Friday, 22 July 2016

Joop // Owen Rafferty

Some things get lost in the midst of time, some things get lost in the midst of suburbia.  You lose your bearings, forget the sequence, unremarkable things merge in to each other in the memory and steps are no longer clear, orders, methodical or mapped.  Things which don’t seem important at the time can only be invested while anonymous routes can still lead to exciting destinations.

Owen seems to occupy a unique position in the local theatre community, involved as sound designer and operator on a large number of the most high-profile independent companies in their most prestigious projects and yet always a sense of independence; the scene in no way revolves around his work despite him being a common thread that connects some of the most interesting and successful recent work, from 24:7 projects including Away From Home, long-standing relationships with Black Toffee and Square Peg, and work that has been taken internationally with House of Orphans.  His work would be seen as integral to the success of all these shows, and yet he’d not viewed – and doesn’t view himself – as any sort of lynchpin.  How he has made his way to this position is instructive, and how he works with each company is illuminating.

Owen largely puts his progression down to word-of-mouth.  Since finishing his studies at SSR four years ago his work on one project will often lead to those involved, or those who experience his work, calling on him for future projects.  One strong reason why Owen’s position may not be as visible on the scene is down to the way he will tackle each of those approaches; he doesn’t appear to have a signature style but while he will bring his experience and tools to a discussion with the director and an analysis of the script, he does consider that he adds something subtle and unique.  He studied sound at SSR where it was the post-production elements that caught his attention.  “That’s what I enjoyed most, it’s a really good background, you focus on the technical skills, this is how you’ll use this, learn the fuck out of that technical stuff first – then you are free to be creative with it.”  It’s given him a breadth of ability that companies find invaluable.

“Early on, I’ll want to get a general feel for a show, whether it has high production values or is quite minimal, in early discussion.”  These might well just be email exchanges, and doesn’t only set up the style of the piece but how he’ll work with the director.  “I don’t like to get too specific, or pin down the finer details, but get the woolier stuff right.  Recently, I’d already met the director, I’d set up a dropbox, threw in a couple of ideas and got feedback, but then I wanted, more generally, to know about the director’s taste in music and I put in some songs to suggest tone and he came back saying ‘Oh no we don’t want any songs.’”  But for Owen if wasn’t about any specific songs or creating a soundtrack, it was about a general feel, which all feeds through to the final piece.

To an outsider the sound designer’s position in the rehearsal process can seem disjointed from the main company, if only because of the different tasks that are required.  “With sound, you do need to go home and do the editing, so generally I’ll be there once at the readthrough, once a week until the last week when you’re in most days.”  And when he’s in the rehearsal room, “I’ll sit at the side with a notepad, ass odd questions.  Working with Square Peg they’ll bring me in, others I’ll wait till the end.  In the early days, I was less quiet, working in the fringe everyone’s chipping in, you get to know when you’re not being helpful.”  Owen gesticulates to emphasise how ridiculous his earlier default position would be when a rehearsal discussion reaches an impasse: “I know!  We could fix it with sound!  I’ll just put some music over the top!”

Although he understands now that sort of approach isn’t always helpful, and that as a sound designer that will always be his main way of tackling a problem that isn’t always appropriate, it’s clear he values those collaborations where he’s free to make those suggestions and they are accepted or dismissed on their own terms.  “It’s not imposing anything, ideas are just ideas, they’re not threatening.”  In that sense his way of working with Square Peg does fit with his style, while also being unlike his other working relationships.  “Yeah, it’s definitely unique.  They came to watch Hidden, they were friends with Laura Lindsay, they asked, they poached me.  What was nice was I was discovering myself, they were discovering as well.  By the time I was in they had the Waterside commission, and it was early in the process.  For them the devising process includes the sound.  We had the corridor ambience in the hospital, and live microphones we wanted to incorporate.  I’ll have prepared some scrappy drafts, 3 or 4 ideas, and in the rehearsal room test which ones work.  With physical theatre it’s very time-sensitive, matching sounds to movement, so you might have to go back to the drawing board.”  As for what Owen might be manipulating live “microphones are really the only thing.  They can be a nightmare, it’s very live, but it’s my favourite part of it.  Sometimes I’ll have a few sound pads, reverb, echo.”

