Darwin: Okay. Today, I have a chance to talk to somebody who I've been listening to for a long time. His name is Robin Rimbaud. Some people - many people will know him as Scanner. That is an artist name that he's used for ages. I remember - way back when - just completely geeking out on the releases that he had back when I was like a geek coder in a cubicle in Milwaukee, I'd be sitting there just totally flipping out at what this guy was putting out. And, his work continues to amaze and continues to be enjoyable. So I'm really excited to have a chance to talk with him on a podcast. So with no more ado, let's talk to Robin. Hey Robin, how's it going?
Robin Rimbaud: Hey, hello. Nice to be here.
Darwin: So great to have you. I don't want to come across like too much of a super fan. I'm kind of a super fan, just because your work was a part of my life at a time when my ears and my brain was expanding to take in a lot of different music, and you were pushing the envelope in a way that I needed in my life at that time. So I do appreciate that. But one of the things that I love is that, right up to now, I am just completely enjoying the work that you're putting out. I just recently did a scan and was playing around with listening to some of your catalog. And I kinda got into the most recent release I had access to, which is the Signal Of A Signal Of A Signal. It was just gorgeous stuff. Can you tell me a little bit about what your focus is - your artistic focus right now and what kind of work that you're really zeroing in on right now?
Robin: It's a difficult question, isn't it? Because I mean, the one thing I've never done, if I can answer it in this way to begin with, is follow the traditional model of how a creative person works. And there is a fairly traditional model, which is even the most exploratory artists seem to make some kind of a product - whether it's a sculpture or a photograph or a record or a CD, whatever it may be - and then release it in some fashion and then promote it. And that's usually the last thing I do. I tend to say yes to any projects that appears or conversations that open up where I have no idea what they're going to be. so in the last 18 months, that's included projects that have been such things as working with the 'code of soil' and working with an artist, looking at the pH levels in soil throughout Europe and developing a project which looks at the sound and the impact of the soil on our wellbeing and our lives.
So that was a very big art project, which is actually still ongoing, actually going to be showing a version of it in Berlin in an installation in the summer. And I think Denmark somewhere later this year, so those kinds of projects are always on the go. I am working on a VR project with a very large American computer company, which for the moment has been paused - a huge pause button for lots of people. But that's a very exciting thing because that's working with the gigantic ambitious idea with an Israeli artist and we're collaborating on a project that will be happening, but it's just kind of, as I say, on that pause button. But I'm drawn to making things that reach out to me in a sense in that they challenge me and I don't know quite what to do, but also they reach towards a new audience.
So I'm always drawn to something which allows me to make something so that suddenly there's people listening and experiencing this work they would never otherwise have heard, you know? So any opportunity to do that is appealing. So it may be a writer comes to me and says, "Hey, I'm writing, Oh, I'm working on a novel, I'm writing an essay for..." I had one, for example, for the Economist magazine, a fairly innocuous magazine in a sense. And they came to me and said, we have a, an essay. So could you illustrate it with sound? So I thought, what a great idea. So not you don't just read the article online. If you're a subscriber or read the magazine, you actually get a chance to listen to it in a way. And those kinds of opportunity opportunities are really appealing because I come in blind in a sense, and I'm not quite sure where they're going to go to.
So when you ask me that question, my life usually depends upon an email from a stranger or a random conversation, or me inventing an idea. For example, I had an idea last week when I was sleeping and thought - in my dream, I was walking on the sand by the water and I thought, wouldn't it be great if you had words printed on the soles of your shoes, and then you could walk through the sand and write different sentences. And if there was a group of you, you could actually rather like those fridge magnets that lots of people have - they play these games. I thought, wouldn't it be fun if you could actually do that with your shoes. And then you could actually make all these different soles that you change with different words on. So that's how my dreams work sometimes. So, ideas come from all manner of places. And, to answer a simple question, "I don't know!" is usually my standard answer because I never quite know what's happening next.
Darwin: Right. And it's interesting because that you say it that way, because whether it's following your exploits when they show up on social media, or if we go to scannerdot.com, which is your blog feed, or whatever - it actually could be a full time job just trying to figure out what the hell you're doing, because you do have a lot of irons in the fire. And it does seem like, I dunno, on one hand it looks like it could be Short Attention Span Theater, because maybe you get bored with one thing and you want to jump to the next, but I would say the other thing that's interesting is when you go and sample the different works, even when it's like broadly different stuff, there's always a voice that sounds like you. You're bringing yourself to these projects rather than just tiptoeing in someone else's garden, right?
Robin: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, probably one of the strangest I've had in the last week was an invitation from a curator in San Francisco to design a mask for COVID-19, but to design a mask that reflects my own kind of aspect, my own approach. So I'm looking at a kind of surveillance mask, which actually hides your face. And actually, I mean, it's going to be a real mask. This isn't just an imaginary thing. Somebody is actually making this, but it's going to be a mask that actually maps the movement of sound during your day in the sort of material on the front of the mask. So it has a breathing apparatus that allows you to breathe properly, but also protects you with a filter, but also actually hides your face. But actually from a certain angle, there are lines going through it, the map, the routes of your day, where you've been during the day. So then it will erase at the end of the day, and then begin the next day. So it's a very playful thing, but in some ways, yes, it still connects with many ideas that fascinate me - ideas of stories, ideas of voices, ideas of mapping the city, these kinds of things, which have been around in all my projects largely.
