IN THE STUDIO WITH:
Rival Consoles We meet Ryan Lee West and get the lowdown on new album, Night Melody
Originally from Leicester, where he studied sound engineering at De Montfort University, London-based electronic producer Ryan Lee West first came to attention ten years ago as Aparatec with the EP
Vemeer. The release was the first on the renowned Erased Tapes label, now home to respected neo-classical musicians such as Nils Frahm and Ólafur Arnalds. The same year saw West’s first Rival Consoles EP release, The
Decadent, a brooding collection of acid-tinged IDM. Defined by its gritty, distorted Techno minimalism, his debut album IO surfaced two years later, while further albums Kid Velo, Howl and Night Melody have seen West mutate his sound and mature his craft to create some inspiring sonic sculptures.
FM: Who did you grow up listening to as a youngster in Leicester?
Rival Consoles: “My parents played classic British Pop music by The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bowie, and stuff like that, but never went beyond obvious Pop music. I started learning guitar when I was 12, so my introduction to music would have been bands in the late ’90s like Radiohead, whose compositions were interesting but also quite popular. When I was younger I was obsessed with how they would structure music. I’ve always liked those parameters and people that are willing to explore things, but not just for the sake of it.”
So you were more into guitar-based bands back then?
“My tastes were definitely more band-driven than electronic, but when I was 15 or 16 I started to hear stuff like Aphex Twin and Squarepusher when they were really getting towards their height. But even though I was excited by electronic music, I didn’t think I could make it. For years I was still playing guitar, and then I started working with Cubase just to record and sketch out guitar ideas. It was only after working for five years with computers and synths that I became more interested in what I’m doing now.” You studied sound production at university… “Yeah, I studied Music Technology at De Montfort University in Leicester. Before that, I’d studied sound engineering at college and done a few other music courses. What I didn’t know about the course was that it was really experimental and avant-garde, and I had no real background in that at all because no one in my family had ever been to university. It was so crazy because there was no practical; it was all about how to think about music and learning about the last 200 years of experimental music – people like John Cage and Philip Glass. The first thing we did was to bring in a guitar pedal of some kind and connect them in a loop in a way that we shouldn’t, because the sound runs away from itself and creates this unpredictable, chaotic loop. The point was that everyone’s changing the sound, but no one’s in control.”
Do you think taking that course inspired you to move beyond the ordinary and led you in a certain direction with your music?
“I think it took quite a long time before it made an impact on my music. I’ve never been the kind of person who likes to force something for the sake of it. I graduated in 2009, so I reckon it took five years for a lot of these ideas to slowly creep into my music. I’ve realised that in the last few years a lot of tones in my music are noisy feedback tones that, on their own, sound unusable, but I layer them in a collaged way to create something quite beautiful.”
When did you feel confident enough or decide that this could become a career path?
“I never thought that, and don’t even think that now. I’ve been making music as Rival Consoles for ten years, and it’s only in the last two years that I’ve got to the point where I’m lucky enough to be making a living from it. Obviously, I’m not turning money down, but I’m not going out of my way to make money and I think that’s the best way to live your life as an artist. I make a lot of my income from playing live, but when I’m playing live it is just my music.”
What was your first entry into the world of gear?
“The microKorg was the first synth that I bought. It’s been out for quite a while now – I probably bought it in 2002. I saw it in a music shop in Leicester that sold a few synths and was excited by the simplicity of it. This was pre everyone going mad on the internet and buying stuff secondhand. It’s got arpeggiation but I mainly use it for pads and recording simple basslines. I didn’t get anything else for a long time after as I was doing most things inside the computer and recording the microKorg into Cubase as audio.”
You were recording on Cubase initially…
“I was using lots of plug-ins inside Cubase, and Steinberg’s Nuendo. I remember using the A1 synth and I absolutely loved that, and I know a lot of producers that love it as well. I saw a Nathan Fake video and he was using it. It’s very musical, you only have to do a few things to get something quite exciting and interesting. You can mess around with a simple melody for a few minutes but go through so many interesting variations.”
As certain systems stop supporting various bits of software, it’s interesting how they are starting to become as rare and unique as old hardware…
“Exactly. It just goes to show how everything is in transition and nothing’s really permanent. You could be using the most popular plug-in around right now, but in five years’ time it might become very niche.”
You use Max/MSP, which has stood the test of time and has a reputation for being quite complex to work with…
“Initially, I probably would have seen that programme as being too removed from the music
making process, and it did take me quite a while to get into it – despite having being taught. I think it took two or three months before it clicked and I felt confident with Max/MSP. I remember being stressed out and thinking it was beyond me, but now I’d say that it’s actually not a hard programme language at all; you just have to allow yourself to not understand it straightaway. It’s not like coding; it’s actually much more intuitive.”
Your early sound was quite different to recent albums like Howl and now Night Melody. Did you have a clear idea of where you wanted to position yourself back then?
“A lot of Warp artists would have been influencing my sound, but I tend to think that my music is defined by all the things I don’t do. I’m against lots of things in music. Even at the beginning, my music sounded quite together because I was exploring lots of things but also saying no to lots of things in terms of production, melody and structure. My music’s a little bit different to a lot of other Dance producers because I have a songwriter’s approach in terms of the structure. In the past I was more impatient and trying to do too much in a small space of time, whereas I could have made an amazing piece of Techno music that would patiently unfold over ten minutes. I’m interested in both, but it took me a long time to absorb that approach.”
Is it true that you sometimes write music on acoustic instruments and then transcribe them into electronics?
