Ahead of the release of his seventh solo album Don't Look Away the experimental vocalist, songwriter and artist speaks to The Wire Deputy Editor Joseph Stannard
Raised in Kent, Alexander Tucker is one of the UK’s most distinctive songwriters, belonging to an experimental acoustic-electric lineage that also includes John Martyn, Bill Fay, Nigel Mazlyn Jones and Flying Saucer Attack’s Dave Pearce. Following his formative adventures in hardcore groups Suction and Unhome, Tucker’s early solo albums Alexander Tucker (2003), Old Fog (2005), Furrowed Brow (2006) and Portal (2008) combined acoustic fingerpicking and loop based drones with elements of doom metal and psychedelia, steadily evolving towards an signature style. Dorwytch (2011) and Third Mouth (2012) saw his songwriting enter a new phase, forming the first two parts of a trilogy completed by new album Don’t Look Away, released by Thrill Jockey on 24 August. Over the past few years he has concentrated on his ongoing collaboration with Daniel O’Sullivan in Grumbling Fur, whose most recent album was Furfour (2016). Another notable collaboration is with New Zealander Daniel Beban in Imbogodom. In addition to his musical output Tucker is an acclaimed visual artist who designs and illustrates his own album covers while maintaining a parallel career in comics. His recent work in that field includes the graphic novels World In The Forcefield (for Breakdown Press) and Entity Reunion (for his own Undimensioned imprint).
Joseph Stannard: The title of the new album seems significant.
Alexander Tucker: I think because when I was writing all that stuff I’d been really going through the mill, y’know, coming out of a difficult relationship, and a difficult relationship with myself, and then really throwing myself into self-analysis, and just trying to sort my shit out basically. I think it was really as basic as that. And I think a lot of the songs on the album are a bit more straightforward, there’s a poppy element to it and I quite liked the idea of the record having that kind of direct statement as a title. But the artwork that I used for it, I feel like those sort of entity guys on the cover are very much kind of drawing you in, so you can’t look away. Like a trip or something when you close your eyes and you can still see. A lot of things on the record were just like guitar, bass and vocals. It was really nice coming from all that kind of super-layered, looping stuff to just bringing it back down to basics.
What sort of gestation period did the material go through?
It was quite a few years, really, because “Gloops Void”, I recorded a bunch of stuff from that for a solo Imbogodom tour. I got a reel-to-reel tape machine and I was making loops. Then I think a few years after that, when I was living in Tottenham, I was making drum loops on Dan (O’Sullivan)’s keyboard and fitted them in, like ‘Oh that’s cool!’ And then I asked Nik [Colk Void] from Factory Floor to put some vocals on, which is obviously very recent. So it’s quite like that, there are some elements that are seven years old, maybe, in “Gloops”, but then also elements that are up to date. And even now, I’m putting it together for playing live and it’s just turning into a massive sort of noise, going between two notes. And then when I moved in with Dan in Tottenham, we were doing Grumbling Fur and I was just recording the odd song here and there, but having the Fur as the main focus. Or I’d be working on something, thinking, ‘Oh, this could be good for us’ and then it would have a bit more of a personal element. But I think in a way it’s not that much different from some of the other LPs, the first one, Old Fog – I’d often just record when I was in the mood for it, really. It’s just gestation and fermentation, I’m a real believer in that. I suppose a few artists go in the studio and bash it out, get it mastered, send it off to the record company, but I don’t think that happens that much and that often, really. People are writing the pieces, making demos, recording it, then a year later it probably comes out.
Is there a discernible difference between an Alexander Tucker song and a Grumbling Fur song?
Yeah, I guess so, I mean when we did Preternaturals [Grumbling Fur’s 2014 album] Dan and I were separately coming up with chunks of material for songs. He was away on tour with Ulver so I got on with a couple of things, then he came back and I was drawing comics or whatever, so he’d come up with material. Then we’d come together and add our parts, augment other sections and just bring these ideas in. I think most of the time we’re like, ‘We’re working on Fur stuff’ or I’m like, ‘This is gonna be for this’. Then there’d be a few beat things, where I’m messing around on the sampler and I’m like, ‘Something about that’s more Fur-esque’ and I don’t know why. It’d be a bit more fully rounded, in a way, whereas I think my stuff still has that slight sort of fucked element, where I’m not so bothered about getting a loop totally perfect or whatever. Not that we do in the Fur either, a lot of the time we’re making stuff off-grid, and when I’m by myself I’m totally off-grid, because I’m still using a little digital eight-track and a little mixer and sampler.
