Tuesday 26 April 2011
Chin17: Pete Um "Look Sharp! and hear the difference"
Poet, composer, gentleman, raconteur, and well-dressed person Pete Um has ploughed his own particular, distinctive and very fertile furrow since the heady days of the 20th century. A master of the miniature electro-acoustic song-poem, a form he has more or less invented and crystallised himself, his work displays a sardonic wit combined with a healthy misanthropy, in marvellous micro-collages of voice, instruments, samples, and electronics.
Mr Um is, however, far too inventive and curious a gentleman to isolate himself within one proscribed way of working, all of his work across countless Cdr, vinyl releases, and performances being marked by a ceaselessly exploratory and open-ended approach. This release on Chinstrap presents a cross-section of his work in Reel-to-Reel tape music.
Rather than bang on further, we will hand you over to the responsible hands of Pete Um …
One day a long time ago, way back when I lived in Room 5, my man Loukas Morley fetched up at my door bearing gifts. The college he worked at was chucking out some of their music tech. stuff and he had a 16-track mixer and a Teac reel-to-reel machine with my name on it. My heart nearly blew up with gratitude about the mixer because I needed one bad, although sixteen tracks is spoiling me really. With regards to the Teac, I wasn’t so fussed. It looked a bit complicated, what with the fooling with the spooling and so on. Besides, I had a computer to record stuff on and fuck with etc. I almost didn’t even take the damn thing off him, but they’re such massy motherfuckers that I couldn’t exactly tell to put it back in his titchy A30 or whatever that goofy little car he had was called. Shit, I miss Loukas, and wish he hadn’t joined that damn cult. Once I left a reel to reel at a jumble sale too, which still pains me, but then at that selfsame jumbly I got a vocoder (yah!), a homemade keyboard-rhythm machine-amplifier combo (not that I ever got that to work) a decent Denon tape deck and a nice Technics amp that I still use everyday. Total cost was about ten notes, so beat that. Anyway, Loukas´16 track turned out to be a stiff, and the Teac reel to reel just sat sadly in the room untouched for a few months. Then one night, perhaps because I was having some unexplained computer problems, I decided to have a little fuckaround on the reel to reel, which was surprising easy to use. For a laugh I made
some twatty, loop-based recordings. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the birth of a NEW THING, for me at least. For some reason, probably because I’m a dumbass and I didn’t know anything about reel to reels, it took me a long time to realize that the quality of these experiments, in fidelity terms, was actually quite high. In fact it wasn’t until I recorded some of this tape stuff onto DAT, where it sat next to my PC- birthed music, that I twigged that this woggy analogue jizz had a depth and breadth of sound that I wasn’t even getting close to getting out of my soundcard. This is partly because I had no production values back then, and I was kidding myself that I didn’t want them, but that didn’t seem to matter with the Teac, because I’d recorded my stuff reasonably well almost entirely by accident. Since then I have learned that it is a cliché to talk about the warmth of analogue tape, and it bores the tits off me when people do, but they’re right. Tape is also very forgiving. You can distort something to fuck, whether you want to or not, and tape will just roll with it like a drunk getting punched. Let me tell you an almost completely unrelated story. One night I was getting a lift back from London with some guys in another band. We were listening to some deeply unfashionable rock music and digging the hell out of the stupidity of ting. At some point the guitarist described a certain woman as being ¨the type of girl that starts crying when you’re fucking her¨. I’ll never forget this comment, which seems to me to be the last word in blokeish unfeelingness, but it did kind of strike a chord. Anyway, my point is that you have to know what you’re about when recording to digital, as a certain delicacy is required, whereas tape will never cry when you fuck it.
Pete Um at Kettle's Yard Pt. 1 from pete um on Vimeo.
Anyway, you can do marvelous things with computers, and over the years I’ve tried again and again to turn all that wonderful digital functionality into something that satisfies my restless poetic soul. Most of the time I succeed, and I couldn’t live without my PC for very long before some kind of horrible REAL LIFE SYNDROME started screwing around with my head. However, it is not unknown, as you may know, for computers to give me a bit of a hard time. I have a spiritual aura that conflicts with binary operations, and no PC I use will stay in GWO for very long whatsoever. Computers die on me, and I grieve their loss hard, for without them I cannot do my ART STUFF, as I say, and my mind starts to turn on itself. That’s when I reach for my recorder (Teac A-3340S). I switch off my PC, which is probably
just a blue screen anyway, or parallel lines of various hues, or says DISK BOOT ERROR-INSERT SYSTEM DISK, or is pretending to be a statue like some irritating street performer (why doesn’t one of them paint themselves up like Windows and act crashed? I feel that people would get the joke) or has switched itself off or restarted itself fifteen times in the last hour, and I vengefully stride towards the reel-to-reel.
Fuck you world, I think, prepare thyself some fucked-up noise. It should be noted that I am typing this on Sam’s laptop because my desktop is all but deceased, and that while I’ve been doing so all the keys on her keyboard that aren’t letters of the alphabet have conspired to swap functions with one another so that they are opposites, so for instance I have to type the ? key to produce a – and vice versa, although, interestingly, the example I was going to give you now won’t let itself be typed at all.
