Paul Gough’ wearing the same brown, short-sleeves and collared shirt as his press shots from five years ago. It’s a favourite or the man has a limited wardrobe, and he doesn’ strike me as the sort to fetishise clothing. He hoards music; he’ fixated on sound; he is obsessed by too much else.
He looks up from his coffee and jumps to his feet, extending a hand in greeting: “I found this place on a blog,” he says. Gough was reluctant to meet at his place, and suggested this little Glebe cafe instead, “They’ve got good coffee.â€ He Googled me before the interview, he admits, and, reaching into his bag, hands over three DVDs: “Just a few things you might like,” he says. Full of deleted albums from free jazz outfits, and odd pop 7″ singles, they’re rich for exploration.
That’s typical Paul Gough: private, but friendly and eager to please; colleagues say he’ easy to work with and genuinely into music. The latter is evident in his weekly radio programs for the ABC’ Radio National (“The Quiet Air’) and Sydney’ FBi Radio (“Paul’ Playlunch’). The former, in the high regard he’ held by all workmates I speak with for this story.
At 44-years-old, Gough might be better known (at least internationally) for making music as Pimmon. But, unlikely as it may seem, he learnt his craft making countless hours of radio among the big egos and flashy microphones of Sydney’s commercial stations.
“I managed to wrangle my first job at 2UE just by showing up,” he says.
â€œYou make some assumptions about big radio stations. But the reality was we were using some pretty basic equipment. There was no tutoring in the technical theory of radio.â€
“It just had to sound right.”
Gough was, and still is, ‘PG’ for many of the people at 2UE. One of the first broadcasters he worked with at the station was talkback host, Alan Jones, soon after the man started in radio. Two years later, he left and worked in Melbourne before returning to work with another heavyweight of talkback radio, John Laws, for a decade.
“These people are incredibly complex,” Gough says, reluctant to talk about Laws or Jones. “There are things about them that I like, and things that I find incredibly frustrating.â€
Sometimes he joined Laws – “the golden tonsils’ – on air, using a little voice synthesizer to distort and pitch-shift his own voice. Every week, he noted good calls, jokes and anything that went down well, and then patched them together as a half-hour best of. Alistair Reynolds, the station’ chief engineer, says it was mostly so Laws could get away at 11:30am on a Friday to get up the coast to his farm before the rush. â€œPG often worked “til quarter past 11 on a Friday, ready to race upstairs and play it out at 11:30,” Reynolds recalls.
Reynolds says Gough was one of the great producers to come through the station. “He was just comfortable in the environment, and that’s a good word for it: “comfort.’ I don’t know if you’d call it a gut level instinct or feeling, but some people just get radio. PG got it.”
Fifteen years ago, the actor Jonathan Harris was booked for an interview on the program. Harris played Dr Smith in Lost In Space, and there was nothing in the music library but a cheap remake of the television show’ theme. The production team was in a spin, but Gough loved the show as a kid, and he remembered recording episodes on his mum’ reel-to-reel recorder. He found one of them in a box of tapes in his garage.
“I had to work on the recording a bit,” he says.
“It was basically a microphone in front of an old television speaker. I edited up some dialogue – particularly where Smith would say things like, “You jangling junk heap!’ – and I actually had the original theme somewhere on vinyl.”
Harris beamed as he walked into the studio with this montage playing. Looking in from behind the producer’s window, Gough got shivers: “I was eight when I recorded this,” he remembers thinking.
Paul Gough’ interest in sound goes right back to his earliest memories: hearing a song on the radio when he was four years old; using his mum’ reel to reel recorder at eight.
He released his first music in the early 1980s under the name Yclept Dinmakers (Yclept is old English for “known as’, so: “known as makers of noise’). Playing a tin of fly spray with a can and a looped budgerigar chattering in the background, it was a screaming homage to the Birthday Party.
“That stuff was really awful,” says Gough.
“I don’t think I’ve ever spoken about it to anybody in an interview,” he says, admitting he recently sent the songs anonymously to the archival blog Mutant Sounds (mutant-sounds.blogspot.com).
It was pivotal at the time, however, as sending that music off to 2MBS, a community radio station, got him his first radio show on another Sydney community station, 2SER.
He went on to record a couple of CDs worth of jangly pop at one point, and kept experimenting with sound. But things change, and for a good decade he stopped releasing music. “I’m a bit like a bower bird,” he says. “I collected all these snippets of sound, just putting them aside and forgetting them.”
In the mid-’90s, 2UE invested in an expensive Mac-based system. A clunker, says Gough, an avowed PC user. He started searching the internet for software to edit the program, and to his surprise, found much more: software that let him really play around with sound.
But at work he felt creatively stifled. He was desperate to get out. Sitting over his coffee, he leans back in his chair, visibly shocked when I remind him of former colleagues, many of whom he has not spoken to since leaving the station. In retrospect, it’s this need for a creative outlet that really triggered the birth of Pimmon.
“It was like someone fumbling in the dark,” he says.
“Some of the staff members knew about my music, but I didn’ go on about it,” he says. “There was no reference point for them, they weren’ even listening to anything vaguely electronic, let alone something so abstract.”
