In Conversation: Rival Consoles

Clash invites the electronic maestro to reflect on his eighth record, 'Now Is'...

As the first artist to sign to the London-based independent label Erased Tapes, electronic musician Ryan Lee West aka Rival Consoles has played no small part in paving the way for many of the artists that followed in his wake.

Over the course of an impressive fifteen-year career, Rival Consoles has diversified from a project known for its challenging, fast-paced, beat-driven techno into the more conceptual, metamorphic sounds found on later records, such as 2018’s ‘Persona’ and 2020’s ‘Articulation’.

For ‘Now Is’, Rival Consoles’ eighth studio record, West has approached things from a more playful and melodic angle, drawing from experimentation in minimalist songwriting, with a blend of synths and acoustic instrumentation. It’s a stark contrast from the tone of last year’s ‘Overflow’, a score created for a contemporary dance project, which was defined by an almost dystopian atmosphere. In doing so, he’s created a record that is altogether colourful and euphoric.

Clash caught up with West via Zoom from his London studio, where Paul Weedon spoke to him about the album’s stark change of pace and the importance of road testing new ideas in a live environment.

‘Now Is’ feels very different to what you were doing with Overflow, which is much darker in terms of its tone. Was that a conscious decision from the outset?

It was conscious, because Overflow was so almost dystopian. That was actually written before the pandemic as well. Obviously, the pandemic then made that record seem even heavier, so I definitely wanted to explore much lighter things. Not even just lighter, but more colourful and vibrant things, because I’m the kind of person that likes to explore a wide range of things anyway. Rather than being in the pandemic and making a record that reflected the stress and anxiety, I’d rather make music that might include that, but also include hopeful things and optimistic things. Ironically, I think music is much more emotionally heavy when it has lightness. If it’s just heavy, it’s not as powerful to me. So, yeah, I definitely wanted to explore a lighter aesthetic with the record.

Was there a particular starting point for you?

Lots and lots of research – just making without forcing anything to be a thing and trying to find things that have a sense of self about them and a sense of flexibility. You might find one idea that naturally gives way to many ideas, or it might only work within itself… There are some times where it’s a little bit more specific and I’ve tried to explore a very specific thing. The track ‘A Warning’ is quite specifically trying to include lots of different acoustic and electronic ingredients in a way that sounds like a collage, but it’s supernatural. I mean, that’s questionable, because it depends what you play it against. The last track, ‘Quiet Home’, with the piano tape loop, is very specifically written and almost conceptual around just the idea of these four notes repeating as an actual tape loop. So it’s lots of things, but I’m trying not to force things when I’m making them. I might have an overall attitude in the background, if that makes sense? 

You used to use the piano more for initial sketches and ideas. Is that how you tend to work on these bigger electronic pieces, or have you started to incorporate it and manipulate it as you go?

Yeah, I play lots of different instruments, like guitar, because I’m a guitarist first. Even when I play with synths, which is obviously 90% of the tonal sounds, that’s really the perspective of a guitarist with synths. That’s why a lot of the synths sound quite shoegazey, like post-rock shoegaze. It’s not even a conscious thing; I just naturally ended up doing that. Now obviously I’m aware of it, but I think I just emulated the behaviour of playing the guitar with synths. It’s the same with piano. I’ll treat the piano as an ambient thing in the way that I would have synths – swapping the values of different instruments on a very simple level, not like a highly technical, conceptual thing. I’m interested in when you can use an instrument to write a piece of music and then just slightly change an aspect of it and it sounds new. 

‘Running’ was a track that you’ve been trying to complete for quite some time. Can you talk me through what it’s like to work on a musical like that idea over that period of time?

It’s kind of a weird thing, because a lot of the music that I make these days can be years in the making. It’s not years of work, but lots of time listening and thinking about what should be done, if anything. Because the whole piece is basically just many variations on the first melodic idea, it goes through a hundred permutations of that in different ways. It’s quite subtle. With a melodic, simple thing like that, you can generate hours of musical moments with it. Some are much heavier, some are more subtle, some are more ambitious compositionally, some are more standard, but you just see what that does. I’m the kind of person that will explore many variations on a theme and then, over time, you might have forty versions of that song. You start to think, ‘Oh, maybe I can use that here.’ It’s more like collaging a song together from other collages. I wanted lots of things on the record to be very natural and, even though they were made over years, to sound like they’re quite immediate.

When, for you, is a piece like that done?

Sometimes I’ll test material live and see how it functions. Obviously, in a venue situation, you’re aware of new weaknesses and new strengths in ideas. If something seems quite strong and coherent in multiple live settings, that means that it’s very kind of solid. But sometimes it could be just the case that I need to sit for a long time with a piece of music to really understand what it’s doing. Music’s so weird, especially within the context of other music around it, it can be completely distorted and change your perception of it. Like the time of day you listen – that sounds obvious, but even for me, speed of music is constantly changing. If I listen to music at 9am versus 11pm, the music will sound like it’s at a completely different speed… Because I’m not really a perfectionist, I kind of present my music closer to being sketches. There are a lot of producers who want to make an absolutely immaculate sounding thing, but most people don’t naturally do that, so you end up becoming very uncreative. I kind of prefer a rougher terrain where, obviously, it could be much more immaculate, but I’m like, ‘Here’s an idea’ and there’s a flexibility there that I think is quite interesting. There’s something dangerous about the way you produce electronic music with computers. You can spend forever and go ultra precise, but it doesn’t necessarily make more meaningful art. I guess I’m more towards the side of spending a long amount of time, but not doing a lot in a way. That sounds crazy, but…

I mean, it makes sense. I guess that rough and ready approach makes it easier for you to take stuff out and road test it before it’s ‘album-ready’, as it were.

