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NICK WILSON: RANDOM ACTS OF ELEVATOR MUSIC

Nick Wilson of Random Acts of Elevator Music. Interviewed by Baz Bardoe

Quite some time ago Nick Wilson gave me a burn of a CD of an album by his act Random Acts of Elevator Music. I couldn’t stop playing it. And the concept behind it appealed strongly to my punk heart. It was very quietly subversive. Nick and his collaborator Matt would dress corporate and start playing ambient electronic music in the lifts of corporate high rise buildings. The reactions were mainly bemusement, but sometimes they pushed buttons literally and figuratively. Now an album has finally been officially released … I posed some questions to Nick.

It has taken you around a decade to complete and release this album – slack arse or perfectionist?
Definitely not perfectionist! The album is really a collection of jam sessions with some basic editing and a little layering – quite rough-and-ready and nowhere near as polished as most of the electronic music releases I hear these days. Hopefully it captures a vibe though! The delay in finishing it and getting it released is really just due to all the things that come along in life to interrupt our best-laid plans, like family, work, other artistic projects, etc.
I like to think that when you move away from the more commercial end of electronic music you can create something that doesn’t go stylistically out-of-date too quickly, but the listeners will have to judge that themselves! So for example, ‘Phaedra’ by Tangerine Dream still sounds like an amazing record even though it isn’t 1973 any more. I like the idea of putting out records that don’t 100% conform to the aesthetics of any one era that sit a little outside of time.

RAEM is more than just a very amusing name. It is a concept whereby you performed ambient music unexpectedly in lifts in corporate settings. Can you tell me a bit about how this all came about?
It was basically a collection of different ideas that all came together in a nice coherent way. Matt thought of the name initially so then we just had to think through what we would actually need to do to enact the concept of Random Acts of Elevator Music.
Going back 100 years to the early days of the Soviet Union there was a belief in taking new forms of art to the masses to enlighten them and lead them to a new form of consciousness. Then in the 1940s muzak was sold as a way of improving worker productivity. Brian Eno took this idea in a more artistic direction with ambient albums in the 1970s such as Music For Airports. There was a new wave of ambient or chill-out music (as there is every few years) in the late 90s with acts such as Boards of Canada and our Clan Analogue label mates Pretty Boy Crossover, and it’s an area of music that I’ve always been interested in.
Also, when we formulated the concept guerrilla-style comedians such as John Safran and The Chaser were the new thing and their work had a strong element of social and political comment. There was also a new wave of security paranoia around office buildings following 9/11. I remember observing anthrax-scare evacuations from the window of a Southbank office building while working in a call centre.
So these were the kinds of ideas and influences that were in our minds. It was great fun to actually go out and perform Random Acts of Elevator Music as a guerrilla-style electronic music performance in office building lifts. There’s lots of stuff on our website (http://www.cityfreqs.com.au/raem.php), including diaries and covert videos that show how we went about the performances.

(Make sure you check out the website readers – there is an interview on the Comic Box which provides a bit of background and a practical demonstration of just how fast these guys could set up and start playing in a lift.)

You have a long pedigree in electronic music – can you talk a bit about what attracted you to the genre?
When I was a teenager bands like Duran Duran were a huge influence on me. The sounds were completely new and unlike anything else on the radio, seeming to come from some other unknown dimension. Synth players such as Nick Rhodes were doing something that seemed magical and mysterious, that didn’t necessarily relate to any traditional idea of musicianship. The key to this was the use of synthesizers where sound could literally be reconfigured and manipulated in ways that other instruments couldn’t. Today electronic music is still a great means for creating music that sits outside not just the mainstream but outside of conventional ideas of what music is or how it should be composed or performed.

I still have a Continuum tape – what were your highlights with that act? You played some pretty big shows.
I have some great memories of playing at a bunch of venues in the 1990s, including the Big Day Out Boiler Room, Global Warming at Little Reata’s, the Psy-Harmonics club, Earthcore, the Punter’s Club, Gershwin Room, etc. We played some great gigs, but I feel we never quite realised our potential and wished we had been able to get some more recording done, although there are a few good tracks on compilations. I should get that cassette digitised for Soundcloud at least!

Matt Adair and Nick Wilson office worker performers, 28 July 2006. THE AGE. Picture by SIMON SCHLUTER

The music caper has changed a lot in the last couple of decades. Whilst the internet potentially exposes you to a vast global audience, downloading seems to have badly impacted sales. What are your thoughts on all of this?
It’s definitely had an impact on the industry, but as I’ve pretty much always operated outside of the mainstream it hasn’t affected me personally so much. It was nice to get some support in earlier years from companies such as Festival Records and Creative Vibes, but really it’s about being able to continue producing good work and exploring new ideas, which is still possible. Focusing on how to make a living from music does tend to direct you to more commercial or standardised forms of music, and I think that’s always been the case. So if you want to work outside of the mainstream and do something more experimental it’s good to have some other avenues of income.

