Pattern Recognition Machines are the Melbourne duo of Sam Price (Drums) and Vijay Thillaimuthu (Modular Synthesiser, Electronics). They’ve just released their second album Defunct, after 2012’s Ghost Frame. Their totally improvised music is bombastic and unexpected, moving and evolving in totally unexpected and unique ways, a really different amalgamation of styles and approaches from krautrock to jazz to experimental electronics. They call it ‘death jazz’ – which feels pretty apt. Thillaimuthu is probably best known via his synthetic audio visual project Xenosine, whilst Price has a duo Peon with Ronny Ferella, and solo work such as 2015’s Jindabyne. We were pretty blown away by the energy and sheer inventiveness of Defunct so we took the opportunity to find out more from the duo.
Cyclic Defrost: Can you tell me how Pattern Recognition Machines came into being?
Sam: Oh blimey, I have memories of taking my first electroacoustic performance rig out, running SuperCollider on an RT Linux laptop setup, dealing with memory leaks etc and doing gigs where Vijay was playing. He was making big soundscapes so effortlessly in comparison. He obviously had an ear for the overarching outcome without any hint of the performance being a re-hash of some kind, we had to play together. This would have been 2009? We made our first record, Ghost Fame, in what was then my shed in 2011.
Vijay: I certainly remember having a ‘what the hell is going on here?’ type moment watching Sam play. Ludicrously realised percussive chops with the intuition and engineering skill to match. Our efforts collaboratively did not disappoint! Admittedly Sam makes my job easy, that is once I have tapped his kinetic potential…
Cyclic Defrost: It feels very loose and improvised. How would you describe the interplay between the two of you? To what extent do you discuss what you may or may not play before you begin?
Sam: Our work is entirely improvised in terms of what is played. I have noted that people can have questions about to what extent electronics are improvised but the issue is moot; few people expect me to set my drum kit as part of the performance itself, so it is with an electronic milieu, a patch is created prior to performance and then explored in performance. Discussion is minimal prior to playing, this is a musical problem solving endeavour. The timbre of the sound will often dictate events as much as anything else and the timbres of Defunct are, to my ears, pretty chunky.
Vijay: Yes, I create the patch pretty much on the spot before we play though it can be subject to change throughout the performance/session. While I have some idea of what its capabilities may be, I certainly have no idea how I will use it to traverse the following territory. There is no map, much less a script. We certainly wouldn’t end up in some of the strange places we do if there were. We like to fall through the cracks of what we could possibly envision and see where that takes us.
Cyclic Defrost: I think a little bit about the value of ideas in improvised music. Music ‘in the moment’ can still be either good or bad or something in between, just like notated composed music. I imagine some of the music you have created didn’t make it to Defunct and is now on the cutting room floor. How do you make decisions about what made it onto Defunct?
Sam: Defunct was the first live session recorded in my then newly-built studio. Anything recorded in my studio gets mixed with the usual DSP (eq, compression, reverb etc) but the temporal order of recorded events is never messed with as to edit in such a manner is the best way to kill music. Not that I haven’t enjoyed plenty of ‘cut and paste’ records in my time but nowadays, I seek music that sounds like it has a will to exist and a computer operator’s determinism in restructuring events (after the fact of recording) can only get in the way of what the music needed to be. For Defunct most of the recorded material where one of us didn’t stop abruptly with a wish to try something else made it to the record. I struggled with the mix for a while, I wanted the big sound I heard when recording to translate to the master and needed to mess around a fair bit with compression schemes. Once the sonics were sorted, the intrinsic value of the recording was evident to us both. Value regimes in improvised music aren’t so different from those of other music I suspect. Music itself is an abstraction of sound sui generis and use and exchange value are societal impositions that can cloud the issue but I trust my intuitions and those of my collaborators implicitly; Pattern Recognition Machines have recorded material that hasn’t made it to release.
Cyclic Defrost: You could have just wailed away at the electrics, played some scattered beats throughout and called it art music, but that’s not what I’m hearing. It feels like you’re very rooted in creating music – admittedly weird music, but you’re not afraid of a groove.
