An Interview with Damian Taylor
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 Björk album Biophila and interviewing her engineer and Music Director Damian Taylor. Björk 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 Björk to conjure within. Damian was nice enough to share one of his Max patches, Woodpecker, with everyone. Hats off to Björk and her team.
So, you seem to be a man of many countries. You’re living in Montreal now?
Yeah. We’ve 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. I’ve 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 don’t really have a hometown. It gets a bit confusing!
Are you enjoying Montreal?
I love it here, yeah. It’s fantastic. Awesome people, killer food, and the city is beautiful.
And they have a great music scene…
Yeah, exactly, I really like how it’s very creative, but not too heavily dominated by the music industry, it feels like a more freely creative place. On the flip-side it’s an easy commute to New York, L.A. and London, nicely in the middle. I’ve built my own studio in 1,000 square feet of the corner of a warehouse in a great part of town. You couldn’t really do that in New York or London — unless you’re just doing like hard-ass pop music. [Laughs.]
You’ve been working with audio from a young age. 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 didn’t 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. I’ve got a musical background, a good understanding of music, and I’ve got a musical ear, however I’m not at all a genius player. I’ve played quite a lot of different instruments in different environments though, so this allows me to understand artists I’m working with far more than if I hadn’t 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 I’ve kind of done a little bunch of everything — but if you wanted me to do a guitar solo, there’s no way I could pull it off, you know? [Laughs.]
I was Björk’s musical director on her last tour, so I did live electronics with her. Actually it was amazing to perform with that stuff, I’m far better with that than a traditional instrument. I had a crazy amount of gear and that was insanely fun, so I’d say taking a musical approach to technology is my thing, really.
I’m a young record producer though, essentially. I was getting gigs engineering and programming all through my twenties and now I’m getting a lot more production gigs — production and mixing. Production had always been my goal.
To clarify though: with Björk’s projects I work as her engineer – or you could say I’m her technical enabler based on whatever situation she’s 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 I’m 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 Björk’s 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 Björk.
That was a brilliant time with Guy because we had one of the first Pro Tools Mix Plus systems in London — this was in like ’97, ’98 — 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.
People’s 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 Björk 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.] That’s the abridged version.
The previous record I did with her, Volta, we were just kind of ‘let’s just keep it super raw and not be too clever’, 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 who’s so creative, and also has budgets.
[Laughs.] You hit the nail on the head, there.
She’s experimental, with a pop budget…
Yeah. The most amazing thing with Björk is that no matter how avant-garde or experimental you get, fundamentally she can just sing like nobody else. So it’s like you can do the craziest stuff, and once she sings on it and it’s going to have an emotional resonance you can’t find anywhere else.
I’ve worked on plenty of projects where we’ve been super fucking clever with electronics, but then you spend like two years trying to find a singer and it doesn’t really happen. [Laughs.]
But yeah, that’s part of the joy of working with her, it really is an adventure. I remember a number of years back when she wanted to record with Toumani Diabate and she’s saying “Oh yeah, we should go to Africa.” And I remember thinking “Yeah, sure… I’ll believe it when I see it!” And then three days later you get your ticket! At that point I had only really been working in the London studio circuit so it has been amazing to go beyond that with her.
When we were with Spike Stent to mix Volta, a friend sent her a YouTube link for the first Reactable demonstations. The Reactable is like something out of Buck Rogers. So we’re watching these videos, and at that point she hadn’t asked me to go on tour, but she says, “Oh, that would be fun to take on tour,” and I kind of again was like, “Yeah, right! It doesn’t even exist! It’s imaginary! That must be… like… a computer animation!!!” And then three months later I was playing it on the headlining set at Coachella. Bonkers, right? So she’s got an amazing ability to make things happen — and the vision to even dare to imagine it in the first place.
I think she’s also at a point where she just looks at every project like ‘let’s make an adventure, let’s do something different.’ Fundamentally I think she just wants to keep things really interesting for herself. So different projects for different phases of her career would have a completely, totally different feel.
