Bass Clef
A Visit to the Echo Chamber

Spannered tracks down Hackney Centralist and trombone-wielding bass-maker, Ralph Cumbers

By Al Fresco

In the early noughties he ruled Bristol’s electronica scene under his RLF moniker, releasing on Rex Records and treating the good people of the city to many a fine performance. Since cutting his hair and returning to his birthplace of London two years ago, Ralph Cumbers, aka Bass Clef, has been busy crafting a rich, analogue sound from the confines of his Hackney studio, the Echo Chamber, culminating last month in the issue on Blank Tapes of his album,  A Smile is a Curve that Straightens Most Things.

This timely release finds Mr Cumbers coalescing with the dark, dubstep sounds emanating from the capital. The result is a remarkable piece of work that sits confidently at the crossroads between Burial, Vex'd, Aphex Twin and, er, the Penguin Café Orchestra.

Spannered entered the Echo Chamber to find out more, and while wandering the wire-strewn workplace unearthed a new DJ mix of real-deal riddims from Mr Clef’s enviable collection of Jamaican 7"s — Son of Echo Chamber. And for those who missed his brain-boggling first instalment, In the Echo Chamber, we nabbed that one too.

Take it away Ralph!

Can you cite some of your influences, early to present, that have had a bearing on the music you make, play and listen to?
How long have you got? Where to start… Earliest I guess getting a Walkman at nine or ten, Jeff Lynne’s War of the Worlds blew my mind… Raiding my Mum’s tape collection – Kate Bush and David Bowie. Let’s skip quickly over the teenage heavy metal phase. LFO and Altern 8; The three As – Autechre, Aphex and Andy Weatherall; King Tubby, Prince Jammy and Lee Perry; James Brown and Fela Kuti; Theo Parrish and Carl Craig; Will Oldham and Cat Power; Stina Nordenstam and Delia Derbyshire. I’ll stop there…
Your Echo Chamber mixes are pure dancehall selector vibe. Tell us a bit about them and what draws you to the genre.
I really really love early digi-dub, bashment and dancehall instrumentals. Digi-dub especially is really looked down upon but I think there’s some amazingly inventive production going on there, amongst all the cheese and duff tunes – some of it so minimal and wonky and wonderful. I ended up with loads of 7”s, so I made the first mix. I’m far from being the world’s best DJ, so I kept the overlaps short, banging in each track for 20 seconds or so mostly, with live FX and theremin, just because it’s fun really. And that’s what I do when I’m at home, playing records for myself…

I love to buy a stack of unknown Jamaican 7”s for 50p a go or whatever and then hunt through for the good stuff, proper hunter gatherer instinct business, and then try and navigate a listenable way through, with some kind of flow. For the second mix I used a lot more drum machine and analogue delay, was a bit more selective about the tracks, did a few longer mixes, with two tunes playing together much more of the time. There’s no hard and fast rules or anything though. The first mix had Artwork and The Bug in it, and there’s a Seefeel track that crops up in the second one.
Though you’ve always had a penchant for bass, is it fair to say that dubstep and the surrounding musical topography has been very influential in the music you’ve been making since returning to London?
When I came back to London and starting going to FWD and DMZ and listening to Rinse, it definitely struck a chord with me; stripping back and putting the bass centre stage had been something I had been getting at for several years. There’s a thing called Occam’s Razor, which I tried to apply to tunes – take everything out except what you really really need. Harder than it sounds! I had been gigging constantly in Bristol and not writing that much, and it was really good for me to swap that around. The first time I went to DMZ and spent six hours at 3rd Base I flipped. To be moved by a bassline, a snare and a kick, a hat and a bit of space – genius.
Warmth is an omnipresent element in your music. With so many laptop-only productions in circulation, do you feel a lot of today’s electronic music lacks this?
For me analogue vagueness sounds better than digital clarity and precision, though I can hear the appeal of both. I don’t think it’s impossible to get a warm sound out of a soundcard, it’s just difficult, and far too hard for a luddite like me. I really like the warmth of tape, which is why I use it. The random moments and odd noises that come from analogue gear are really important to me – the idea of ‘haunted’ echo boxes; instruments with their own personality…

