Broken English Club Talk
Since 1996 Oliver Ho has been plying techno with elevating substances, creating novel combinations out of influences which stretch beyond the common concerns of those who share the field. It feels like an unsuitable ascription to class Ho as a veteran, despite the length of his career to date and the numerous projects and monikers he’s adopted over its course. This might be down to the fact that the assured status that comes within that echelon often inhibits audacity, encouraging complacency in one character and region of sound. The old adage of if it isn’t broke, then why fix it?
The breadth of Ho’s work – as Raudive, as one half of The Eyes In The Heat, and now in his latest guise as Broken English Club – seems to refute that idea, with bold exploration yielding inspired output which rarely conforms to stagnancy and expectation. Perhaps what differentiates his work is a keen incorporation of sounds which defy categorisation. The nearest approximations might fall within the territories of drone, noise, industrial and post-punk, but the mettle and power of their concoction, along with the execution of techno pulse, means that his multifaceted work sits loosely but strongly at the intersection of these many styles.
Oliver’s latest work as Broken English Club represents some of his finest yet. Drawing more perceptibly upon the influence of post-punk and industrial, yet sustaining individuality, the work deals in stark scintillation, with cut-up lyricism, miscreant murk, and aberrant beat militaristically foregrounded. It’s so far found a home on Jealous God, the young imprint of Karl O’Connor (Regis), Juan Mendez (Silent Servant) and James Ruskin, and more recently on Cititrax, the venture of Veronica Vasicka (Minimal Wave)
With such distinction and recognition, and with another EP in the works, Oliver was gracious enough to answer a few questions. Over the course of what turned out to be a long back-and-forth, he revealed more about the project and his career, touching on the imperativeness of openness and tension, finding balance in production, power-play in visual imagery and music as voodoo. Along with those themes, he also detailed interests and influences all firmly situated in a radical continuum, from Fluxus films to Throbbing Gristle, Psychic TV, Burroughs, Ballard, Derek Jarman and Harmony Korine. We even found time to consider Surgeon’s recent appearance as a support act for Lady Gaga…
Recommended listening while you read; Broken English Club Live in Moscow;
Your first release was in 1996, since then you’ve gone through a hefty slew of different monikers on a host of different labels (Blueprint, Surface), ran the Meta label yourself, and now you’re on the Jealous God imprint – what’s kept you sane and engaged throughout all of this…? The impression I get is that the techno scene can be unforgiving and restrictive in a lot of ways…have you found that to be the case…?
What’s been the consistent driving force for me is that I am never short on ideas, there are a lot of things I want to explore in terms of music and sound, and I think my career so far has certainly reflected that.
The different labels, monikers and projects are a way of making sense of my trajectory, I use monikers because I like to give a certain series of ideas a character, my Raudive material had some specific goals and my Broken English Club stuff also has its own set of ideas that allows it to exist in a much more vivid way by giving it a name. Like evoking a spirit, it’s always more powerful if the spirits name reflects its nature. I think the techno scene is a whatever you make of it, I could never be negative about it, it has allowed me and so many other music makers to have a platform to express themselves, it’s a very open scene I think, it’s also very DIY, very Punk, because you can come from nothing and make a unique statement, that’s very different from the film or fine art industry.
I think there can be a notion of the techno scene being unforgiving or narrow minded, but actually that’s usually a barrier that’s made in the mind, and reinforced by attitude, if you approach everything openly it eventually finds an audience with the same open attitude.
I’m not trying to coax out any sweeping generalisations here (I hope anyway) but how have things changed from when you started? How have things progressed/regressed…if at all either way…?
Things have certainly changed yes, that’s obvious. It’s subjective whether that’s a positive or negative change; it’s also not as binary as that. I had a wonderful time in my early years discovering how machines worked, and the naive chaos that surrounds those early years. I remember when I first started making stuff, I wasn't even using midi, and I was just using guitar pedals and very crude synth and noise sounds. My creative process now is a lot more computer orientated and refined, I feel I can get closer to what I want out of the process with digital production. I still use a lot of crude noise and synth sounds now, but I have a balance, and I can control that more effectively. When I first started releasing records, there were a lot less producers around, it was a lot more expensive to have a studio then, and it also encouraged mini groups/scenes to flourish because people would share gear and bounce off each other a lot. It’s probably more fractured now, and it’s less about actual geographical physical scenes/groups and more about a certain attitude bringing people together that may be on opposite sides of the world. Actually the noise scene in America reminds me of the early techno scene because it seems to have that grassroots thing.