Vijay: I do find it fascinating that in pockets of the experimental sound/avante garde/improv world, something developing a rhythmic meter can lower its perceived value. Meanwhile it is captivating to those that do not subscribe to this particular preoccupation. Being able to subvert expectations on both sides of this divide becomes the ideal place to be, particularly while trying to keep something alive and moving in the space between becoming repetitive and disintegrating. Biology has a meter and we (as pattern recognition machines) are drawn to such, I can’t see why we shouldn’t take advantage of this!
Sam: Yup, sounds about right; too noisy for music music, too musical for noise music :) Groove is a celebration of the body and it does seem odd to me that improvised music has built an association with cerebral outcomes. But, in post-modernity, groove is often employed as a denial of death, sustained through artificial means. Groove occurs on Defunct when we align to have it happen, mutating into something else, always towards finality, the point of ending that gives meaning to existence.
Cyclic Defrost: What made you name your album Defunct? It hardly feels optimistic.
Vijay: The name Pattern Recognition Machines may seem suggestive of artificial intelligence, and indeed there is a level of intelligence in the systems we create and deploy for the purposes of creating music. As mentioned however, the name primarily refers to our species as the ultimate pattern recognition machines. In reference to this name, Defunct is perhaps suggestive of our species becoming obsolete in light of whatever will succeed us. However, I immediately associate the word with the supposedly ‘defunct’ technologies I often utilise in my creative processes. If something loses its functional purpose, it’s worth can no longer be quantified in the same way. It can of course become far more valuable than it ever was however, with the very imperfections that were later eradicated becoming the exact thing that makes something meaningful. If humans become defunct and cannot be seen in terms of units of labour, that could obviously be a great thing. It did of course cross my mind in the midst of this COVID-19 pandemic that artists having been officially declared as ‘non-essential’ has rendered us all defunct. Whatever the case, I am not sure the name Defunct is optimistic but the music itself transcends this as a celebration of the ephemeral.
Cyclic Defrost: Is Defunct much different to your live performances?
Vijay: We certainly feed off the atmosphere in live performances and enjoy working in different acoustic spaces, especially when utilising powerful sound systems. Adrenaline certainly plays a role, as does the notion that we have to make it work in the moment on some level. There is no option to stop and try something else. Studio sessions afford us a greater level of control of the sound which is a mixed blessing. We are faced with the decisions around what we want it to be whereas in the moment of the performance, it just simply is. Sounds like Sam has for this reason put in some healthy creative limitations in not disturbing the sequence of events. In some ways the allure of the studio is the greater potential to take risks and be less invested in the outcomes, meaning you will follow something to its conclusion for where it might go rather than making decisions strategically for the best chance of creating something cohesive. I guess you’ll have to come see us when this is all over to find out!
Cyclic Defrost: It sounds like fun. Is it? Why?
Sam: So much fun! On this recording, I was just playing drums and engineering the recording date. Not playing or controlling any electronics of my own was a good call, given the novelty of my studio setup. It was also the first recording session with a Briechle custom drum set that I had made for me. This gave me access to fatter drum sounds that I was previously using and I can hear how much I’m enjoying the sound of these drums with Vijay’s rich synthesis. Also, he’s using synth triggering techniques that I’ve previously employed (circa Jindabyne) but with a far greater degree of sophistication in their ability to be changed over time, so I felt at home exploring this environment with him whilst discovering and reacting in real-time to all the cool stuff he was doing. He could no doubt tell you more about that..
Vijay: What was really amazing that can be heard on this recording was Sam’s ability to sense the velocity necessary to trigger certain sounds and know how much impact he can make before hitting that threshold. He took control of certain aspects of my system, leaving me to focus on holistic approaches to the unfolding composition and where my voice sits in that. There is never a dull moment playing together and the territory feels endlessly expansive. There is definitely a great energy in this collaboration. Listening back to this album makes me want to push this even further.
Cyclic Defrost: For Vijay: Can you talk about your modular setup? Is it the mobile one you use for Xenosine? To what extent have you adapted your tools/approach for this project?
