Jason Singh - Dialogue with the World
Jason Singh is a Manchester-based composer, vocal artist, sound designer and DJ. He’s a collaborator - not just with other musicians, but with nature, the environment, ceramics, textiles and other inanimate objects. He’s a hip hop artist, an ambient composer, a jazz musician - but he’s also known for what you might call ‘sonic horticulture’.
Jason attended, performed and collaborated at the first, second and third London Music Tech Fest events, and also joined us in Umeå Sweden for MTF Scandi. His willingness to simply jump on stage and perform in an experimental and improvisational mode with other musicians, inventors and innovators has contributed to some of the most memorable musical moments of MTF’s history.
And these days, when he’s not making music with plants, he’s DJ-ing lockdown vinyl live sets on the internet.Check out Jason’s Daily Dose livestream on Mixcloud
Follow Jason on Twitter: @jasonsinghthing
Andrew Hi, I’m Andrew Dubber. I’m the director of Music Tech Fest, and this is the MTF podcast. Jason Singh is… Well, Jason Singh’s a musician. Which is to say that musician describes him better than most words do, but not so well that you’d have any particularly accurate sense of what he does just from that title. It’s tough to pin down what he does. It’s unlikely that you’d hear two separate projects of his and guess that they came from the same mind.
He makes these incredibly intricate live beatbox film scores that don’t sound like anything you might imagine when you hear the word beatbox. He creates large-scale ambisonic sound installations. He’s regularly commissioned to do sound design for things like gallery and museum exhibitions. He undertakes experimental and collaborative projects involving sound, ceramics, textiles, and other inanimate objects and cultural artefacts. He also vocally recreates birdsong and entire forestry environments, and so rather than appearing on music shows on TV, his work is featured on nature and agricultural programmes like the BBC TV shows Springwatch and Countryfile. But he’s also a composer and collaborator who works with some really well-established UK Jazz musicians. He’s made quite straight-ahead, what you might call contemporary, adult pop music with the band The Safires. He’s toured extensively with Rajasthani musicians, run music programs for children with special educational needs, and has also created international workshops about the relationship between the voice, the body, and technology. And recently he’s been getting into plants. Not gardening, plants, as musical collaborators.
Now, I’ve known Jason for easily a decade or more, and we catch up from time to time if we happen to be in the same town. But that hasn’t happened for a while, so it was really great to sit down and have a chat with someone who I admire as an artist, but also count as a really good friend. And you’ll see why. He’s someone who embraces and embodies the whole ethos of Music Tech Fest. One of the nicest people you could possibly hope to meet. This is Jason Singh. Enjoy.
Andrew Jason Singh. It’s been a long time, how are you?
Jason Oh yeah, I’m good, man. I’m good.
Andrew You’re looking really well.
Jason Thank you, brother. So are you, man, you look well younger and you look well smoother.
Andrew It’s the beard and the shaved head. I think it’s a good look. Yeah. And where are you?
Jason I’m in Manchester, where I have been for the past 20… Gosh, 27 years now.
Andrew And things all right in lockdown? And you’re coping?
Jason Yeah. It’s an interesting one because my kids are in Devon, so I’m doing this thing where I have the kids for a week and then they’re down there for two weeks. So my time’s now… Actually, there’s a routine to certain things. So I’ve got a schedule of stuff, and then I’m doing these Facebook Live DJ show things every morning, so that’s keeping my head focused between nine and ten. And it’s wicked actually because I’m getting back into music in a very different and unexpected way. So yeah, man, things are cool.
Andrew Why don’t you tell me, what is the music that you’re working on at the moment?
Jason To be honest, I’m not creating anything at the moment. When the whole lockdown thing started it was almost as though, overnight, all my kind of creative output just ceased. And I haven’t fought it, I’ve just gone, “Okay, I’m not in a place to make”. I’m going to my stuff, my gear, laptop, blah blah blah, and I’m just not ready. I’m in that thing. I think I feel like I’m in some sort of processing space of trying to understand what’s going on, and I’m allowing it.
I think for me there’s been… Probably for the past 11 years, it’s just been relentless of just different project, after project, after project. I’ve not had any processing or evaluation time, and I think what’s happening now is that I got that. So just loosely thinking about projects and things that have happened. So that’s happening, but the thing that’s really keeping me in a creative space is the DJing. It feels like things have come back full circle. That I’ve gone back to two decks and a mixer, and checking records out, and playing tunes. And yeah, just doing that for people, really. So that’s a good thing, that’s a really really good thing.
