Licensed to chill
Ambient, techno and the internet
Mixmaster Morns has changed the face of techno by bringing ambient to the chill out room, and in doing so influenced a new generation of electronic musicians. Rob Green gets spaced out with the man whose Mac has more chips than your local greasy spoon...
After a heavy dose of London rush-hour traffic, we reached Morris's Camberwell flat mildly flustered. When at last we had located his front door, a neighbour explained that Morris had locked himself out and gone to fetch help!
As I quietly pulled my hair out, two shadowy figures appeared from around the corner. As they emerged into the light I could see to shaven-headed guys, one of them dressed from head to foot in holographic, silver material. 'Take us to your leader', I half expected him to intone.
As it turned out, Morris had been risking life and limb breaking into his flat by hanging from a window ledge. Even if the space-cadet gear was workaday by his standards, the acrobatics hadn't been. Our late arrival paled into insignificance, and Morris recovered on his settee with a cup of coffee. As I was to discover, once you start Morris rolling, it's not easy to stop him. The result was amazing, and certainly one of the wildest interviews I've had the pleasure to conduct...
Morris is a man of vast musical knowledge. His head is an archive of information and views about techno, psychedelic culture, experimental music, technology and society as a whole. Hearing his music you might expect this man to be an anxiety-free, chilled out hippie. In reality, you are unlikely to meet a more hyperactive, self-motivated person. Driven by nerves, Morris either spends his evenings surfing the Internet, or playing sets at clubs like Megatripolis at the Soundshaft.
This is a man who never rests. As we sat chatting, he walked backwards and forwards, as if fanned by the windmills of his mind. It was not difficult to get him talking. In fact, the problem was getting a word in edgeways.
Morris is a DJ who has wholeheartedly embraced the medium of CD. Until that is, British Airways managed to lose most of his collection on a recent trip to Italy. It represented 15 years of collecting.
"I'd insured them," said Morris "But that's not the point, because I've got gigs to play and I need them. All the stuff that I use was with them, and all of it annotated. Even if I get the CDs back, it's months wasted."
Morris religiously BPM-reads his records. Not only that, he writes the record's key on the cover. There's not many DJs who do that, but Morris is something of a perfectionist, mixing by both key and BPM. This is why he's so good, as many ambient DJs still seem to think that they have a license to do lazy mixing. In this field, Morris is the innovator.
Brought up in fenland Lincolnshire, Morris was somewhat short of esoteric influences. Like a lot of hicks from the sticks, it was John Peel who acquainted him with music's wilder shores. When he was 16 he'd finally had enough, and left for the bright lights of the metropolis.
Morris soon developed a taste for dub, amongst other things.
"I've always been into extreme music," he explained. "I've always been into live music as well. It's not enough for me to be just a studio thing." He likes to see people take extreme music and put it into confrontation with an audience.
Not surprisingly, he soon gravitated towards 'weird' groups. "I didn't have the desire to go and see Generation X every night, so I used to go and see The Pop Group, Scritti Politti, Gang Of Four - people like that. I saw the Raincoats at the Phoenix recently, and they look exactly the same and play the same music as 15 years ago! I've been through a lot of changes in 15 years."
Morris soon became interested in early electronic music, but later on, when sampling was introduced, he decided synthesizers had had it, and sampling would change the world. What finally convinced him was getting his hands on one. Through the power of sampling, Morris believed you could make computer music that didn't conform to the 'synth duo' cliches. His first computer was a Sinclair ZX Spectrum, followed by a Commodore 64.
"The Commodore actually had a little sequencer with tiny samples, with which you could build a kit of sounds, and as soon as I started playing with that, I was completely hooked."
This was around 1985, and in that year Morris joined a pirate radio station called Network 21.
"A lot of people like Coldcut came from there. They were the first British DJs to say 'Let's go and make a record from other peoples' music!' That seemed like a very radical thing to do in 1985, but things change."
Bizarrely enough, Morris happened to attend a debate with the KLF's Bill Drummond in 1987 at the Umbrella Conference. "I was arguing that sampling was the future of music, and he was arguing that it wasn't. Judging by his music, his position surprised me really."