But again, it always comes back to her amazing sense of… well, the artistic aspect, basically, and the emotional quality that she wants it to have. So she’s always really, really firmly rooted in her instinct – does it feel right? So as far as I’m concerned, I just listen to what she wants and try to help her however I can.
What a great gig. Congrats!
Thanks. Yeah, it is kind of nuts. But there’s the flip side: that the process takes forever. Insane amounts of time. We were on Biophilia for two and a half years. That’s very different to making an album in say, two weeks.
So, at what point did you get into Max programming?
We spent 18 months on the album Volta. Björk doesn’t really work long hours in the studio, so I wound up having more spare time than at any other point in my career. When we were finishing up the Volta tour she started talking about her ideas for the next project and said, “It’s going to be really big. It’ll probably take two or three years.”
So I was like “holy shit!!!”, but then I realized it might be the one opportunity in my career to jump on a learning curve where I might not get anywhere worthwhile for a couple of years. So that got me into the Max side of things, investing the time to investigate technology and programming languages at a much more fundamental level — instead of doing the, dare I say ‘normal’ studio engineer stuff, where all your tools are already made by someone else and you just use them. Actually, while all that was going on, I also started hand building analogue outboard gear for my studio in my spare time as well.
How was the Max learning curve for you? Did you lock yourself away?
It’s actually a credit to Mark Bell, who’s one of Björk’s longtime collaborators. She was talking about wanting to have the music and the visuals synched or something. So Mark — who is really quite an amazing boffin [back-room geek] — decided, “Oh, we should all just learn Max because they’ve got the Jitter side of it, which is the video stuff, and you could just use the same messages in this whole system and make it feed everything.”
So the day the tour finished, I flew up to Iceland to work on some other stuff with her, but the second I got to my hotel I downloaded the demo of Max and started a tutorial. To cut a long story short, I wound up being the only person who actually learned it!
Back to the learning curve though; if you’ve never done any code or computer language programming before, there are a lot of times where you just have to try to absorb things without really knowing what the hell they are for. And I mean that in the nicest possible way!
I just slowly worked my way through all the tutorials, largely without understanding what the hell I was doing, but just absorbing what was going on, trying to follow every step that was presented. And yeah, it really was a case of locking myself in a room. If there was another noise anywhere, I just couldn’t do it. It took really intense concentration; just trying to absorb what was going on and follow a tutorial from start to finish.
But then at some point I figured I needed to speed things up, so I got in touch with Harvestworks, in New York, who I actually was aware of through an interview on the Cycling ’74 web site. I got tutoring from Matthew Ostrowski — and it was amazing, a complete revelation.
It’s been the same with me for a number of different things that I’ve tried to learn in the studio. Watching someone do something. I’d speak to Matthew and ask how to implement some really basic piece of logic in a patch, and he’d start tapping away. Just watching him physically do it, making objects and linking them together, something not working, deleting objects, relinking them until it worked. There’s something about physically seeing someone do it in real time that’s amazing and is far different to opening something that’s already complete and trying to reverse engineer. I started seeing the alternatives and possibilities. Matthew was an absolutely invaluable resource and I remain profoundly grateful for everything he shared with me.
So, you found direct tutoring to be the best route for you?
I would hugely recommend trying to find a teacher at some point, or otherwise hanging out in an informal setting with a more experienced cat and asking them how they might approach a problem.
But as time went on and I found my feet, I found that I’d be trying to do something and would remember, “Oh, yeah, there was a tutorial I did last year that was similar to that.” So I’d dig back, and go through the tutorials, and then start ripping code out of examples and modifying them to serve my purpose.
So actually sitting down and going through all the tutorials was a really good way to just imprint your mind with some of the capabilities of the language, even if you don’t understand quite how to use them yet.
Actually the perfect metaphor came from a lovely lady who came to teach us Spanish while we were camped out in Puerto Rico during the production of Biophilia; she’d say we’d need to have a basic pool of vocabulary available and memorized before we could start putting sentences together.