I think music has never been more exciting and healthy, there’s so much great stuff around, and there’s a very fresh and open attitude amongst people.
I think how we perceive the changes in the music industry is reflective of how we approach our own work as artists, if you only see how things have regressed then you will always be seeing everything as a barrier or problem, but there’s so much out there to be harnessed. It’s all about knowing what you want to say and how effectively you can get that across, it comes down to ideas, it’s always been about how interesting are the 'ideas' . By ideas I mean, how much you want to create a personal style and create a musical signature that’s unique. Technology is there as a vessel for your energy, it comes from inside, not from exterior things like computers, drum machines or grand pianos.
There’s definitely a lot of experimentation and unconventional exploration within a lot of your work, which is what I think makes it so interesting. Leading on loosely from that idea, I wanted to include this quote about the influence of Throbbing Gristle, Coil & Psychic TV, from one of your recent previous interviews;
‘Music as a form of magic, as a vessel for something abstract. The music comes into being through a process that’s not exclusively just about the music, but what’s inside the music and what’s fuelling it. A kind of ritualism.’
Is there a certain temporary mindset or character you assume in order to imbue something ritualistic in the music? What kind of extra-musical elements and ideas have you found particularly significant in terms of Broken English Club?
I would say that it initially stems from inspiration, and what moves me to create something. It’s not necessarily that I want to make a piece of music; it’s more that I want to invoke a certain feeling, and that music is my best means of achieving that.
I am very inspired by a lot of art and certain writers; this especially led to the creation of Broken English Club. In particular J.G. Ballard, he depicts these bleak dystopian English landscapes, and I felt that had a certain energy that was also reflected in where I was going music wise. I wanted to create music that had that character, that inhabited that world. There’s also the idea that when we make something we can imbue it with significant intent, like when someone makes a religious object, it has significance that’s more than just its mere material. I think music can hold intent like a religious object. An obvious example would be a love song, that’s not merely a piece of music, but it holds a resonance, or a religious prayer or chant, or a football chant for that matter. There’s the idea that certain rhythms used in voodoo can evoke spirits, I love that, and I like to approach making my music in a similar way.
TG and PTV have both referenced a lot of esoteric ideas, I can relate to that, the music is one thing that’s part of a bigger outlook or attitude.
Can you trace the beginnings of BEC…? How do you differentiate it from your other recent work under the Raudive moniker? Is it difficult to keep a clear separation between your different guises?
BEC originally came after I had made a series of tracks that all had a certain texture and feeling in common, I felt this was the start of something that needed a name, to allow it to materialise properly.
There’s certainly a lot of similar ideas in all my work, I am quite obsessed with vocals, and using them in different ways. I also love using live instrumentation, and a lot of organic sounds, that get set against cold electronic synths and drum sounds. I love that fusion. My recent Raudive stuff has had a lot those things going on. I wanted a lot of the Raudive stuff to exist between techno and house, to be a kind of odd hybrid, certainly not tech-house, but stuff that had the groove of house with the wigged out vibe of techno. The Broken English Club stuff is more militant I think, I think I am putting more of my love of noise and darker stuff into it, and so some of it is falling into the dark techno category, but it’s also about pushing the parameters, and drawing in diverse ideas.
How moored is the BEC work to the dancefloor? Is that the sphere you envisage as the most fitting place for it…? More generally, does DJ-ing still feed into the production side of things…?
When I am making the BEC stuff, I’m not really thinking about DJ-ing at all, it’s almost more like rock music, the first EP isn't DJ tracks at all, they are more industrial I think. Quite a bit of the newer stuff is more upfront and techno in style, but it’s always balanced with odder tracks too. There’s a kind of emptiness I want to put into the music too, I’m looking for that kind of feeling.
When did you first come across Juan Mendez, Karl O’Connor & James Ruskin? What attracted you to their work?
