Name: Mark Barrott
Current Release: Sketches From an Island 3 on International Feel. Cascades on International Feel
Bands/Projects: Future Loop Foundation
Musical Recommendations: Finis Africae, CFCF
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences?
I started playing in bands using synthesizers in 1981, aged 13, very influenced by Kraftwerk and The Human League, whom were in Sheffield where I was brought up. I saw Kraftwerk in 1981 at the Sheffield City Hall on their Computer World tour and this was a real zeitgeist moment for me.
Technology was still very expensive during this period, so the next important moment was in the late 80’s when two things happened - Acid House (which was my punk and proved you could make records in your bedroom) and the technology got a lot cheaper.
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's the phrase - talent borrows, genius steals. I think there’s a lot of truth in that. If you look at what influences artists, electronic or otherwise, I’m sure it’s pretty much the same things - hearing a piece of music that really grabs your attention, flicking through sounds on a keyboard and something jumps out of you (i.e. improvising), something going on internally in your life, or you are moved by something emotionally in the outside world whether that's nature, or a news event or whatever. I think those ‘influences’ are constant regardless of what stage of artistic development you’re at.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
I think that for every John Lennon or Prince, there’s a lot of others like me that have to learn the craft. It’s like learning to ride a horse - you learn in the saddle - you put in the hours. I guess the early challenges were being able to get out what was in my head accurately and quickly. These days, after a 20+ year career making music, I’m totally comfortable in the studio, so it’s more about what do I want to ‘say’ today … what’s the narrative and what's the best way to achieve that. For me, currently, I want to work very quickly, no more taking 3 weeks on a song - a good song will write and mix itself … everything will just flow and if I’m working on something that doesn’t do that, it gets thrown in the bin.
Tell us about your studio, please. What were criteria when setting it up and how does this environment influence the creative process? How important, relatively speaking, are factors like mood, ergonomics, haptics and technology for you?
Well, for the type of music I make, I don’t want to be in a basement, I want natural light, so my ‘studio’ such as it is, is very very simple and in the main family room of the house so I can interact with life and not be shut away - a laptop, an iPad, one synth and a midi keyboard that sits on my lap. Everything is in reach and it feels like an extension of my arms - I don’t want to be slowed down by process, by flicking through 50 million presets or having to wait for a synth to warm up to get in tune - these days I find the ideas come less frequently, but when they do come, it happens very very quickly, so the ‘interface’ I use to transcribe those ideas needs to be as simple as possible. After the success of the Sketches from an Island album, I bought a lot of gear, didn’t end up using it because of the ‘process’ it involved, sold it and went back to this simple laptop and keyboard on my knees setup that I used to make the Sketches album.
What are currently some of the most important tools and instruments you're using?
When I first moved to Berlin in 2000, I had to ship a whole studio with me, so I’m still blown away by the fact that my laptop is now the studio - that, for me, is revolutionary and allows total freedom. As mentioned above, I’m using a laptop, a simple midi keyboard, one guitar and one synth. The laptop is running Ableton, which I much prefer to Logic and a few plugins - nothing fancy, but then melody is everything and that comes from within.
Many contemporary production tools already take over significant parts of what would formerly have constituted compositional work. In which way do certain production tools suggest certain approaches, in which way do they limit and/or expand your own creativity? Are there any promising solutions or set-ups capable of triggering new ideas inside of you as a composer?
Of course modern music technology can greatly ease the music making process - Ableton, Loop pack = song. Although for me that is ringtone music that will never stand the test of time. I want to make timeless music that people rediscover in 20, 30 years time and that, again, is all about melody and arrangement. I’m a song writer first and that in electronic music appears to be a dying art. Remember ... Trevor Horn is a producer, he’s earned that right, an 18 year old kid making ringtone bullshit sensory destructive music on a cheap laptop with cracked plugins calling themselves a producer is just a bad joke. As Weatherall said recently: ”We’ve now reached the punk ideal of total democracy in the making of music and look where it’s got us !”
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where do ideas come from, what do you start with and how do you go about shaping these ideas?
If you look at ‘Island Life’ for the Sketches album (and this was the first piece I ever wrote for that project), it was a total accident. I was looking to slim down the plug-ins on my laptop and I had one that I only used for one particular sound, so I was looking in another plugin to see if it also did that sound. And when I was searching through it, I found another sound I liked and started playing a melody with it. Once I have an initial idea, I normally hear the full song in my head within 10 mins and then it’s a ‘rush’ to get everything down before I forget it - I have maybe 30 ideas flooding my head and I have to balance that with the frustration of having to play them in one by one. That’s really what I’ve got better at over the years … managing that part of the process.
With more and more musicians creating than ever and more and more of these creations being released, what does this mean for you as an artist in terms of originality? What are some of the areas where you currently see the greatest potential for originality and who are some of the artists and communities that you find inspiring in this regard?
I’m only interested in story telling & composition and use whatever the best sonic palette is to achieve that at the time. In terms of quantity, it can be daunting when you look at the amount of releases out there, but then you look at the quality, know that you’re very good at what you do and just get on with it. I’m inspired by listening to music, being with family and friends, meditating, nature. Basically living in ‘Mark World’ and not letting the outside world influence me so much … on a very basic level I’m only really interested in the space in-between each breath, the silence, the nothingness, that’s where all the good stuff comes from.
How strictly do you separate improvising and composing?
I don’t !
How do you see the relationship between sound, space and composition and what are some of your strategies and approaches of working with them?
As mentioned above, I’m most interested in silence … the space or gap in-between, when you can allow your ego to fall into the void and shut it up for a while !
What's your perspective on the relationship between music and other forms of art – painting, video art and cinema, for example – and for you and your work, how does music relate to other senses than hearing alone?
I think the two purest forms of art & communication are music and literature (books) - they allow you to reach within and use your imagination to paint wonderful pictures, or soundtrack (in the case of music) the natural world. Cinema and TV steal your imagination and ‘impose’ their version of it on you and for me, therefore, are propaganda not art.
What's your view on the role and function of music as well as the (e.g. political/social/creative) tasks of artists today - and how do you try to meet these goals in your work?
Music is a ‘life soundtrack’ & communication mechanism, but I feel that for too long now, music has been used for hedonism, which, in the main, is ‘mind based’ and personally, I view what I do as ‘healing music’, trying to speak directly to and resonate with the ’soul’ or a person’s inner self - so that and my own self expression are my only two goals when making music
Listening is also an active, rather than just a passive process. How do you see the role of the listener in the musical communication process?
But perhaps it would be better if people did listen passively, subconsciously - they’d hear the ‘space within’ a lot more if they disengaged their mind and listened with their heart and or soul
Reaching audiences usually involves reaching out to the press and possibly working with a PR company. What's your perspective on the promo system? In which way do music journalism and PR companies change the way music is perceived by the public?
Well PR is one way to get heard, but good stuff always seems to get out there in the end regardless. One interesting reaction to the bullshit social media world is that people’s subconscious ‘sense’ of real & fake seems to have got better, so regardless of PR or no PR, people seem to be picking up more on what’s authentic and what’s just ‘froth at the bottom of a nice looking cup’.
Do you have a musical vision that you haven't been able to realise for technical or financial reasons – or an idea of what music itself could be beyond its current form?
Nope - I know that anything/everything is possible in every given moment and all form is temporary anyway.
You can stay up to date on new releases by Mark Barrott on his website.