The style is quite forgiving live because it’s quite minimal. It works at home. It also works in a big venue, versus if you’ve got a really massively produced record, which can sound sickly in a venue because the power of the sound system is already filling in all the gaps. That’s why techno sounds so amazing in a club, because the physicality of the music as volume kind of fills out the absence of things going on in the music. If it’s a highly filled out, orchestrated band record, it can sound too dense, so I think the roughness, reducing things down to quite minimal things, gives the flexibility for live, just within my natural style.

It’s a weird thing to ask, but as a musician who creates this kind of music, crowds aren’t really there to dance per se, so it must be kind of difficult to gauge those reactions. Is that the case?

At this point, it’s easier because there’s so much material that there’s a kind of a reinforced idea. I’ve been taking not a big risk, but it’s kind of a risk in the dance world, where you allow things to come to almost nothing and silence, playing with going against power. Obviously, if everything sounds massive, it’s good, but I like to go against that a lot in a live set and have moments of no power, playing with the simplicity of that. I like to give much more shape to the set. It’s more contoured and, especially on this record, it’s super contoured. There are quite physical heavy bits, but it’s more like a symphony or something. It’s really moving through different passages, different colours – light, heavy, dense, sparse – I like to cover lots of different simple contrasting values. These are things that everyone’s doing as well, but I kind of think about them a lot when I’m making music.

And I guess that’s a thing to consider as well: how will certain elements of what you’re doing sound live and how can they be integrated?

Not only that, but also because you’re vulnerable playing live, I think you become very sensitive to different things. If I just made music in the studio and it only went online, there’s no massive discomfort there. There’s a real vulnerability when you’re presenting your music at a venue to loads of people, which helps you make better art in the long run – not necessarily in the moment, but I think it just sharpens your senses a little bit. And it goes both ways: things that you thought were really powerful at home all of a sudden are just redundant and things that you thought are not that interesting can be really special. Things always seem to flip for me when I’m looking at a soundcheck situation before a gig, and I’m just improvising. I’m always shocked by how things flip. That’s kind of a weird magic that makes me interested in live. Of course, there’s the cliched danger of someone making music in a studio being very disconnected and being too safe. I would advise anyone that makes electronic music to try to share their music in spaces with people.

You’ve been signed to Erased Tapes since day one. You’re now in amazing company and I’ve always had the impression that it’s a very nurturing, trusting environment. I was curious to know what it means for you to have a creative shorthand with founder Robert Raths and the rest of the label at this point in your career.

I feel really lucky to be around people that are kind of like-minded. They’re just obsessed with wanting to make music and put music out there in a kind of really simple way. It can so easily be polluted by other things. On Erased Tapes, it seems like art is always first, including things that just don’t work. It’s not like everything’s amazing art, it’s more just a natural, genuine, simple approach, which is obviously really helpful. I’m just fortunate that I met Robert at this random moment. There wasn’t even a label really when I joined it – that’s the mad thing. It wasn’t like if someone joined now, so it was a kind of weird, lucky moment. Of course, because we’ve both built over all this time, it’s kind of very synergised. Everything has been built together, versus joining someone that’s pre-established. I guess that’s quite unique.

You’ve been busy with scoring work too. The score for The Figo Affair came out in August. Prior to that, you scored the Black Mirror episode, Striking Vipers. How do you find the process of working to picture compared working on your own material?

I like the challenge of somebody saying, ‘Can you do this? Can you achieve this?’ For a long time, I was just interested in seeing what I was capable of doing and learning new ways to use music to make something function with picture. I guess, over time, you get more experience with music as a language and you learn new ways to write with it and to make things work in the context. Obviously, when you make music for yourself, there’s a madness there because it can easily just not be anything tangible. So I actually do really like to be told what to do. Even without any information, with picture it’s not like starting with a blank canvas, which is kind of the cliche of when you start making music. Obviously, they both complement each other because when you get a little bit exhausted by one, you fall in love with the other one and vice versa. 

How do you find the feedback process on a scoring project?

I’m the kind of person that doesn’t assume that I know what’s best when I’m composing. There are so many ways that a single idea could be presented in terms of style. There are just too many variables… But experience is a big factor in writing music to picture and doing it well. I mean, I’m not a newcomer to this to an extent. I’ve not done a lot of large format works, but I can sense that, unless you’re a genius like Bernard Herrmann, who’s just slapping out the intro to Vertigo, which is the most outrageous piece of music ever on film, it’s more of a relationship where you’re exploring and sharing ideas and thinking about them. People probably want it to be more romantic and idealised than that, but out of that, you end up getting really radical things. 

Do you spend much time looking at what people are talking about online in terms of your work?

Yeah, I’m online a fair bit, especially when I’m releasing a record, just in general, actually. I’m kind of interested in the way that people react to it, even if they don’t like it, so I don’t just put the music out there and not care. Otherwise I wouldn’t put the music out there – especially because if I play live, I take it quite seriously. I don’t just think, ‘Oh, I’m just gonna do what I want and not care about anyone else.’ You want it to be a conversation, not a monologue. I don’t think there are many people who are monologue artists, though. I think most people do care and are interested in the conversation. Otherwise, it’s really kind of bizarre if you’re an artist, you’re releasing stuff and disconnecting completely. That kind of undermines the music, in a way. Art is exciting when it’s been talked about and thought about.

‘Now Is’ is out now.

Words: Paul Weedon / @twotafkap
Photo Credit: Dan Medhurst

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