28 February 2016

Beyond Carpal Tunnel

The last time I had the opportunity to interview Oliver Richard he was on the heels of his Grimtale Records 7” ‘Triggerfish b/w Far From the Day.

One of my favorite's off that label to date, I was excited to learn of his most recent project and it did not disappoint.

Oliver Richard’s new EP ‘White Finger’ comes together as a cohesive punch to the gut. Expounding on his previous hauntingly ethereal sound experimentation's, this four-song release revolves around the condition of ‘white finger’- an industrial injury brought on by repetitive use of vibrating hand-held machinery.

Says Oliver Richard...
 I was working in a garden centre to pay the bills, and one of my workmates was saying he didn’t want to use the leaf blower anymore as he was scared he was getting white finger. 
I’d never heard of the disorder before then, but the idea lodged in my mind. I came to see it as a very neat metaphor for what we do with emotional baggage; we hold onto it for so long that we become insensate. We’re unable to connect with what we actually have because we’ve been numbed by the stuff to which we cling. As a title I also liked it because it’s ambiguous. There’s a weird, sleazy ring to it.’
Sleazy or no, ‘White Finger’ certainly has a ring to it. Initially striking me as Industrial-Euro, this EP certainly highlights aspects of his previous work as heard on ‘Triggerfish’, 'Darling Cory' and his reworking of Grinderman’s ‘Star Charmer (found on the Grimtale Records one-off friends and family cassette). While his lyricism at face value ties back to the white finger analogy, upon closer analysis one is able to derive the entirety of the messages presented. The whole of this EP takes Richard to a new level in his cementation of sound.    

Positively well done from concept to final presentation, ‘White Finger’ is undoubtedly an EP worth giving many listens.

Few things excite me more than sarcastic wit and a big brain,  so it is always with pleasure that I interview Mr. Oliver Richard.

Hello again Oliver! Thank you for agreeing to this follow up Q&A with me- I do so appreciate your time.  

Reading your promo liner for this ‘White Finger’ EP, I really dig your precipitating thoughts behind it. Were these songs that you already had in the works that ultimately fit this idea, or did you write all new material for this?

All of these songs were brand new. The whole process behind them was fairly unusual for me as I normally work on songs for a long time until they coagulate into a group. For this E.P. the songs seemed to give birth to each other over a short couple of months, which stopped with “This Machine”. One label who was thinking of releasing it asked if I could add another song to bring the total up a bit, but it wasn’t creatively possible. These four stand alone.
You’ve done a great job at weaving duality into these songs so far as they all tie back to in some rough way to the White Finger idea, but branch out into their own message. Was that something that was planned or did it evolve more organically? 

Thank you! It was largely organic. The only thing I remember consciously steering was the lyric-development. I used broader brush strokes for the title track, “White Finger”; I wanted that song to be more immediately relatable. It’s laying the wares of the record on the table: you hold onto emotional baggage and curse yourself. Because I was so loose with that track, it gave me free reign to become very lyrically dense with “Electric Sun” which is unrelenting and intricate in terms of word play. Following on, “Another Light” is purposefully hollow. I sang glossolalia along with a demo and pulled words from that, a process I never normally use. Then I shaped them into something that reflected the things on my mind and finished by removing about 30% to empty it out. The last track “This Machine” had two verses so naked and honest that I didn’t need to write any more. It would have been too much, so I added the ambiguous, seemingly unrelated mantra instead: “this machine can stop, it is beautiful, it is symmetrical, and it can stop just not yet”. ‘Machine’ generally has negative connotations, especially in pop music (the ‘man’, authority complexes etc) but here the machine is actually beautiful and can stop; it is something entirely different to the normal tropes.

You mention the emotional baggage to which we cling… Did you find yourself analyzing what have up to now been hidden hurts of your own? Was this a cathartic experience for working out any of your own buried demons and/or releasing some of that personal baggage?

