Nick Edwards (aka Ekoplekz) Steps Out of the Sonic Shadows
Interview by John C. Tripp
Nick Edwards still bares the stamp of his earliest sonic impressions, those seemingly benign songs and sounds that fill our minds and memories years later as adults. In his case it was the sounds of Bristol, UK in 1969. Edwards’ earliest exposure to experimental electronic music came via the insidious, subliminally subversive sounds of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Tristram Cary, Barry Gray and the plethora of weird library records that soundtracked childrens’ TV programmes transmitted during the 1970s. This heavy exposure led to a natural affinity for the early Industrial, synth and post-punk noise of Cabaret Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle, SPK, Robert Rental & The Normal, Fad Gadget and early Human League.
Like a sonic sponge Edwards was swept along by the tide of new sonic possibilities engendered by nascent electro, techno, hip hop, house and ambient electronica. Simultaneously he was developing a strong taste for the more experimental side of seventies art/krautrock and the Jamaican dub reggae of King Tubby, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Prince Jammy etc. At some point all of these influences combusted and Edwards began recording his own music during his teens in the late-eighties, using primitive hardware-based audio studio environment, direct to four-track cassette. He would continue his self-exploration of sound in the early 90′s creating a large body of recorded work, with a vast majority of the material remaining unreleased.
Zooming forward a decade Edwards came to public attention as one of the first wave of music bloggers, writing the influential Gutterbreakz blog from 2003-2009. This was a highly personal journal of musical obsession, notable for inadvertently helping to trigger worldwide interest the dubstep phenomenon. In 2010 Edwards returned as a musician and live performer, forming musical projects like EKOCLEF. As Ekoplekz, Edwards has released a solid amount of records and cassettes on various labels including Punch Drunk, Mordant Music, Further Records, Public Information, Perc Trax and Plant Migration. Edward’s formative influences range from early electronics and radiophonics to 70′s dub, industrial and krautrock, newer forms of leftfield dance music and the post-noise experimental vanguard.
Focusing on his own music once more, Edwards re-emerged as Ekoplekz in 2010. A volatile mix of radiophonics, industrial noise and disintegrated dub, with a commitment to primitive hardware technology and lo-fi cassette recording techniques, Ekoplekz proved an unexpected critical success, leading to a steady stream of releases on labels such as Punch Drunk, Mordant Music, Further Records and Public Information. Edwards continues to produce music at a feverish rate, both solo and in collaboration with others, most notably Ralph Cumbers (as Ekoclef) and Baron Mordant (as eMMplekz) and his first solo release under his own name on the respected Editions Mego label is available now.
MundoVibe: Your music is deliberately lo-tech and distorted. Interestingly enough, in this day and age of digital perfection it is sounds more subversive than ever. What is it about this sound that appeals to you?
Nick Edwards: I’ve always been drawn to more primitive recordings, whether its Elvis or Throbbing Gristle. I like the sound of music recorded onto tape, not necessarily just for the warmth, but also the subtle distortion that can be achieved. And I like the sound of older analogue sound processing and effects. I guess my taste for it comes from when I was a little kid playing my parents’ 7″ singles, which were all old pop songs from the fifties and sixties. There was so much character present in those recordings, especially those Joe Meek productions like ‘Telstar’, and the biting sound of Hank Marvin’s Strat on the early Shadows hits, which would literally send a shiver down my spine. And I guess I will always prize those lo-tech sounds over digital clarity or accuracy. In fact I have no interest in achieving a perfect, transparent recording. The character of the recording should be as distinctive as the actual performance it documents.
I do have an unhealthy obsession with the idea of decay, particularly the area of urban decay. I was born into a world of shiny new motorways and modernist architecture and I’ve been watching all that concrete gradually aging and falling into ruin ever since.
You developed this methodology when digital tools might not have been accessible as they are today. But now you have these tools at your disposal so why not just digital and use all of the latest software?
I started with cassette recording technology back in the late eighties when it was the only option available to me. Just devising a simple sound-on-sound recording process using domestic cassette recorders was a miraculous act of will-to-power. The results were often poor, but the personal satisfaction of successfully getting an idea onto tape was enormous. I spent a long time working out better ways of getting a good recording on tape. It’s that sense of battling against the odds that always appeals to me when I hear these old, brutally recorded demos. Eventually I got a proper cassette 4 track recorder. Then, a few years later I spent quite a lot of money on one of the first digital multitrack recorders, a Fostex DMT8, and just thinking how horrible it sounded…just a very dry, dead sound. I persevered with it for a while but sold it eventually, vowing to return to cassettes. So I bought a secondhand Yamaha MT3X portastudio, which is the same machine I use to this day. So what was born out of necessity has now become an aesthetic choice. It’s not just some retro stance – I genuinely believe it gives my recordings a distinctive extra layer of character and bite.
