It's always a treat to be granted the opportunity to talk with an endlessly creative artist who also happens to be a real gentleman. And for over three decades Mark Spybey has been as prolific as he has been ever changing, evolving his style from the early improvisational efforts to some of the more concrete structures and soundforms of recent years. Zoviet France, Dead Voices On Air, Beehatch, Reformed Faction and who could forget Download, the collaboration with Cevin Key which merely represents the most well-known of Spybey's many, many collaborations. Over the years it has seemed as though Spybey refuses to slow down and, in fact, seems to be gaining momentum in some respects. Just look at his present workload toward the end of this interview. It was an honor to be able to have a chat with Mark and we at DTC appreciate his time and consideration.
Interview by Christopher Roddy
DTC: I've read about your ideas regarding the Punk movement in the late Seventies and I'm curious as to your thoughts on the so-called "Electropunk" scene of the past decade. Does attaching the term "...punk" to electronic music seem to you to be a kind of cop-out or an attempt to latch onto a style that truly captured a moment in time like few styles ever could? While it certainly isn't the first time since the early days that people have tried to replicate what occurred in Rock music over three decades ago does the DIY aesthetic of the latest generation have as much validity or does it seem to you as though they're merely attempting to falsely "create" a movement that rings a little hollow?
Mark Spybey: I have never really understood the need to comfortably define nor inhabit genres of music. I find it limiting. The punk movement in the UK in the late Seventies was born out of social, political and cultural necessity. It was a logical conclusion but the creative inspiration died as soon as it became an accepted movement or fashion and I think a lot of bands of recent years emulate the fashionistas as opposed to Sandinistas. Style is unimportant, intention is everything. I don’t think contemporary electronic music is motivated by the same social and political tensions as punk was plus I think electronic music is just a description of how music is made as opposed to it being a movement. I would urge anyone who thinks that electropunk is anything other than a weak regurgitation, to go on iTunes and listen to Metal Urbain, a French punk band from 1978 who melded guitar music with Dik Mik/Del Dettmar of Hawkwind or Allen Ravenstine from Pere Ubu like electronics. Try the track ‘Hysterie Connective,’ or ‘Paris Maquis.’ 1978, Rough Trade Records.
DTC: What, in your opinion, is modern "Industrial" lacking that made it so relevant and striking in the Eighties?
Mark Spybey: I have to confess that it was neither relevant nor exciting to me. I think industrial music was essentially adopted by North Americans in the early nineties long after its sell by date ended and by that time the music was pedestrian at best. I think that ‘industrial’ implements have always been used to make music but if I listen to something like Neubaten (who I love) I hear the traditions of German music, it is obvious that they have knowledge of their culture, I hear the sound of the changing faces of Berlin. I have never thought that I make industrial music. I come from a background which eschewed classification and was as interested in African music, gamelan, folk music, country and western and The Beach Boys as Throbbing Gristle. And I doubt Throbbing Gristle would have existed if it wasn’t for The Beach Boys.
DTC: So what has your ear there days?
Mark Spybey: I’m really into all sorts of music at the moment, as I always have been. In the car today I listened to Don Cherry, Ronald Shannon Jackson, Will Oldham, Pole, U-Roy and on any given day I am likely to listen to The Fall at least once. I still buy a lot of music.
DTC: A lot of your music is tagged with the dreaded "Ambient" description yet that restricting label doesn't seem to truly encompass everything you've accomplished with your broad scope. So how do you view your music? Are genre/subgenre/microgenre descriptions like "dark," experimental" or even "Industrial" relevant anymore? Are they intrinsically unfair?
Mark Spybey: These genres were never terribly relevant nor accurate. But I am afraid I can at least live with the word ‘ambient.’ Wasn’t it Satie who coined the term, ‘furniture music?’ There is a great tradition of ‘ambient’ music. Whereas the term Industrial says nothing to me. I would encourage anyone who thinks otherwise to listen to D.A.F. I love this band. They blow that deadpan, angry tousled hair EBM meat-hook, jack boot look out of the water. The music is full of humour, it’s camp and yet it is visceral too. I find D.A.F incredibly human. I’m not just being a contrarian here. This is serious!
DTC: Then how would you describe your output to someone who is entirely unfamiliar with your work?
Mark Spybey: I have a hard time describing what I do but I never use the word ‘Industrial.’ I usually say, “it’s like…ambient music.” This is a necessity as I meet many people who have no idea of what I do and it probably doesn’t matter that they don’t understand where I am coming from.
