Name: Henry Binns
Occupation: Producer, Songwriter
Current Release: Tribal War EP on Pegdoll
Recommendations: Check out ”the hissing of summer lawns“ Joni Mitchell
Radio 4 on music podcast - Nick Drake unsung
If you enjoyed this interview with Henry Binns of Zero 7 and Equador, the website of his Equador project is a good point of departure into his work.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What what is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started in about 1998. I got a job at RAK studios in London (with Nigel Godrich, Radiohead) as a tape operator. We had a little programming room under the stairs and music making kinda grew from there. When I was a kid I was a huge Ray Charles fan and loved soul and blues vocalists. In my late teens / early 20's it was all about hip hop and house music but later on folk and jazz.
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?
It was the birth of the sampler, a game changing device and that informed the way I made music from then on. I tried to make house records. We were so into KEN/LOU Productions. Although I’m writing song based music now, there is always a "block" mentality to the arrangements, always embracing repetition. A hangover from those dance days I guess.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
I was always overly ambitious in the early days with extended elaborate compositions. Too many sections, loads going on, with no strong musical narrative. The skill is to know the good bit (if there is one ;-) and really drill down on that.
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?
Haaa! My first studio is still the same one I use now. Not many changes, I always use outboard gear, the same stuff I had 20 years ago. The music got worse the more options I had in the studio. I went to bigger flashier studios but didn't really like 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?
Well the invention of "all in the box" computer based music has changed life forever. It is amazing what can be done now. In particular, editing so easily, that’s the amazing part. Things that used to take days take seconds now. BUTTTTTT, it’s lost some grease, there’s a cleanness about digital that doesn't feel real deal to me. There’s not enough grease on the cogs. Even if you try to manufacture the dirt it still isn't quite right. That’s what I miss. I’d say for creating its way better though.
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?
My productions are about 50% played live and 50% machine stuff. That is the healthy mix I need to get what I'm after. Usually, I'm trying to offset the slickness of live players with some dirt from machines. Mostly I'm looking for distortion plug-ins to degrade stuff, stop it being too nice.
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?
The Equador collaboration between myself and Bo is uniquely different in that we have very different tastes in music. The trick is to land in a sweet spot that we can both enjoy. I have to admit, that can be a difficult journey.
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?
I have kids, so it’s all about windows of opportunity. It’s taken me a long time to get into this groove. It works well when you've cracked it. You really have to concentrate when you know you have a book end of time. My free time is after 7pm with a bottle of Rioja ;-) That’s when I get lost in music.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album 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?
I’ve been asked this a few times over the years and I have never started an album with a "concept". Perhaps I should?? The tracks usually start with a song on the piano. However, the music does fall into a similar pocket. I do love the Hejira album by Joni Mitchell. It conjures up hot climates and is so relaxed sounding but with chords, melody and lyrics that stop it being wishy washy and beige. I can only dream to reach that dizzy height.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I generally make music in all states of mind. Sad is the best, calm works very well. Angry is not bad but stressed and happy are total non-starters.
How is playing live and writing music in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?
To me, live music and studio music are totally different projects. If a tune is working well, it is imaginable how it could work live but live music is more about instant entertainment which requires visceral manoeuvres.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
To be completely honest, I’m a team player and I rely on friends to help me on “sounds”. Jodie Milliner is my co-producer on Equador. I think the sounds are so important to compliment the song. I’m more of a song guy but it’s so important.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
Haaaa! This is some esoteric shit! It doesn’t really cross my mind, but music (when) it’s good can/should transport you somewhere else like a star of prayer. You feel it in your heart, especially the melody. No other art form has a melody!!
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
Perhaps I should feel embarrassed but my raison d’etre has never been to make politically motivated music. I really like music that makes you feel good. I leave the political stuff for others. New music is the sound of sub cultures that lets society know that things can change but direct political narrative in music can be a bit naff. Apart from Ohio by Crosby steels Nash and Young. That is superb.
It is remarkable, in a way, which we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of music still intact. Do you have a vision of music, an idea of what music could be beyond its current form?
My vision is a good one. It won’t change at all. When I look at my kids they get the same amount from music as I did and there are a lot more distractions now. But, music is and will always be massively important. Technology changes, styles change but the basic principle remains the same.