Interview: Minor Science

Minor Science is an alias of Angus Finlayson, initially known as a music writer for sites such as Resident Advisor before surprising many with the release of his debut 12″ as Minor Science on Will Bankhead’s The Trilogy Tapes in 2014. An impressive, intriguing five-tracker, it showed a willingness to explore unexpected terrain in the techno sphere. A year later he released Whities 004 on the then-nascent label helmed by Nic Tasker. That led to a fruitful partnership which saw the release of three 12″s and a tape (an ambient mix that followed his sublime entry to the Blowing Up The Workshop series) over the two years that followed. It’s been radio silence since late 2017, however, so it was with great excitement that we learned of his new album, Second Language. As an Englishman living in Berlin – one who has spent much of his working life with words – that title was never going to be an accident. We spoke to him about the album and its origins, his career across music and writing, and the science fiction influence on his own work.

How are you? “Yeah, I’m good. I mean, you know the main bit of news about me, which is that I spent ages making an album, which is why we’re here.” We’ll get into the specifics of that. “That’s been sort of my life for the last year, 18 months.” Do you want to start there? “Yeah, sure.”

Okay. So you worked on this for year and a half? Are these tracks that you’ve had, and you put them together? Or did you sit down and make an album? “It was pretty much from scratch. I mean, a lot of them built off of sketches from a while ago, some of them as old as like 2014, 2013. But they were either very embryonic, or they were completely different things that I tried to make and then got stuck. So whilst they had that source material for a fair few of the tracks, (maybe half of them came from that,) it still felt like producing from scratch, because what was there was really just the absolute core of an idea, you know? So I drafted the first track in, I think November 2018. And then just went through from track to track. So it was a fairly long and involved process. It wasn’t just a case of pulling together things that I had lying around. I mean, I’ve basically never had tracks lying around. That’s been part of my problem; I’ve always been very poor at finishing things.”

Okay. So it’s like you make tracks, and they get released and you don’t have any extras lying around. “Yeah, that’s been the case. Until now, having done the album, there’s a couple of things that didn’t make it on there that maybe I could just slightly tweak and release in a different form. That’s a luxurious position that I’ve never been in before.”

One thing I noticed, and I hope you don’t mind me saying this, is that there seems to be a Minor Science sound. “Interesting. Okay, I think that’s good.” There were certain elements of certain tracks – the two tracks that I previously would have thought particularly had this sound would be the Cosmin TRG remix and “Volumes”. And the way I kind of describe it is: it’s like a bang, followed by a crescendo and then a stop. Does that make sense? There is very much a sort of drop down to nothing at the end of the bar, and then it starts again, and I’ve really noticed that on “Polyglottal” and “For Want of Gelt”. Is that something that you have noticed yourself or has it just happened? “Yeah, it’s interesting doing a longer release for the first time. You’re really confronted with your various tics and habits, predilections, in a way that, when doing two-trackers, you’re not really. I always found in the past that because a year would pass between each record, and it would just be two tracks on each record, there’d be quite a lot of advancement and change from record to record. But when you’re doing 10 tracks in one whack, you do start to notice how the same kind of things recur. And to an extent that’s good, right, because it’s good to have consistency, but if you go too far, then it just becomes annoying for the listener. Those cuts and switches and things, the first version of the album, or an early version of the album had a lot more of that kind of thing in it. A lot more fake-outs and unexpected silences. And when I started sending it to a few friends, they said, “This is just exhausting, you have to tone that down.” So I then went back through and smoothed things out quite a lot. So hopefully there’s just enough of it, that you recognise it. Maybe as a little trademark, but it’s not slathered over the whole thing. At least I hope so.”

