Name: Pitch Black
Nationality: New Zealand
Names: Michael Hodgson, Paddy Free
Interviewee: Michael Hodgson
Current Release: Invisible Circuits on Dubmission
Recommendations: I love Neal Stephenson whose book Anathem is a must read for the concept of time, and in the spirit of this book this 1000 year composition is worth a listen (it’s currently been playing for 17 years).
Website/ Contact: If you enjoyed this interview with Pitch Black, visit the duo's facebook profile and especially their bandcamp site for current information and plenty of music.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I grew up around music, mainly classical, working on concerts and in the local theatre. I was listening to post punk as a teenager, and then moved into industrial music and the noisier side of dub music. Throbbing Gristle, PTV and OnU Sound were a big influence on me. I loved their attitude towards music and the DIY way they released their recordings.
I was not naturally musical in the traditional playing sense of the word but loved music. I used to leave my electric guitar, open tuned, feeding back on the floor and listen to shortwave radio noises. For some reason I was drawn to the abstract sounds more than melodies. When I was 19, I met someone who had some basic recording equipment and effect machines, and found a way to layer the sounds I could make. A sonic door opened up for me.
I founded a group called Tinnitus in 1984 with the idea to explore sound and time, not necessarily making songs but long evolved soundscapes. After a few years of developing my processes in this world of noise, I began to explore dub music but from a similar place, using delays and reverbs to create space and then adding bass lines and more beats. Once I met Paddy in 1996 I was able to bring all this development to his more structured way of making music to create our Pitch Black sound.
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?
Here are the first recordings I ever made, I am sure they were influenced by what I was listening to but I can hear the beginning of how I still create my song structures.
When I was a teenager I had very basic musical training but could never grasp playing normal songs, so from very early on it was more about soundscapes and using dub production techniques to tell sonic stories.
When I first had access to recording equipment I was drawn to using long reverbs and delays, and passing all the sounds we were creating through them. I was influenced by the Industrial noise and experimental dub scene, but due to the way we worked in isolation in New Zealand, we developed our own sound.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
I have always been an experimenter so I don’t read the manuals but just play with knobs and settings till I get a sound I like. Over the years the gear has changed but my process has not. I know enough to engineer my own music and have developed my own studio process to get the sound I want.
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 always had a dedicated studio space in the houses I have lived in, sometimes just a room, sometimes more developed into a studio. I like working from home rather than clocking into a studio to work.
My first studio had a sound on sound two track, a 4 channel mixer (hand made in a biscuit tin by the other band member), a Roland DEP5, a Boss Delay pedal and a few other effects. When we could afford it we bought more equipment, slowly moving to a four track, then an eight track, then an Atari computer sequencer which we slaved to the tape machines. We also got better mixing desks and monitors, eventually the computer became the main compositional and recording device.
I am now pretty much completely just using a computer with a controller for doing live dub mixing. I am more about the process of making a tune than I am about what I use to make it, though having a way to dub live is important to my sound.
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?
As I am not a traditional musician, the playing with technology is how I make my music - the technology remembers what I do and allows me to develop it. I rely on it to do this and as I push my dub mixing into it, it responds and remembers what I do. In the end it’s how the human makes the music that allows a computer based process to feel organic and real.
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 am constantly downloading new plugins to create new sounds and like to challenge myself to follow new paths as I begin new tracks. They all eventually are treated with my dub mixing techniques.
One of my main processes for beginning a track is to open up a new project in Logic, choose a BPM, then make heaps of sounds and beats with dub effects on them, I then render them all off and shut the project down without saving it. I then open up Ableton Live and use those sounds to compose.
When I want to do another track I start again with a new Logic project. This process means that I force myself to start from a new place every time and try new ways to create, using the initial bank of sounds to make a tune.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creative’s through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
I have two sides to my sonic creativity: one is totally solo and personal to me and is where I get to control the whole soundspace and composition to my liking; the other is to work with Paddy as part of Pitch Black where the sounds we create need to work for each other’s tastes. This means I stay aware of his tastes as I develop a song and this helps push me into new areas of music.
I have always enjoyed working with others in the sonic creative process, especially people who have very different tastes to me so that the combination of all the inputs create a unique sound.
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 am the main parent so my day starts by getting the kids to school and then I have 6 hours to be creative, so depending on upcoming deadlines, I will get any admin out of the way and then pick up where I have left the last track or start a new one.
I also make video so I quite often jump between audio creation and video creation. I normally have a lot of projects on the go, so will work on the one that has the closest deadline and really focus on that if it’s due soon.
I also enjoy listening to other music while being creative; it helps clear the ears and gives you a bit of perspective on what you are doing. Once I get the kids from school I will sort dinner and if there is an urgent deadline I will go back to the studio to finish the work.
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?
“It’s the Future Knocking” from the recent Pitch Black album.
I personally prefer the slower long dubbier tracks that Paddy and I make and this one had developed into a long slow track that was nice enough but it reached a point that it was becoming boring. We were really tight on our album delivery deadline and getting pretty tired due to long days in the studio. I suggested to Paddy to leave me with the track for a couple of hours to see where I could push it.
He decided to have a sleep at the back of the studio and I had begun to try out new faster sounds to see if I could lift it up, when I noticed that a certain high hat pattern would make Paddy’s foot tap in time!
Once I had that unconscious signal I kept working in that direction, pushing the track up and up, adding sounds that added to the concept of the future knocking. We also had a full vocal running through the track so I decided to see how I could develop the song without it, and pushed it into effects, and then used parts of it as abstract vocal sounds. Once I had the basic rise and fall of the new idea, I did a full dub mix of the new composition.
After a couple of hours Paddy woke up and I got him to sit in the chair in front of the monitors, turned it up and unleashed what I had done on him. At the end was a big smile and the words “You’ve cracked it !!”