Interview: Andrew Dobson (Digitonal)

1. How and why did you decide to mix electronic music with neo-classic music in your project?

This project really stems from the time I spent in London’s techno clubs in the mid 90s. That club scene had a really strong culture of chillout rooms and ‘back-to-mine’ afterparties where the music was really eclectic. You’d often hear Philip Glass alongside The Orb alongside Beaumont Hannant, Ofra Haza, Autechre, Bach. It was the blend that was most interesting. So when I finally started writing my own music, it was natural to draw on all of my musical history rather than just trying to emulate club music. My musical background, more than anything, was early choral music, so that aspect of harmony was something I felt I could represent honestly. As I’ve grown through the last 20 years of writing music, the changes to it have been subtle but it’s always about challenging what you have to say.

2. Do you consider yourself an electronic or a neo-classic musician?

Classical first I guess. I’ve been around classical music since I was a baby. Electronica isn’t something I came into until I started spending my pocket money on record around the age of 9, and got really into anything with a synth - Depeche Mode, Pet Shop Boys, Jean-Michel Jarre. Even now I’m more of a composer than a producer. I find it quite difficult to shed my understanding of classical theory and focus on texture, structure or vibe in the way other producers I know do. Over the years I suppose the two things have converged into one entity - it’s always been an uneasy balancing act within me as I work. Ultimately though, it’s the classical side of me where I really express myself - the electronics are more like a framework or structural scaffolding to give me a space where I can express something emotionally, if that makes sense.

3. Describe your music with only one sentence!.

Introspective, expressive themes from my life.

4. What kind of principles is the music scene of England built on, according to you? It has always been considered to be the "heart" of the music world.

English music is a broad subject and there’s a world of difference between urban scenes and regional ones. I think electronica has often reflected the UK as a brutal, listless country. It’s been about the industrial landscapes, the cold and grey, the crap towns and lack of opportunity. There’s a tangible dis-ease which you find throughout the country and that often generates creative responses. There’s also London vs everywhere else. Most other cities have music scenes which work hard to define themselves as anything but London. Sheffield, for instance, developed it’s own singular sound of electronic music which seems directly linked to its landscape. I lived there for a couple of years in the mid-00s and you couldn’t help but be shaped by it. But I’m London born and London bred and I realise now, more than ever, that I spent a long time trying not to be which was counterproductive. And the problem with London is that it changes all the time. It isn’t really about one thing. It’s constantly shifting and growing and nothing is immune to change here. But I think that’s pretty good for creativity because it means you can represent something but not stay still. A lot of the people I knew in Sheffield seemed content to just be about the same thing over and over again until they died. It was, on reflection, actually quite damaging to me because you could get so comfortable with that, and there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but it would depress me and I spent most of those years suffering from depression in a major way. It’s really important to me that I don’t let the past define me. I fell in love with electronica and techno precisely because it was music from the future. It’s got to move forwards and I’ve got to move forwards with it. Which is ironic when you consider the classical elements of my work.

5. How do you see the future of electronica?

Healthy. It ebbs and flows obviously. There seems to be a lot of it about again suddenly, and artists from other genres, like Phaeleh for instance, bringing it into their sound, or people like Anna Meredith who does the reverse of me and takes things from electronica back into the contemporary classical world. That I’m particularly excited about, because it needs to be more diverse in order to survive. Electronica was always most interesting to me when it sat at the intersection of lots of different genres and influences. It was like you could represent your own voice, whilst also calling upon this massive palette with no rules, and that would take your music in directions you couldn't have come up with on your own. That’s really healthy for any art form. I think electronica, and IDM in particular became far too self-obsessed for a long time. Artists copying each other’s styles and techniques - plugins being developed to literally give you something like the Squarepusher cut up breakbeat” sound. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think anyone should ever give a shit about how people produce their music, and I’ve used ‘glitch’ plugins and presets loads...but the richness in how music develops and moves forward is always in where you take your influence to. Simply replicating it doesn’t take it anywhere, and IDM definitely suffered from that for a long time (particularly in the ‘who can sound most messed up’ competition which was ridiculous). But there’s some really great music about at the moment, both from old hands and newcomers and it’s making it rich and interesting again.

