Tangents are a Sydney-based quintet that melds electronic production, experimental rock and free improvisation. They consist of members from groups as diverse as Icarus, FourPlay String Quartet, Triosk and Spartak. Having released their debut album I on hellosQuare (see our review here) and, their follow up Stateless was released last year on Temporary Residence, drawing comparisons with The Necks, Can and Four Tet. Their music is very much about improvisation with the band breaking down into a series of duos, trios, quartets and also maintaining the quintet. Their sounds are inspired by contemporary classical composition, free jazz and experimental electronic music, which is a pretty wide road to travel. With such a unique approach to making music and such a diverse range of musical influences we asked Ollie Bown (computer), Peter Hollo (cello, loops, electronics, vocals), Adrian Lim-Klumpes (piano, rhodes, flute, electronics), Shoeb Ahmad (guitar, vocals, computer) and Evan Dorrian (drums, percussion, vocals), about the music that moves them.
Herbie Hancock – Thrust [Columbia] (1974)
I usually pick this as my favourite album, when asked. The pace and groove are extraordinary and I feel it is the perfect expansion of jazz’s colour palette through electronic sound (Herbie’s synth array was perfectly formed) electric bass and diverse wind instruments including bass clarinet and flute. I love long-form tracks and I seem to be completely locked into this kind of format in studio work — 10 minute tracks with simple shapes, big changes, and constrained improv. Even though what I do sounds nothing like this, there’s still a deep influence. I love how clinical this record sounds, in terms of the mix and also in terms of the tight unvarying groove, almost connecting it to more recent electronic music. “Actual Proof” is a remarkable piece of composition, falling over itself in crazy swirls of movement without ever losing pace. The movement is staggering, and the colour brought by the instrumentation is gorgeous. I used to DJ this track in the middle of some kind of jungle or dance party session with my cousin Sam from Icarus, and it would go off. I wasn’t surprised to find out Ado was a big fan of this too. Bigger than the album itself is the era it represents. The mid-70s would have to be my favourite era of musical innovation and particularly the peak of expression of the LP as a format, with all those prog-rock concept records and developed studio techniques that really transformed what it meant to be a band making recorded music.
Plug – Drum ‘n’ Bass For Papa [Blue Planet] (1996)
This was my first love in terms of avant garde jungle/dnb-inspired music. The jungle thing was in full pelt as I was coming up, and along with it came this crazy offshoot — Squarepusher, Plug, μ-Ziq, Aphex — making the avant garde form of the genre that was comical, complex and super deep listening all at once, but had the same pace and dancefloor intensity as the best dancefloor jungle. This was exactly the music I wanted to make, and my band Icarus (with Sam Britton) fell into this mould, with our own quirks. It was all about the mico-edit, the painstakingly precision-edited drum patterns, fills and effects, dramatic interruptions that would come out of nowhere and redirect the track down some new path. Vibert was the king of this kind of delicate trickery. Learning all these studio tricks was a giant game and was some kind of virtuosity, and every new piece of kit would open up new possibilities. These were the days of hardware samplers, which strongly dictated how you’d go about putting a track together. It took a bit of work to get a nice breakbeat lined up ready for action, and you really had to invest in this setup time, getting your palette together before you started composing. Live sets were a ramshackle affair involving huge amounts of heavy kit and lots of having to load data off floppy disk drives. There was a great scene in London and the UK of really niche producers making bizarre beat-based music, with events such as the Monastery of Sound, held in an old monastery in Normandy and accessed by an overnight coach-ferry. Everyone who went was a musician, there to do a live set. It was more like a mashed-up producers’ conference than a festival. Luke Vibert played, and Paul Hartnoll of Orbital came down and literally played a DAT preview of the new Orbital album one time, complaining that people were already downloading it illegally from the internet (this was the first time I’d heard of such a thing). Those tricks and tropes that I habituated at that time are much more subdued in Tangents but they are still there. The huge difference is that with a full band there is no more plundering of samples, all the source material you’d ever want is there to use.
Segue: I have tried and failed to make myself listen to that Herbie Hancock. It’s not something I can dig at all. On the other hand my love of Plug and the jungle/drum’n’bass/drill’n’bass genre(s) is a strong indicator of why I love Icarus, and connected with them online, resulting in our friendship and ultimately Tangents’ existence!
Four Tet – Rounds [Domino]
This album means an enormous amount to me. Kieran’s work up to this point had already pointed in the direction of what he was doing here, but it wasn’t until this album and the slew of singles, extended versions and remixes that he fully realised the vision. It’s central to a particular type of “folktronica” to me that uses acoustic and live instruments but arranges and treats them in the fashion of electronic music and hip-hop. The glitchy, digital cut’n’paste aesthetic throws unrelated samples into sharp juxtaposition with each other – heavy guitar chords chopped rhythmically in amongst softer tones, for instance. Coming around the same time as The Books’ iconoclastic second album The Lemon of Pink, it’s the sound that defined the early 2000s for me more than anything else.