Vijay: I believe this recording has both the ‘Xenosine touring rig’ and also a Buchla 200 series inspired system I put together. The Xenosine case contains the modules that make up the theremin controlled synth voice I usually wire up for live performances (in some iteration or another). There are some percussion specific aspects in this case however that I either don’t use or repurpose in strange ways when playing in PRM. The flexibility of modular synthesiser systems is one of their major strengths. I can use the same system for a whole range of diverse outcomes. I do have particular patches however that I have developed through working with Sam. I expand on them each time we play in conjunction with my voice (non trigger controlled aspects) and whatever else I want to try out at the time.
Cyclic Defrost: For Vijay: How difficult is it to be responsive in the moment with modular/ electronics?
Vijay: I guess I have been building systems to do this for over ten years, so by now it feels very intuitive (as one would hope I guess). I have always needed my sound to be generated in the moment during live performance and in collaboration with other artists. It just does not feel sincere to me otherwise. In the world of modular synthesis every possible parameter creating the sound is immediately tweakable. I can then automate whatever aspect I like based on further tweakable function generators (which can themselves be controlled by any other part of the synth) and make particular functions kinetically controlled via theremin, sensors etc. The possibilities are just endless. Ultimately however, I don’t want to have to think too much about what I need to do to make a certain sound, it should be readily available at my fingertips to be summoned and explored as required. This is why I tend to keep patching on the fly to a minimum. It is better to work within limitations then shift out of the ‘flow’ state of improvisation. I also find it is important to have aleatoric elements in the system. Reacting against these rogue elements keeps things exciting and creates interesting outcomes.
Cyclic Defrost: For Sam: What are the differences you find from your other projects such as Peon?
Sam: Peon is essentially about two drummers playing together, finding ways to explore the language of the drums. We’re both interested in electronics and other instrumentation so they feature too but the sonic heritage of the drum set and it’s improv possibilities are really what’s up for grabs. I have a project called Taken By Fish that has a record on Bandcamp. We’re into improvising songs in both content and form, things that would support repetition but that we’re not going to play again, an idea I used to mine in my solo practice. In terms of solo stuff, I’m really focused on reaction to place using audio-visual improvisations as a reflection on the Anthropocene. I think all these things, like Pattern Recognition Machines, are united in their approach to the prioritisation of the now (the actual) as a celebration of spirit.
Cyclic Defrost: For Sam: How did you approach Vijay’s electronics? Did you have anything in mind when considering what to play?
Sam: For this recording, nothing in mind prior to hitting a drum and hearing the sound that came through my headphones. A big smile on my face would likely ensue and we’d start playing together. The dynamics required to trigger (or not) a given sound are a natural part of how I play so there isn’t any big change required when playing with Vijay, the man’s got ears. I’m not claiming to be creating exclusively ex-nihilo, clearly the drums are both a musical and cultural touchstone with a well-documented history and expectations can be subverted accordingly (but not entirely negated). However, as Vijay mentioned when discussing his electronics, there has to be scope for aleatoric and systemic uncertainty for there to be a hope of sparks flying. The only preparation for this that is worth investing in for me is instrumental and mental practice, trying to increase one’s access to possibilities so that the music can go to new places.
Cyclic Defrost: How are you both coping with the lockdown? Has it caused any kind of re-evaluation of your approach to music, or what you value? Is it weird releasing music in this kind of environment?
Sam: Somewhat strange releasing music in this environment but the lockdown ‘gave’ me the time to finish the mix. I haven’t streamed anything yet as, given the corporeal nature of the music, I don’t want to water down the experience. This may change if I can muster the gear and techniques to do it justice. Otherwise, any re-evaluation is more a confirmation of the primacy of our communal experience. The rite of music. In a space. Together. Am looking forward to that happening once more.
Vijay: Honestly it reminds me of how my creative practice began… having time to tinker away at whatever misguided whim… this has been both productive and therapeutic considering the situation. Naturally I now spend much more time in the studio working on recordings for release than I would moving between live performance outcomes. I recently did a livestream from my studio that was broadcast on Triple R radio which I think was quite successful. My approach varied in that it became about making a cohesive experience through the limitations of the medium rather than being geared towards creating intense multi-sensory experiences. The benefit over a live performance was that you could watch everything I was doing to make the sounds being heard, somewhat demystifying my role. Releasing the album during this challenging time seems appropriate to me, I hope that it offers people some respite and joy!
You can find Defunct here.