I hope the future of the genre will be more collaboration, more diversity in its participants (it’s still way, way too white euro nerdy male) and a drawing on a wider range of artforms and styles to generate new things. Electronica is always at it’s best when it’s got the deepest gene pool of influence.

6. Tell us about your experience of collaborating with Toytronic and Cactus Island. How was their work organized and what is the main difference with other labels?

I was very lucky to work with Toytronic. They were a label at the top of their game and they took a big risk with releasing 23:thingsfallapart because it was so different from the glitchy electro sound they’d largely been associated with. Everyone involved with that label was passionate about every aspect of it. I think that’s why it did so well, every part of the experience was curated, from the artwork to the release schedule to the flow of each record. There was care and attention. Cactus Island came about mostly just through getting to know Tim from Maps and Diagrams and him asking for some material. I’m still a massive fan of his work - he’s way, way underrated in the scene. Again, there was a real love for the genre and careful curation of the output. I think that’s something I’ve really missed lately, the aspect of curation. I am a lot more careful now about what I commit to, and ensuring that everything I do is being done for the right reasons. There’s been a few occasions where I’ve nearly been sucked into making music that I hope will be popular or to please others (sometimes literally for single people/collaborators and etc) and it’s always been a disaster. The great thing about working with a label like Toytronic is that they give enough of a damn about what you’re doing to help you be objective about it and take great care with how you’re shaping stuff. It’s important.

7. What is your top 5 electronic albums of all times

Of all time, that’s tough. Probably:

Vangelis - Blade Runner OST
Future Sound of London - Lifeforms
Orbital - In Sides
Jean Michel Jarre -  Zoolook
Boards of Canada - Music Has The Right To Children

But I could give you another list on different day. Those are probably the biggest influences on me over the years though. Not necessarily the best albums, but my all time favourites.

8. Top 3 classic composers

Claudio Monteverdi, for completely rewriting every single harmony rule in the book. John Dowland, for being the epitome of melancholy. Erik Satie, for creating real emotion within simplicity and for being playful with it which is something that’s really important and easy to forget if you’re writing heavy-going, emotional music.

9. What occupation would you choose if Digitonal never came to be?

I’d have liked to have played in a professional orchestra.

10. Can you remember all the instruments and all the music gear that you had available back in 1997, at the inception of Digitonal?

Yeah, like it was yesterday. Yamaha W7 workstation keyboard was my main synth. All the early stuff was entirely written on that. Atari ST running Cubase, then replaced by a 486-powered desktop PC with Cubase 3.0 doing all the sequencing. Also a Quasimidi Sirus, a novation Basstation rack (which I still have) and an SH-101. Then in ‘99 I bought the first Electribe drum achine - everything on 23:thingsfallapart came off that kit. After that I started getting more into soft synths etc and went a bit more computer based.


11. Tell us a few words about the live that you recorded specially for the Data.Wave podcast!

This is a live recording of the set which I mostly put together for this summer’s festival appearances. I’ve not played live much this year, so this was almost all new material. Even the old material has been remixed a bit. I get bored playing old stuff so I like to re-visit it every few years. I’ve also been working a lot with Dom Graveson this year, so some of his modular lines and elements are peppered throughout the set. I also included two of the remixes which I completed this year - one for Max Richter and one for Ochre (actually more of a cover version).

12. What are the main things to look out for while organizing a gig? What are the main objectives? (Do you have any particular goals in mind?)

