Matt Atkins & Adam Kinsey: Lowercase

Navel-Gazers #8 is an interview with Matt Atkins and Adam Kinsey who are going to talk about a recording called Lowercase. I've had an interview with Matt in mind since the inception of Navel-Gazers - he's a prolific recording artist with an obvious dedication to the medium, and his discography left me with a lot to choose from! I considered A Garden of Solitude - which I'd also recommend to listeners - before eventually settling on this interesting electronic collaboration with Adam Kinsey. Adam, whose distinctive modular textures will be familiar to many of our readers, is quite a thoughtful and cerebral guy so I think Matt and I are both keen to hear what he'll have to say! For the uninitiated, 'Lowercase' is an excellent introduction to either artist so please listen and read on.

AC: First off, the title of this album 'Lowercase' is obviously intentionally ironic (that L's capitalised!) but was personally relevant to me for another reason: three of the interviews on Navel-Gazers thus far - slidesseafo of recip es, and in everyday life - all used lowercase titles, which is a detail I try to be attentive to. A blurb underneath your track listing then ties this to a sub-genre of electronic music called "lowercase" - which I have to confess I know nothing about - yet seems to suggest that maybe you've subverted the term? What is this title getting at?

Matt Atkins: Hi Andrew, and let me start by saying a big thank you for inviting us to take part in the interview. I guess the title came about because the sounds that Adam and I had generated were ones which were subtle and understated. I met Adam on Graham Dunning's sound art course and we collaborated on a performance piece there so I was familiar with the kind of sounds and textures that he creates with his modular synth. I felt that this would work well with some of what I was working on at the time. There's a lot of nuance and detail within the two pieces which emerges with repeated listening. 'Lowercase', as a title, reflects that the sound presented is not so much a grand gesture as a subtle environment which draws you in bit by bit. It doesn't necessarily have to do with the genre of 'lowercase' though, which is one that I have been fascinated by for many years.

Adam Kinsey: I would have remained oblivious to it without it being brought up here. With Matt taking ownership of the title for the release, the reference to a genre of 'lowercase' music had completely passed me.

AC: How did you come across 'lowercase' music, Matt?

Matt Atkins: There used to be a superb record shop in Shoreditch called Smallfish which was run by a lovely guy called Mike Oliver. He was responsible for introducing me to lots of really interesting experimental stuff in the early 2000s. One of the labels I became drawn to was Line, who specialise in music which exists on the peripheries of audibiity. Artists like Richard ChartierBernhard-Günter and Steve Roden produce albums constructed with tones and textures that absolutely need to be listened to with headphones otherwise, it can appear that the CD is empty. It encourages a very deep listening and almost meditative experience which I love as it challenges many preconceptions about what music and art is or can be.

AC: Your usage of this term reminds me of a wonderful album called Opera by the early 2000s post-rock trio Tape. On both, it's as though the artist is saying: I'm not in this genre but I appreciate the principle or the idea behind it, so here's an interpretation. Some more mainstream examples of this are coming to mind too... music so antithetical to 'Lowercase' that it's probably best left to the reader's imagination. Hmm, anyway...!

Could you tell me about your collaboration on Graham's Dunning's course? How was this similar or different to 'Lowercase'?

Adam Kinsey: In terms of the collaboration on the sound art course my initial thoughts are that there was not much similarity. It was during the improvisation module of the course and we were in a wider group. I veered away from my usual modular synth and was armed with a toy sewing machine and if I remember Matt was using an array of objects with some domestic relevance.

Despite the initial mismatch in approach I think there was a certain focus on the amplification or focus on the small. I had contact mic's and reverb attached to the sewing machine making the turn of the mechanism and plunging of the needle act percussively. It probably had more similarities with how I approached the sound on this record than I thought. There is not a recording that I know of to either affirm or disprove this.

Matt Atkins: I do actually have a recording of that performance. It was at the Hundred Years Gallery. The sewing machine sounded ace. But, yes, that was very different to what we did on 'Lowercase' although we did generate a lot of smaller, more textural sounds even in that.

AC: All this talk of big and small still has me thinking about that title!

When I picture each of you as performers, it's Adam on the modular synth and Matt on an assortment of household items and tape machines. You have different methods and different sensibilities yet you seem to converge on this "magnification of the small" concept which I think is what makes this collaboration so successful. What is it you like about small sounds? What small sounds do you like? What are some of the small sounds we can hear on 'Lowercase'?

