For our latest artist spotlight, we speak with Hull-based electronic artist Counting To Zero (Mark Jones) about his ideas, inspirations and plans for the future alongside Humberside’s music scene, Crystal Castles and… his software.
“The music I make creates an absence of feeling”
S] Where does the inspiration for your music come from?
c2z] “The style is best described as synth-punk; punk attitudes with guitars replaced by synthesizers. With the music being largely instrumental, it conveys a feeling; like travel, need for change, indescribable passion. All art is open to interpretation but I’d like to think the sound forms I create carry the feeling, or perhaps the absence of feeling I had at the time of their creation. I like the Psychic TV notion of creating new tribal forms, rituals, dances in worship of an absent creator. Whenever I dance to Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Closer’, for example, I feel like we’re all part of a consensual pagan act, something primeval, of the cave and like Genesis P. Orridge, I’m always trying to find ways to tap into that instinctive vibe.”
S] What about Counting To Zero – what’s in the name?
c2z] “The name came from a William Gibson novel, ‘Count Zero’. The book was at once his most profound and creative and impenetrable, weird art forms he somehow describes. I think the title was a character but it also referred to a computer process, count zero interrupt. I like the idea that if a computer is given no other information and told to ‘count to zero’ it’ll just be stuck there, frozen in motion trying to perform an impossible task, which is something I’m sure we can all relate to.”
S] We hear you have links to Crystal Castles – how did that come about, and what do they think of your sound?
c2z] “Crystal Castles is the only act I find genuinely exciting and dangerous at the moment, even if you forget Alice Glass spending half the show in the audience. The music conveys such passion and raw bile, I don’t see anyone much making either side of that coin, let alone both in the same package. Around 18 months ago, I first got to grips with the Korg DS-10 software and came up with something I could really work with, the first couple of tracks I made with it, beyond sketches, were remixes from CC’s second album, ‘Baptism’ and ‘Doe Deer’.
I posted the ‘Baptism’ remix as a comment on their wall on MySpace a long time ago now, and waited for comment approval. I thought maybe their fans would like it and check my other stuff. It turned out they never approved the comment, but their manager inboxed me, saying he’d played it to the band and they liked it! Words cannot describe how much that alone spurred me on. It made me confident to write more and get it out there. Then I got a message saying they wanted to put Alice’s vocals on top and release it if I liked the results. They could have turned it into ‘Metal Machine Music’ [Lou Reed] for all I cared, I was just happy to be a part of the process.
For the longest time I thought it was just a pipe-dream because the track still hasn’t resurfaced. I emailed back a few months later saying I’d got them a gift to thank them for the inspiration and confidence they gave me, their manager Andy said ‘Sure, come along, how many you want on the guestlist?’ So I brought them a Nintendo DS each, with the Korg software on it. Luckily I had tickets so we went down and it looked like we weren’t on the list, it was all still a dream… then we checked back after Health played and we were on it! When I met Ethan after the show, he’d heard that someone had brought gifts and thanked me in advance. So I finally knew it was all real. Then one very hungover morning more recently, I checked my Facebook before I crashed out, and Ethan had asked me to take my track down from SoundCloud so they could do something with it. A collaborator of theirs confirmed they meant business so maybe it’s just timing? They’re always very tight-lipped so I didn’t get anything like a detailed analysis of my music, but I get a strong impression a version of that track will surface soon.”
S] Hull is not known for its electronic scene – is it actually any good?
c2z] “Is Hull electro any good, or electro in general? Maybe I’ve brought some of my thinly-veiled Sheffield roots to the Hull scene – I’ve lived in the city for over twenty years, but I think the scene is slowly gathering momentum. There’s a great deal of support from the local BBC Introducing team for example, who’ve been playing our electro stuff a lot over at least the past year; not to mention a desire in the local promoters to put on shows of something different to the usual singer-songwriter stuff.
I think the price of technology helps as we’re all major gear-freaks and that can inform a practice on its own. But I have to say, acts like Mr Beasley coming back from touring with mainstream Swedish pop act Robyn and also Endoflevelbaddie getting festival gigs and recognition outside of the area show, that Hull does have something to offer in this genre and all sub-genres beneath it. Those two acts were a major inspiration to me, to defect from the standard alt-rock, singer-songwriter guitar-based stuff and do something new and exciting and I think the scene as a whole is very supportive and we can see that if they can make it, there’s more than hope for us! I moved away from guitars and writing in more conventional genres because it’s such a vast ocean and to get to be even a drop in it can be back-breaking.”
S] Name some other bands and artists from the area that people should check out?
c2z] “Mr. Beasley and Endoflevelbaddie are obviously high-end locals but I’d be remiss if I didn’t big-up the rising chipstep scene I see from acts like Cyb3rnator in Goole and Preyfour in Cleethorpes. I can see big things happening for those guys. Not to mention Proxies (also from Goole) getting produced by Pendulum, they’re going to be huge. There’s something about how boring Goole is that makes exciting bands like Proxies and Sulu Babylon happen; it’s a really supportive and interesting scene, much to my surprise. I’d also like to mention CrimeKillz are ‘GameBoy punks’ from Tucson Arizona whom I’ve had the pleasure to collaborate with, it’s like serious chiptune-punk run by an aggressive yet delicate and deeply poetic Ian Curtis. Watch this space.”
