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Gagarin - Interview

  by John Clarkson

published: 4 / 10 / 2011

Gagarin - Interview


John Clarkson talks to South London-based percussionist and musician Graham Dowdall about his electronic soundscape solo project Gagarin's new album 'Biophilia', and working with both Nico and Pere Ubu's David Thomas

On April 12th 1961 Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. The Russian cosmonaut spent a total of 108 minutes in his spacecraft Vostok 1 making an orbit of the Earth. When he returned, it was as an international hero. Gagarin subsequently became a worldwide celebrity and toured widely abroad, including the United Kingdom three months after the Vostok 1 mission concluded. His fame was, however, but brief. On the 27th March 1968 34 year old Gagarin, who had begun to retrain as a fighter pilot, and his flight instructor were both killed when their plane crashed on a routine training mission. South London-based percussionist and musician Graham Dowdall, who was a small boy when Gagarin made his space flight, has named his electronic soundscape solo project after the Soviet spaceman. Dowdall’s musical career began in the late 1970s with the Manchester-based post-punk band Ludus, which were an early influence on Morrissey, and he appeared on their cassette only mini album, ‘Pickpocket’ (1981) and debut album proper, ‘The Seduction’ (1982). He subsequently went on to collaborate with the Velvet Underground chanteuse Nico, working with her from shortly after her relocation to Britain in the early 1980s until her death in 1988, and co-writing and appearing as part of her backing band The Faction on her final studio album, ‘Camera Obscura’ (1985). He has also worked with John Cale, appearing on his 1985 album, ‘Artificial Intelligence’, and in recent years he has worked as an “associate member” with David Thomas’ s experimental rock ensemble Pere Ubu, touring with them and appearing on their albums, ‘Why I Hate Women’ (2006) and ‘Long Live Pere Ubu’ (2009). He is currently collaborating with David Thomas on Pere Ubu’s forthcoming album, ‘The Lady from Shanghai’. Gagarin has released two previous albums, ‘Ard Nev’ (2007) and ‘Adaptogen’ (2009) as well as various limited edition singles, all of which have come out on Dowdall’s own label, Geo Records. The project’s latest release and third album, ‘Biophilia’, was released this summer to strong critical response. It takes its name from a theory developed by the American biologist Edward O. Wilson, which examines the connections that humans make with other living systems. Its tracks include ‘Pripyat’, which takes its title from a Russian city which became a ghost town after the Chernobyl nuclear power station accident in 1986, and ‘3KA-3’ and ‘KEDR’ whose names come from Gagarin’s personal call sign and the code number of Vostok 1. The latter combines voice recordings that Yuri Gagarin made on his space flight with Dowdall’s soundscapes. Pennyblackmusic spoke about ‘Biophilia’ with Graham Dowdall . PB: You have named your solo project after Yuri Gagarin? What was the appeal to you of him? GD: I guess that looking back from this point in history-and for want of a better phrase-it is that “retro future” thing, the way in which in the past we would imagine future worlds that may or may not have come to pass and which eventually didn’t. There was also the boldness that that the early space exploration programmes represented. It seemed then that the planet had no limits for us. We could go and do anything really. At the same time though it was an incredibly brave thing for Gagarin to go into space. He didn’t know what the hell was going to happen, how his body would react or anything like that. He was stepping into the unknown really. In its own way it was the last great adventure. PB: Gagarin was dead by the time he was in his mid- thirties. Did the doomed romanticism of that also appeal to you? GD: Yeah, I think that also is appealing. That also extends too on my point about retro futurism. There is a doomed romanticism there as well. In the late 50s and early 60s the idea of men living on the Moon seemed quite probable, but now it looks further away now than it did fifty years ago. It never happened and I think that it is very unlikely to happen in our lives. PB: How aware were you of Gagarin as a child? GD: I was a tiny little lad in South London when he went up, but he was even then this heroic figure to me. I felt some empathy and something in common with him, some little bond from an early age. I think at first that it was as something as simple as both our names started with a ‘G’ when I was first starting my letters, but that fascination went from there. He was also a very small man and that made him approachable, not at all intimidating, and also appealing. PB: ‘Biophilia’ takes its name from the theory by Edward O. Wilson, the American biologist. Why did you decide to call your album that? GD: It is a long-standing semi obsession of mine. I am an urbanite. I live five miles from central London in Balham. I love the pace of life in London, its edge and its buzz, but at the same time I have always felt this need to connect with nature. I have a beautiful garden which is my main recreation and I live on the main line backing into Clapham Junction. When I look out of my studio window, I can see twenty different species of tree and then the Gatwick Express ripping through the middle of it all. There is