To say AV or Audio-Visual (or Audio-Visual Art) is a broad term is a bit of an understatement. It can apply to any number of things from weird art installations to the setups that bands and DJs use to enhance their shows. Addictive TV represent a purer, more direct approach to the formula though. Rising to prominence in the 90s with their then-groundbreaking mash-up work, they’ve seen become a global phenomenon, putting on amazing live shows that weave video and sound mixing into crazed mutations. Their influence is felt across the world and certain more modern trendsetters owe them a pretty big influential debt. Their latest project, however, Orchestra of Samples, is something way beyond anything they’ve ever done before.
Mashing up films and TV to create beats from disparate sounds is one thing, but to travel the world, finding and recording the most bizarre instruments and players it has to offer and building all that material into a huge audio-visual play-set? I had to find out more.
Despite the grandness of his achievements over the past 20 years or so, Graham Daniels (founding member and one half of the group) certainly seemed fairly nonchalant when he arrived to meet me at a small bar in Shoreditch with his PR manager Francoise. After a quick how-do-you-do I set about finding somewhere quiet and isolated enough to conduct the interview in peace, finding that the top floor of the bar was empty, I politely asked the bartender if they wouldn’t mind turning the music down a touch for half an hour so that it didn’t interfere with the recording, but evidently it was a little too much to ask. “It’s Friday.” She said, flatly. The roof garden turned out to be the only agreeably quiet spot in the bar (0r rather on top of it), so we went there, but obviously this being February it did create another issue. Graham and I both embalmed ourselves in coats, hats and gloves and sat down to conduct the coldest interview since Meg Ryan appeared on Parkinson.
The first thing I wanted to know was what it was like from the perspective of an AV vet to see all this new, YouTube led material rising to prominence. “It’s become very mainstream on the net but not so much in the live scene that it used to be,” He says, in a response that surprised me somewhat, since you’d expect that the ever-bohemian London scene would be a breeding ground for AV artists, not so. “It’s strange that hasn’t, in that even, obviously I can’t speak for all other artists but with ourselves, we’ve found far more acceptance of our work abroad than we have in the UK for some bizarre reason. We gig a hell of a lot in France, Spain, Italy and even in Brazil. I think apart from 2010 we’ve played in Brazil every year for the past 7 or 8 years. It’s really odd how there are certain places that seem to really take to what we do and in in our own backyard in the UK it’s just not as accepted as it is abroad.” It’s not something that Graham fully understands, but it’s interesting nonetheless. “Even in Brazil, there’s much more of a crossover of electronic arts with electronic music,” He continues “You get a lot of festivals abroad which are these electronic culture-type festivals where they’ll have a lot of DJs and people doing digital art installations or whatever, and they’ll be doing film screenings and there’s some kind of real crossover whereas here they’re really two separate things”.
It’s a little sad to think that, of all places, London isn’t necessarily the most responsive to something as progressive as AV, but perhaps Orchestra of Samples will change that. At the end of the month, Graham and Mark are taking the live show to Rich Mix in Bethnal Green, this rendition will be almost entirely new and will feature two live musicians who have never worked with Addictive TV in any previous show: Beatbox Collective member Bass6 and sitarist Baluji Shrivastav. “We received some Arts Council funding last year and it’s been an 8 or 9-month process filming a whole bunch of new people in the UK and sampling them with the archive of samples we’ve built up over the last 4 or 5 years,” says Graham, excitedly. “The show was designed to be sort of modular, in the sense that bits can be added on to it, so guest musicians can effectively just be plugged in. We send the tracks to them, they rehearse it, then they send what they’re working on back to use and we say ‘yep, that works’ and then we all get together and do the show. It’s worked really well, it makes it more innovative, and more scary, to tell the truth. It makes it easier for venues and festivals to book because it’s just me and Mark doing it and everywhere we’ve done it the musicians have been local.”
It’s a fascinating, wonderful idea, to live record samples from across the globe and use them to build a kind of organic archive. Graham reflects on the process of gathering it all: “a lot of the time when we’re recording we’ll hear something, because the musicians are just improvising, it’s just whatever comes into their head rather than complete pieces, and while they’re noodling around we’ll hear something and say ‘oh, can you do that again?’ and they won’t necessarily know what they did, so we’ve either had to play it back or even just sound it out. They won’t necessarily realize that they even did that but we’d ask them to go back and improvise on it and often that would lead to complete tracks, because then suddenly we had a nugget of an idea which we could develop.” The samples have ranged from sitar players to more modern instruments like the hang to zithers to other, even more esoteric things. “One of the things we recorded was this guy who was an expert on pre-Hispanic music and ancient music and he believes that the very first instrument that humans ever created after the voice would have been just hitting rocks, and he spent years looking for naturally tuned fragments of rock,” Graham recounts, clearly amused by my utter bewilderment at what he’s telling me. “He spent years looking for the right fragments and in the end he found about ten pieces, he lays them out in a scale, a bit like a kind of rock xylophone and he hits them two pieces of rock that sort of act like plectrums and if you couldn’t see it you wouldn’t think it was someone hitting rocks, it sounds like a synth. We spent a couple of hours recording this and building a track out of it and it is incredible, it’s like the birth of music.”
