Gareth Jones, famed for his production work for Depeche Mode, Erasure and Einstürzende Neubauten, first became acquainted with fellow producer/label boss Daniel Miller when requested to work on Mode’s 1983 synth-pop album Construction Time Again. At the end of those sessions, Jones and Miller would stay behind and playfully experiment with sounds at The Garden – then studio of synth pioneer John Foxx.
Despite naming the project Sunroof and later remixing artists including Goldfrapp, Can and To Rococo Rot, the duo refrained from releasing their own studio jams for almost 40 years. However, that changed in March 2019 following various improvisations using modular suitcases. This time they made plans to record their sessions, resulting in Electronic Music Improvisations Volume 1 – eight extemporary modular pieces recorded live in various studio spaces across London.
Can you remember the circumstances behind the two of you first meeting?
Daniel Miller: “We were starting to plan working on the third Depeche Mode album Construction Time Again. Up to that point we’d been working at a great studio called Blackwing but felt we needed a change of scene so finally landed at John Foxx’s studio The Garden because it was so different from a conventional studio. It had daylight, which was unusual in those days, a relatively big control room and a small live room, but we didn’t have an engineer. John suggested Gareth because he’d help set up his studio and worked with him on Metamatic. Gareth had a very enthusiastic vibe, so we decided to work with the Mode together and it all became very natural and fluid with a lot of experimental processes.”
Gareth Jones: “In a way that was the start of the Sunroof project because, quite quickly, Daniel and I realised that we liked hanging out in the studio after Depeche Mode had gone home. They usually got the train back to Essex and as we were both living in London we’d spend the odd hour or two doing jam sessions and playing around with synths and effects. We were just mucking about and wouldn’t even record them, but this improvisational record grew out of those early seeds so they were useful.
DM: “We worked very intensively with the band so it was a good head-clearing exercise and we both had our own modular synths at the time. I had an ARP 2600 and a Roland System 100M, so we were already in that world.”
How would you compare the electronic music scene now to how it was back then in terms of the availability of instruments?
DM: “Electronic music in the broader sense had been going on for years before that with Stockhausen, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and producers like Joe Meek who were using strange effects. Unless you could build your own synths, which I wasn’t capable of doing, making electronic music was a distant dream, but before the second half of the ’70s the tools became a lot more accessible. There’d been some Japanese releases from Roland and Korg especially, and they came on the second-hand market and were already a lot less expensive than the Moogs and the ARPs. For a young band, the only option was guitar, bass and drums, but now there was a new option so it was all very exploratory.”
GJ: “Another thing that was super-important was the availability of relatively cheap multi-tracks. You could save up your fruit picking money and buy a four-track, which was massive. When we were working with Mode we obviously had a big 24-track in the studio, but for DIY electronics – like Sunroof – multi-tracks were a big thing too.”
DM: “It was the beginning of the accessibility of electronic instruments, which over the last 40 years has exploded in so many different ways. It’s a lot easier now I suppose, which means quite a lot of the music out there is good but not unique, even if some of the instruments are being used in really new and creative ways.”
In those early days the sound was new and driven by the technology. Is it much harder to stand out today?
DM: “It’s harder to stand out for the reasons you said but also because there’s so much music being released now. I think Spotify has 60,000 releases every week, but it’s not just about the sound, it’s about expression and how you use those instruments. Paint has been around for hundreds of years but people are still painting and creating unique and expressive work.”
GJ: “Photography too, which is a good parallel to electronic music. Everyone’s a photographer now, but there are still truly great images that stand out.”
By the mid-‘90s you’d developed Sunroof as a remix project…
GJ: “I particularly remember doing a wonderful remix for the Can track Oh Yeah, which appeared on their Sacrilege remix album. We were invited to do a number of others for Pizzicato Five and Kreidler, which were largely to do with Daniel’s profile at the time. I moved back from Berlin in the early ’90s and Daniel was setting up his home studio. Over many weekends I’d help out, muck around with his synths and gradually turn it into a more integrated and coherent setup. Part of that process was doing a bit of tech work and part of it was doing a series of extended jam sessions the length of an ADAT tape.”
Why didn’t you release anything?
GJ: “We didn’t think the tracks were releasable because they were too long and rambling and we never quite got the motivation to edit them down into bite-sized pieces. I guess we were both very busy in our day jobs.”
DM: “The jams that we did in those days ended up on SoundCloud much, much later on. We didn’t promote them; they’re just there if anyone finds them, so I wouldn’t call them a release really.”
Was Electronic Music Improvisations Volume 1 a result of previous recordings or did you want to start with a completely clean slate?
GJ: “We literally started with a clean slate because one of the things we did was to meet up with our portable modular cases with nothing patched up. One of our rules was that we wouldn’t prepare, although I guess we’d already had 40 years preparation of making music together.”
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