Owen’s cat seems fairly interested in our conversation at this point, or it could be the meatballs and pasta Owen has ready for us when I arrive but which we wolfed down.  To contemplate that, from this small suburban cul-de-sac where the garden isn’t a wild-flower meadow but is simply overgrown, Betjeman’s Metroland now placeless with pattern-book architecture, can emerge the sounds of a World War Two sinking, a Martian space station, or a return to the beginning of consumerism of the 1950s; this is always strangely unsettling.

Out of the rehearsal room, much of Owen’s work will be done in front of a computer screen with headphones or his own stereo set-up.  It’s the antithesis of the hurly-burly of the rehearsal, the tech or the adventures of touring.  Taking a show into a space, especially when touring, “can be challenging, if the sound system is terrible, rickety, or there might be feedback issues.”  The first thing to do in a new space is to “play one of the songs, that way you get a fuller range of frequencies, and you tweak until it neutralises.  I remember Korova, it was a really tiny space, such a tiny space, and quite a bit of set, so the speakers ended up behind the set and I had to unmuffle them.  Sometimes limited space is a blessing; wherever they’ll fit, that’s where they’ll have to go.”  Most time lost with tech Owen says is when high expectations can’t be met so easily, so for one show Owen was presented with enough speakers and not enough amps and spent two days re-jigging and experimenting, “and we did manage to get the prop speaker by borrowing a hi-fi from our flat.  You do tend to fill whatever time you’ve got, limits are not always a bad thing.”

Owen has been lucky, a lot of his time devising with companies has been in the performance space, and he’s become used to knowing what the requirements of a space might be, from the shape of the room whether it will be harsh or brittle, or muddy.  All these words, it appears, have a specific meaning, and he talks me through the scale.  “Do you want me to get technical?”  He has to try to recall some of the specifics, where wavelengths aren’t a part of his everyday vocabulary “but for working with directors it’s great.  Instinctive.  It’s one of my favourite things, communicating like that.  Directors can be apologetic, ‘sorry I don’t know the technical term, but it sounds a bit boxy?’ but it makes sense.”  And Owen relishes the relationship that he can have using these descriptions.  “One director came to be and he wanted something really specific but he didn’t know how to tell me and in the end he just said it’s a sort of joop effect and I was like, got ya.”  It’s a crescendo, it’s the sound of space sucked into a vacuum, of the world being drawn to a freeze-frame.  It’s a sound we all know from our cultural reference points, a trope that we can all indentify, a piece of our contemporary vocabulary and best described by an onomatopoeic pursing of the lips.  The world of the sound designer.

Owen doesn’t hang back with his ideas in the rehearsal room.  “I’m pretty proactive communicating how sound can be used, I want to make it all tie up as much as possible.  The Man Who Woke Up Dead is a good example of that.  The character of Evelyn is under medication, and there’s a character who washes up on the shore, so you take out the frequencies apart from the very low and it makes it sound underwater, but also a bit like you’re on drugs.  When sound moves from one medium to another it loses a lot of energy, bass sounds have more energy so they’re able to cut through.”  It’s a detail in the explanation for a simple effect that we’re all used to hearing in television or film as a figure gets dunked into water and the sound-world is evoked from their point of view, and it resonates in the theatre unexpectedly.

“Music will depend on the show; for One Hand Clapping we needed fifties music and Lucia Cox picked.  For Roseacre I picked, from a playlist and songs I suggested.”  But music isn’t where it’s at for Owen.  “I’m much more interested generally in sound design, it can be more unexpected.”  Mixing it up is something Owen tried with a project we did together, Yawp, producing a show that was different each performance and that responded to random elements within the show.  “It was something I wanted to try.  It needed more prep time to figure out what worked and what doesn’t.  I’m a sleep-on-it guy, there’s been a few times when I’ve not been as prepared as I’d have liked and it’s affected the work, or it’s been unclear what the show is going to be till quite late.  It’s better to be over-prepared.  Nothing I’ve regretted creatively but it’s less stressful.”

“I’m careful who I work with, and I’ve been lucky to work with people who like to try ideas and push boundaries.  People who don’t see sound as an afterthought.  Some ideas have great potential, but in the end they get stripped down.”  It’s clear Owen finds this frustrating, whether it comes from a lack of resource or ability but especially when it seems to come from creative cowardice or a falling back on the safety net of convention.  Owen doesn’t often find himself in those preliminary discussions about creating a production, and although it does happen more now than it used to, the way sound is brought in on a production will radically affect how it is utilised.  “It really helps to be in at an early stage.  Otherwise it can just be incidental – okay – here they are in a park - park sound – fine - now they’re in a café - café sound” as he parks the production setting with the appropriate background ambience.  What he really likes to do is present to a team “this moment has this power” as he draws his fingers in to a singularity.  “How can we underpin that moment?”