The history of ambient music is an interesting topic. First of all, what is ambient? And how long has it been going on? Who started it? Musique Concréte had a seminal role, but another track from 1962 came up in the conversation. This is an amazing piece entitled 'Song Of The Second Vibration' by Tom Dessevelt and Kid Boltan. It's as relevant to ambient music as Brian Eno, and it set Morris off on another tangent:
"The only time anything interesting ever happens in pop music is when a little spark flies between the avant-garde and the popular. About every ten years there's a little dose which gets diluted very thinly, but it does flavour the generation. It's like stock. Stockhausen and John Cage's ideas are so strong that you don't need a very large quantity of it to flavour your soup."
But what was this music called before the word ambient was attached to it? 'Cosmic' or 'head' music are among the tags Morris remembers. In fact he prefers the generic term 'electronic head music'. Around '89 or '90, all of a sudden, all kinds of music started being classed as ambient.
"I would never have used the word to describe Steve Reich and things before," says Morris, "The word attained a re-definition which isn't surprising, because it happened to other words like techno. Techno has a different meaning in different countries. Talk about 'techno' here, and you're not talking about the same thing as America. I belong to the school of techno music that came from Detroit in 1985 as opposed to techno with a K. German techno with a K is certainly older music, because there's clubs that have been playing it since 1980. Some DJs still play it, so there's definitely a continuity in it. Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves, but I think techno and ambient have forced a re-examination of the history of electronic music, and I think people are about to start looking into it."
So does Morris see himself as being one of the instigators of the term ambient?
"I would say that Alex Patterson and Brian Eno reclassified the term. However, I do think that after them, I re-defined the term further because after a long period, they totally abandoned it."
For all his achievements as a composer of ambient techno, Morris is most famous for his talent as a DJ. His skill and techniques extend far beyond that of many other DJs, and his various tours around the world have established him as an international ambient guru. So why and how did he get into DJing?
"I've always been a total music freak and I've been a vinyl junkie for about 15 years. At live gigs, I'd noticed that between bands the engineer would stick on The Carpenters' Greatest Hits or if you were lucky a reggae tape. Most of the evening was completely wasted. Even when the band were on, there'd have to be long pauses in between songs so they could get some applause to boost their egos while they pretended to tune up their guitars."
As a result, Morris became the Shamen's DJ for two years at the Synergy gigs. The band warmed to his philosophy when he DJ'd before their gigs. Synergy was an important movement at the time, in that many other bands were trying to get some action out of the house scene. But the Shamen were the only ones who really got their hands dirty, getting every DJ in London to re-mix them and seriously going to bed with the techno fraternity.
Morris explained: "With Synergy, within a year we completely changed it from being like any other gig to being a whole evening in its own right that was very unpredictable and spontaneous, and the atmosphere was really exciting. A lot of people look back at those gigs as being the most exciting thing from early 1990. I must have played at 112 gigs with the Shamen all around Europe."
At the same time, Morris was getting involved in ambient music. It started off with him playing at clubs where the philosophy was to play weird music, not particularly meant for dancing. Morris has always made it his mission to get people to sit and listen to radical music, often a difficult objective.
Influenced by the Land Of Oz shows, Morris started playing ambient music in strange clubs like Madlands. He'd been doing an ambient chart for Evolution magazine as far back as 1990, although they weren't specifically ambient techno records. "There were lots of obscure records with fourth mixes with hardly any drums, but I don't think anyone had applied the 'A' word to them before."
A lot of people had similar ideas at the same time or maybe even earlier. "Carl Craig was making ambient techno as far back as 87 or 88," adds Morris. "His first track was totally ambient, and when he took it to the record label, they said 'Put some drums on it and speed it up.' That's what record labels used to say."
At the moment, Morris does very little studio work. His first album, Flying High was recorded two and a half years ago in Rising High's old studio. It had its own brand of ambient sound:
"It was a basic studio, and water used to drip onto the desk whenever it rained, so you used to put cups over the channels to capture the drips."
For the last few years he has had a very simple setup, but is now in the process of change. He has an Emax, an Atari and a couple of synths, but last year acquired a Mac which now contains soundcards.