Many musicians have a preoccupation with technology. Do you think this can often hinder the creative process?
Hey I have a preoccupation with technology too! Just a few years behind everyone else… I don’t know if you can separate the two – playing the lute or the piano or even banging on a rock with another rock was the height of technology at the time. The instrument or program you use inspires and shapes and changes the music you make, I think. It’s a good thing.
You’re one of an ever-diminishing number of musicians who eschew the use of a computer for music making. Is this likely to change in the future?
It’s not like a hardcore dogma on my part or anything, I just don’t like making music in that on/off, blocks and boxes, linear way – the way music is visualized and represented in sequencing programs I’ve seen is as ridiculous as Western classical notation; music is way more abstract and between-the-lines than that. Having said that, sometimes I’ve spent half an hour step-programming some hi-hats and then I think – I could’ve done that in about 10 seconds on Logic or something. I’d like to see people invent some better way of interacting with computers than a mouse. It’s harder to make mistakes on a PC, everything is quantized and normalized – it’s hard to avoid sounding too clean and precise. Also, if I could unmake any and every decision, I’d never finish a track!
The production on your album sounds incredible, yet your studio is relatively basic by today’s standards. Can you talk us through your working set-up?
People who see my studio laugh at me. When I mastered the album the engineer almost refused to believe it was recorded onto cassette four-track. That was a proud moment! I use an Akai S950 sampler (40 seconds sampling time – top of the range in about 1989 – oh yes!), sequenced by an old Alesis drum machine, through a little Behringer desk, valve compressor, some solid-state delays and various FX pedals. Every track is basically a live performance, sequencing and effecting on the fly, recorded onto my lovely four-track (with its faders held down with Blu-Tack) until I get a take I’m happy with. Later I’ll go back and do a mixdown, shaping and restructuring the track in another live take, and there you go. For most of the album my sampler’s disc drive was broken, so I basically had two evenings to get a track down onto tape before it crashed. The only thing I couldn’t do at home was the trombone overdubs – I went to a great studio called Snorkel with some lovely old mics and tape echo units.
Why did you feel the urge to start a blog? Do you embrace other online developments much, such as web forums, MySpace etc?
I’ve got a MySpace but I don’t use it much because it always crashes ‘cos of the software bugs. It’s very frustrating as I can’t even listen to anyone else’s music. It’s just a big corporate program for researching people’s social habits, isn’t it? I started a blog because it’s a really direct way of letting people know what you’re up to, passing on your own music, but it’s a loose enough thing that you can just write about how much you love a Devon Irons tune or something. I’ve found so much music through other people’s blogs.
Originally from London, you spent many years in Bristol before returning to live in the capital in 2004. Generally speaking, what sets these cities apart in terms of music and culture? And how has living in these two cities affected the music you make and listen to?
The scene or scenes are smaller and more centralised in Bristol (obviously!). So, working in a shop and DJing and performing and promoting and whatnot, it was much easier to meet people and get a foothold and work your way up. When I grew up in London I was playing bass in a few bands, but it all fell apart and I didn’t know what I was doing. It was much easier to mentally regroup and find my feet in lovely Bristol. Play some tentative gigs on my own. It’s more welcoming and it feels like musicians are more supportive of each other.
Bristol has been referred to as ‘dubstep’s second city’. Would you say this direction is a natural progression for a city whose musical history is steeped in reggae, hip hop and drum & bass?
It’s got to be, although a few years ago I remember playing out ‘dark garage’ type stuff and clearing the floor on several occasions! Probably down to me, though. There’s a huge bass culture though, a great heritage, and a brilliant vibrant musical world there…
You played with Scion, Kode 9 and Pinch at this year’s Venn Festival in Bristol. How was that? Did you catch much else at the festival?
It was an awesome line-up. And playing through the Dissident bassbins was a complete honour. I had to play another song to fill the gap between me and Scion, and they asked me to “play another one with your trombone” in a wonderful Berlin/Basic channel/Hardwax accent. This left me with a glow of pride until a few minutes later when I accidentally unplugged one of their cables whilst I was packing down, and it all went silent for a second or two – oops. I hardly caught anything else as I was only there for the day – no Vashti Bunyan, Nettle, Tony Allen or Oren Marshall for me, sadly…
