Unknown Space: Roly Porter interviewed

Since the dissolution of industrial dubstep duo Vex’d around 2008, Roly Porter has taken his sound into unknown realms. His increasingly avant-garde solo work sees him unleashed from the dance floor template while continuing to draw from bass music and sound system culture. As well as his soundtrack work, he’s released a pair of albums on Bristol’s Subtext label – Aftertime and Life Cycle of a Massive Star – both of which come highly recommended.

Now we’ve got Third Law – his debut on Tri Angle – which is a rather different beast. It takes the epic scale and compositional ambition of his previous work and meshes it with some of the most brutally devastating sound design you’re ever likely to hear. In a way it feels like a return to some of the aesthetics he explored in Vex’d. It’s a record of extremes, where the quiet passages make the loud ones all the more punishing. Porter is not interested in holding your hand through this succession of sonic trapdoors. Even after multiple listens you’re never quite sure where the next eruption is going to come from, only that it will make you feel very small and insignificant indeed.

Curious to know more about the new album, I met up with Roly over Skype to chat space, sci-fi soundtracks, and why he sees a connection between the “future music” of Mr. Mitch and Wolves in the Throne Room.

So, when did you start work on Third Law?

It was quite a long process actually. I’m normally most productive in the winter, so early 2015.

Is that because you particularly like winter or can you not work in the summer?

I genuinely prefer winter to summer. I don’t cope very well with hot weather! I just can’t think in the heat. And also this kind of music, well, it doesn’t really suit summer months.

You’ve said that [Life Cycle of a Massive Star] was the first time you’d started off with a fully formed idea and all the track titles and everything before you actually started recording, whereas normally you come up with the sounds first and work from that. Which way round was it for the new album?

With Third Law I tried to do it as an experimental process where I would come up with rhythmic ideas and just build these tracks based on sonic experimentation. After a few months I found that, actually, I really needed a concept to tie it onto. Obviously it doesn’t have quite such a literal concept as Life Cycle, but in my mind I still had to plot out some sort of journey, otherwise I just didn’t really know what I was doing. I think it’s become a really integral part of how I write music now. But creating the sounds is still really experimental. It’s not like I’ve got so good at sound design and synthesis that I can just imagine this world and immediately create it. There’s still that exciting process of coming up with new techniques, but as far as the overall sonic identity of a thing, I think I definitely need to have that conceptually tight in my head before I move forward.

When you’re composing your solo work as opposed to doing soundtracks, are you still thinking about it in a visual way?

Definitely. There’s a really clear visual template that I’m building the sounds around. Life Cycle was based around trying to literally soundtrack visual ideas in my head. I find it really difficult to shape a whole tune based purely around developing it as an abstract piece of audio. It has to have some kind of visual relevance.

How far into the process did you decide on the artwork? Or did that come after everything was completed?

It was during the process, and it was quite difficult. Again, it was to do with wanting it to be less literal than Life Cycle. People can interpret this music in any way they like, whereas with Life Cycle I very specifically set out what I was hearing and what I intended. For Third Law I wanted to find a piece of art that could be interpreted in any way. One that had a specific relevance based on my own internal narrative – that I don’t have to talk about – but something that was open.

What I got from it – before I realised that it was a photo of an eye – was that it could have been any scale. Just as easily some giant celestial body as an object that’s been magnified millions of times.

Yeah, that’s exactly what I thought the first time I saw it.

This might be a bit of a reach, but I feel that it’s similar to the music… in the sense that it’s really difficult to get a sense of it, or to grasp the whole thing at once.

I’m really glad to hear you say that, because that’s exactly what I hoped the picture – and also the music – would be like. I kind of believe in this idea of everything existing on an infinite scale. The fact that you can look at the picture and see the cosmos, but also see it as an eye. Or it could go in a similar distance in the opposite direction – it could be some tiny thing occurring on a cellular or atomic level. I mean, people don’t need to think about space while they’re listening to music, they can think about anything they like! For me it’s not about space as a physical place. I just enjoy anything that prompts thoughts of those ideas of scale.

third law

How do you envisage people listening to this album, if you do at all?

