After the initial few days of prickling sound design, celestial ambience and crumbling bass drones at this year’s Berlin Atonal, Blood Music’s set provided a forceful jolt back to reality. Thundering, broken-beat rhythms, palpitation inducing shockwaves of low-end and gurgling electronic distortions made a welcome break from the comparatively tranquil selection of drone and ambient that had gone before.
In its live form, the project has seen numerous incarnations over the years. These days however, the project is run exclusively by its founder Simon Pomery, who has always been the sole author of Blood Music’s recorded works. Given this, the Blood Music sound is perhaps not as straight forward as you might expect. The debut Blood Music EP for example sits somewhere between roughed up post-punk and avante-garde electronics. These days however Blood Music material seems more concerned with exploring the limits of dancefloor friendly music - given this, perhaps it’s little wonder Pomery has found a fitting home on Powell’s Diagonal imprint.
Back in London several weeks after Atonal, I met with Pomery in a dusky E8 boozer to discuss the show, Taiko drumming and his long-awaited Blood Music debut LP.
So how did you find the set at Atonal? It looked like quite an endurance test… Were you improvising the rhythms?
Atonal was certainly an endurance test, for all involved. I played an extremely demanding set: it’s not just electronic improvisation, it’s the physical demands of the drum playing, and these two things in tandem. Most of the drum parts are locked down, so that becomes muscle memory, although there is some room for improvisation and variation on what I’ve written. I played mostly new tracks, and also ‘Badgering’ which is on the recent 12”. There’s always an improvised element because I’m using a noise box, synths and a drum-machine. The first 15 minutes was a new piece called ‘Contact Drumming’: an acid improvisation, voice composition, and prepared guitar through filters, to which I’m programming kick drum phases. When I play live drums I’m echoing those kick drums and phase patterns. ‘Contact Drumming’ is a reference to Steve Reich - lines of drum phases building and building so that you can hear (and see) the structure of the music. I’m using contact mics for voice and for the tone of the drum.
The Diagonal showcase was really refreshing at Atonal as it brought a lot of energy and some humour to the festival…
I felt proud of what we did too because I felt like we were representing London. Towards the end, I was playing voice files from two friends of mine, Lilith Whittles and Sophie Colletta, who are saying “I love you” to each other. I started blowing kisses at the audience: not your usual Atonal action I don’t think. What a lot of people said to me after I played is how refreshing it was to see such a physical performance, and how the physicality effected their own bodies. I use electronics, but I use acoustic instruments. With everyone everywhere pressing buttons it can get boring, depending on the act, I guess. I have broken something at every Blood Music gig there’s ever been: I play hard until something gives way, which in this case was the Atonal snare drum.
I thought the main power station was beautiful but preferred it downstairs where we were: hot and heavy. I started the show hitting the snare drum alone, and we were measuring the reverb - tonally very beautiful, and more and more people were descending the massive staircase, flooding in, following the sound, ready to go fucking mental. When it was absorbed by 700 people there was a great balance between tone, volume, and reverb. It was great to have Florence To on live motion graphics. She put my sounds through her visuals programme to show rhythmic pulses over three screens.
And did you lob your drumstick at someone at some point?
(Laughs) Yeah. I did aim it at him but I did it nicely. At the start this lad said to me “I hate everything I’ve seen and heard at this festival, can you do something fun, please?” 15 minutes into my set I was playing ‘Sharking’ with contact mics - a one minute drone, so I can meditate a bit, and have a physical breather after all the relentless waves of ‘Contact Drumming’, and he starts heckling and saying “what are you doing, this is shit, do something else” and I went “oh really”, and I’d just broken a drum stick, which I threw at him. I didn’t do it very hard and I didn’t aim at his face - it hit him in the chest, but in the moment I just thought “we don’t need this”. He was stunned and stopped speaking. I started playing ‘Badgering’, and his face lit up. His hands went in the air and stayed there until the end of the set. I think he knew I wasn’t being mean without reason. I was just letting him know I think you should be quiet now because it’s badgering time.