"I'm about to take the plunge and get a big military spec hard disk. Taking the Mac out on the road is a serious proposition, and I certainly won't be doing it until next year. But I am itching to get back into doing my own stuff."
He'll be doing DJ gigs until Christmas, and then drawing up a new shopping list for the New Year. On the new Global Chillage album, most of the sounds have a very analogue feel. But to my surprise, Morris uses very little analogue gear and keeps it pretty much in the digital domain.
"Analogue stuff is too expensive! My music is processed in many ways. I use the Emax's processors to the maximum. I'm an inveterate twiddler! I want to get more software control. I am a computer programmer after all."
In that capacity, Morris is developing customised software to do things that other packages can't. He explained the reasoning behind his interest in this area.
"If everyone just has a GM module and Cubase, all their music is going to sound the same. The way you get ahead is either by taking the Aphex Twin route and getting your soldering iron out, taking the millionaire DJ route and buying all the big old analogues you can find, or you can find another way. I do see the integration of the computer as being the way ahead. Already there's a load of interesting public domain third party packages that interface with this, and I think that's where the future of music lies - the studio disappearing inside the computer."
When writing, Morris likes to start off with a simple idea and use technology to enlarge it.
"I'm a sultan of slack, if you like. I like to use mathematics and aleatory processors to expand my music into something more complicated that actually has a simple root."
Regarding his music as an extension of techno, Morris wanted to make something that was more intensely futuristic. Something that contained all the best bits of techno but was listenable.
"I was once asked 'Will this music ever sell?' I said 'It's living room techno, and how many living rooms do you think there are in Europe?'"
Morris has been a driving force in changing the face of techno over the last year or so. Even a year ago, techno was about singles; now it's about albums. It's not just what you can do with one track, it's about sustaining your ideas over a long period and showing variety.
This is raising the stakes somewhat and making it more difficult for people to get started. Morris believes that this is possibly a good idea as there is clearly too much mediocre techno around for all to succeed. "I've always dreamed that instead of everybody competing to make the hardest, fastest, stupidest, most crass record, they would be competing to make the most interesting, the most strange and radical record... On the whole I think it's amazing that techno has survived despite all the pressures on it."
The dance market has begun to implode. There's only a handful of record shops who'll still take white labels. Most will only accept white labels from DJs who are personally associated with them. There seem to be too many people on the gravy train nowadays. If you send a techno tape round the majors, even if it's the best techno in the world, you'll be lucky to get a reply.
On the vexed question of The Orb, Morris had to pause for thought.
"I'm not going to sit and moan about them. But relations are not good at all. Alex withdrew himself from the ambient scene to be a stadium band. They did it brilliantly, but it definitely left a big power vacuum."
The Orb used the chill out room as a stepping stone, whereas Morris passed the chill out room on to the whole techno community. Now the techno crew think it's their baby. Morris believes that the chill out room has changed the course of hard dance music as a whole.
"It's changed German hardcore into trance, it's changed jungle into ambient jungle... It's generally had a positive effect and I don't apologise for it at all. I think people need to hear that music, because if all they're going to hear is gabba and hardcore, they're going to be left with a very bad taste in their mouths."
Morris is pro techno. The only reason he and others started developing chill out rooms was because the main room started getting out of control. The music needed somewhere else to develop.
"Almost by definition, any techno that's interesting, DJs won't play, so there's nowhere for it to be heard or bought. All the individual techno was flopping disastrously, and lots of really crap music was getting played. Now that was depressing."
He doesn't want to ban techno from the chill out room, just to be able to play another species of it. Global Chillage is a journey in itself. It sums up much of what Morris has been talking about - ambient techno in the truest sense.
However controversial Morris's music, his informed perspective commands respect. Even if he's been a thorn in the side of the techno scene, he's also been its saviour. And even if you don't always rate his efforts, he'll always be one of life's originals.
Turn to Monitor Mix for a review of Mixmaster Morris' latest album
Also turn to The Mix On The Net for information about Morris' transglobal information sorties...
Interview by Rob Green
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