In a highly publicized new interview on Salon.com, Brian Eno asserted that ‘success ruins artists.’ I beg to differ, especially after hearing the new BjΓΆrk album Biophila and interviewing her engineer and Music Director Damian Taylor. BjΓΆrk has used her success to collaborate, push boundaries and reach new heights in experimentation. Among other things, Damian employed Max to create alternative creative environments for BjΓΆrk to conjure within. Damian was nice enough to share one of his Max patches, Woodpecker, with everyone. Hats off to BjΓΆrk and her team.
So, you seem to be a man of many countries. You’re living in Montreal now?
Yeah. Weβve been here for about a year and a half.
Prior to that, we lived in this tiny little fishing village in British Columbia for a couple of years, but basically I built my career up over ten years in London. Iβve got three passports which is handy; a British, a New Zealand and a Canadian. I was born in Canada, lived in New Zealand in my teens for a bit before heading to London. But I moved around a lot in each country, so I donβt really have a hometown. It gets a bit confusing!
Are you enjoying Montreal?
I love it here, yeah. Itβs fantastic. Awesome people, killer food, and the city is beautiful.
And they have a great music scene…
Yeah, exactly, I really like how itβs very creative, but not too heavily dominated by the music industry, it feels like a more freely creative place. On the flip-side itβs an easy commute to New York, L.A. and London, nicely in the middle. Iβve built my own studio in 1,000 square feet of the corner of a warehouse in a great part of town. You couldnβt really do that in New York or London β unless youβre just doing like hard-ass pop music. [Laughs.]
Youβve been working with audio from a young age.Β Are you trained as a musician?
I did the more traditional thing when I was young, between age 6 and 13. This gave me a good grounding in both playing and theory but I didnβt go to a super-high level. When I was 15 I started playing bass in guitar-type bands with friends in high school. After a year of that I bought a cheap second hand 4-track and got really into recording. My tastes evolved a lot over the next couple of years and I started getting heavily into electronic and sample-based music which led to my move to London when I was 19.
Do you think that experience helps in your work?
Oh yeah. Iβve got a musical background, a good understanding of music, and Iβve got a musical ear, however Iβm not at all a genius player. Iβve played quite a lot of different instruments in different environments though, so this allows me to understand artists Iβm working with far more than if I hadnβt had that experience.
So, were keyboards your weapon of choice back then?
I did piano for a few years, then trumpet, and then played bass in bands and then bought a guitar and drum kit and played those once I focused on recording. So Iβve kind of done a little bunch of everything β but if you wanted me to do a guitar solo, thereβs no way I could pull it off, you know? [Laughs.]
I was BjΓΆrkβs musical director on her last tour, so I did live electronics with her. Actually it was amazing to perform with that stuff, Iβm far better with that than a traditional instrument. I had a crazy amount of gear and that was insanely fun, so Iβd say taking a musical approach to technology is my thing, really.
Iβm a young record producer though, essentially. I was getting gigs engineering and programming all through my twenties and now Iβm getting a lot more production gigs β production and mixing. Production had always been my goal.
To clarify though: with BjΓΆrkβs projects I work as her engineer – or you could say Iβm her technical enabler based on whatever situation sheβs in. She produces herself. This has kept me busy pretty much full time with her for six years, though now that her new project is wrapped up Iβm able to work on other stuff again.
Is she based in New York these days?
She has many bases but mainly goes between New York and Iceland. I first worked with her in 1999 on Vespertine. I worked on the early stages of that record, which is how we had the foundation for our relationship.
How did that come about?
The first really good situation I found as an engineer was when I was 21 and linked up with the producer/writer Guy Sigsworth. He was BjΓΆrkβs MD [Music Director] for the first two tours for her first two albums then later co-wrote stuff with her on Vespertine and on Homogenic. He asked me to work with him on all his projects and one of them was BjΓΆrk.
That was a brilliant time with Guy because we had one of the first Pro Tools Mix Plus systems in London β this was in like β97, β98 β we were the first people we knew doing everything in the box. People kind of freaked out when they came to our studio and there was almost no gear! My engineering background, even though I was young, was with tape and mixing consoles and outboard gear, but I got in very early on with the whole next level of computer processing that opened up a whole bunch of creative stuff.
Peopleβs iBooks now have a lot more power than we had back then [laughs], but it was a really exciting time. Vespertine was technically about taking any sound and slicing it into a million pieces, just doing crazy editing, drawing waveforms and pops and clicks with the pencil tools and all that kind of stuff. Guy was really into hyper-tight ultra detail (I think he still is!) and Vespertine was a perfect match for that. For me that album is a high-water mark in terms of the intricacy of programming and all that kind of stuff.
In terms of what BjΓΆrk and I did on the new record though, we wanted to try to take a different approach where you still had the ethos of electronics but re-contextualized; presented it in a different way. Essentially we wanted to create an acoustic event that was controlled electronically. Does that make sense? I could bang on about that for hours! [Laughs.] Thatβs the abridged version.
The previous record I did with her, Volta, we were just kind of βletβs just keep it super raw and not be too cleverβ, basically. Energetically, I think she just wanted to make a bit of an extroverted album that would be fun to go play festivals, while for this new one her concept was a lot more in-depth. She had a lot of musicological concepts that she was really keen to explore.
It must be really rewarding to work with an artist whoβs so creative, and also has budgets.
[Laughs.] You hit the nail on the head, there.Β