DTC: Does having a career outside of music keep you grounded in the real world and keep your music more vital than, say, a full-time touring musician far removed from ordinary, day-to-day life?
Mark Spybey: I would say that I have never wanted to make music a career, which is probably wise as most of the musicians I know can’t pay their rent and in the US don’t have medical insurance.
DTC: Why did you start making music? Did you have early training and experience with music as a child? What were your goals in the beginning and how have they evolved over the years?
Mark Spybey: I am not a convincing musician! I make art and I think my desire has always been to make art. In the company of musicians my cover is easily blown but I happen to believe that technique can be an obstacle or a series of self imposed rules that most musicians find difficult to transcend. Great musicians transcend these obstacles, Miles Davis for example. Most simply do not and become increasingly obsessed with technical mastery. I find that approach stagnant. Most end up making music that sounds as though it was created by a production line in a rather mundane factory. I have always been attracted to the work of non-musicians or those who have sought to consciously unlearn.
I didn’t set out to make music per se. Now I have an outlet for my work, which means I can do whatever I want.
DTC: Is there anything you've recorded that you wish you could just take back? How do you view your body of work and do you categorize it from worst to best or does it all hold a special place in your heart due to the fact that it captured a specific point in your life?
Mark Spybey: Releases are documents. I think recording an album in a weekend, which I did with some early releases, kind of says a lot.
DTC: So then, given the "documents" metaphor, you must be able to put on your old records and enjoy them in a reminiscent sense.
Mark Spybey: I tend to not listen to my own work, only to reference it if I am preparing a live concert or to remind myself of times past in rare moments of nostalgia. I rarely enjoy listening to my own music. I would say that the only exceptions are with Beehatch, Reformed Faction and some of the collaborations I am doing at the moment. I think this is because of the others involved. The fact that I like and respect the people involved and I think I can listen to what, say, Phil Western and Robin Storey do and feel good about the fact that I am working with them and that I love the music they create. I am always engaged with what I am doing in the present, very rarely with what I did in the past.
DTC: What was it like working with Cevin on the first couple Download albums? Were those sessions as wild as they sound on record? How did you wind up performing vocals and from where did you draw inspiration?
Mark Spybey: It was great. I think there was chemistry. The sessions were not wild from my perspective. Furnace was culled from lengthy improvisations, The Eyes Of Stanley Pain was a studio album. We worked hard. There was a very strong work ethic. I have always used my voice in making music. At the time I was very interested in using natural sources of sound and processing them. So the voice is about as natural and available a medium as it gets.
DTC: Word has it you two will be teaming up again in the near future.
Mark Spybey: Word is correct.
DTC: Will it be something similar to Download or do you guys have other plans?
Mark Spybey: I don’t know what will transpire and I never enter a project with the knowledge of how it will develop.
DTC: Much of your work eschews lyrics and vocals in favor of sonic tapestries that possess a language entirely their own. In your estimation have vocals become a little passé in music? Doesn't it seem as though in spite of everything going on in the world and the rise of the "social networking" site that no one really has anything to say anymore?
Mark Spybey: I’m not sure that is accurate anymore. Most of the Download songs I sang on had lyrics, most of the albums I have contributed words to since Piss Frond have had written lyrics. I sincerely doubt that vocals or lyrics will ever be passé and on the contrary, in a sea of blabber there is a critical need to articulate effectively through the use of words. We are just immersed in this sea of blabber and it is perhaps harder to separate the noise from the meaning of words. As I said earlier, I have used my voice to create sounds and yes, I think I attempted to transcend literal meaning. When I was a kid I would rarely be able to literally translate what a lot of singers were actually saying. I think I waited a long time to realize that it obviously doesn’t really matter what they were saying, what mattered is the way the music made me feel and I would argue that, primarily, words have a visceral as opposed to an intellectual impact.
DTC: What did you learn through your collaboration with David Wright of Not Breathing? Did he provide a renewed sense of creativity in your own career through his use of hand-tailored instruments?
Mark Spybey: The hand tailored instruments came after we worked together. Dave is a great guy, totally unique. At the age of 23 he could make electronic music as good as anyone I know. It has always been a joy to be around him and we are still working together.
DTC: Okay, so can you explain the chemistry between yourself and Robin Storey? You two have been collaborating for so long now and it would be interesting to gain some insight as to why you make such a great and long-lasting team.