Even though it was a challenge, the whole learning process was really exciting for me as well. My work in the studio is highly technical but I’m very fluent with it already, so it was really interesting to venture into another highly technical field where the landscape was unfamiliar. It was a fascinating process of expanding and rearranging my brain patterns, and I think that’s actually had a really positive effect back in the world I usually inhabit, if that makes sense?
It does. I can see where you would approach the studio with new eyes.
Did you use Max on the new album, or are you only using it for live work?
Well, when I started messing around with all this stuff I’d make notes, “Maybe you could do this with that, or that with that,” you know. For example you start messing around with the drunk object and go, “Oh, OK, cool, I could have a slider that will manipulate stuff in a certain way.” Even if you don’t know quite what that other stuff is yet!
Björk had been talking about a lot of the musicological concepts that she had, not specific musical ideas like an exact melody or chord, but she liked this type of phrasing, or that way a melody could unfold, or wanting to go beyond straightforward time signatures, for example. So as I’d tinker and explore I’d sometimes discover some objects or externals that would ring a bell with what she had been saying, and I’d realize I could modify some variables in a system to make them able to exist in that world.
To cut a long story short, I wound up designing three significantly different performance systems using a Jazzmutant Lemur and a video-game controller as physical interfaces. There’s a Max tutorial on getting a data stream out of a Logitech game controller. That became a huge jumping off point for everything I was doing, as Björk responded really strongly to being able to hold the game controller and press buttons while she sang. It’s very different to sitting down at a piano!
So, basically, there are six songs on the new album that were written using these systems. I just focused totally on the Max side of things for data processing which would generate beautiful music as MIDI messages from a disparate stream of button presses and OSC messages. I designed a system of musical rules, ways of creating melodies and linking them together, then spent a lot of time making interfaces that would be conducive to the creating process.
Were these systems that Björk used herself?
That was a key thing with the design, I wanted to make stuff that Björk could use super intuitively. Because we’ve spent a huge amount of time together, I kind of, not to say I know what she would like, but I’ve got a pretty good intuition about what she might find fun, and I’ve also seen her get very frustrated when something is above a threshold of complexity that she’s comfortable with.
So we created this environment whereby she could just hold a video-game controller and press buttons and things would happen. We were excited about that tension between something being a little bit unpredictable to the point where it might surprise you, while also being very controllable.
She ended up creating a huge amount of sketches and musical explorations while messing around with these things. I think she always has like a million and one melodic or lyrical ideas in her head — I have no idea what she’s sitting on! So I think often she’d experiment to see if anything she had would fit with what she was discovering on the systems, and other times she’d create something with the systems that would inspire a totally new vocal.
Basically, because the systems allowed her to control electronics in this very intuitive way she was able to have the electronics follow her as a singer and a live performer; it let her write in a completely different way to anything she’s done before.
So, Max played a pretty important role in the album.
Max was an absolutely critical part of the writing of the album — and for the live stuff as well, because the songs were a direct result of these systems.
Since we used Max to create the songs, we had wanted use the same systems live. Well, we had built in our own kind of, I wouldn’t say chaos, but they’re a bit more… well, let’s say chaotic. [Laughs.] They’re a bit more difficult to steer than a traditional instrument, if you know what I mean.
But a regulated chaos.
You can totally guide the systems, but, you know, she’s got a 25-piece choir. So they’re counting say 13 bars in 17/8 before their entry. If you’re performing something on your own you can just vibe out for a while and then feel OK, now we’re going to the next section… Whereas in a big ensemble you have to be very precise and predictable, so we went with more conventional approaches for the live situation.
So, the performers retain their independence.
Exactly. On the flipside though there’s one song called “Dark Matter” where I custom wrote a Max patch specifically for the live setting. This was to give Björk a way to play something that she had written in the studio using a different system. The song is completely in free time, no tempo or measures to it at all. Our MIDI tech for the live tour, Paul Eastman, has done a bunch of iPad app development. He made a big button that just sends single midi note messages from the iPad which I converted into bangs in Max. Then I mapped out a network of messages that send the appropriate chord changes to the instruments onstage. That way, Björk can just sing it in her own intuitive phrasing and tap the screen when she wants to jump to the next musical event; this ensure the music totally follows her phrasing and feeling and she can concentrate 100% on that flow.
