Some of the most prominent musicians in the world of electronic avantgarde pop were taking part in an experimental season on London's South Bank at the early March 1996 entitled "Now You See It", concerning the future of music. By the way for the conference each of the participants -- David Toop, Howie B, Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno and Robin Rimbaud aka SCANNER were asked to request a piece of music that they felt represented the future of music: Rimbaud chose the Squarepusher 12" on Worm Interface which according to him is "the most incredibly programmed track I have heard in a long time -- a record that could not exist were it not for the advancements in sampling and so on." Rimbaud along with Brian Eno and Todd Machover also contributed each brief essays on what conditions will shape the music of the future, and you can read Rimbaud's contribution here.
I had a chance to interview Robin Rimbaud via E-mail during March and April 1996. I had became interested in Scanner's music through the unconventional ways Rimbaud uses in making his music, taping mobile phone conversations overheard by his scanner and snatching these little vignettes of life -- sometimes absurd, sometimes exhilarating, sometimes downright sad -- to his brooding ambient electronica. Here's what our roof-stalking, scanner-toting electronic maverick revealed to me during our brief correspondence. Thanks to DJ Entox for giving his native speaker flourishes to the text, the people on the IDM and Ambient mailing lists for soundbites, and of course to Robin Rimbaud for sharing his precious time.
How did you get interested in electronic music, and where did you get the idea of using scanned telephone calls as the basis of your music?
I have always been interested in electronic and experimental music and have been recording for 15 years, collecting and collating a vast range of environmental and field recordings. Amongst these tapes are several featuring simply the human voice. I've always been interested in communication and how people interact with others. Discovering the actual scanner device itself (which is a relatively simple but long range radio receiver) provided me with the chance to tune in directly to the language and lives of private individuals. Being a creative person I immediately saw the artistic potential of utilising these voices and collating them into various scapes. My work is partly about taking technology and finding an alternative use for it so that it becomes relevant to society. These kind of machines are developed to help those in power keep us at arms length. In some ways I feel that my use of it subverts that. Then again consider: -- why does someone invent and commercially market a device such as this?
Yes, I think those powers that be would rather see those devices off the hands of the ordinary people like you and me, using them for their own surveillance purposes only. Here in Finland there has been a lot of talk about giving the police more rights to, for example, listen people's calls in the cases of suspected crime, and the recent violent incidents with the rivalling motorcycle gangs have only increased those claims. So it's like more surveillance will be justified in purpose for "people's own good" -- which I find totally contrary to the ideas of democracy. Have you ever received complaints about intruding people's private lives, "invasions of privacy" or have ever been, for example, legally harassed because of your activities...?
Of course all the time -- the accusations roll and roll! Part of the attraction of the work has obviously been the slight 'dark underbelly of society' edge to it but I am not a criminal nor wish to become one. Invasion of privacy is almost a meaningless phrase today with the kind of surveillance equipment that surrounds us all round our cities and homes.
One inevitable question that rises to my mind is, of course, has anyone ever recognised themselves from your records and commented it to you?
With any recorded material I have radically pitch shifted the voices, edited out any identifying material like phone numbers, names, addresses and so on, such that being able to actually recognise a voice is barely possible.
When I listen to your music, I find a lot of it as a kind of biting social commentary, or even some kind of elaborate prank in the best Dada/Surrealist/Situationist etc. tradition. I would even dare to call it satire, if I didn't know that those phone calls you use are actually authentic. Many of those just seem pretty surreal to me...
I like the way you see an element of satire in the work, I often think others have taken it far too seriously. All of the voices I have chosen to feature are real, even if they do sound too surreal at times. I have often described the work as a kind of mapping the city where the work in some ways documents the areas in which I scan and record. Of course this limits the cultural parameters but that's what makes the work so interesting for me, to be able to travel and negotiate new spaces and find alternative situations, etc. I have never found it limiting personally to live in one space and explore it, there is never enough time to exhaust an area anyhow! It always reminds me of the opening shot of Short Cuts, the Robert Altman film. A helicopter going over the city, in a slightly privileged position, is able to listen in and see what's going on, it's almost like being a fly on the wall in that respect. It is like building a picture, a representation, but one that is left relatively open. Surrealism is obviously omnipresent in our daily lives!
