Claude Speeed interview: "I think both musically and conceptually it just appeals to me for things to be distorted and loud."
Claude Speeed makes the kind of music that doesn't make sense at low volumes. His latest album, Infinity Ultra (out now on Planet Mu), brings together a warped collage of sounds and textures into a whole that demands attention, that beckons you to stick your head inside and see sounds as space. This was the intention of the artist in creating the album, who sees Infinity Ultra as "conceiving an interior territory: an abstract space to process the oppression, confusion and insanity of the contemporary age; and to formulate an honest emotional and artistic response - a psychic jumping off point into an uncertain future."
After having invested myself in the listening experience of Infinity Ultra several times, and become enamoured with its wide-ranging sounds and styles, which transported my mind through beautiful and terrifying digital landscapes, I needed to get to know more about its creation. I had the chance to speak to Claude Speeed all about the factors that went into creating such an immersive collection, and he was forthcoming, humorous and very honest about everything that added up to Infinity Ultra. Read our conversation below.
It surprises me to hear you say you've got a terrible laptop, considering you make your music on a computer.
And this is the one! I can't use it in summer; it doesn't work when it gets more than like 22 degrees in the room. So it's not much fun to use that to be honest.
Crazy, did you think that would be a long-term thing you'd be stuck with?
This is the thing; it's a Macbook Air, like a bottom of the range one from 2011, and I promised myself that I'd buy a new computer once I'd finished this record. But, I meant to finish this record in like 2012, and then just, sort of, never did it - did other stuff. So I wouldn't allow myself to have a new computer basically [laughs]. And now I'm kind of thinking it's about time, but new Macs look pretty horrible and they're very expensive as well.
Let's talk about your new album Infinity Ultra. As you said, you've been working on it for a while; 'Ambien Rave' was put out a while ago, right?
Yeah that was on a LuckyMe compilation; their advent calendar I think they called it. That was quite a while ago. The first track [on the album, ‘BCCCC’,] is the first Claude Speeed track, kind of - or the first one I wrote after feeling like I was probably going to use that as a name. So yeah that's from like 2011, maybe even 2010. And then there's also tracks on there that I wrote like a month before, when I was just finalising everything.
What did you know about the overall shape or sound of the record before going in?
I had absolutely no idea, and I think that was the thing. The first record that I ever wrote with the intention of releasing was in a band I used to be in called American Men, and we made an EP. I wrote most of it, I kind of knew what it was going to be in advance; it was pretty clear to me what was gonna be the first song, what was gonna be the last song, what was roughly gonna happen in between. With this, I just wrote so many tracks. I don't know how other people do it, but I just sort of render everything I do I render it to an mp3. And, you know, at one point I was thinking 'I have to turn this into an album somehow'. The folder had over a hundred tracks, and they're not all finished, it's more like 'here's a thing that goes on for 8 minutes; maybe I can arrange it and turn it into a song', or 'here's something that's definitely, definitely finished'. Just a huge number, and I was feeling like 'I just don't know how to turn this into a record'. Fortunately, I got quite a lot of help from Mike and Kuedo, who because he does his Knives label that's sort of connected to Planet Mu, he kind of helped me shape it into something that made sense, basically.
That's great. I think it sounds amazing, and works as a complete piece. It's quite different to what you've done before...
Yeah. I mean it's different to what I've released before, but I feel it's quite representative of the music I've been making; it's just [last album] My Skeleton just grew out of a track . For My Skeleton I did the track and sent it to LuckyMe and they were into it and they were like “can you do an album like this?” and I thought 'yeah I think I probably can', and I did. And then the EP I did on Planet Mu [Sun Czar Temple] was kind of a bit more “here's a bunch of tracks that all sound the same, and I've finished them all, so let's call it an EP.” Whereas I think this quite disparate stuff that doesn't sound like either of those records I've pretty much been doing the whole time.
I want to talk about the quote you have in the press release, where you say this album is "conceiving an interior territory"; do you think the less use of drums and typical percussion on this album, relative to what you’ve released before, helps with conceiving that interior territory?