Andrew Do you still call yourself a beatboxer? Is that the banner you go under, or have you moved on a long way since then?
Jason I don’t know. The thing is, for me, is that all the tags and the things that have ever come up, it’s not stuff that I’ve created. You know what I mean? I’m a beatboxer to some people, I’m a voice artist to others, I’m a vocal sound designer to other people. I don’t know. As far as personally, as I’m concerned, I’m a creator. Because as well as beatboxing, I produce, and I write, and I create all sorts of other stuff as well. It’s funny, people have been saying to me “Oh go on, beatbox on your show. Do your thing and…”, but I’m like, “I’m not really in that space”.
So right now I’m in a funny place really, because I don’t know really what I am. I’ve just gone back to the beginning of stuff, before there was “You’re a this, and I’m a that”, and “Hey, this is what I do”. I’m now like, “Yeah, I beatbox, I use my voice, I use technology. I work with plant biodata now and I do stuff with that stuff and…”, but I don’t know what that means. I don’t know what any of it actually means anymore. All those tags have been taken off, and I’m back to just “Here I am”. And what does that mean? I’m still creative, I still have some kind of output, but it’s not through the tags and the things that held the labels that people have known me by.
Andrew How deliberate is it? Let’s take it right back to the beginning. What did you want to do when you started? What were you working towards?
Jason In terms of creativity?
Jason I have been creating music since I was two, and that started off with rhythms. It started off with drums. And I never had the inclination or desire to be an artist. I never wanted to be a musician. Never wanted to be like, “Oh, I’m going to go make records”, or whatever. No interest in that. My only burning desire, and to the point of an absolute obsessiveness, was to make beats and make rhythms. And as a child, before you could communicate that, my mum said to me, she goes… She bought me a drum when I was two years old, and she goes “You just started playing rhythms”, and she goes “And I knew then, this… You’ve got music in you”. And I come from music people, so it’s in our family.
And then growing up, I’ve just obsessed over beats. Just completely obsessed over beats, and just for the thing of hearing rhythms, hearing grooves, and stuff. And when it became a thing, I’d say, is when I came to Manchester in 1993. I was 19, and I started DJing. I grew up with sound systems, but it was only… I was just… That was part of our upbringing. All our friends had sound systems. You help out and… Being exposed to all of that music. And that was just part and parcel of it. There was no desire to be something-something.
And then came to Manchester when I was 19, and then that’s when it was like, oh, I’d go to University, but that didn’t work out because I was still DJing. Oh, I did a job, something else. I was a van driver for a year or so. I was still making music. And then, just slowly, it was more, and then opportunities started coming in. I was teaching DJing skills, and I was doing things in music production, and then I was doing… But then also beatboxing, and I had a band, and I was running club nights, and it was just stuff. It was just all…
There’s never been a plan, you know what I mean? There’s never been “I am going to do this”, or “This is my five year duh duh duh”. I’ve never done that. And it’s weird because in terms of the time we’re in now, I’ve had these reconfigurations that have happened after certain periods of time. A community of people know me as an artist that does this, somebody else has known me for that, then I did another project which then changed my course of stuff. So the whole thing has just always been some strange journey of this, this, and that, and I just run with the passion of whatever I’m feeling at the time. So, yeah. There was never a plan.
Andrew Was there ever a time you thought you were going to be something else?
Jason Yeah, one of them… It’s funny, man, I was talking to my kids. They were saying, “Oh, daddy, what did you want to be when you grew up?”, and I was like, “Well, actually, when I was at school, funnily enough, when I was at school I had some thing about wanting to be a fireman”. And I remember the career’s person said “You’re not going to make a fireman. A, you wear glasses, so you’re not going to be able… You can’t see properly. And also…”. And there was all sorts of strange things that career teachers used to tell you. “Oh, I think you should do woodwork”. You know what I mean? “You should go and work in your local shop”. But yeah, to be honest, the fireman thing.
But I spent a bit of time in TV. I was a young actor at a theatre school in London, and there was talk of a promising acting career. And it was cool, I loved drama school. I used to go to the Anna Scher drama school in London, and there was parts and things that were coming up. Especially at a time where there wasn’t that much diversity in TV. So things like Grange Hill, Eastenders, that kind of vibe. There was all these potential inroads, but then that didn’t work out. And then when I came to Manchester I worked at Granada Television for a bit, worked in VT libraries. So there was a, “Oh, is it TV? Am I doing this stuff?”. But all through everything, through every single thing that I can remember, there’s always been music. Always been making stuff.
Andrew And so, what do your kids want to be?
