Name: Gareth Sager
Occupation: Multi-Instrumentalist, Songwriter, Composer
Current Release: 88 Tuned Dreams on Freaks R Us
Recommendations: A book very much in keeping with these questions: ‘Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists’ by Kay Larson.
This is a great biography about John Cage as really for me it’s his opening conceptually about the nature of noise and how to organise it. That really influenced me. In this book there is the story of Cage going into a deprivation chamber hoping to witness total silence but once in the chamber he couldn't believe he could hear his own bloodstream pumping his heart. He realised we never can witness true silence it is all comparative.
And here’s a record, ‘Funhouse’ by The Stooges.
Website / Contact: Even more information, music and updates on Gareth Sager can be found on his bandcamp page, twitter account, the facebook profile of The Pop Group or on soundcloud.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I have played the piano since I was 5. I went to a music school that taught you the basics of how J.S. Bach wrote, but I joined The Pop Group at seventeen (forty years ago) and started trying to write tunes almost immediately, on a guitar that I couldn’t play! These were the punk days and I really believe in the ethos that you will find some way to express yourself if you really want to. I was into Iggy & the Stooges, James Brown, Alex Harvey, MC5, Curtis Mayfield, Stockhausen, Dr Feelgood, Erik Satie, Howlin’ Wolf … I think all this music has passion, intelligence (on a visceral level) and groove. That’s what drew me in.
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 an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
I definitely went for originality first. My learning was in classical music but punk soon followed. I never learnt to play other people’s songs, which was the big thing when I was a kid. Folks were impressed if you could play Beatles songs etc. That’s the root of all folk music; you learn by listening and building up a repertoire. But I just wanted my own thing straight away. I even took a while to play traditional chords on the guitar so I did everything backwards.
Nowadays I’ll learn a Leonard Cohen song but I only feel I can do that now as I have developed my own voice, and I won’t be overtly influenced by somebody else work unless I wish to be. It’s something almost unexplainable, but you feel an emotion, then use your inner being and fingers to bring it out. Without sounding too pretentious; the art of catching the muse!
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
I was very lucky that the first person I went into a really serious studio with was Dennis Bovell [during the recording of ‘Y’], the UKs original dub master who really used the mixing desk as an instrument. At the time The Pop Group were so young we knew of no production rules (meters in the red etc.) and didn’t want to adhere to any other prescribed way. I’ve continued like that. But along the way I have learnt many techniques and first started recording with computers in the late 80s.
With Dennis we recorded hours of feedback then physically had to stick the tape together with it running right round the whole control room! Then we would spin it back into the track. It took hours. You could do that in about five minutes on even a quite basic music computer programme nowadays. Computers have basically saved a lot of time, but killed a lot of souls.
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?
I have never had my own studio. I always love going to different studios. There is always something to learn, something to adapt to. This piano LP [‘88 Tuned Dreams’] was recorded in Studio One, Abbey Road, the biggest studio in Europe with so much history. Still, I had to get in there and get the job done so I didn’t let its history or size get to me and that comes from experience … and desperation.
In terms of recent gear I have not learnt how to use pro tools without an engineer, my main excuse being that I need someone to bounce ideas off. I think that collaborative dynamic is important rather than any one specific type of gear. Saying that I do create some of my demos stuff with one of my sons on pro tools. He’s pretty good on it!
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?
I have trained my brain to go down all sorts of avenues of thoughts and emotions; ideas and thoughts that I then try to turn into music. Many spend their time learning new ways to programme computers or take creative writing classes but I have tried to put myself in all kinds of positions and situations, some that I hate and some that I love. I’ve tried to take back what I have learnt on these adventures to my mental canvas and recreate those feelings in my art.
Humans excel at expressing their feelings, from super aggressive to godly like gentleness. Machines can help make this possible in a quick, efficient way.
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 like to push any tool into an area it feels it has never gone. That is probably why I end up breaking so many. Pushing the tools I use to the limit is my thing. I have not amassed a large amount of equipment, in fact I don’t even own an amp! But I do have a good piano which is a lifesaver.
I like working with an engineer who in my eyes seems to be able to make the software do anything I dream up … heaven!
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 through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
I enjoy collaborating very much, especially with people that are on a similar wavelength, this is easiest. Yet it’s not always as rewarding as working with people that are not, as they may say something you would never have thought of, which is really stimulating. Collaboration by any means necessary!