Norwegian Ice Broke Squarepusher, but He's All the Better for It on 'Be Up a Hello'
A broken hand forced the electronic mastermind back to his earliest methods, while personal loss shaped his current perspective
Published Jan 29, 2020Beware the ice in Norway. It's dangerous. It's also where the story of Be Up a Hello, the latest album by Squarepusher, aka Tom Jenkinson, begins.
"At the start of 2018, I was in Norway and I slipped on some ice — broke my left wrist," Jenkinson tells Exclaim! "That would be a big deal for anyone, but you can then picture what that would be like for a guitar player. It was pretty stressful, but you have to shake yourself and say, 'Alright, what's the way forward?'"
For Jenkinson, the way forward was actually to go backwards. Unable to play guitar, and looking for some comfort in a difficult time, he returned to equipment from his early days, dusting off machines like the TR-909, TB-303, SH-101, Korg MS-20, and a slew of other (now) vintage hardware. "I had a period of reflection, and just thought that, out of all this stress, I just wanted to go back and start again. Go back to first principles, as it were, and get back to the gear that I started out making electronic music with. The vast majority of this stuff is the exact equipment I was using in 1992."
As if a stifling bone-break wasn't enough trauma for Jenkinson, he also lost a close friend. Chris Marshall (to whom the record is dedicated) was friends with Jenkinson back when they were mere pups, tinkering with machines, trying to figure out how synthesis worked. Marshall's death, in Jenkinson's eyes, only solidified the need to return to his formative methods.
"I really cherish those days, and it brought me back to thinking about that whole era after he passed," says Jenkinson. "That re-affirmed this desire to go back to that world of equipment. First of all, just to go back to it for fun, to be honest. No particular direction, just doing it for the sheer hell of it. I was having a whale of a time. It was a form of therapy for me."
Listening to Be Up A Hello, it's tempting to say that it's a return to the classic Squarepusher sound, but what is that really? Sure, it's got breakneck drum patterns, jittery acid bass lines and an overall drill and bass sheen to it, but that doesn't make a Squarepusher sound. In fact, we're not entirely sure what does.
If you look at his back catalogue, it's simply too varying to pin down. You might think you've got him pegged with jungle-centric records like Hard Normal Daddy and Big Loada, but jazzy curveballs like Budakhan Mindphone and Solo Electric Bass 1 are just as common. His most recent effort, All Night Chroma, is a collection of compositions played exclusively on the Royal Festival Hall's Harrison & Harrison organ. Put simply, he's someone who has always stuck a bass-worn finger in the face of expectation.
"If you look at my output over the years, the reason it's kind of a mess, is because I just follow my interests," says Jenkinson. "Like anyone's interests, they vary throughout time. The music industry wants you to be a brand. It wants you to be coherent, so they can go and sell your stuff like it's peanut butter. The problem is, the person behind the brand is a human being; you learn, things change, you disagree with things that you might have thought in the past. Music, for me, reflects that whether I like it or not. My lifeline is just doing what I find interesting at a given point, and so far that's worked. I'm still in business. It means that there is an unevenness in my work, but so what?"
It's easy to get trapped doing the same thing, especially if you're good at it. When Squarepusher was getting exceedingly popular in the late '90s, Jenkinson switched gears entirely. He released a fusion record called Music Is Rotted One Note, partly as a "fuck you" to the drum and bass box he'd been put in, but mostly because that's just where his interests led him at that time. For him, following any other path would be a death sentence.
"I call this the Kraftwerk problem," says Jenkinson. "They built this incredible sound, they were great innovators, and it was all packaged up with this amazing philosophy and image. It changed the world, but then they got stuck. I can't help but suspect that after 20-plus years they were like, 'I'm fucking sick of Autobahn now. I just want a different beat,' but the world won't let them. It's like a fossil now. I love them, but it's a fossil. My apologies to Kraftwerk if that's wrong, but even if it is, the principle stands.
"I believe that happens across the board, and it's what happens when you try to market an activity that's based in human frailty, change, fluidity, vulnerability. The whole thing is about retaining your enthusiasm, because without that there's nothing. If it's a slog, you've lost."
Be Up a Hello is out January 31 on Warp Records.