Jason Well, my son, he says “Dad, I want to be a graffiti artist, I want to be a racing car driver”, and that’s his ambition. My daughter’s like “I want to be a dancer, I want to be an artist. I want to create things, I want to make things”. But to be honest with you, all of that stuff is… What is it, who knows?
Andrew Yeah. I was expecting you to say accountant or something like that. It always flips a generation, doesn’t it?
Jason Yeah. The thing is for me as well is that both me and their mum, we’ve never pushed the kids into any direction to do this, or be that. “I’m a this, so therefore you must be that”, or “I’ve got records and stuff so therefore you…”. Never ever done that with my kids. It’s very much about what they feel, and if they feel… This is what I say to my children, is that if today you feel like you want to be a scribbler on a piece of paper, be that. If tomorrow you find that you want to paint the wall, do that. If the day after you feel like you want to work in a shop, do that. But do what you feel is true to you. Do you know what I mean? Never… And I would never do that, and part of that is of my own upbringing. I was being told “Don’t do music, there’s no money in it. There’s no thing, there’s no career”, and I never did anything for a bloody career.
Andrew Yeah, but it must have been hard for you. The path that you’ve chosen is not the greatest get-rich-quick scheme in the world. Have there been times that you’ve found it really tough to keep just doing that?
Jason Yeah, man. I’ve been homeless, I’ve starved, I’ve not been able to pay my mortgage. I had… Me and my partner split up, and a lot of that was due to the lifestyle, and the being on tour and gigging, and not being around. Life has thrown many things at me. But, I truly believe this as well, is that music is not a path that I chose. Do you know what I mean? It chose me. There was a family business, there was all sorts of other opportunities of work and stuff. Music is the only thing that I feel like I’ve truly known, and I truly am.
So, all of it comes with… I still miss birthdays, I still miss anniversaries, I still miss family gatherings. There’s still a whole heap of headaches that come with being a musician, and being an artist, and creative. But I can’t… I know what I am here to do. I’m here to do what I do in terms of music. And that whole… And also, I’m never going to be rich from music. Do you know what I mean? It’s not a thing of, “Oh, this is my thing and I’m going to build…”, I’m not into that. The last 15, 20, 25 years have them themselves said, “Well, you’re doing this for now. And now there’s this, and then there’s that”, and there’s lots of different configurations of this thing.
Andrew Does it help that people appreciate that you do it?
Jason Does it help that people appreciate it? To be honest, not everybody appreciates it. I don’t know if this is the right word, but there’s still hate out there. And in terms of, say, for instance, with the beatboxing thing. I think sometimes there’s an expectation of what people expect me to be because I make rhythms with my voice, or I do particular things with my voice, and I’ve always been someone who’s gone against the grain of the mainstream. If ten people are doing that, I will purposefully not do that. Do you know what I mean? I will go the other direction, and it’s a lonely road. That’s the other place.
For many years, with the stuff that I was doing in terms of turntables and voice, people didn’t identify it with the culture that I grew up in. “That’s not Asian”, or “That’s not South Asian”, or “That’s not Indian”. Until I started working with particular artists, and then people started recognising my work.
Andrew But also, a lot of what you’re… Because, you think of beatboxing and DJing, you immediately think of hip-hop. And a lot of the music that you make is not hip-hop.
Jason No, exactly. For me, and also in terms of hip-hop as far as what I feel, is that hip-hop as a culture is what I was born into, and that was never about a genre of music. It was never isolated to a tempo or any sort of vocal thing. Hip-hop sound systems that I grew up around were playing a whole heap of stuff. Do you know what I mean? And some of that was beats, but there was a whole musical heritage that was happening there. As well as fashion, as well as lyrics, as well as DJing, as well as building sound systems. There’s a whole heap of things there.
In terms of the music I make, if you listen to so many of the samples that are used in tunes now, they come from all sorts of genres. And so I still feel like I’m connected to the hip-hop thing, but I don’t isolate myself to a random tempo. It is now just about frequency. It’s whatever the frequency is, and whatever those collections of frequencies are. If it moves me, that’s what I’m involved in.
Andrew See, if I was trying to file you away in a record store and struggling to… This record would probably have to go in the jazz section, this one would probably have to go in the ambient music section or experimental music section. What guides you? Where do you start with “Here is the music that I’m going to make”?
Jason This is it. There is never a… Whatever I start, in terms of, say, a musical template in a door or whatever, it starts blank. I never really know what I’m going to make. If there’s something that I’ll… If there’s some kind of groove or if there’s some kind of melody or something, I go, “Oh, right, okay”, then I’ll put that down. But if I start anything, it’s always usually from a blank slate.
