Don’t get Comfy – A Q&A with Gagarin

Graham Dowdall has had a distinguished career as a musician, playing drums for the likes of Nico (Velvet underground), John Cale and Cabaret Voltaire. As a musician working in shadows of popular culture, Dowdall’s experiences in left-field music has pushed him to venture into the unknown as a drummer, and as electronic music became more accessible, the drummer naturally found a particular affinity with this genre too. He adopted the moniker Gagarin for his electronic experiments and set out on a recording discography that dates back to 1996 and caps off with 2011’s Biophillia – an unforeseen coincidence, but bearing no direct correlation to Björk’s album of the same name. Continuing his career as drummer, most recently with Per Ubu, Gagarin is an uncompromising outlet for Dowdall. He ventures into the retro-future sounds of early synthesiser patches, but never strays too far from his roots, as a composer of rhythms. His music floats somewhere between ambience and IDM, but never categorically falls into any defined pigeonhole as it moves into far reaches of unexplored territory. His newest album is no different. AOTICP stays the course in the aesthetics that have been become Gagarin’s signature sound while Geo Records, plays host again to the latest LP. As the exclusive vehicle for Gagarin, the label ensures the uncompromising ideal of the author remains once again at the heart of this release. It features industrially random rhythms and improvised synths all working within a directed compositional form, but it’s the spatial awareness of the elements that really stands out on the album. Their minimalist intent hardly crowds the tracks, and in their compositional forms, they pull the listener through the endless space of the music, and coincidently time. The ‘retro’ nature of the synth palette contemporises in the context of big looming 808 kicks arranged in trap-like rhythm patterns, while the experimentalist nature of the sound design recalls a concurrent fellow futurist like Space Dimension Controller. But where did it all start for Graham and what drives him to keep pushing the envelope throughout his long lasting career? We get to the heart of these questions through a Q&A, while you get the opportunity to savour an exclusive stream of Troglodyte from AOTICP.

Can you tell me a bit more about the circumstances around the genesis of Gagarin?

As well as being in bands I have always done stuff on my own – early on I used to do music for contemporary dance and also free improv but for a period in the 90s was mostly playing with other people. I went to Russia in 94 to play a festival of British electronica followed by a short Russia/ Siberia/ Yakutia/ Belorus tour. The festival was crazy – everyone from Aphex to the Orb – promoted by the mafia and completely chaotic. The tour, mostly by slow train, allowed time for reflection and I realised I wanted to make some purely electronic music on my own terms so when I came back that’s what I did.

Considering your routes as a drummer, why did you particularly find a voice in electronic music?

Being a drummer in “ rock” music is frankly a bit dull – you sit at the back and have to play a beat. I’d always extended my sound pallet – initially with industrial sounds – a bicycle wheel, chains, bits of metal. I wanted to say a bit more but couldn’t play a conventional instrument. As electronic instruments became more accessible I quickly bought a syndrum and it went from there. Machines could do the dirty work and I could have fun and express myself more freely. At school I was introduced to Stockhausen and tape editing and fell in love with extended sonic worlds. I still use the basic skills of a drummer but with a much more open pallet of sounds.


You adopted the moniker Gagarin for your solo electronic project. What connection do you see between the first cosmonaut and your music?

It’s the utopian / futurist ambition of Gagarin’s first flight into the unknown as well as the retro-futurist thing when we look back at what the future might have been like and all those creaky Soviet space craft. I am drawn to those kind of electronic sounds that once sounded like the future but now sound (to some) very dated.

Is Aoticp Russian? What is the meaning of it and why is the album title?

It’s wilfully obscure – no it’s not Russian – it may even be a made up word in a language that doesn’t exist. It’s hard to pronounce and it’s unlikely that Bjork will call her next album that (unlike Biophilia).

What is the essence of this release, the thing that ties all the tracks together to make it a Gagarin album?

