Musician Christopher Horne on the enduring grit of '90s electronica
To coincide with a crowd-funded vinyl release of early experiments, musician Christopher Horne discusses the enduring grit of '90s electronica, standing apart from Boards of Canada and resisting computerised perfection.
There’s something enticing about an artist who lets you into their past. Whenever unreleased tracks, scrapped ideas and long-forgotten demos seep out, they tend to offer tangible glimpses of creative processes and career junctures.
Sometimes they’re just filler: bonus material tacked onto re-releases, their novelty fading after the first listen. But sometimes opening the archives unearths something special.
That’s the case with electronic musician christ. (otherwise known as Christopher Horne) and curio vol. 1 – a collection of experimental recordings, four-track demos and assorted pieces captured between 1993 and 2003.
Those years comprise a crucial phase of the Scottish musician’s career, covering his time as a member of the Hexagon Sun collective (from which Boards of Canada emerged) to his session for John Peel on BBC Radio 1 – noted as being the only time the DJ ever requested an encore.
Following requests from fans seeking “early stuff”, the anthology is currently being crowd-funded for a double-vinyl release via Diggers Factory. It makes for a cohesive, immersive listen – all brittle beats, murky tones and hypnotic minimalism – that sounds surprisingly fresh today.
Even though these songs are demos and experimental recordings, there are sounds and production qualities here that have aged extraordinarily well. You can hear similar styles and textures in the likes of Solar Bears’ forthcoming album, for instance – a 2016 release. Why do you think that may be?
I actually love that ‘Wild Flowers’ track by Solar Bears. I heard it recently and thought, “This sounds like me if I was better…”
There’s kind of a scene that feeds itself, though. It became apparent way back in the late ’80s that electronic music was capable of being clean and sparkly – and everybody did it. In some cases, [it was] at the expense of the defining flaws that make something beautiful.
To illustrate my point, there’s a sound that you hear in a lot of early movies. Disney actually springs to mind. They’ll have recorded a choir with maybe one or two mics and, as a result of the available technology, there’s this beautiful, unified sound where you can’t pick out discrete voices.
The nature of human beings and their imperfections kind of smudge the notes because of the amount of people singing and the tiny variances between them. It wouldn’t be as beautiful if it were to be autocorrected, recorded with individual mics and mixed… so the beauty of this sound would be lost if it were to be ‘corrected’.
My mates and I approached recording using multi-track tape and playing instruments before sequencers or computers got involved – that setup already lends itself to an imperfect sound.
I think the goal is really to veer to one side of computerised perfection, in order to create the illusion of something organic or more human and, in turn, to elicit a more human response. I guess a lot of people related to that and decided they didn’t much like perfection either. Certainly there are a lot of artists creating that kind of dirty, broken, slightly faded sound now.
When you listen to these songs now, do you think about how you might have executed them differently? Or do you think the sounds are stronger for the limitations they were created with?
It’s funny… At the time, I was so driven towards getting more and better gear. Around ’96-ish, I basically had a multi-timbral synth, a drum machine, a very old step sequencer (which had faulty buttons), a four-track, decks and a mixer. Everything was dumped onto 90-minute cassettes, of which I have loads. It was frustrating at the time but it did force me to get the most out of the equipment.
For example, for the original four-track of ‘slickorish boy’ I had no effects, so all the different delays on the drums were step-sequenced by hand, while the samples were all dubbed individually from tape due to the lack of a sampler. The distortion on the drums on ‘ritalin’ was achieved simply by overloading the inputs of the four-track.
It could be quite painstaking at times, especially when I was limited to four mono tracks. The advent of PC recording made everything a bit more immediate and much, much easier. But finding these old tracks evokes such a sense of the time they were recorded in me and, now that they’ve been cleaned up a bit, I don’t think I would change them. I’m not much of a revisionist.
How do you think these songs contrast to material you’d work on today?
I think they’re a lot less considered, in some cases, and possibly more involved in terms of the intricacies (some of which are quite lost in the murky production). I was a bit of a late-developer with the whole production side of things and I’m much more aware now of how to create a mix with space and depth. So nowadays the mixes are better, the sounds are more discrete.
Having said that, the fuzziness of the old mixes is part of their charm, for me. I’m aware there’s a nostalgia factor for me and my mates that were kicking around at the time which doesn’t translate well into the listening experience of strangers, so I can’t really say objectively which I think are ‘better’ because there’s so much life attached to each track and the time it was recorded. I want to pick up an old four-track, actually, and have a fart about with it. I wonder myself if I would end up doing things differently.
What do you think you the evolution of your music has had in common with Boards of Canada and where do you think your sounds diverge?
I think we do completely different things, with an appreciation for a similar aesthetic. BoC are incredible musicians and technicians. Each album is like a different adventure into a specific style, almost a definable era in terms of instrumentation, arrangement and production.
Each album has its own sound, which is incredibly detailed and specific. To be fair, I’m not much of a fan of the Campfire [Headphase] stuff and it took me ages to get into Tomorrow’s Harvest (though I love it now). I don’t know, really. It seems like journalists and listeners are more concerned with the connection than I am. I hardly think about it, to be honest.
How can you tell when a song is finished?
Em… good question. Sometimes I just get to a point where I’m playing it through and I don’t want to do any more to it. There are the initial ideas, which usually come in sort of ‘primary colour’ chunks, then the refining and arranging of those ideas and the integration of new parts.
Mixing and EQing tends to happen along the way, but gets pretty involved as the track reaches completion. Sometimes I just get bored with it. That being the case, I’ll often shelve it for a month or so and then go back to it before I decide. Usually it’s finished when it’s finished, if you see what I mean.
These sounds feel cinematic. Are there any films that would make a good companion piece to this collection, any movies that may have been a subtle influence?
There’s a whole era of forward-thinking sci-fi that came along just a few years before I was of an age to appreciate it. The movies of that time often had quite dark, synth-led soundtracks and that’s what I gravitated towards as I started to get into sci-fi and films with a more grown-up rating. Often you’d get lovely little melodies like the main theme from The Running Man (which is horribly overused in the movie, but still beautiful).
The aesthetic of these films, with the limitations of special effects at that time, contributed a particular atmosphere to the era. Obvious stuff like John Carpenter movies, Silent Running, Android, Blade Runner… I could go ahead and name a bunch of arthouse directors but the fact is I probably wasn’t aware of them when I was discovering that stuff.
How do you make an instrumental piece about something?
I find it’s often good to have a picture in my head when I’m writing. On the recent collab I did with Coppé (Mango + Sweetrice records) ‘kemuri’, I had a picture of Shibuya in Tokyo in the pissing rain… kind of futuresque, Bladerunner-type scenes. Other times it’s more abstract than that. Often a group of tracks I’ve been working on at around the same time will be titled with names pertaining to interesting shit I’ve been reading or thinking about, so there’s almost a subconscious narrative. At the end of the day, it would be nonsense for me to say that I’ve tailored a specific listener experience, though. I get what I get out of it and everybody else might get something different. That’s the beauty of music.
Get involved in the curio vol. 1 vinyl-pressing campaign.