Yes, but I find that scary too. It becomes a 1984 sort of situation, like we are being watched all the time. In a way it's funny that you turn that otherwise potentially grim situation upside down in your own works...
By the way, what kind of equipment you use in creating your records (besides your notorious scanner, of course)?
A whole host of low tech and reasonably high tech instruments -- everything from a short wave radio, a Theremin and Sony recording Walkman to a JV1080 synth and Akai S1000 sampler - most of the sounds are processed through a couple of effects units until they are treated beyond recognition.
And as someone, who's totally naive to these things: what kind of availability do those scanner devices have these days -- I think it would be rather restricted and hard (plus expensive) to get your hands to one of those; isn't there a chance that if they were more widespread, then everyone and his mother would be eavesdropping their neighbours' calls all the time?
Ironically scanners have been in the news again recently here because of the ability of very high end scanning devices, quite distant from the kind of radio receiver form that I have used, to tune into mobile phone calls and capture key serial numbers and phone numbers which are then used to reprogram stolen phones. Apparently 12,500 handsets are stolen each year in this country so the government are possibly discussing introducing a bill in the future to make it a criminal offence to own such hi-tech equipment.
The important thing to remember is that the more modest scanner device is readily available at all regular Hi-Fi stores, airport Duty Free areas, etc. Of course everyone can buy them but compare the video camera which brought the ability to permanently capture moving images to the population at large -- everyone now has this opportunity to be creative with this but sadly most people don't use their imagination enough -- as long as people are creative with these tools I foresee no problem with them.
Who is the gentleman talking about the potential dangers of the mobile phones on the "RF Radiation" composition on Spore? And can you elaborate that thing, since at least here where I live, the mobile phones have become a total craze, so I think people would also be interested if they are actually safe to use also...
He's a very interesting slightly eccentric British scientist called Roger Coghill-- a friend interviewed him for me for my album and I got his permission to use it -- he has some of the most extreme and original trains of thought -- for example he suggests that AIDS originated at the same time as television really took off in America and argues that in fact the growth of TV and radio is parallel to that of the AIDS virus. He cannot account for the fact that mostly gay men and drug users are the unfortunate sufferers. He has written a few books which you could try and check out too.
Björk used a sample of yours without your permission, what was the outcome of this incident? I'd like to hear your point if you're only willing to discuss it...
Yes, a rather weary incident but one well worth discussing. It's really something simple. It's one of those stories that started small and grew out of all proportions really...
Basically, on Björk's album Post is a track called "Possibly Maybe" that uses an excerpt from my recording "Mass Observation" and her record company rang me up one week before the album was released and said: "Robin, Björk has used your work for her new album". And I said: "Oh, what should we do about it? Do we have to talk about money, or... I don't know because I had never been in a situation like that!". My record company New Electronica took it very seriously because Little Indian would press 1.2 million copies of that album and hadn't cleared the sample! I didn't really mind and still don't really care because my work is partly about sampling and the work I enjoy from others is also those about sampling, whether it's Negativland, Carl Stone, The Orb and so on; but it reached a really silly stage because it hadn't anything to do with me or Björk, but was more a fight between record companies...
It is interesting that in the aftermath the Belgian and Dutch press reported that I received 2 million UK pounds for this sample! Which just goes to show how warped the press angle can be on some situations especially when no money exchanged hands at all in the end and I 'gave' the sample away willingly. Recently there have been discussions between Björk and myself too about the possibility of working together on a project which now seems very likely indeed in the summer of 1996. So something positive should come of all this confusion, I hope.
