Chris Clark Marries Sci-Fi and Techno on ‘Death Peak’
On Death Peak, Chris Clark takes his techno and dives deep into simulation, mimesis and representation. The quest to determine original from copy haunts the record. With each danceable track, Clark guides the listener deeper into his musings on artificial intelligence, physicality and reality. These ideas take on an even deeper significance with the widespread proliferation of the LP — with each listen in each new place by each set of new ears, how wide is the gap from the original sound? The possibility of variance takes on a sublime, infinitely permutable characteristic.
Clark is eager to note the difference between science fiction in concept and science fiction as aesthetic. It seems lately that science fiction imagery has been co-opted in a strange retrofuturist zeitgeist. Open Netflix and try to count how many nostalgic signifiers populate the main screen. The best science fiction writers — Samuel R. Delany, Octavia Butler, Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick — expounded upon sociopolitical issues and philosophical conundrums. Their transgressive, pioneering outlooks are as responsible for their maintained relevance as their memorable stories, informed by both theory and mythology. The marriage of narrative and theory is as alive in Death Peak as any work by the aforementioned authors.
Death Peak is out now on Warp.
Do you always perform with the help of [choreographer] Melanie [Lane]?
We’re doing most of the major U.S. shows with dancers. It feels very radical, and I know it sounds really obvious — dance music with dancers on stage — but I don’t think people do it enough. It takes attention away from me at just the right moment. We’ve programmed it so that the movements are blunt, repetitive and hypnotic without being too invasive or decorative. Melanie’s choreography is sculptural and delicate, but the dancers don’t distract. It’s always balance with aesthetics — the tiny edits that take the longest. I find that with music as well, and what I choose to spend time on, like transitions.
And transitions affect both recordings and live performance?
Yeah, quite a bit. I’m obsessed with transitions. They’re piping, like the foundations of a house, so they’ve got to be completely in order. You get this time dilation thing with music. “Un U.K.” took about four days to write, and I knew what the structure was, but then I spent eight hours on three seconds or something, just because it needs to be legit! You can’t have that much going on without solid transitions. It can take me two weeks to decide whether to have an eight-bar section or a 16-bar section. It’s the opposite of improvisation, and yet the tracks come out of improvisation. In a way, I guess composition is improvisation, but distilled.
Do you have any background in jazz or improvisational music? Is improvisation important to your music?
I haven’t had any formal music training, but I’ve read a lot into it, and the spirit of jazz is inspiring to me. I’ve got a bit of a '60s jazz musician work ethic, but without the, uh, heroin habit. There was a dedication to the craft back then, and it was unfashionable if you didn’t have that. Now it’s unfashionable to demonstrate too much effort. What? We live in a different time where it’s a bit more throwaway, or maybe that’s me being cynical. To get back to the question [laughs], I think improvisation is important, but people sometimes forego composition. I like to occupy both realms. And anyway, nothing’s truly improvised; the idea that there are no restrictions and things are free-flowing is nonsense. It’s a Jedi mind trick.
I’m interested in a couple things you said, specifically about cynicism and, uh, Jedi mind tricks. Are you into science fiction?
Yeah, massively. The track “Catastrophe Anthem” was originally called “Ancestor Simulacra,” which is a term that artificial intelligence theorist Nick Bostrom came up with in regards to the well-trodden simulation argument. That track [“Catastrophe Anthem”] and specifically the lyric “we are your ancestors” isn’t a mystical hippie thing — it’s those kids singing to their creator as aspects of the simulation. I couldn’t really explain that to them, though, because they were like eight years old and I didn’t want to creep them out. [Laughs] I thought it was really unsettling that they would be singing to their creator, singing to the AI. It’s basically a song to AI.
In terms of science fiction, I’m a big fan of Philip K. Dick’s ideas, but he’s a terrible writer. That’s no diss to him, but he’s an example of an amazing idea poorly executed, which will always trump polished turds. His ideas are these gems that he never wiped down. And [William] Gibson is amazing. I’ve only listened to Gibson on audio, and I listen to him often to get over jet lag in a fragmented, postmodern way. I never know when things start and stop, but I think he’s delicious — his turn of phrase is superb.
Obviously, synthesizers and synth sounds have a big place in your music. Did you get into that through science fiction?
Well, I’m not sure — to cut against this, I don’t know if I want to marry my music to a futurist aesthetic, because that’s become retrograde and banal now. I’m sick of electronic music attaching itself to futuristic imagery. The irony is too much! It’s more conceptual for me than cosmetic. I’m interested in stories, and they don’t necessarily have to engage with science fiction. “Catastrophe Anthem” was taking a convoluted, philosophical idea, and degrading it. When I tell people, “This is a song for AI,” even as bombastic as that sounds, it translates on a visceral level. That’s what I want to do with my music. I want to make the story the pure takeaway — the distilled aspect of the music.
When you talked about “Catastrophe Anthem,” you touched on the contextual element of that, but building on both the transitional theme and the story aspect, is there an overarching narrative to Death Peak?
There is, but I don’t want to puncture people’s interpretations. It starts off carefree and becomes harrowing. “Catastrophe Anthem” is not “Butterfly Prowler.” Each album is different, but Death Peak is on its own. I want the identity of each track to be so clear that when you hear one second of it, you know if it came from Death Peak. Once an album is completed, there’s an odd paradox — it will sound different wherever it’s played, the listener’s ears will interpret it as another set of variables, and then there’s the fact that it is just code that won’t change. Once it’s an MP3 on iTunes, it’s set in stone, so you had better get it right by that point. I can’t email Apple and ask them to edit my tracks. It’s going to proliferate on the internet, so you have to take that on board.
The idea that the listening can be done in different rooms with different ears takes on an almost quantum characteristic!
It’s mental, isn’t it? I almost can’t compute that! It’s going to always sound different, but will always be the same thing. I’m controlling to an almost psychotic degree, but I have to be consciously flippant about it, too, or I’ll never move forward. So, there’s this sense of “Ah, fuck it!” when I finish a record. [Laughs]
So, what about the album cover art? How’d you end up with that?
[Laughs] I just, like, screwed up a bit of paper, threw it on the floor, jumped up and down on it a few times, and thought, “Yeah, that’s an album cover!” Well, I’ve worked with Alma [Haser] a lot. We were struggling a bit, but had been considering the idea of beauty through destruction. Humor and darkness come into it, of course. It’s quite a macabre cover. I look a bit like the T-800 when he’s getting mashed in with an anvil at the end of Terminator 2. I was like, “Make me look like that, but with pastel colors.” [Laughs] I don’t know if it’s because I’ve become a raging egomaniac, but I’m not concerned with using my own image. It wasn’t unusual in the '60s — the artist was on the cover. I didn’t want to have an apology of an album cover with an abstract text. I wanted something hard-hitting that people either liked or hated. I can’t claim any ownership on the idea other than having the scrunched-up paper and thinking it was pretty funny. I like the way that it plays into the narrative — even if someone hates my music and they scrunch up an image of my face, Alma will do something amazing with it and make it into an album cover.
Last one — read anything good lately?
I read Trump Revealed by Marc Fisher, which is quite well-known. I’m constantly catastrophizing about the state of the world by reading the news, which is not a good move. I haven’t read a novel in a while, but I’ll tell you what’s amazing — I’m reading this book Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible. I really recommend it. It’s about Russia and the propaganda machine.
I’ll read that for sure. Also, great title. Anything else?
Nothing I can think of. I hope I didn’t come across too much as a dick, but you never know. [Laughs]