I also wanted to ask you about the Taiko drumming you have mentioned as an influence on your latest EP for Diagonal.
Taiko, like all percussion, is a huge thing in Blood Music, but one influence among many, and I stress the word influence: I’m not appropriating Taiko, I’m influenced by it. The sticks I use are an orchestral mallet/stick hybrid, and the influence in this context is more like a network of inspirations. I used to play in a bunch of bands just for the experience, but I began to resent the idea of the percussionist being at the back. I resented that there’s this sort of unspoken and repressive hierarchy in bands - it didn’t make any sense to me. So I developed this way of standing up and playing.
I’ve also done some martial arts over the years. I’m doing Thai kickboxing at the moment, and something called Eskrima which is a form of stick fighting from Singapore. When I started this I thought brilliant - as a drummer it’s great for your shoulders. When I was developing my new style of drumming I was thinking about how you use Eskrima - right foot forward, left foot back, left heel up: southpaw. When you’re hitting this way there is so much power because you’re using your whole body. It’s a different language for transmitting what you feel emotionally and intellectually into rhythms on a drum-head. It’s another way of communicating. I love interplay between voice and drum: a melodic approach to percussion, a percussive approach to voice.
Can you tell me a little bit about the evolution of Blood Music? Kenichi Iwasa & Adam Kerle used to be part of the group right - did it start as a three piece?
No, Blood Music has always been me, although a few people have come and gone for live shows. I was living in Newington Green subletting a flat which turned out to be on the same street where my dad lived when he was born. So I was really attached to this place. I made a track with a drum and prepared guitar and called it ‘Blood Music’ - that’s where it came from: pulse, phasing, tone, drums. So I was recording by myself, but interested in collaboration and ensemble playing. I used to say to the others “play like a machine”. I made the “Blood Music E.P.” like this, writing and rehearsing all the parts, then playing long takes one after another in the studio. I played those tracks, ‘Rare Earth Material’ and ‘Speak Like Violence’ live with the others, but it didn’t work playing it with them in the studio, so I did everything myself: drum kit, drum machines, guitar, Pro One and Analogue Systems, found percussion. However, that sound evolved slowly. With Tobin Jones I designed a special ambient mic setup to record instruments in his skatebowl in Wembley: it’s a huge warehouse, with the studio sealed off in the same building, and it’s been an essential part of the BM sound.
When I first met Kenichi I was talking to him about music and I remember asking him to send me some stuff. I remember him saying he doesn’t really record anything… I don’t know if he was talking about Blood Music or another project.
No, Ken doesn’t record anything, but after much effort on my part I have managed to get him into the studio from time to time. He has a totally different idea about what music is to me: he just does it in the moment, but through his approach to music and art generally he inspires a large network of people in London and beyond. He instantly got the Taiko thing. Adam got me a book on it for my birthday, then Ken said to me “Simon, there’s this Taiko ensemble called Kodo, and one Japanese translation of Kodo is Blood Music”. Kodo also means ‘pre-language’ - your state of thought before a word comes to you. Like a child’s innocence in their minds before they’ve been cultured.
Eventually, Adam stopped and Jordan Cunningham played some shows. Every time we played, Jordan would use an entirely different setup. He nearly blew up the Room 1 Funktion One at Corsica. He had brought this Russian synth, we were soundchecking and the two sound guys ran out going “stop! turn it off, turn it off!” and he said, very politely, and very apologetically, “ah I’m really sorry, I didn’t know it did that because that part of the synth never worked before…” As it was Soviet, he didn’t have the parts for it. In any case, Jordan is one of the loudest people I have ever made noise with. Around this time we blew a few speakers. There’s a video of a PA on fire. A guy called Xix played some shows with me: guttural vocals which I sampled on ‘Chicks’.