I’m not sure about cathartic... I have definitely processed the stuff that is at the heart of this record, but whether that is despite writing the songs, or because of them, I couldn’t really say.

There’s a really unique tone throughout- can you tell us about some of the techniques or equipment employed in your recordings? 

I used my Burns Steer for everything. I’ve played so many guitars over the years and absolutely nothing touches it. It’s the most versatile instrument I own. For amps I stuck with my custom Fender Blues Junior and Vox AC4TV (for some extra fizz). A lot of the weird stuff like the guitar breakdowns in Electric Sun were achieved with an Eventide H9 pedal: the greatest guitar pedal ever created in my opinion. I tried to keep vocals quite clean this time (as I so heavily distorted them on the Triggerfish 7”) with the exception of the title track. A Korg Monotron was all over the record too. It’s a tiny synth you play with one finger, but put it through a few effects and an amplifier and you can shake the room apart. For the percussion I used my Farmer Foot Drums Stomp set up. It’s first generation so slightly different to what Pete is making now, but I love it. I’ve modified it to suit my needs. 
Your recording, mixing and production has been pretty DIY (do it yourself) in the past. Did you stick to that for this release as well?

I recorded myself, which I love to do. When you’re writing songs you are at the mercy of your creative flows and can’t add much considered design, relatively speaking, but when you record those songs you can retroactively add layers of meaning in a planned way. For this E.P. I wanted it to sound like the insides of machinery to reflect its themes: numbness, being inert and the link between ‘white-finger-the-injury’ and machines themselves. The production was dry and angular. No reverbs were used, just short delays (if any). The tempos were relentless with no rubato. All the guitars were distorted. If I used any drum machines, I processed them heavily so they sounded even more artificial and synthetic (like the snare in “White Finger”). Any loops were heavily processed to the point that I could hardly recognise how they began. All in all, I wanted the production to be in your face – not subtle. There are a lot of hard edges; all intentional. The only place it softens is the final half of the final song, “This Machine” when the kick drum comes in and the tambourine. There are a lot of long, warm delays introduced; everything is winding down.

You’ve got this sexy-super-hero-style photography going on with this release. How did you and photographer Graeme MacDonald come up with the art concept for this EP? 

There were many failed attempts. I’ve known Graeme for years, and we’ve wanted to work together for a while now. I came to him with some very specific ideas which had strong symbolic elements and involved nudity, models and motor-oil but they all fell apart for one reason or another. I don’t even remember posing for the one we used. The other attempts had more of a strict meaning behind them, but they ended up feeling very laboured in comparison. This one felt spontaneous and natural. I think it was a brave, honest choice as the image (amongst other things) points to my vanity, which is something most people pretend they don’t have. Inversely, using this picture also challenged me as I’m not keen on getting my photo taken, so to use the one where I am half naked, bearing my chest is as uncomfortable as it is vainglorious. I like the tension and duality between those two things. Ultimately though, beyond all the cerebral stuff, I picked it because it’s a striking image and people react to it – whether they see it as sexy, arrogant, beautiful or clinical, it doesn’t matter.

I know multiple format options have been important to you with previous releases. Which are you focusing on for this release?

 10” vinyl, digital and CD. Vinyl is king but CDs are great for new fans at live shows that have never heard you before. Last year I played quite a few gigs where folk approached the merch stand and, downcast, said they didn’t have a turntable. I don’t like that elitism that can occur with vinyl. Downloads cards are ok, but CDs bridge the awkward gap far more successfully, especially with older generations that ditched their record player in the ‘90s and have no idea how to download or stream. That said, I’m most excited about the 10” vinyl. The E.P. is too long to sound good on a 7”, and too short to warrant a full blown 12”, but it fits the 10” format perfectly.

You’ve been playing more gigs around your local area over the past year. Do you play over a backing track? If so, have you found that difficult to work around with sound guys or are you able to achieve the overall affect you were hoping for live? Can we expect a wider range of showings abroad anytime in the near future?

