Pushing A Piano Through A Wall: Rival Consoles Talks
It had been a tumultuous and depressing week. England's timid Lions out of the Euros, the repercussions of the populace's decision to quit the EU, the turmoil and wranglings in both government and opposition, and the outcome of the Chilcott inquiry. Swerving the dark skies of my own general malaise, I duck down an obscure side street. For once the sun is shining, and the cobbled street of this incongruous collection of studios and it's community make everything seem a little more chipper.
"Blair repulsed me, the last few years of him saying the most sickly things of all time. It’s so transparent, him trying to remove anyone from power who could damage his name. Politics is in a disgraceful state. Fuck, it’s so shit."
Ryan West, Mr. Rival Consoles gives me a warm welcome and invites me inside his studio. He is about to release his latest record 'Night Melody', and after listening to that intense and complex collection, multi-layered and intricate, I was expecting to arrive inside some meticulously curated sound laboratory, an analogue treasure trove with mysterious wires connecting bespoke modular structures. I was a little early, and he apologised for not tidying up, but I doubt it would have made much difference. A sparse set up of a 'deconstructed' tinkered piano, a few keyboards, a guitar, a Mac. And a massive collection of houseplants.
Rival Consoles first struck me with his 'Odyssey' EP in 2013. It was hiding inside a mixtape I'd got from Soundcloud and it's stealthy pace and growing pulse hooked me, reminded me of early Simple Minds, and got me in bother when I upped it to YouTube. He's been with Erased Tapes since 2007, and has been crafting unwielding, disharmonious and yet melancholic electronic records since then. My own youth had been filled with guitars and then some shameless disregard for them as I journeyed through provincial towns, replacing the strums with the doof-doofs. How had Ryan got into this?
"I’m not that interested in proper dance music per se, I like moments of it, but my interest in electronic music is more songwriting I think. You know I’ve been in lots of bands and I’m a guitarist primarily. Not having to rely on people, bands can be chaotic nightmares obviously. And secondly, just how quick everything is working on computers, you can sketch out ideas and get an immediate response from it."
Ryan is a gentle fellow, and a very startlingly educated one. In just a few moments he makes me feel at ease with him, but he can run rings around me when he begins to talk about his processes and his art. Musicians that work in solus can become obsessives, and he almost exclusively works alone on Rival Consoles. He chuckles, not for the first time.
"I’m too controlling! I need to control my ego. When you are in a band, the social aspect helps the music, but I’ve been lucky with the touring and those experiences have influenced my work. I’ve been absolutely smashed into the ground with criticism over the past ten years. Also (growing up in Leicester) no one gave a shit about anything that I was doing on a daily basis."
His latest release on Erased Tapes is the mini-album 'Night Melody'. He has been quite open in attributing it's construction from the the lost remains of a thirteen year relationship. He's only 32, so that is all of his adult life lost (or missed) in a decision or two. I would generally make some pointed Facebook remarks and re-evaluate my friends list. Was he comfortable sharing such personal and emotional information?
"That was the catalyst, but the music making was born out of the winter. I’d never felt the lack of light so much although in retrospect that’s obvious, it killed me getting dark every day at 4 o’clock. My whole lifestyle changed, I was going out every night, drinking and going to parties every day, and then making music every day too. I think the music on this album is quite understated, ‘Howl’ was quite aggressive and overly physical at times where this is more subtle. That wasn’t a conscious decision, it just happened naturally. I’d never felt like that before, and I guess I’m a little concerned how the next winter may make feel. It’s a strange thing."
"It is honest but I guess that was the main point, to be open rather than disguise everything. It’s not really that big a deal. All art is made out of these things that happen to everybody, maybe the difference is I’ve made it a little bit clearer. It was necessary."
The opening track on the album, 'Pattern Of The North' kicks off all Baba O' Riley (ask a Mod elder), before moving into a more chaotic travelogue, and is described as the stress Ryan felt when he went back to The Midlands for Christmas. Having been back to my Northern hometown earlier this year I recognised that anxious impact. He chuckles deferentially.
"I can be a moody bastard. I find it really easy to make electronic music which has an anxiety in it, the tones aren’t pure and are always in conflict with each other. When you listen to the layers it’s very additive, layers of tension. I’ve definitely suffered with anxiety a lot over the years, but as I’ve got older I’m getting to the point where I just don’t actually care anymore."
The care (and lack of it) is something apparent in his working environment. As said, it was nothing I'd expected. No clean surfaces, no smoke-free environment and lab coats. Ryan laughs, he is self-deprecating, and it is apparent he takes things less seriously then he often seems when interviewed.
"Yeah, this is the flagship. I work with a very minimal set-up. Keyboard which I run through lots of guitar pedals, tape delay unit. Everyone struggles with a live set up, so I’ve forced myself to have the same set-up as I’d take on the road. It makes the studio more exciting because I have to do everything live, and not have those awkward laptop live gig moments. Performing live is very important to me, and it makes me more aware of things in the music. The feelings that I get from it, not just the crowd, and the way that it sounds in that space."
He then goes on to talk passionately and informed about his musical education. He tells me about Terry Riley, the permutations in sound structure, and the listener's subconcious abilities.
"I write from my guitar knowledge, so the chord progressions have a clumsiness which I allow, I prefer to have some naivety. Sometimes I think that’s really lazy and I should push myself to do something greater, but over the past five years all the best things that have happened in my music have been accidental. I’m very quick, like a painter just smashing things together. But in Western culture we are obsessed with thinking they need to be more intellectual about things, because it’s progress."
Without my musical youth, he had forged another route towards melodic discovery.
"I was always into composition, and at university some really avant-garde compositions. More bizarre lessons included being given a piece of paper with an instruction to try and push a piano through a wall, and the piece ends when the person is too exhausted! That doesn’t translate to Rival Consoles obviously, but I learned the guitar at 12 and quickly became obsessed with music structure, and this is gonna make me sound really idiotic but it took me 10 years to understand how techno and other electronic music have power and structure. That’s just how my brain works. And maybe because I just wasn’t going to the right places to hear the music in the spaces it was designed for."
"I’m not analytical when I’m in a nightclub, I can dance and enjoy myself! And there were always shit clubs in Leicester anyway."
Ryan has been with Erased Tapes since their beginning. A label which is also home to Nils Frahm and A Winged Victory For The Sullen, some acts making the most innovative electronica around. Is it important to be part of that kind of family?
"Working with Rob and being friends is very important. Someone who loves the music and isn’t driven by the business side of it. I’d been making music for 10 years, but there’s only really been any interest or demand over the past two years. I’d have got kicked off any other label! Going around the world and touring and experiencing different cultures has been fantastic and inspiring, and has actually earned me some money. But I’d never sit at home working on something and think ‘this would be really popular if I just change that, and it would make more money’. Which structure is the most profitable!?"
"I guess I see my peers as people like Clark, stuff on Brainfeeder, and obviously people from the label like Nils Frahm. I like the idea of doing something quick and spontaneous for things like Record Store Day, collaborating with someone. I’ve toured extensively with Clark and we have worked together, so maybe again do something with him, more definitive."
Ryan was certainly engaging, highly intelligent, in tune with his vulnerabilities and some times contradictory. It seems his music isn't the only thing in conflict.
Rival Consoles – Night Melody is released by Erased Tapes on 5th August 2016 and can be bought HERE. He is also on the line-up at Simple Things Festival in Bristol in October 2016.