Looking Back to Find the Roots: An Interview With Scanner

There’s always risks involved when going through one’s personal archives, whether it’s music, writing, art, whatever. We have a tendency to romanticize those early pearls, especially if we haven’t taken a real spin through them in decades. It’s easy, as we get older, to think back to that youthful glow and enthusiasm and think there must be something there. 

Lucky for us, Robin Rimbaud’s earliest Scanner recordings have a lot to offer. In his description of Earthbound Transmissions, a new collection of archival recordings from over 30 years ago, Rimbaud describes the experience of listening to these tapes ‘time travel’ and it’s spot on. Music, more than any medium, can have that effect. Pressing play on a recording from one’s youth acts as a wormhole, transporting us straight back to that moment in time. With that, it can hard to approach such documents objectively. Thankfully, for us and Rimbaud, having conspirators like Lawrence English helps.

Reassured that there was something worthwhile on those tapes, we get a glimpse into the earliest buds from a fully-blossomed project that’s working on a 30+ year run with no signs of stopping. Robin and I chatted in July and our conversation lead us into many different corners (I apologize for cutting the short tidbit about Robin getting a Bandcamp order from Pete Townsend, but the narrative emerged elsewhere). It was an absolute joy and I am pleased to present it here.

Earthbound Transmissions is out now via Room 40 on digital and cassette.

Since we’re talking about the Room 40 release, which is made up of archival recordings from 30 years ago, I wanted to start by talking about your earlier earliest memories of like music and sound. 

I think we’ve all had those moments, haven’t we? I mean, it’s funny… The first record that I consciously bought was this seven inch single, which is essentially war sounds. It’s this bizarre kind of music, concrète collage that I used to listen to from about the age of eight or nine years old. I would probably play with my toy soldiers when I played this record, you know, pretend I was the sergeant or the private or whatever. 

It’s quite interesting what you asked me because I’ve thought about it recently. I realized that The Singing Ringing Tree, which was this TV series, it stuck with me. It was an East German series from 1957 that probably didn’t make it to the US. The BBC bought it and took this 1957 Technicolor East German movie, cut it into tiny slices, and made it into a TV series. Then, they dubbed it in a really creepy way. They just had one man speaking over the voices of the people in the film. So, instead of the princess talking to the prince, it’s just this man saying, “She said you should do this, I should really do that. Yes, you should do this.” That in itself, this kind of disembodied voice, and the soundtrack as well, freaked me out for years. Then the imagery, and watching it on a small black and white television and having no idea of the Technicolor for years. 

It’s curious because the sound of this film sat with me. And then years later, if you know that British group Zoviet France, they had a label called Singing Ringing, which obviously was a kind of tribute to this nightmarish TV series. Then, I went to a screening of it in London in the ‘90s or early 2000s at a kind of arthouse cinema in London, and it was extraordinary because the cinema was filled with people exactly the same age as me, completely traumatized. Because this visual aesthetic and sonic aesthetic just sat and kind of hovered like a mist around us for years. And imagine, this was before the internet for everyone, and nobody really knew what this thing was, but it was out there in your memory banks. It was very strange. 

Jumping forward, the first record I consciously bought… In fact, there were two records I consciously bought when I was about 12 or 13. They were the Earth, Wind and Fire Fantasy 7” and Paul Simon Slip Slidin’ Away. Two pop records. To this day, I still think Earth, Wind and Fire is one of the most beautiful records. It has this vocal refrain where you’ve got this kind of very groovy, funky melody, but over the top floats this kind of choral voice. So at about four o’clock on a Friday afternoon, they’d always play the church service on the radio, and I used to love to listen to it, not as a religious person, but I just loved the sound because it was recorded inside a church. There was this voice, this choral voice that had this resonance that was so loud, and had this kind of liquid beauty about it. I used to just love choral voices, and I sang in a choir at school. So when this Earth, Wind and Fire record came out, it completely mirrored my interest in these kind of voices, and this kind of balancing of the voices. 

But, you know, my early interest very rapidly moved on to weird – there’s no other technical term: weird shit, basically – very early on. I was always somebody who was interested in anything that was more eclectic. I still remember being outside a classroom at school, and we had this cassette in 1981 that came out with the NME – they used to release these tapes that you paid something like a pound for and it had 90 minutes of new music on it. They had The Virgin Prunes on there, this Irish band, and had their song called “Red Nettle.” I still remember listening to it on a mono cassette player, outside my English class with a friend of mine. Today, if you listen to it, this piece of music just moves from speaker to speaker, it’s just these two tones, and I was probably 13 or 14 years old hearing this thing on a small portable tape recorder. Even then, in mono, it was kind of mind blowing. 