But the thing about being categorised… It’s one of the reasons why I’ve always had issues with maybe getting a manager, or getting somebody to represent what I do. Because a lot of the comments that I’ve had over the years is that “You do so many different things. You’re doing stuff with textiles, then you’re doing stuff with beats, then you’re doing stuff with…”
Jason Yeah exactly, Springwatch, exactly. But the thing is, for me, is that that’s what it is. It’s all creativity. I’ve been trying to… I’ve had things trying to funnel me into touring or writing particular kinds of albums of particular genres, but that’s just not what I am. One day I will be working… I’m doing stuff with an orchestra, and the next day I am doing something with a poet, or whatever. It doesn’t matter now. And it also excites me that I can’t be categorised in terms of this stuff, because people do say that, “Oh, I saw your credit on this thing with that singer from Mali”, and then “but then you were just doing that thing over there with that free jazz thing”, and it’s like, but that’s great.
Andrew Yeah, they’re some of the people that you’ve collaborated with. And I want to ask you about that, actually. Let’s start here. Are you a solo artist, or are you a collaborator by nature?
Jason I think by nature I’m a collaborator. But in terms of what collaboration means, I like doing things in relationship or in response to something else. So for me, that’s the collaboration. So like now, doing stuff with plants. I might be me, but I’m in collaboration with another living thing. And that to me is… I could not have made or created that without the connection with that thing over there. Do you know what I mean? Similarly, if I’m with a human and I’m doing something, to me that’s also collaboration. So sometimes I might just work on my own, which might be recognised as being a solo, but it’s never really on my own. I’m always in response or in collaboration with something, whether it’s a loop pedal, whether it’s a plant, whether it’s a person. It’s never truly like, “It’s me”.
Andrew Right. You’re in dialogue with the world, is what you’re saying.
Jason That’s a great way of putting it, Dubber. I’m in dialogue with the world. Yeah.
Andrew Interesting. In fact, I had this conversation ten years ago with Nitin Soni, and I had it again with him very recently when we spoke. And he has this idea of catharsis from music. Music is just about getting whatever’s inside you out. And you seem to be, “No, music is responding to the stuff that happens around you”. How do you work those two ideas?
Jason At the beginning, when I think I became conscious of the fact that my world, my music world, is 24/7. The melodies, the rhythms, the textures… It’s all happening all the time. But to communicate that as a way of creating, when I was around people that had been to music school, or people who were DJs, or people who, you know, “I’ve learned Cubase VST, blah blah blah”… When I was around those people, for me to say, “Well, actually, I hear music when I press the buzzer on the traffic pedestrian crossing, or if I’m opening my car door. There’s beats there”, to say that was quite… I didn’t. I felt very vulnerable saying stuff like that because sometimes I’d get laughed at. Sometimes it was like, “Oh, you’re weird”, or whatever.
When I started doing the stuff with bird song, and people started seeing it as a thing, around the time when people started celebrating the dawn chorus and connecting with wildlife in that way, then that gave me almost a confidence that, “Well, if you think this is just about birdsong, here’s some other stuff that incorporates into this”.
So to me, there’s a never-ending source of inspiration which is non-verbal, and it’s not… Right now, there’s a shutter opening across the road there, and it bleeps as it goes on. There’s a whole musical thing that’s happening there. Now I’ve learnt to go… Because in a way, it’s a never-ending pot of inspiration and source of creativity when you can hear the music in everything. I don’t know. Now I feel very lucky that I’ve got that, because sometimes I’ll be around artists saying “I’m not doing stuff, man. I’m not really boosted about anything”, or “I’m not really enjoying anything”, and it’s like, “Okay, wow”.
Andrew Yeah, so you’re responding to the world around you. You’ve gravitated in towards plants. What are you doing with plants? And how does it work, and why do you do it?
Jason Okay. On one level, it’s nothing new. People have been working with data and plant biodata for many many years. About, maybe, six or seven years ago I came across an artist called… I’m going to have to get this name right, Mileece? And she’s based in LA. And basically, I saw this video of this artist who was making, generating, music from electrical signals from plants. And I’d read a book many years ago called The World is Sound, and in it, it talks about how all things vibrate, and there’s a frequency from all things, and so many different concepts and things. Both musically, spiritually, and technically. And it tapped into that, listening to this artist making these things, and I was blown away by it. But I didn’t understand the technology. A lot of it was custom built modular systems, so I had no idea what was going on.
