A bicycle bell tinkles high above muffled chatter and the distant swoosh of street noise. A single note rings out, slowly reverberating into silence. A second note, lower this time. The pitch drops again, followed by… the rush of wind? The splash of waves, perhaps? A lone voice with sing-song lilt echoes the same tonal arc: ‘Heat… Light… Weight… I am woken by the amber chants of bald men… and ecstatic squeals of children… and the mysterious banging and grinding that will miraculously turn into a new storey on a house across the street… or a new building on the next street down the block… once I have the energy to walk past it…’
An eclectic quartet of sound wizards who between them span spoken word, electronica and live instrumentation.
So begins Triptych, the first album poised for release by WASH – an eclectic quartet of sound wizards who between them span spoken word, electronica and live instrumentation. Triptych is no ordinary album, but then WASH is no ordinary group. Flyers promoting WASH’s new live performance, The Next Horizon, frame it thus: ‘Electronic music meets poetry and they get along pretty well.’ Confused? They’re braced for that. ‘Or, if you prefer, beats, bass lines, melodies and blank verse are thrown into a blender to make a multi-textured smoothie.’
That’s that cleared up then. Or is it? “We find it very difficult to explain what it is that we do,” says Scott Bywater, spoken word artist, singer and the ‘S’ in ‘WASH’. The ‘A’ is Dublin-born sound engineer Alex Leonard: “We do! People say: ‘So, what is this?’ It’s, errrr, electronics and… spoken word and… soundscapes and guitar. But I’m just listing what everyone does in the band!” He laughs raucously.
Let us turn for a moment, then, to the custodian of said guitar, Hal FX (the ‘H’): “WASH is basically comprised of one poet and three music producers, so our attitude to putting the music together is probably quite different from most groups. It’s more about considering the overall sound, thinking about what we can introduce to the vibe and how the audience is going to find the experience. Maybe I drew the short straw with playing the actual instruments: I don’t really consider myself a guitarist or keyboard player. First and foremost I’m a music producer, so this gives me quite a different approach to playing those instruments live. For me it’s about adding tones and textures to the rhythms and sounds that Warren and Alex put together. The guitar and piano melodies form a counterpoint to Scott’s voice and join the electronic world with the more natural.”
Anyone who has ever sat through a ‘traditional’ poetry reading, sans live instruments and electronic soundscapes, might find their fists starting to twitch. The experience can, on occasion, be uncomfortable. At worst it’s like watching the shifting of tectonic plates – something Scott is all too aware of. “I’ve always had this difficulty with reading poetry aloud. I’ve not felt comfortable with it; it seems bare. Then I got involved with a reading at Java and there were two guys jamming while I read. Having that base was a revelation for reading; having something to work with that really brought out the singing in it all. At another launch, where there wasn’t going to be any music, my buddy came in and said: ‘Gee, if I had a couple of brushes, I could play a cardboard box.’ I said: ‘I’ve got some brushes.’ He said: ‘Well, I’ll go and find a cardboard box!’ That started a wonderful collaboration at Rubies every Sunday, where he’d come in and play the cardboard box. After that I really wanted to do something extended: more electronic, more of a soundscape.”
Enter Warren Daly (the ‘W’), intrigued by Scott’s first book of poems, A Certain Flow. In the process of recording different bits and pieces, he asked Scott to read aloud some of his work and upload it to SoundCloud. The four human elements of what became WASH came together over lunch, passing the book back and forth. “Everyone knew instinctively what we were going to do, even though we didn’t know how we were going to do it,” says Scott. “There was no sense of general bewilderment and everyone had something to bring to it. It was easy for me: ‘Well, I’ll read. You guys can sit around and do… stuff.’ To this day, that’s pretty much what it is.”
The poems fell naturally into three suites: the first about Cambodia, the second about travel, the third about what Scott calls “The art of living.” It was the ephemeral nature of the latter that prompted Alex, Warren and Hal to do something Alex describes as “a bit out there”. “The first musical composition that occurred with me was sitting down with Warren and going: ‘OK, let’s have a look at these poems. He’s saying these words. Let’s think about sounds that we can put behind them,’” says Alex. “Warren and I sat down and jammed one night with laptops connected to a speaker. We got lost in it. Suddenly it was 3am, which was great because it had organically started to happen. Warren would play some drum beats then I’d start layering a sort of drone sound on and we’d bring in some recordings from the street: background layers.
“One of the first pieces of electronic music I really got into was an album by The Orb, called Orbus Terrarum. It’s still one of my favourite electronic albums. As a complete piece, the whole album sounds like you’re in a bio dome with a jungle and animals everywhere and water trickling. It has this very organic feel, but there are so many layers in it and it’s just wonderful to listen to. I’ve always enjoyed making sounds and trying that immersive thing, where you step into it and you get transported away from where you are now.”