Darwin: Right, right. So true. And, in this kind of audio mapping, I mean, the name Scanner, it really does talk about your beginnings - where you caught people's attention by grabbing information that was freely floating through the radio waves and utilizing that as source material. And it was interesting because it was a really weird combination of a music concrete style assemblage, but also it was informed a lot by sort of hip hop and techno sampling techniques and all this stuff, or at least that's the way I read it. It's interesting that that has become, maybe, an almost emotional tie-line, even as you've moved into other sort of ways of expressing yourself.
Robin: No, it's a very good response. I appreciate that because I remember arguing very early on with what I was doing in the sort of late eighties, early nineties was to suggest that even if you don't like this kind of work or you find it wrong - morally bankrupt, in that I was listening to other people's mobile phone conversations and then recording them or broadcasting them during a live performance. But if anything, if it brought to light the ideas and conversations about surveillance and conversations about privacy, that in itself could offer a validity to the work I've felt, it wasn't necessarily to sell a product. I found at that time, what I was trying to do to be quite honest was I was using voices in works I've made since I was a teenager.
And when I came across the scanner itself, I thought, "Wow, this is fantastic!" - because I can get really good recordings of complete strangers and they'd be there. And they arrive to me without any history. I have no idea who these people are and therefore you have to embed your own imagination around them and try and work out who they are, what their background is. And literally from the first moment, that always appealed to me, but I thought it wasn't a very conscious decision: "Hey, let me do something controversial." It was simply because it worked, the technology enabled this process to happen. I think, you find that probably in lots of your conversations, you talk to people and you don't necessarily plan something out. It's just the conjunction of one or two things lead to a third thing. It's like a kind of science in a way.
And so yeah, that body of work still has a relevance. In fact, I would argue has just as much relevance today as it ever did. we live in a strange society, a quite unsettling moment at this, at this present time. And the very issues of public and private space are ever more relevant. Smartphones, back in the late eighties, early nineties, were only really possessed by fairly wealthy people or your local drug dealer. And today pretty much everybody that we know has one, but those conversations don't seem to exist anymore. The kind of vulnerability of private information, people are still quite willing to give all their information away on social networks as we know and so on. So for me, I still find these kinds of conversations and ideas quite fascinating and relevant to our lives today.
Darwin: Right. It's amazing to think of how, at the time when you were, using a scanner to pull this stuff in, technology was really open for you to be able to do that. But additionally, it was a time where a lot of people weren't really thinking too extensively about surveillance, about privacy issues, or at least not nearly as much as we're confronted with today. Right now, I live just outside of Minneapolis, Minnesota, which is Ground Central for some some really scary social and political unrest - and the state's response to that, which makes people extremely aware of the sort of surveillance state that exists. I mean, people in Great Britain are already pretty familiar with the 100% camera coverage that exists in certain parts of the country. I mean, it's a scary state that we find ourselves in, but one that seemingly we walked into voluntarily.
Robin: It's true. I mean, what's interesting with all these things, I suppose, is where the vulnerability lies is the spaces in between. So for us, for example, if I was to send you something in the mail, the vulnerability lies in that process, somewhere in between where somebody opens your mail has a look through it, checks it out, removes something, if they want to, or whatever. The same with the internet, we send something to each other that can be intercepted. There used to be a machine that was on sale - I remember seeing that in a shop that would actually intercept faxes. So it's role was literally to intercept the fax that I sent to you so I could check it out before it gets to you, which is an extraordinary in a device that somebody invented. But, today we take it for granted that this stuff happens, but people don't always consider it, argue against it, but there are factions that do rebel against it and think this is the wrong thing.
We do need this private space, too. And so, many projects I continue to make do focus on those issues. And there I am talking about making a mask, that actually still reflects those kinds of fascinations because participating in this part of society is really important. And you have a responsibility as a creative person that's making work publicly. And I still feel that, people can become terribly lethargic about how we respond to things in the world. I mean, at this moment in time, no matter what opinion one has about it, it's incredibly thrilling in some senses to see people respond and actually act, my disappointment for years was when I was a student in the eighties. I remember we used to go to marches that were called Rock Against Racism. And there were all these kinds of gigs happening, it was people like Elvis Costello and The Specials, and a lot of Ska bands and all kinds of things.
And it was incredibly exciting to be part of that in a sense. And for some years I felt that maybe a younger generation didn't have the same commitment, but actually what's been demonstrated to me in recent weeks has been that kind of dynamic has been very exciting. Whether you agree with the stance that people take or not, I think it's incredibly empowering to see people take this on and try and fight against systems that they feel are not right, and are not deemed to be acceptable today. And so, in many ways, my work is not politicized, but there's that sensibility that sits behind it still, I don't overtly promote things, but what I tried to do is generate ideas, I suppose, and get people thinking. So many projects I've made have been about questioning and opening up places for people to think about things a little bit more.