And then over the years, still just having that interest, I was commissioned by Chester Zoo with a collective of artists. We called ourselves The Awekids Collective. And one of the things that Chester Zoo were interested in was this concept of plant blindness, where people come to see the animals in the zoo but they neglect the environment and the stuff around plants, that the animals really rely on. So we were looking at this whole concept of plant blindness and they said, “Is there something…”, and as soon as they said plant blindness, I was like, “Oh, okay, there is this thing that I’d like to explore, and it’s about taking the plants and getting people to become aware of plants through sound. Through the signals that run through them, through the energies that run through them”. Everyone was just like, “What the hell are you doing? What are you talking about?”.
And then I found this company in Italy who produced technology that basically convert the electrical signals from the plants into MIDI, and that was the initial thing. And then as soon as I got it, it just made sense to me. It made sense to me that I’m attaching these sensors to listen to… To take these electrical signals that are… And the thing was, on one hand, the botany team, the horticulturalists at Chester Zoo, they were going “This is mumbo jumbo, man. Plants don’t have emotions”, and all that, and I was like, “I’m not exploring that”. But I was saying, “But can you please confirm, is electricity being generated by the plants?”, and they said, “Yes, that’s what is happening”. So I thought, that’s all I need to know.
And then when I started attaching these devices, the stuff that started coming out… To me, that was a shift. Because for so many years, like you said, I’ve collaborated with so many different artists, so many different musicians, creatives, but to collaborate now with a plant, with a living organism that is non-human in that way… To me, that was like, “This is what… This is exciting”. Do you know what I mean? And so I was just attaching the sensors, all this music’s coming out through Ableton and my modular synths and stuff, and I’m like, “This is amazing”. So that’s how that kind of stuff started.
And then what’s happened is that I’ve then brought together the thing around my voice, and then responding to the plants and creating works and installations that explore plants and the human body, basically, and it’s been amazing. And just before lockdown I got a commission from Kew Gardens, and it was to be one of… The biggest thing, actually, to sonify The Temperate House. Yeah. And I cannot tell you… Just to be asked to do that was incredible. And previous to that I did an installation at Wollaton Hall in Nottingham, which has got this beautiful cast iron glasshouse with Camellia in there, and that’s what really kick-started that whole thing to create compositions from plants.
Andrew See, I would go into something like that wondering “What if the plants aren’t actually any good at music? What if the sounds that they make actually generate terrible sounds?”, but I guess you’ve got some control over what the ultimate output is because you’re the musician in the equation.
Jason Exactly. And the thing is, what I’m exploring is plant as composer. I don’t want to control. I don’t really want to control what the plant is generating. So, for example, when I was working with a Camellia at Wollaton… The original commission was something else. When I started listening to the recordings that I made, it was emotionally impacting me in a negative way. So I was like, “Why do I feel…? Why is it that I come to the studio, I listen to these recordings, and I feel in a particular kind of way?”. Then I started researching the plants, and then I found out that the plants themselves were in an unfit state. They’re basically been kept alive, because they’re not supposed to be in glasshouses. And they’re been eaten by aphids, and there was all this stuff.
And then when I was listening back to these compositions, I was like, okay, I don’t want to go into any scenario saying that, “Oh my god, this is an emotional response by the plants, doing this”, but I would just… I gave the compositions to different people, said, “Just listen to this and tell me how it makes you feel”, and they all said the same thing. “I’m sorry man, but this is horrible. It makes me feel sad, I feel down”. And then when we came to actually installing the installation, people’s comments, who I’ve never met… There was no real deep, elaborate explanation about what the work is, it was just the thing of “The music that you are hearing is being generated by plants”. So many people had just question, after question, after question about how it was making them feel, the space, people’s own interactions about space, nature, landscape, environment. And to me, that’s what it was. So I didn’t control it, I was just letting the plants to do.
When I came then to working at Kew Gardens, then it was like, “Okay, well, there’s this plant that is now extinct in the wild in New Zealand. Right, so how do I communicate this to a public that may not necessarily listen to sound and relate those to plants?”. So lots of different questions there. So it’s a mixture. It’s a mixture of like, “This is a free exploration”, and also, “Well, actually, I want to help people, or guide it in some way”. But I love the fact that it’s the plant that is the composer. It is the plant that is generating that stuff, and in a way, I’m just a conduit. The facilitator between those processes of people hearing it, and the plant creating it.
Andrew Right. But, presumably, your preference is to work with plants who aren’t under distress all the time?