My live show is fairly complicated and unique which is a nightmare when trying to sort gigs with new people as they don’t have a clue what I do (the first reason I haven’t played outside Scotland yet). Basically, I use a live kick drum, and acoustic floor percussion (shaker and tambourine). I hate playing sitting down so I learned how to do it standing up. The guitars and vocals are live. For any bass loops, drones, textural loops and drum machines I use a sampler that is controlled like a guitar pedal. It’s not a backing track per se as there’s much more on-the-fly control. It is like walking a tight rope and took a solid year to perfect (the second reason I haven’t played out and about all that much yet). The whole thing adds up to seven channels of mixing for the sound engineer; they invariably look at me like I’m an alien but are often very enthusiastic by the end. I think it’s because they must really work their craft when I play; it’s not just another cookie-cutter four piece band. Audiences are generally pretty shocked by the sound I create; someone told me it was like Sonic Youth from one man. Doing it my way is hard, but I take huge inspiration from hip-hop for my live show. Take Kanye West at Glastonbury 2015: one massive light rig, a microphone, and Mike Dean manipulating Ye’s iconic productions whilst adding some live guitar here, or a live synth there. There was no need to have a full band playing everything you heard; songs are greater than that. I don’t go see St. Vincent then freak out because parts of her show are processed through a laptop. That’s my attitude to looping and sampling. Saying this, I never live-loop. I find that so boring. Any loops I use in my show were created months before and are then sampled as and when I want them... Last year was spent trying to figure out how this all worked in new venues and cities, and how I could tour it. Now I have that locked in, I have my sights set further afield.

Beyond your upcoming full-length Grimtale records LP, what other shenanigans on your 2016 agenda that you can share with us? 

I’m not working with Grimtale Records on anything, but I am working on a split 7” with my favourite band you have never heard of: This Heroic Routine. Other than that, there’s another 7” I want to release as a companion piece to the Triggerfish 7”. When I’m not juggling those, I am in the early stages of writing a clutch of new songs. They are growing slower than the White Finger E.P. and are much darker, but also more luscious and expansive. On the back burners, I still have my 10 track album, but I’m trying to hold off on that one as I want someone to offer it the release it deserves.

You’ve hash-tagged yourself as ‘loner rock’ which I love and I think is a fairly accurate description. Is that a groove you seem to find yourself in, or one you more aspire to?

It’s tongue in cheek, joking on the phrase ‘stoner rock’ whilst indicating that I do all this on my own. I think it suits quite well right now as elements of White Finger echo stoner rock (mainly the extreme repetition of riffs). Truthfully, I never consider genre when it comes to my music, but I got so sick of not having a prepared answer when people asked what sort of stuff I play that I made up that catchy little phrase... I don’t aspire to it, but I am pretty proud to have thought of it! Some people get paid to think up taglines like that...
Lastly, are you still striving to maintain the balance between absence and presence? Has it become an easier battle to wage?

I am still finding that one tricky. I recently experimented with writing a blogpost on my website and that seemed to connect with people in a more satisfying way. I also enjoyed doing it. As for social media in general, I’m just not a fan: it doesn’t make me feel happy or edified and robs me of time, confidence and focus. You end up on this Escheresque staircase where nothing really happens. What frustrates me is that it has become common currency in the music world now: “You want a gig? How many “likes” have you got?” How your music sounds is a distant second. I understand that being able to bring a crowd is important, but so little of the social media achievements even convert into reality. The amount of acts I have seen who have incredible “online presence” but are limp sock puppets in the flesh who can’t pull an audience. Granted, neither can I but at least my social media reflects that! I only use it because I have to. You have to buy into the system fully to escape it. One day I will do a Bowie and disappear. That’s the dream.  

Much thanks again to Oliver for taking the time to answer some of my burning questions. You can find his new 'White Finger' EP here (currently available for pre-order!), worldwide release date March 1, 2016. 

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