And it's just not always heavily based on things like surveillance and these kinds of things. There are lighter touches obviously, but in collaboration and all manner of ways, you can lead to conversations that might otherwise never have happened. And actually just lead to a point where people get thinking, which is ever so important because people sometimes feel that they don't have a voice, or they can't think about things or share their opinions. And for me, I'm interested in other people's opinions. I'm interested in what they may think of. When I started out, I remember I used to read all the music papers. I used to go to the local news agent and flick through the magazines, looking for reviews of works of mine - the way that one does. And I haven't done that in years. I lost interest. I thought, "Okay, everybody has an opinion and let them like it or dislike it." It doesn't really matter, but I'm going to continue fighting my way forward and seeing what where it leaves me.
Darwin: So interesting. Now there's a whole bunch of stuff there I want to talk more about, but before we do that, one of the things I like doing in my podcast is talking to people about their background and how they got to be the artists they are. And you dropped a couple of nuggets there in the discussion about things that were interesting to you when you were younger - things that you saw and interacted with when you were in college and stuff like that. I'm curious, where, where are you coming from? What is it that got you to be the artists you are? Because, quite frankly, very early in your music making career, you were doing things that were very avant garde, but also placed or contextualized within a sort of popular form of music. You came around at a time when techno and raving and that kind of stuff was a great launching pad for people that were trying something new and different. But I'm curious about what was the setup that got you there?
Robin: It's funny, isn't it? I played a show in Brighton in the UK last year, the end of last year, and this fellow came up to me and he said, "Hey, Robin, how are you?" And I thought, "Okay, just someone wants to talk to me after the show." It turned out we'd gone to school together from the age of 11. And I remembered him shortly afterwards, but it was that moment of "Wow!" And he said, "I remember when we went to school together, you're always talking about doing all these things when you were older and here you are doing them." And I thought, "Was I really that pretentious?" And it was amazing to think because one thing that this whole pandemic situation has allowed many people to do is kind of pause for a moment, but also to rethink and reevaluate.
And so what it's allowed me to do is work through my archive. So I've got boxes and boxes of cassettes and tapes and reel-to-reels and CDRs and all manner of things. And I've actually digitized pretty much everything as of yesterday, I finished it. And that means there's 850 films of live concerts and interviews and those kinds of things. There are 60 hours of four track recordings. There are 600 hours of DAT tapes. This doesn't mean that any of this is any good, I should add. I'm just giving you numbers. But basically what it shows is quite remarkable in a way. And I don't mean that to sound boastful, but since a very early age, I was playing around with tape recorders and not with any ambition of becoming an "artist" or anything like that - but simply because I could do it.
We had a cheap tape recorder, just a two track tape recorder. You could record something, you could rewind it, you could forward it, you could record over yourself, but you couldn't overdub or anything like that. It literally meant all you could do is record what was happening in real time. So my brother used to record the football off television. I would do things like record my school friends, I'd record the school bus. I recorded our holidays - we didn't have cameras in those days because they were too expensive. So I used to record our holiday trips. So, sitting on the train, talking to the family and so on, and it's quite remarkable to rediscover those tapes. My brother's tapes go back to about 19. He passed away five years ago. So those tapes go back to about 1977.
I was 12 years old. And in some ways it's like looking at an amazing photographs. I can remember the sound of those rooms. I can remember the echo of those spaces. And when I was 15 at school, certainly in the UK, we used to have what they called careers lessons - and they were fantastic. I went to an all-boys school. So essentially it meant that a fireman would come in one week, or a policeman. And they talked to us for half an hour and say, "Okay, lads, when you're older, you can become a copper like me." And at the end of the session, we had to fill out a form and say what we wanted to do. And so this is a good demonstration that I can still remember this. I remember writing on the form and it said, what occupation Robin do you wish to follow? And I said, "I wish to escape the accretions of contemporary work life."
I mean, what we'd say here is "What a Winker!", basically. And, my school teacher just scoffed and said, "Look, you have to write what you really want to do." So I just wrote 'journalist', because my father had been a journalist and I thought I'd just do that because it keeps them quiet, but I had no idea - but what I knew quite young, what I wanted to do was to work with creative, let's call them 'things'. But not one thing; I wanted to be moving in between them because I was going to gigs very young, but I was also going to museums and galleries, and I was reading a lot of books. I studied literature at university. So I was interested in all of these kinds of connecting points between the words, between the images, between the music - and music is the one thing that was uppermost.
I suppose, when I got a four track... My English teacher at school, when I was 15, gave me a four track recorder - a TEAC. And that allowed me suddenly to move from having just like a mono tape, essentially, which is one thing that followed another. Suddenly I could play with time: instead of one thing following another, or one thing going on top of another or going over something else. Now I could put things on top of each other and suddenly time expanded. I could suddenly do the wildest things - I could make tape loops. So I used to do a fun thing. I used to make a long type loop - a long piece of tape between two bottles - and hang a microphone out of my bedroom window and just leave it recording. And we lived on a quiet street in London and I literally would record the sound of just somebody walking past or a car or a bicycle.
And these would build up over hours. And at the end of the day, I'd switch the machine off, go to bed and do the same the next day. And what's funny recently, I just repaired my four track cassette deck. This Fostex 280 machine I had from the eighties and it's full of all my old tape loops. And it's so bizarre to hear, things that are 30 plus years old. And to hear where I was. So in a way, very early on, I'd formulated what I wanted to do, but it's not as if I could go to the careers office locally and ask for a job "...that sits between the spectrum of sound, music and literature, please, anything like that." But then I was always doing stuff, and have been influenced... I had a good music teacher at school who played us things like John Cage and Henry Cow and all these kinds of things.