I have no plans when putting together gigs. Generally they come to me and I always try to say yes and make it happen. I really love playing live and it’s also hugely important in terms of giving yourself a deadline for shaping up new material or freshening up old stuff. Now it’s mostly just me on my own, I can be a lot more flexible about where I play. Before, with the full band, it was usually too expensive to play abroad much, but I’m hoping to travel a lot more next year. I do try to do things which offer a unique artistic opportunity, whether that’s in the space they’re held in, or the type of audience, or the opportunity to go somewhere I’ve never been before. It’s really cool to be involved in the overall artistic vision of an event and to be able to shape what I do to fit. This year, for instance, we played the Samsara festival in Hungary which isn’t my normal crowd, but it was wonderful being able to connect with that audience and shape what we performed for them to fit.  It’s that kind of creative challenge that keeps me interested in making music after all these years!

13. In spite of the fact that the project was founded in 1997, the very first album didn't appear until 2002. Why is that?

Before then I’d been doing bits of film and theatre scoring work but that was when I started writing as Digitonal. Before I signed to Toytronic I was part of a very early online collective called TEFOSAV. All my early tracks were released on their compilation series called CcommD and we’d post works in progress, remix and collaborate and critique each other’s work. It was a great community and helped me shape the early sound of what I was doing. I was also playing live from about 1999. I guess it took me a while to have a proper album to release because I was still shaping the sound. Some of that first album was actually written for a theatre piece and Come and Play was originally written for a documentary which my friend and early collaborator Mark Pinheiro made. But over time they developed further and became the tracks you hear on 23:thingsfallapart.

14. How did you meet Samy Bishai?

I met Samy in the basement studio of a flat in Tooting. There were some people that I’d been playing live for that ran a studio there and I’d popped in to help them with their website. Samy was there recording with Aquilina and we got chatting. I’d experimented with a string quartet from Guildhall before but they couldn’t handle the beats. A few weeks later Samy came over to mine and we recorded Overline track on a £35 chinese SM57 copy. Things basically progressed from there. He is an exceptional musician and I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have such a long working relationship with him. I’ve been spoilt really. I did try out a few others, but there’s just nobody like Samy. He’s got the classical chops, but can also improvise properly, feel a groove, create sonic landscapes and is also a hell of a good producer and engineer in his own right. He probably doesn’t get nearly enough credit for the quality of some of the Digitonal mixes. We did them together, but the detail and space in the mix is all down to him. This is really why the sound of Digitonal has to change now.

15. Tell us about 65daysofstatic! Why is the "Watch the Stars Fall" release the only joint album featuring Digitonal?

Bit of a misunderstanding this, I suspect due to poor Discogs information. 65daysofstatic are nothing to do with me and that’s not a joint album. I knew them in their early days because an old college mate of mine was their original bassist. I helped them out with the recording of that early ep - it’s an engineers credit at best - I had nothing to do with the music itself. We traded some remixes and I played some clarinet on one of their albums but we’ve never collaborated.

16. Which release by Digitonal would you personally consider the most successful one?

In terms of album, then probably Save Your Light for Darker Days because I think that is the zenith of that classic, string-drenched Digitonal sound. Samy and I worked really hard on getting every element in that album perfect and I’m really proud of it. I still think that it doesn’t sound like anything else out there. I’d struggle to make it again though. In terms of specific tracks, I think Overline is possibly my favourite as it’s conceptually the closest to what I was trying to achieve. It takes a classic, baroque ground bass, plays it on a 303 sample which then recontextualises that instrument away from acid house, and then builds up some wonderfully composed string arrangements over it. It’s drawing from the classical tradition as well as borrowing from dance music but is itself neither. It’s something new and that’s what I wanted to do in my approach to fusion. That aside, I’m proud of most of what I’ve released over the last 20 years. I’m also really excited about some of my new stuff. I’m enjoying being back in proper electronica territory again. Like I said earlier, it was all about the future for me, however one defines that.

Digitonal official website
Digitonal on Facebook
Digitonal on SoundCloud

Questions: Ilya Kudrin