I’ve known Karl, and Juan for years, and James since forever, so it felt perfect for me to release these tracks on Jealous God, as the label and direction is very much where I am at musically.
Yourself, O’Connor & Mendez seem to be directing their attention, more concertedly, to work aligned with post-punk and industrial (as opposed to previous work which was more driven by something techno-orientated) – Sandra Electronics, Downwards releasing Autumns, DVA Damas, Silent Servant’s recent remix of Psychic TV to cite a few recent examples – there’s always been a sense that these kinds of sounds are big influences, but the pendulum seems to have swung in their favour more, can this be attributed to anything in particular…? Are these terms even useful or relevant cornerstones or just reductive shorthand…? Are they ever inhibiting terms…?
I think it’s always been a big part of what’s influenced us, it feels like we are exploring those things because maybe the music scene is more open and wanting to hear that. It’s more common for diverse music to be drawn together now, because I think people have more access to music and info than before, the internet has played a part I am sure. It has allowed people to discover so much obscure stuff.
That’s been a big thing for me, I am still discovering odd electronic stuff from the 70s and 80s which I find so fresh and exciting. I also like the way it broadens the music scene, so it’s not just about one type of sound, but it’s a mixture of stuff, that blurs the edges a bit more. I felt this a lot when I played live at the Downwards Records party at Berghain, Karl had programmed a great line-up featuring a very Avant Garde performance from FM Einheit from Einstürzende Neubauten where he smashes bits of metal and brick, mixed up with DJ sets and live sets of industrial stuff and full on techno. It gave the event a unique character.
I think it’s nice to reference a lot of stuff in interviews and mixes, because people can check those things out, and kind of see where someone’s coming from.
I know you’ve expressed an interest in film in the past citing David Lynch as one of your admirations. Paul Sharit’s ‘Word Movie’ was also remixed for the ‘Plastic Bag’ video. What films have had an effect recently, whether directly in your work or otherwise?
I think film must be a very common influence on musicians; it’s such a huge art form that dominates our world. The Fluxus films movement was really interesting because of the minimalism of it, and that it had a lot more in common with photography than storytelling. I also particularly like the way Harmony Korine used sound and music in Julienne Donkey Boy, its creates a very disorientating collage type effect, very 'music concrete' – that may have influenced my interest in using blocks of sound and noise in my music, I tend to create tracks of just drones, feedback and recordings of random things recorded in the street, these all go to frame the backdrop in front of which I put the beats and heavier sounds.
The imagery used for both the Jealous God and Cititrax releases seem to draw from similarly dark pools of interest, what do you look for in the accompanying imagery of your material…? With the BEC releases it seems to have been generally quite provocative…knuckledusters next to lipstick, a woman decked out in sadomasochistic paraphernalia…
…with that kind of imagery are you wary of interpretations misconstruing it all as pure shock tactics, as so often was the case with Throbbing Gristle (the so called ‘the wreckers of civilization’ and all that)…?
Well not all the BEC visuals are dark, but they have a certain texture to them. The Jealous God art was handled by Juan Mendez, he did a great job. I talked with Juan a lot as he worked on it, and we felt a lot of the same ideas would suit the music. It’s about creating images that have dynamics to them, so they push and pull. I don't think it’s as simple as shock tactics, that’s a knee jerk reaction I think if someone doesn’t want to open themselves up to interpreting the images. I particularly like the contrast between those images, it explores these ideas we have of power and sexuality.
The images of the S&M stuff is also interesting because peoples initial reaction is that the woman depicted who has a metal clamp in her mouth is being subjugated, and this is a common mistake people have when first exposed to S&M, she is actually in a state of empowerment because she is choosing this, and wants to be in this situation. It’s about power-play, and being in controlled states of dominance and submissiveness. It’s not a new thing to reference these ideas in music at all, but it makes things more fun. It also made sense to use these types of images because I have a family member who worked a lot as a photographer in the 80s London fetish scene, so these images are quite familiar to me, in terms of their visual language.
There’s certainly a history of using extreme imagery in music and art and I think there should be scope to explore these things. That’s the role of art, to open up our fixed ideas and perceptions.