I wonder whether he’d ever suggested changing or replacing a line, and he almost panics at the idea.  “I don’t know if I’d be brave enough to.”  I suspect he would be, but it would have to be the right place, the right production, more importantly the right collaborators.  There’s a great openness and lack of defensiveness to Owen’s approach.  He recalls a time he’d brought a sound to a production, “and the director just wasn’t digging it, there was something that needed to be brought out, and someone suggested something and then was like, oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to-  I mean, she wasn’t part of the production, and it was obvious she felt immediately like she shouldn’t have spoken, like she felt it wasn’t her place but I was, like, yeah, that’s it, it was really helpful, and I wasn’t sure but it set the ball rolling.  I like it when ideas can come from anywhere.  I got into it because of the teamwork.”  Or even, as in this case, outwith the team; ideas can come from anywhere, they can lead anywhere, and they can all be attended to.

There’s plenty of work in the pipeline to keep Owen occupied.  He’s off to Edinburgh, and with shows lined up into the autumn.  But creatively?  “I’m bored of drones for a start.  It’s an easy way, to get tense atmosphere with a drone.  I’m looking for other ways to do simple things.”  He has a sound from the recent Square Peg show Roseacre that he picks apart, with loops and rhythm; “and I’ve got into drums as well.”  And so we start to discuss our own possibilities for collaboration [conversation redacted], and his cat returns for some attention, and the wild flower meadow garden draws the eye and the evening draws in.

conversation with Owen Rafferty took place at in his back garden in Withington on Friday 8th July 2016 from 6:30pm // @soundowen  //

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

A Man of Style // Darren Riley

I arrive at Darren’s end terrace three minutes early and still angry.  So is Darren, though he’s bounded to the door with panache.  He expected a flaneur such as myself to have no trouble finding the place and he’s prepared with that assumption, less of the dandy cravat, disappointingly no artist smock or beret; instead practical walking shoes and a smartly pressed mod shirt.  We don’t stop for a brew but head off uphill to Bob’s Smithy, small talk on the way, interview at the pub.  Small-talk consists less of gossip on the mores of family and friends and more on the Brexit aftermath, and we’re not so much angry at the result as the incompetence and duplicity that took us to the vote and shows no sign of abating.

Darren’s obsession with photography came out of holiday snaps, from taking a point and shoot digital camera to European cities where he found lots he wants to capture and thinking of treating himself to a SLR before “in a museum shop in Munich, I saw a lomography camera, loved the idea, it sounded fun, I could use it as a creative tool, I could be experimental.  The digital SLR idea went out the window and I bought a lo-fi plastic camera.  We were then stranded in the airport after the Icelandic volcano, so I ran around taking pictures which turned out to be abstract shapes and colours because I’d taken the pictures with the long-mode exposure by keeping the button pressed down.  Rather than seeing them as mistakes, it was almost like I painted, and I was down the rabbit-hole.”

From the picnic table outside the pub, Manchester stretches out beyond us.  We wonder if it’s lost its way, the destruction of history, the bland conformity of the building.  Darren surprises me with a sneaking admiration for the new office on St Peter’s Square.  He could see the Beetham Tower from the canteen of his old employers, never sure of what it was.  We wonder how the skyline will change with the new development.

Darren was never one for art theory.  He didn’t read much about photography apart from the occasional blog that he’d come across on technical aspects but not much else.  “I do live online.  There was a film photography podcast, it was just starting as I was starting, and it felt like I was growing with the podcast, learning with him.  That helped to fuel the obsession.”  His relationship to aspects like framing and proportion is much more instinctive than planned; “sometimes I’ll be thinking about them, yeah definitely, sometimes not at all.”  There’s another aspect, “because I’d been a musician, photography got me out of the house, reconnected with nature and countryside.  As a musician you never have to leave the house.  If you’ve got a camera, it forces you out of the house.”  Darren could never be one of those artists who works on the same single subject over and over.  “I get bored photographing one thing, I jump from thing to thing.”