So you bought this Fostex four-track, and I really love this part in the description for the album where you talk about how all these tapes stayed with you, move after move, all through this years. It’s something I keenly relate to. Were these tapes something that were always important and you knew you couldn’t get rid of, that you might do something with them some day?

I never considered getting rid of it, you know. I get rid of clothing and shoes and things like that. I’ve lived in about six or seven different places in my life, and once, I broke up from a long term relationship, and I moved all my belongings into storage, and I had a massive clearout. I still remember filling up one of these large, industrial rubbish bins with CDs and tapes and things. I thought, “I don’t need any of this stuff.” I was also incredibly depressed and unhappy, but I just got rid of this stuff. But those things can be replaced. 

I never considered ever getting rid of these tapes. I mean, I’ve kept a diary since I was 12 with no notion of ‘this has value to it.’ It’s just what I do. I just keep it every day. I’ve never missed a day and I still do it every day. So these tapes have followed me through kind of like photographs. I’ve lost a lot of photographs over the years; I lost a lot of documentation of my life. I can live without those photos. To be honest, I can’t live without the music and the sound. The photographs were documents of places I visited mostly; I can see those again one day or I can remember them. But I can’t replace original sounds that were recorded. 

I used to record a lot with a friend of mine from college, Tony. We recorded a lot of music. In fact, I edited and mastered it over the last year because it was all on four track as well. I wrote to him and I said, “Look, have you still got these tapes? Because I’ve still got all the original tapes, but do you have anything I’m missing?” He said, “Oh, I threw all that away, and all I made is was a mixtape and and I mixed that down to mp3 threw away the tape.” And I thought for the sake of a single cassette! If you’ve mixed them down, even that would be better than just the mp3. Thankfully, I had everything apart from one track.

But yes, because the cassettes have just followed me, they’re still in great condition. They still work. In getting this album together, the biggest challenge, actually, was getting the four track to work. Because the rubber bands inside it had perished since I hadn’t used it in so long. I bought a replacement on eBay a couple of years ago, and that broke within about a week. Then I found a video on YouTube, which showed how to take the machine apart and repair it. So I repaired them. It’s remarkable. But there’s always that awful moment… If you’ve ever dealt with this kind of media, cassettes are perfectly fine. It’s the machine thinking it’s going to eat them that’s the problem! When the tape heads get too tight, and you think “No, please don’t eat this tape” Nothing really got destroyed, though. There’s one or two tapes, which were a bit tight in their casings, but I was still able to transfer it. In fact, what you hear on the album is a very small percentage of what I’ve got. I’m still thinking, at some point, if people are interested, getting more of it out there. You know, it’s good. It’s a challenging. Sometimes you don’t want it to just come across as ego and thinking, “You’ve got to hear the stuff I made when I was young, because it was so inspiring!” But actually, I heard it and thought this actually has some value. You know, it isn’t terrible.[laughs]

One of the things that really surprised me when listening to these recordings was how you could hear the seeds of what came later as Scanner. I thought that was really exciting. 

Yeah. In some way you think, “Is that depressing? Is that good?” You know, I listen to it now, and I think I haven’t really – and I don’t mean this rudely – I haven’t progressed. I still use the same structures. I still use the same ideas, but perhaps that’s my voice. People have their voice. I remember years ago, hear an album or two of John Zorn’s really early recordings, and it was fantastic to hear what this person was making at that age. Often there’s a kind of naivete and a generosity of spirit at that age where you just go in for it. 

So okay, they were recorded in my flat, sitting on the floor, most of those of the tapes. In fact, the first Scanner album was recorded sitting on that same floor with that same four track. It was made live,  completely live, you know, literally. I just recorded track after track, side after sides; one side, straight, 20 minutes or so then the other side, and then I would collage it together into a CD. It’s quite funny and all the tricks you learn, because there are no such things as samplers that anybody could afford in those days, right? So I was either using tape machines to make loops, or later on, I had a thing called a Digitech RDS 7.6 Time Machine. Basically, it was like a kind of echo unit, and what you could do is put a sound into it and trap it. Then, with the pitch knob, you could drop it down. So the 7.6 seconds would basically become 15 seconds. SoI tell you this now, listen to it again, because lots of these things are pitched down and just looping.

The actual essential ingredients for those recordings are quite amusing. One of the opening tracks, I think “Comus,” has  very wooden sounding percussion. That’s me in Regent’s Park tube station in London playing on a bench, back when benches in the tube stations were made of wood, before people realized, “Oh, I can set fire to these and this would be fun.” So I used to record on them. The percussion sound was great because it had all the natural resonance of the underground tube station and I’d drum on it late at night when no one is around. It was fantastic. So those albums are, in a way,  my photographs in sound of that time in London.