For many years you were ‘the man’ at Bristol’s valued vinyl emporium Imperial Records. From your experiences there, can you pass comment on the struggle independent music shops have faced over recent years, and on any particularly pertinent occurrences at Imperial in the days before its sad demise?
I really miss Imperial (almost enough to cry, sometimes). Treasure your local independent, people, whilst you still can! I’m guilty of buying online too but shops can be a hub to a music scene and can connect people and all other sorts of things. Their importance cannot be underestimated.
What is your set-up when you play live?
Fat man in a suit playing trombone, theremin, drum machine, percussion and whatever, over backing tracks, all dubbed and FX’d and generally messed around with. Recently I have been experimenting with playing airhorn and trombone simultaneously. It’s really good fun if you can match the notes.
You’re an accomplished trombonist and have performed with brass sections and other musicians. Are you currently involved in any projects with others employing live instrumentation?
Have you heard me play trombone? 'Accomplished' is one way of describing it. I might go for 'all over the place' or 'unique style' if I was being polite. Some might say 'out of tune'. I miss the days when I played as RLF in Bristol with the four-piece brass section and a DJ. My dream is to have some kind of huge Fela Kuti style live band, with two or three drummers, a big brass section and a load of live electronics. One day…
Do you think it’s okay for a musician to look like they’re checking emails when playing live, as long as they’re rocking it?
If all the lights are down and the music’s so good you can totally immerse yourself in it, then brilliant. Otherwise, make an effort.
You’ve performed live rescores to films, touring the country with your take on Godzilla. Was this just a creative phase for you or is it something you plan to do more of?
It was great fun – I got a lot out of it creatively. Doing a tour of cinemas was a total blast. If anyone wants to commission me again I’m there!
What are the best musical performances you’ve witnessed lately?
Animal collective – loose and joyous. Hawk and a hacksaw – virtuoso freewheeling wonders.
How would you describe the new album to:
a) a record shop?
In a gap between songs at a gig I was playing I overheard someone describing it as “dubstep not dubstep”. Who knows? I don’t. Erm.
b) your mum?
I’d be more interested in hearing my mum describing it to others…
The upbeat title of the album seems quite self-explanatory. Is there more to it than the affable, upbeat message suggests?
Someone had sewn it, like an embroidery I guess, and it hung on the wall at my grandmother’s house when I was growing up. She was really musical and had a big impact on me. I felt like the album was really happy (no one else seems to agree!) and I didn’t want a dour, serious-faced album title. I wasted too many years feeling really miserable, before I realised it didn’t have to be that way.
Some titles are clearly influenced by your surroundings – ie Clapton Deep, Hackney Centralist, Graham Road Rhythm (unreleased). What do these tracks say about the locations from which they take their names?
Clapton Deep was kind of a jokey reference to the “West London deep” phrase that came from broke beat, and to Clapton Ponds (not very deep) and because that whole area has quite a lot of crime and general sketchiness, but a strange beauty too – a real random mixture of old and new and weird buildings and history and all sorts of different people. Hackney Centralist, again a reference, to Squarepusher’s Alroy Road Tracks (massive record for me when I was 19 – I used to go past that road and I loved that tangible aspect of it). Hackney Central is the station I use and where I live – so it stuck. The influence these places have over the music is strong but kind of intangible.
Given that you’ve a huge amount of unreleased material, what’s next in the release pipeline for Bass Clef?
Promotional aprons and limited edition wax cylinders – ha! No, some of that stuff is unreleased for a reason! Some of it very nearly made the album though. I’d like to give away a bunch of stuff online early next year. Hopefully another 12” then too and in my wildest dreams some/most of the album on vinyl… And of course album two, already underway.
And finally, can you give us a current ‘bass-weight top five’ and an all-time ‘bass-weight top five’?
    • Appleblim - The Fear
    • Coki - Shattered
    • Pinch - Punisher
    • Peverelist – The Grind
    • Calenda - Forever
All-time (today, anyway!)
    • Dillinja - Tudor Rose
    • Lightning Bolt – 13 Monsters
    • Sabres Of Paradise – Wilmot Meets Lord Scruffage
    • The Sleng Teng riddim – perfection
    • Gescom - Keynell A

 Listen to Bass Clef's In the Echo Chamber mix
 Listen to Bass Clef's Son of Echo Chamber mix
  A Smile is a Curve that Straightens Most Things is out now on Blank Tapes
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