I had no idea what this was. I was listening to pop music and Queen and Status Quo and Thin Lizzy when I was a very young boy, because that's what my brother listened to, but I was always interested in the, let's call it, the weird stuff. My mother recommended this dance show on TV and said I'd really enjoy it because it featured lots of people throwing themselves against the wall. And in fact, it was a work by the German choreographer Pina Bausch, who then, of course, I went to see live because I thought, "Wow, this has to be, exciting that she does this kind of wild work that my mother doesn't approve of. It must be good!" What's interesting was exposing myself to dance meant that I went to see composers like David Tudor, who was working with John Cage.
And in that way, I met John Cage when I was a teenager and those kinds of moments and those kinds of things are quite pivotal. And at the same time, I was very interested in visual art. So I went to hear people at Joseph Boyce, the German artist talk at the VNA museum in London. I went to see an artist, Stuart Brisly, a British artists, give a talk at the ICA in London. So I was extremely active, just no girlfriend, literally going out to all these things outside of school.
Darwin: What age are we talking about here? What age were you at?
Robin: Sort of 16 to 18. That age. So, going to see as many of these things as possible, and it's - there was no game plan, so to speak, I had no ambitions of being 'famous' or successful.
What I was interested in was ideas. And I was always interested in the idea of curating ideas, and a little bit like your podcast works in a sense, which is to involve a whole different group of people. And each one offers a different story in a way, and a different approach. And what I was interested in is it was making things happen that maybe people would be interested in, but more than anything, it was about expressing myself. You know? So I literally went to university, studied literature, but I was still making music and I left university and I worked in a bookshop. And then I worked in a music library and I began making works. That became more successful. Like the Scanner work when I still had a job. And I started to do things like phone in sick to my job.
And the worst moment was once playing at the Sonar Music Festival in Barcelona and returning to work, having phoned in sick. And people said, "You look well, Robin." And of course I'd been in Barcelona with extreme sun. One of those moments. So then I thought maybe it's time to leave. And that was about 25 years ago or so. And so far it's worked. I'm always struck that things continue. I'm really struck. I mean, I've never worked with an agent, a live agent, a manager, a record label. I've always been quite fiercely independent. And I enjoy that freedom of being able to slip between the cracks and make these projects happen without having to discuss it with anybody. I can make these things happen and think if I can make the time and I want to make it happen and I have the inclination and the enthusiasm, and then let's just do it.
Darwin: Well, that's actually interesting that you say that because... I'll look behind the curtain for the listeners a little bit. Sometimes the people I interview, I initially get the reach out from a publicist or an agent or something like that. In the case of Robin, over the years, I've actually had a number of people - individuals - be like, "I talked to Robin at, at Superbooth and he's a really nice guy and you ought to talk to him!" Philippe Petit, the person that most recently introduced us. He was like, "You just gotta talk because you just have to talk." It's really interesting that this fiercely independent thing also makes you more accessible to people in a really unique way. I think it's cool.
Robin: Absolutely. I mean, for me, I've always tried to respond on emails and everything to anybody, even if it's a student writing to me, I always try my best. If I can. In my experience, there were figures who had great meaning for me, you know? And there were people like John Cage. I went to see John Cage every single time he was in London, he'd give a talk. And I remember once being at a talk at the, a Meter Music Festival in London, in the eighties, and at the end of the talk, the janitor of the building came in and said, "Excuse me...", and started switching off the lights. "We have to finish now because the building's closing." and Cage said, "Okay, why don't we we'll go to the pub across the road?" And we carry on the conversation. And to me, I thought that was absolutely magnificent.
It wasn't somebody who was just interested in promoting themselves or making a living like this. They were genuinely interested in sharing ideas and engaging in them. And those moments were so pivotal in my upbringing. And so to this day, that's what's really important - that you respond to people and you act with great respect and you're very friendly to them as well. There's always that cliche of - what is it they say, "You've got to be nice to the people on the way up, because on the way down, they could remember how mean you were." And, I try my best, you try your best to be a good person like we all do. And there's no reason to become arrogant or pompous about these things. I simply do what I do.
It's fine if you don't like what I do. I mean, I'm not a bad person, but you don't have to like what my output. It's a strange role to be in, as I said, you know, at the beginning of the conversation, that kind of freedom and actually just doing things because you want to, can lend themselves to fantastic opportunities that if you were working, let's say with a manager or a publisher, you might never have the opportunity because they might judge things upon money. And I've never judged things financially. I've never thought I'm going to do this because they have a big budget or small budget. I do it because I want to, and some projects have good budgets, some projects I work on have no budgets at all, but can live for years and years; all the early work, certainly there was no money to be made in any of that stuff.
And the ambition wasn't to make money. It was simply because I could do it. And I thought maybe somebody would be interested in it. I have no ambitions of setting up a label. I set up this label called Ash International with Mike Harden, from the British label called Touch. And we set this thing up to release unusual projects. And I brought to the table, not only the Scanner works, but I bought Runaway Train, which is a recording of a train from the early part of last century, a 27-minute piece of just the communications between the train driver and the headquarters as the train gets faster and faster. So it's a bit like the film Speed, right. But on a train and it's real. So we did that. We released another record of just airline pilots, communication, just basically "Over...", this kind of thing. And it's because you could do it. And I saw them as great art projects as well. I thought: let's see how far we can go with this, and kind of got away with it in a sense.