I wanted to talk about the lyrics for ‘Casual Sex’, how did they come together…? They reference and contend with sexual abuse, trafficking, privacy but do so rhetorically with unsettled questions…it reminded me of Genesis P-Orridge in its execution but still distinct…there’s an upfront coldness which jars with the subject matter, which gives them quite an uneasy quality…
Similarly with ‘Birth Control’ (particularly enjoyed the line ‘Have I not gilded my nails/and painted my lips with vermillion’) can you reveal any clues as to what you had in mind…? It seems even less direct and conclusive than ‘Casual Sex’…
Lyrics are something I’ve gotten into over the years, the way I approach a lot of them is like the William Burroughs cut-up technique, it’s about cutting different things into each other literally, and getting new and surreal meanings. Casual Sex was centred around using text from corporate office questionnaires about safety and fair working conditions mixed together with text on how to remain safe when walking at night in built up urban areas. I liked how the corporate language worked alongside the more sinister material, I also took from tabloid sources, there’s a hysterical language used in the papers which lends itself well to lyric writing.
On ‘Plastic Box’ there’s a sample; ‘the world is no longer interested in heroes, so sad, we now know too much about them…’ It almost sounds like Thatcher. I couldn’t work out where it was from…
That’s actually taken from Derek Jarman’s Jubilee, I loved that particular monologue, it seemed really relevant. People are so self-righteous and judgemental now, it’s a culture of damnation and the universal critic, our heroes are humans and have faults and are not perfect, but everyone’s got a bloody opinion about them.
I’ve heard you previously cite Ballard as someone who greatly interests you, are there other writers which bear a prominent influence…? Were there any particular writers who’ve had a significant impact on the BEC material…?
I mentioned earlier that Ballard had a huge effect on me, I later found out that the book 'Crash' had inspired Warm Leatherette by The Normal, which made sense to me. I have really enjoyed Burroughs too, for the sheer intensity of vision, Naked Lunch is a brutal read, exhausting but worth it.
You’re based in London, do you feel rooted in any scene here…?
What’s appealing about living here, in creative terms or otherwise? Conversely, what do you find disappointing? Speculating for a lot of people here, but currently it’s quite a constrictive city (putting it mildly) in terms of supporting yourself and being able to pursue what you love…how has it been in your experience?
London has provided me with an inexhaustible supply of content, art in all its forms. So it’s given me a voracious appetite, I love searching stuff out, that’s what a city is all about, it’s an explosion of ideas and people. Its financially hard yes, but I like the way London is many different things all at once, it can give you what you’re in the mood for, whether its warehouse parties, cinema, theatre or random shit.
You’ve had a few big live shows this month, one at Berghain for the Downwards night, and one in Moscow, what were they like…? Had you played Berghain before…does it live up to its infamy…? What was your impression of Moscow?
I’ve played Berghain and Panorama Bar many times, but this was one of the best times I’ve played, as I said before, Karl’s attitude towards creating parties is to create some tension, and to have things that challenge the typical night out; of dancing around techno handbags. Berghain is certainly a special venue and club, they allow the artists and DJ’s to express themselves and the crowd feels like it’s open to going places.
Also Moscow was a great event, they had decided to use a huge derelict warehouse, people were literally clearing huge amounts of rubble and metal girders out of the venue as I soundchecked, it all came together at the last minute and turned out to be very atmospheric, perfect for a BEC live set.
[In Moscow] It seems like there’s an audience for diverse strands of electronic music, it feels pretty open.
In terms of sound, what have been your favourite places to play…?
The sound at Unit in Tokyo is fantastic, and it’s a nice size venue and feels intimate. To be honest I am impressed by most of the sound in clubs these days, I remember when I started out in the 90s, everyone was driving the fuck out of the systems, everything was pretty harsh, I was deaf for most of that time. Now the clarity is better, and you can have bass and volume without those really harsh frequencies. The presence of bass on systems means you can feel the music without it being at ear bleeding volume.
I saw your show at Fabric a few months back, there was more urgency to it than a standard techno live set. It sounded like there was an even balance between live instrumentation and prepared elements…is that the case…? What’s your set up like…? Do you rely on any particular pieces of hardware…?
BEC live is about bringing elements together, vocals is a big part of that, they tend to be really dubbed out with effects, so they become more of a textural thing. I also use drum trigger pads.