Yeah... see where I got that from right, there was a review of My Skeleton - I made that mostly travelling with this shitty laptop - and somebody wrote in a review something along the lines of "it sounds like he spent more time looking at his laptop than he did looking at what was going on around him," or something like that. And it wasn't written in a mean way, but it was totally right. That's exactly what happened; I travelled quite widely, but I spent most of my time looking at my computer. And I kind of realised that there's something about the relationship with the computer and trying to make some sort of area that's kind of mine, where I feel confident and happy, and where ideas make sense, and stuff like that. And the lack of drums is kind of part of that in the sense that I really like to use quite a lot of reverb and thick chords that if you try and put drums on top of them, to mix it properly you have to make the chords quite quiet and you have to rein in the reverb, and you have to do all this stuff, and then to me it starts to sound a lot more like an object or a machine, than it does like a place. And I'm more interested normally in making a place than I am in making a thing.
Yes! Amazing. So are those places governed by your emotions? How do you project those places into your music?
Normally the way the process goes, I don't think I've ever imagined some sort of detailed real space and tried to translate that musically, it's not like that. It's more like sort of getting the feeling from a particular sound. Often I'll just scroll through presets on synthesizers or try out a random chain of effects, or take a sound and manipulate it without paying attention, maybe manipulate it 5 times before I actually listen what it sounds like. And that often puts me in mind of a place that maybe, you know like when you read a book - I don't know about you, but I'm not very good at reconstructing an actual visual representation of the thing that's being described; for me it's just a series of connections or connotations that come from the words that are used, and so I kind of get that from the sounds. It seems obvious to me once I've started making a song that there are certain sounds that are gonna go along with it and not antagonise it, and feel like they somehow generate a feeling of what it would be like to be somewhere else. I think that sort of explains it.
Do you ever find yourself unable to make the right sound to fully realise what you want to express?
Yeah, all the time... all the time... I think it's only recently that I've begun to have any idea how to make something that was actually on purpose. I feel like I'd always been much more of an editor when it came to computer music, I'd always been more just fucking about with things and trying to see what happen and trying to keep whatever it is that I like. I think that's why I end up making so many tracks. I think that if I was more in control of what I was doing I would probably make a lot fewer tracks than I do - or than I did. And I think that comes from a musical background that was about songwriting, it was about playing in bands and having this very direct output. You play guitar and a sound comes out, and it's pretty consistent, unless you use a lot of pedals, and you know what it's going to sound like. And I think that engendered a certain sense of interest in the notes and the rhythms and the harmonies and stuff like that, but it never occurred to me until I'd already put music out that you're meant to think about production and mixing, and stuff like that. And that you're meant to be somewhat in control of it. So for me it's almost kind of a new experience, I've sort of stumbled upon... I've got a bit of control now that I'm able to exercise, but that's not how it was before.
This is the first one you feel like you've had complete control over.
Yeah, but even then, mixing it... I mixed it with an engineer called Eric Breuer who's got a studio in Cologne, and he basically has a very well-equipped studio, and he's very experienced, and more importantly I'm friends with him so I don't feel too overwhelmed by the thought of 'I'm in a real studio and I'm meant to know what I'm doing and I don't; I don't know what any of this gear does.' Whereas it was ok to say to him "what does this do? What is this? Should we use this?" So even though I felt like I'd gotten to a stage where I understood how to use Logic properly and to get a result that I wanted out of it, the last stage still involved going somewhere completely unfamiliar. I've been in a lot of studios, but I've never really felt like it was my domain or that I knew what I was doing, I always felt a bit overwhelmed by it. This is the first thing where the end result has been what I wanted it to be, but it involved other people helping me, basically.
You mentioned earlier how you've raised the volume and used a lot of reverb on this album; does that reflect your feelings and what was going on around you at the time?
