Revealing Hidden Structures – A Q&A with Rob Clouth

When Rob Clouth’s Clockwork Atom EP came out in April last year, I found myself with a bunch of questions I simply had to ask the producer. The sound of the EP was something completely alien to anything that’s come before it and showcased a unique talent that seemed to be oblivious to convention as he pushed the boundaries of music without losing touch with the appeal of the present-day dance floor. A few emails followed and it looked like I was to fulfil my wish. But as some events refused to conspire, a Q&A never came to fruition, and I was left to stew and simmer with my questions unanswered. What was to happen next? Would he return to his even more mysterious Vaexth moniker and re-establish the obscure position as an audio-visual artist resigned to the unreachable dimensions of the outer margins?

It certainly seemed plausible, and all I had left was Clockwork Atom, slowly turning away in the subconscious realm. The singular track, and the lasting appeal that accompanied it could hardly be ignored, so my questions kept turning in the back of my mind. The break-beat rhythms and glitch electronics form exquisite blankets of warm swelling noise that envelops the listener at times, while infecting a pulse at others. The music stays with you for some time after but not as a refrain you can spin back in your head, but rather an event, a happening that is difficult to relinquish to the back of the mind.

I would try to find answers through the scattered remains of some very non-descriptive Q&A’s, finding no solace in their ubiquitous form. I would listen to the EP again and again, looking for some relevant part that I could put into words but came up empty most of the time. There seemed to be some unbreakable barrier to the artist’s music where the hidden structures of the music dwelled.

I kept turning the questions over in my mind while more questions followed and the more I listened and read, the likelier it would be that Rob Clouth was not a one trick pony and he would be back for more. It was a slow and agonising time for this writer and then the unthinkable happened.

Deep field appeared. But it was only a 12” and only tantalised the interest again. A Q&A would have to wait once again and I would have to remain on tender hooks, but it would only prove to be a short wait. In the months that followed and without much warning really, Rob Clouth delivers a seminal piece of work in the form Hidden Structures. The EP succeeds where many dance LP’s fail miserably, in executing a narrative, a continuous thread through the tracks that bind them all together in the form of a single entity. It marks something of an opus in Clouth’s short but distinguished career, tying together some elements of Vaexth, while grounding himself further under his eponymous moniker.

Inspired by the Planck length, which goes to assume there is a finite space to everything, Clouth’s music on Hidden Structures looks exactly to find those hidden structures lying behind those unknowable spaces, pushing the envelope of music and venturing into completely unknown territory. The EP lives in a future where Amon Tobin and Objekt have assumed their position as the archetypal classic composer and the music has been firmly adopted in the digital form. Clouth’s adventures still continue in the realm of glitch electronics and break-beats, and while the dance floor is still accounted for, it seems irrelevant to the music’s design. Clouth’s mastery of melody and harmony shine through like it has never done before, and I wonder if he has ever received any formal training in that regard?

More questions go unanswered. Hidden Structures has bought with it only more hidden structures I desperately need to explore. On this occasion the circumstances are favourable and we finally get the chance to explore what lies behind Rob Clouth’s enigmatic music.

There’s an evident intent in your music to push the envelope of electronic music. Where do you find this attitude towards music has its roots?

I guess in part I try to make the music that I want to listen to. If that music doesn’t exist already I try to make it.

Warp is one influence I believe, but what initially piqued your interest in music?

Linkin Park actually inspired me back in the day, but don’t tell anyone please. There was one purely electronic track towards the end of the first album that I thought was just so unbelievably cool and original, at the time. I think I even did a cover of Paper Cut in Music 2000. Yup. Then I started listening to Warp and any electronica compilation I could find. Plus some math rock, emo and jazz.

How did listening to the music influence a move to composition and production?

Probably it started by wanting to make changes in the music, i.e. hearing a part that I thought could be interesting if changed.  

You’ve said in a previous interview that you are most creative when dreaming. Dreaming happens at a subconscious level. Is this where your music manifests itself first?

I think all of our thoughts happen at a subconscious level and bubble up into consciousness. The conscious part of cognition is just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, there’s a decent argument that our consciousness doesn’t make any decisions at all, and the feeling of control is just an illusion. Look up the Libet experiment, and the neuroscience of free will. Super fascinating – if scary – stuff. If that’s true then the answer is yes.

