Name: Buttress O'Kneel
Occupation: DJ/ Producer
Current Release: Bastardwave on Bandcamp
Recommendations: The first would be Negativland’s “A Big 10-8 Place” – I still don’t think I’ve heard anything like it, so esoteric and persynal and weird and oblique and specific and somehow universal and deeply strange. It’s still a masterwork, even with today’s technology, and to think it was all made with tape splices in 1983 blows my little mind. / The second single biggest influence would probably be John Oswald’s “Plunderphonic”. Unlike the hip hop and electronic music I’d heard that sampled other people, this wasn’t slipping one or two anonymous samples into a bigger piece, but instead making entire tracks out of just one Michael Jackson song, or one Beatles piece. It wasn’t disguising its sources, but revelling in them: indeed, half the point was that the sources were entirely recognisable.
What was your first recording-related job - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What is it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
First off, let’s be clear, I’ve never done this as a “job”. I’ve been commissioned to create pieces every now and then, but the vast bulk of my music has taken place outside of any sort of “market”, and has had very little to do with capitalism at all. I generally give away my music for free, and steal the components for it without permission – my work is a cultural activity, not a commercial one, and as such is only confined by cultural considerations, rather than commercial ones. So I’ll skip the “job” part of the question!
As a kid, my dad was always listening to music, of nearly every sort – and the music that he didn’t listen to (like opera or symphonic stuff), my mum loved. So, I was always surrounded by music of one sort or another, and was brought up with a very broad genre soundscape (from ancient scratchy blues to obscure improvised synth music to Jimi Hendrix smashing his amps in a blaze of pure feedback). But that was mostly background to me – what I was really interested as a kid was comedy. And in a way, I wonder if the surrealist dada sound-weirdness of The Goon Show (which we listened to every Saturday for many, many, many years) might be just as much an influence on my early creative mind as the eclectic soup of musical genres I was steeped in, if not more so. I wasn’t really interested in music as a child, but I was deeply interested in comedy, whether it was the mind-theatre absurdism of The Goons or the Monty Python albums, or the cultural-reworkings of Weird Al, and I think that is really where I come from, art-wise. Humour is still a super-important element in my work and, really, it’s the driving force of every mashup anyone’s ever made; taking the stuff we know so intimately and rearranging it until it becomes unfamiliar – that generates comedy.
In terms of my own creativity, working with sound was more immediate for me – I remember taping stuff off the radio as a kid, just quick pause-button collages of tiny fragments of songs and ads and announcements, and I loved how quickly I could create something weird and interesting. There were no instruments to learn, no theory to digest, it was really empowering. Working with sound media was fast and direct – I could be creative immediately, with strong results. And when, in the early 90s, I got my first computer with sound-manipulation software (Scream Tracker – it could play four samples at once!), my trajectory was clear.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as a producer and the transition towards your own voice? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
A very interesting question, as someone who exclusively uses other people’s material to create my own! The entire driving force behind what I do is sampling the culture I exist in – not emulating others, but sampling them directly – and the question of “my own voice” is a fascinating one, given that “my voice” is always, always, always a reconfiguration of someone else’s.
The thing is, I believe we are all samplers. As beings who learn, we are all biological samplers, really: we sample in letters and sounds and rearrange them into our own words, we sample in food and rearrange it into our own cells, we sample in oxygen and rearrange it into energy. We can never create without sampling first. So, I just do it more honestly than most artists – with my work, the direct influences are more clearly visible/audible.
I take the normally-hidden and put that centre-stage. I don’t just accept that culture is re-use, I embrace it. I understand that “originality” is an isolationist fiction promulgated by anti-culture small-picture “libertarians”. No one is an island, not now, and not ever. Anyone who thinks they aren’t deeply enmeshed in and raised by complex communal and hystorical (sic) networks is completely deluded. We’re all in this together – none of us own culture, it owns us.
