Chris Clark and ‘Body Riddle’: Charting New Ground in Electronica
Chris Clark – or just Clark – had a complicated time negotiating his own place within UK electronic music.
He may have been signed to the pivotal Warp label when barely out of his teens at the turn of the millennium, but it came at a time when the label itself was renegotiating what it was and what it represented.
Clark was, as he put it, part of “second gen” Warp: a time when they were diversifying from the 1990s electronica of Aphex Twin, Autechre and co, and signing psychedelic guitars, postpunk and folktronica acts.
It was a time, too, when the established 90s hierarchies of clubland were being shaken up by the arrival of new generation sounds like grime and dubstep.
Clark always had strong aspects of “classic” Warp, both in his gently melodic electronic sketches and slamming techno and complex breakbeats that echoed the likes of Squarepusher.
But like the label, he was broadening his influences too, as well as making maximum use of improving digital technology to bring new levels of detail – in a way which would influence a wave of huge artistes after him: people like Hudson Mohawke, Rustie and Arca.
He really found his feet with 2006’s Body Riddle album. It’s an incredible body of work, moving from sparkling ambient tracks to lurching broken beat and all stops in between – and shows the confidence of a fully mature artiste, who isn’t beholden to any existing scene and style.
It would be a milestone in a career which would expand to working with the likes of Bjork, Massive Attack, Depeche Mode and an impressive range of film and television scoring.
With Body Riddle now being reissued by Warp with a whole extra album of unreleased and rare material from the period – which itself ranges from furious drum’n’bass to meditative collaborations with his sadly missed contemporaries Broadcast – we called him up at home in Brighton, England, to look back on a period of innovation.
Have you been thinking back to when the record was made and where it fit in at the time?
It’s making me feel lots of things. I do feel really happy with it and it’s quite weird hearing it and hearing all the things I would do differently now, but also hearing the through line, the themes that run through it.
It’s just so different to the way I work now. But of course, it’s a different climate now, too, and this is really making me think about the moods I was in when I listened back then, too. Music is so different now, the way it’s consumed. It’s like one of many things.
Of course I'm probably colouring, embellishing this with memory because that’s what you do. But I feel like this album was made at a time that was a golden age for electronic music.
Just recently a friend introduced me to Tetsu Inoue, Japanese ambient artiste, very ambient – and I loved it, I stuck it on and it filled the room with this atmosphere, and instead of being on my laptop in the evening, I was listening to music.
And it reminded me of that era where you’d just have music on, and you don’t have any other context other than just this stuff, like, blowing around the room. And it’s glorious.
It reminded me in particular of Microstoria which was this Mouse On Mars related ambient project.
That’s something I listened to a lot when I was making Body Riddle and I definitely took on a lot of the crunchy ambient textures that are unsettling but also kind of chill…for want of a much better word!
So all of this just took me back to that time of just listening – like, really listening – to loads of electronic music and writing all the time. It’s been a bit of a nostalgic moment. Not to say that everything's shit now, but it’s just very different.
Did you think at the time you were making it about where you fit in between ambient and that glitchy Clicks & Cuts arty stuff and the rave-adjacent electronica of the earlier Warp artistes…
Right, I was second gen, I guess. I didn’t really think about it, no.
I don't think it's particularly helpful to actively consider that stuff. It was weird because I was getting really into programming and software around that time, but I was also determinedly looking back further into the past too.
Like, I remember it was sort of around really discovering Krautrock, playing the drums a lot and ... You know, like Can – Delay 1968 is such a magical album.
And it sounded so weirdly relevant at that time in my life. It just hit my emotional state and I was just drumming along to that, constantly, bashing pillows to it and getting really into that.
At the same time I was discovering drone music and how you could just sort of have drones with no harmonical melodic content that's recognisable – and just putting krautrock drums over them felt really sort of new and fresh.
And there was loads around the album that didn’t get released that was just in that vein. It was just noisy and quite aggro. But it all came out of that mix, really.
It feels like a krautrock album. I know it's not really. Artists can’t define what genre they are, but it feels like one to me!
Well why not? Holger Czukay was doing all kinds of things with tape loops over the rhythmic elements in Can…
Yeah. And also Microstoria had a bit of that vibe, like very found sound, quite sort of lowercase, like discreet and textural. So, all of that was in the mix as well. And that's something I still love in music now.
I guess there was a lot going on in the noughts, that place where electronic music crossed over with folk, indie and post-rock – which was quite a new thing back then?
I guess so, yeah. But I’m also really wary of this “electronic music discovers the real music stuff” cliche.
