Locked In: An Interview with Electronic Producer Lee Gamble
"I like the alchemy of the whole thing. You have nothing and you build something and keep working and it feels like yours."
Originally hailing from Birmingham but now London based, British artist, producer, and DJ, Lee Gamble has consistently avoided categorization. From the hollowed out jungle of Diversions 1994-1996 through to the more amorphous techno of Dutch Tvashar Plumes, Gamble has also never been one to settle on a particular sound. Each release has seen him make a concerted effort to strip away the roots of genre whether it be jungle, techno, drum 'n' bass or ambient to see what can be built from the remnants. It's a fascinating approach to making music and symptomatic of a busy, restless mind always seeking out new opportunities.
On new album Mnestic Pressure, his first for Hyperdub, Gamble hits the reset button once again as he takes everything he has learned and feeds it back to create a much noisier and more volatile piece of work. It's an often unsettling statement that stands in marked contrast to his work on the more expansive, floaty Koch. Once again, it is a fitting testament to a purposeful and progressive talent who is continually looking to evolve his sound. A musician who wishes to enlarge his musical vocabulary and try to converse in a new language. Something that he attempts to do on every project he undertakes and something that is certainly true of his latest endeavor.
This September will see Gamble take on one of his most significant challenges yet. "I'm working on this piece for the London Contemporary Orchestra," he tells PopMatters. "I've been commissioned to write two pieces of acoustic music to be performed in a cave." An opportunity that actually came about quite naturally and one that he was originally a little skeptical about. "I got asked by a producer who works with the LCO. My first inclination was that I didn't want to transcribe tracks of mine because I've heard that kind of stuff and I have to say I don't think it works that well."
Fortunately, that feeling was mutual as the LCO had a specific project in mind. "They said we'd like you to write something completely from scratch. They were interested in the fact that I spoke about the spatial aspect of my music." This meticulous consideration of space defines much of Gamble's work so it is safe to assume that his music would lend itself perfectly to a cave in the Peak district. Nevertheless, however good it might sound in theory, it has necessitated a change in approach from both Gamble and the performers.
For one, his method of working has to be accessible to musicians, more used to working with notation and scores than beats, loops, and samples. "I basically draw graphs which I do with my work anyway," Gamble explains. "I do that with my work because it gives me something to work off, something to look at. They're not notes they are graphical illustrations for the players to work from, so they get an idea of the structure, timings and the type of sound I want them to play. I've drawn everything out, so it gives them some abstract guideline. We then put these notes on top of these graphs. So that's how it's worked. It's really fun but really difficult."
For Gamble, it was the opportunity to work in such a magnificent space that provided the inspiration. "Usually, I feel comfortable having an idea and then working that idea into my music. Because it's in a cave and it has some sort of conceptual framework, I looked at how the cave actually developed. So there are these emergent properties as to how these things form."
The next challenge was to interpret his ideas for the orchestra. "I was tracing these geometric structures onto paper, so I had to explain that to them for the first hour, and that was difficult because they are musicians and I'm not giving them any notes, I'm giving them this abstract idea of how these caves have formed over a long time."
Once the orchestra got to grips with his vision, the musicians then had the freedom to work within a sort of structure. "After a while, it worked because it put them in this kind of headspace," he continues. "They weren't necessarily thinking about playing notes, they were thinking about how we could get these notes to sort of hit each other, to merge harmonically. I wanted them to pull out the harmonics and obviously, the caves have kind of odd harmonics and acoustics, so we are trying to draw that out of the space as well. I was talking to them in sound really an analogy and adjectives." It's clear that this project has been an often testing but ultimately powerfully satisfying experience for Gamble. "It was difficult, but it's been pretty amazing I have to say. I've never done anything like it."
Working on a musical project with a clear, definitive result is something of a marked change from Gamble's usual way of working. "I tend to work in kind of bursts," he states. "For me, it's a long process. It's not like I need ten tracks for an album. That's never how I work. It's more like, I'll make a lot of stuff and then dwindle it down to the elements that, for me, feel like a record. That's how it generally works."
With that in mind, it is never a definite piece of work until the very end: "It's not an absolute thing. It's just an intuitive thing. I try not to be too pressured by it. I guess you just keep working, and then eventually it starts to feel like something. Maybe I'll start titling stuff, and then that kind of aspect holds it together as well. It's weird you can be working with stuff for a year and then suddenly there it is. It's at that point I realize that it's an album."
On his latest album, Mnestic Pressure, Gamble couldn't help but be influenced by recent events in the UK. "The title Mnestic Pressure comes from living in the UK with Brexit and the surrounding politics," Gamble reveals. "You are pressured into making a decision about something or take a stance on something that you are actually quite happy with anyway. All of a sudden you are pressured to decide about something. I started to think about it a lot and it being used in politics a lot. Newspapers saying things like if we have Brexit, then we will go back to this point in British culture where everything was good. This is pressure on your idea of what you're memories are. It's this pressure to make you think in a certain way. Memory is yours, but that's not always true."
As an artist, Gamble is someone who likes to write with a loose thematic structure in mind. "I wanted to make something that felt reflective of that but not a political piece of music. It gives you some framework to work from. Even if that framework isn't necessarily a musical one. It's something to write about or to." Gamble goes on to elaborate how this idea is reflected in the music: "Just using this idea of these points where there will be this certain type of track and then it will break down and then become a different track. These kinds of event points where you're flipping something and dragging them into a different acoustic space."
Gamble clearly had very definite ideas as to what he wanted the album to sound like. "With this album, I wanted it to be faster. I wanted it to be more accelerated. To be a bit more pressured as my other stuff was a lot more floaty. I wanted this to feel bigger and louder." Not that that was a particularly easy thing to achieve at first. "I remember spending a good week and a half in a studio and coming away thinking "I just can't get this." Maybe I've just hit that point where I can't do it anymore." Nevertheless, when Gamble hits the wall, his response is a pragmatic one. "I'm also quite stubborn as well which helps. I'll go away, learn some new methods and then think of new things and then go back and keep reworking it. Eventually, there is an aspect of just being stubborn with it and just keep pushing and just refuse for it not to work. It becomes quite a raw, stubborn thing."
A further, crucial consideration for Gamble was the importance of balancing the deeper meaning to the tracks with the accessibility of the music. "The last thing you want to do is make people think they don't understand something. You don't want to ostracize people by them not getting what you are on about. That's not the purpose. You can just put it on, listen to it and not care." However, the very nature of the record, the political and philosophical themes behind it, allow the listener to find more the deeper they dig. "You can go into them (the tracks) a lot more if you wish. If you Google it the titles or look into it, it might allow you to find something else. It's a reflection of where my head's at a particular point. If I'm interested in it, then someone else might be interested in that stuff too."
Like every project that the constantly inquisitive and open-minded Gamble involves himself in, from his work with the LCO to his solo albums, there is one fundamental factor that makes it all worthwhile. "I like the alchemy of the whole thing. You have nothing, and you build something and keep working and it feels like yours."