Do I even have my own voice? I’m not sure. Another part of my artistic manifesto has always been that I’m not someone special, and none of my tools are inaccessible or elitist. I’ve always loved the idea that anyone could do what I do – that the music I make belongs to everyone. I’ve always used the cheapest gear (the CDJ I still use now was bought second-hand at a pawn shop twenty years ago), second-hand computers, dodgy rips of software/free software, using whatever sounds everyone generally has access to (radio, CDs, TV, etc) – to try to create a new kind of folk music, I guess. I’ve never actually thought of it that way, but that’s exactly the idea – to shift our culture away from special people who make music towards a culture where everyone makes their own music. Folk music for the post-sampling era!
Am I even interested in my own voice? I’m not sure if that’s where my creativity comes from, or something I’ve ever thought about. If anything, my creative work is the very opposite.
What were some of your main challenges and ambitions in terms of your approach to production when starting out – and how have they changed over time?
The first piece I made under the name Buttress O’Kneel was in 1997, and the main challenge was how to create the art that I was passionate about, without getting brutally sued out of existence by the kinds of people who don’t believe in communal culture but in culture as property.
Negativland had been recently sued by U2; John Oswald had recently been taken to court by Michael Jackson and had all copies of his album destroyed (even though he was giving it away for free); it was a scary time to be making art focused on re-use. So, I chose a pseudonym (taken from a good friend’s still-unpublished novel) and decided to stay hidden. Many things I’ve read about me focus on the “mysterious artist” angle, but it was never something I chose – it just seemed like a necessary precaution in the climate of the times.
It’s still a challenge though, attempting to do publicity is tricky when you want to remain hidden. So, I decided to not do any promotion. I make my music for the joy of making music and the fun of generating culture, and if people hear about it, then great, and if not, then no matter. I’m not doing this for fame or publicity. As a result, I have an extremely small audience. People still wonder who I am, and ask for my real name etc – but knowing my real name adds literally nothing to the experience of hearing my music, so they’ll be okay.
Thanks to the Internet, getting my music out anonymously is easier than ever. Back when I was handing out CDs to radio stations and stuff, there’d always be a risk that people would see and/or recognise me, but in this digital online world of aliases and avatars, it’s a beautifully egalitarian ocean of unknowns. I fit right in. Not only that, when I started doing what I do, there were very few others doing it but now, it seems every second YouTuber is making a remix, or a cover version, or a version of a song that is auto-tuned to be just one note, or sped up, or slowed down, or distorted, or mangled, or stretched 800%. As the tools of re-use have grown more and more accessible, the natural inclination of humyns (sic) to reuse and re-arrange their culture has been able to manifest itself. Now the world is awash with this post-sampling folk music I had only dreamed of for so many years. So that has changed over time and it seems that none of them are getting sued by the corporate dinosaurs, which is also an extremely positive change!
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
When I was a kid, my studio was just a double tape deck and the radio. In fact, the first piece I ever created as “Buttress O’Kneel” was on tape too – it was called “The Princess of Whales”, created just after Princess Di was killed, made out of samples about the paparazzi chasing Princess Diana, cut up with a documentary that followed some sharks chasing and eventually killing a whale, overlaid on one of those whalesong CDs that were popular with hippies at the time. It was painstakingly made on 4-track cassette from video sources and CDs, the kind of thing I could make now in an afternoon but back then took aaaaages. After that piece, I moved to computer as quickly as I could – it’s faster, easier, better sound quality, more direct, more malleable.
As far as gear goes, the most valuable gear to me is software. I love Acid as a tool, for my intricate beat-matching kind of mashup/breakcore stuff it’s just perfect. I also love the directness and simplicity of Cool Edit (which I think now is called Audition) for finalising pieces. And the versatility of Audiomulch is also important; some pieces I make are literally just some song rammed through some glitchifying series of virtual devices on Audiomulch, and the output is my “song”. I love random and/or algorithmic elements in my compositional strategies. Power to the machines!
