Name: Poisonous Birds
Members: Tom Ridley, Finn Mclean, Jack Barrett
Interviewee: Tom Ridley
Current Release: In August of 2020, Poisonous Birds released their latest EP/mini album We Can Never Not Be All Of Us. Recently, they invited a colourful cast of Bristol based artists to remix the pieces of the record. The result is All Of Us (Remixes) and features, among others, SCALPING (Houndstooth), Giant Swan (AD93, KECK, Timedance), LICE and Harrga. All Of Us (Remixes) is available from their bandcamp page.
Recommendations: "Blood Soaked Buddha, Hard Earth Pascal" by Noah Cicero. [Read our Noah Cicero interview]; Any painting by Francis Bacon
If you enjoyed this interview with Poisonous Birds, visit their official website for more information.
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?
Like every artist, I guess, my music is a product of my own taste and experiences - not just in other music but in other art forms, and outside of art altogether.
I grew up playing electric guitar. I must have been 12 or 13 when I wrote my first song. I was into punk rock and nu metal. Then emo. Then I guess any music that was complicated and chaotic - Dillinger Escape Plan, whatever was on Warp Records, The Mars Volta, This Town Needs Guns, to name a few.
In hindsight I was really impatient. I liked really, really stimulating, complex music that changed often.
As I mellowed in my early 20s, dance music began to make sense and I became interested in the idea of combining electronics and guitar music, which has obviously been done before but seldom in a way that spoke to me. Synthesisers were always used as naff gimmicks rather than as core structural elements of the composition.
Techno in particular captured my imagination. All the music I had ever listened to was melodically and rhythmically complex but sonically used a fairly fixed palette. Techno flipped that on its head with largely repetitious rhythmic and melodic patterns but with ever-evolving textural landscapes. Jon Hopkins’ Immunity in 2015 was a turning point for sure. I think that record was a lot of folks’ gateway.
For most artists, originality is 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?
This is such an interesting question. For almost my whole musical life I’ve only really been able to play my own songs. But I think that process of being inspired by something, perhaps imitating it badly, and then learning it’s parameters well-enough to say something new through that vocabulary is a continuous process.
Perhaps what changes is recognising when you’ve been derivative and continuing to work until you break new ground.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
A lot. I wish it wasn’t the case but it is. Sometimes I have to take a step back and ask myself: “do I actually like this / want to do this, or is this just a thing that I think Tom Ridley should do?”
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
Before I knew how to record actual audio I used to meticulously transcribe my songs in Guitar Pro 5. That must have been in about 2004 / 2005?! You could write in parts for other instruments too and transcribe whole arrangements, and play them back using horrible general MIDI sounds. I guess that was my first version of capturing and listening to my own music.
Having done that for so long, as soon as I got a copy of Logic 8 and Reason 4 in about 2008, I remember it all just making a lot of sense straight away and I’ve just been getting better at making music with computers and machines ever since.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
I always struggled with soft-synths - at that time they were horribly designed. Most are better now but still lack the tactility that leads to happy accidents. In I think 2014 I decided if I was going to really understand this stuff I should probably buy an actual synth, which ended up being a second-hand Korg Monotribe. That turned out to be the top of a very slippery slope.
Like many, the promise of dusty, unpredictable randomness drew me to old analogue instruments, but I pretty quickly learned that they’re kind of annoying and most of them collected dust and ended up back on eBay. And I’m very impatient. The things that stick around are the things that get me to an interesting place quickly.
And then the fastest way to turn that interesting place into a piece of music is a computer. YouTube is full of DAW-less this and that. Whilst it’s nice to step away from a screen, and is definitely important to have tactile control during explorative phases of work, a computer is my most important tool.
Today, the role of hardware for me is in discovering new sounds and ideas. If I don’t know what I want, I need to use a real instrument. But when I know exactly what I want, software will usually get me there faster.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
The third electronic instrument I bought was an Elektron Octatrack. I went pretty deep pretty quick. But it immediately fitted my brain and it’s still the core of the Poisonous Birds live show and is probably the instrument I’m most familiar with.
Also, I held off on a modular for years and years, but dipped my toes in a few years ago when the Make Noise Morphagene came out. Now it’s my main starting point when finding sounds for a new piece. I don’t have that much, just a small case, but I’ve really carefully chosen a few things that work for me and it’s very inspiring. Moog DFAM is my current fave.
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 love talking through conceptual ideas, and then going away and working. But I was never very good at writing on the spot with others, even in the context of the band playing electric guitar and that’s exasperated now by my process being very explorative, searching for a sound that’s inspiring (rather than selecting a sound and then choosing notes and chords).
But as I’ve got quicker in Ableton and using Push in particular I have found ways to kind of re-engage in that co-writing process and am enjoying collaborating again.
Take us through a Poisonous Birds day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. 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 make coffee every morning with my beloved Mochamaster. And then depending what day it is I’ll work either on design/UX work or music, with a break for lunch. In the evening I’ll hang out with my friends.
Those two sides to my work are quite different, but deeply interrelated: design, broadly speaking, is not art. Design is functional, and can be tested for how well it performs. Music on the other hand is art, and isn’t measured on its performance. The design work I can do any time - I can turn it on. Music on the other hand is pretty mood dependent. I have to be in a pretty good place to make good music.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
It’s probably the last Poisonous Birds EP, We Can Never Not Be All Of Us (the remix record for which has just dropped).
It was catalysed by an amazing tour that we did in January 2020, which kicked up some renewed interest in the project, followed by Covid giving me loads of free time. It was a very energised and inspired few months. We finished the record in May 2020 and it came out in August.
It’s not *about* Covid though - I was very careful to not attempt to document that period, since it had only just begun, and also felt like that was going to become pretty well-trodden ground. Instead it’s a reflection of some stuff I was processing as a 28 year old man. In hindsight I was quite unhappy and it’s a slightly uncomfortable listen for me, with a year of distance. I’m proud of it though.
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 that in 2021 and beyond, successful creators of any kind will be those who learn to manage their own attention, and use it wisely, and also who learn to cultivate the environment in which they do their best work (alongside cultivating environments for good mental health, good sleep, etc - it’s hard right now). I’m not always as good as I would like to be at these things, and I’m still learning what works. But it definitely takes more discipline as more things demand our attention.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
I’m really interested in this, particularly in the context of the communal experiences through live music and clubs that we’ve been deprived of for so long at this point. I think those experiences are immensely powerful and important, but I don’t have any answers yet.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
It would be a creatively sterile world in which artists could not explore other cultures and become rich melting pots of influence that lead to novel and articulate expression. But that thankfully is not where we’re at, I don’t think.
Instead, there is quite rightly a movement against the wholesale lifting of the cultural properties and identities of minority groups for profit, particularly when members of those groups are not billed equally (or at all) alongside their white/cis/male counterparts. The recent piece of by Om Unit on pirate.com about the concept of inclusion riders was really interesting.
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?
For me, sound is most intimately connected with memory, which makes both sampling, and the use of very distinctive sounds (an 808 for example) particularly interesting.
By using familiar sounds in my compositions, they drag with them time and place and references and feelings which will to an extent be unique to each listener.
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?
A huge question. One thing I think about a lot is making work that is porous - that is that it has enough space within it, or ambiguity, or room for interpretation that the listener can inhabit it, make their own meaning, draw their own connections.
When I was younger I felt like my music was more prescriptive in its meaning and intent, but I’m trying to get away from that.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
Art in general attempts to express our experiences more accurately and vividly that we’re able to with words - that’s the point, is it not?