An interview with David Toop
Listening, telling and imagining
By Roger Roca
“It’s not particularly transparent when you look at the thing. I feel anxious and slightly stupid when I have to use it,” says British musician, writer, lecturer and curator David Toop. He’s talking about the Skype interface. Coming out of the computer speakers, his voice sounds metallic. For someone who has masterfully explained the coming of the digital world, you’d think he would have total command of something like Skype. He’s right, though. Skype is not very intuitive.
In the nineties, under the Ocean of Sound label, Toop put together a series of CD compilations for Virgin Records that anticipated the way we would interact with music in the YouTube era: John Lee Hooker morphing into Tim Buckley, then dissolving in a yanonami ritual chant. Les Baxter opening for My Bloody Valentine. Mantronix next to Cat Stevens. His own career as a musician, with almost thirty recordings to his name, is one big exploration of sound.
David Toop, a regular contributor to The Wire for four decades, and author of five extraordinary books, writes about sound like no one else does. His writing is an intoxicating mixture of memoir, essay and fiction. In Rap Attack, published in 1984, he explored hip-hop with a then unknown rigor. In Ocean of Sound: Aether Talk, Ambient Sound and Imaginary Worlds, Exotica: Fabricated Soundscapes in a Real World and Haunted Weather: Music, Silence and Memory he mapped out possible paths to navigate 20th century music and foresee what the new century was about to bring. His latest book, Sinister Resonance, is his most elusive one yet and deals with the very nature of listening. “If I had to explain what that book is about it would take me half an hour,” says Toop. He’s just finished writing his memoirs for a Japanese publisher and in May he’ll release Into the Maelstrom: Music, Improvisation and the Dream of Freedom, the first instalment in a two volume book on the history of improvised music.
With David Toop sometimes you don’t know what he is writing about but there’s always a sense that he’s essentially expressing a way of being in the world. He insists he’s not a scholar so he doesn’t have to follow a method or pursue a clear goal, but rather someone who listens to the world and tries to make sense of it by means of music and words that are as arresting as the things that inspire them. His writing is so suggestive you might find yourself not really wanting to hear the sounds he’s talking about but imagining them. No one writes like David Toop because probably no one hears the world like David Toop does.
Your mid-nineties compilations for Virgin Records foresaw how people would listen to music. But maybe juxtaposition does not excite us anymore. What would you say excites us as a society nowadays?
Simon Reynolds wrote an essay once in which he said: “we are all David Toop now”. His theory was flattering and not flattering because he was saying I kind of anticipated this way of consuming music that exists now where maybe it’s less the case now, but the idea of streaming, YouTube, random kind of searching, all of that stuff. Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t. But I do agree, I think that notion of making those connections is not so exciting as it was in the nineties, because there it is, everybody does it. So there has to be something else. I find it very hard to identify what that something else is. I guess it has something to do with feeling unsettled, where you’re not really sure of what is going on. And if you can create that feeling I think that’s sort of useful at the moment. Particularly when it is, when we share ideas with each other, which I think had become so tied down in those orthodox, technological platforms. Even Skype, it’s kind of weird, staring at the screen or staring at this bizarre video image of each other. So I suppose what I’m saying here is that I don’t really know. And that’s why these ideas about intimacy fascinate me. How can you make something that is so intimate that it almost goes beyond the boundaries of propriety? That’s a strange thing to say when there’s pornography everywhere but it’s not about pornography, it’s not about that. It’s just saying, “here’s this very intimate experience and how can we share it?” So I think I need a few more years of thinking about it.
You’ve been involved with sound all your life. What do you think drove you so strongly to it?
One of the things I remember quite clearly is my first listening experience, which is when I was with my mother and she used to take my sister and me to my grandmother’s house in Enfield, just north of London. I clearly remember walking by the side of the railway tracks and there was a part of the path where there were concrete walls either side, close together, so you get this phenomenon where the reverberation bounce backwards and towards very quickly, and the result is a very metallic sounding echo. I still have the kind of flavour of that experience.
As a writer, do you describe a world you see and hear or else do you work towards building the world you would like to live in?
I do feel I have a kind of overarching perception of this cultural area that interests me, the interconnections of music and sound and listening, that I try to bring into being through these different media. It’s a kind of vision if you like. And I suppose in the end you could say it’s partly how I would like the world to be and partly how I perceive the world and how I engage with the world, it’s my reality I suppose.
Your books seem to deal with bigger issues, like they really address questions about being oneself.
That’s nice of you to say. For me, thinking about music has always been thinking about a different society, about how we can relate differently to each other. And I do have a certain approach to life that is, I think, articulated through my writing about music. I couldn’t give you a clearly articulated political position or formula for how I think life should be lived. But I realize if I look at what I write about there’s a kind of, maybe not an ideology there, but there’s a feeling about what’s right and what’s wrong, there’s a kind of ethical sense, I guess, and there’s a feeling about a more spontaneous, less regulated way of living. I mean it sounds banal if I talk about it now, I’m kind of horrified to say these things but I would say that was definitely in there. And I always found it easier to write about these things in a way so that it’s somewhat masked.
