Tim Shaw (aka Tim Exile) started making drum’n'bass tunes in 2000, for labels such as John B’s Beta Recordings and Moving Shadow. His first Planet µ release in 2005 brought a thrilling combination of breakcore and experimental aspects to his sound, but 2009′s Living Tree has added a surprising pop sensibility into the mix.
Tim Exile is on tour in Japan, and has very kindly taken time out to speak to me. Unfortunately almost as soon as we start talking, he has to get the volume turned up on his phone, which happens to be a borrowed phone with everything written in Japanese. No small task. I ask him how the touring is going.
“It’s good! Kind of exciting and tiring – it’s been the most intensive and sustained touring that I’ve done in my life so far. I think when I started touring this album in September I had a completely new live show, and I was quite surprised at how long it took to really feel comfortable with it – and also, you know, singing, ’coz I’ve never sung on stage before. So that took a bit of time – longer than I’d planned really. Because before that I’d had the live show, and different machines I’d programmed, and I guess I underestimated just how accustomed to my old setup I’d become, and I didn’t know long it’d take to get used the new setup.”
In his youth Shaw had learned violin and played in choirs. He recently relocated to Berlin, which seems (to an outsider at least) to be an exciting, vibrant place for developments in electronica and experimental sounds, not to mention other artistic endeavours. It’s “artist-friendly”, as he says, with opportunity for collaboration and plenty of space to work with. “It’s not really competitive, in the same way that I find especially London can be. There’s kind-of enough to go around for everyone, and people aren’t under the crazy financial pressure that they often are in England. So that made sense to me, as I wanted a bit of space to get my house in order, and map things out. I was also doing some work for Native Instruments, who are based in Berlin.”
Shaw’s move to Mike Paradinas’ label Planet µ in 2005 was initially unexpected, given that his first releases (as Exile) were fairly mainstream drum’n'bass 12″s. “I almost ended up making drum’n’bass by accident,” he says. “I ran into John B at university – he was the first person I’d met who had a record label, basically. I’d made some drum’n’bass stuff before that, and also made some housey stuff, some downtempo stuff, and some pretty weird experimental stuff. But that opportunity came along, and I made a couple of drum’n’bass tracks that John released, and kind of ended up following that path a bit from a fairly arbitrary beginning. That’s the way it goes, really – I don’t see myself as having this independent artistic trajectory that I’m following. It’s more like I’m very aware that I exist floating in the wind as anyone else does. The fact that I’ve ended up being an artist in itself is something that well may not have happened – had other things not arisen.”
Those “other things” he’s talking about could have led Shaw down a completely different path. He completed a degree in philosophy which prompted the inevitable self-questioning thoughts about getting a “real job”, about moving on. Fortunately the impetus from his earlier releases was too strong. ” I was really keen to pursue that somehow,” he says, “and given the funny compromise between my expectations, my parents’ expectations, the possibilities of getting money to live and so on, I figured the best way to make it work and have time to really focus on what I wanted to focus on was to do this a Masters in Electroacoustic Composition… I have to say I spent most of my time actually just doing what I wanted to do… the professors were really encouraging.
“I also kind-of lucked out in a way, because at the end of that masters year, I randomly landed a commission to do backing track work – reasonably well-paid – and I realised that it would actually be possible to earn a basic living, so then I decided that I was going to do spend the next few years trying to get some fairly mundane production work, and then spend the rest of my time working on my own stuff. It was like making karaoke backing tracks, and some production music for TV.”
His previous release, Tim Exile’s Nuisance Gabbaret Lounge, was more like a live album: or at least a document of what Exile was doing live at the time. It sounded kind of revolutionary. “Well, Nuisance Gabbaret Lounge – there’s a video of me explaining the setup I used to do that album on the Native Instruments website,” he says.
“I used that patch that I programmed, which consisted of sample players and loop players, taking live loops and playing with those. All those shows were completely improvised – I’d get up on stage and have no idea what I was going to do, which can get fairly chaotic. I’d recorded shows over a period of about 3 or 4 months I think, and then edited highlights out of those shows and put them together. There were bits of playing keyboards – most of it was pretty live. I had a drum machine that I programmed loops into, so it was pretty much like ‘from scratch’ live. I would sometimes also drop in samples of pre-made tracks, quick loops that you could do mashups between, and there were lots of keyboard-triggered effects and processors that I’d use to re-order stuff with my fingers.”