Matt Atkins: I've long been interested in small, microscopic or even 'invisible' sounds. Some of what you hear on 'Lowercase' were recorded using a coil microphone which picks up the sounds of magnetic fields and interference. These are the clicking and glitching sounds at the start of the album. I used the mic on my laptop, my mobile phone, plug sockets etc. I even took it to work and recorded the fields around the chip and pin machines which were very 'active'. I love the delicacy and fragility of small sounds, the textures and characteristics. Often these are the sounds that are hidden or lost within the sonic maelstrom of the day to day. There's a particular intimacy to them, I think. Anything from crumpling paper, stones rubbed together, rain drops, vinyl crackle, the list goes on. All of these sounds are present in 'Lowercase'.

Adam Kinsey: Small sounds are definitely part of my approach to sound making too, and are clearly present in this recording. Despite using a modular synth the approach I utilise includes organic sounds as well as electronics. The organic sounds are primarily generated through a module with a textured surface with a contact mic underneath. Striking and scratching this surface provides a sonic base for further manipulation. The amplification of small sounds can produce so much texture and that combined with electronics provides an interesting mix. Working with Matt on this recording enabled me to improvise around and against a much richer palette of sound than I can generate on my own. There is definitely a nice convergence in the manipulation of the small.

AC: One of the things that appeals to me about 'Lowercase' is that it takes excellent advantage of recording as a medium. I presume it was captured "live" (in real time), like a performance and yet there are other aspects which could only be characteristic of a recording. The most obvious of these is your control of stereo, which makes this a great listen through headphones! There's another implication in terms of the themes we've been discussing around the small sounds. This amplification of the small - in a performance context I suppose that's a real practicality (how do you amplify these sounds in a room?) whereas here I imagine we're talking about something else... focusing on the sounds, positioning them in the ear of the listener... how different was your approach to that of a live gig? How much consideration went into it? Was there any audible amplification in the room?

Matt Atkins: 'Lowercase' was recorded at Adam's flat in east London. I took along my laptop, loaded up with loads of sounds recorded during the previous few months and ran those through Ableton Live. Adam used his modular synth set-up and was able to patch everything into his computer to capture it. I can't remember what programme was used but Adam will be able to shed light on that. Once everything was set up and the levels were balanced we basically just started playing. I find Ableton really intuitive and perfect for improvising on the fly. I've used it in many live performances over the years and find it to be quite versatile. There was no need for any room microphones as everything was going straight into the computer. I can't remember if we were both wearing headphones but it would make sense if we were. Working in this way allows you to focus fully on the sounds being used, particularly the quieter, smaller ones. I think we could have done an amplified performance in a venue too, had we wished to do so. It would likely be suited to a gallery type environment I reckon where the sounds would have room to breathe and unfold unobstructed. It's definitely something to consider. Once the recordings were made I did edit them slightly as there were some initial passages that were a little meandering. The editing was pretty minimal though and the two pieces still retain the feel of a performance and improvisation, which was important to us. The pieces were then also mastered by mister Phil Julian who did a great job of really pulling out and highlighting the minutae of the textures.

Adam Kinsey: This is one of the only recordings I have made at my home with another person. We were both set up in my living room with separate stereo tracks running through a USB mixer into Reaper with everything recorded in real time. We were both wearing headphones to monitor the sounds, so it does not really have any real air or space in the recording. That was in the first instance a practicality of being in my flat on a Sunday afternoon but also probably enhances it as a listen in head phones. With us both working with electronics and no live acoustics there was no ambiguity around what was being recorded and ambient sound. I feel that the mastering by Phil Julian brought out much more of the details and brighter qualities in the recording.

AC: It's funny because the conventional wisdom is that some kind of spacial ambience - from the room itself - simply has to factor into a recording in order to breathe life into the sound. One thinks of "auteur" studio engineers like Rudy Van Gelder or Steve Albini, placing microphones strategically all over the room, tinkering around in every corner on the quest for that perfect natural sound. Yet here's an electronic recording with zero ambience from the room, and the sound is incredibly organic and complex.

Matt Atkins: I think that's important in some recording environments, certainly. Over the years I have been involved in many many recordings with bands that I've drummed in, from small rehearsal rooms to full on facilities with 48 track desks. One of the professional studios was so determined to get the exact right sound from the bass guitar amp they had the room it was in set to a very specific low temperature. I am a percussionist so drum sounds are really important to me and I know the difference between a badly miked kit/room and a well miked one. The difference is very clear.

AC: So in this context do the field recordings (Matt) and the textured surface (Adam) fulfil that requirement (if there is one)? Is electronic sound something which feels natural to each of you, as players?

