Kemper Norton is a Cornish electronic music adventurer who often uses the local history of his home county as the basis for complex, evocative albums that defy easy classification.
His latest work, Oxland Cylinder, is the counterpart to last year’s Brunton Calciner. The titles of these two albums might sound like some sort of abstract concatenation of random words but they are in fact the names of facilities developed for the extraction of arsenic, a lucrative byproduct of the tin mining that Cornwall was once famed for.
Further. spoke to Kemper Norton to find out more about his enduring interest in developing music inspired by the mythology and stories of his local surroundings.
Your albums Brunton Calciner and Oxland Cylinder are concerned with the arsenic manufacturing process that has left abandoned facilities across the Cornish and Devonshire hills. What was it that made you want to use these as the basis for an album?
They’re one of the classic picture postcard icons of Cornwall and have led to areas of the coast being designated a World Heritage site, but I wanted there to be a wider awareness of their original purpose and role in the industrial revolution, and in the West Country and the global economy.
The creation of arsenic as a byproduct of the mining process also tapped into many themes of toxicity, domestic life and physical transformation that I’m interested in at the moment. They’re also buildings that I’ve seen every day growing up and I wanted to explore them more deeply before the landscape changes further into the view from a millionaire’s second home, and it becomes less accessible.
History – Cornish history especially – has a big presence in your work. The new album includes an old tin miners’ song interpolated into the piece ‘Halan’ that threads through Brunton Calciner and Oxland Cylinder, while 2017’s Hungan used a mythical pirate active along the coast as its foundations.
How do you go about researching and unearthing things like that? What is it about the history of this county that inspires you so much? Or is history in general something that inspires you?
I have never been interested in personal songwriting based on my own experiences in a literal way. There are loads of artists doing that and I don’t think we need another bloke telling his stories or desires, but I do feel there are neglected areas and people in history that still have interesting stories, at least to me! History, particularly social history and folklore – both old and modern – have always been a big influence, and I’m sure they will continue to be. As I grew up mainly in Cornwall, that’s bound to be a major element.
I don’t think there’s necessarily anything unique or magical about Cornwall any more than other counties or countries though – that’s part of its image that tourists go for and which residents exploit. The history of Coventry, Croatia or car parks will all have resonance and amazing hidden stories.
You have, on occasion, described your music as being ‘rural electronics’. What does that mean, in practice? Is it a style that comes from what you’re inspired by, or do you think it’s more a set of rules governing how you approach making your music?
When I started I just thought it was an honest way of pointing out that my upbringing is generally rural and I wasn’t that influenced by many urban styles of music, although that’s definitely changed.
The synth sounds, samples and field recordings were explicitly meant to sound rural in the North Cornwall sense – blasted by the Atlantic, rough, salty and hopefully unique. I was aware of artists like Aphex Twin and it was great that a Redruth boy could make it so far, so that in itself was inspiring, but I hope I’ve manage to avoid using tropes and conventions used by other artists too much. That’s pretty much the only rule!
Although it would be tempting to associate you with the hauntological genre, your music doesn’t seem intent on creating this wistful sense of nostalgia but instead seems to mourn that which is at the point of being lost from memories completely. Is that a conscious part of what you do?
Definitely. I can’t be nostalgic for Britain in the 1970s, Doctor Who or the Radiophonic Workshop because they’re not my memories or influences – I only moved to the UK in 1982 as a child. I also think that type of nostalgia for those specific cultural touchstones and era seems both oversaturated and close to cosy UKIP nationalism to me.
The idea of any kind of golden age is bollocks, particularly a recent British one. I’m also not interested in easy references to shared cultural memories of television or whatever. In terms of focusing on specific histories or stories being on the verge of lost , that’s definitely a theme in my work but it’s not necessarily limited to a specific era or mood.
If we take Brunton Calciner and Oxland Cylinder as representative of your interest in taking historical inputs as a starting point, how did you go about actually converting those inputs into music?
I’m not that technical. I use a combination of samples, field recordings and sounds as a mood board for a specific album, and then they undergo a range of processes including granular synthesis and effects processing. Some come out the other end intact, whereas other sounds are absolutely unrecognisable, and others become base sounds for new instruments and melodies. Then they attempt to become songs!
Recently I’ve become interested in using as few sound sources as possible. Most of Brunton Calciner is based on two samples which are layered and continually reprocessed, which ties in with the themes of the album.
The two most recent albums exhibit a strong sense of narrative, meaning its presentation felt more like a radio play than an experimental electronic album. Was that deliberate? Do you see your music as being a form of story telling?
I like stories and narrative in music, and no matter how much I try to avoid it I can’t help creating or following a narrative in an album. It’s rather old-fashioned but I do see each album as a story, with a beginning, middle and end during construction, however ambiguous. At the same time, I don’t think it matters if listeners deconstruct or ignore that.
Do you think could be inspired in the same way by, say, the history of somewhere like London? Or is it under-appreciated histories that appeal to you the most?
Everywhere is interesting if you look at it closely. Even Surrey.
Oxland Cylinder by Kemper Norton is released February 24 2020.
Interview: Mat Smith
(c) 2020 Further.