“I think it’s safe to say, I have an obsession with decay. It’s always been about things breaking down or simply fizzling out.” The Wire contributor Jim Haynes shares his interview with the Main man who specialised in sculpting drumless space
In 1985, Robert Hampson formed the seminal British psychedelic rock outfit Loop. Their name was apt, as they distilled the rock ’n’ roll power chords of The Stooges and The MC5 into increasingly tense mantras of repetition and difference. Shortly after the band broke up in 1990, Hampson and fellow Loop guitarist Scott Dawson formed Main to refine their studied deconstructions of the rock idiom. Initially, Main’s compositions re-engineered Loop’s hypnotic repetitions through duelling minimalist guitars and spacious rhythm sections without the incendiary solos. On the back of their groundbreaking album Motion Pool from 1994, Main signosted their music as “drumless space”, both as descriptor and working method to the sounds within.
Jim Haynes conducted the following interview with Robert Hampson in advance of his article focused on that particular album in the “When Less Is More” spread of features in The Wire 414.
Jim Haynes : When you were making Motion Pool, how did the concept of ‘drumless space’ guide the album?
Robert Hampson : Basically, with ‘drumless space’, it was very much the idea of trying to abandon the rhythmic element identified with traditional percussive sound and making it more kinetic with what I had liked to describe as ‘outer sounds’. Derived from other sampled elements, the notion of rhythm was built up by programming these samples in a similar way a drum machine was programmed, but the less percussive nature of the sound made interesting counterpoint elements, which could then serve as a layering textures to build around. So, it served as very much as a directive in the making of Motion Pool. It has a very clear path of starting with more song like structures and gradually losing those stylings over the course of the record, until it became simply sound design and abstraction.
How did you navigate the transition between Loop and Main?
As soon as Main had started, it was a very evident approach to simply stripping away at the traditional sounds of a guitar, which was not new in any sense in experimental music approaches, made by the likes of Keith Rowe et al, but we were trying to find sounds that became so abstracted, it wasn’t identifiable at all as to what it was. It wasn’t immediate, there was obviously a hangover from what I was trying to do in Loop, but it was a thought process and intentional for it to slowly evolve with each release. Gradually, of course , guitars simply disappeared completely as being used as a source for sounds. They had reached the logical end in Main by the time of the Hz project  and just evaporated.
In looking at the themes of Loop, just from their titles – Fade Out, “This Is Where You End”, Heaven’s End – there is a recurrence of annihilation. How much of those Loop metaphors continued through Main, especially on Motion Pool?
I think it’s safe to say, I have an obsession with decay. It’s always been about things breaking down or simply fizzling out. Metaphors aplenty! But, I have said this before, I like a notion of mystery in all the things I get involved with. I don’t like to explain things away too easily. I love the idea of people creating their own worlds or ideas around this kind of music. I like to think that there’s many different notions of what a certain track or piece can be about and that they can be wildly different. The lyrics are always left to interpretation and the vocals are simply an element buried within other elements. There are perhaps statements on the notions of decay in our world, how we could stop it, a dystopian view that we can’t and we have to simply accept that these are they way it works out. Everything has a starting life and a logical end.
Science fiction certainly plays a part as an influence. I’ve always loved the works of Philip K Dick, and early JG Ballard was a massive influence, which remains to this day. Anthony Burgess, William Golding, Aldous Huxley, Ray Bradbury et al, they all have a great influence on how I like to shape these ideas.
What were the working methods for Motion Pool? This seemed right on the cuff of digital workstations becoming prevalent, via MIDI, samplers, etc. Could you elaborate on what technologies you were using and how Main approached them?
Early Main recordings didn’t employ anything close to samplers or MIDI. It was all done in real time to tape, or we used tape loops. I was very suspicious (in hindsight, very stupidly) of samplers at first. But really that came from the very generic sense they were being used in, ie sampling a drum break. But when I was working with Godflesh and Justin was using an Ensoniq EPS 16+ keyboard sampler, I became intrigued. It was a real lightbulb moment for me and gave me the idea of replacing traditional percussive sounds in rhythmic patterns, which of course lead towards the ‘drumless space’ concept, that kinetic energy coming from those ‘outer sounds’. So I quickly got myself the Ensoniq and set up an Atari ST computer with the original Logic programme, then made by Emagic. Triggering all these tiny samples with MIDI from the Logic was just a whole new galaxy opening up in front of me, and I never looked suspiciously again at that kind of hardware. It’s easy to forget that in those days, sample memory was absolutely minuscule and buying memory expansions was very expensive. But as in all things, less is more and it simply made you work harder for the goal ahead.