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
Oh, I love it. I love letting machines do the creative work for me. One of my first releases was a collection of recordings of skipping CD players. My housemates hated our fucked-up CD players because no-one could play an album as it was meant to sound any more, but to me it was this amazing real-time Artificial Intelligence abstract remix DJ, and I recorded as many of the resulting skips as I could. I get a real thrill when creative decisions are made by inanimate objects. I’m not actually sure why. But I fucking LOVE it.
I still often leave creative decisions to the robots, working in partnership with them rather than some kinda autocratic dictator-style hierarchy thing. My recent album DadaMidiPop (number 24 in the Compop series) was entirely made by taking songs and converting them to midi with an automated online mp3-to-midi converter, then converting them back to mp3 again. The automated software would turn everything in the song (vocals, drums, everything) into this shitty piano sample, but it would do it in a way that, despite everything, you could still somehow hear the vocals, even though there were no vocals anymore, just piano sounds - because the robot was thinking in frequencies and maths, rather than words and music. It could emulate the frequencies found in speech by using weird combinations of atonal piano notes. It’s amazing. The whole album is made entirely using the non-humynness (sic) of technology to create startling machine art.
Machines excel at looking at things in a non-humyn (sic) way, forcing/enabling us to expand our minds and see and hear things from different angles; allowing us to escape our narrow point of view. My whole thing would be impossible without technology. But of course, the word “technology” just as accurately applies to a guitar as it does to an online midi-to-mp3 converter… so I guess no music would be possible ever if it weren’t for technology, other than singing? Hmmm.
Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
I love letting the AI take the lead when it comes to composition. There are many times I let the software do the bulk of the composition for me, with me only stepping in to set the initial parameters or where the boundaries are. Like with the “ramming shit through Audiomulch” approach I described earlier, I arrange the initial patches, like what glitchy thing leads into what other glitchy thing, but then I’m very happy to just press “go” and let the robots do all the rest (tracks like “Rental Jug” and “A Deathwatch is No Tryst” are entirely automated remixes where I pressed “go” and just let it happen.
Similarly, “Nonwhite Pox” and “Twin Ox Phone” were created by letting an online remixing program (GTIAB, now defunct) scoot around a song, playing teensy fragments with its own randomised “autobot” setting. “Rites of Winter” was created using exactly the same technique, but, instead of remixing one of my own songs, it was remixing a tiny section of “Let it Go” from the movie Frozen.
But it’s not just randomised glitchiness that I use the robots for, I also let them do the bulk of my mega-stretched pieces. As in, I do zero composition at all, other than decide how much to stretch a piece (sometimes I stretch it to a certain length, like when I took the theme song from Neverending Story and stretched it to the length of the entire movie or when I made “Stairway to Heaven” go for 77 minutes and 7 seconds (777 being the Number of God) (https://archive.org/details/ButtressOkneel-Heaven). Sometimes I stretch it by a certain amount, like when I took the Morbid Angel song “Immortal Rites” and multiplied it by 6.66. As far as composition goes, I often sort of set up the concept, but let the robots do all the actual work, letting them decide the details of how it sounds. I love, love, love being able to work with the machines instead of over them or under them. We help each other out.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives?
I’ve done a bunch of collaborations with people, in all sorts of different ways. The hardest part for me is trying to balance my own ideas while being respectful of other people’s ideas. I do try to be accommodating, and, usually the people I choose to work with are equally lovely, so it’s not normally a big issue. There’s been many strategies employed: working with Lucas Darklord, for instance, we usually both independently make pieces, then I smash them together in some way, usually layering them over each other. They’re completely independent pieces, and any interactions between the two is entirely coincidental. I love that way of working, trusting The Universe / Chaos / Blind Luck to make something awesome.
I recently discovered that Frank Zappa also used to do that a fair bit, layer completely unrelated stuff over each other (I think he called it “Xenochrony”?) but it’s not a technique I’ve heard talked about much. This technique was also largely used in the AS IF “Miles and Jimi” project with John Jacobs, where for any one track, one of us would be playing the “Jimi” and the other would be playing the “Miles”, and we’d slap the pieces together when we were done.