Darwin: Right. Well, it's interesting though, because almost more than anyone I've ever interviewed, it sounds to me like you had a real organic move from listening to Queen and Thin Lizzy to embracing a Cage like a curiosity about the world in the art and art within it.
Robin: I'm curious. Curiosity is a good word. Can I say that's a great word to use actually curiosity. I love it.
Darwin: Yeah. And, some of it sounds like prompting from your parents. Some of it sounds like your location and the availability of like going to see John Cage when he was around, but also sort of a willingness to put yourself in that position. I think it's something - the reason I asked before, about what age was this when you were embedding yourself into some of these things is because a lot of times that 16 through 20 age period is a time where people are like almost grotesquely self-obsessed, and worried about other people's opinions of them. So all of a sudden it's like, "Well, I don't want to be the weird guy...", or else "I want to be the weird guy." And it's really interesting to me, the way that you just found a way to allow yourself to move in this direction. So it's seemed like a really organic shift. A lot of times when I talk to people, it's like, "I was just like trucking along listening to Queen. And then all of a sudden I heard this Morton Subotnick piece or something. And then that changed everything!" It sounds to me like your change was sort of almost like over the course of your teens almost.
Robin: I mean, the curious thing is I've kept a diary since I was 12 years old and I've never missed a day. So every single day since I was 12 is down on paper. So I can actually go back and I used to write down all the books I was reading, all the films I saw, the exhibitions, the concerts I went to. And so in many ways I can go back and look and see how pretentious I was and see what was working, what wasn't working. But it's the organic aspect I've realized has been very true. I mean, I discovered Stockhausen the composer simply by being on a train and coming home one night from a concert or the cinema or something. And this fellow in front of me had this huge score open on his lap. And in those days, the trains, the London underground was designed differently and you sat very directly opposite someone.
And he opened up this book had no idea what it was and all these colors and shapes. And I just had to say - I was probably 16 or 17 - "Can I just ask you what this is?" And he said, "Oh, it's this..." And started talking to me. Turned out he lived across the road from me in South Fields, in London, in this small area, just on the sort of edge of London. And, it was remarkable. So I used to go and visit him and listen to some of these things, but it was just seeing the physical scores that blew me away actually, of Stockhausen. And there were all those kinds of moments. I mean, the funny thing is when my piano teacher at school, when I was 11 played a John Cage prepared piano, my brother and I at home that same day recorded us hammering the hell out of an old standup piano we had at home.
It was all out of tune, much to the frustration (I'm sure) of my mother, but what's funny is, I have those recordings as well. That's what's really bizarre. You can have these memories, but I have recordings of these things. And then what's really funny. I got very confused because you're 11 years old. I went to the library and thought, Oh, this sounds quite interesting, John Cage let me look him up. I found John Cale. He was in a band called the Velvet Underground. So then I got a tape out of the Velvet Underground. I thought, "Wow, he really rocks, John Cage!", so I was confused for some time about these two characters, but I worked it out a couple of weeks ago and I've worked out the difference. So it took a few years, but...
Darwin: That's hilarious. Well, but yeah - talk about an interesting way to branch into new listening and in new brain spaces. It's great. Speaking of personal education, you said that you studied literature in college. Why would you have chosen literature as an area of study. And how do you feel like that actually informed your art practice?
Robin: Interesting. I mean, I think if I jump to the end of that in a way, what I realized I enjoyed most about it was the fact that it taught me how to critique something. I know when I was younger, before I went to university, if you and I went to the cinema, we'd walk out at the end and I'd look at you and you'd look at me and we shrug our shoulders and go, and I'd kind of wait you to say, "Wasn't it great?" or "Wasn't it terrible?" But what I learned at university was actually I could have an opinion and it would help me be able to voice my own argument, but to go back to the beginning, language has always interested me in words.
And I was always a huge reader. And so what's interesting is I failed to get into university the first year, and so I took a year off and what that meant is I took - not private classes, but I took evening classes and day classes in local colleges and studied all these books. So I spent the summer reading things like here I am sort of 18 years old reading James Joyce's, Ulysses and Hemingway and Burroughs and all kinds of things. And I found a course in London, a university course that actually was modern literature because I wasn't necessarily interested in historical literature. I wanted to read things that resonated with who I was and the world around me at this moment, right? So I found this amazing course, which turned out it was in a place called Kingston, which in subsequent years, I bumped into so many people, like Richard James (Aphex Twin) who also studied in Kingston.
And I suddenly realized there was this incredible kind of vibrant activity going on in this area, this very quiet, localized area of London. But in fact there was all this stuff happening, and literature always fascinated me. I still have all those books from that period. From the earliest age, I was reading lots of poetry, books and Chaucer and Shakespeare and Beckett and all kinds of things. And to this day, I still have a ridiculous book collection. I still buy an absurd amount of books. I will never be able to read them all, but that doesn't matter. I take joy in just looking at these things sometimes, but, literature, it was always really important to me. And when I studied modern literature, it meant I was actually reading books that were written 30 or 40 years ago and actually had a relevance to a city I could visit.
