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An Interview with Colin Robinson of Big Block 454
By Sounni de Fontenay
(more articles from this author)
1999-01-14
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Big Block 454[SF] Who are the principal members of Big Block 454? When did the group form and where are you based?

[CR] Big Block 454 are from Manchester, England - home of Oasis, The Fall, The Smiths, The Buzzcocks, The Hollies... The main core of the group is Colin Robinson and Pete Scullion, and we've been together for about 10 years. We jointly handle songwriting, programming, sampling, playing and production. All of these things attain equal importance in the Big Block 454 sound. We sometimes use other musicians as and when we feel like it, we also like to collaborate with artists in fields other than music.

[SF] Describe your music?

[CR] Our music is experimental in sound and structure, but with a pop sensibility - the end result is more important than the process, and must be listenable to. We want to make music that you will return to time and time again, and still find something that you hadn't noticed before. Atmosphere is very important in our music - we like to shock the listener, by setting up an environment that they're comfortable with, then jump-cutting to somewhere else entirely. The editing is a vital part of the music's construction. We like using random methods and chance during composition, such as Brian Eno's "Oblique Strategies" card pack - see our site for further details. As for the message in our music - to achieve enlightenment you must explore things for yourself, no one else can do it for you.

[SF] What instruments do you use?

[CR] We use a collection of old electric guitars and analog synths, plus some more modern equipment. We also use acoustic instruments such as saxes and percussion. We use found sounds, often making use of a camcorder to grab interesting stuff. We have a collection of mainframe computer scrap, which we use for making loops of percussion and bell sounds. We have made our own instruments, including The Thing, a wood-and-metal monochord that we play with an E-Bow, bending the string with the other hand to give a Middle Eastern sound.

Our recording studio is used as an instrument. We have recently upgraded to a hard disc recorder, and the process of cutting, pasting, deconstructing and reconstructing is as important to us as the initial playing. When we use sampled loops, it's always samples of our own music - we would never use break beat CD's and the like. The sampler opens up great possibilities, so why use it to recreate last week's hit? We often sample chunks of a song, alter it drastically, and then feed it back into the same song, to keep conceptual continuity. Finally, the voice is very important to us. Most of our pieces feature vocals of some sort or other - it makes them more immediate and memorable, and hangs everything together.

[SF] What have you released?

Big Block 454[CR] One of our first pieces was "Strangeways Riot", about a prison siege in Manchester. This was recorded whilst the siege was still taking place, using samples of The Clash and TV police themes, plus news reports from the TV, but was never released due to problems clearing the samples. Our first release was a 12" single, "Know What This Is?", which was aimed at the dance end of the market. We released a CD boxed set, "Measured in Shadows", with the artists Russell Mills and Ian Walton - more about that later.

We signed to Raspberry Records in the middle of 1998, and have released a CD album, "I Changed My Dentist...I Changed Him Into a Horse", plus a 3-track CD EP, "They'd Bought a Packard". Awaiting release is another album, "Three Lucky Boys", and possibly a 4-track EP of electronica, provisionally entitled "Grunt!", the songs all having onomatopoeic titles. We're trying to keep the EP's slightly different to the albums, with longer, more dance-like pieces. We don't want to use them as purely an advert for the albums.

[SF] Tell me a little about your new album?

[CR] "I Changed My Dentist...I Changed Him Into a Horse" is a 21-track piece of music, each track running into the next, the editing being influenced by things like "We're Only In It For The Money" by Frank Zappa & the Mothers and "The Faust Tapes". It has been described as "rampant genre-hopping by an orchestra conducted by an octopus with the DT's" (Jimmy's Riddle webzine). The New York zine Purr said "this album's structure and production values are astounding. There's a symmetry across dimensions that makes this album a must-have". We have tried to touch all areas of our music in it, from heavy metal ("Danbert Nobacon is a Slaphead"), ambient jungle ("It takes a Vigorous Baboon to Stir an Enormous Pond"), experimental ("The Importance of Trivia") and all points in between. We're very pleased with it, and I think it's an ideal intro to our music.