Is that off-grid approach important to you?
I think part of it is that I’ve held myself back because I’m nervous about that side of things. I bought my first Mac about two years ago, y’know. I’d always borrowed friends’ computers if I needed something and they would usually be doing what actually needed doing. So yeah… I think the way I work is a bit more chaotic, I do everything a bit back to front, basically, and that’s why sometimes it comes out a bit more wonky and warped. But obviously, I love that, I have a deep love of wonky and warped songwriting.
There’s always been a melancholy air to your music. Where does this come from? Did you have that as a kid?
Yeah, I always felt sort of sad that I had to interact with normal, everyday life. I think my dad instilled me with a real love of the past, we were always off down bottle dumps, Victorian landfills, and he was really obsessed with First World War postcards and the human aspect behind that. So I alway had that. Y’know, looking out the window at school, I could see Tunbridge Wells, and very distantly I could see this big chimney, and that was where me and my dad would park up at the weekend and go to the second hand shops where I’d buy comics. I’ve always been someone who’s yearning, I find it very hard to be in the present. I’m either yearning for the past or the future…
Or a parallel?
Yeah, exactly. Because I’d always found it quite hard to deal with what I’m supposed to be, in this set reality. I’ve always been trying to jump, y’know. With the lyrics as well, I’m always combining this kind of emotional stuff with all this sci-fi and fantasy. I always liked the idea of making records that were like books of short stories. You buy into the title, you buy into the imagery on the front, then you delve into the world within each piece.
So do you view the progression from album to album as similarly episodic?
Totally, yeah. I mean, I see Dorwytch, Third Mouth and this one very much as a trilogy. And obviously the Imbogodom albums, that’s a trilogy as well. I don’t think of the first three or four solo albums so much in that way. Furrowed Brow’s got more of a metal aspect to it. The newer stuff I’m working on, there’s not a hint of acoustic guitar, it’s synth, cello, vocals, electronics. It’s really nice suddenly being in that realm, I feel like it could be the start of another little avenue. I’ve been listening loads to Oren Ambarchi’s album Hubris lately, and then that Omit box came out. Clinton gave me two when I met him, he gave me a bunch of CDs when I went over to his house. He showed me his room of amazing gear. There’s an old Macintosh, and then military sine wave and tone generators. All sorts of amazing stuff. I was also listening to Michael Morley’s Fuck Chairs stuff, all really long samples that barely move. I’ve been dreaming about that kind of music. I find it very hard to make myself, though. I’ll think, ‘Yeah I wanna make a kind of Omit, stretched, weird thing’ then of course I think, ‘It’d be really cool if it had this element and that element…’ and before you know it, it’s like a fully orchestrated piece. I think my influences are always in my peripheral vision but it’s the feel of something rather than the actual thing itself.
Through all of your work to date there are recurring images of ghosts and phantoms. What do these represent for you?
That whole ‘ghost entity’ thing is definitely from an actual experience. My sister’s room in our house in Southborough, Kent, it definitely had… it would fill with this blue light. Sometimes I’d sleep in my sister’s room on her sofabed, and the room would go ‘Ffffoooom!’ and my sister and I would get pretty freaked out. I’d have to leave the room quite often. I’d be sleeping in there and the atmosphere would be so intense, this feeling of otherness, that I’d have to leave. Then one day when I was seven, eight, nine, something like that, I was running around the house with my toy gun, doing, like, commando rolls… I ran out of my room, did a little commando roll into my sister’s room, and bumped into a pair of solid black feet. I followed these feet up these muscular legs, to this entity which was almost like something out of a Marvel comic. Solid black, no face. And I just bolted downstairs and ran for my mum, ran into her arms. She’s like ‘What’s wrong? What’s wrong?’ and I couldn’t speak. I don’t think I said what happened, I just couldn’t. My mum actually had the room exorcised.
Did it work?
Yeah! And when my sister moved out, I laid linoleum down and it was my studio, it always had a great atmosphere, I did loads of painting in there.
So, Don’t Look Away is released in a couple of weeks, you’ve some live shows coming up and you’ve already started work on the next solo album.
Yeah, the new music is very pulse-led but still very epic, kind of massive sounding. I wanna get a few more strings on there, maybe get a tuba as well. I had that weird illness that went on for like three or four weeks that everybody had, and I was so bored that I just started working on new pieces. I’ve got a title for it already…
Is this off the record?
I’ll turn off the recorder then.