With other collaborations, it’s been more “normal”. With the Drum and Waste series, I’ve gotten a drummer to send me raw percussion pieces and I’ve jammed along in a more “live” scenario, with a CD player plugged into a couple of Kaoss Pads, improvising, using manipulated CDs as a lead instrument” (because so often with sample-based music, it’s all about rhythm/beats/BPMs, so I wanted to do the very opposite).
And right now, I’m in the middle of a collaboration with I Cut People from America, working on a trio of albums I’ve been intending to create for a couple of decades now. I thought maybe if I roped someone else into this project then I’d actually have to finally do it instead of just talking about doing it for years and years. With this collaboration, we’re making pieces, sending them to each other, and editing each other’s stuff before sending it back again, etc etc etc. It’s been the most confronting collaborative technique I’ve engaged in so far, because we’re actually changing each other’s stuff, which you can imagine is tricky territory. But, so far, the results have been spectacular, and I’m really keen to hear how it all turns out.
It’s all been very respectful so far, and we’re both really big fans of each other, so although it’s maybe a little weird and a wee bit scary, it’s been quite exciting to try something so very much outside of my normal comfort zone.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
Every day is different. Sometimes I go through very long periods of feeling too old and irrelevant, and not making anything that I want to actually release; but sometimes I feel like everything I touch is IMPORTANT and NECESSARY and must get out TO THE PEOPLE IMMEDIATELY.
There seems to be no routine to my chaos. But no matter what, I make music. Even if it’s just making huge slabs of improvised automated breakcore-glitchiness with my Audiomulch patches which nobody ever hears. I still need to make sound. If I don’t make sounds, after a few days I become quite horrible. It’s best for everyone that I make a few strange noises every day.
As for the separation of life and music, it’s impossible for me. When your creative work is fuelled by media-appropriation, every single interaction with any form of samplable media is a potential chance for détournement and inspiration. Watching TV, listening to music, enjoying a movie – the whole time it’s like there’s this background program running, filing away ideas and samples and directions and inspirations. It’s really only when I deal with un-samplable stuff, like making a sandwich or having a coffee or paying a bill, that there is a separation between life and music. And even then, because of my project The Fruiting Body, which samples the noises of the everyday, making a sandwich or having a coffee or paying a bill become samplable events. The sound of making a sandwich could very well be on the next Fruiting Body album. So… I guess there’s no separation. Even the sounds of me sleeping could be recorded and used.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a production that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
One piece that is particularly dear to me is “This Sick Beat”. The impetus began reading in the news that Taylor Swift wanted to copyright the phrase “this sick beat”. When I hear about people suing each other about music, my hackles go up; I believe we should be sharing culture, not competing over it like it’s some kind of limited resource. It seemed so ridiculous that some mega-privileged, rich, white girl was trying to own a common phrase so she can sell it on merchandise to make herself richer, that I had to do something about it.
I stumbled onto a recording of people with malfunctioning hearts; the recording was aimed at trying to teach doctors how to recognise various heart ailments by knowing the different rhythms of various sicknesses. It was the missing piece of the puzzle I needed – here were some actual sick beats! So that little discovery gave the abstract idea a tangible direction.
The piece could’ve gone in any direction from there really. I wanted it to stand alone, be a bit of an epic, rather than one track on an album. So, with that in mind, I ended up treating those main ideas in several ways, which ended up as different sections of the piece. The piece incorporates so many of the tools and techniques I use – tiny rhythmic fragments improvised live with Audiomulch, beats and rhythms beat-matched and looped in Acid, sections stretched in Paul’s Stretch tool – in a perfect symbiosis. I really love every part of the finished result; it’s full of all sorts of silly little details that make me laugh, like the way the chorus bits go up instead of down; the way she sings “I never miss a beat” and then it erupts into complete beatless abstraction, the pace of it, the way it goes from rhythmic to abstract to rhythmic again, the way it solidifies all these different techniques I have into one cohesive unity, the way it inhabits a space that is somehow political and humourous and abstract and musical all at once. I’m really proud of this piece.