Mark Spybey: Robin and I did not see each other for something like 13 years between 1988 and 2001. In Zoviet-France we worked together for less than two years. We started Reformed Faction in 2004 I think, so although we have known each other for some time we haven't really been working together for a long time. Robin is as close as it gets to where I am musically. I think he has to make music, as though he does not have a choice. There are only a few people I have met who are like that. Michael Karoli and Jaki Liebezeit from Can shared this kind of drive I think. Robin and I like to work together and we can play great concerts without rehearsing or talking about what we want to do. I think those kinds of working relationships are not common.
DTC: I have to confess that in spite of the fact that I've been a huge Voivod fan since the mid Eighties I was unaware until recently that you did a project with Blacky (Jean-Yves Thériault). I'm still trying to figure out how I missed that one but I guess I can't stumble upon everything as it happens. How did that come to fruition and how do you regard the end result?
Mark Spybey: I’d not heard of Voivod. I used to rent CDs from a store close to where I lived and the guy who ran the store was Jean-Yves. He was very modest about his musical past and we just clicked. Gradually we got closer and we decided to do some music. Someone else had to tell me about Jean-Yves’ past and I was surprised! I haven’t listened to this CD for many years but I remember being very happy with it for lots of reasons. It was also released by a very good friend of mine, so the whole experience has good memories.
DTC: Are creating and recording music things that you could ever see yourself giving up? Can we always count on Mark Spybey to challenge us with new compositions and interesting aural adventures?
Mark Spybey: I could give it up. I don’t want to. I think my life would be very different if I wasn’t able to be creative.
DTC: The music you make tends to appeal to a very select group of listeners but are there ways to expand the audience for these little-known styles? It seems like harsh music such as Death Metal can often actually chart these days due to aggressively utilizing the internet to promote growth and success but when it comes to Electro, Industrial, Ambient and the like there's rarely any growth beyond a small, static, niche market. Do you think there's even any desire to see these styles build popularity?
Mark Spybey: I don’t know is the honest answer! Some people transcend the niche market don’t they? Weren’t Nine Inch Nails, Ministry and Marilyn Manson incredibly successful commercially? Moby? The styles you refer to are last year's thing though aren’t they? Well, last decade's thing! It’s all nostalgia as far as I can see. When I have toured it is really worrying that folks will give you these demos that sound like a poor version of Skinny Puppy from the Eighties. I can’t imagine it’s flattering for the musicians in question for this to happen. I think the greatest flaw in the ‘styles’ you mention is their inability to assimilate new ideas into their music. I think that is what made Download so special to me. I felt we were cutting edge for a while. Most musicians I respect would prefer to be known as being influential as opposed to successful.
DTC: Having been involved in music for so long now what does the evolution of the past three decades look like from your eyes? Some say things like quality and creativity are degenerating overall while others claim things have never been so free and open with the prospects seeming to be limitless. Where do you stand and how do you view the current state and climate in the industry?
Mark Spybey: Well, the industry would appear to be freefalling. It can’t keep up with the mechanics of distribution. It will of course continue but in a slightly different form I suspect. Those who seek to make money are probably very anxious at the moment but for those of us who don’t really care about money, well the options do seem to be rather exciting. Except, in times of economic collapse, it is always the minority groups who suffer the most. Those with money will do everything they can to ensure they look after themselves. So fewer people will take risks if it means they will lose money from flying you here and there to do odd concerts or booking tours etc. We are probably in the midst of an exciting time but it feels uncomfortable for many at the moment. I just keep going and have developed some very exciting links, such as the one with Lens Records from Chicago who are nothing other than supportive. I don’t think I deserve special treatment, so I always put a great deal of energy into supporting folks like Lens who do what they do out of a love for music and are prepared to take risks in order to create good products.
DTC: I know you've got some upcoming projects. Care to give us a hint on what to expect in the near future from your camp?
Mark Spybey: More of the same. There is a new Dead Voices On Air CD out in September, a Beehatch live DVD and a download of a project with a friend called Richard Sanderson; all on Lens over the next three months. I am recording a new Beehatch record and a vinyl release for both Reformed Faction and Dead Voices On Air for a Russian label. I am also working with Simon Fisher Turner on a project called mzmz lalalala. Simon releases on Mute Records and in addition to releasing a lot of albums, he did many of the soundtracks for the films of Derek Jarman. I’m also doing some collaborations with Not Breathing and Robert Scott Thompson. I’m pretty busy I guess.
DTC: Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us, Mark.
Mark Spybey: Best wishes.