“The machine doesn’t write the music. You tell the machine what to do and the machine is an extension of you.”
“We are playing the machines, the machines play us.”
RIP Lee “Scratch” Perry. Here are some doodles I drew while watching The Upsetter: The Life and Music of Lee Scratch Perry.
Most of my favorite music that he produced — stuff like Super Ape and The Heart of the Congos — was made in his home studio — the “Black Ark” — with “just a four-track quarter-inch TEAC reel-to-reel, 16-track Soundcraft board, Mutron phase, and Roland Space Echo.” As has been noted by so many, he played the studio itself like an instrument:
I see the studio must be like a living thing, a life itself. The machine must be live and intelligent. Then I put my mind into the machine and the machine perform reality. Invisible thought waves – you put them into the machine by sending them through the controls and the knobs or you jack it into the jack panel. The jack panel is the brain itself, so you got to patch up the brain and make the brain a living man, that the brain can take what you sending into it and live.
In this amazing clip from the 1977 documentary Roots, Rock, Reggae: Inside the Jamaican Music Scene, you can see him at work in his prime:
Perry would do all kinds of weird stuff to get wild sounds into the music — to inject some sort of aliveness into his machines, to mix the organic into the synthetic — stuff like burying a microphone under a palm tree and beating it for a bass drum. Wikipedia:
He would often “bless” his recording equipment with mystical invocations, blow ganja smoke onto his tapes while recording, bury unprotected tapes in the soil outside of his studio, and surround himself with burning candles and incense, whose wax and dust remnants were allowed to infest his electronic recording equipment. He would also spray tapes with a variety of fluids, including urine, blood and whisky, ostensibly to enhance their spiritual properties. Later commentators have drawn a direct relationship between the decay of Perry’s facility and the unique sounds he was able to create from his studio equipment.
I don’t even know what the digital equivalent would be — opening music files in a text editor and inserting gibberish and secret messages to try to glitch the sound?
In his interview with Rick Rubin, Brian Eno, another producer famous for playing the studio like an instrument, spoke of being interested in that area between what humans can do and what machines can do.
The machines, without us, are without soul, but the machines, and our interactions with them, can also help us bring out the soul. There is a sense, at certain moments, that we are not just working in tandem, but the machine is leading us as much as we are leading it…