“Not in a precise way, but I’m always playing on the piano so I’ve got a database of chord progressions in my head. Sometimes, without even thinking, I’ll play those on my Prophet 08. So there’s always a crossover between the two; sometimes I’ll jam along to electronic stuff on the piano and vice versa. I think it’s much easier to understand harmony and melody on a piano because synths can so easily sound clumsy, which might restrict what you’re going to explore, whereas a piano sounds much better, quicker, so you’re freed of the baggage of trying to make something sound good and can just concentrate on what you can explore in terms of melody and harmony.”
How do you think your music has evolved in recent years?
“I think it’s a combination of a few things. One, it’s becoming more attentive to detail over time – not trying to do too much with a thousand things and seeing what two things can do. But that comes with confidence, which means you explore things in a better way. I didn’t have minimal passages in my music – I guess I was thinking that something always needed to be happening; but now I hear things differently, like depth and atmosphere and the way the sounds play off each other.”
Your music is slower too, which presumably means you have to focus more on space, time and sound placement?
“Yes, I’d agree with that. I do go from one extreme to the other. I have music that’s 74bpm and 155bpm, so it’s a huge spectrum, but it’s definitely become slower. I find it a little bit stressful to make music at a higher tempo because, for me, it restricts what I can achieve melodically and harmonically.”
Your music is quite reminiscent of Jon Hopkins; dark and club-tinged with a sense of continual forward momentum… Are you a fan of his?
“Yes, of course, I’m especially a fan of his last few releases. I do like the balance he gets between home listening and club-oriented music, and I think I’m in a similar vein to that, where the music can work in both territories. I think what he did well with
Immunity was to create very simple and hypnotic patterns that extend over time in a classic Techno way, but it was still personal. That’s probably what influenced me about it the most.”
What’s the origin of your ideas and what do you turn to first as a compositional tool?
“I don’t have a specific way of approaching music, but there are certain things that I’m interested in. For example, I’m always looking to find interesting chord progressions. Even if they’re just simple, I try to find ones that are subtly interesting. For example,
Odyssey is constantly tied down to A, because it’s exploring the ground between major and minor. That interests me because you can carry a five-minute piece of music, but all you’re doing is exploring the difference between two notes that are in conflict and never resolved. I’m also interested in driving rhythmic textures that don’t sound like sample packs; I like to mix rough low-fi sounds with heavy kick drums. I think my approach is all about sonics and creating tones that are haunting – I like synths that sound sad, even if they’re played in a major chord [ laughs]. If you can do that, then you’re onto something good. There are some tracks where I’ve had really specific ideas. With Recovery, I spent months exploring the idea of creating the sensation of expanding and contracting time. For example, like Aphex Twin when he did Bucephalus Bouncing
Ball. What I did was similar, but through harmony instead of rhythm – I spent a year on that track.”
So you tend to work more with hardware than software these days, with the software mostly acting as a sequencer?
“Well I do use lots of effects; reverbs and delays, EQ and compression. 99% of my synth sounds are hardware, not because I’m against plug-ins, but once I got the Prophet 08 it really clicked with me in terms of its sounds and features, so I naturally ended up using hardware after that and running it through guitar pedals just agrees with me more. I guess for me, you have to do a lot more in the box to create something that sounds as earthy. I can create really muffled, real-sounding drone textures really quickly going through these pedals. If I had a plug-in going
through a whole bunch of equivalent pedals, they’re doing the same thing but this sounds a little bit more lo-fi to me. I play all the keys in a lot of the time, with no MIDI, and it’s a little bit wonky because of that. But I’m not a digital snob; I’d say it’s 50/50. If you were to look at 1,000 MIDI screenshots that have been drawn in, I would say that playing by hand explores so many different things. I just think you’re much more varied with your hands, because you’d get bored otherwise.”
You’re still using Cubase?
“I use both Cubase and Ableton. I definitely understand the argument about Ableton because, if you’ve got a lot of things going on, it seems to be a bit of a visual mess when you’re mixing. Cubase or Pro Tools are a lot cleaner and a lot easier to see and finish things in. I finish in both, so I’m not against them, but I prefer Cubase because it’s cleaner to look at. Obviously, in Ableton there’s much more flexibility in terms of getting things to affect other things, whereas with Cubase I don’t think you can route loads of different LFOs in the same way that you can in Ableton with Max for Live. But I think some people like the simplicity of mixing on a clean canvas.”
What effects plug-ins are you using?
“All the ones that I presume are mentioned time and time again. Some of the Soundtoys things like Decapitator and its delay plug-ins. I like Waves’ 1176 compressor. When I do really noisy, clicky drum sounds that I’ve recorded myself, I always max out on 1176, and I also think Max Bass and R Bass plug-ins are great for intensifying drums and percussion and adding ridiculous low-end. Obviously you have to be careful if you’re making a Dance track that’s going to be played in a club, but I’m not so precious about those things. I use FabFilter all the time for EQing and there’s a really good plug-in called SaltyGrain – it’s a granular plug-in that I use to break up the drone sounds. With my music, if you hear a static tone, it’s actually never static, it’s always got a bit of movement to it. I do use real spring reverbs, but for effects, compression and EQ, I move inside the DAW.”
Your music has a destructive element to it…
“I think it’s really essential to explore tone – the tone of synths and drums and how bright or dark they are and to listen carefully to how they behave alongside other sounds, exploring tiny amounts of distortion, delay, filtering and compression. But also, don’t be scared to destroy sounds. Sometimes, chaos is needed in electronic music more than acoustic music because, by its very nature, it’s quite rigid rhythmically and clean-sounding. I would also add that to generate more interesting melodies and chord progressions, you should regularly approach this without a beat or grid. Simply record long passages of improvisation with a synth sound that you enjoy, and then later you’ll be more inspired to make it work with rhythmic samples, because grids often restrict some amazing yet simple possibilities.”