expresses concerns over the logistics of his show, limited to just 50 minutes. “I never play gigs that are that short,” he says. “I’m really butchering my set.” The brevity vexes Jenkinson, whose Damogen Furies album comes out via Warp Records following the festival’s second weekend. “When I design a show, I’m trying to develop a story,” he explains. “Sequence is integral to that development. To dismantle it is like having a book with lots of chapters missing.”

Though Jenkinson had played Coachella’s second-ever installment, that was well before it became the massive desert weekender. Nowadays, the event belongs to a phylum all its own, hardly as principled as Woodstock nor as tragically edgy as the original spate of Lollapaloozas. The inspiration for modern music festivals worldwide, it’s a Walmart Supercenter with the roof torn off and the walls secreted away. Three-day passes sell out amid frenzied consumerism scarcely after the lineup is even officially announced. Impossibly convenient, Coachella brings humanity as close as possible to living life On Demand, with encore performances the following weekend awaiting those unable to attend the first. Now big business, it’s no longer the red ink venture it once was.

As for whether or not he’ll go over well with the Coachella crowd, Jenkinson says, “I try not to prejudge these things.”

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Photo by Philip Cosores

Photo by Philip Cosores

Given Squarepusher’s reputation for live performance, particularly in recent years, Jenkinson has little reason to worry. The all-new Damogen Furies live show follows the dynamic one he put together around its immediate predecessor, Ufabulum. Radical and invigorating, the 2012 album returned to a pure electronic realm of composition following 2009’s aptly named Solo Electric Bass 1 and the techno-organic fusion of his Shobaleader One project. 2010’s Shobaleader One: d’Demonstrator and the accompanying tour had evoked Daft Punk as proggy electro rockers, a comparison at least partially due to Jenkinson’s use of both a funky talkbox and functional LED headgear.

Though it wasn’t the first time the live Squarepusher experience incorporated responsive visuals moving in time with the music, the Ufabulum tour delivered an epileptic light orchestra roadshow apparently designed to overstimulate the audience. The songs themselves were extreme to begin with: slobbering acid squelches and taut, unpredictable beats that vacillated between ominously plodding and devastatingly unhinged. Accordingly, the show matched the hazardous nature of the incredibly daunting source material, bombarding concertgoers with what seemed like unhealthy amounts of stroboscopic lights and patterns, not to mention sounds.

A monochromatic version of the Shobaleader chromedome served as the Ufabulum centerpiece, not merely obscuring Jenkinson’s face but, to borrow his word, obliterating it. “I don’t like being stared at, quite frankly,” he says. “I don’t find it comfortable.” Another LED weapon, the Ufabulum helmet, was his latest attempt to resolve a long-held concern about his physical presence at Squarepusher concerts. He’d much rather not be on stage at all, though he recognizes audience members would feel shortchanged if he wasn’t, even if the show otherwise looked and sounded exactly the same. Earlier in his career, he tried hiding behind speaker stacks and even flooding venues with dry ice smoke machines. “I’m never going to be the guy with the acoustic guitar, yearning for meaningful eye contact with the people in the front row,” he stresses.

For years, Jenkinson had longed to deal with his concern in a more sophisticated way, which the helmet apparently did quite handily. In addition to adjusting the audience’s focus, the Ufabulum construct afforded him greater concentration. “That helmet had one of the side benefits of actually restricting my view of what I could see during a show,” he says.

Still, there’s more to all this than overcoming onstage boredom, satisfying antisocial tendencies, or indulging in space-age haberdashery. Hardly an opponent of the digital revolution, Jenkinson contends that the increased availability of recorded music has empowered listeners to a detrimental extreme. “If you’ve got that much choice and you don’t make any financial commitment,” he says, “then sadly the listener is less likely to persevere with a piece of music that they initially find difficult to listen to.” While just about every Squarepusher song can be found online with scarcely more effort than a simple Google search, his oeuvre isn’t exactly easy listening. Those who turned on to his seminal records in the mid-to-late ’90s most likely had to purchase them, and that financial interaction often came with a certain determination to better understand and appreciate the work.

“I need people to engage,” he says, and the words sound almost pleading and desperate, an existential requirement. For an artist like Squarepusher to have purpose, the live setting is now more important than ever before. “A show is where I hopefully, theoretically, have people’s undivided attention for an hour and a half,” he says. “I’m never gonna get that in someone’s house.”

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The Sunday after his second Coachella performance, Jenkinson is in New York to play the Damogen Furies show to a sold-out crowd at Webster Hall, a multi-purpose nightclub that hosts everything from mid-tier indie rock concerts to some of the city’s most benign dance parties. Earlier that weekend, the venue’s Grand Ballroom hosted a DJ set from Richie Hawtin, who released music on Warp even before Squarepusher did.

Though both are regarded as hugely influential artists in electronic music, Jenkinson took his own path. “One of the things that started my music-making along was a hatred of repetition,” he says, “of things that are identical every time you hear them.” Hawtin, on the other hand, marvels at the potential of the loop, as demonstrated on the seminal Decks, EFX & 909 trilogy of mixes. As a result, one man is an in-demand superstar DJ and techno icon; the other boasts one of the most eclectic and compelling discographies of any artist, electronic or otherwise.