Speaking of “For Want of Gelt”, I noticed it’s 170 BPM, it’s pretty fast. One thing I’ve noticed is that there’s this whole thing about everything getting faster lately. “I was actually pondering this weekend the fact that I’ve sort of unwittingly become a part of this faster-faster thing, and wondering how I feel about that. Because on the album there’s “For Want of Gelt” and also “Balconies”, it’s like 160, and then “Gone Rouge” is 150. There’s not much stuff in, one could say, a conventional tempo range – like 120 to 136. And I think that was a product of this fairly hefty writer’s block that I had for a while, before doing the album, where I felt a lot of pressure to follow up on the stuff that I’d done. And if I started doing something in that very solid, dependable tempo range, I would feel almost overwhelmed by the responsibility to make it a ‘banger’. So working with really weird tempos, and also on some of the tracks, weird time signatures, was a way of getting things going and not feeling that strange pressure or restriction. But then, subsequently, recently in my DJing, I’ve also been playing really fast and been enjoying doing that. So, I’m totally part of this moment, somehow. I guess that’s the way these things go, right? That’s why it is a little moment, because so many people are coincidentally coming at it from perhaps from different angles and ending up in the same place.”

Yeah, because obviously jungle and D&B would be around that tempo anyway, but then you’ve got some of this really hard, fast, bolshie techno stuff as well, which is entirely different and much heavier. Whereas your tracks, even if they are quite fast, there’s a lightness to them. They’re not pummelling you in the face. “I’d love to be able to make music that pummels you in the face but it just doesn’t come out that way. Music always comes out softer than I think somehow. Maybe it’s not a bad thing.” No! Do you think that’s part of your character or something else? “I think it’s something that I’ve been coming to terms with, because even the tracks that I’ve made, big club tracks or whatever – specifically, I’m thinking of “Volumes” that got played quite a lot – people say to me, “It’s a really big track, it sounds big when you play it out, it sounds really intense,” or whatever. But to me there’s aspects of the way it sounds, the way I did the mixdown that actually makes it quite soft and delicate, and that’s at odds with the intention that I actually had, which was making a more banging, exciting track. Yeah. Also “Volumes” is quite slow by banger standards. “I mean again, the slowness was another thing where somehow it came out that way but actually, yeah, it’s almost slightly self-defeating that it’s that slow. I heard a lot of people playing it very pitched up in a way that to me sounded wrong because I was so used to hearing it at the original tempo. But I’ve had to come to terms with this about my production, that often what I imagine or hope to achieve with it is not how it comes out. Particularly with regards to that question of making something very direct and club-ready or very banging or whatever. I just can’t do it and I’ve had to learn that maybe that’s a good thing, because then the tracks end up sitting in an interesting space that’s a bit harder to define.”

One exception to that might be the Special Request remix. Do you think that’s because of the source material? “Yeah, yeah. I mean, to me, there’s still something slightly reserved about it, especially played next to properly rinsing jungle. So I think the source material definitely did end up steering it in a direction I probably wouldn’t have gone in my original music.” Right. That one appeared on a TV ad? “Yes, I think it was Adidas. An ad in the UK, I believe.” What was that like? “Strange. Because it’s a remix, I wasn’t really involved in the process of that happening. And I didn’t realise the scale of it, I thought it was just going to be an online ad, that would flicker across people’s social media feeds for a week, but then people were like, “Yeah, I saw it on TV!” At least in the UK it was on More4 or something, for a while. So really cool, but quite strange.”

When you first broke onto the scene, you were part of this ‘outsider house’ thing. And you say you try to make bangers but they never quite come out right – are you still a sort of outsider in that sense? Am I shoehorning here? “I think you might be a little bit… I mean, I think that, when I listened back to stuff that I made at that time now, the values of it, I really changed. I think I was still growing and working out exactly what I wanted to say at that point. So part of the thing with that whole little moment was that certain kind of roughness or uncleanness was quite desirable. And I’m not against that in music in general. I like lots of music that has that, but in my own music, I’ve gone completely the other way and I’m obsessed with clarity, basically. Sonic clarity. Compositional clarity.” That comes through. I don’t want to say pristine but clear. Clear is a good word. “Sure. And in a sense it’s almost the fixation with clarity now that causes my tracks to not sound quite so direct or banging or whatever. I’ll make mix decisions that make everything sound super clear and shiny but actually detract a little bit from the sort of thump, or the sharpness of the snare or whatever, or the heaviness of the track. So in a weird way, I am now kind of an outsider for the opposite reason to why I might have been one before.”