Yet with Triptych, at least initially, the journey is a local one suffused with the sounds of life on the streets of the Cambodian capital. “A lot of the stuff I’ve done here was to capture the sounds of Cambodia, putting a recorder out on the balcony or wherever just to get an ambience. Some of the recordings you capture are happy coincidences. For instance, there’s one sound in the first piece and it’s the sound of a child going: ‘Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhh!’ [Fades to silence then laughs]. He’s just making a noise and it was perfect! It fades off into the distance and it’s beautiful, because it’s a sound you do hear every day. Random clanks and bangs: all of the things that mean that I don’t sleep very well! At the moment I’m waking up at 5am going: ‘Yep, there are the dogs and oh, there’s the baby crying, SCREAMING, for half an hour…’ One of the things you get here is, at dawn, the bird song, which is interesting. There’s this cacophony of noise all around and it’s a gorgeous sound. Some morning, when I’m lying in bed going ‘Bleuurrgggh!’, I must get up and do something constructive, like record it!”
In Kirirom National Park, on the hunt for more ambient sound bites, Alex and Warren rode dirt bikes deep into the forest and did precisely that: they left a recorder on the forest floor for half an hour, capturing the gentle swish of swaying trees. “I also try to make a few sounds: going through the undergrowth, that sort of thing,” says Alex. “That’s something I’ve always incorporated into my music. One of the things about electronic music is to generate a truly organic sound, which is very difficult. I’ve experimented with synthesisers, trying to get this truly random sound of something you might, for example, say sounds like rain, but it’s actually a synth and I’ve tried to create a rain sound, or I’ve taken a recording of rain and turned it into something else. Most of the sounds have effects on them. I don’t just play them straight. In the second section of Triptych, which is about travel, there’s a sound in there that’s a train, but I didn’t just want a train sound so I put it through a variety of different effects to create something that had a rhythm and had this sort of… I don’t think you’d listen to it and go ‘That’s a train.’ It’s a different effect. That rhythmic feeling is what I was looking for. In terms of where the WASH sound comes from, it’s very much an organic process: ideas play off each other. It’s a very slow, changing, morphing sort of thing.”
In the lofty rehearsal space in Tuol Tom Pong, which doubles as Warren and Alex’s home, a large coffee table is piled high with banks of electronic equipment. Laptops, midi controllers, keyboards and sound cards compete for space among the discarded coffee cups and empty beer cans. Warren and Alex sit hunched over their monitors, each screen an endlessly scrolling dashboard of flashing lights, knobs and sliders. Both men rock in time with the ambient soundscapes spooling out of the speakers, Scott draped over a chair opposite them, microphone cradled in hand.
“I write a text, give the boys a copy and make a recording of it straight into Garage Band and send them an MP3,” he notes. “They then scratch their heads a bit and say: ‘Hmmm. One hundred and ten beats per minute; A minor.’ It’s a very long process. They’ll say: ‘I think we need a bass line in here, or something else there.’ Each part is now a song on its own. There’s a certain melody or atmosphere around each poem then we move onto the next one and there’s a new atmosphere. It’s quite staggering. It’s like working with a constantly shifting plane, but everyone’s always feeding off what everybody else is doing. It never sounds the same twice.”
But back for a moment to being hunched over a laptop, a visual crime many electronic artists stand accused of committing against audiences. Warren: “With bands, you have your guitars, your drums, your vocals. People can see what you’re playing. With electronica, there’s the layering: it’s a mesh of the two. There’s a certain amount of production involved in the live set, but there is a band element to it as well. One thing that intrigued me was after one show, two people I know really well said: ‘What are you DOING on your laptop? What are you looking at?’ I’m sending Tweets: come to our gig! [Laughs] Someone else said: ‘You’re in a band. What do you play?’ About five instruments, but you’ll never really see me play them live. You can key in melodies, work on chord progressions. Alex, Hal and I work on them on the keyboard, but people who see us on stage think we’re just triggering a single track.”
It’s an electronic version of an orchestra
Alex nods vigorously. “Presenting electronic music has always been a problem. People would come up to me and say: ‘Could you just look up every once in a while, to see what’s going on?’ I used to spend the entire show with my head down; this look of serious concentration. ‘You look like you’re constipated, you knob twiddler!’ But you don’t actually have any time, because it’s like you’re conducting a whole orchestra. We know there are certain sounds we want to bring in at certain points: in Wild Horses Of Namibia, we know we want tribal drums. Hal on guitar plays on top of what me and Warren are doing. We’ll have certain loops and certain instruments we can trigger and keys that we hit play melodies over specific bits. ‘OK, Wild Horses Of Namibia is coming in so I’m going to start bringing in a tambourine, change that rhythm around, start layering up a set of congas…’”
“It’s an electronic version of an orchestra,” says Warren. “We’re introducing more equipment that allows us to do different things so that you can see movement and if artists want to come in and paint or play the didgeridoo, they can.”
WHAT: The Next Horizon performance plus Triptych album release
WHERE: Meta House, #56 Sothearos Boulevard
WHEN: 7pm September 14
WHY: “I surf on what they’re serving up. There are times when I’m thinking: ‘How does this start?’ Then the sound rises and I know where I am. I get to walk through this jungle they’ve created. It’s wonderful.” – Scott Bywater