In addition, some keys have moved their functions along the QWERTY board by one key. Suffice to say I’m struggling to relay this information to you if you feel a bit lost as to what I’m on about. This computer has given Sam no problems in the year and a half that she’s owned it, I should add. Je reste ma valise.
Pete Um Godelmingum & Gyldeforda w/ video FX from pete um on Vimeo.
Anyway, what I love about reel-to-reels is not just the quality of the sound; there’s a couple of other important considerations as well. First off, they look cool as fuck. To a music fetishist such as myself, with an evil jones for sick bollocks, the appearance of the reel-to-reel tape recorder is just about as cool as it gets. Only massive ancient synths that bring Raymond Scott and his work to mind rate higher in
the eye candy stakes. The reels themselves are mainly what its all about. They spin, you see. Round and round. And the spinning makes the music, so that when they start to spin the music starts also, and when they stop the music stops. And when they fast- forward the music goes weebleweebleweeble and when they slow down the music goes roarrrrooow.w..w…w. This is a lot better than the graphic on any CD player. This is virtually better than porn. In fact it is a sort of porn. The people that make the tape know what goes on in the heads of the people that buy the tape, which is why they make the metal reels look like the illest shit they can, with beautifully designed holes of many different types cut in them so you can see where you’re at with your tape use. You have to use the tape that requires the nab hub adaptors to fix them to your machine for maximum aesthetic appeal. I got my machine for nowt so I didn’t mind blowing 20 quid on a pair of nabs. I even videoed my answering machine playing back the message saying “Hello. This is Ian from Roll On Tapes calling to tell you that your nab adaptors have arrived.” Jesus, I get emotional just thinking about that day, and Roll On Tapes, and Ian. Whatever happened to Ian? *
So, yeah, and the last cool thing about what a reel-to-reel can do for you is to totally chuck your normal music craft MO out the window. Personally I can’t be arsed to take the time and effort to record proper songs onto my Teac, and in particular those of the verse/chorus/verse variety, with a charming meld of rhythm and melody and so on. I can barely be bothered to attempt that sort of stuff with my professional
digital set-up, so I definitely can’t doing with writing clever lyrics and learning basslines and rewinding everything a hundred times while the pubs are open. Ye Gods! I’m in far too much of a hurry to see the reels spinning and get on with the next song. So, what I do is record any old crap incredibly fast and see if it might just possibly work as art if you were stoned enough. Therefore a “song” might consist of.
1. A track of a looped snatch of audio from and old piece of tape played on another semi-defunct ReVox tape machine I have (at one point I had four reel to reel machines, but these days I have to struggle by with just the two) sampled onto my Line6 DL4 looping pedal, slowed down and reversed.
2. A track of me playing bass so badly that it sounds like someone gave a bass to a goat and pointed at a bag of rotten carrots, through echoey FX. I very rarely practice anything for too long because rewinding is a pain in the nuts, and I almost always just play the first thing that has some vague connection to what I’m hearing.
3. A track of recordings of Guatemalan bees, sped up, from my vast collection of BBC field recordings on 7” single.
4. A track of me producing noises with my mouth through a toy Fisher Price radio (with toy microphone), with the tape being randomly manually manipulated as it is recorded onto by switching the speed button from high (fast) to low (slow).
Let’s face it, it’ll all sound like dogshit, so this is where I rely on what Bobby J and I refer to as THE MICE. Mice music is just music played twice as fast as it ought to be, basically, so the vocals sound like heavy metal mice. Or of course you can slow things down. The basic rule of thumb is to play everything at the wrong speed.
Additional cheap art can be obtained if you finish recording at different points on the tape, so that at the mixing stage the audio from whatever was on the tape when you bought it cheap at Resale will suddenly leap into one channel like some demented communication from another dimension. If you’re very lucky it’ll be Madonna, backwards, sounding like a man and in rhythmic sync with the nonsense you produced yourself. Lately I’ve been experimenting with adding additional FX at mixdown stage too, and it does sound pretty sweet. OK, so when you’ve finished with your labours do you thoughtfully review the fruit obtained, just to check on what the fuck you’ve actually recorded? No, that would be folly, for it is as plain as the nose on your own face that it will sound like a random clash of harsh noises, so you just get on with the next song. Now, in the fullness of time you’ll have done a whole tape of four tracks of audio recorded at varying speeds. You will also be drunk and stoned as a motherfucker. Play the fucking tape, for this is where the gold comes. OK, chances are that it still sounds a bit like fucked-up noise, but…maybe, just maybe, it will have a mercurial quality to it that appeals to the true seeker of the one true fucked-up noise. I think this magick quantity has a lot to do with the fact that the music has been created almost automatically, so that the artist barely recognizes themself in the work. The alien and strange quality of the tape music appeals to the poet’s sick lust for surprise kicks. This can be very refreshing if you’ve ever sat listening to a loop over and over again in Cubase or whatever. Your girlfriend may not dig it, and you can’t stick it on at work, but it is a pure and unspoiled and wild sound.
These are the reasons why I love reel-to-reel tape recorders.
So dip your toes into the tape music of a singular chap, who always Looks Sharp.
You can listen to the long-form works from which this album was extracted at http://peteum.podomatic.com/