That mix of influences from all areas of electronic music – from early classical music through all dance music forms, sound art, electro pop, noise – but none obviously expressed. I want to create a music that doesn’t belong in a genre but nods to many. Also that there is a variety of moods and atmospheres – up and down and that each track goes somewhere.

What were some of the ideas behind Aoticp?

The usual contrasts of urban and pastoral that obsess me. The idea of referencing a wide variety of styles that is both obvious but not overt including on Aoticp – Happy Hardcore, Ambient techno, Minimalism, Free jazz, Kosmische, Elgar, Grime, English folk…

Was there an instrument or method you found yourself returning to while making the album?

Actually yes. I’ve been using a lot of ipad based stuff in the last year and in particular an app called Samplr which allows you to literally put your fingers on a wave form and manipulate it. It’s incredibly tactile and very satisfying for someone who grew up with tape manipulation but was shit with a razor blade. The MPC and my old Roland drum pads will always be at the heart of what I do – the pads allow someone like me with some drumming skills but little else in conventional terms, to express themselves like a proper musician.

I find a focussed emphasis on compositional form in your music, not often found in the repetitive nature of electronic music. Are there concrete ideas formed before you approach your instruments?

I think in a way that’s my USP – I love dance music and repetitive music but I really love a journey not just a moment that keeps going. I don’t start with a structure in mind often but quickly that sonic journey starts to evolve for me. Often a piece starts with a simple sound – maybe a field recording and I allow myself to respond as openly as possible to that sound and just go wherever I’m taken. I use repetition but I guess, as in life, I like change too and I like to get somewhere satisfying.

You’ve had a remarkable career, always practising your art in the margins of popular culture and you continue to do so in this release. What keeps you motivated to stay on track, always pushing the boundaries of music?

I can’t understand why anyone would want to repeat themselves if they see themselves as an artist. Being relatively unsuccessful helps as it prevents one repeating the trick of success and staying in a style. I love to hear new music and I’m easily bored. Preventing boredom is a big driver. I’m appalled that so many people stick with the music they loved when they were a teen or early twenties and never change. I still love early Pink Floyd, Hawkwind, Donna Summer, King Tubby, AMM but equally Actress, Lakker, Fly Lo, Wiley etc. I also only ever work with people who want to push at the edges in some way – why else get out of bed. Somehow keeping on the move creatively slows down the clock – the more you do the longer the day.

With your experience working in music that feigns interest in popularity, how would you measure success today and what would you hope to achieve with Aoticp?

I like that “ feigns interest in popularity” – David Thomas says that he makes the music he wants to and if people like it – great, if not – no problem. I agree with that. Success is people I respect having something positive to say about it, selling some. More than anything it’s when people at a gig or in a review actually seem to get what you’re aiming at and why. I hope some new listeners listen to Aoticp and like it, I hope that by the time I’m ready with the next album I’ve run out of this one (that happened perfectly this time – I sold the last copy of Biophilia the day Aoticp arrived). Oh, and I’d like to buy a big yacht like Kanye.

Your legacy includes working with a bunch of renowned musicians working in left field music. What do you take from those experiences and do you believe it pushes you further, always looking for new forms of expression in unknown territory?

As above – working with people like David who constantly push themselves and the people around them and refuse the easy life. David could keep playing Modern Dance forever and people would be happy – but not him. When I joined Pere Ubu, I was only making very electronic music and had no love for rock so frankly all the more reason for joining a rock band – don’t get comfy. With the people I work with we have great and amazing adventures that always feed the soul. Sometimes dark adventures it has to be said and it’s not always fun. Good musicians also make you rethink what you do constantly – in the moment of an improv I might find myself analysing my process and getting new ideas for sounds and pieces and then need to follow that through. Only work with people you admire – they may drive you to distraction but you’ll know you’re still alive and every failure makes you want to do better. Nico used to wear a really loud ticking watch and someone asked her why “ because it reminds me I’m still alive “ she responded and in her sweet way that’s pretty profound and inspiring.