S] At the moment your live show seems to be very stripped down – do you plan on getting a band together to enhance the live experience?
c2z] “At the moment, it’s just myself, a DS and a MicroKorg. I’m quite capable of doing vocals myself but I’d rather focus on the music and wait ‘til the right vocalist comes along to take some of the attention away from me so I can really focus. I toyed with the idea of live drums but for the time being, I like the simple, reliable setup. The only time the DS crashes is touch wood, when I’m writing so I learned to save every few minutes and almost never get let down onstage, one reason why I’m trying to stay away from using a laptop onstage because it sucks to have something so precarious as a vital part of the setup. Having said that, I do intend to eventually phase in some genuine C-64 to the mix and the writing experience but that’s a way off yet. Unfortunately, the only way to appease the chiptune community is to become one of them for real. As far as the live experience goes, I’d like to add more strobe lights and a smoke machine, if only to make my performance more interesting, let alone the visual effects for the audience.”
S] Come up with a Frankenstein’s monster for c2z – so, the arm of Crystal Castles, the leg of Aphex Twin etc…
c2z] Tough question. I love my idols so much, I wouldn’t want to break them down. I’d have to say, the eyes of the Aphex Twin, the ears of Ethan Kath, the body and energy of Alice Glass. Probably the hands of DJ Craze and the legs of Farris Rotter from The Horrors [laughs], and Skrillex’s hair and glasses. Just for giggles.”
S] What are your biggest challenges when playing live?
c2z] “The hardest part is taking songs that have already been composed and making them a little more interesting whilst keeping it simple. Writing live parts into the performance and pulling them off with a tiny touchscreen that looks largely the same regardless. I suppose I probably started to miss the geographical comfort blanket of a fretboard so I got a MicroKorg, but that presents the challenge of confidently playing live basslines and melodies when I’m not a trained keyboard player or pianist. Far from it – seems to work well on the night though. It also seems a shame to be making what I consider to be dance music when the audience seldom has much point of reference in music so don’t know when to dance. Hence, why I have to somehow keep the enthusiasm up whilst remaining detached.”
S] Is there a piece of work/song you are most proud of?
c2z] I was proud that Public Likes Pills, finally got back in touch as I have a great admiration for them and initially proud then amazed with the results when Nate from CrimeKillz personally got in touch and requested music for him to lay vocals on. I can’t believe the lyrics and how they fit with my music. It’s on SoundCloud – still instrumental as it’s still in construction – as ‘Can’t Help’. The track I’m most proud of is my remix of Proxies’ ‘Penny To My Name’. I could tell there was a ‘buzz’ around them when and I got in touch about making a remix. They’re still quite new so there wasn’t any recordings online and the guy I spoke to didn’t mention anything about remixing them, but he did send me a private link to the YouTube video for the single, produced by one of the members of Pendulum. I immediately and quite sneakily copied the web address into an online YouTube download site and soon had the track in my possession. Within five hours or so of hard graft, I’d torn it a new one and produced what I can only describe as Japan meets dubstep. It’s hard enough to work with stems (remix samples) but to restructure from scratch a track that basically didn’t even exist was quite a special feeling.”
S] Talk us through your writing and creative process?
c2z] “I usually have a shape in my head, maybe colours, it can be quite synaesthetic. So I take that idea to the DS and capture it as quickly as I can. I’ll then construct and deconstruct, making synth sounds and drum sounds almost from scratch; the way the synths evolve can really shape the track but the main challenge is to upload the idea from my mind and begin to sculpt it. Remixing and collaborations are awesome fun but that can work quite differently, for obvious reasons; but I like the KLF idea of having a solid ‘groove’ or ‘vibe’ to the tune so it helps to start there, build the track around a bass-line and drum sequence then try to inject a melody that compliments that groove. I’ll play around with these ideas for a few hours until my ears are bleeding then give it the professional treatment: walk away. It might be a few minutes, days, or even weeks from there. The only way to make something as minimal and bare as possible is to come back to it and strip away at it.
Road-testing new material at gigs always helps ‘cause I can see what the tune might be lacking, what might make it more performable onstage. There’s always that battle of wills between recording and live performance and I’ve learned from experience that, aside from pushing myself to work harder all the time, it always helps to do nothing in the studio that can’t be performed on-stage and that informs the writing process immensely. Another reason why remixing is a different art altogether.
S] What are your goals for 2012?
c2z] “2011 was good to me, musically at least. I made some great connections, played some awesome gigs and managed to quite quickly gather momentum as an artist. I’d like to build on that and certainly don’t want to have to re-build the momentum. Already this year, I’ve got gigs booked, remixed an act from France who I have great respect for, been interviewed by radio again and now this interview. It feels like the year hasn’t even begun yet proper and already the momentum’s building. I want to make a living from this, and gain respect from my audience, friends and family alike; to show the supporters they were right and to prove myself to those that doubted me. I intend to tour outside of this town and outside of the country, even if I have to pay for it myself. I reckon I’m at a place now where I know my music is worthy of being heard, so I don’t plan on wasting that energy and belief. In 2012 there will be more gigs, proper recordings, radio appearances and festival gigs, label interest… it’s all in my sights, I just have to run with it.”
For more information visit the official Counting To Zero Facebook page.