More recently I have wanted to play alone because I don’t want to have to pay to rehearse with anyone. It’s more uncompromising to do it myself. In any case, no one has wanted to do it as much as me, or been as certain about what Blood Music is, so this is a natural development. It’s more honest since it’s always been one bloke.
And you’ve been working on your album for two years now, how far off is it? Do you think that will be a new development in sound from the last tape and 12”?
Yeah, it’s a big development from the 12”. In a time of austerity I called that tape ‘Health, Wealth & Happiness’. This is also why the 12” has ‘Chicks’, with a picture of a baby chick on it. The digital image is yellow. It’s nauseatingly bright. Not black and white. Not melancholy. But livid. On my recent work there’s also a more expansive interest in female voice and sound poetry. There’s more complex percussion and more modular processes, and I’m using Logic X. I could say more.
In your Quietus interview you mentioned Russell Haswell had a role on the LP - can you tell me a bit more about your working relationship with him
There was a Diagonal party in Islington Mill about a year ago - Oscar asked me to play drums to his DJ set. We had one PA each: one for Powell’s records, one for Blood Music drums. The most fun thing to play was ‘Temptation and Desire’ by Silent Servant. Before the show I found a piece of sheet metal in a skip, which I mic’d up. People said they couldn’t believe how indistinguishable the two sounds were, the percussion stabs on the Silent Servant record, and my drums and sheet metal… There was this gorgeous symbiosis where everything came together - the DJ and the drumming and the sounds. Russell played after. We were upstairs and he said “Simon, I really want to work with you”.
Russell’s role has been giving general encouragement, and over two sessions engineering certain processes I wanted. I put my drum loops through Russell’s modular, then I played with filters. Then worked on them in Logic X, recorded two days of material with Tobin Jones at The Park Studios, and edited further. I’m so glad I’m taking this long.
So you know Russell through Diagonal?
I met Russell at the very first Diagonal night, in summer 2013, which was at The Waiting Room. It was Blood Music, Russ, Jaime, Oscar, and Joe from Raime. Russ came in giving me devil horn fingers as I was soundchecking. When I first heard his computer music, in 2001, I thought he was a straight-faced academic. He isn’t.
I had also read a little bit about your poetry work - to what extent does this inform how you work as a musician?
I feel similarly about writing to how I do about music in that I feel I have to make the sounds I hear in my head. I have a language addiction and a music addiction. Music can be anti-language, pre-language, an escape from language: this frees you from it. One challenge is: how far can you push language in a club track, to try and combine something that’s poetically interesting with something that’s sonically interesting? Bruce Gilbert’s approach to words is inspiring in ‘The Shivering Man’, as is Keiji Haino: you know, he’ll be screaming “do not name me do not name me for if you name me I will not be everywhere”. The ‘Text-Sound Compositions’ compilation was a revelation for me and has influenced my approach to voice. Someone special introduced it to me.
With music one thing that’s so freeing about it is that you could have a track with just one word and it could mean the world. There’s a renewed interest in concrete poetry after Primary Information reprinted the Emmett Williams anthology - which is truly international, poets from absolutely everywhere. ‘The New Concrete’ has just come out. But you can actually use some of this stuff as scores - language that you are going to use in a track. But then using one syllable, one sound or one refrain is in techno and acid, and in extended vocal technique also. It’s all over the place.
In terms of making tracks you can break it down into units of speech. If you take the morpheme, which is the smallest unit of speech that has meaning, like ‘in-‘ or ‘sub’-, then take the phoneme which doesn’t mean anything, ‘/k’/ or ‘/ts/‘, you can make tracks that have absolutely no meaning, but because of the physicality and the emotion with which people have performed them - these sounds that don’t mean anything taken out of context suddenly have emotional power. In this way, sound poetry, concrete poetry, and a minimal use of words and vocal sounds in music, have much in common. This is infinitely fascinating.