Or I knew of some of the names of the places they actually had. Great - more meaning to me than reading a romantic novel from 250 ago, although that obviously had a value in the things I studied. So, how they lended themselves to what I was doing - I can't offer like a clear lineage in a sense, but I certainly know when I was at college, I recorded phenomenal amounts of work. In fact, that's lots of the work I just recently imported. And in the space of about three years at university, I think I recorded the equivalent of about eight or nine albums of music. Again, none of that is necessarily any good, but it was done and it was achieved, and it's, it's really interesting when you bump into university friends and they follow me on social networks and it's really quite sweet when they say, "Oh, I remember being really impressed when you were at college and you were doing all these things."
And I just literally came across a flyer the other day, over a concert I put on when I was about 19 years old. And I still to this day, I can't believe that I was living at home with my family. And I called up an art gallery in London and I booked it as a private booking. And then I hired a PA system and then I advertised it and made flyers and took the flyers to shops, and sold tickets and then had a concert, it was 19 years old. It's just absolutely ridiculous. But I was a little bit fearless at that time. I was terribly shy, but also fearless in a way, and I remember at the time bumping into the director Derek Jarman a lot, an amazing figure, this British film director. And, he was a big influence on me for more than anything because of his collaborative approach, his films weren't only made by him.
I recognized they were made by a team of people around him. And I got to know lots of the people around him. And to this day, I'm still friends with quite a lot of the people that worked with Jarman. And, when I had figures like Jarman out there and Cage and Joseph Bois talking about his ideas of social sculpture that were very invigorating to a young man wanting to make things happen. These were figures who were in my eyes, very successful - they were kind of heroes and yet they were all accessible in a way they all weren't that far away. Certainly to this day, friends of mine have told me stories about going to New York, finding John Cage's phone number in the phone book, calling him up, going around to visit him and him answering the doorbell, and coming in for a drink. And you think this is just remarkable. You wouldn't have this today. You feel like with most of the people, you may listen to or read their books or anything, you keep a clear distance sometimes for good reason.
Darwin: Yeah. Well, it's interesting that Jarmin was such an influence. Recently I interviewed Simon Fisher Turner, who also had worked with him a lot and also talked about the incredible influence. It's one of those names that I hadn't heard a lot before that all of a sudden is cropping up as influential - not just his work, but as a person [he] has become very quietly, very influential to a lot of people.
Robin: No, he's a very important figure. I mean, particularly in the gay scene at the time, but also in terms of the body of work. I used to go on a Sunday to a place called the Diorama in London, near Regents Park, and this extraordinary building, which was a precursor to Cinema the diorama. And I used to go there on a Sunday afternoon and Michael Nyman would play the piano and Jarman would show his films and all kinds of people would come along and do performances and all sorts of things. And it probably costs something like two or three pounds to get in. And I met so many people in music and it was, it was fantastic. I mean, I know, Michael Nyman from those days, I know lots of the people and I was probably 18, 19, 20 years old.
And I used to go every Sunday. And to me, it was really magical. These were people who were making culture happen, but they weren't doing it from a big stage. They were doing it in a local way. They were often very poorly funded if funded at all and making it themselves. And that was a huge inspiration realizing you don't need the mechanisms - a bit like punk, the tortoise, you don't need the mechanisms of a record company or anything. I learned quite early that one can actually make these things happen themselves, you can do it. If you have the energy and you save your money, you can make these things happen in some ways, or you can do it with no money, sometimes.
Darwin: Boy, there's so many things I want to talk about, but there's one thing in specific, I warned you ahead of time, that I wanted to talk about this. And, as you went from doing composition with these found sounds, and then you delve more into what we would think of as traditional musical work. And this is the direction, I would say that your work has gone. There's one piece though... I am obsessed with talking to people about their experiences with peculiar compositional opportunities. And, what's interesting is several of the people that you just talked about here that you met, found themselves in a position, whether it's doing music for film or making film to match music or all these kinds of things. This sort of movement into peculiar opportunities seems to be something that is part of the life of the people that you surrounded yourself with and you have taken the opportunity to follow some of these tracks. One that really caught my attention is, something that's related to, something called the Vex house. And you actually did a release called Vex, which was a gorgeous sounding release. But, this idea of getting a commission to do composition work for a building, it's that peculiar twist of fate that I'm curious about: first of all, how did the opportunity come up? And secondly, it's such as a conceptually bizarre idea. I'm curious what was your thought process going into making a composition for a building?
Robin: It was a strange story actually. And it begins with failure, which is always interesting because failure is something that people don't always want to talk about, but it can play a key role in the makeup of your life. And I was working on what... I put a proposal through. Actually, I don't know how it came about, but I put a proposal forward to a public art commission. And it was a suggestion for ideas in hospitals and public spaces. Now, just to give it a context, I have a permanent work in a morgue, in, in a place called Garches, just outside of Paris in France. And it's a permanent work that lives in the morgue space designed by an Italian architect called Etoro Spilletti and that work placed permanently, and it lives there. And the idea of that, I've just given you a context.
The idea of that work is to offer solace and peace to those who are trying to deal with the death of a loved one which has just happened. So that work had happened, and I saw another opportunity some years later for using sound. And so I suggested about working on a project that was looking at reducing violence in hospital waiting rooms, and it was working with sound and architecture. And an architect was suggested to me through a friend and we put the proposal through and it was rejected. And the commissioners weren't interested in the least, but I stayed in touch with her. And I thought it was a strong idea. I thought there's really something to be made of a work that helps in this environment, because there were so many issues of violence in waiting rooms and emergency rooms. Anyway, it never ever happened.