It makes sense, being that in the past Addictive TV have used sounds taken from film clips to make music, that they should create something that honors the very essence of constructed, artistic sound. It also testifies to the world view they’ve accrued during their years of international touring, they played in Tunisia shortly after the Jasmine Revolution rounded out in 2011, performing a show at the FEST culture festival in the Acropolium de Carthage. “The people putting on the festival were revolutionaries, they were the people that were out in the streets and they had a lot of sad stories, two of their friends who were a part of the organization had been killed, they’d been recording and filming a lot of it and they’re equipment ended up getting destroyed.” Says Graham, with a measured reverence. “I’ve always been of the opinion that art and music are by people, for people, it’s not for governments. I can’t stand it when we’d played in China and had these terrible emails from people accusing us of supporting the Chinese government and saying we’ve got blood on our hands, purely because we’ve played there. We’re not playing for the government we’re playing for the people and they’re welcome to come along or not come along, just whatever they please, we’re not endorsing anything and in fact the kind of people who say those things are still happy to use Chinese products, they’re not thinking further than the opinions they’re reading on Facebook.”
So far as I can tell, Graham (and Mark, by extension) have really taken on board what performance art is capable of under the right circumstances and have found a way in Orchestra of Samples to communicate all that they’ve learned about the world, to the world. How have audiences responded to this new direction, though? “It can be a difficult and troublesome thing for any artist, doing something so different, which is why you get authors and DJs and whoever releasing material under all these different names, but with this we didn’t see much point in saying it’s a whole different thing, it’s still Addictive TV, but there have been people who’ve said that it’s completely different to what we normally do, some people have said it’s amazing and a few others have said they like it but still prefer our other stuff.” Says Graham. “I think one of the nicest things we’ve had is often, whether it’s musicians that we’re working with or just musical people that happen to be in the audience, that have said we’ve taken all these parts and blended them so well, but it doesn’t sound like Western artists trying to be global, they’ve said that somehow it appears to be this complete fusion of traditional instruments but without actually sounding traditional. Sounding very much like contemporary, Western electronic music.”
Certainly some of the more well known musicians who have been involved with Orchestra of Samples have testified to its potential, perhaps most notably founding Stereolab member Lætitia Sadier. Speaking on the project, she said “I like that it’s based on trust that pieces collected along the way are going to match eventually, find their mates and make something coherent and good. That’s a very unusual way to work and a lot of artists would rather want to take control of the pieces themselves, by creating them in a certain order, one leading coherently to another.” The duo have long history of warm responses from musicians and film-makers alike, Michel Gondry, Chris Cunningham, Marc Caro and many others have spoken highly of their work, they even managed to (inadvertently) upstage Moby at South-by-Southwest. “He finished his set, found us in the dressing room and shook my hand and said ‘you guys were a really tough act to follow’.” Graham laughs, recoiling from the cold a little. “I think he was actually a bit narked because we had a massive screen and he was just doing a DJ set, and to follow what we were doing with AV, with people being so gobsmacked, especially if they’d never seen anything quite like it, even for someone as great as Moby, it probably seemed like half the show was missing.”
It certainly paints an interesting picture, a wide-ranging fanbase from the dedicated to the curious, the young to the old and the basshead to the cinephile, but AV has never been a particularly easy art to take on the road. “With the AV set ups that bands use, it’s an enhancement to their performance, whereas with us that IS the performance, we’re actually sampling sounds that you see and that makes it a very different kind of art. With us everything you see and hear is work that Mark and I have created and since there’s only two of us we’re limit to what we’re capable of.” Says Graham, “It’s quite problematic, because there’s no ‘standard’ it makes it quite difficult for artists to get booked, they need different equipment and every AV artist is different, unlike a band, say, who bring most of their own kit and need the same backline and monitors and whatever else as everyone else. But in fact now, being that DJs are travelling with laptops as standard, AV is starting to standardize with everything else, I know other artists that are just using laptops and controllers so now it’s becoming more like everyone’s needing the same kind of outputs as everyone else.”
That sounds indicative of a movement in the right direction to me, and Orchestra of Samples is nothing if not a game changer, blurring the lines between the ancient, the contemporary and just about everything else besides. As the interview drew to a close, I thanked both Graham and Francoise for their time and the three of us retreated back into the merciful warmth of the bar. If I learned one thing from speaking to Graham, it’s how much AV has to offer as an art form and how wide-ranging the possibilities really are, too often it’s thought of as mere window-dressing for musicians but when people hurl themselves into it the way Addictive TV have, wonderful things happen. Hopefully this latest rendition of Orchestra of Samples will awaken more of London to the possibilities.
Addictive TV are bringing their new show to Rich Mix on the 26th of February, supported by Howie B. Tickets available here.
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