I don’t really like the way that I listen to music these days. I skip through stuff I’m sent, stuff on Spotify. I listen to a huge amount of music, and I don’t think that I listen as deeply as I used to. I’d literally sit down in front of the fire with a glass of whisky and listen to a whole album back to back on vinyl, and I think you get more enjoyment from that. So the real aim was to craft an album that forces you to listen to the entire thing, and help me get back to a more healthy and productive listening habit where you actually sit down like you would with a TV box set or whatever. It’s easy to complain, “Oh, there’s no good music these days”, but I would argue the opposite. I’d say there is a huge amount of amazing music, but we’re just not engaging with it fully.

So, ‘Mass’ is one of the more rhythmically driven tracks. It has a lot of elements that could appeal to a wider audience, but I decided to start it with a minute and a half of this roaring jet kind of noise. If you’re skipping through and you just hear the first 20 seconds of that track, you’re not going to learn anything about it. It’s a deliberate process to try and craft an album that’s a listening experience from start to finish.

Do you think the structure of the album as a whole – as well as just individual tracks – is conducive to people sitting through in one listen?

I hope so. It’s a lot longer than the last album. That was just over half an hour long, and lots of people complained about it!

I remember! Complaining about how it didn’t feel in keeping with the album’s epic scope.

Yeah, I mean, how long do you want it? It just did what it did. I could’ve chucked another track on but that wasn’t the point. This album is a lot longer, which is why in my mind I set it into distinct sections. It’s kind of in thirds for me. But I did spend a lot of time structuring it deliberately to be the shape that it is.

It’s interesting what you said about how there’s lots of amazing music out there, because I think sometimes you come across as quite pessimistic about contemporary music. I’ve never been sure if that’s really how you feel or if that’s just how the interview pans out.

I definitely do come across like that, and it’s not true! I guess I am pessimistic about certain aspects of modern music, especially electronic dance music. I don’t know whether it’s part of growing older and having seen a sort of cyclic effect happen a few times in certain genres. Now that I’m not a regular club goer I just don’t engage with dance music a huge amount in my life.

I think the point I’ve often tried to make – and that might have been misinterpreted – is that while I’m writing my own music, I find it so important to try and maintain a unique sonic identity. I’m a bit of a sponge – if I listen to too much music I find that I begin to shape ideas around what I think things should sound like, or subconsciously try and emulate sounds that I hear. So while I’m writing music I find it better to not listen to any other music at all. Which means that often when people ask about what kind of contemporary music I listen to I say, “Oh, none” or “I don’t know anything about any of that crap!”

But I’m not that pessimistic. For the kind of music that I’ve grown up listening to – ambient music and stuff on the fringes of electronic music – now is a real golden age. There’s a huge amount of people really experimenting across all different genres, everything from grime to metal… Last year was an amazing year for music, I just didn’t listen to any of it!

You published an influences playlist recently, and I thought we could go through a few of the artists and talk about what they mean to you. Let’s start with Mr. Mitch.

He’s a great example of what we were just talking about. I love grime. I don’t really think it’s gone anywhere, like how people talk about a grime resurgence. It’s still holding really faithfully to its original outlines. Mr. Mitch is someone who’s taken that genre and pulled it apart in a really interesting way. You hear a lot of grime that’s just really sound design heavy but still kind of percussive – and that’s all great – but there’s something really unusual about this ‘Phantom Prophet’ track. It’s got a really weird sort of future melancholy, which I absolutely love, and I think really suits that format. It’s just a great piece of beatless music, with all of grime’s future identity, but a really weird heart-breaking melodic idea. I’ve seen him a couple of times recently – we played together at a Planet Mu party in Brussels – and he’s the top DJ I saw last year. Amazing. I’d kind of forgotten about the art of DJing, and his set was just so well crafted.

I love the way he manages to skim between this really abstract stuff and more hard-edged grime, he makes it sound so effortless. OK, what about Wolves in the Throne Room?

I’ve listened to their epic drone metal stuff in the past and loved it, and then this album [Celestite] is just… it kind of sounds like John Carpenter to me. It’s weird, synthed-out space music, but still sort of metal somehow. Yeah, them and Mr. Mitch are really good examples of people that are on the fringes of what they’re doing. It’s really exciting future music. That’s weird, to say that I see a connection between Mr. Mitch and Wolves in the Throne Room, but they feel really similar to me in some way.

Blind Willie Johnson was another interesting pick.