this dichotomy there, this meeting point between nature and urbanism. In a way the railway outside my window represents nature coming back. When the railways were built, it was with this bold Victorian vision that we were going to industrialise the world which we did. Once the steam trains, however, went away, the trees and plants started to grow again and animals started to come back. You can see all that from my window. I have this daily engagement with both nature and the urban world. As I spend a lot of my life on the road or in clubs, I have always reenergised myself through nature and it has never let me down when I have needed it. PB: The album, however, is an examination of not just nature and the urban world, but also Earth and space. There are field recordings on it that were made both in Balham and also at Padgham Nature Reserve in Suffolk, as well as more obviously Yuri Gagarin when he was in space. GD: It is an album about contrasts really and the meeting of juxtaposed things. Each track has its own complete story or message, rather than the whole album having one big story to tell, which is why I have got tracks which relate to the Gagarin space thing and others that relate to specifically Padgham or my life in Balham. PB: It also relates to Chernobyl. The first track, ‘Pripyat’, shares a name with the ghost town there. That is possibly the most desolate track on the album. GD: Yeah, I think it is. I didn’t name the track before I made it, but as it started to develop it suggested to me a complete emptiness as it is so stark and that seemed to sum it up in a way. I was looking for a title to represent that sense of desolation and absence of humanity, and a space that had been occupied and no longer was there. PB: There is a real balance on ‘Biophilia’ between tracks that are fairly sinister and cold like ‘Pripyat’ and then those that are warmer like ‘Dunnock’ and ‘Third Rail’. Was that done consciously? GD: No, it wasn’t a conscious thing. I tend to just start and see where I go when I am writing music . I never think, “I am going to make a cold track” or “I am going to make a warm track.” I start from improvisation, and just grab a palette of sounds and then throw them around and see where that goes. There is no great theory that goes into the tracks. They just develop a life of their own. PB: Are ‘3KA-3’ and ‘KEDR’ your personal interpretation of Yuri Gagarin’s journey into space? GD: Broadly, yes. ‘KEDR’ in particular is. That is the one track that I set out with an idea, and that idea was to use some of the communications between Gagarin and Earth. There is quite a lot of YouTube footage of the original flight and I took some of the samples of Gagarin’s voice which I used on that track from those. I had already started ‘3KA-3’ before I thought, “Okay, maybe it fits in with the Gagarin thing.” ‘3KA-3’ is more abstract and about the journey than the specifics of Gagarin’s first flight. PB: A lot of ‘Biophilia’ was obviously pre-programmed, but it seems to have a really live feel. Was that difficult to achieve? GD: It is the way I work really. I do a lot of computer programming, but fundamentally I am a performer and I like to take a performer’s perspective into the programming world. What I tend to do is improvise each layer, each line, each part, and then manipulate and rip it apart inside the computer really. My starting point is, however, always playing, so I start out with a little set of drum pads that I use live as an inputting thing to find sounds. I work out the sounds with my drum pads, and then I go in and programme. I love a lot of programmed beats. I have always loved dance music. I am a drummer and one of the best things that ever happened to me as a drummer was the invention of the drum machine, but I also like to subvert a bit. I like stuff that goes out of time. I come from a free jazz background, and I suppose I apply something of a free jazz aesthetic to the programmed rhythms I use. PB: Was any other instrumentation used on the album? GD: I have got a bunch of old synthesisers, and a lot of my sounds come from old DX synthesisers and first generation synth drums. I have got a collection of early electronic instruments that I like to use a lot as well as the internal sounds in the computer programmes. PB: How do you play live? GD: I use a MPC sampler that I preload with lots of sound bites and loops and stuff from the tracks, and then I play them from my drum pads. I also use a hard disc recorder for the really long samples. I don’t use a computer at all live. I used one for a while, but found it anti intuitive as I decided that I was looking at the computer rather than performing, so I put it away. The preparations I have to make to play live is enormous because it involves taking something quite complex out of programmes such as Logik and Q Base and then trying to convert them into something simpler so that I can play them live. PB: You are also a member of Pere Ubu as well. GD: I am the extra member of Pere Ubu. David Thomas made me an associate member of Pere Ubu. About ten years ago David Thomas and I shared a manager, a guy called Nick Hobbs. David had a small side project called Two Pale Boys, and the trumpeter Andy Diagram, who also plays with James. couldn’t do a tour, so Nick suggested that I play. I don’t, however, play the trumpet and David phoned me and said, (Adopts a thick American accent), “I hear that you could fill in for Andy,” and I said, “I am not a