You know, it just makes me cringe. It’s like when people make their careers out of DJ-ing or whatever and then they turn a sneery eye to it and discover jazz, it's like, oh, f--- off.
Maybe it’s because of all the schoolwork involved in having to brush up on those skills. But they’re just skills. It’s just a form.
So, when I take on something new, I’d hate to be like, “Oh, classical music, that’s the top of the hierarchy and everything else is below it.”
Because quite often, that attitude just means you have awful taste!
And what did you think of clubs at the time? Were you out much? Were you aware of dubstep kicking off and things like that?
My experience of it was probably a bit naive, because I hadn't played in that many clubs around that time. There was like Warp raves, but they weren’t really proper clubs. I mean, they were, but it wasn’t clubbing as you know it.
That electronica scene tended to be almost more like a house party, being a quite close knit scene.
Yeah. Yeah. Was a bit like that. So I felt like a bit of a black sheep in the world, and I just did... I don’t know why, but I quite enjoyed doing live sets just on MPCs [Akai samplers] and hadn't really heard of Ableton [music performance software that allowed laptop sets] at that point, although it was out.
Just because everyone was doing it, I didn't ... I just quite liked just taking these clunky old MPCs around.
Did you get any sense of “club culture” as a thing though? By this point it was a long time since the rave movement held all the genres together.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. That had long gone. I mean, I experienced that more as a teenager. That was sort of going to United Systems raves and looking up phone numbers on flyers in phone booths, which just seems so insane now.
When you think about that, it’s like, if you explain that to Gen-Z, you would feel so old, but you’d also feel kind of victorious. You would feel victorious because it’s like, yes, I worked for my rave!
You would go out and you’d find a number, and it would just be some dodgy warehouse, and the most insane gabber rave you’d ever heard. Yeah, so I see what you’re saying. By 2005, that was already nostalgic.
So what did you identify with in 2005, if anything?
It was mainly drum and bass. I was not into techno at that point, really. I found it a bit daft. I found it a bit silly, and I was much more into Ed Rush & Optical and Dillinja, and that felt more exciting.
You know, Current Value. Definitely a lot of stuff on No U Turn, like the earlier stuff was still influencing me.
Some Nico stuff is some of my favourite stuff ever. That track “Input” [by Nico & Fierce] is just so dystopian. It’s so pessimistic, but sort of euphorically pessimistic music with no consolation in it, but it just rolls and rolls and rolls, and you cannot stop listening to it because it’s so sort of sumptuous. Yeah, just some of the best stuff ever.
And for your own stuff did you have any sense where this stew of influences was taking you? What the music you were making then might lead to.
No, I didn’t, no. No, naivete runs through it, I think. Just in terms of the way I made it, at the time I was like, I think you get better at music if you're careful enough. When really you shouldn’t be careful when you write music.
Or not quite that – what I mean is... You know when you get older and you feel in a bit of a shit mood, you know that in a few days, you'll feel better or you’ll move on?
Like, I don't think you know that when you’re young. So, you can get caught up in creative processes and get way more stressed by them because you don’t know what to do.
That feeling like when you make a track and you're ecstatic about it, and then in two days, it sounds different and you’re not quite as into it.
When you're younger, that freaks you out, and it can take you down this rabbit hole that's not that productive, and you question everything. And now, in that scenario, I just start something else because I know that in a while I'll feel differently.
And it's like, that knowledge is quite ... In a way, it's being less careful. Or like you don't take it quite as seriously, actually.
I was very much more sort of earnest about my processes back then, and would get probably a bit more stressed out about it.
What about looking back now? When you listen back to the music on Body Riddle, do you hear something that’s the seed of what you are maybe doing now?
Yeah. Lots of it, really. Yeah. Just the way the album is trying to say something about the range of emotions one can have, and trying to not be painted with one brush – but also not just changing styles to trigger people and show off that you can, because that’s just silly.
So the question was, how to make that coherent, and also how to still make an album an actual album.
I think there’s still life in the old album. I know not many people listen to them anymore, but it's just such a perfect length of time to have on something. And it's like a short story like that. It's like less burdensome than a novel. Even a long album is still a short story, isn’t it?
Nowadays, I like to think now that I write music for about 50 people that really, really get into it.
I'm not saying that I'm an elitist, like, obviously, it's for everyone if they want it. But that’s just the way the world is now.
You can’t assume that someone's going to have this intimate experience with it over like 50 minutes or whatever and go for a walk and listen to it. Maybe there’s only a few people that still do that, and it’s for those people, I guess.
It’s for everyone, but it’s I like to make it for those very few people who are going to listen really closely.
All Images: Greg Eden
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Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs.