Functions Of The Now IX: Sharp Veins

After a long hiatus Functions Of The Now returns with someone who has been bubbling up with some of the most idiosyncratic soundcloud transmissions to come from the nebulous grime-ish scene we’ve been covering. Described by Mixmag’s Seb Wheeler as “Hieroglyphic Being mak[ing] grime”, Sharp Veins (formerly known as William Skeng) has hit a purple patch since his name change, augmenting asymmetric grime beats with fragmented sampling trickery that utilises sound sources as diverse as Grouper and JRPG soundtracks as raw material. Choosing to forego the tropes that have come to dominate modern grime, Sharp Veins instead taps into the sonic novelty of the ’02-’05 era to draw surprising connections between Bow E3 and purely textural noise & drone excursions. Similar territory has been traversed by the likes of Logos and most recently Moleskin on his Satis House EP but in this case the direction of travel is reversed: where those producers stretched out the sound palette of grime into Oneohtrix-esque ambience, Sharp Veins instead carves strangely organic grime instrumentals out of variety of unusual sources.

Suitably, Sharp Veins’ addition to the mix series is utterly unlike any other we’ve had to date, eschewing the dance floor entirely for a 45 minute introspective journey down the rabbit hole of his non-grime influences. Taking in classic ambient in the form of Gas, key influence William Basinski and some of his own noisier productions, Sharp Veins gives a hint at the building blocks involved in the construction of his unique instrumentals.

It’s been a while since we last spoke so there is, suitably, a lot of ground to cover in our recommendations. Over the period there have been some big steps towards the Now as the entropic forces of online culture take a hold on grime, dissipating its already flexible boundaries. The crystalline digital space and unhinged structure of OPN and M.E.S.H. filter back through the Soundcloud-industrial complex, the results evident in this edition of FOTN as well as Sentinel and Al Tariq’s destructive ‘Nothjng js at Rest’, which sonically tracks the atrophying desire for acceleration built into our network and narrative. Pedal to the metal :) To this end, Amnesia Scanner’s AS Live, Faithful and _______V can also be seen tearing at the walls. Elsewhere, in more strictly grimey territory, we’ve been feeling Alex Compton’s reinvigorated, devastating square waves, Ursula’s lush collages and, of course, Weightless Vol. 1, which develops a devilish floatation tank in which the second wave might exist. Oh, and definitely don’t sleep on previous contributor Jacques Gaspard Biberkopf’s free collection, a truly amazing Body of work.

Taking advantage of our mutual relocation to London we met up with Sharp Veins in the back of a Dalston bar to discuss joining the dots between noise and grime, learning to let go of square waves and the move from a New York suburb to the birthplace of grime.

Hey Sharp Veins! How’re you finding London? “I’ve been here for about 3 or 4 weeks, I’ve lost track of time since I arrived.. Just about a month. I love it here so much, it’s such an awesome city.”

Have you managed to link up with any of the grime guys over here yet? “I went to NTS the other day and met Tom Lea from Local Action and Finn briefly: they’re super nice dudes. But I haven’t met too many other guys, it’s mainly still email correspondence. I’m kinda awkward with the whole talking online and meeting up in real life, I find it difficult to do. Once you just discern you’re both into a couple of the same things you can at least enthusiastically talk about those few things though.”

How were things back in America, was there much of a scene for this kind of thing?  “I think grime is getting increased exposure. A lot of my friends are into it, and it’s easy to imagine this scene getting transported there slowly but surely, but in general I don’t think people quite get it. A lot of Americans – myself included – thought they got it but it seems like an intrinsically British thing for sure.” What’s been interesting in doing this series has been people from outside the UK who really nail it though. Strict Face for example, he did the first edition and he sounds so authentic.  “Yeah, and he has his own set of influences that have taken things in a different direction.” It’s almost like he’s taken the idea of the devil mix and combined it with Japanese ambient. It’s similar in a way to what you’re doing taking samples from noise/drone: even though sonically you wouldn’t necessarily put them together, grime does have abstract qualities akin to both. “Definitely. Like the entire ethos behind the devil mixes, I find that very inspiring as well. It’s possibly another cliche and something that other Americans would say listening to the Keysound track and hearing Logos and thinking ‘I’m gonna make something that floats like that’. But y’know, trying to do it in a different way I suppose – to put the idea in a new light. Like my track Abalone Barrels for example. When I was making that I was thinking of it in a strange way as a weird devil mix 8 bar tune – it didn’t sound like that when it came out of the other end but like that’s how I was imagining it at the time. I think a lot of people have been trying to use grime principles in a strange way.”

Perhaps that’s the the best way forward for people who haven’t been embedded in it – geographically or whatever – for years and years, to just run with one strange element of it. One thing that came to mind from your mix was the this underlying thread of sonic experimentation, and that’s quite an interesting thing from grime that not a lot of people are picking up on right now. A lot of the interesting guys from back in the day, like Hindzy D or the Black Ops crew, they used all these really weird fucked up sounds that are all distorted in bizarre ways – they’re exremely unusual sonically and that makes them interesting – you have no idea where they possibly got the sounds from. Does this kind of thing feed into your music? “Recently I’ve actually been listening to too much drone stuff and in a way it’s like- I’ve got stuck. So I’ve been trying to listen to older grime sets because even if I don’t make stuff that’s directly grime anymore or trying to be grime, I still very much consider it to be an inspirational genre. There’s so much to take from it: the sounds, the way the rhythms attack you and stuff like that. What you said about the strange sound effects and atonal elements, yeah I love that. I’ve been listening to Logan Sama’s last Rinse FM set on repeat for the past week or so and there are so many fucked tunes on there that are also sat next to the better mixed down Terror Danjah type tracks, it’s a weird little intersection.  You listen to his tracks on old radio rips back then and when it comes in it’s like someone changes the actual bitrate. All of that stuff though, when you listen to it now it still sounds great: it’s really impressive to have music that has a quality that lasts this long. Just I suppose in a time when things change so quickly.”

A lot of the old grime stuff – to me it’s the best music of all time, hence the series – but so much of it rode on character more than anything. There’s some tunes that sort of sound atrocious in one sense but in every other sense it’s the most amazing music of all time. “That’s absolutely half the appeal. Even if it’s just a really gaudy melody, something that’s really garish sounding that should never work. Or only rhythmic elements that are just disgusting, just really ugly sounding hits. There’s so many aspects that might be considered “bad taste” in other genres but in grime it works perfectly. Until you sit down and try and replicate that and make something of your own you have no idea how taut those productions were. It’s just immediate, it’s so simple, but you also can’t sit down with the programs people are using now try and do something like that and have it sound as good as it did back then.”

A lot of the beauty of those tracks come from the software they were using back then. When you try and throw all that into the latest version of Ableton it all sounds a bit…clean. “Way too clean. I love Ableton but I almost wish I’d started with a program that was more limiting.  Especially when you’re first starting out it’s imposing how many options there are and then once you get a basic understanding you feel like you’re not using it correctly because there’s so much to exploit. It’s nice to be able to turn off all the other functions sometimes and just go with just a very clean basic set up. It’s been said a million times but if you start out with some basic limitations about what you can do or are allowed to do, it’s often a serious boon to your creativity.”

Living in the US, what was your route into grime? “Dizzee was my first real introduction to grime, I remember my Mom got me this book of 1000 albums to listen to before you die and “Boy In Da Corner” was one of them. It didn’t describe it very well- I don’t think they even called it grime – but because they couldn’t articulate what it sounded like I was interested. I read more on it and when I listened to the album imagining this young kid making those beats after school or something it’s so inspiring.” And all the instrumentals he was making before the album were so great. One aspect of that time I’d love to come back a bit is these whole lineages of tunes created from the same samples. Yeah I was listening to this old set of Danny Weed B2B Jammer and the amount of times different versions of “Hoe” got played I was like: are you kidding me, I had no idea there were that many floating about. And god knows how many are lost now. It’s such a romantic idea in a strange way, a hard drive dying and you lose some of the best tunes that you forgot you made. There’s something strangely nice about that idea. And what a strange time to be listening to music it must’ve been, spending 30 minutes to download one guy’s 128kbps rip of some producer’s track.

It’s what I think’s interesting about the music you make, since you use a lot of this lo-fidelity sampling. With a lot of that grime stuff the only way you can hear it is as these continuously re-encoded rips that you pick up in some “500 grime instrumentals” pack and they’re only 96kbps. I think that’s a nice, non-obvious connection between the old grime stuff and what you’re doing now. “That’s probably coming from the fact that at the same time I was listening to Dizzee and Wiley I was also picking up on stuff like Stars Of The Lid and William Basinski. And Tim Hecker for that matter. There was a time in my life I listened to nothing but that and a ton of post rock and post metal. I think, especially with William Basinski, a piece of music being defined by the degradation process – I really love that idea. You can find it to a smaller degree in old grime rips and old Memphis hip hop tape rips. A lot of those, they sound like absolute shit but it lends them the mystical quality. Perhaps when the person bought the tape and they were listening to it in their car it sounded alright but now that we have it it’s been passed down through hands for a long time it just sounds like it was recorded in a dingy basement somewhere. I’m quite into that, I really like that idea and that’s something that I wanted to put into my music because I’m not very good at making things sound really clean. So I decided to go in the opposite direction.

On that note there’s some other interesting things with your tracks, particularly “Did U Think”. I love the intro where you make it sound like the track’s buffering, was it intentional? “To be honest, it sounds a lot like that and a lot of people have mentioned it but, to me, that was like a strange rhythmic thing that, when I removed the drums, it sounded arhythmic but I had a balanced version in my head of what it was supposed to sound like. I think perhaps as a consequence of spending too much time on the internet it did invade a little bit. But that was not intentional. I thought about the idea of corrupting mp3s but haven’t got round to it yet, at the moment it’s just making things sound like they’re stuttering or glitched up. I like stuff that sounds that sounds like heavily programmed glitches, the clicks individually set on the screen, but I like it more when it sounds coiled up, like it’s bouncing around in a can- at least that’s how I visualise it a lot of the time.”

Have you managed to bring much gear over? Or are you all in the box anyway? “The one thing I have outside is this really shitty tape recorder made for dictation. It records things faithfully but distorts the hell out of it, so I use that with field recordings on tracks sometimes. That’s about it though, nothing else at all. I tried using stuff outside my computer but it feels strangely unnatural.” It’s funny because there’s something I’ve noticed about your tracks: they’ve got a very organic feel to them. It doesn’t at all sound like a guy with the plugsounds samples and Ableton square waves. “That’s what’s really allowed me to advance in the past year, because before I was really trying to make what was – at least in my own mind – pretty derivative square wave bass grime. Some of it’s OK but there are guys who are doing that perfectly well already and I had this whole other set of influences that I hadn’t yet exploited. So I decided to go all out with the naturalistic, weird sounding stuff. Textural – I’ve been all about the texture this last summer. I went off on this tangent where I’ve been making things that are really really noisy and I’m not even sure if I really like it. But that’s kinda where I’ve been going recently, something I’m trying to explore. I don’t really have a heritage in noise music or anything like that – actually none to speak of whatsoever. It’s just that with the samples I’ve been using when I try to manipulate them that’s what has been coming out. I’m just kinda letting it see where it leads me. Still, I really appreciate the support of the people in the grime scene. When I began to make these things that were kinda shifting away for the most part I thought surely I’d lose their support and they’d think “this guy was a scene hopper or bandwagon jumper”. It’s been amazing the reaction I’ve gotten making stuff I actually want to make and accurately reflects what I’ve been listening to.

Besides the artists featured in your mix, what are the key influences behind what you’re doing at the moment? “The guy that I think is head and shoulders above anybody else in terms of influencing me is probably Tim Hecker. The amount I’ve listened to Harmony In Ultraviolet is kind of obscene. It’s a constant of sorts. I have so much respect for his stuff. The way there’s so much texture that it’s almost rhythmic but you can’t quite discern a beat in it, I love that. With a lot of my stuff I try to emulate him, but I’m not working in a mad scientist lab like him so I can’t quite do it. I’ve heard him talk about “emotional ambiguity” in his music: you feel something from it but you’re not quite sure what it is that it’s telling you to feel. I can’t quite do that – I usually go for quite sad sounding stuff, I’m a sucker for that, I can’t help it.

Now that you’re here, what do you have lined up? “I’ve had a few people hit me up and try and collaborate and I need to at some point. I’ve got something in the works with Kakarot that we need to finish up. Tarquin, he wants to do something, that would sound so fucked up whatever we managed to do. I need to get out to some people’s studios because all I’ve got are headphones and it’s a pretty difficult job to produce just like that.  I’ve had a couple of labels express an interest in my tracks and I have something in the works for Glacial Sound- all unheard, new stuff. We’re just about finished and hopefully it should be out by the end of the year. I’m excited as hell about that. At the very beginning of the summer I sent Paul some of my stuff and that was the first tracks that were moving away from the sound I’d be mining at the beginning of the year and I was like “he’s not gonna fuck with any of this” and he hit me up pretty soon after saying that they were great, and that gave me the confidence to start making some really weird shit. The pedigree of that label is amazing with Rabit’s work, their white labels and now the Riko Dan vocal.

I might have some stuff in the works with Boody, the guy who produced for Leif. He hit me up the other day and I sent him over some stems. Looking forward to that.  But primarily  it’s the Glacial Sound stuff; I’m trying to work on something that could end up as a vocal track for them. I’ve been having the hardest time putting together songs in that medium though, all I’ve been able to put together is pretty abrasive noisy stuff that doesn’t really have a discernible beat. So I’ve got to get back to a point where I can actually have some regular drums on there.” Well back in the day that worked pretty well sometimes too. “I’ve been trying when I open a project to make something in that vein, but when it comes to the drums I either can’t do it or it just gets really crazy really fast.” You could always just go the devil mix route. “Haha that’s what I’ve been thinking: just get a single melody, a bass and a single vocal sample and some delay and just say fuck it, somebody complete it for me with their own voice.”

With grime clubbing in rude health in London for the first time in a while, do you think you’ll start to play out here at all? “I got some CDJs and a mixer for real cheap in the US but I haven’t managed to bring them across here. I like DJing but I don’t particularly want to spend a lot of time learning it and I don’t think that if I was in a club I would actually put on that interesting of a set. It would be great every now and then to go out and do it but I lack the ability and I recently I don’t want to play tracks in a club that much. I enjoy going personally, but just occasionally to get out, that kind of impulse. I enjoy using Ableton to make sets and things like that but it’s taken a backseat to just making music. DJing is something on the side that I might eventually get to. I actually much prefer putting together beatless things like in this mix and my Liminal Sounds mix. Doing that with club tracks on Ableton feels too much like you’re trying to emulate CDJs and you lose the energy. Throwing tempo out of the window and smashing things together is a lot more intuitive and you get a lot more interesting effects out of it – weird phasing melodies and things like that. But yeah, people have been asking about it: Tom from Local Action has been in touch and Paul from Glacial Sound wants to do something with Shriekin at some point. It would be sick but I don’t even have my gear here and I’m also intimidated by the club. In front of people I don’t know very well, even a small crowd, it gets very imposing and intimidating to me very quickly so there’s also that. It would be good experience, I hope at some point I just bite the bullet and do it. This would probably be the best place to do it. At home I’m about 4hrs from NYC and even there they’re not really into anything I’d like to do.”

Given that you’ve been christened the Hieroglyphic Being of grime you could always just do what he does and dip in and out of conventional dance music while playing all this great drone stuff. “I do think it’s really cool where somebody goes from ambient things to something made for the club then back out again, it makes things really tense and strange. It’s not always the most danceable thing at all, but fuck that to be honest.”

Artwork: Joe Jackson


Sharp Veins – Sleepy in a Fire Blanket
Dan Gibson – Among the Giant Trees of the Wild Pacific Coast
Robert Turman – Flux III
La Monte Young – Oceans
Lee Gamble – Girl Drop
Iglew – Urban Myth
Steve Roach – Reflections in Suspension
Oscar McClure – Seaweed
Autechre – Notwo
Gas – Königsforst III
Sharp Veins – The Old Lie (Changes)
Grouper – Poison Tree
Jana Winderen – Isolation/Measurement
Lichens – Faeries
Actress – Rap
William Basinski – d|p 4

Simon Docherty