Naturally, the smashing of live/acoustic with glitchy/digital, of organic improvisation with meticulous studio editing, is a key part of what Tangents do. And Four Tet’s remix of our single “Jindabyne” comes out of a long-term connection – Ollie’s brilliant duo Icarus remixed “My Angel Rocks Back And Forth” off Rounds back in 2004, and while I’d been aware of them before this, it was this incredible reinterpretation that caused me to inhale their back catalogue and get in touch. No doubt Shoeb & I, who’d been geeking out in LiveJournal and email for years before we even met, had also raved about Four Tet, and these connections eventually resulted in us all joining in joyous improvised music-making.
Supersilent – 6 [Rune Grammofon]
Coincidentally released the same year as Rounds (2003), this album sets the standard for me in terms of beautiful, uncompromising improvised music. From the very beginnings of Tangents’ existence (before we were even Tangents), I’ve felt that the extraordinary, eldritch, cohesive sound-world created by these Norwegians was a high watermark to aim for, even though we are mere humans. Spontaneous structures of pure music, with subtle grooves and spectral melody coalescing perfectly from the quantum foam.
We do talk theoretically about improvisation a lot, and for all our reverence and admiration we don’t particularly reference The Necks or Supersilent or anyone else necessarily – but this stuff has to be a part of our musical DNA.
Tortoise + The Ex – In The Fishtank (Lo Recordings)
I could have chosen anything from the extensive Ex back catalogue but I’ll go with my entry point into their music – the In The Fishtank collaboration with Tortoise. Up to the point I discovered it, I was pretty much only listening to indie pop and maybe a handful of Chicago bands (including Tortoise) so seeing this oddity at Canberra’s one and only Landspeed Records meant I thought to myself “I need to wash my mum’s car” so I could pick it up the following month!
Closer to punk rock but without the shackles of what it had become, listening to this beguiling and abstract beast freed me to make a racket without restraint and feel like I had a valid musical voice to put out there, giving me the confidence to pester people like Evan, Peter, Adrian and Ollie to find a place for a fumbling guitarist in their hearts.
The Raincoats – Odyshape (Rough Trade)
Very much a fan of most things quotable in Simon Reynolds’ Rip It Up And Start Again, this one reached my ears many years after first reading about The Raincoats in Nirvana interviews. Beautifully ramshackle, they move away from the scratch’n’jangle vibe of the first album and something full of open space, like an Ali Farka Toure album for me rather than the dub science that is usually mentioned in regards to this and any number of albums from the era.
The first half of the puzzle is that the band took refuge in the sounds of Ornette and Miles during a bleak period of their existence and this inspired the freedom within these songs. The other half is that once Palmolive left, they replaced her recordings with overdubbed percussion from a whole heap of people including Robert Wyatt, Charles Hayward from This Heat and Public Image Ltd’s Richard Dudanski, which allowed an abstract approach to instrumentation and come across as a wilder and looser twin to Eno/Byrne’s My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts.
The Necks – Sex (Fish of Milk)
The masters of mood, simplicity and improvising. I really felt I learnt a lot about nuance and space in music after studying this album. The instrument layering, the patience and production of how and when the overdubs are structured is masterful. In terms of contributing to a group sound, these three know each other and play off each other subtly, all with the greater purpose of the ensemble.
Spartak – Verona (Low Point)
This album and the singles from it show my close allies Evan and Shoeb in great form. I love how they can get the essence of an emotion down on tape. The production is fairly lo-fi on these earlier albums, so you get a sense of the moment, the improvisation and sound of the room. This album shows how comfortable they are experimenting with instruments, effects and structures. Putting Tangents together was very exciting for me because I had been a Spartak fan for so long.
Wayne Shorter: Speak No Evil (Blue Note)
The music Wayne Shorter released between 64-65 was a revelation to me. It was the first Jazz music I felt I could connect with on an emotional level and of course many of these releases have Elvin Jones on drums.
I think it’s the combination of Wayne’s incredible and always unique compositions and the rolling, fluid feel of the rhythm section. Pretty important for me at this time was checking out Elvin Jones in interviews and hearing the way he talked about just playing the songs, to enhance them as best as possible. I was struck that someone with such a complete and unique approach to the drums was still just focusing on the music as a whole.
I also remember Adrian in a Tangents rehearsal playing the bridge to Speak No Evil out of nowhere and saying “it’s all altered scale” – I had no idea.
Autechre: Quaristice (Warp)
This was (and still is) a very important album for me during a period where I couldn’t stand to hear acoustic drums or drummers. The world Autechre can create and the sounds and approach to “beats” had a big effect on me. Electronic musicians have a way of constructing beats that are often counterintuitive to a drum set player. I think because of this I couldn’t get enough of listening to this record back in about 08-09 – It also helped that I found and first listened to the CD in my partner’s collection and was smitten that she had this incredible record.
I also later found out that Peter is possibly the biggest Autechre fan ever. I think you can hear the influence of these albums in Tangents in some ways, but probably best not to think about it.