WORDS: Alex Caslano
“I just feel an immense satisfaction working with sound and music. I'm interested in the unique way that you can lose yourself totally in a piece of sound, to give up all other mental processes and allow yourself to be taken over by it.” It’s in this opening statement that Glaswegian producer Joe Howe perfectly encapsulates what is so appealing about his music. Instantly engaging, his is a sound which escapes the confines of ‘genre’, instead choosing to run riot, unaffected by trends and simple definition. In a word it’s ‘original’, and that’s quite an accomplishment considering anyone with a laptop and a passing interest in production can make electronic music these days.
It is however through the simplified and immediate accessibility of software that Joe has been able to push forward, arguing that too much choice can actually stifle the creative process. “I'm a big advocate of working with what you have to make music. I think that you can make something amazing on a shitty keyboard and four track if you put your mind to it” he suggests. "To be honest, the "gear" arguments largely put me off - I reckon that collecting gear is almost a side-line to the actual composition process and can often distract from making music at all." Working with software production program ‘Cubase’ his entire life, he’s been able to establish an almost intuitive relationship with it, using its relative boundaries to work in his favour. As one of Glasgow’s most exciting artists, it’s certainly served him well, with his new release on Sound Pellegrino, ‘EXEP’, delivering an eight track explosion of motherboard madness to rave review.
Of course, Joe (in his current format), is just the latest in a long line of weird and wonderful projects which have included the likes of Joemus, Gay Against You and perhaps most notably, Ben Butler & Mousepad – all eccentric, all extraordinary and all worth checking out. Now very much part of the Sound Pellegrino family and with a handful of live shows planned for the summer, it’s time to get excited. Joe has plugged into the mainframe and there’s no telling what the results may be…
Check out Joe’s new collaboration with Matthias Zimmerman below, as well as the fantastically weird ‘EXEP’ and an interview in which we talk more about his relationship with sound, the benefits of simplifying production and how he got involved with Sound Pellegrino:
SG: While you only recently started making music under your own name, you’ve actually been involved with a number of various projects, including Ben Butler & Mousepad and Gay Against You; can you start by telling us a little about your first forays into electronic music and how that eventually led you to production?
Joe: I started off (like most people I guess?) with two tape recorders and a cheap keyboard, dubbing scratchy, rubbish tunes back and forth until they became unlistenable. When my family got their first computer (at least one that wasn't just a word processor), I became obsessed with recording little snippets using the inbuilt microphone into a sound recording program intended for system sounds - alerts and so on. This progressed into making cut and paste tracks with Sound Forge - an extension of the same process I guess, as you were literally "pasting" one sound over another to mix them, with the quality getting progressively worse and worse. Finally, (when I started high school) I began working with midi for the first time on an ancient Atari equipped with Cubase (the program I still use now!). I've always gravitated towards composition.
SG: Focusing more on your musical journey, you spent some time in Berlin where you developed Ben Butler & Mousepad. How did the city inspire you as an artist? Is it really this great epicentre of creativity and culture that people rave about?
Joe: Yeah, I kind of moved to Berlin on a bit of a whim after having spent a lot of time there in the few years previous. BB&MP became a band with my pal Bastian Hagedorn and I started working on musical theatrical productions with director Santiago Blaum - we just finished another one (Die Gesichte Vom Soldaten Elik) at the start of this year. Berlin is a funny place, in that most ex-pats who are there live there in order to be creative, so superficially there is a lot going on - this also has a flipside in that people have an idea that anything they do (regardless of quality or relevance) will be admired, sought after, engaged with, merely due to it's association with the city. With music, there are certain scenes that draw a lot of interest (minimal, noise music etc.) but there is so much shit there too, haha. It always feels like home whenever I go back.
SG: Following Berlin you returned to Glasgow to begin a Masters degree in Sound for the Moving Image, are you able to draw any parallels between the two cities? Did you notice any change in Glasgow when you came back?
Joe: Again, the move back to Glasgow was less than intentional. I'd come to the end of my time in Berlin and wanted a change - to be honest I didn't actually expect to settle here again. Saying that, I feel very comfortable here right now. Glasgow and Berlin have some similarities - both being "big" cities in their respective countries, both having some clout outside their own scenes, both having very close knit and tight artistic communities...
