Poetic Technology: Sevendeaths Talks
Sevendeaths stands with his back to us, the seated crowd, hunched over a large box. Some 50 cables protrude from its front in an octopean tangle, he twiddles with knobs and hammers on sideboards, and teases from it distorted strands of noise. The patterns seem beyond his control, light fluttering crashes into blinding dread. Beside him, the author Timothy J Jarvis reads sequences of words, repeating phrases at random. A few stick in the memory.
“Drizzling spittle.” “A ruined world, eating.” “A tin of spam.”
We’re downstairs at The Ace Hotel in London at an event called ‘When Cut, The Present You Leaks Out Into The Future.’ I expected it was to mark the pressing of the second Sevendeaths LP, Remote Sympathy, to vinyl, but by now that doesn’t seem to cover it. A sprawling examination of language as a virus, using the written word, coding, convoluted musical equipment, human error and the cut-up technique of William Burroughs to create something truly unique; it pretty well demonstrates the scope of what Steven Shade tackles with the Sevendeaths project. It’s a lot to unpack.
Sevendeaths has traditionally been what Shade calls an ‘in the box’ project – computer-made music. As he is a professional software developer, I wonder if this familiarity is the reason why he has in the past rejected outboard machinery.
“It’s more that the first record was very thematically constrained. Technology-wise, I wanted to keep it purely synthesised with no samples. Very digital, very cold, which comes from both the technology and the thematic concept.”
The thematic concept stemmed largely from Paul Aster’s New York trilogy. Themes found in them were used too, as a means to constrain: walking in NYC, doppelgangers, infinite loops, confusion. Taken with the performance at The Ace Hotel, a thread of literary connections begins to emerge in his work.
“Books are great because there's a lot of space for considering. I was re-reading the graphic novel version of the Paul Aster books and it all came together at once. Then with things like this it’s a natural jump. Literature can give you ideas or even just a phrase.”
This notion of the freedom and space allowed by literature runs counter to the kind of atmosphere created with both his albums and tonight’s show.
Sevendeaths made Remote Sympathy largely in the middle of the night, exhausted, with his infant daughter strapped to his chest. He tells me that sense of discombobulation was something he wanted to convey with the use of noise, which itself is a representation of what he calls ‘information overload’. “You are being absolutely battered by different stuff [when listening]” He offers. “It’s a lot of information which is reflective of our society. Who do we trust? There’s so much info it’s hard to get a real sense of who you are, what is right.”
The pieces read by Jarvis tonight are steeped with these kinds of musings. The original literature is a narrative taking inspiration from the sounds and titles of Remote Sympathy, and threaded throughout is the notion of language as a corrupting force: an insatiable busying of the mind that brings only pain and confusion. Inspired by the writings of Burroughs, and using his cut-up technique, Jarvis’ reading has a profoundly disorienting effect on the audience. It’s an effect Sevendeaths’ music is designed for. As he puts it: “It’s asphyxiating what a central concept is with many layers, until it’s hard to find what that idea was in the first place.”
The cut-up snippets read by Jarvis differ from Burroughs’ because they are truly random. To achieve this Shade has written a python script to do the cutting. I suspect this background in coding has contributed to his desire to explore ideas of information overload in his work. Until ‘When cut…’ he has worked almost exclusively with MIDI sounds and eschewed the use of analogue equipment.
“I don't buy into the whole fetishisation of old gear” he says. “I don’t really want to shell out silly amounts of money on something that's going to cause me a lot of pain and suffering [laughs].”
Techno and Acid were created by making machines behave in ways that weren’t intended, and it stands to reason that with a good grasp of the mechanics of software the possibilities to do this with digital tools are huge. Does he think that fetishisation has curtailed experimentation in music?
“Well what I have done is use the environment provided by the software and see what I can do with the internal routing logic – rather than actually writing code. You can do that, I messed around with an x/y co-ordinates thing where your mouse changes pitch and waveforms, and recorded this piece of nonsense. It’s a good idea but is it productive? I think you’d want to use of one the existing environments because who knows how many man-days were involved in building them. That said, building your own synth would be pretty straightforward.”
Despite his interest in where coding and music-making meet, ‘When Cut…’ signifies the beginning of a move away from digi-focussed projects.
“There’s not that much fun in completing a record. Cycling through the same song, god knows how many hundred times, and finessing it. As much as I've tried to keep it in the box to reduce the amount of options, it’s very hard to find where to stop.”
Is this the reason he’s branching into analogue equipment?
“I’d like to try and do something where you then have to live by the decisions you made at the time. It's the opposite to my approach to date and it might not work out – I may go back to it.”
It’s certainly been a fertile environment for him to work in thus far. On Remote Sympathy Shade conjures a panoramic breadth of atmosphere. The album is billed as ‘both a celebration of life and human strength and an acceptance of the frailty of the human spirit.” It’s dense and overwhelming, yet there is much brightness among the murk.
The tension between light and dark stems from the two key events that occurred around the time he began making the record. The first was the birth of his second daughter, the one strapped to his chest while he worked. The second was the terminal illness of his friend and American Men bandmate, Robbie Cooper.
“There was kind of this very joyous side in terms of my daughter and the opposite with Robbie. I had a lot of thought around not just his illness but around how positively he dealt with it. Also my own feelings on how I reacted and how people in general react to tragedies that happen to others.”
For Shade the darkness and light are inextricable.
“The album opens with Sunnbear, and the very first kind of noise is this demon type of thing. That's actually my oldest daughter making little sounds going 'beep boop boop.’ I then filtered that through a whole bunch of different effects until it’s the complete opposite of the innocence of the child. It's become a bear, a beast – for me, this kind of demon. This demon is there in the record. You can take the innocence and flip it on its head, and likewise with the darkness.”
Darkness is a difficult subject in the context of having children. Whichever way you look at it, there is much pain in the world, and as a parent one must try to allow children to navigate that.
“Listen having kids is amazing. Every day there's something joyous, something new that they do, learn or create. But the global outlook is tricky. Few people could see a lot of hope in that. If you look at inequalities in pay, in health and all of that, the gap is only widening. It’s difficult and I guess for me the thing is to not dwell too much on it but to try and improve things where you can all the same. Always give [my children] a positive outlook. There’s no point giving up. People need hope.”
Given we’ve been speaking a lot about software and coding, I’m intrigued to know what he makes of the influence of technology on some of the troublesome things that have been happening across the world. A company like Cambridge Analytica, for example, owned by the American billionaire Robert Mercer, was recently revealed to have had a huge impact on the information disseminated on social media in the run up to Brexit.
“The power currently lies with massive multinational technology companies. They have our data, they provide us with the info they think we want to hear. That in itself is a dangerous position to be in. Also with music, it used to be that record labels had the power, and people thought it was great when they started to lose it. But the end result is that someone still has the power, and it's now that very same company – the Googles and whatnot. It’s a monopoly of your entire life.”
I put it to him that at least in times of hardship music tends to get better. He laughs, “I remember people saying this around Brexit. I thought ‘what, just a load of pseudo-punk bands churning out turgid shite.’ So yeah, maybe not.”
Sevendeaths though, is a product of the conditions in which we live. If those conditions allow the kind of arresting swells of beauty underlined by harsh noise that he creates, then for me that statement stands. For Shade, more collaborations are in the offing, as well as full scale live show in the coming months.
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