One thing that has changed is the loss of physicality of a music recording. Most people experience music now as an MP3 or digital track. Yet there is still a cassette and vinyl culture that collects and listens to music this way. Does the medium change the message of music, especially yours?
I think it varies. I know some people who genuinely love and prefer the sound of cassettes over MP3s. Other people are ‘objectophiles’…they might listen to MP3s for convenience but like to have something they can display on their shelf…and maybe for other, older people those archaic analogue formats have a talismanic quality that feeds off a nostalgia for a ‘better’ world that they see rapidly disappearing. I suspect my releases tap into all those potential areas, and I feel it’s quite appropriate for me to exploit them, because the music contained within is born from a similar viewpoint. I rarely buy or consume music on digital formats, so I try to package my music for consumers who have the same outlook as me. But I’m not on some anti-digital crusade. Most of my key releases are available in digital/download format, for those who prefer those formats.
There is a strong element of decay in your compositions, perhaps reflecting the state of society, the decline of industrial manufacturing, the ultimate death and decay we all face. Would any of these be fair interpretations of your music? What ideas are behind your compositions?
Yes it’s probably true that I do have an unhealthy obsession with the idea of decay, particularly the area of urban decay. I was born into a world of shiny new motorways and modernist architecture and I’ve been watching all that concrete gradually aging and falling into ruin ever since. I think perhaps my generation have experienced an unprecedented amount of change in our lifetime (cultural, technological, political, architectural etc) and it’s sometimes hard to deal with, particularly in these uncertain times. So we yearn for the comforts of the world we dimly remember from our childhood. We can’t go back there, so instead we spend a lot of time mournfully obsessing over the rapidly decaying artifacts left behind. Inevitably, for those working in the creative arts, these feelings will bleed into their work and I’m no exception to that. I don’t think it’s necessarily an unhealthy state to be in, as long as you can stay anchored to the present and try to keep moving forward.
In the 1970s certain Jamaican producers, namely King Tubby and Lee “Scratch” Perry gave birth to “dub”, utilizing rudimentary production technqieus of cutting and splicing tape, employing reverb and messing with sound. How did their music and production techniques impact your listening experience and the music you create?
Well, as I mentioned earlier, I started out listening to those old pop records from my parents’ era, which were often covered in tape echo and captured on primitive recording equipment. So when I first started hearing those dub reggae records it was like the same thing on steroids! In King Tubby’s hands, all those amazing textures which were hinted at in the early days of pop suddenly took center stage. And Lee Perry’s Black Ark productions make instant sense if you’re already familiar with Joe Meeks’ Holloway Road recordings. All that stuff had a huge impact on my development as an artist, without question.
I wanted to make a record that was like a summation of everything I’d been working on over the past couple of years in my guise as Ekoplekz. In that respect it was quite a lot more calculated than my previous records, because I wanted to make sure I included certain sounds and techniques I’d been developing.
With your signing to Peter Rehberg’s Editions Mego label you have dropped your Ekoplekz name, opting to use your real name. Is this a stepping out from the shadows for you?
To some extent, yes. For some time I’d had this little nagging voice in my head kept asking me why I, a mature, adult solo artist, was hiding behind this stupid name, and maybe it was time I started taking myself a bit more seriously. But at the same time, Ekoplekz is quite a fun, memorable name to play around with, and the unique spelling makes it really easy to google information about yourself. In the end my mature, serious side won the argument, but I haven’t completely abandoned the Ekoplekz brand just yet.
Plekzationz is comprised of four 15 minute pieces: ‘Chance Meets Causality Uptown’ , ‘(No) Escape From ’79′, ‘Inside The Analog Continuum’ and ‘A Pedant’s Progress’ Is there an overall concept that ties these tracks together?
Each part is intended to focus on specific core obsessions that drive my creativity, but not in a tidy, discreet way, because that’s not the way I work. So there’s a lot of cross-talk between them. But I’m not gonna spell it all out for everyone…the clues are in the titles…
Plekzationz could be the soundtrack for a lo-tech sci-fi movie or a vision quest in the desert. Where do you see its place, what was the “vision” you had for this release?