I think one of the major things that has changed is in the attention given to Glasgow's electronic music right now; there's a lot of smaller labels and nights that suddenly have more of a national and international reputation, post blow up of Numbers and Luckyme etc.
SG: We’ve mentioned your work in theatre and your degree; how would you describe your relationship with sound? Obviously it goes deeper than simply writing electronic music – are there particular aspects which fascinate you?
Joe: I guess most of all I just feel an immense satisfaction working with sound and music. People talk about getting chills when hearing a particular sequence of notes, or a crescendo; it’s thrilling hearing something unexpected. I'm interested in the unique way that you can lose yourself totally in a piece of sound, to give up all other mental processes and allow yourself to be taken over by it. As a stressy, anxious person, the calm it offers is very appealing.
SG: So your first EP as Joe Howe is the wonderful ‘EXEP’ on super-charged French label Sound Pellegrino – how did you get involved with those guys? Were they an obvious choice to release your music?
Joe: The Snd.Pe thing came about through me sending them a track for the Dropbox episode of their podcast. I'd been a fan of TTC in the early 2000's and had followed their stuff ever since. Anyway, they played out (and reviewed) a piece I’d written pretty much for them ('Dream D', on EXEP) on the show which was very cool to hear. A bit later, I got an email asking to submit something else to their new compilation, Snd.Pe vol. 1. I panicked and worried that I didn't have enough club-ready material to hand and sent maybe five pieces. The next email exchange suggested these five pieces should be part of an EP. In the end, most of them made the final cut but I couldn't resist sending newer stuff in the meantime, so EXEP was made up of three of those original pieces, with five 'new' productions. Shout outs to Teki, Orgasmic, Emile, Nicolas and Matthias.
SG: If we talk a little about ‘EXEP’, it wouldn’t be exaggerating describing it as some of the most original electronic music out there at the moment; where do you even start with writing something like that? Are there ideas which just come to you? Do you get really drunk and just start messing about?
Joe: Haha, thank you. In my head this stuff is the most straightforward music I've ever released; I’m glad it still comes across as original. I mostly get an idea for a chord sequence, like the repeated cycle of fourths back to the root chord in 'Good Morning, Vocoder' for example, and work from there. The recording and editing process is very lucid and clear, and usually I like to try and finish a piece as quickly as possible from the time it's started - I'll usually find the shape of the whole piece in a day, then spend longer working on sounds and structure, adding elements until it's finished.
SG: What we love about ‘EXEP’ (other that the sheer quirkiness of it all) is how spontaneous and alive it sounds. We went back and read an interview in which you said most of your music is produced through software; has that changed over the last few years and what are using now to create your favourite sounds?
Joe: Yeah, I'm still making most of my stuff in the computer these days. I've done a couple of all-analogue things (like the ‘WORM EP’ and bits of the Frearson-Howe album) at WORM studios in Rotterdam, but I would say that what you’re hearing is that most parts in my music are "played". I tend to use Cubase as a luxury four track recorder nowadays, playing all the various elements in by hand. The end result is largely unchanged (aside from editing and effects etc.) from that starting point.
I'm a big advocate of working with what you have to hand to make music. I think that you can make something amazing on a shitty keyboard and four track if you put your mind to it and work hard on it. To be honest, the "gear" arguments largely put me off (although I'll admit to a certain amount of synth-envy every now and then) - I reckon that collecting gear is almost a side-line to the actual composition process and can often distract from making music at all.
SG: Finally, can you tell us about some of your plans for Joe Howe? Have you performed any live shows yet? You’ve got a track coming out with Matthias Zimmermann, what’s that like?
Joe: I'm working on a whole bunch of new stuff just now, some of which is following on from ‘EXEP’ and some of which feels like quite a departure for me - that’s the handy thing about releasing stuff under my own name. After a long break, I've got my first proper live shows coming up this summer - at the moment there's a couple in Glasgow, one in Paris and one in Denmark (check the SP website for details!).
Joe Howe ‘EXEP’ is out now on Sound Pellegrino. His collaboration with Matthias Zimmerman is also available now on Snd.Pe Vol.03. Catch Joe Howe live as part of SynthGlagsow Presents at Simple Things Festival on Nov 1st.