They’re very intimate books. I feel like I’ve been to your place many times, and watched you sitting in your room, listening to the squeaky sounds of the house.
It’s interesting you talk about intimacy. Intimacy is something that interests me a lot. But it’s funny because when I was young I was incredibly shy and self-conscious. I found social relations quite difficult, and music gave me a kind of conduit to feeling less self-enclosed. Certain kinds of music really open up the world; if you think of it, a lot of music tries to create a solid object and there are other types of music that really open outwards in strands, they can create in you that feeling of opening outwards, maybe engaging with the world more directly. So that you’re not feeling outside of other things because you define yourself so rigidly as a single individual, and if you think of yourself of kind of streaming out into the world in all of these peculiar, different personalities. I don’t know when I learnt that. Probably at some point when I was working as a journalist I felt I really lost myself somehow, just writing about other people’s music and getting really caught up in that whole scene. And then the question was how to write about that. Only a few close friends and lovers knew who I really was, and everybody else I kept at a distance and disguised myself. And I think over the time I’ve gradually become more and more open. And those books were really an opening out in that sense. I would say that I felt completely alone, pretty much alone in my ideas from 1971 to 1995.
That’s a long time to feel isolated.
With Ocean of Sound I felt confident for the first time in my life. I never felt confidence before then, because I felt very much alone.
You mean you’d never experienced self-confidence before that? That’s the kind of stuff a shrink would say! Sorry, I didn’t mean that.
It’s fine you saying that because I’d had quite a lot of success as a journalist, Rap Attack came out in 1984, but in a way that wasn’t me. It was a kind of apprentice book –much, much more journalistic–, although if you look under the surface it’s about my lifelong encounter with African American music. But still I never felt I was being true to myself through that whole period. And with Ocean of Sound I wrote stuff that was very personal to me, and these weird ideas that were very personal to me that I had for many, many years, and the response was great. It was a huge thing for me because by that time I was in my mid forties so it’s a long time in your life to go without feeling confidence.
Your writing is very musical, in a way.
I started writing my second book, Ocean of Sound, and I thought I couldn’t write it in a conventional way, but I didn’t know how to write it. And I wrote a short section, which was just about listening. Then, there was a three-month pause. And I just thought, “I won’t try to write these long chapters, each one about a separate subject. I’ll just write these short sections and they’ll just be like fragments.” I was beginning to think about the effect of the internet. It barely existed then. You could get a sense of what was going to happen particularly with this hyper-textualized, instant communication, and so on. And so anytime an idea came to me I would just write a very short section and try to weave that into the narrative. Everything was related.
In Ocean of Sound you described a dream you had about a meeting of ambient music legend Mix Master Morris and Elvis Presley. Those futuristic notions were not uncommon in the nineties. But in hindsight, the results turned out to be very disappointing. As if the idea was far more promising than the actual thing.
I think there was a lot of optimism at that time and in a way that was the kind of wave that Ocean of Sound rode on. A lot of optimism about the future, partly technological -there were a lot of new electronic inventions, the internet, things like the email and the feeling of connectedness- and really very utopian thinking. None of us could imagine what would happen, so we didn’t envisage the bad stuff. And I mean we never learn, do we? That these things are just a phase? Every cycle of optimism and feeling free will be gradually displaced by conservatism. A lot of it came at that time from drugs, I’m not a druggy person anymore but for me it was about the music. But yeah I agree, a lot of it sounds very dated and disappointing now. But for me it allowed me to think about 20th century music in a completely different way, which was much more holistic if you like, much less to do with single genres of music, or categories, and much more about how these musics can be connected to each other.
Where Ocean of sound presented a world of possibilities, the following book, Haunted Weather, seemed like a reaction to facing the outburst of that scenario and being overwhelmed with it, as if you were asking yourself how to deal with this too-muchness, how to navigate it.
I agree with you and to some extent I was trying to write about a constructive retreat, how you could somewhat withdraw and re-gather yourself without dropping back into nostalgia or disconnecting yourself from the world. And that’s where we come back to this thing, whether you’re drifting through YouTube or whether you have someone who has a lot of knowledge and experience and can to some extent create a pathway.
Yeah, in a way. This word, curator, is a bit of a nightmare now. Certainly when I wrote Haunted Weather it was more a recognition of this instability of the world and how one makes sense of that. And of course that’s become more and more intense since I wrote that book: economic instability and terrorism everywhere and people fleeing for their lives, this mass movement of people that probably hasn’t been seen since the end of the Second World War. And you can see incredible tensions building up which are global and potentially as frightening as anything I went through in the cold war, where as a child you really felt the world coming to an end. I can’t claim to influence anything through my stuff, but I think it’s very important that as individuals and collaborative groups we do and say what we can as some sort of gesture or perceived antidote. And certainly with improvised music it’s so much the opposite of the way things work now that it’s a kind of prescription for madness.
Besides improvised music, you see anyone or any movement within pop culture addressing those notions?
Not much. But I do find Björk still very inspiring and I really like the way that her work is on the one hand very personal but on the other hand she’s thinking about these big issues like environment and ecology. And she’s engaging with scholars and philosophers and trying to use her position and her music to put those ideas forward to a bigger audience.