[SF] How has your music evolved?

[CR] Over the years, we've moved away from following fashion into the areas that we like, mixing and matching with no regard for other people's feelings (and with little regard to taste!) to create something that's truly our own. "Dentist..." crystallizes our ideas, and we want to develop it on from there. If you're never in fashion, you're never out of fashion.

[SF] Do you perform live?

[CR] We don't like to play gigs as such. When we've played live, it's always been a one-off event. We've always written music specifically for the event, and don't play our "greatest hits". We have played various events at art galleries, including a fashion show which incorporated dancers wearing clothes made from rubber and wood (I kid you not), film projections, and us providing a rhythmic backdrop for a free jazz outfit to improvise over. The disconcerting thing about playing art galleries is that the audience doesn't behave like the crowd at a rock gig. They tend to wander around and chat to you whilst you're playing, which is a bit off-putting!

[SF] Do you produce music for outside projects such as video and film? What are some of the works that you have done?

[CR] We have collaborated with artists, video makers, electronic poets and Internet people. We are working on various video projects with our site's webmaster, things that are not just ordinary band videos but works of art in their own right. We created the music for an art installation called "Measured in Shadows", by Dada artists Russell Mills and Ian Walton. The installation was exhibited in Carlisle, England and Dublin, Eire and featured 8 separate CD players, giving 16 sound sources. We produced 8 one-off CD's, featuring music, sound and speech interspersed with large areas of silence, which cycled continuously throughout the duration of the installation, providing a constantly-changing soundscape. It worked fantastically well. The music was mixed at Peter Gabriel's Real World Studios, and the exhibition in Dublin was opened by U2's The Edge. Russell and Ian created a catalogue for the installation by boxing some of their artwork with a CD of the music.

[SF] What's your opinion of the UK music scene? The American?

[CR] There are some great songwriting bands at the moment, such as Radiohead and the Manic Street Preachers, but I find a lot of the scene very stale. People need to take more risks; to explore more avenues. Too many bands just sound like poor imitations of the past.

As an outsider, I find the US scene is more traditional, conservative and compartmentalized than the UK scene. People seem less willing to transcend genres, and there seen to be more of a divide between black and white music. A lot of this may be due to the way music is sold in the States, with music described as "Rock'n'Roll" or "R&B" - what happens to music that doesn't fit a label, or crosses into several areas?

Electronica seems to only be popular with white American youth when traditional white elements like heavy guitar is present. Bands like Korn present electronic and sampled sounds disguised in a heavy metal wrapper. People should be more willing to accept other genres. US discussion groups are full of "Hip Hop and Rap aren't music" messages, as well as the usual "Pearl Jam are cool / Pearl Jam suck" nonsense. However, I'm not a big fan of the Fugees / Puffy Coombs method of taking a classic tune and rapping over it - this seems to be a retrograde step to me, but I'm obviously in the minority as they sell shedloads!

[SF] How do you support yourself? Is music your only income?

[CR] Music isn't our only income, as yet. It would be very nice if it was, and that's one of our goals.

[SF] What are your immediate and long term plans?

[CR] At the moment, we're promoting the "Dentist" album. Next, we will release "Three Lucky Boys", which is already finished. We're busy working on new material and videos.

Hopefully, hone our sound even more, blur the edges between music and multimedia, put out some CD-ROMs that actually serve a purpose, get involved in film work, have sex with lots of attractive women, release some videos of that, attain spiritual enlightenment...

Our records are available through the GEMM online store at http://www.gemm.com (search for bigblock454 with no spaces) and also direct from Raspberry Records at http://www.raspberryrecords.com

Our website, the Official Big Block 454 Non-Ironic Web Site, features lots of odd stuff about the band, samples for people to use in their own music, links to English food & drink and anything else we enjoy, plus some articles (currently being reprinted in Beats E-Zine) to help musicians jump-start their brains into different areas. http://www.bigblock454.mcmail.com


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