That penchant you display for the science behind everything also has its claws in your latest EP too. Can you tell us a little more about how ideas like the Planck length inspired Hidden Structures?

I really, really like the idea of unknowable spaces. I find it so intriguing and yet so frustrating that there are things in the universe that by (current) definitions we can never know. In quantum mechanics the planck length is the smallest length possible (what??) and with our current understanding of physics, probing inside anything smaller is impossible. What untouchable universes might be hidden inside? Music is full of unknowable spaces.

How do you relay a tangible scientific idea into something abstract like music?

Very indirectly. You can’t write a track that sounds like quantum mechanics. It’s more that these concepts were things I was thinking about during the creation process, and so influenced the decisions on a higher level. It’s often in a visual way, almost like writing soundtracks for visual events or scenes that I have in my head. For example, ‘The Galaxy Collapsed into a Point’ I see as the soundtrack to the collapse of a super massive black-hole. In other people it might induce other images, or none at all. One thing I love about music is that it’s not a direct mind-to-mind information transfer. There’s so much abstraction and reinterpretation.

It gives the music a very futuristic appeal in the productions aspects, something like science fiction music. You’ve mentioned your admiration for an author like Iain Banks before. Is it something you intentionally wish to bring forward in your music – a futuristic design?

Actually really not at all. What is futuristic design? I have no idea what sounds of the future will be like. All aesthetics of the future are almost always totally wrong. I am heavily influenced by writers like Iain Banks though, so I wouldn’t be surprised if that contributed to the music in some way.

RIP Banks.

There’s a notable narrative to Hidden Structures. What is the story that lies behind that impressive development of the songs throughout the EP?

If you perceive a global narrative over the EP that’s great – but I didn’t really write it with one in mind. I always knew Smallest was going to be the opener, and Galaxy the closing track, but other than that it wasn’t planned. Narrative can emerge in other ways than stories I suppose.

I also notice a very serious focus on elements of melody and harmony in your music. How do you maintain the balance between studio explorations and the basic elements in music theory?

I don’t really know. I never had any formal music theory training. I just fiddle around on the piano or keyboard or mouse until I find something I like. I do have some aversion to melodies that are too easy though. If I write something that is like that, I’ll try to twist it up somehow.

Would you say that this is part of the reason you are one of the few artists working outside of music’s theoretical box.

Isn’t all music theoretical? My experience has been that anyone who claims to be outside-the-box is so inside-the-box that they can’t even see the walls. But not me, I’m definitely outside it – not a single wall in sight!

And then there’s also the dance floor element to your music. Why is it essential to your work?

I wouldn’t say it’s essential, but I am an influence sponge and if I’m listening to dance music and going out a lot, it invariably seeps into my work. What I take most from dance music (good dance music) is the flow of energy. Really good stuff peaks and dips at interesting times, while pulling you through the track.

And I do love writing a good banger. I actually went through a big electro house phase a long time ago and I’ve got a load of them sitting around.

In the past you’ve been quoted as saying that the people around you affect your creative output. How has Leisure System influenced your music in the last few releases?

It’s hard to say how exactly, but I’m sure they have influenced me in some way. I do really enjoy the music they put out and the vibe of the nights they put on. I feel at home there, and they’re open to most things I make (more or less).

I am told there will be a video accompaniment to the release that will visualise the sound of the EP. Can you tell us a little more about that?

Sure. Over the last few month I’ve been messing around with self-similarity matrices, which show you how similar each part of an audio file is to every other part. They make these super rich patterns that look awesome, but also can tell you some interesting information about the track. One of these is the album artwork.

With the video, I wanted something interactive, that exposed structures in the songs that aren’t immediately apparent, using these self-similarity matrices rendered at insane resolution. These deep-zoom patterns are rendered at the size of a small planet. The viewer can then explore the planet/track in real-time. It’s kind of hard to explain in text. Imagine a planet complete with atmosphere and oceans, that looks kind of like a huge circuit board that you can explore. More or less like that.

What lies beyond Hidden Structures?

I’ve decided that I’m writing no music until I’m ready to write an album. That’ll be next year. There’s a bunch of tools I need to program for it first…