Scanner described the chill out spaces of 90’s raves as being a ‘cultural nexus’ where a diverse range of cultural ideas could be exchanged, in turn leading to new approaches in a wide range of areas. Do you have any thoughts on this?
Definitely the scene was very wide-open in terms of ideas about music, sound and art. I remember playing at a Clan Analogue event in Canberra where a traditional Greek zither player was performing in the chill-out room, which was pretty cool. Along with the video and projection artists there was a sense of anything and everything being thrown in to the melting pot, whereas the rock and pop music scenes were relatively restricted in the sounds and ideas they were exploring.

We are seeing some anachronisms……a resurgence of support for vinyl … plenty of analogue hardware releases etc. What are your thoughts on this?
It is a funny situation. Some of it seems like a desire for greater authenticity, particularly with the return to vinyl. People are after something tangible rather than the ephemeral nature of streaming, plugins, etc. Our lives are taking place more and more in a virtual space so people crave something real.
Personally, I love vinyl records but don’t really bother with 180g vinyl re-releases and I’m now happy to stream new releases. I’d rather find some good records in a garage sale.
There are some great new analogue synths coming out. I think the attraction is largely to do with how we interact with the instruments though. Being more instinctively creative is harder with a computer screen and mouse, so it needs some thought put into controller setup and a better understanding of what the plugins can do. There are some interesting developments with apps in this area that my friend Martin Koszolko has explored in his recent work as iubar project. I suspect this will have a more lasting impact than the new analogue hardware, much as I love it.
I was at MESS recently, playing with the old synths there. It is an amazing place and an extremely important resource for electronic music, but I wondered who is going to conserve all the classic softsynths of our era as operating systems and DAWs change?

What are RAEM’s plans moving forward?
My colleague Matt is very sceptical about ever looking backwards. I have to drag him kicking and screaming to do Random Acts of Elevator Music gigs as he sees it very much as a project in the past. But we are discussing new project ideas, and have recently put in a proposal to the White Night Festival for one of them, so let’s see what happens.

What equipment do you use for RAEM’s music?
Matt performs using an early version of Reaktor, using some synths he built himself in the virtual modular environment. I use a mid-80s Casio CZ101 synth with some delay pedals, augmented a little with a small Gakken SX150 synth. At our album launch recently I used a couple of apps on my phone as well.
From my point-of-view there are a bunch of different synths I could have used for the project but the Casio was nice and portable for taking into lifts and the mid-80s digital synth sound seemed to work nicely to create some kind of office vibe.

How have you achieved what sounds to me like a very ‘urban’ sound with this album and do you think ambient can evoke quite different geographic locations?
That’s a tricky question! Sometimes how a project is framed can lead to an association with particular environments or locations. If we had just put out the music without any of the office-based concepts and imagery surrounding it, would it still seem urban? Would we (to take another example) still imagine we’re hearing the sound of Arctic vistas when we listen to Sigur Ros if we didn’t know they were from Iceland?
Still, I think the reverbed synthetic bleepy sounds we employ suggest artificial environments like offices. Other artists such as Tycho might integrate acoustic sounds into the mix to suggest more natural settings. We did write a lot of the music while riding up and down in lifts, which has been a unique way of working compared to all the other music projects I’ve worked on, so I’m sure that it had an effect somewhere in what we ended up producing!

RAEM album review:
Roughly a decade after RAEM started invading corporate elevators with their ambient sounds, the album has arrived at last and the good news is that it delivers on the concept superbly. The cover depicts a vast office tower – the inner sleeve shows Matt and Nick in the claustrophobic space of an elevator. The imagery instantly connects with the music which although generally ambient, has a digital and somewhat edgy feel to it. The song titles are hilarious – “their eyes met across the partition” for example – and the album taken as a complete package is quite subversive. This is brought into sharp relief by the interjection of “Gary” the security guy who takes issue with what they are doing, but doesn’t really have a point other than it is “unorthodox”. The lack of a reference point for his objection makes a strong point about the dull witted conformity of the corporate hive mindset.

The music is not unduly compositionally complex, and whilst ostensibly ambient, there are some edgier sounds that give it a slightly unsettling feel at times. For me as a listener it is emblematic of the corporate paradigm……superficially everything is nice, but behind the veneer is something less pleasant. Corporate environments always seem to have this underlying sense of menace to them. The music in my view captures this very well.

The real test of any release is of course whether or not you want to listen to it again, and I have literally not stopped listening to RAEM. The concept speaks to my punk heart; the music to my ambient brain. It is a really brilliant piece of work.. Just make sure you buy the digipack for the total effect of the concept.

http://www.cityfreqs.com.au/raem.php

 

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