In Conversation: Alexander Tucker

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Photo: Dom Garwood

Alexander Tucker is one half of Grumbling Fur and Grumbling Fur Time Machine Orchestra with Daniel O’Sullivan. 2019 has already seen the release of Plasma Splice Truffle by the duo and fellow sonic traveller Neil Campbell from Astral Social Club, as well as Daniel O’Sullivan’s mesmerising solo LP, Folly. Tucker releases his latest solo album, the magically-titled Guild Of The Asbestos Weaver, on August 23 through Chicago’s Thrill Jockey imprint.

Further. spoke to Tucker about his multiple interests, how the five songs on his new album came together and how it feels to be compared to Brian Eno. Read the Further. review of Guild Of The Asbestos Weaver here.

You talk about this new album as connecting up your various interests in music, science fiction and comic art. How do these different disciplines fit together, for you? What is it about this record in particular (compared to other projects) that links these things together?

I think my interest in art, literature and comics has always fed into my work, although I started to place these things – albeit in my own abstract way – directly into the lyrics since I recorded Dorwytch in 2011. At around that time I re-read Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing series and placed imagery from the comic into the songs. It felt quite freeing to use imagery that was more akin to science-fiction, surrealism and cosmic-horror. I didn’t want the words to relate to real life, although there are always coded references to things going on around me.

I want music and music-making to transport me away from the everyday, not to reinforce the mundane. Film is also something that continues to bleed into my work both lyrically and through the music itself. I’ve been obsessed again with the first two Alien / Aliens films, in particular the atmosphere, design, sounds and craftsmanship that went into them. I like to keep my influences in my peripheral vision – not to stare directly at them and copy aspects from them, but to keep the essence in my mind and shape things from there.

The title of your new album feels like it requires some explanation. Where did that come from?

Guild Of The Asbestos Weaver comes from Ray Bradbury’s book Fahrenheit 451. The term appears in the last chapter where the protagonist, Guy Montag, escapes his pursuers and bumps into a group of people resisting the totalitarian regime, who have mentally stored the banned and destroyed books.

At first I thought the term referred to the regime choking society with the poisonous fibres of asbestos but at the time Bradbury was writing the book, asbestos’ toxicity was little-known. He actually meant that the Guild are the resistance fighters stamping out the flames of intolerance. I didn’t mean for the title to have such political significance and the content of the lyrics are definitely rooted outside of human reality, but in this day and age you can’t help but be drawn into what’s happening around you and we need the Guild now, more than ever.

The tone of the album is quite different to 2018’s ‘Don’t Look Away’. You’ve been performing live with a modular system recently and this LP does seem to have a more pronounced electronic tone to it, yet it’s also distinctively an Alexander Tucker album. There also these very dramatic, intimidating cello sounds on ‘Montag’ as well as lots of drones and quite ominous psychedelic percussion. What prompted that change of emphasis?

I finished the album before getting some modular bits, but I used samplers to loop and process a lot of the sounds. I’ve deliberately moved away from using acoustic guitar – which I haven’t been playing for a few years now – and its been a long time since I’ve played live with acoustic guitar and loop pedals. I think people still have this outdated image of me with a beard and long hair, looping to infinity.

Since playing in Grumbling Fur I’ve moved closer to using electronics and playing live bass processed through effects. In the past I did all my sampling live, adding each layer as I went along, but now I do some of that work in studio. I recorded percussive rhythms with cello and simple phrases on synth, and I then resampled these into long loops as the base for the songs to rotate around.

I wanted to keep things quite minimal, but for the tracks to have a maximalist effect. I’d been listening to Earth’s Pentastar: In the Style of Demons and Oren Ambarchi’s Hubris LPs, and both of these records use a sparse palette but pile up layers of sound to create these deep kaleidoscopic effects.

Your vocal style, as well as maybe the way it floats above (and through) the sonic fabric of your music often gets compared to Brian Eno back when he still did vocal music. What do you make of that?

I either get Brian Eno, Dave Gahan, Robert Wyatt or Tears for Fears – all of which are very flattering but I’ve owned very few records by these artists.

I’ve always sang in my own voice, and I think the connection with a lot of these British vocalists is that you can really hear where they’re from. They don’t try to Americanise themselves or hide their accent. I did grow up in the 80s so maybe some of that sound filtered into me from just listening to the radio and watching TV, but I don’t know any other way to sing.

In between Don’t Look Away and Guild Of The Asbestos Weaver you completed the Grumbling Fur Time Machine Orchestra album with Neil Campbell of Astral Social Club. Neil explained that that record was built up over a long period as you grabbed time to focus on it here and there. Was Guild Of The Asbestos Weaver the same in terms of having a long gestation period?

Guild came together relatively quickly for me. Most of my albums have had reasonably long gestation periods, but with this record it was the first time that I wrote the material, played it out live and then went straight into the studio and made a document of the process.

Firstly I wrote and recorded at my home studio, but then after touring took the material over to Holy Mountain studios in Hackney and completed the album there. I wanted a get a big epic sound so Holy Mountain was perfect for this. I could play at very loud volumes and use the many synths they have in the studio.

How do you approach working on a solo record compared to collaborating with people like Daniel O’Sullivan in Grumbling Fur, or Neil from Astral Social Club, or Charlemagne Palestine?

When I’m collaborating, the process is always a response to the other players and the situation: it’s about reacting in the moment, pulling out your strengths, and trying to be bold.

When I work with Daniel O’Sullivan, it’s very automatic – we limit the conversation to any concrete ideas, while bringing in our individual ways of working to the project. When Grumbling Fur work as Time Machine Orchestra, improvisation is at the centre of what we do, so anything goes really. We have referred to this as automatic-composition.

I’m intrigued as to how you bring together tracks like the ones on the new album. As well as these tightly-packed, very detailed layers running through the songs there’s also the lyrical content, which seems to be filled with very fluid, vivid, almost impressionistic ideas. What comes first – music or lyrics?

The music always comes first. I used to write a lot and then fit the lyrics to the music but now the words are always a response to the sound.

I like to create strong imagery but keep it vague, I’ll probably have a multitude of scenes running alongside each other, like a dream logic where themes meld with each other to create partial narratives that don’t necessarily conclude.

Your cover art reminds me of both Roger Hagreaves’ illustrations to his original Mr. Men books – a kind of playful, innocent quality – but also the imposing gravity of stained glass windows. How does this image link to the music?

I really love 60s and 70s comics and illustration, where you see those bold black lines and flat expanses of colour.

The cover art came from a drawing in my sketch book. I liked the idea of the figure being the ‘Weaver’, some sort of multi-dimensional being appearing from behind a veil or a tear in reality.

The cover art to my records is never fixed by meaning, it’s supposed to be another piece of the narrative. One of the biggest influences in my work is David Lynch. Lynch is the master of non-linear story telling, leaving pieces of the puzzle tantalisingly out of reach. I want the viewer or listener to join their own dots and create their own interpretation of the overall picture.

Guild Of The Asbestos Weaver by Alexander Tucker is released by Thrill Jockey on August 23 2019.

Interview: Mat Smith

(c) 2019 Further.

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