Steve Turner, an ABC reporter who worked with Gough at 2UE, says they were all fascinated by Gough’ other life.
The music community was equally intrigued by this outsider who lived in Greystanes, in the suburbs of western Sydney, had a family and a domestic situation that was so far from the usual inner city experimental music scene. Julian Knowles, who was teaching at the University of Western Sydney when he first came across Pimmon’ music, says Gough was almost as different as you could imagine from the rest of the electronic music community.
“Being out of the city meant he did most of his business over internet connections,” says Knowles, now a professor at Queensland University of Technology. “It gave him a presence that was very online and internationally connected.”
“He had these great jokes,” Knowles says. “Like he named tracks after rugby league players, and he called one album Live at the Coolabah Hotel, Merrylands. It was hilarious.”
For years, Gough was known in the music community for being known elsewhere. Knowles says everyone knew this guy was doing the odd gig locally but releasing through all these labels elsewhere.
That global network was juxtaposed against Gough’ solitary approach to recording. According to Knowles, his music has revolved around ongoing fascinations with new tools or processes ever since.
â€œHe finds a new way of processing sound or a new software environment and just mines its possibilities for a few years,” says Knowles. “Then he’ll find another. His work’ evolved as a journey through tools and software.”
Technology is clearly important for Gough, but the centre of his studio is his ears.
“The first thing you have to do in a studio is listen,” says Julie Rigg, presenter of the ABC’ Movie Time – which Gough produced for several years. “Paul listens. The second thing you need to understand is rhythm. A radio show is like a CD or any other performance, and Paul just understands this intuitively.”
“Plus he’ got this enormous reference of sounds in his head” she exclaims. “On production days he would turn up with a couple of Woolworth’ green shopping bags bulging with obscure CDs. I trusted him totally.”
When he’ making music, Gough says a lot of the process is just listening.
“I tend to do most of my work on individual sounds,” he says. “Editing. Just listening to one sound over and over again.” He gets home from radio after midnight, wired, sits at his PC and puts his headphones on. “Often I’ll fall asleep listening to these things.”
The fragments of sound might start life in records by The Cure or The Chills, or even trashy production CDs, but they end up virtually unrecognisable.
“I avoid anything that gives you a reference point, but a lot of the stuff I do is in homage to the things I love. Even the titles. For example, Sleeping Secret Birds (2001) was named after a track by The Makers of the Dead Travel Fast on an M-Squared cassette release.”
“Obviously I like loops, but I don’ ever work with loops that sequence into the same pattern – unless it’s the loop itself – I like loops of various lengths that go in and out of phase with each other, and sometimes catch up.”
“I don’t think to myself, “I want this guitar sound’ or “that melody.’ I work a bit more by chance. I’ve got boxes of sounds: some good, some bad, some I’ll never use. I just hang onto them, until going back over I find something I like.”
The end product is music with a sense of grandeur and drama, according to sound artist and music critic Gail Priest.
“It’s made up of overlapping swathes of textures that fill the sound spectrum,â€ says Priest. â€œBut each individual element is crystal clear – it’s constantly stimulating.”
The first time I saw Pimmon perform live was at the Sydney art space Pelt, a tiny cube of a room in inner city Redfern. Gough leaned over his laptop with a plastic cup of red wine in his hands. He looked like an office worker checking his email on the way home.
But the comparison extends only so far. Gough’ hands flew about the keyboard with a curious style using two hands on the trackpad instead of one. Watching his cursor move around the screen while he’ playing, and you don’ often get to see that if you’re not in the right part of the room, he’ hyper dextrous. It’s the kind of dexterity that only comes from decades and thousands upon thousands of hours in studios and on computers.
Musically, it was a three-dimensional thing: too much emotional resonance to be lumped with the typically academic world of sound art; far more texturally fascinating than standard electronic music. I sat transfixed on the hard concrete floor as a rippling current of sound spilled from the speakers.
In the past decade, Gough has released 30 records on a long list of prestigious record labels. He was included in a San Francisco Museum of Modern Art show on new music from Australia, and The Sydney Morning Herald selected 2003′ Snaps*Crackles*Pops as one of the top 50 albums for the year.
As these things go, just as Gough’ music was taking off, everything else was falling apart. Increasingly frustrated at work, in 2001, his marriage broke up. If not quite rock bottom, it must have been close.
Eight years later and there’s a splash of white in his dark beard. He’s remarried and now happily working at Radio National, producing for Phillip Adams – he won a joint Walkley award with the team for a report on the Solomon Islands in 2004 – and he presents music shows on the ABC and FBi Radio.
Gough’ first album in five years, Smudge Another Yesterday, is bleak, and at times brutal. And, although Gough had used vocals for texture in the past, he says this is the first time he’ really expressed himself with his voice. Still abstracted, and mostly textural, it helped him deal with what he calls 10 years of turmoil.
“It was like when someone needs to say something to someone who has died, for example, and they write a letter, then burn it. I didn’ want to write these things down in a public way. But I could release that emotion through the album, and it stays private because it’s buried in the music.”
“People have said that my music was dark in the past, but this time it really has come from a fairly dark place.” He looks tired, but relieved. “I wonder what they’ll make of it.”
Pimmon’ Smudge Another Yesterday is available from Preservation.