trumpeter. I am a kind of electro percussionist,” and he went, “Yeah, that’s okay.” His incredibly open approach to replacing a trumpeter with an electro percussionist really appealed to me, and so I started to work with David on a temporary basis. David said, “I really want to keep working with you. Will you do some live sound for this big show that we are doing at the Festival Hall?” and I said, “I don’t really do live sound,” and he went, “Ah, you’ll be okay,” and so I ended up live sound for them at the Festival Hall. Then he just kept asking me to do other things, little bits here and there. There was an album, ‘Why I Hate Women’, and I played on a couple of tracks on that. Then his keyboard player couldn’t do a big tour, so he rang me up and said, “Will you play keyboards for Pere Ubu?,” and I said, “I don’t really play keyboards,” and he said, “Well, you know how it goes,” and so I ended up playing keyboards with Pere Ubu on that tour (Laughs). If he has confidence in you, he has unbelievable confidence in you. He just throws challenges at you, and then if you rise to the challenge everything is great. It has gone deeper and deeper really. We did the ‘Long Live Pere Ubu’ stage show, which was a spectacular show, and upon which I was doing all the kind of soundscapes and linking the scenes as well as making my acting debut which was less than great. At the moment we are working on the next Pere Ubu album. He has just sent me a ton of files, so over the next few weeks I’ll be putting some parts on that. David is relentlessly creative, full of ideas and also unbelievably supportive. He always wants my record as soon as it comes out. He has a really big soul. I know that he has a reputation as being difficult and of having a bad temper, but I have always found him very fair. He has a dark side. We all do, but David’s temper issues are really just because he is so hard on himself. He is relentlessly tough on himself. He works himself into the ground and he will beat himself up if things aren’t right. On a personal level I have, however, never found him other than respectful. PB: You also worked in the 80’s with Nico as part of her backing band The Faction and wrote some of the music on ‘Camera Obscura’. Nico is often portrayed again, particularly in her final years, as being difficult to work with because of her addiction problems, but you imply on your website that your memories of her are more warm and happy. What do you remember of her? GD: Nico was my good friend. She was a really lovely, warm person. She was a heroin addict for at least half the time that I worked with her, and that is horrible. That gets in the way and is a distraction, and it did her make her unreliable at times. The sad thing was that in the last three years she had cleaned up from smack and was living a much healthier lifestyle. She was one of the band. She has this reputation for being incredibly aloof, but she was in reality very approachable. We would have a laugh in the van. People can’t really imagine Nico having a laugh. She would come down to my house in Balham, and we would sit and drink tea and and she would be just like your favourite fun auntie (Laughs). Her stage persona and performance was not, however, warm in any way, shape or form. It was as cold as cold can get. We used to play the Doors song ‘The End’ and she would end it was forty second death rattle which was scary the hundredth time that you heard it (Laughs). People won’t, however, believe me, but she was full of jokes and we had a good time. One story I tell people how is one morning we got on the bus on a really hot, sunny day in Italy and she was really happy and she started to sing, but the song she started to sing was (Adopts heavy Germanic accent), “This is the day that he found the blade.” That was Nico to a tee really. She was in a good mood, having a laugh, but the lyrics she was singing were as dark as dark could get. I quit several times in the early days when she was a heroin addict because some of the promoters we were working with were really dodgy and her unreliability was just driving me mad. Every time I would get this little call a few months later. “Graham, will you come and play again? Things are better.” I just couldn’t resist. She was such a talent and a joy to work with. PB: Last question. You are also involved in Low Bias, a collaborative project with Mark Beazley from Rothko and Rome Pays Of and which has just released an album. What does that involve? GD: Mark and I both love each other’s work. We first met five or six years ago and have become very good friends. We have come up with ten I think quite beautiful tracks, which are very, very atmospheric. Some of them drive quite hard with bass and drums. Some of them more spacious, but what I am really pleased with is that you can’t tell which tracks we programmed individually and sent to each other as files and those that came together as a result of us improvising together. I am really proud of it, so I hope that people will like it. PB: Is that going to come out on your label Geo? GD: It is going to come out on Trace Recordings which is Mark’s label. We tossed a coin for it. We were going to do arm wrestling, but everyone said Mark would win the arm wrestling as he is bigger than me. It will be coming out on Trace Recordings. PB: Thank you.

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Gagarin - Interview

Gagarin - Interview

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