Jason No. I’m actually open to work with all plants, because, in a similar way that if I’m doing workshops with people who are suffering from PTSD, or I’m doing stuff in a jump-up scenario in a youth centre down the road, to me it’s all about, again, exploring the vast range of emotion. The vast range of things that are going on within a human life. Do you know what I mean? So I’m interested in that.
Andrew I’ll move this out of the plant context for a bit, because that’s a really interesting angle. Because not just the sound of distress, or the output of distress… How can music help to address these sorts of things, do you think?
Jason My goodness. First of all, man, I had no idea when I started any of this the feedback or the comments that I would get through these works. When we released the album Sounds of… My goodness, Sounds from the Grassland Village, it’s been a while now. When we did that with Chester Zoo, the thing’s on Spotify now, there were so many different people emailing in saying “I’ve listened to these pieces of music. I use them for yoga, I use them for meditation, I use them for sleep. My pets, they listen to this stuff and it’s sending them crazy”.
Jason Right? But not just one thing, several people in lots of different scenarios would be writing similar things about how it’s making their pets feel. And it wasn’t made with any intention other than just wanting to sonify the plants and see what happens. So that album, in particular, has had a really vast impact in terms of what people use it for.
Andrew Well, let’s talk, just really quickly… Because you mentioned you’re working with people with PTSD, for instance, and I guess if you’re not going to say, “Well, these plants have emotions”, certainly these people do. And the music that you make with them, does that change that emotional state? Does that help?
Jason Yeah, sometimes it has. So when I’ve been doing stuff with Awekids, for instance, we’ve had the setup set up, It’s generating the sounds, and at first, people have come in and they’ve been resilient. “That’s not doing that, that’s not doing that”. Then they’ll sit with the music, then they’ll ask questions, then they’ll learn things. And then what’ll happen is that it starts off like they’re asking about the plants, but then by the time we’ve chatted, and discussed, and listened, people are asking about themselves and the plants. And what you’re finding is, there’s this… Almost like a holistic cycle of curiosity about something that’s external. But then the questions that come out are like, “It makes me feel like this, I didn’t know it would make me feel like this. Oh, I’ve got an Orchid, and it’s been, duh duh duh. Oh, is that why such and such?”. So there’s all this stuff that then relates back to people’s own wellbeing.
Andrew Have you got any dream collaborators? A Giant Redwood, or a…?
Jason Well, I would absolutely love to go to a Redwood forest and record the trees there. The project at Kew was basically the dream. To be given open access to the temperate house at Kew Gardens to generate these compositions, and a live installation based on that, that was like, “This was the dream come true”. And weirdly enough, I actually wrote it down as an intention of like, “I hope one day I get to work with Kew”, and then the year later it’s… So, there’s that.
But to be honest with you, I think, just, exactly what I said at the beginning of this interview is that I’m just not in a place… I’m in a weird place right now, because I’m doing… I’ve set up my binaural microphone setup, and I’m going into the woods and just doing live broadcasts of the space, just so that people can experience… Who are maybe in their own homes or whatever, experience that environment. I don’t feel inclined to go, “Oh, right, now I’m going to set up the sensors, and now you can hear, yo, you can hear the Oak tree.” I’m in a place of reflection and questioning and re-evaluating, I think, at the minute. Because also, like I said, so much of my work is built upon the passion of what’s happening at that moment, so if it’s like, “Wow, right now I’m totally feeling making music from tapping glasses”, then that’s what I roll with until something else happens. But right now it’s gone to like, “Well, I don’t know where I am right now”.
Andrew Right. Music is inherently a cultural thing, and you strike me as somebody who’s very much of more than one culture. That you span a whole lot of different backgrounds, and influences, and tastes, and so on. Is what you do rooted in culture in any way that you can think of?
Jason I think it’s rooted in people. It’s rooted in… If I meet a person, and that person brings their whole life, which includes their culture, that’s what I’m interested in. So all those exchanges, musical, food, textile, whatever, language… I’m interested in that because, fundamentally, the question for me is “What the hell is this all about? What is this thing that we are in for a short space of time, and then we’re not?”. And to connect with people of different cultures, different geographical spaces, different ages, I’m interested in that. So the music comes as part of that.
So now, looking… Playing stuff out of my music collection, for instance, people say, “Oh my god, it’s totally… It’s so vast and varied”, but to me, that’s people. That’s tapping into all those different lives, and cultures, and experiences that I’ve had, and I’m lucky to have. Do you know what I mean? And whereas, maybe say in the beginning, it was… Oh, well actually between 1999 and 2003 most of my record collection was just drum and bass. You know what I mean? It’s just that. But that says a lot about where I was at that time, and the people that I was around. So it is connected to culture, but I think it’s connected to human beings. It’s connected to that thing of, “What’s your experience?”.