While it may seem initially that Listening Tree is a radical departure, Tim Exile has kept many of the essentials of his sound, from heavy basslines to frequent digitally-effected freak-outs. Nevertheless, the songs on Listening Tree are full-fledged songs, with intriguing lyrics and fun harmonic progressions. Reminders seem to appear of prog, ’80s electro-pop, the ska of Madness and more. The process of reproducing the songs on Listening Tree for his live show ia particularly interesting. “I’ve built another machine, that still has all the possibilities of the last one – probably more possibilities for improvising now,” he says.
“I’ve made something with a lot more instantaneous and fluid use. And when I’m playing songs from the album, I have a song-player thing that’s integrated into the patch, and I basically play the backing but I can also put the backing through effects and re-loop it and re-order it as well. So I’ll do a bit of an improv, start off with some beatboxing or whatever, put in some synths and build it up, have a bit of a play around, and when the time feels right I’ll drop in one of the tracks – and it’s all synced to tempo, so I just need to mix it in, and then sing along to the track. And then I can put different effects on my voice, do different looping over that and so on as well.”
Tim Exile’s vocals have appeared even back in the d’n’b days on a few tracks (such as 2002’s ‘Save Me’), so it seems natural to wonder if this is a direction he’s been thinking of going in for some time. “It’s always been there. There was an ‘ability gap’ in my confidence to sing. So, writing this album was a real learning process – learning how to get roughly the sound I was looking for out of my voice, and again, being able to do that on stage, which is an entirely different skill. So, I’m still learning, but it was something that I wanted to do for a while, but I think I had to get the wild experimental stuff out of my system – or not out of my system, but I really thought it was important to express that first, maybe.”
Much of the commentary on Listening Tree has drawn comparisons to the electro-pop of the 1980s such as Depeche Mode – perhaps due to the glut of genuinely backward-looking music on the scene at the moment.
“Well the thing is I’d never listened to any Depeche Mode, or Cabaret Voltaire, or Human League or any of these people that the style of songwriting is being compared to now! To be honest, it was only when I finished the album and played it to a few people that I had any idea that it sounded ’80s. As I was recording it, it just sounded like my music to me – so it was a real surprise that pretty much every single review has said it’s like these bands. Not the comparisons themselves, but maybe what shocked me more was how often it’s been assumed that this was really intentional – that I was either trying to write the next chapter in this kind of music, or I was trying to ape these musicians. In a way it’s quite interesting – given me a new perspective anyway.”
The new material is certainly different. So how has it been received by the fans of the older stuff?
“Hm, it’s been very marmite. Do you know what I mean?”
Your interviewer is not entirely sure he does.
“Well, marmite, the English equivalent of vegemite, and their advertising slogan for years has been ‘love it or hate it’. So yeah, people pretty much love it or hate it. In a way I’ve found that it’s highlighted people who are actually musically open-minded.”
The album spans genres with gleeful abandon – taken to a logical if audacious extreme on ‘Family Galaxy’, which increases its tempo via time signature changes, through dubby hip-hop, techno, drum’n'bass and into a kind of gabbercore, while the vocal becomes raucous.
“One of the reasons behind me wanting to write songs, and broaden the possibilities of the use of pure electronic music, was that I felt this so-called IDM thing really reached a bit of a cul-de-sac,” Exile says, “and there seemed to be a kind-of post-Aphex style, really reflective and backwards-looking in a way, a nostalgic attitude. And I think that people who think along these lines have really not liked the album at all.
“There’s a lot of people who don’t really want to take the album as a cohesive work, and I’ve seen lots of comments who say ‘Yeah, the tracks are nice, but the vocals…’ – obviously they’re coming from that pure electronic perspective. But actually, when I was writing the album I was going through some really big personal changes, and spiritual and emotional reflection, and the lyrics are really genuinely heartfelt. There were a couple of tracks on the album which, when I first did the live shows, I couldn’t actually sing the songs, because I couldn’t hold the tears back, because they were so moving for me to sing.”
by Peter Hollo