Adam Kinsey: I'm in some respects I'm completely opposite to Matt in terms of my past experience in recording and making music. I have not played a more traditional instrument or been in bands and my experience of sound is derived from a life of extensive listening and occasionally playing music through DJing. I always had an interest in making music, due to my musical interests and not having any access to formal instruments or music training, I have gravitated towards electronics. I have had many false starts through music programmes and samplers. Coming across modular synths created a mechanism for making sound which was very immediate, tactile and required no arduous programming which I always found a barrier. As I started buying a small number of modules I was becoming increasingly interested in free improvisation. This led to getting involved in playing with workshops and groupings containing primarily conventional instrumentation giving me a way of making music with others for the first time.

Despite this if I look at it critically I'm not sure I'm completely comfortable with electronic sound as a player. Electronic sound can lack ambience, be harsh or even overbearing in certain group contexts and I'm not a particularly forceful character in group settings. I have inadvertently ended up following a route where I have tried to smooth out the harsher aspects of the electronics with more organic components and perhaps even tried to replicate the tonality of percussive or acoustic instrumentation. Additional texture and layering of different aspects has become important to me to add complexity. Some of these aspects are evident in 'Lowercase' but I suppose with it being purely electronic it may not be as evident. Embracing some of the more abrasive tonal qualities, and not being apologetic of them, is potentially something which I should be doing more.

Matt Atkins: With regards to electronic music or material that is constructed within a computer I love the fact that this is not a natural environment and that you can manipulate and sculpt sounds in a very different way. 'Lowercase' utilises a juxtaposition of natural sounds (the human voice, the faulty strip light, various scrapings and clinkings) alongside electronically generated sounds. The software used enables us to place sounds in different contexts and spaces and that's something I find really exciting. The textural interplay on the recording is very richly detailed and, as Adam has said, Phil Julian's mastering job really enhanced and brought that to the fore. I've always been fascinated by electronic sound and much of my earlier material was purely electronic but over the years I've moved towards a much more organic sound and have been using field recordings, tape recorders and percussion instruments as my main sound sources. Most of the time, when I'm working on something I won't have an endgame or a specific 'destination' in mind, but instead prefer the piece to lead me where it wants to naturally go as it unfolds. I think this is very much the case with 'Lowercase'.

AC: It's also that way to listen to. As you said earlier of 'Lowercase', "the sound presented is not so much a grand gesture as a subtle environment which draws you in bit by bit". It's a remarkable paradox - a little like that uppercase 'L' - for music which was envisaged and conceived with that kind of subtlety to impress upon the listener so powerfully as it did for me. Thanks for taking the time to talk about it.

What's next for you? How is creativity in lockdown? Any projects underway?

Matt Atkins: Lockdown has actually been quite productive for me. I consider myself lucky to have not had to work from home so I've had a lot of time to get some new projects started. I've also contributed to a few compilations, and had collaborations with Ivy Nostrum and Peter Marsh released in April and the Spore album with Chris Hill and Ed Shipsey which is helping to raise money for the Hundred Years Gallery. Ironically lockdown has actually led to much more collaborative work being undertaken and pretty much everything that's lined up for the next few months is not solo work. The next release on MRM is a duo of myself and Martin Clarke and after that the MASS album, which is Adam, Stephan Barrett and Sebastian Stercowicz and myself. I continue to find myself inspired to keep making stuff, which is a good place to be.

AC: That's a lot of Navel-Gazers you are working with! How about you Adam?

Adam Kinsey: Lockdown is not currently the most productive period for me creatively. I have recordings with MASS as Matt mentioned and Sea Mantis with yourself, Stephan Barrett and Ed Shipsey which may come out in some form. I continue to have radio output as Littoral Transmissions monthly on Resonance FM and Threads Radio bi-monthly. I also produce a bi-monthly show on Threads called Desire Lines which is either full of experimental radio works or my record collection. June 2020 was supposed to see me complete a commission as the Newham Folk Archive, this will be a narrative and print based project which will culminate in a live improvised performance. This has been provisionally postponed to November but this is the project occupying my thoughts, if not actions. In hindsight I'm pretty occupied, but late capitalism has corrupted me to a such a degree that I feel like I am failing in lockdown.

AC: Yeah sounds very productive actually! I'll look forward to hearing it all. Thank you both for talking to me.

Matt can be found at MRM Recordings on Bandcamp. Adam also has a page at Bandcamp, as well as at Resonance Extra (home of the Littoral Transmissions archive).

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