I think partly I don't know how to deal with the - I don't know how to describe it - the fact that we're so aware of what's happening several steps removed from us physically. Maybe it was the case a hundred years ago or two hundred years ago, that you knew what was going on in your village, and maybe even the next village, but your spheres of influence matched your sphere of information. And I just get so fucking angry and frustrated that I just look at the news or go on the internet, and I just see that there's so much stuff that I think is bad in some sort of way, and I don't have any control over it, or any influence over it. And I know it’s nothing very intellectual or clever, but I find that making noise makes me feel a bit better. It's a bit of a straightforward catharsis, and I like how distortion sounds. I grew up on guitars with a distortion pedal, and seeing bands that are just very, very loud and that being part of the appear. I think both musically and conceptually it just appeals to me for things to be distorted and loud.
How about 'Super 800 NYC', that one seems angry to me. Do you have any specific memory of what inspired it?
It's funny, because that song is made almost entirely out of like low bitrate mp3s of guitar that I recorded in my bedroom maybe 10 years ago - I don't know if it's as long as that, but a long time ago - using a tiny little digital amplifier plugged directly into my computer. I realised that I was able to make it feedback, and I'd seen this band in Edinburgh that were called Designated Driver, and I don't know if they played any more than this, but they played one show that I saw; it was two guys, one was on synth and one on guitar, and the guy on guitar was just hitting it with his knee; he wasn't playing it at any point, he was just hitting it with his hand or his fist, the fleshy part of the fist, to make it resonate with the amplifier. It would just play whatever the chord was that was open strings. I wasn't sure if I really hated it and thought it was really pretentious and thought these guys sucked, or whether I felt like it was opening a door into 'you can do this! you can do anything you want and it might be cool!' And so not so long after that I basically just tried that with this little digital amp, with the guitar in a sort of random tuning. I was into the concept of Sunn O))), but I thought their songs were crap. And I say that from a perspective of... around that time I was introduced to Burning Witch, a band that Stephen O'Malley was in, which I was really into, but Sun O))) I heard to early, it just struck me like 'it's just fucking drones, nothing happens', but I still liked the textures and stuff. I listened to Flight of the Behemoth in HMV or Virgin on Princes Street in Edinburgh, the main shopping street, and they had this record and I listened to it in the shop, and I just skipped through it because it's just one 30 minute track or something, thinking 'this is fucking garbage, this is fucking ridiculous', but at the same time I really really got something out of the texture - just the texture. Similar to this Designated Driver thing, like 'this is a thing!' It's mind-expanding even if I don't like it. I think that's where it came from. So I found this old mp3 and I wanted to make it into a song. And I found that it just fit so much; I just want to make really noisey noise, really heavy stuff that's not metal and not punk and not connected to that, but also isn't just a drone for an hour. I think the angriness of it is much more to do with me sensing an opportunity to turn it into something that was like satisfyingly heavy, basically.
How do you imagine people listening to Infinity Ultra; alone or in groups? Inside or out and about?
To be honest I think I always just assume that everybody else listens to music the same way that I do, which is mainly on headphones. I bought a stereo for the first time about five months ago or something, I haven't owned a stereo since I was 16 maybe, and this is the first time I've ever had a separate system and good speakers. I basically listen to music 98% of the time with headphones on, whether that's at work or on the train or running or just at home. I've got kind of a studio, I've got a spare room that has soundproofing and good speakers and stuff, but I still made most of the record with headphones on, and that's how I see people listening to it to be honest; people on their own listening to it on headphones.
Would you say that there's a science fiction theme or influence?
Yeah, definitely. I think for me the science fiction theme is a little bit kind of reflexive in the sense that synths sound a little bit sci-fi and that puts me in the mood of thinking 'oh this is a bit sci-fi' and wanting to go deeper in that direction. For example, I'm maybe 60 pages into Dune now, which is probably the first straight-up sci-fi book that I've ever read. In terms of themes I think I was thinking about Rifts, the first collection of Oneohtrix Point Never songs, I think that sparked my interest in droney ambient stuff having some sort of feeling, a bit like [Japanese Manga legend] Katsuhiro Otomo comics, which are just like short stories of like weird things happening in space. I think it's Memories, this Otomo collection, and it has some weird 2001 influenced people being alone in space. I kind of connected that to Oneohtrix Point Never. I think quite a lot of the songs, or at least parts or drones or whatever, came out of that.
You mention Oneohtrix Point Never - are you ready for all the comparisons that this album is going to bring up?