I feel these things give the sound a different feel, it’s probably showing my influences a lot too, a lot of industrial stuff and rock-electronic hybrid stuff. I also played live a lot with my band The Eyes In The Heat, and I loved infusing performances with a feeling of building tension, I think that happens when you’re being more physical in your performance. In the future I want to bring in more instruments, and I love the idea of using non-musical objects to create sound, using metal and maybe a black 'n decker sander.
To revert back to influences, listening to some of your mixes indicates a pretty varied taste. From African Head Charge/Prince Far I and Suicide cropping up in the ‘Exotic Dub Industrial Mix’, to some pretty unrelenting hardcore noise stuff which I failed to identify in the ‘Filth Mix’, what’s the chronology of your taste…? Did the hardcore stuff precede the post-punk…? What sound-tracked your youth…?
It’s just about playing exciting music for me, whatever that is, there’s so much music that comes from different backgrounds, but I am always looking for similar characteristics, I love the sparse approach to creating music, whether that’s delta blues or no-wave, I also love noise and that feeling of pressure. I feel there’s a constant thread that links a lot of stuff, so it all compliments each other. I grew up on punk, grindcore and death metal. I’ve mentioned them in a lot of my interviews, but Napalm Death were an obsession as a teenager, them and Godflesh and a lot of fast metal stuff. It was so cool for me to work with Mick Harris, drummer of Napalm Death, when I commissioned 2 remixes from him for my label, Light And Dark. I am actually in the process of searching out the old DAT tapes [Digital Audio Tapes] to re-release those, it’s pretty scary stuff.
I was also into weirder stuff like Butthole Surfers and Sonic Youth, it all felt pretty natural, all my friends were into it too. Discovering the more obscure post punk stuff has been in more recent years, and it’s still on ongoing journey. A band called The Residents have been a recent discovery too, I had always known their stuff, but not taken the time to really explore their discography, it’s all so eccentric, totally out there stuff.
Can you recall the first record you bought which had (& still has) a major impact…?
Napalm Death’s Enslavements to Obliteration, I am not sure why I am so obsessed with this record, but I would say I listen to it a lot, even now. It’s something that’s gone beyond being music, and has a kind of totemic quality to it, like it’s a device for travelling to an internal place. There’s no real obvious connection with the sound of it and my music really, but it’s more of a feeling, or type of pressure perhaps. On another side, me and my friends were all really into composer Steve Reich too, his music has been pretty much a constant in my life, those early tape experiments he did made so much sense alongside stuff like Psychic TV.
What are some of the artists and labels which currently excite you?
Apart from the labels I am working with, Jealous God and Cititrax, I got to say I am so impressed with LIES. There’s so much amazing stuff on the label, and Ron Morelli seems to have a great open mind and desire to put special music out there, stuff that’s sometimes hard to categorise, and that’s how it should be. William Bennetts Cut Hands stuff is fantastic too, full of so much focused energy. I’ve been a big fan of Madteo's stuff too, also recently loving the Haxan cloak, especially the remix he did of Akkord for Houndstooth Records…and of course Sleaford Mods, they are sooo good, very addictive.
A tired, old obligatory question but purely for the reason that I think there’s a lot of excitement about more BEC material…what are the upcoming plans for the project?
Next up is SCARS EP on Veronica Vasicka’s label Cititrax. It’s pretty upfront stuff, stuff for big dark dancefloors.
Finally and most importantly, what did you make of Surgeon supporting Lady Gaga? And to tread into untactful, hypothetical territory…if you could put one Downwards cohort and one commercial pop star on stage together (again) who would it be and why?
I was talking to Tony [Anthony Child, aka Surgeon] about this recently actually, I thought it was wonderful, what a clash of worlds, what a subversive thing, he did it in an impeccable way, he did it in a natural way, each person was respectful to each other too, it wasn't ironic, it was acknowledging Gaga as an artist and Tony as one too, but artists that occupy different worlds, that can occasionally cross paths. I think it worked because they are very much from different worlds and it made it surreal, but also challenged people’s preconceptions about music, taste and what’s possible.
I am not sure if Gaga and Surgeon can be topped!