Interview with electronic composer Martin Webb aka wombat_army
(hey guys, here is an interview that I did with the awesome wombat_army…enjoy it!)
Derek Kortepeter: So tell me how you got into music and how you eventually found your artistic voice? Were you formally trained in a conservatory?
wombat_army: My Mum is a music teacher and my Dad was really into Jazz so there was always music in the house as I was growing up, they encouraged me to learn the Cello as a kid and I played in youth orchestras and so on. Possibly more importantly I have an older Brother and in the early nineties he was quite into metal and played guitar in a band. I was a bit too young to be going out drinking, like he was, but when he was out I would sneak into his room and play on his guitar for hours. He had a multi FX pedal and I used to just mess around with loads of delay and distortion, suddenly playing other peoples pieces on the Cello seemed a bit boring.
When I got a bit older and into my teens my mates and I graduated from Metal to Punk and Indie and we formed this angsty teen punk band called the Devices. At 15 that was my first experience of writing songs and performing live, we played a fair bit round London in venues we were too young to be in, it was really exciting. At the same time the school we were at had a basic recording studio that no one ever used and my band mates and I kind of took it over. While the other guys in the band were really into multi track recording I was more into this old Atari Notator sequencer, Juno synth and Akai sampler that were set up at the back. It was really liberating to realise that I didn’t have to write music just for guitar, bass and drums and that really any sound was possible. After leaving school in 1997 I saved up a bit of money with a summer job and bought an Akai MPC 2000 and a sound module and that was how it all started.
Here are a couple of examples of the stuff I was making around that time… http://wombatarmy.bandcamp.com/album/private-traps-heart-filled-with-pain
A few years later I met some like-minded musicians who were making similar electronic music, we decided to get together and put on a few nights in East London where we could play our music to other like-minded folk, we called it Oche Music. This was fun but after doing a couple of nights we all felt that really it was just 4 blokes playing tunes off laptops so we decided to form an improv band instead… I had gotten back into playing the Cello after an old friend from school had asked if I’d play some simple parts on some of his tunes (check him out here…. https://supermanrevengesquad.bandcamp.com), so in our new Oche Music band I switched from playing bass to cello through FX and amps (have a listen https://soundcloud.com/rat-rooms/sets/oche-music-ep).
Through playing the cello in Oche Music I was asked to play at this film night called ASSEMBLY, which screens vintage information / education films with the soundtracks removed and new soundtracks composed and performed live on the night. For this I started to combine the electronic stuff I was making with the cello. It was suggested to me by people who were coming to the film nights that I should release some of the tunes I was performing and Bandcamp seemed like quite a good way to do this. I put together an album called ‘October Lanterns’ (https://wombatarmy.bandcamp.com/album/october-lanterns). This was made up of 3 brand new tracks that I’d made for these film nights (Tchou Tchou, Golden Fish and Baby Turtles) and a selection of older tracks. I think that was when I really found my voice, with the mixture of the electronic stuff I was making with the cello and also the focus that writing and performing music for these films brought to my music, and that’s when I started working on ‘firsteight’.
DK: Who do you consider to be influences on your music?
wombat_army: Growing up as a child in the 80s synth pop was indelibly etched on to my brain. I think Depeche Mode, Pet Shop Boys, Human League, The Associates and New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’ have definitely lingered in my subconscious and influenced the music I’ve made ever since.
I went through the obligatory heavy metal / punk phase as a teenager but then in the mid-nineties someone lent me some Aphex Twin albums. This was around the same time that I was tinkering around with sequencers, samplers and synths, and I was blown away by his music. This led me to discover other stuff like Autechre, Orbital, The Orb, Future Sound of London, Plaid and Biosphere. I had been quite into the DIY ethos of Punk, but really the things I was listening to (Sex Pistols, The Damned, Buzzcocks and Stiff Little Fingers and so on) were all from before I was born, electronic music felt like my generation’s punk. This was the music that inspired and influenced me at the beginning when I started making music and is the stuff you could say is a direct influence, but then over the years my tastes in music have grown out in many different directions, and all of it has had some impact. I’m a big fan of Zappa, Bowie, Velvet Underground, Kraftwerk, YMO, Minimalism (Glass, Reich, Riley etc), Gorecki, Arvo Part, The Cardiacs, The Fall, early They Might Be Giants, a lot of African music (Congolese rumba, highlife, afrobeat and so on), the list goes on!
DK: Walk me through the process of writing firsteight, what is the album about in your eyes and how does it differ from your previous work?
wombat_army: Previous to ‘firsteight’ I was making music mainly on my Akai MPC 2000, but after about 17 years of use it finally died in 2014 so I started to use Ableton Live 8 instead. (This is kind of boring but it’s called ‘firsteight’ as it’s basically the first batch of stuff I made using Live 8).
Using Live 8 certainly changed the sound and style of the music I was making. The stuff I was making before was probably a bit more rigid and structured, more beat orientated, lots of 4 bar loops. But the combination of using the cello through looping pedals and Live8 meant that the music became a bit more fluid and evolving.
Also, as I mentioned above, I had been making music to be performed along with films at the ASSEMBLY film nights. The films are generally between 10-20 mins which is a fair amount of time to fill, plus the audience have the film to watch and hold their attention, so I felt I could stretch things out a bit, let one idea run for longer than I would normally when making a track. I had this in mind when putting ‘firsteight’ together, I wanted it to flow as one body of work.
