Paul Jebanasam’s accent tells me he was brought up in Australia long before he mentions his route to Bristol came via Sydney. He laughs whilst narrating the move as a fresh start; “no one knows who you are, you can reinvent yourself and do what you’ve always wanted to do, and you have a lot of time because you don’t know anyone.” And, although Bristol seemed like the fitting location for the dubstep sound Jebanasam was associated with as half of Moving Ninja, it’s here that Subtext originated in 2004. Between Jebanasam, James Ginzburg (Emptyset) and Roly Porter, Subtext has found itself falling through the margins of electronic and instrumental composition. Releases that appease an audience looking for something a little beyond dance music, often called experimental, but quite simply, artists that just embrace sound in its art form.
As we sit down to talk, the ‘big ideas’ I understood to be behind Rites (Jebanasam’s debut solo album) and Continuum (his second) began to tumble out through daily experiences and familiar questions. Each a product of an artist that is dedicated to continuous learning and exploring, from sacred music to electroacoustic work and sound design. The night before I had my second experience of Continuum, performed as a collaboration with Dutch visual artist Tarik Barri, a name that should be familiar for his work with Thom Yorke, Monolake and Nicolas Jaar. With the performance fresh in my mind we talked science, origin myths and the search for comforting answers.
Can we start with Continuum and how the collaboration with Tarik came about?
The collaboration came about through Berlin Atonal. The performance was planned through Laurence who runs the festival and a mutual friend, James [Ginzburg] from Emptyset, I guess it was kind of like matchmaking. It was very easy from a sound and image point of view to find a mutual language between us. We realised, if he’s working with lights and I’m working with pressure waves, then we can talk about how the whole thing can be structured based on the various levels of energy, and then that turned into various concepts about entropy, life, and the universe… all the stuff everyone loves to talk about late at night. Now you see how it’s ended up as this huge timeline of energy across the whole universe. It seemed like a good enough idea to work with.
How did you arrive at this area of interest?
I got into a timeline of topics and placing them in a timeline of things; starting with the Big Bang (or the creation of life as we know it) and then life after us. The moment you have these ideas and you try and spread them out into a narrative, or timeline, you realise you’ve got all these spaces in between to fill out. Have you seen the film Tree Of Life? It describes the beginning of time and the end of time, and what ended up becoming the movie was just this little chunk in between. After reading the script of this film I started to get into the idea of fictional narratives, almost like religious myths, and that became the framework for the project. This kind of quasi religious mythology that speculated about the future and speculated about the past, and using sound and images to play around with that and experiment. That sounds so convoluted (laughs).
It’s interesting you bring up religion because you’ve used the image of the JET (Joint European Torus) for the physical release which you have likened to a church organ.
Yeah, so, apart from the fact it looks like a church organ, the JET is also one of the most technologically advanced machines that we’ve built. In fact, the church organ at one time was the most advanced, so there’s that parallel there. What they are doing there in terms of fusion reaction also became this interesting speculation about energy and the future and so there’s this project with this incredibly complicated machine that’s somehow trying to save the world by creating an infinite energy source. The whole thing just became really mythical. I don’t want to be pessimistic but there’s something really romantic about the project. But to call it romantic is almost dismissive or insulting. It’s something mythological, to recreate the sun, try and save the earth and solve all the world’s problems.
It seems a bit too big to comprehend, but then some of your topics have been quite expansive too, right?
So much stuff in our everyday lives are connected to these things though. It seems to me that these big ideas arrive even with small everyday things. On some level everyone’s had people pass away in their life, and when I’ve had moments like that, what I’ve thought about is life as something which resists death. I was having a conversation with someone I was close to, who was diagnosed with cancer, and we were talking about death and his fear of it, and he was kind of like, ‘even an ant will try and not die…’ I mean, an ant doesn’t even know it’s alive, but it will avoid death. No matter what your philosophical position or ideas are, we just want to stay here, and something about that context and that conversation just simplified things for me. We just don’t want to die, we fight death, on some very primal level. And everything seems to do that, from a little plant trying to grab some sunlight to a fighting human.
Seeing someone fight through a terminal illness is a really remarkable thing, and also just an everyday, normal thing that a lot of people go through. So thinking about it is not a big idea, but it can lead to asking why life exists. So then, thinking of nuclear fusion just seems like the most crazy version of that: let’s now recreate the energy of the sun to keep the entire world alive. It seems like we’re just fighting death, trying to hold on to something. Sometimes these conversations begin as a search for answers when religious ideas don’t seem to provide any. If you can’t find comfort in religion, or dogmatic traditions, sometimes it can be more comforting to think about things outside of that; science, philosophy.
Is it comforting for you?
Yeah, because at times the music is literally just about not dying, as an emotion or a force, to just holding on to something. Have you seen The Elephant Man? At the end of it, the dream that Merrick has of his mum, and his mum is reciting a poem, I think from Tennyson. It’s a really sad moment where he knows that if he puts his pillows a certain way he won’t be able to breath right, so it’s this weird suicide moment, and he has this dream of his mum saying that the rivers never stop flowing, and the wind doesn’t stop, and that life continues on, nothing ever dies…. So that became a sentiment as well, that nothing ever dies. This person I mentioned before, we kind of talked about that moment of the film where nothing ever dies, but then it becomes very real, not scientific. You are talking to someone who is about to die, and you are trying to come to terms with this. Somehow all the stuff that comes to the fore is this direct emotional stuff, and then music seems to come out of those experiences.
Would you say you’re religious?