I did find the Ensoniq very limited in what could be achieved, so that didn’t hang around that long once I embraced all this new tech, and I went straight into the world of Akai samplers and then upgrading to a very basic Apple computer. This was all still triggered by SMPTE codes running off a 16 track tape machine and MIDI and then all the mixes were done live to DAT. We were not in the world of digital editing then. No ProTools for us… we simply could not afford it.
With the recent re-activation of Loop and a return to the big rock ’n’ roll riffs, how do you look back upon the deconstruction of those tropes in Main?
As Main and my solo work had become purely an experiment in abstraction, musique concrète and acousmatique textures, I did find myself going against all the tendencies I had maintained for so many years in my mind. I wanted to maintain all that I had created down the line, but felt an urge… I really felt like making a huge noise with guitars again, I can’t really put in fine detail why I had such a big change of heart. It still makes me laugh now that I did a complete about face on that. I had been badgered by others for years to possibly make Loop a going concern again, and I had swatted away those notions more times than I can count. But, simply put, one day I just really felt like going back to those styles again and seeing what might happen.
Will there be an Array 2 for Loop?
I do hope we will make more new Loop music. It’s there to be done. It’s been a strange couple of years, I’ve had a lot of issues to deal with, including someone trying to use the name Loop and it interfered with my workings so much so, I had to go down legal routes to put an end to that. It was not easy and basically takes up a lot of working hours, effort and financing to make people realise they’ve made a very serious error in simply adopting a namesake with such a long history and thinking it’s all OK to do so. The mind boggles… it appears Google wasn’t their friend.
I have to be honest, it drove me to thinking of removing myself from all this mess, it seemed more trouble than it was worth. It did at one point make me want to stop Loop again.
But, no one can deny I don’t have the patience and persistence needed to get through this kind of crap, and a large heaping of sheer bloody-mindedness helps too. I and many others were appalled at the situation that arose, and many other artists came to my defence. It truly mended a very weathered heart to know that I wasn’t losing my mind and fighting over a lost cause. Thankfully, that’s over and it’s back to serious business.
How did you and Stefan Mathieu begin to work together as Main? Is there anything else you are working towards as Main?
I was aware of Stefan and his work obviously and we met while both working at the GRM in Paris. We got along well and I had wanted to make Main a collaborative project again. I had not worked with anyone for a very long time. Everything i was doing under that moniker or under my own had been very much solo affairs. I really wanted to work with other people on ideas and projects and bringing that element back into the fold for Main was the obvious choice. Main is certainly still a going concern and at some point, there will be more new Main pieces. Loop and all this legal maelstrom has taken up my time for quite a while and Main is just gently resting for now.
The next thing I have in mind is reactivating my Chasm project. I have been working on that and it’s looking like it will be released on Karl O’Connor’s Downwards imprint.
I did catch Loop perform in San Francisco. That must have been in 2016, and I was pretty sure that you played Main’s “Feed The Collapse”. Or was it another Main track? How do you see those early Main albums (Hydra-Calm, Dry Stone Feed and Motion Pool) in relation to Loop nowadays?
No, we haven’t played any Main material in Loop. We’ve talked about doing “Flametracer” and “There Is Only Light” for a bit of fun, but that hasn’t been addressed yet. It may or may not happen. The early Main material has trace elements of Loop. It was how I envisioned Loop going after A Gilded Eternity. It’s obvious it’s got my fingerprints all over it. It’s my signature I suppose. I like to think that all the things I do have some sort of link, a signature and that they are all part of the same jigsaw. All the pieces fit in some way or another.
Subscribers can read Jim Haynes’s Main feature – along with other articles in The Wire's special issue “When Less Is More: Music gets minimal: from pulses & beats to funk & punk” – via Exact Editions. Everyone else can pick up copy in The Wire's online shop and in all good newsagents.