All the tracks were made between May – September 2014, during the summer… I think the album has a feel to it of this sort of hazy summertime confusion like staring at the sun for too long. I wanted it to be dreamlike in places, with pieces evolving and building out of one another, then disappearing back to nothing.
The album sort of builds up to ‘Skydiving’ which was composed to be performed live along with a screening of an amazing 1970s film called ‘Skydive!’ (Have a look at the original film here… www.youtube.com/watch?v=CtG9TCH2tfQ the version on bandcamp is the full version of this so if you fancied it you could watch the youtube clip along with the music).
DK: You are a multi-instrumentalist (cello, synth etc.), how do the instruments you play affect your overall songwriting approach?
wombat_army: The use of cello has certainly changed the way I make a tune. But it’s possibly more about the software I make the music on, but then I see that as an instrument as well.
DK: You mention looping pedals as being a part of your music, do you usually have the parts mapped out in your head of what to loop or is it spontaneous? I ask because composers/musicians do it differently, some write entire parts out (Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint for instance) whereas others just improvise.
wombat_army: It’s a bit of both, mainly I improvise with the looping pedal but sometimes this is done in a certain key and tempo which I then combine with more structured mapped out parts.
I’ve gotten quite into doing these one take improvisations with the cello and looping pedal, where I start recording and just play, loop and layer and see what happens. On ‘firsteight’ ‘Birdsflutter’ and ‘if16’ are examples of this. With ‘Birdsflutter’ you can actually hear my girlfriend say ‘hello?’ towards the end as she’d stuck her head round the door to ask if I wanted a cup of tea as I was recording it. With tracks such as ‘Soon now’ and ‘Cloudgazing’ I used this method but combined if with other parts I had made.
DK: Do you often play your music live? I imagine if you do it is a pretty daunting task with all the layers!
wombat_army: Yes, as I mentioned my main live thing is playing at these film nights. At first I was relying quite a bit on a backing track from the laptop and then doing some cello over the top. However as time has moved on I’ve started to do a lot more fully live improvisation with the looping pedal and trying to keep the backing to a minimum, or at least alter the backing as well. It’s a bit tricky as whilst playing the cello I then lack hands to do other stuff, but that’s all part of the fun.
Playing live to films is great as the audience has something else to focus on and so I feel I can sit back and relax a bit more. Also you can kind of use the film as the score, it becomes a nice way of structuring the music.
DK: In the United States, the electronic music scene is dominated by EDM and dubstep artists. What about in London? Is there a place for ambient composers or is it more about club music?
wombat_army: If I’m honest I’m a bit out of touch with that sort of thing. Dubstep is still very popular, having started here, and has mutated in some lovely ways. I’m not really sure what EDM is though, to me it seems to be one of those horrible catch all terms that the music industry invents to classify a huge range of music they don’t understand, but then in some ironic twist, becomes a genre in itself through people missing the point and trying to make ‘EDM’ style music. But I digress…
London does have quite a good improv/electronic scene with places like cafe oto, and we are also lucky with our radio over here. The BBC, Radio 3 and 6 Music in particular, do a lot to support different types of music and being publicly funded it doesn’t need to pander to the lowest common denominator / commercial interest. That’s not to say that London’s music scene isn’t dominated by the mainstream, just that it’s quite easy to ignore it as there are lots of other options.
DK: In general what do you hope people take away from the music you write?
wombat_army: I guess if anything I would like people to become immersed in the music and for it to then both sooth and thrill them in equal measure. I would like the music to take people on a bit of an emotional journey, and I like the idea of music creating tension and atmosphere. Other than that, if I’m honest, it’s not something I think about too much… You can only hope people will enjoy it!
DK: You mentioned to me that you started making this style of music roughly 15 years ago. That was, coincidentally, the dawn of a new age in the music industry. What we all knew as musicians changed with the onslaught of the mp3 revolution…do you think that the current landscape is better or worse for musicians than pre-mp3 days? What would you like to see done better?
wombat_army: One of the things that inspired me from the start was the DIY nature of electronic music. That you don’t need an expensive studio and a label backing you, great creative music could be made in your bedroom with a sampler and a sequencer. I think it’s now much easier to put stuff out with sites like Bandcamp and Soundcloud and has to some extent taken the label out of the equation. That said it is really hard to then promote that stuff (which is probably the only place a label still comes into its own)… I think with the sheer volume of music out there it is very difficult to be heard. I also think that the way the Internet has developed has fundamentally changed the way people consume music. The MP3 revolution has lead to this idea that music should be free… A few years ago I would always give my brother a cd on his birthday. I’d go to the record shop and choose something I thought he’d like and actually spend money on it… But now he just gets all his music free on Spotify or whatever, so giving him a CD is a bit pointless I might as well just give him a list of stuff to find on Spotify which isn’t quite the same. It’s like music has become devalued as a commodity. It is now considered the norm that artists should give away their music for free (as indeed I do on Bandcamp)… But then I’d rather people listened and enjoyed the music and not get any money than still get no money and no one listen at all.
DK: What can we expect next from you creatively?
wombat_army: I’m in the process of putting together a new album, I have about 4 or 5 tracks so far. I think it’s going to be a bit darker sounding (maybe as these tracks were made in winter!?). Here’s a preview of couple of them…
I’m also trying to get together a live set that includes visuals (and is something apart from the film nights), It’s quite hard to find gigs however, so if anyone wanted to offer me one that would be great!