Squarepusher, a night without fear at Berghain
A quarter of a century of Squarepusher. Tom Jenkinson takes the anniversary as an opportunity to re-release the rare debut album “Feed Me Weird Things” on Warp to deflate the market, as he puts it in our chat. A journey back to one of the starting points of the future of electronic music.
On January 31, 2020, all was still well with the world. At least that’s what we thought in Germany, in China it already looked different. That night, however, Tom Jenkinson, better known by his alter ego Squarepusher for 25 years now, was still playing as part of the CTM Festival at Berlin’s Berghain – and, there’s no other way to put it: he tore up that dance floor in a way that few before him had done, and that really means something at this venue. It was the first and also penultimate performance in support of the then-new Squarepusher album “Be Up a Hello,” followed the night after by another showcase performance in London, but “not with the same physical approach as at Berghain, the perfect place to get into a trance-like state,” according to Jenkinson.
After that Covid-19 arrived in Europe and the club doors closed until today – since then Jenkinson, like all of us, lounges around on the sofa at home more than he’s comfortable with.
In a first reflex, one might read the re-release of “Feed Me Weird Things” as the result of a nostalgic journey into one’s own archives. But it was not the case, quite fundamentally, because Jenkinson rejects nostalgia, but rather purely practical, because the album had already been remastered for six years and was waiting in the cupboard for the right date: its 25th anniversary.
It wasn’t his idea, Jenkinson explains, “but it made sense to me. The album lately existed only on this terrible second-hand record market, where prices have skyrocketed, solely because the product is so rare. 50€, 100€ or even 300€ for a record – that’s bullshit. Then it’s all about investment, that has nothing to do with the actual intention anymore. In that respect, the rerelease is linked to the ambition to deflate the market.”
It’ s a pleasure to listen to Jenkinson as he hurls his disdain at what we like to call the late capitalism of our world, but which unfortunately seems to be resurgent at the moment: “A lot of money corrupts people, which is why I will never try to generate an extreme amount of money. My feeling is: money fucks people off, it negatively influences decisions and takes you away from good people, it makes you antisocial. I don’t like it.”
Hope & Respect
But let’s look back again to 1995 and 1996, when “Feed Me Weird Things” was created. The recordings document an important phase in Jenkinson’s life, who at that time left home and moved to London to study at the College of Art and Design in Chelsea, but mainly immersed himself in the nightlife and, inspired by it, sat down in front of what was then still very rudimentary equipment to tinker with the music that would become known under the signet Squarepusher: a wonderfully unwieldy yet catchy hybrid of futuristic drum’n’bass beats and ambient soundscapes, as well as organic components, whether via bass and guitar tracks he recorded himself or his ever-present jazz influences.
In those early years, Jenkinson was fueled by a climate of hope, because after a far too long and bitter dry spell of Conservative politics with brutal social consequences for the British population, the signs seemed to point to a new dawn. The hopes placed in the Labour Party, however, were not to be fulfilled – analogous to the German experience with Red-Green and the Schröder-Fischer pairing. “We didn’t yet know what disappointments Tony Blair would have in store for us,” Jenkinson sums it up dryly now. But back then he was still dancing euphorically to jungle and drum ‘n’ bass and was “excited to be a part of it.”
It was on one of those nights at the Sir George Robey pub in North London that Jenkinson met Richard D. James, better known as Aphex Twin – the spark of their friendship and the collaboration that would lead to Jenkinson’s debut album, “Feed Me Weird Things”, being released on the Rephlex label run by James and Grant Wilson-Claridge. He recalls, “We exchanged numbers and arranged to listen to music. I gave him about 40 tracks on tape and he chose 12 of them. He made the decision, I didn’t interfere much with it, my respect was too great. I was just happy to make an album with Rephlex.” The respect was mutual, at least that’s what the sleeve notes to “Feed Me Weird Things” by Richard D. James convey: “Squarepusher gives us the SOUND of SOUND.” Asked about this, Jenkinson laughs at first, but then provides a fitting reading: “Sound is the supercategory to music – conservatively you could say that music is desired sound and noise is undesired sound. Although I list my profession as musician – and sometimes, funnily enough, as entertainer, although I’m more annoying than entertaining – I’m not only interested in music in the narrower sense, but also in the sonic space of possibilities in the broader sense.”