Yes, these days when the samplers have become so widespread and information is busy changing hands in the Internet, I think it has come the time for everyone to reconsider these copyright issues: like, who's finally the owner of a particular sound or a particular piece, since they are all basically digital bytes of information nowadays. Or who's the original creator of a work of art then? Well, in your case, it was rather obvious but I think it's quite easy to make those original works unrecognisable: to distort the sounds, manipulate them in all the ways possible - so who's to say where that line between plagiarising and creating something totally new from the already existing material goes?
I think for example U2's case against Negativland is rather notorious now; also the prank-like way The KLF sampled just everyone to their early records, which led Abba's record company to insist them to destroy all the copies in existence of that one...
Absolutely! The issue of sampling is so big as to be almost impossible to follow through here, I feel -- perhaps it would be better to suggest some links people can check out on the Net like Negativland's site and so on.
Would you like to tell something about your Electronic Lounge club; how did it came into being, about the artists that have performed there, and the plans for the club's future...?
"The first Tuesday of every month, 21:00-01:00 HRS, offers you the chance to bathe in the eclectic music of the new generation of sound innovators, with one-off projects, live performances and DJs in the ICA."
It began in April 1994 and has continued since then on a regular basis. Originally set up as an alternative to standard club culture, ie. music at a reasonable level so you can still talk to others, no strict musical policy, really an opportunity for others to experiment more so than regular dance/ambient orientated clubs. It has to be very cheap to gain entry, no door policy. As Bruce Gilbert, the UK DJ/ex-Wire musician said, "it's a kind of digital pub" or as the national press said -- "a meaningful nexus of contact and communication". The audience is a very broad range of people, certainly not the regular young, trendy club crowd; lots of artists, videomakers, writers, musicians, etc. come down and there is a very healthy balance of men and women attending.
In the last 18 months we have had guests ranging from Seefeel, Spring Heel Jack (UK jungle artists), Sons of Silence/O Yuki Conjugate (UK experimental rhythmic act), Mixmaster Morris, DJ Elin (Cheap Records, Vienna), Aural Expansion (Finland) for his first ever live appearance, Psychick Warriors Ov Gaia, Rephlex Records (Aphex Twin, etc), Irdial Discs night (a crazy UK record label), Open Mind/Autechre, Main, Paul Schutze/Uzect Plaush, David Toop/Max Eastley, Spacetime Continuum, Clear Records, Dr Rockit, Warp Records party where we premiered the 'Motion' video release in the cinema and lots more!
There is no advertising for the club, it seems to simply spreads by word of mouth. I foresee it continuing into 1996 and in fact I am taking the club to Berlin this month to install it in a cafe/bar for two weeks in conjuction with a German arts festival. I have been supported by regular DJ Tony Morleyat almost every Lounge so far. That's about all...
Getting back to your own musical work: there's a recent collection The Full Immersion, Remixes Vol. 1 on Swim, with a contribution from you under the name Trawl. There's also a new Trawl 12" (Chreode CHRE 3142-01T), with remixes from Bill Laswell and Mick Harris. Can you tell me more about this project?
I have been working under other names for a while now and the Trawl project is a very modest alternative to the more media friendly Scanner material. This remix was the first Trawl release after Colin Newman (who also used to play in the now-legendary Wire) of Swim/Immersion invited me to remix his work. I'm very pleased with this little piece and had some quite positive feedback on it. There has also been interest in releasing the Trawl 12" on CD at some point too with a whole bunch of more Trawl related material...
And what does future hold for the Scanner project itself?
I have been performing in Berlin and running my club the Electronic Lounge. Currently I am negotiating a record deal with One Little Indian records for the release of my new album called "Delivery" in summer 96. I am playing a few live shows -- one in Oslo on October 30 with Spooky, in Belgium with Deusand people from Portishead, etc.
Just lots of recording really, off to Australia later this year to do some lectures about new technology and music, working with a UK band called Compulsion alongside Howie B and Tortoise, and so much more I barely have time to think!
Copyright © (for the text) pHinn 1996
Robin Rimbaud - scanner
scanner PO BOX 6127 London SW11 4XL
Scanner interview in Finnish, Aktivist, December 2000
(includes also a WindowsMedia version in English)