For instance, when you and I worked together in Australia. The experience of working with people of a completely different culture, that I had no connection to, but actually going, “Well, I’ve come from Manchester, and you’re from here, you’re from Melbourne, and there’s things that you are experiencing that I experience”. And there was something quite of a relief just to get that. And I think that’s what I really love, Andrew. I love that thing of connecting with people in different places and going, “Are you really that different from me?”. Do you know what I mean? Like, “Do you do this? Have you had that? Do you experience this?”. And more often than not, that… Yeah. It was that. Connection with people.
Andrew We intersected again when you came to Music Tech Fest, the first time I came to Music Tech Fest, and that was a little while ago. But tell me about how you got there and what your experience was.
Jason I should be interviewing you, mate, for that. How incredible that journey is. Man, I… Michela got in touch with me about coming to this place… Ravensbourne University? Greenwich? To do some stuff. I don’t even know how we… I don’t know how it all happened. Anyway, what blew me away about that was, to be honest, it wasn’t “This is Music Tech Fest, come check out all this gear”. It wasn’t about that. What blew me away was these people in this room, questioning, talking, discussing, sharing. The power of being in that space in those early days, right, where it wasn’t a thing, it wasn’t like… It was minds just in a space, and we all had a similar passion to communicate things through technology. And I cannot tell you how lucky, and thankful, and grateful for those experiences… Because they went on to inform so much of what I do now, in terms of asking the questions about the tech that I use, the things that I’m inspired by.
And so, Music Tech Fest was this collective, this posse of people, who were from so many different backgrounds and different vibes, and the things that sometimes you were embarrassed or scared about to chat to your cratediggers community… You could go, “So, look man, you know when you play this tune and you get this fuzzy thing happen in your head, right? Or you eat something and you hear a tone just over here, do you get that?”, “Yeah man, that’s a thing. It’s called synaesthesia, man, it’s because duh duh duh”. That could not have happened in any other environment for me, you know? So MTF, to see where it started and how that thing has grown into this incredible thing of spaces, and places, and people, and policy, and festivals, and… That’s next level, man.
Andrew Well, you know I basically never went home after that. I arrived and stayed, so yeah, I know exactly what you’re talking about. That weird tribe of people who just get it.
Jason And it’s the weird tribe, man. It’s the weird tribe. And what’s incredible about the weird tribe is the passion for questioning. The passion of, “This isn’t the end. Hey man, this thing, this is not the final thing. It is just work in progress of where we are now”. And to me, man, that is the most incredible space to be in because, Andrew, I have to say, still around the globe, there are promoters, organisations, funding bodies, who are not open to be risky. Who are not open, who are not… They don’t want to take the risk.
And the amazing thing about Music Tech Fest is the constant thing of risk. The constant questioning, and the constant pushing of… You don’t know who’s going to be in the room, you don’t know what’s going to happen. You might, I would go with one, “Oh, yeah, man. Hey look, I’ve got a live looping thing, oh, look what I do”, right? Coming away going, “Okay man, no, now there’s a thing called paper controllers. So the stuff that I was using, no, now it’s going to cardboard”. And you can only have that with people, and places, and spaces that are open enough to touch that void.
Andrew Right. One of the moments that stands out as an all-time high for me of all of Music Tech Fest was London 2014, and you’re on stage with Yazz Ahmed, and Leafcutter John, and Tim Exile.
Jason Tim Exile, that’s right, yeah.
Andrew And it was a 30 minute improvised performance that nobody, certainly not the people on the stage, had expected. And it just happened. Is that something that happens to you normally, or is that something that…?
Jason No, man. First of all, that was at St Lukes, Old Street. Yeah. The thing about that gig, in particular, was I was absolutely petrified because Tim Exile was in the room. But not only was it, “All right, yeah, I’ve heard Tim’s music”, and I’m like “Yeah, man, Tim Exile”, but then it’s like, “Okay, hey, man, you guys jam. You guys create something”. Now, to be in that scenario… Because to me, although I use technology, I’m not a technologist. I’m not a coder, I’m not a programmer, I don’t take things apart, to the level that some of my peers are just in a completely different realm. For me, technology… Yeah. I feel like I’m at a certain place with it.