Looking out over Scout Moor, Darren tells me I have to go and visit, how amazing it is.  The turbines are stark against the moorland.  “You don’t like them, do you?”  They intimidate me, I feel they could become animated and take to marching across the landscape oppressing everything in their path, and that’s what appeals to Darren.  “I’m very interested in – possibly the only concept I used in photography – I’m interested in what effect man has on the landscape.  Pylons in a landscape, or fences in a lot of my photographs, the ones I’d choose, for an exhibition say.  All lacking in people but evidence of people.  I did a series of stiles, that was a bit of an obsession.  Almost every walk with Becky she’ll point out, bit of rusty metal there Darren.”

“There’s always a story behind the things Darren picked as subjects, and they chimed with his interest in green issues, the extent to which we are destroying the planet and we’ll simply leave our own traces.  “My house may turn up in photos someone else takes in the future.”  A photo of a large concrete block on Winter Hill, which must have had a purpose once but now lost, “is an interest in the stuff that has been left behind, it was like a theme in my work, and actually my photography has declined since I realised that.  Now I’m much more discerning about what I photograph and because I can’t get that film developed until the roll is finished, I take less and less.”  And the pen took over.

“In 2012, I decided I’d draw a popstar a day.”  It lasted, it appears, three or four months before Darren started to feel confined by the format and the hour a day it was taking to draw the portraits.  But it made a few things clearer; “I realised it was okay to make mistakes.  Doing one every day, only in pen, having to share it online, freed me from errors.  In school, using pencil and erasing, I was a very slow artist.  Then in 2014, I love this because I can really remember, I follow Darren Hayman on Twitter, who was doing postcards and sending them to people, so I bought some watercolour paper for going on holiday and I went on Twitter and invited people, and sent one to Darren Hayman tweeting him that he’d inspired it.”

Every so often if you follow him you’ll notice Darren say he’s taking a break from Twitter.  What this generally results in is a few hours hiatus before something catches his attention or provokes him enough to re-engage.  His utilisation of social media is a masterclass and the results are evident.  Not to go overboard – he doesn’t have the clout of Stephen Fry, three random words wouldn’t get the tens of thousands of retweets a Justin Bieber would accrue.  He has, however, been able to make those connexions he does have really count.  That’s not to say he can’t be knocked by the vagaries of a medium which is exposing, especially to the worst of human nature.  One of his watercolours provoked a criticism that struck home; “it was not especially good and someone saw it and slagged it off and it really pissed me off.  The next morning Darren Hayman has posted my postcard to him, and someone complimented it, recognising the location, and it was Andy Miller.  Since then I’ve met him a few times.  He wrote a book, about when he lost his love of reading and he sent me a copy and everything he said was a reflection of my life.  I mean, it’s a common thing, our generation; but ultimately it inspired me, to become a part-time artist, to develop the talent I’ve got.”

By-the-by, the beer we’re drinking is called Guzzler; “how can you not choose a drink called that,” and I’ve not done an interview drinking alcohol before, and I’m starting to worry about my note-taking abilities.  But Darren has learnt that it’s okay to experiment and not worry about the results, and it seems to be something he’s learnt relatively recently.  “I always thought I was okay at school, but I didn’t know what to do with it.  I went on to Art and Design at Bolton Institute and was thrown in with a lot of people who were excellent, but the tutors were not enthusiastic.  One would just sit back at his desk reading Playboy.  I was doing graphic design and at the end of the first year I was put into 3D design, pottery and sculpture, when I wanted to draw, and it felt like I was being punished.  That was the year I became really good as a musician.  I stripped and built a bass that year, and I failed the year.”

Now it feels new, his artistic style is totally different, quickly worked up, much freer, more confident, happier to fuck things up.  “That’s come from my music.”  He uses techniques that he seems to have retained with memory, using pen and watercolour with which he was familiar from childhood, nearly all straight onto paper, and so when a mistake is made it’s captured as part of the process.  He started experimenting with acrylic about a year ago; “I love it, the difference is it dries pretty quickly.”  He used oil for the first time a couple of weeks ago.  “Can be messy.  Printers ink can be the same.”  When we talk about subjects, I ask about landscapes, and the sorts of subjects he captured with his camera, but the idea of getting the materials together to go out and do a landscape seems too much of a chore.  He doesn’t have a studio and works at home in the kitchen.  “I couldn’t justify a studio financially. I just about cover the costs of materials, and I don’t know how I’d work.  I do have distractions at home.”