I don't know, will it? I feel like the music of his that I really like is basically older...
Yeah, it's definitely more related to Rifts...
Yeah, I mean I don't mind. It would never ever bother me to be compared to anything. It's not a problem. It's not something I'd worry about. I feel like the same could happen - there's at least one track that sounds at least to me a bit similar to Boards Of Canada...
Are you talking about 'Moonchord Supermagic'?
Yeah... maybe [laughs]... I might be talking about that one... I think it just sort of doesn't bother me, the possibility that someone would think this is stylistically similar to someone else - I think that most music is stylistically similar to something else. Most of the music I like I would say is actually a distilled form of something seminal. It's quite rare that I really genuinely like a seminal band; I normally like the idea and then don't find myself listening to it. I find myself listening to people who maybe refined it, or took one aspect of it and really went to town with that. And also I think I can totally understand why Oneohtrix Point Never went in a completely different direction, and I think he did it really successfully artistically, but I still find the vibe of some of that older stuff is quite unique and I'm surprised that that hasn't actually been more - I don't want to say his legacy because he's still making lots of music - but maybe the thing that stuck with people more. And I think that people kind of have an idea that something's been played out or something's old hat or you shouldn't look for inspiration where other people have looked for it, and I just find that some sort of novelty-seeking bullshit, and not something that I get caught up in.
Oneohtrix Point Never just won an award at Cannes for his soundtrack for Good Time, so maybe that will be his legacy...
Judging from some of the track titles, you have a weird obsession with retro technology...
I don't know if I would say obsession, it's more of an antagonism than anything else. I'm a bit worried about technology in a way that I think a lot of people are. I'm sort of a believer that nothing's really changed in human relations for a long time, other than things which are a consequence of technology. I think that anybody that thinks the world has become a worse place would surely have to put that down to technology, because what else could you put it down to? People haven't got cleverer or stupider, the world's largely the same as how it was before except for technology. So I worry about this whole AI singularity, or even just the idea that somebody could be walking around with whatever more advanced version of Google Glass would be, a contact lens or something, and I'm being filmed the whole time. I just think that technology has no ethics, and I think that groups of people have no ethics, unless it's imposed on them somehow, and so technology I find fucking terrifying to be honest. But also completely unavoidable, obviously.
That's quite a grim picture, but a very truthful one.
The thing is not so much that I spend days walking back and forward in a room on my own worrying about these things, I just think that I get the feeling from the people I speak to that everybody has a little bit of trepidation about where technology's taking us, but we all feel powerless about what we can do to rein it in or mold it in a way that would be more beneficial to more people.
So why did you name a track 'Windows 95', looking back to the innocent days of technology?
Somebody made a blog and it had fake error and information messages from Windows. It was this amazing website with messages implying that your computer is haunted and that it's going to do really really bad things to you. Basically the vibe that I got from that, and combining it with this thing that I sometimes do, which is just seeing how many effects I can put in a row on a track. So for example just turning the microphone on on the laptop and then just tapping a key with one finger, and then it creates this feedback loop and distortion and all that kind of stuff, and when I did that one time it just created this super cold unpleasant evil computer vibe.
Somebody came up with this theory [Roko's Basilisk] that is basically about AI from the future reconstructing everybody in the past, and anybody who doesn't do its bidding in the past it's going to punish in the future. The idea is that if you know anything about the existence of this AI, even if you know about this theory, and you don't help bring about world domination by this AI, then you will be punished in eternity by this AI once it's created. I'd been reading about that, and I'm not genuinely upset or worried about it, but I saw that there's genuinely people certainly claiming to be exceptionally upset about having learned this, they feel trapped, they now have to help some sort of super AI take over the world and if they don't they'll be punished for eternity. So these two things taken together, the playful “Windows is trying to kill you” and this much more terrifying concept that we're living in a simulation controlled by an evil AI, and once that AI's been brought into existence in this world we're all going to be punished forever. So yeah, that's why it's called 'Windows 95'.
Tell me about the sounds you made on 'Alternate Histories', and how collaborating with Kuedo works on that song.