You haven’t really done many remixes; naturally I was on your Discogs today and not too much came up. Is that by design? “They used to be a part of my regular turnover, I used to do a few and one would come up maybe every year, maybe every 18 months. And I used to be really into the idea of doing them, because I felt like they inspired me, working with the material inspired me to do things that I wouldn’t otherwise do. And in that sense, they were part of a process of refreshing and updating my palette of ideas and sounds and would help to keep things fresh with the original productions too. But then, at some point, I don’t know what changed but I found it a lot harder to do. I used to always find it quite easy compared to making originals. Something about working to a brief answers a lot of questions for you. But at some point that stopped being the case. I mean, I have a remix coming out, which I did in the at the end of 2018, which is finally coming out in May I think. But after that I tried to do another one, which I really wanted to do, but I just somehow got completely stuck with it. And I realised that for whatever reason at the moment, where my head’s at, I’m so much more inclined to do originals than to do remixes. So for the moment I’ve decided, just as a rule, to turn down any remixes for the foreseeable future.”

“Gone Rouge” – I presume that’s a pun? Like going rogue? “Yeah, I can’t resist a bit of wordplay with the track titles. The track has these sounds of voices that are a bit embarrassed, so to me it’s like the track has these moments when it all sounds like a wind-down. And it’s like the track’s a bit embarrassed or something, that was my thinking. Yeah, I can’t resist a pun.” I was actually going to ask about track titles and wordplay and stuff in a general sense because the title of the album is Second Language and there are titles like “Polyglottal”, which obviously is bilingual or multilingual, and then you’ve got “Spoken and Unspoken”. That could be ‘spoken thoughts’ or ideas, but it’s also like ‘spoken consonants’. How do these track titles work with the tracks themselves? “It’s a mixed bag. Some of them, the titles came out of how the track felt when I wrote it; you can’t really intellectualise it in a super interesting way. I would say, “Gone Rouge” is a bit like that. The name came to me and I thought it was a bit funny and it fit. It doesn’t fit to the overarching theme per se. But some of them quite consciously do – the obvious one would be that there are three tracks, they’re all called “Second Language” and then have other titles in brackets, and all three of those tracks use a lot of the same material and they use the same melody across the three tracks. “Polyglottal”, it’s hard to tell in the final thing but the idea of that track is that it uses a tonne of material from all the other tracks on the album. But in the end, you can’t really tell because it’s been changed and also because it includes some material from tracks that then didn’t make it on the album. So it’s an imperfect execution of the concept. But the idea was it’s kind of this mishmash of all the other stuff and therefore it has this polyglot quality. So yeah, there are some titles for sure that hopefully connect the tracks to other ideas that were circling around the album.”

And the other thing about the “Second Language” tracks is, you could say that they’re all kind of translations of each other. If I’m not reaching too hard there. “No, no, you’ve teed me up perfectly. I’m very grateful. Because this idea of translation ended up being kind of a theme. Because it was something I got interested in, I got really into learning German when I moved to Berlin, and then really interested in learning languages in a more general sense. And I also started learning French, although my French is not as far along as my German – life kind of gets in the way. But whilst doing the album, this relationship between a first language and second language and the idea of translation and the kind of imperfection of that… But also the creative and interesting things that can come from that imperfection I guess. This became a theme of the album. So yeah, in those “Second Language” tracks, there’s an act of translation going on between them: some things are lost and some things are gained. And that became an interesting way of thinking about creativity I guess, or having interesting ideas.”