And we stayed in touch sort of vaguely over the years. And it turned out that she and her partner who called themselves Chance de Silva are a really interesting architectural practice based in London. They work on not many projects. I mean, literally, probably half a dozen in total, I suppose it's quite common with architects that they have a large body of work that isn't genuinely built. it takes so long to get planning, permission to everything, but they came to me quite early on and they said, "Look, we were working on a building in London and we think it might intrigue you. And we'd like to collaborate because we work with stained glass artists. We previously worked with a dancer. We worked with a photographer, but this time we'd like to work with sound and you're free to do whatever you want...", which is always a bit scary because it's quite helpful when people give you parameters.
Because then you can think, okay, I worked within that. So how do you start? I have no idea. What's interesting. We had conversation and it turned out that both Steve, the architect, Steve Chance, and Wendy de Silva - Steve, particularly, is a musician, very interested in composers like Xenakis, and Stockhausen, and Cage, but was very interested in Erik Satie. And Satie has been one of those figures who I've always enjoyed his work. So I mean, people are very familiar with Satie is the relatively light, playful piano pieces. But some of his works were just magnificent. The furniture piece, for example, it was really a very important work that isn't spoken about enough that, it was the first in a sense, arguably the first ambient piece, a piece of music that you needed to ignore rather than listen to.
And Satie is an eccentric, the stories about him that he had two pianos in his apartment and one was filled with open letters. He had a collection of identical velvet suits. I mean, they're just kind of endless, the stories, so intriguing. He wrote a piece of music called Vexations, which is a kind of early serial pieces. It's a very simple score, but it runs for 18 hours when it's performed in full. And always remember the story that when it was first performed, it was never performed during his lifetime really. But John Cage was one of the figures who was a great enthusiast for Satie. And he produced with friends the first performance of Vexations. And I love the story that basically said that for every hour you stayed for the performance, you've got something like another 20 cents back of your entry fee.
And at the end of the 18 hour performance, somebody in the audience shouted out "Encore!", which I thought was a great sense of humor as well. But it's a simple piece, but it's a kind of circular piece. And we both loved this piece of music and they have this quite brilliant idea that they were going to build a house in London based on the sheet music of Vexations. So what they did was took the site, this what was actually a former car park in London, dropped the notes around the shape of the building they had in mind, this strange kind of curved concrete. It's very difficult to describe it. I always try and describe it as a little bit like two or three toilet rolls balanced on top of each other. it has a kind of egg shape to it.
There're weird shifted angles, but what they did was took the sheet music and wrapped it around this model, and where the notes fell are where the windows are in the building, and you can find photographs of it online. And it's remarkable to look at, cause you realize they are in odd places, the windows they're kind of too high to look through or they're too low, but actually they are where the notes fell on the piece of music. And it's an extraordinary work just physically to see. I mean, it's in a street of very standard architectural British architectural houses from the turn of last century. And suddenly you have this very modernist white, gray building standing there. This corrugated steel sheeting was used to construct it. And what I did - because I had no ideas what to do. I went along during the different parts of the construction and would record there. What I discovered one day in the recording was in fact, the machine that was pouring in the concrete to build the walls in between these sheets of corrugated steel was in fact in something like F sharp. And I thought, wow, you can go like "Neeeeeee..."
And you could hum along to it. And that's actually how the piece began. We had a discussion of before it was physically finished (the building) that the audio has to be a permanent piece. It needs to be embedded in the building itself. So we installed a sound system within the frame of the building. It's actually sealed in the concrete. When I tell this to some people I need to make it clear, you can switch it off. I mean, honestly, nobody wants to live there listening to my piece for 24 hours, not even me, but essentially, the piece of music is a continuous loop. And so the building and itself is a continuous loop and you have these three floors and they each have speakers in and the music plays through each of them and they wrap around each other, the music and the architecture wrap around each other.
And, it's been a huge success in terms of what it's offered in a sense. Each year, there's a kind of open architecture weekend in London and every year, just over a weekend, about a thousand people go through the building to have a look at it. it's wonderful to have worked on something that actually, appeals in such a wide way, even appeared on Grand Designs, which is a very popular British TV show about house design. And it was up for house of the year. I mean, there was no way it was going to win, but it was such a joy to be on a very popular TV show. And they came here to the studio and they interviewed me and we spoke about music concrete and all kinds of things. And that as an opportunity in itself was quite fantastic.
That was really stimulating, to make a sculptural work that lives there permanently. And the fact that there's a family lives there - I mean, so far two different families have lived there and to make a permanent work in the city of London that is radically challenging to the eye and to the ear is quite remarkable. I think, if Satie were around today, I think he'd have been very proud of it, to be honest. It's one of those things he would have probably thought, "Yes, that's the, that's the kind of quirky individuals I need out there." So, yeah, in essence, we never knew where it was going to go to, I had no ideas what the piece was actually going to be when we made a very early version of it as a demo and showed it at the Architectural Pavilion in Venice.