Going back a step though, Mark Bell was such a huge influence in this whole thing for me, even going back a couple of years before I got into Max. He would show me some of the mad patches in Reaktor and how he’d use them, as well as a lot of the more esoteric capabilities of Ableton Live, especially all the MIDI processing in there. This was a totally different approach to music than that which I had come up through with notation, scores, tape, and linear sequencers.
The real gateway to my more heavy duty Max programming was during a bunch of the early Biophilia sessions when Mark was bringing a bunch of his midi systems over. He was using more traditional midi controllers to influence them, then I hacked the Logitech game controller tutorial to give him MIDI messages from the controller. On the song “Dark Matter,” Björk performed with the game controller going through one of his systems in Ableton Live.
So he introduced me to a lot of concepts, like how you can use a scale plug-in, or a chord plug-in, and my earlier Max patches ran through some of that stuff in Ableton. So he really set a lot of my mental processes in motion and woke me up to a lot of possibilities. Then as time went on I started discovering new things in Max and getting into Bidirectional OSC with the Jazzmutant Lemur. I wound up designing things that had a lot more rhythmic elements and a lot more subtlety and capability with arrangements, but also had very usable and streamlined interfaces.
Did you use any of your patches to actually compose with?
Yeah, including “Dark Matter” there are six songs on Biophilia that Björk wrote with them, the others were written conventionally.
It really was a lot of fun and very liberating having them as compositional tools. There’s one patch I designed which will let you make stuff that just seems so incredibly complex and clever, but it’s just from the most basic kind of inputs. That one was used to write Moon, Crystalline, and Hollow. In this case, it’s completely the tool itself that brought those particular songs to life; there’s no way you’d sit down at a piano and write music like that, or hum it into a dictaphone. So it was pretty significant.
That’s one of my favorite things about Max, sometimes stuff that seems like it would be so complex is achievable in this very elegant simple way. And there’s a profound satisfaction in that. Just that Frankenstein moment where you kind of zap it with lightning and it’s suddenly alive, and you’re like, “Holy shit, it makes music!”
Do you have a favorite object, or one that you use often?
[Laughs.] The button… for keeping it simple.
But actually, my tutor, Matthew, kept hammering into me that Max is brilliant for processing lists. It took me quite a long time to grasp that, but I’ll just go for the coll object along with zl and its many variations.
How would you describe your patching style?
Really basic. [Laughs.] My main focus is on data processing as opposed to audio or video processing, I think I may have tapped about 5% of the capabilities of Max. At the most!
I’m just in a trying-to-keep-it-simple phase. After the stuff that was used on the album, I spent like three or four months making this crazy monster patch that’s controlled by four Lemurs, but that’s a whole different story. So maybe if you wanted a one-liner I’d say ‘crude but effective.’
But if it works for you…
That’s exactly it, yeah. And again that’s what’s so cool with Max, you can really tailor it to your needs.
Are you using any other type of hardware controllers besides the Lemur and the game controller?
Yes! Well, actually, they didn’t make it onto the album because the songs were already written by that point, but the ongoing process during the course of Biophilia was really exciting. Once I had a basic handle on Max itself I got into a lot more exploration and development with physical computing. I had just started breaking the tip of the iceberg with Arduinos.
After spending a week or so trying to learn the Processing language, I found the maxuino objects, which was just amazing for me. I’m infinitely grateful to that community for making something so useful. So I just started messing around with pressure pads, and tilt sensors, accelerometers, LEDs and that kind of stuff. Actually Mark and I had done some really basic forays into physical computing right at the start of Biophilia but it wasn’t until 18 months or so in that I really started digging into it.