What’s it like working with Nic Tasker at Whities? “It’s good because it’s been years now. And also in that time between the last record, between Whities 12 And this one, we DJed together quite a lot. Because I started DJing a lot more in general, I started being a lot more like Whities showcases and often it’d be Nic and I, doing a sort of all-night back-to-back thing or playing sets next to each other. And we just we got to know each other really well, partly through that process of travelling and playing together. So, it’s a really nice relationship because there’s a lot of trust there. He really gives me the freedom to do what I want with music. I mean, there’s some guidance, you know, to try and steer it towards being the best thing it can be but I’ve never had a sense with him that there were like competing interests. So yeah, it’s good. Our relationship’s pretty harmonious. And also with Alex McCullough, who does the graphic design for Whities, he’s also he’s been involved since the first one we worked on, Whities 8, likewise, we know how each other works and can work together to get something going that’s really interesting, I think.” The album went out to the press with no artwork. “Yeah, it’s just the order things happened. I mean, essentially there was a stonemason involved in doing the artwork…” That’s very interesting. “Alex always has quite bonkers, really inspired ideas. When we started talking about the album he was like, “Yeah, I’ve been wanting to work with my friend who’s a stonemason, and I think it might work for this.” And so yeah, I just said “do you” basically. And the end result’s really cool.”

You have not been writing much lately. Is that something you’ve stepped away from? Or is that as you said, life getting in the way? “It’s something I stepped away from. I quit. I mean, it’s sort of connected to the album really, because I quit my staff writer job at Resident Advisor in summer 2018. And since then, I’ve done very little writing. I did the economics podcasts, I did a bit of end-of-year stuff at the end of last year, but very, very little. So it’s definitely something that I’ve stepped away from.” Is there any reason for that? Were you just tired of it? “I mean, balancing the two, because I came to be DJing a lot more on after the last record, balancing that and holding down the job. Plus, trying to be creative in the studio. It wasn’t possible to do three for me. And it became apparent that I probably could just about financially manage to live off the DJing, with bits of writing in quiet periods. So I just decided to do that. And that was what facilitated the album, because it was having the sort of mental space and the time and energy to go in the studio a lot that made it possible. Previously, with my life as it was before, there was no way I would have ever been able to do an album. So the two are definitely connected.”

Do you have any thoughts on the current state of journalism what with FACT’s recent pivot, TMT’s hiatus and all of these things? “Ohhh don’t get me started. I mean, I don’t follow it closely enough to know about specifics of certain publications and things anymore. I feel really out of the loop in that sense. But it definitely feels like things aren’t going in a super good direction. Right? Very occasionally, I have younger people asking me about getting into it or whatever.” What do you tell them? “I think things changed so much, even since I got into it in the late-’00s/early-’10s, even then, more established journalists would tell me, “Don’t do it, don’t get into it, it’s impossible to make a living from it.” And I ignored them. But now I feel like that’s even more the case, to the point where the whole system is on the verge of collapse. Journalism I mean, not music in general. So yeah, it’s a bit bleak. But maybe there’s something that I’m not seeing. Maybe I’m being too pessimistic.”

Have you signed up to any of the various newsletters? “You know what? I haven’t, because one thing that I really enjoyed about quitting my job was not feeling a responsibility to keep up to date. So whilst I do end up reading quite a lot of them because I stumble across them in my internet browsing, in general it felt like quitting the job, part of creating the mental space for my creativity as a producer was about stepping back from the churn, the daily discourse in the media sphere. I still do have a deep fascination for it and it’s not like I’ve abandoned it completely, but I tend to take steps to keep a bit of distance. I feel like it gives me more space to think. Me quitting my writing job also connects to this Second Language idea in a sense because something that I could never really fully reconcile or understand was the relationship between making music and writing about it, for me in terms of my personal activities, they’re both creative acts and they both pertain to the same art form. In some sense they’re profoundly different. And in some sense they conflicted with each other. In a material sense, there would be grumblings about me being both a journalist and a producer. But also in a creative sense, the critical brain that I would use for writing about music would stifle the creative brain to make music.”

Would that be because you would be thinking about how people would review it, or if it contradicted something you’d said about someone else’s record? “Sometimes, sometimes it would be that, but more often, it would be in a more abstract sense. Just like, there’s so much music out there. And being very aware of the fact would then make me hypersensitive to the idea, “Am I doing something that is really worth putting out there, or really saying something that is really worth saying?” And that’s an impossible standard to set yourself against. That’s a question that has to come up later after you’ve finished the music, then you can assess whether it’s worthwhile or not. But, asking those sorts of questions too early in the process is just a bit stifling.”