And then it was a very different piece completely. And it led in its own way. And when I actually put the work onto Bandcamp, eventually I made a work which is inspired by Alvin Lucier. I sort of followed his "I'm Sitting In A Room Listening", blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I made a work where I played the soundtrack back into the building and I recorded that piece back into the recorder, then played it back into the building. And after about 12 iterations, essentially all you were hearing with the resonant frequencies of the building and, within eight to 10 repeats that the building itself had devoured the music. And I love the idea of the architecture eating the music in a sense. So it's been a hugely exciting projects we've worked on. And to this day, I mean, you, you talk to me now about it. It's one of those things that actually, it's a great conversation piece, but it's great when you bump into people who live in the area and suddenly go, "That was you!" - you hoping that it's in a good way, when they point at you and go, "It was you!", you duck in case the fist swing is in the air or something. But it's a fantastic project.
Darwin: Yeah. What a beautiful story though. That's amazing. And again, what, what a career you've made for yourself to be able to find yourself in the position to do that kind of stuff. I think that's fantastic. And, and hats off to you for doing that and for sticking with the program so that you could get to that place. Cause I'm sure over the course of your career, there were a lot of cases where you could have just said, "All right, I'm just going to go to Hollywood and I'm just going to start TV show music.", or, "Oh, okay. Well, somebody wants me to become a sound designer for games...", or something, and you're going to disappear into that world, but it just seems like you've embraced the direction that you chose to go and you stuck with it. And I'm really appreciative of that.
Robin: Thank you. I've had opportunities like that come to me and actually I don't enjoy them. I realized, the last time I toured as such, as a touring artist, was 2001. I took it across America. I played 21 shows in 22 days, started over in, I think I started in Mexico City, but then I went from LA and Seattle right across to New York. And by the time of arriving in New York, three weeks later, I remember sitting on the steps outside the building, just off Broadway and feeling so depressed and just no energy left. And I didn't know what to do. And I always just wanted to cry. And then chances were that I bumped into a friend and who's happened to be a theater director. And he was actually working in New York and he said to me, "So how are you Robin?"
I told him, "I'm not really enjoying this." He said, "So why are you doing it?" And I thought, I'd never asked myself that question because it's something that you do. And, in our lives, often we follow certain patterns because that's how you do it. And it wasn't until that moment that somebody questioned me and I began questioning myself and I thought, I'm never going to do that again. And since then, I've never followed that thing. I mean, the thing I generally say no to most is live concerts, because I just, I don't see anything I can really offer that much, you know, and it's quite a challenge to work them out. And the idea of physically traveling doesn't necessarily appeal to me, right? So, in some ways the pandemic has been great like that it's forced me at home and I've quite enjoyed that aspect.
That sounds cruel, but I tried to find the positive out of the negative, but what I've done largely is take risks in my career. I've taken on things which could be huge failures and sometimes are huge failures. But I try not to talk about those too much. But I've taken risks. And most times they work out, you know, and most times what you end up doing is making good friends. I mean, genuinely the people I work with in collaborations like that turn into good pals, and to me, that's what's really important. Life is far too short to use bad energy up and be frustrated and fed up with the music industry, the art industry, whatever it may be; I try and embrace these opportunities and make the best of them, and try and remain positive through them.
Darwin: Well, that's fantastic. And I hope that the listeners get a chance to sort of digest that and find a way to embrace that. Because I think that that's actually the way to make a holistic and joyful life. I really appreciate the way that you've expressed that. And for your sharing, I want to thank you so much for that. Well, unfortunately our time is up. It's well up, but it's okay because, and I still have like two sheets of paper of stuff I wish we could talk about. So we're going to have to have a part two at some point. But in the meantime, I have one last question: What is on your laboratory table right now that you you're working on, maybe that's about ready to go or, or something that is occupying your brain right now. Where are you at right now?
Robin: I am actually trying to work through the archive in a very direct way. I set up a Bandcamp fan club in the absence of any real income. So what I've been doing actually is literally digging into the archive and exploring it and remastering it and actually offering it out. So that's been great to do a rediscovery of my own past, that's what sort of sit in there as a constant at this moment. What I found is quite remarkable. I found that I'm just as busy now than I've ever been. even with the cancellation of lots of work, I seem to be exceptionally busy. I set up a lot of different projects. I have a lot of recordings coming out. I've been super active with that, but also I suppose, the most significant thing I've set up, I set up an art foundation, which means when I'm no longer around the building I live in here and my savings and my studio and my books and my archive and my record collection all goes to the foundation.
And to me, that's kind of the constant. It means that when I'm no longer around what I can at least do is offer to other younger people to make their work and create, be them visual artists or photographers, writers, poets, musicians, whatever. And to me, that's a constant - it's about making something that's beyond me that is really, really important. in the last five years I lost all my family. There's none of those memories left. And I wanted to make sure without having any children of my own, that I can offer something at least back, positively. So this is all set up officially now. So this not encouraging a Hitman to get me next week or something, so they can get access to all this stuff I have to be careful about. I do have two body guards now. Obviously one has to be careful, but yeah, that's taken up my time, but I like to be a busy boy, so that's good.
Darwin: Right on, well, Robin, I want to thank you so much for taking the time out of your schedule for having this talk. We are going to pick this up with another conversation at some point, but in the meantime, I want to thank you for the time and let you have the rest of your day.
Robin: Absolute pleasure. Thank you. Bye now.
Copyright 2020 by Darwin Grosse. All right reserved.