At this point there’s only one finished instrument that came out of it so far. It’s just this kind of cool makeshift thing. Not really wanting to give too much away; it generates chords based on your physical movements and gives visual feedback. There’s lots of ways to interact with it to modify the music, maybe it’ll pop up further down the line in future work.
Oh and also I have a monome 256; I wound up writing some patches for it to control the tonality of all the other systems, kind of like a master harmony control center. Pretty cool.
Now that the production of Biophilia is finished I’m super busy making more records with other artists again. I’m working on a whole bunch of different projects now but if I had another spare year, I would definitely be going down the physical computing route, messing around with controllers and physical feedback. It’s really exciting because you can feel that they access different parts of your brain and body. Also it’s totally gratifying on a nerd tip. It was a nice kick to start figuring out basic electronic circuits and getting them to be a bridge between the real and virtual worlds.
Now it’s all opened up to movement, too, because the new Wii controllers.
Yeah! I messed around a bunch with the Wii stuff, specifically with OSCulator, it’s amazing.
The other important point is that we did all of this before the iPad was even announced; this development was taking place back when Biophilia was going to be a musical house, then a film! I’m really enamored of the open communities that I accessed while exploring all this. To me, collectively, Max, the Lemur, the Arduino, monome, the video-game controller, and so on, all become this really accessible platform for people to develop, explore, and share their ideas.
I just love the way that there’s so much stuff out there that you can mess around with – it’s really inspiring. And the online communities are just amazing to me. I spent two years on the internet, sniffing around, posting questions, reading threads. Just the way that that’s all so openly shared, it feels like the DIY punk underground of our generation.
What’s the future hold? Are you going to go on tour?
Well, actually Björk recently opened the Manchester International Festival and my super talented friend Matt Robertson covered for me onstage while I stayed home to welcome my second child into the world. I think Björk wants to do a series of residencies along the lines of Manchester, so hopefully I might be involved in some of them down the line. She had the idea to go somewhere and set up for a month or so and create a very specific environment.
She’s really into the musicological and educational aspect, giving kids a different way to interact with music. Which is what a lot of what she’s done with the iPad apps is about.
I think she’s looking at the residencies as carrying on for quite some time, at different spots in the world.
I hope she brings it to San Francisco!
That would be amazing! The whole ethos of the city is really aligned with what she wanted to do, and of course lots of the app developers for the iPad stuff are based there. I love the city too. It would make a lot of sense.
But you know, as always with Björk, I never really know what she’s going to do. [Laughs] So I would advise anyone to just stay posted to her web site for updates and ignore any guesses I might have. Seriously!
I mean, it’s like on the last tour I did with her, I’d find out what gigs we were going to do on her web site. I wouldn’t know for months in advance what was being planned, then I’d click on her site be like, “Oh, OK, cool. I’m off to Lithuania!” kind of stuff.
All in all though it’s a really interesting time for me just now. Biophilia was the context in which I learned Max and a lot more besides, and I’m really looking forward to developing fresh stuff to use in different situations as well.
Any last thoughts?
You know, it’s worth saying; I started just after Max 5 came out, so all the work that everyone at Cycling 74 had done to make it a bit more accessible, well, it really made a huge difference to me. Like, the key command you hit to bring up the help file. [Laughs.] Really basic stuff like that, or if you control-click on an inlet, then it’ll tell you what messages are going on there. And the tutorials — they have put a huge amount of thought into making it more accessible for people. And yes, I’ll mark myself out as a complete noob with no programming cred, but those rounded boxes and the cleaner graphics helped me feel less intimidated at the beginning.
If you’re a musician or composer, Max is an amazing tool that will really open up a completely different way of thinking about music. If you’ve been working on sequencers, looking at time lines, working on tape, or reading off musical scores, then without really realizing it you start looking at music in this very linear way and your brain gets formed into a lot of similar patterns.
But the Max environment provides this whole alternate way of thinking, a whole different flow. Suddenly your own ways of thinking about time and harmony and melodies and everything, expands completely. Music kind of changes shape, you see it from this whole different side. So it’s really, really, really, worth putting in the effort!