Yeah, when you’re making something, at the beginning of the process, or even in the middle of the process of just making it, there’s no onus or obligation on you to share it with anyone or, let alone put that on vinyl or put it on DistroKid or whatever it is. So if you’re stopping yourself from even making music in the first place, then that is something that needs to be addressed. “Yeah, yeah. And that was something that I reconnected with in the course of doing the album, this state of completely permissive and non-judgmental creative play. And I ended up coming to this, I guess, slightly hippy-ish understanding about creativity, or the process of making music, which is that it exists before value judgments and before any criteria that you might impose on it. In the first instance, it exists outside that stuff. And all you can really do is be in service to that state, in order to make things happen. And then all the other stuff, wrestling it into a coherent form and making value judgments about whether you want to release it and if so, how, and blah, blah, blah, that all has to come later. But you really have to keep this space sacrosanct, this creative space at the start of the process. That was something that I had never really worked out before. And it was a breakthrough.”

Are you ever going to make an Absent Friends 3 for the ambient fans? “Yeah, so the plan, it’s always dangerous to elucidate such plans in an interview because then they almost inevitably don’t go come to pass.” Yeah, you put it online, it becomes truth. “The plan is to do an Absent Friends 3, which will be more focused on original material rather than other people’s material, in some form or other.” That makes sense – I was looking at the tracklist for Volume 2 today and there are so many of your edits. “Yeah, the “ambient” side of things, for several years, it’s been something that I’ve tried to do. And at one point, I even had an album or a long EP’s worth of stuff in that vein. But it just wasn’t quite developed enough to release. Somehow in the course of doing the album and finding ways to make tracks that aren’t explicitly club tracks, I cracked a few things about how I might go about making [them]. I also think that it’s less ambient music, (that was that was part of what I cracked – I can’t really make ambient per se) but it’s more some form of abstract music that probably has elements of ambient music in it. But it isn’t that sort of ambient in the original sense of Brian Eno: music that fills a space rather than commands the attention or whatever. Because I have too much attention deficit as a producer, I always want to grab you by the throat with stuff. But yeah, I found a way to maybe make those kinds of tracks in my style as it were. I would like to explore that and hopefully come out with something concrete at some point.”

What are you reading at the moment? “Oooh. That is kind of relevant. So I’m a big science fiction nerd. I was when I was a teenager. And then I kind of told myself I’d grown out of it. But then realised, when I was about 26, that was obviously not the case. I really love this author called Gene Wolfe. He’s of the same generation as Ursula K. Le Guin, but she’s a lot better known. He writes these (or wrote, he died last year) very dense and in some sense demanding epics with unreliable narrators and lots of Easter egg-style hidden narrative points and things, and also quite complex, spiritual undertones I would say, because he was a very devout Catholic. His books are these very absorbing and puzzling epics. Anyway, there’s going to be a quote on the cover of Second Language from one of his books called The Book of the New Sun, because there’s this bit in the book, there’s a character from a kind of totalitarian state who can only communicate through speaking pre-approved phrases from a set of pre-approved texts, ideologically approved texts. Which kind of ties into this idea of the effort through language, to say something new and the limitations that are faced in that. I’m reading another Gene Wolfe book at the moment, called The Book of the Short Sun, which is a kind of sequel to the one that’s going to be featured on the cover.”

That reminds me – I don’t remember seeing it, but my wife talked about it – there’s an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where they meet some species that only speaks in metaphor. “Yeah, I’ve seen that episode recently. They have this difficulty communicating, because they are all metaphors that are linked to historical things that happened for that civilization. So you have to understand the civilization’s history to get what they’re talking about. Which is kind of a weirdly similar idea actually.”

Minor Science – Second Language is out on vinyl and digital formats via Whities on April 3. Order here.

Photo Credit: Cecilia Corsano-Leopizzi
Artwork: The cover of ‘Second Language’ devised by Alex McCullough shows the handling of a tablet carved in Portuguese Limestone (and later painted) by architectural sculptor George Edwards.

Aidan Hanratty

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