Name: Michal Turtle
Occupation: Percussionist, pianist, electronic artist
Current Release: Middle of the Road Less Travelled with HOVE on Light of Other Days
Recommendations: Book: Haroun and the Sea of Stories - Salman Rushdie
LP: Dream Theory in Malaya - Jon Hassell
Website / Contact: If you enjoyed this interview with Michal Turtle, visit his website or facebook account for everything you ever wanted to know about him.
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?
When I was eight, my father bought me a drum kit (I asked him for one after watching Buddy Rich on TV) He was a musician, so stuff that was around the house (mostly jazz) was an early influence. I later played in local (classical) orchestras.
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 the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
I notice a lot of the music I was listening to was not a direct influence on my early writing efforts. Rather I guess I was just taking the general writing vibe and somehow making it my own. I liked a lot of diverse stuff, but I was lucky enough to realise quite early that I didn’t have to sound like them. I ended up studying classical music at college, and was simultaneously more and more interested in composing. The college had a (then) state-of-the-art eight track recording studio. They were always looking for interesting projects to record, so I went in and recorded eight or nine strange tracks. Partly electronic, partly acoustic (I played drums, bass and piano) it kind of got me hooked on this whole new way of making music.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
About a year after these sessions I bought into the (then) new technology of Portastudios, and started immediately recording whatever I could with whatever instruments I could get my hands on. As this was 4 track (on cassette) technology, I had to find ways to make this work, which involved lots of bouncing tape, bouncing and playing simultaneously, playing 2 instruments at once, working with found voices and sounds on tape loops, whatever worked.
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?
Well besides the four track, I was working with a Memory Man (which I still use) and one synth led to another, the main ones being an ARP 2600, a WASP synth and (later) a JUNO 60. I have returned to the concept of working from “the living room” after some years having worked in various studios. Computers and virtual versions of the same synths I used to have play an important part, but with the new stuff I’m working on, I still like to do single takes and play live percussion or bass. Sonically things sound cleaner, but I hope the energy is still the same as those early recordings.
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?
Technology can make it very easy to create stuff without too much experience, and now I am, wherever possible, playing single takes live, especially percussion, and treating the sequencer more like a tape recorder. What I love now, is being able to “play” instruments I can’t actually play, and to create literally any type of sound you can think of.
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 tend to avoid loops, or just use them at the start of writing, much like a painter may use a pencil to lay out the basic form of a piece. I am never “stuck” for ideas. I play “anything” and as an idea takes shape it becomes clearer how it is all going to sound, and what I can then refine or drop.
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’m working with 2 different collaborators at the moment. One is Hove, who is also the other half of my live act. I have always also felt comfortable working alone, but I do like the way collaborations take you to places you wouldn’t normally go. The online world has made it easy to collaborate with people you may or may not physically know, also for work it is becoming more and more common to provide your services as a session musician virtually, which is a bit sad but practical in today’s economy. No more trips to Monserrat when you can just phone it in.
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 would like to answer this question the way Jimi Hendrix did: “Sometimes I get up” but actually my routine is a bit different. After making breakfast for the kids, I work from 8 till 12. This is when I can do my own creative work. If there is more business stuff or jobs for customers, it is reserved for after I have made lunch for the kids. I am lucky enough to work from home, so usually every day is interspersed with chores, which can sometimes work quite well, creating little concentration pockets, but can also slow up things when you are on a roll.
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?
Creating something tends not to have a fixed method. Sometimes I will be developing something because I have some new sounds to play with. Other times I will be affected by a personal event in my life, about 15 years ago I made 5 albums with my (then) band and it was straight ahead singer/songwriter pop (though I was not the singer, but I was the main writer) That material really came about from events and stories in my life. That stuff was quite easy to do in the traditional sense, as the material had quite a conventional feel. Come to think of it, what I am doing now is also quite easy to do, but in a different way, as I feel I am making the rules, and if nobody likes it it’s not my problem, as long as I like the end result.
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 think you can be in almost any state of mind when you create something. I can hear stuff I did in the past and remember being angry at the time, or excited or in love or even grieving a death. It’s good of course to not be distracted, and for me that involves thinking of my distractions as breaks. It’s a bit of a compromise but it kind of works for me. The “sitting down for 14 hours” way of working doesn’t happen for me anymore - this is also due to the physical aspect of being older.
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?
The more I play live, the more I want the recording process (and result) to be a reflection of the live show. Recorded music used to be a documentation of how the artist performed live, and it is quite easy to forget that aspect with today’s technological possibilities. The line between improvising and composing is very blurred for me at the moment. We have our themes, and then we improvise - and anything can happen. In that way it almost feels like jazz sometimes.
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?
Today, any sound you want or can think of, you can have. It’s a freedom and a restriction at the same time, as sometimes you just can’t choose between any of your 20,000 suitable synth patches In some ways it was easier when you only had about 4 sounds to choose from. I often go random and use whatever appears within the first minute and more or less works. You end up being more creative I think, when you commit yourself early on to using a sound. I like the mentality of “use what you have and make it work” (which I realise is a kind of paradoxical stance to have when you have access to any sound you can possibly think of).
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?
I am fascinated with the way music, can physically move the body, both in the way a person can move creatively, and by the way deeper frequencies can actually shake and move the body.
Music today (especially commercial music) is now inextricably bound to the visuals that go along with it, that it is now almost impossible to be aware of any music that doesn’t connect you to some visual aspect. In the past I suppose people imagined their own stories and images to what they heard.
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?
Anything created by anyone who is doing their thing is art. Wether you like it or not is not important, but only the fact that someone is doing it that counts. Any reaction to art is valid. Anyone can do anything and call it art - and it is art. We all need this. When art stops, life has lost an important part of it’s meaning.
It is remarkable, in a way, that 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?
Utopian vision: everyone dancing around playing tambourines and stuff.
Dystopian vision: APPS and bots supplying all of our musical needs.