Dreams & Realities
Many musicians want nothing more than to sound futuristic – and still wind up reproducing familiar ideas. In Squarepusher’s music, the absolute will for the new is always accompanied by a great respect for the past and present, not least through the coexistence of electronically programmed and organic elements. “I have this one recurring dream of a piece of music, the Lost Track, that gives meaning to everything I do,” Jenkinson elaborates. “It feels so good in the dream when I finally get to that point- and then I wake up and am confronted with reality. But these dreams are an important drive for me.”
The fact that the music he produced back then in his small student digs still inspires so many people today is “absolutely fascinating”, Jenkinson notes and continues the thought: “When I was very young and just learning scales and chords, I wondered why minor and major keys held such different moods. How can a collection of notes that are so similar, except that they start somewhere else, carry such a different timbre and evoke different emotions? My music is a continued exploration of these thought processes. After all, one day you react one way to the same music and the next you react quite differently. If you turn it around: music that always triggers the same thing – is that good? If I could produce it, would that make sense?”
That’s why he never cared about creating a career and becoming a brand in the process. “I like to take risks with my music – even if I don’t want to pretend that I’m the biggest risk-taker of all. But a good example: when I released the album “Music Is Rotted One Note” after “Big Loada”, nobody wanted to hear it. But for me it was important. It was my desire to provide a break in the commercial exploitability of my music.”
An ambition that might also have something to do with the fact that Jenkinson finds straightforward work relationships scary; he has maintained a very ambivalent feeling about employment since early childhood. “I was about seven years old and sat crying in my grandmother’s kitchen,” he says. “She asked me what was wrong – and I answered: ‘I never want to have to work a job!’ At the time, I felt that a job would kill me. Of course, I didn’t know then what it really meant to work, I only knew it from TV or from my father.”
Despite the linearity of his musical career, this critical attitude never completely vanished. Like so many other successful people, Jenkinson dreamed for a long time about making another radical break, leaving everything behind and studying philosophy. But whenever he was nearly at that point, the idea of a new album would strike and the dream would come to an end. That was a pity, he notes, but at least it helped him “cultivate a certain lightness around making music.”
The Secret of the Recordings
For someone who hates nostalgia as much as Jenkinson, his apparently meticulously maintained archive is surprising. At least the booklet for “Feed Me Weird Things” with its numerous photos, track sketches and other memorabilia conveys a different picture. “I don’t have the mindset of an archivist at all,” Jenkinson emphasizes, offering an artistic explanation for the fact that “something in me works toward archiving anyway.” The reason for this might be the “romantic nature of recording music,” by which he explicitly does not mean the creative act of producing music, but to documenting it: “Before I was a musician and had instruments, I owned a tape recorder – the technology is simple and yet there was something mysterious about recording with tape. Recording moments in time – though not in their entirety, and using tape only in a mediocre rendition of the event – establishes a relationship between your memory of the events and the recording. From then on, I started a relationship with music that went beyond the mere status of a listener. I recorded all kinds of things, just because of the fascination I had with being able to listen to the recordings again afterwards and relive the moments. A technically assisted memory.”
Which still doesn’t explain why he has photos and notes even 25 years later. Jenkinson ponders for a moment, then delivers a nicely candid-trivial answer for a change: “I don’t know if I even consciously kept those things, I just put them in a box that I never threw away.”
By now it’s the first weekend of May 2021. I’m sitting in my isolated living room and can’ t help but think of Tom Jenkinson’s words about the mediocre representation of sound reality – with a guilty conscience. Because I’m listening to a recording that shouldn’t exist according to the strict rules of nightlife, the unauthorized butt call recording of last year’s Berghain gig on my phone. Apart from overdriven noise and screams, there is actually nothing to hear, but I listen to the fantastic soundtrack of a night without fear, a night in which everything was still possible – and I can’t help feeling nostalgic. What greater gift can music bestow upon you?
The piece was originally written in German for
Cologne based monthly
and published in the June print issue.
Translation by Denise Oemcke