The sounds he sent me. I think he'd been experimenting with a bunch of different techniques for creating sounds; he'd bought at least one synth from this shop here in Berlin that sells really weird shit, and was using that and some other odd digital techniques like loading a text file into a sampler just to see what it sounds like. And he just sent me a bunch of sounds with a view to us making some songs, and one of them was just this long unpleasant clip that sounded like a fire or some sort of long drone, and I just loaded it into Logic and was trying to come up with a load of different percussive sounds, which is not something that I would usually do, and then did something that is something I usually do, which is find a preset with the stupidest name and try and turn it into something that I might actually want to use. So I took some completely ridiculous preset in Logic, like a harpsichord or a slap bass or something like that, and then just tried to make it into a sort of sinister noise. I ended up with this sort of clock ticking thing that's sort of out of time with itself, and then used all the same effects to make the slightly nursery rhyme melody thing at the end; it's basically just another horrible preset through the same set of effects to try and make a melody.
What I was thinking of when I was making that, was the bit in Metal Gear Solid, I think the last level, where you're sort of sneaking around the factory installation type building where they're building the Metal Gears, the giant robots, and I was really just thinking of that place but empty, that kind of factory with nobody in it, and just the weird mechanical noises and the anti-human vibe of it.
Tell me about the last song 'DreamDream' and why you decided to end with that.
Part of the idea was to bookend the record with songs that were old. That's another one that must be at least six years old, and I kind of wrote that at a time when my dad had died not that long before, and I was finding - apart from all the other consequences that grief has - I found myself being incredibly moved by the corniest things in the whole world. Like I watched the Super Bowl and I cried at the national anthem. The American national anthem - I cried. I found beauty in the weirdest places, and often in the parts of popular culture that I would previously have sneered at a bit, like things where I'd be like 'if you like this then it means you're emotionally stunted, or an idiot'. And after that I re-assessed that completely, I just felt completely different, but I got over the whole crying at bullshit stage. Around that time, or not long after that, I was getting obsessed with pop music, and often quite bad, quite corny, quite unpleasant pop music - I just wanted, I dunno, just to try and capture how I felt that I had legitimate feelings about this stuff, that I wasn't just being an idiot, that people who are into things like that are not stupid and not emotionally stunted, they just see the same thing from a different point of view. I wanted to try and translate that newfound respect and deep connection with popular culture into something that the me of five years before that and the me of five years after that would still be into and think was good. So it's my attempt at trying to turn corny pop tropes into something that people who are really into music might find also a bit touching.
I wanted to ask if you're planning to play live in any capacity?
I'm certainly planning on it. I just don't know how it's going to manifest itself. Basically for the past 2 or 3 weeks I've been listening almost exclusively to quite heavy music that I normally wouldn't. I wouldn't normally pass a lot of time listening to metal - there's a few metal bands I'm into and that's about it, I'm not very knowledgeable - but I fell down a bit of a Bandcamp black hole of Power Violence. Again, I'm not that knowledgeable about it, but I kind of understood from when I used to play in bands and had mates who were into this sort of thing, it's kind of a West Coast sound, somewhat related to grindcore but punk sort of sound. Super aggressive, punky, screamy guitar music. I've just been listening to a lot of that, and I kind of just want to do that live - not Power Violence, that doesn't make sense - but just the noisier aspects of what I play, that's what I wanna do. It would have the massive advantage of meaning that I would ever be mis-billed, playing at 4 in the morning between two acts that are playing things that you could physically dance to. I want to do it live, but what I want to do is play horrific terrifying noise with lots of amplifiers.
Would you have a guitar with you?
No, I'd just have amps. I did it before at this show in Berlin two or three years ago now, where I had just like two JCM 800 stacks, Marshall amps from the 80s with like four speakers and a cab on each, and also two Ampeg SBT bass rigs, so like 8 times 10-inch speakers times two, and a PA, and just really enjoyed that. Just the different textures that you get from having so many speakers. Because that works out at 22 speakers or something, instead of what the usual would be with a PA. I just really, really like that, and I'd like to be able to do that kind of thing more. And it was really fucking loud, which felt good.
Infinity Ultra is out now on Planet Mu.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 20th July 2017.