I’ve never been religious but I grew up in a religious family. My mother was pretty Catholic in her approach to the world, so I grew up around it and it became a constant discussion. I think I was more argumentative with religion, always questioning it; can it actually answer all the problems that we are talking about? It’s a very small take on the universe in the sense that we see it nowadays, so I’ve never been religious, but I’ve always been in a conversation with it, even if it’s just antagonistic.
I find that there are a lot of parallels between religion and science, in the way they offer answers and, to a large extent, we just submit our faith to them without always fully understanding them or reasoning with them.
Exactly, you don’t always understand the science behind everything. So, for me, it’s almost like a religion itself. Scientists could be the priests of our day: we know about subconsciousness, we’ve got A.I., we figured out how we came to be… but it’s an origin myth. Some guys have worked out the universe is 13.8 billion years old, there was a big bang, and, well yeah, that works. But then the origin myth in certain monotheistic religions explain lots of moral problems about life and death. So then the question becomes: Do these scientific origin myths provide us with a framework for understanding our own existence?
In a way, a lot of them become very nihilistic, they don’t really care about the human. You’re alive. You’re not alive. That’s it: blood stops flowing, there’s no electricity flowing through your brain. It leaves you with a sort of emptiness. If we disproved all the world’s religions and science was left, we’d have this sort of emptiness, or I would anyway. Some would find it very poetic, but a lot of people would find something missing; a mystery that would need answering. I find it really confusing thinking about why life tries not to die.
Does music help you explore these questions?
In a way music is a very good way of going through this stuff, putting it down and working through it. There are a few moments in Continuum that are literally just about the sentiment of not dying, of speaking to an imaginary person and telling them to not die, to keep going on. It sounds super cheesy, but it’s weirdly… have you read Schrödinger’s essay ‘What Is Life?’ He’s like, yeah, it resists entropy, and that’s it. You’ve got this weird poetic sentiment mixed in with pure physics.
Reading about your work, and what comes out of Subtext, there seems to be a recurrent theme of it being labelled ‘de-constructive,’ do you agree with that?
Yeah, I guess in a way that’s because we’re part of a longer, broader tradition of investigating what sound can do in a post-recorded sound world. So, at the beginning of the 20th Century we had all this technology which allowed us to divorce sound from its context. The potential for recorded music is to create new contexts. In a way that’s what electronic music does at its most fundamental level. There can be some really great new ideas that you love, and are excited by, but you still can’t help but cry when you hear certain other musics. Roly [Porter] and I have this ongoing conversation about Gorecki’s third symphony: it’s the ultimate, there’s nothing else to do now, what’s the point of electronics once you’ve got that? So that becomes that main problem that we’re dealing with. We’ve got this new technology but the only music that seems to make life make sense is this other stuff.
Do you ever find you’re limited by the location that people experience your music?
It was frustrating years ago, but not so much now. I think in the early days we were all dealing with the problem of experimental club music because it wasn’t really about dancing, yet you still had to make and sell records. I put out a record on Tectonic and you couldn’t dance to it, but it was on a label which became a dance label. That was a problem then, but it’s not anymore because of institutions like TodaysArt and certain kinds of art. I imagine there are certain audiences that haven’t heard techno, house, and so they get to re-live that experience of dance music, but, similarly, I think there are people who have been through all that, and now can’t understand the logic of making a 6-minute dance record outside of its functional, economic aspect.
I feel tremendously lucky because a lot of people involved in this sort of music don’t get the platform to present it. I teach a course called Creative Music Technology in Bath, which is essentially an electronic music course, and that’s one of the main thing that seems to come up. All the students have great ideas - some phenomenal ideas - but they have to deal with the economy that they’re in. Getting DJ bookings, filling a room with people who will pay a certain amount to get in, drink a certain amount through the night. I mean, I don’t want to be too anti or economical about it, but they deal with a certain kind of problem. It would be great if there were more financially viable options for people who are musicians, people who want to work with ideas. I find it interesting to be around younger people and seeing what they are dealing with, without being too cynical, jaded, or too idealistic.
Has your shift outside of dance music ever felt in conflict with the spaces you’re asked to perform in?
Before our performance me and Tarik were like, should we ask people to sit, if we ask them not to sit, they might get uncomfortable, they might leave. This was actually the first standing gig we did since Atonal, and we realised like, oh damn. I mean Atonal is so spread out and people just lie around everywhere, so this was quite an interesting thing to see that the room was full until the end, and it was also the end of the day! It was like 10pm. That felt like a win at the end of it, it’s very different in a cinema setting. It’s weird because in a DJ setting 45 minutes isn’t a long time, but in Continuum it feels really long sometimes. You’re saying, look, this only makes sense if you’ve been here for this part.
I asked partly because last night a girl left saying she didn’t want to stand for this “ambient/noise” set, and I remember at Sonic Acts when I saw you first, I was sitting down.
Ha! At what point? Was it the slow chords?
Yep, that’s definitely where we lose people. It makes sense in the context, but it’s difficult to ask people to sit through it, let alone stand. When people are sitting down they commit in a different way, they say, look, I can’t get up, I’m just going to go with it. But when they’re standing, I tell Tarik that people will just walk out. If it’s a long festival, people have been standing up for ten hours, there’s a bar outside, we won’t be able to keep them. I do prefer the sitting down version. People just relax, the whole kind of suspension of disbelief. They’re in their own space.
Paul Jebanasam and Tarik Barri perform Continuum next at Fiber x Rest Is Noise, January 6th in Amsterdam