Yeah, I think that’s really interesting. I interviewed recently Beatriz Ferreyra recently, and she talked about how when she was learning to compose with tape, you had to think differently and find creative solutions to create certain sounds or ideas you had in your head. One thing she said, that I can’t stop thinking about, and it’s so succinct and simple and brilliant… “The sound is everywhere.” So when you’re talking about these benches and the tube station, one thing I love so much about music like this from this period, is that it really taps into a specific kind of creative energy because you had to make do with what you had, which led to a lot of really interesting experiments and sound.

Absolutely. I think one lesson you learn from this period, and having the experience of living through this, is you realize that economical means can often be the the best method for creativity. You know, not having any money to buy stuff and not having access to the stuff. You had to be inventive, yet find a way to make this happen. I was making most of these recordings with literally a four track, this cheap Sony microphone that I still have today, and an echo unit. That was kind of it. I didn’t have any fancy synthesizers. I had no processing units. I had no flange, no chorus, no reverb pedals, nothing like that. Because they were all too expensive. 

I was working a job in a music library. I worked from nine o’clock in the morning till eight o’clock at night, two or three times a week. So they were late evenings where you come home, you have dinner, and, since I didn’t have any space, I’d have to clear off the table to work on music. Then, I just made the work on the floor because that was the easiest thing. I just left it set up on the floor because it meant I wouldn’t have to clear the kitchen table to work on things.

These days there are sonic possibilities beyond any comprehension that any of us could ever imagined. There’s no reason to complain about the things available, because what you need to do is simplify things. I have a studio now and I have a generous amount of equipment, but I don’t use it all for everything. I tend to draw on it a bit like a chef draws on materials to make a meal. I choose the ingredients, and I make the work. This early period taught me that it’s about the personal discipline, and how you use this stuff. You try not to get lost in decisions, either. You just have to use what you’ve got.

Oh yes, the floor thing was something I did, too. There were too many times where, by the I cleared off the desk and got set up, I’d lost the impetus and didn’t want to work on something. So if it’s just set up already, there on the floor, you can just go ove and seize the moment and get to work. It was so helpful for my process, honestly.

Yeah, I really love the adoption today how people utilize a corner of their room or whatever and make it their home studio. To me, that’s fantastic. The corner of your room has now become this magical space where you make work. Maybe your kids are playing on the floor in the corner, and your wife is doing something else, but you’re there making this magic happen. Maybe it’s just for yourself, maybe for others. I find that really exciting. Actually, I find it really inspiring. I know there’s so many musicians who are quite successful and still seem to have like little “studioes” on a table in the corner where they make the work. To me, that’s brilliant.

I totally agree. Completely. One of my big things for the past 20 years or whatever, when I’ve done my record label and done the Foxy Digitalis website, it’s this idea that anybody can find some expression with sound or music. Anyone. You can just have a little corner to do your thing and, like you said, it could just be for you, but that, in a lot of ways, is just more important than doing it for somebody else. I love that too and am so inspired by it, and back to your work, I think this album gets at that. What’s been some of the biggest surprises going through these tapes for you?

I suppose that they still work. That they aren’t so bad, actually. I mean, what’s curious now, is that what I’ve done is export them into a computer, and I’m able to mix them in a better way now, so I can actually hear them with, in a sense, more clarity. It was it turns out, not to repeat what I just said, but it’s been quite revealing to realize how much I could achieve with so little. Also, how little is necessary to tell a story with sound. You don’t need dozens of layers to make that happen. Three or four layers can be enough, can be contrasting.

But yeah, I mean, they surprised me that actually they felt good enough that I shared them with Lawrence [English]. I mean, Lawrence and I have known each other for years. We trust each other. I sent them to him and said, “Do you think this might be of interest to anyone?” He said, “Actually, I’d be interested.” It surprised me that they do have a validity, I think, referring back to something you kindly said earlier, which is, they do suggest the seeds that were later sown on different Scanner releases. There was no intention with any of this stuff to ever release it. Again, it reflects what we were talking about a moment ago, which is, the making of that work was in itself enough. There was there was no notion that this was going to revolutionize the music industry, which it clearly didn’t, but it was a way of expressing myself to myself. I didn’t make mixes and share them with other people. I never performed with this stuff. I made all this, because I could. I suppose it’s like the way most people today have a smartphone, and they take photographs of the world around them, not because they intend to have a career as a photographer, or to publish those in a book or anything – sure, perhaps on social networks and Instagram and places – but mostly, because you can. 

As I said, I was working these long days, and I’d come home and make this stuff because I wanted to and, maybe even more, because it felt really important.

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