Now, that… When we got asked to do that gig… To be working with Yazz. Yazz I wanted to work with for so many years, and knowing of her music and the stuff that she created, in terms of a trumpet player, it was amazing. Like, “This is fascinating and incredible”. And then to have Tim in the mix there… No one knew what was going to happen. Do you know what I mean? And it was very much of… I reckon it’s like something that…
There was something recently about the Miles Davis documentary that came on, when he was talking about Herbie Hancock and the younger team of musicians that he brought together. It was, “Here’s the stage, just make it”. And I think somebody said on that thing that “Miles was paying us to make mistakes in the gig”. Right? Now, in a way, and I’m not saying it was exactly like that, but what was really beautiful was a once in a lifetime opportunity to be working with two musicians that I love and respect, and creating. That was gold. And nobody knew what was going to happen. There was a few little, “Oh, here’s a little sketch of something and a something”. And Tim, obviously, with his scenario which was just all completely live and improvised. It was a very special moment.
Andrew It is a tightrope, and it is a, “It could all go horribly wrong at any moment”. I’ve been doing Music Tech Fest for six years. It almost never goes wrong. You put smart people together, who are creative and interesting, and they have this feeling that they could fail at any moment, but I’ve learned that that’s not actually what tends to happen. Do you get to the point with your own creativity where you think, “Actually, I have the confidence that I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I know it’s going to be cool in some way”?
Jason The thing for me is, A, I thrive with the fear of not knowing. One thing I can’t do, I can’t be involved in projects that I know what’s going to happen after, say, twice or three times of being involved. Because I know what’s going to happen then. And then what I feel is, personally, there’s a level of complacency that sets in of like, “Well, I know then I’ll be able to do this as a safe thing. I’ll be able to do that”. What I thrive on is the moment, or being in those scenarios, and projects, and environments where I don’t know what’s going to happen.
But a thing that I trust is not on the output, it’s on the people that are involved in it. So knowing of Tim’s work, for instance, I know he’s an improviser. I know he’s a person that makes from nothing. Similarly with Yazz. That’s the thing that excites me, is going, “Well, okay, as long as I can trust the people in the space, on the stage, or whatever, whatever comes out will come out”. And in a way, I like the thing of like, “This could all go somewhere completely sideways, or it could just all fall flat on it’s face”. But to me, that’s where the interesting stuff happens.
Andrew And I guess technology is the thing that you can rely on to hold it all up. Is that your relationship with…?
Jason Not really.
Jason No. I wouldn’t say I can rely on it. There are certain things… For instance, even to this day, I never use my laptop as a creation instrument on stage. I’m just not of that generation, I don’t think. Hardware. This thing’s got a knob on it, and sliders, and faders, and that’s what I… I think it comes from the DJ mixer thing. You use a crossfader, it does this, this, and that. To me, I like those… I love that way of working, which is why I use those samplers, and I use those effects machines, and particular kinds of pedals that allow me to thing. And I trust in them, but there’s a whole heap of technology that I don’t trust. I don’t trust my iPad, I don’t trust my laptop. And it is just me. What I do love is that there’s certain plugins, or there’s certain effects and things that I use, and I love having the access to them in a live scenario or in a production scenario.
But now, of all the gear that I have, of everything, all the hardware, and the software, and the plugins, and the duh duh duh, I’ve come back to two decks and a mixer. You know what I mean? No effects, no nothing, just two turntables that I’ve had for nearly 30 years and a mixer. And now I’m going back to articulating something through that. Do you know what I mean? But if that fails then maybe it’ll be my voice. But then even the technology of my body, the architecture of what I am, has failed me. I went to do a gig in Singapore and on the way, and it was completely a voice project, I got a throat infection. So by the time I landed in Singapore I can’t do the gig. So it’s a weird one because all the technologies could let you down.
Andrew Sure. Jason, thanks so much for your time today.
Jason Thanks, Andrew.
Andrew Cheers. Really appreciate it.
Jason No, you’re welcome, man. Thank you.
Andrew That’s Jason Singh. I’m Andrew Dubber, and that’s the MTF podcast. Now, you can check out Jason’s daily live streaming video, vinyl only, DJ set 9 to 10 AM UK time every single day. Two turntables and a microphone, completely live. It’s called The Daily Dose and it’s on Mixcloud, link in the post that accompanies this episode. You can also find Jason on Twitter @JasonSinghThing, and you can find me there as well, I’m @Dubber. You’ll also find Music Tech Fest @MusicTechFest on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Youtube, and wherever else you might happen to socially mediate. Now, don’t forget to subscribe to the podcast if you haven’t already. It just means that it turns up each week automatically, for free, and you can share, like, rate, review, and tell your friends. In the meantime, have a great week, stay safe, and we’ll talk soon. Cheers.