He reflects that he’s been struggling in terms of subjects for painting.  Most of his heroes are musical, so there’s a lot of popstars, and he tends to be drawn to black figures, with no idea why.  A current series of album covers are almost like a commission, but a self-commission.  He is alert to the commercial viability of his work, mostly, although it’s still important to recognise when a subject demands attention. His recent portrait of John Lewis is one case; “I was driven to paint him.  His inspiring speech, his history in the civil rights movement, he’s well used to sit-ins.”  It seems to be a corrective to the nasty stuff of British politics.  “But generally, someone might like to buy it, maybe.  That’s a reason for the pop stars for sure.”  He takes a high-end digital image of everything he produces, everything is available for reproduction.  “The worry is that’s what’s driving my art.”

Darren despaired a little at the range of galleries in Manchester, compared to London.  My take was slightly different, and especially when you consider that London might cover the whole of Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse if only we had a comparable transport network.  Darren regularly visits the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, but has no inclination to produce 3D work.  “I love walking round the sculpture park but have no interest in making that work, I’m not driven, I’m not critical of most of it – there’s one piece,” he rolls his eyes in exasperation, “it’s just some steps, like what Bolton Council would put in – otherwise I’m just that’s nice, that’s nice, that’s nice, that’s nice, that’s nice.”  His visit to the Francis Bacon currently on in Liverpool genuinely excited him, to see the physical work in real life, where he was *almost* tempted to buy a Francis Bacon t-shirt.  “But it means more.  Like when you see Cy Twombly in a book and you think ‘what?!?’  Then you stand on front of one, and you see this is made for a massive wall.  I’m still a beginner.”

There’s a slight sense that Darren is daunted when he says that which quickly passes.  That’s not what he seeks to emulate and instead he has a cultivated naïveté in his approach to producing art.  As a musician he was driven to make the sounds no one else was making and if he’d loved everything he’d heard he wouldn’t have made music at all.  While he claims to know very little about the art world, he has been exploring, being inspired by the things people are pointing him to.  It’s not the final product that drives him, but again and again it’s process.  There’s the instant quality to working that appeals.  He says everything about a particular piece would be unplanned and capricious, from subject, materials, medium, although he always incorporates drawing and enjoys having a signature drawing style.  “I’d like to try and get my painting to go the same way, to draw with paint rather than colour things in.”

While he loves drawing people, something malleable, Darren is working to get his figurative painting slightly more abstract, and the same for his photography.  “I always said I didn’t want a record of a split second in time but a memory, fuzzy.”  This is the reason why his recent sequence of album covers are deliberately blurred.  “What’s the point of painting what you see?  I hate that hyper-realistic style; it’s like a twenty minute prog song, it’s just showing off.  I want my painting to be visceral. Like Francis Bacon.  And – can I say this? – Rolf Harris.  I still remember how he’d make those huge pictures, I loved that physicality.”  Size is a bit of an issue, and while he’d like to go larger and doesn’t see himself as a miniaturist, there are logistical constraints.  Alongside that, he’s building a portfolio, selling online, printing up copies and thinking of how to approach galleries.  He’s been frustrated  by their insistence on a concept when for Darren process is the point, and he claims that once it’s made it’s forgotten.  “One of the reasons I post is to encourage.  I’m convinced everyone can draw;” I shake my head while he continues, “and everyone shakes their heads like that.  More so than music, and possibly writing, visual art is the easiest to get in to.  As long as you’re doing it and enjoying it.”

Darren is on a journey with his art, and for as long as he doesn’t feel he’s reached a destination he’ll be exploring an experimenting.  He considers himself a learner, a student, and finds it amusing that lots of people following him on social media might only know him as an artist.  In realising he had a theme in his photography obsession, he found himself at a destination and he disembarked.  He was quickly, instantaneously on to another journey and his lesson is that is almost doesn’t matter about the direction.  “The minute you stop caring is the minute you start working; fear of failure is such a killer, the worry of getting everything wrong.  As human beings worry is what we do but fucking up isn’t possible.”  He laughs – he’s spent a lot of this interview laughing – while he teases me with a line that he’s chuffed he can finally get quoted.  “One shit drawing is shit.  One hundred shit drawings is a style.”  One thing is certain about Darren, he’s a man of style.

conversation with Darren Riley took place at Bob's Smithy on Sunday 26th June 2016 from 11:30am // @panchoballard  //  Stuff Darren draws can be found at