I’d love to hear this sort of music in a sci-fi movie today! But to answer your question, I was aware that releasing a record on Editions Mego might bring me to the attention of a slightly wider audience, so I wanted to make a record that was like a summation of everything I’d been working on over the past couple of years in my guise as Ekoplekz. In that respect it was quite a lot more calculated than my previous records, because I wanted to make sure I included certain sounds and techniques I’d been developing. The end result is like a personal journey through the recording/performing process, compressing two years of development into a one hour showcase. For instance, the bass guitar at the start is very deliberate, because my earliest tracks were just me fishing around with a bass guitar, a keyboard and a couple of fx pedals. And the final part is a completely live, one-take improvisation, intended to demonstrate how far I’ve come (and how far I still have to go) in terms of confidence and performance technique, without any post-production or studio trickery. But at the same time I wanted to make sure there were enough fresh elements to satisfy those who’ve been following my work since the early days.
On listening to Plekzationz, it’s interesting how one’s mood and state of mind are effected by listening to it. One can go from relaxed and passive to agigated to thoughtful to sad. There’s a lot of feeling packed into this recording. Any thoughts on the various states of mind your music creates?
I try not to approach music from an analytical or intellectual viewpoint. I always try to be guided by emotional, instinctive feelings when I’m recording and performing. If those emotions are conveyed to the people who listen to it, then I guess you could say that the music has succeeded, and that’s all that I, as an artist, could ever hope for.
Although one wouldn’t say your music is beat-driven, there is definitely a pulse and cycle to what you are doing. There is a also a heavily distorted beat buried in the mix. How does rhythm and cycle fit into what you’re creating?
Not long ago I was involved in an evening of live music, performing spontaneously with four other artists, all of whom were experienced improvisors. One of them said to me afterwards that I was the first person he’d ever played with who used ‘beats’ in improvised music, which surprised me. The fact is, I spent years deeply involved in electronic dance music, either as amateur producer, dj, blogger or simply fascinated listener. From disco, early hip hop and electro in the eighties, through to techno, jungle, dubstep, its always been an area of interest to me, so naturally there will be rhythmic elements in my own work. I never try to deliberately suppress my influences. Hopefully by letting all those influences (and the feelings they inspire) freely intermingle, I can create music that is a unique sum of all its parts.
From disco, early hip hop and electro in the eighties, through to techno, jungle, dubstep, its always been an area of interest to me, so naturally there will be rhythmic elements in my own work.
Many of your compositions are lengthy, allowing you the time to slowly introduce themes. What is it about a longer track that works for you?
Doing longer tracks is actually quite a new thing for me. Most of my earlier work is shorter bursts of sound, typically around 3-5 minutes. But for ‘Plekzationz’ I definitely wanted to spread the sound out, let it breath and develop at a slower rate. I can certainly see potential to slow the pace down even further on future releases. I’m really into the idea of making ‘ambient’ music that is weird and disconcerting, rather than mellow/chill-out.
There is also a sense of floating, disconnectedness and space that permeate your sound. How do these themes fit into what you’re doing?
Yes, that continues the idea of making ‘ambient’ music. A lot of these feelings come from the soundtracks and special sound effects used in the TV programs I used to watch as a kid in the 1970s, which would often have unearthly, floating incidental electronic sounds. So I tend to associate those spacey, dark atmospheres with a personal feeling of warmth and nostalgia. It just feels totally natural to me.
Nick Edwards tweaks the knobs. Image courtesy of secretthirteen.org
In creating your music, is it a building up of sound elements? How do you develop a track’s core concept.
All my music begins with improvisation, usually just shaping and developing a rhythm or textural background wash, then adding more detailed sounds on top. I suppose I approach it like a painter would, working with oil on canvas…or maybe water colours..? Sometimes the end result feels structured, other times quite abstract-expressionist. When I’m recording the music, i just try to work instinctively, without any firm goal or concept in mind. The conceptualization comes later when I start thinking about how best to present the work to the public, assembling it into rational chunks of information, thinking of suitable titles for any given piece of music, working with a visual artist on the record sleeve, etc. Its only then that the conceptual elements start to form.
You stated in another interview that “my music is like a wall, a psychologically protective wall that helps keep me sane in the face of all the media/consumerist bullshit that surrounds me.” That said, would you ever want your music to reach a much wider audience? What are you thoughts on our media culture?
Haha…I think I was in a particularly belligerent mood when I said that, but I’m not the sort of artist who will ever crossover to a mainstream audience. That’s not a statement of intent, I’m just being realistic. But coming back to that idea of sci-fi movie soundtracks, if a producer asked to use my work in a film, or the BBC asked to use something I’d done as background music in a documentary, then of course I’d be thrilled. I like the idea of introducing experimental or challenging sounds to mainstream audiences subliminally through incidental music and sound effects, which is how I was first introduced to it as a child. Looking back, I feel very lucky to have been exposed to a more Avant Garde climate at an early age. Everything seems so safe and conservative these days…or just irritating, rather than challenging or genuinely shocking.
Nick Edwards (Ekoplekz) on Boomkat.com