“I’m always trying to retain a DIY ethos,” Jenkinson explains. Indeed, Damogen Furies is willfully proprietary. It didn’t even start as an album, but rather an attempt to write material specifically for the live setting using software he had designed himself. Ufabulum had been made with a great deal of hardware on a 96 channel console, which subsequently limited his ability to take the material out on the road. So he made compromises, which resulted in a more cost-effective adaptation. “You lose, by virtue of that, some degree of freedom,” he says. He would learn from this as he learned from those failed experiments with dry ice.

“I didn’t have any particular desire to make another release,” Jenkinson says. “My desire was focused on making music I thought interesting, challenging, and enjoyable from the live perspective.” It was only after feedback from friends and the keenness of Warp that he reconsidered. But since Damogen Furies was written, at least initially, as a live Squarepusher set, this time he didn’t have to grapple with the constraints of the Ufabulum tour. “The degrees of freedom available to me in the studio are the very same ones that are available to me onstage,” he says, crediting the awesome processing power of modern laptops that allows his software to work live.

Two such laptops flank Jenkinson’s gear onstage, both atop respective rackmount cases. From Webster Hall’s balcony, what exactly that middle bit consists of is unclear — perhaps a mixer or some other control board. The room is too poorly lit anyway, since what comes next does not require the typically gauche nightclub strobes and par cans. Jenkinson comes out dressed like an austere beekeeper or a guinea pig for Kanye West’s inevitable fencing collection. He positions himself behind the gear and directly in front of a pair of large, parallel, audience-facing screens, positioned inward in a slight V. The music begins, and the screens come to life.

What displays behind Jenkinson is less hallucinogenic than it is hallucinatory and haunted. Digital hieroglyphs of operating systems past, present, and future flicker in and out. Morse dashes ping between the screens hypnotically. Botched brain scans turn Rorschach and then totemic. ColecoVision creeps and Atari parasites infest the eyes and the ears to “Kontenjaz”, a blippy halfstep relic remixed into submission. Static hits with branded flashes of logo; the modern man-machine arrives totally on brand. Through his mask, Jenkinson goads the audience on like a rave DJ, bellowing “COME ON THEN!” intermittently to subsequent applause and hollering.

The sine wave surf king, Big Kahuna Jenkinson, has the crowd’s collective awe in his hands. A mosh pit breaks out and persists. Hula hooping ravers attempt to draw attention away with their glowing rings, to no avail. Between songs there are these wretched robotic groans soundtracking flickers of schematics, step sequencers, wireframes, plugins strung together until sentient and possibly rogue. Clues to the Squarepusher process flicker just long enough to disorient before the next wave of pleasure and pain kicks in.

As he plays through all of Damogen Furies and then some, the visuals intensify and grow more complex. His body is crawling with DOS insects, with shifty lines of code displayed on his person. (This was deliberate, he tells me, to physically become a canvas for these images.) Colors and patterns emerge, resembling test patterns spat back from deep space. It is immersive and, at times, unbearable. His electrified silhouette astral projects onto the screens behind him. Where the man begins and ends varies depending on your focal point.

But Jenkinson is still just a man. No matter how vigorously he hurls himself into the Squarepusher abyss, he returns with humanity intact. The encore proves this, the wizard deliberately ripping down the curtains of Oz to reveal a mastery of bass guitar. Jenkinson, now maskless, plucks at the strings and otherwise manipulates the instrument to his jazzbo whim. When finished, he nods and bows to the rapturous applause of the audience. In the immediate aftermath, all that grand earlier talk of distancing himself from the audience, of subverting and muting and obliterating himself, starts to ring a bit hollow.

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LED logo

Two nights later, there’s a vaguely explained Damogen Furies “release event” at Wallplay, a curated popup event space on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The windows are adorned with a manifesto of the album’s creation — again, very on-brand. A long queue stretches from the doorway down the block and curling around the corner. I skip the line, albeit sheepishly, with my virtual press credentials. The man at the door directs me upstairs to a smallish room where it becomes immediately clear that Squarepusher will perform.

I know this because Jenkinson is right there, visibly tinkering behind his gear. He wears dark shades and a camouflage bucket hat. The setup is a modified version of the one from Webster Hall, scaled down to a single translucent screen positioned in front of the now diminutive-looking laptop towers. Boxy TVs sit on opposite sides of the nonexistent stage. The layout of the space requires him to walk from one end of the room to the other in order to get to the makeshift greenroom. Jenkinson walks briskly, and I can’t help but stare. In a matter of days, he’s gone from a disembodied phone voice to being right in front of me.

He slows, and though his sunglasses and the dim lighting of the room make it seem unlikely, I swear he’s staring right back at me, processing my data. This goes on for mere seconds but feels longer. I remember something he’d told me before, now out of context: “I’m not a fucking tub of margarine.” Without any recognition or movement on my part, he continues moving and then disappears.

The room fills with people, and the Damogen Furies album plays in full. We all stare at where Jenkinson is meant to be, attempting to will him into existence until he eventually arrives there. The show finally begins, and I’m too close to the screen. We’re all too close to the screen. He’s the focal point now, assuredly against his wishes, his forcefield of images revealed to be a hologram. He shouts at us, and we can see his mouth.

Obliteration is impossible now. We came here as spectators but then turned into spies. Phones flash and record. We’ve betrayed our sense of wonder, shattered the concentration that Jenkinson expected of us. We let our humanity get in the way and pressed ourselves against the glass until it broke. It’s terrible because the magic is gone. It’s terrible because it’s all our fault.

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Gary Suarez is a writer born and raised in New York City. He tweets.