That’s just an amazing vocal. Blues is the first music I started listening to, people like Blind Willie Johnson or Lightnin’ Hopkins. For ages I had a really aggressive sort of atheism – I was really opposed to religion and sort of saw it as the enemy of the space future which I was hoping mankind would embrace! Listening to tunes like ‘Needed Time’ by Lightnin’ Hopkins began to make me see it from a different angle – that there’s no point fighting things, and there are loads of aspects of all the world religions that are fascinating and are essential parts of people’s lives and human development. Blues was really critical for softening my views on that. When you listen to enough electronic music, and then you go back and listen to those acoustic recordings of just a man and a guitar, it sounds incredible.

That sort of leads onto another thing I wanted to bring up – something you once said with regards to sci-fi about finding it easiest to engage emotionally with really extreme situations.

Yeah, blues is a good example of that, and also apocalyptic scenarios. It’s difficult to imagine, say, a love for the whole of humanity, but then for example in Battlestar Galactica they’ve got this big counter ticking down each time someone gets killed, and as soon as you get down to six or seven thousand humans it increases your love of those remaining people. It’s the same with extinction of species now – people don’t care about white tigers until you realise there’s only a hundred left, and then all of a sudden everybody really cares about tigers! When I was writing Life Cycle – because I spent months in the studio reading about stars and space and things on this insane inconceivable scale – I just found that the less I read the newspaper, the happier I became. I liked people, I liked my life here, and I liked the planet. During the election when I started to think more about politics, I became unhappier. It’s that simple. So really it’s a selfish method to be happy, to ignore the world and just think about space.

Favourite sci-fi films of the last couple of years?

A while ago I did this thing for the BFI [re-scoring the 1988 animated film Light Years]. I spent a long time thinking about my favourite sci-fi films and which one I’d like to work with. What I eventually realised was that there isn’t a single film which really encapsulates all the things I’m interested in – it’s the combination of everything I’ve read and seen that creates this on-going sci-fi narrative in my head. So it’s really difficult to pinpoint individual films, and actually quite often sci-fi films are kind of lame! Although, seeing Interstellar at the Imax… There’s loads wrong with that film, loads of weird stuff that happens, loads of completely random and awful moments in the script. But it was on such an incredible scale, and the sound design and sound mix was completely mind-blowing. I guess that’s my sci-fi highlight of the last couple of years.

I was just so knocked out by it that I was happy to forgive anything and everything.

If somebody had explained that final scene to me before I’d seen it I would have thought, “Man, this does not sound like my kind of thing!” But when they went through the black hole, that was a really inspiring bit of sound design.

Did you watch Ex Machina?

Yeah, that was great, and another really good soundtrack. Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury. Again there were a couple of aspects that were wrong with the film, but it’s really exciting and sort of simple. What was amazing was the CGI on the robot. The ultimate suspension of disbelief. There’s not a single moment from the time she’s introduced that you don’t believe what you’re seeing on screen. It was really beautifully made.

Another one – more of a horror film I suppose, I don’t know if you saw It Follows last year?

Yeah! That was absolutely awesome, I loved it. Again, another amazing standout score. Such an unusual vibe, I couldn’t quite work it out. It wasn’t scary, it wasn’t horror, just this odd sort of teen romance. Because of where it was set and because of the score it kind of had this ‘80s vibe, but it was actually more timeless than that. I thought the score was mixed really interestingly and it was really prominent all the way through.

I wanted to finish up with the Vex’d reunion that you and Jamie [Kuedo] did last year – do you think that would’ve happened without the Planet Mu anniversary?

Definitely not, because we hadn’t written any new music together. We did play new music we’d written independently – Kuedo tunes and a couple of new pieces that I’d done – and we reworked some of the old Vex’d material. But while I’d absolutely love to work with Jamie again – and who knows what’ll happen in the future – we wanted to do it as a kind of retrospective. A lot of that music’s almost 10 years old, which seems crazy, and Planet Mu’s 20 years old which is even crazier. I hadn’t listened to a lot of the Vex’d music for ages, and to play in that kind of club environment again was such a fun experience. Earlier on I was saying club music has less relevance for me now, but actually I have to admit, on that night I did feel like there was something I’d really been missing that was being satisfied. Planet Mu parties were always our favourite thing to do, just because of the variation. There’d be us and then everything from footwork to gabber.

Did you feel more comfortable at those parties than getting booked for a straight dubstep night?

Yeah, definitely. I’d always rather hear an exciting variation like that. When I was younger I’d go to a jungle night and I’d be quite happy to listen to jungle for 12 hours in a row, but I need a little bit more stimulation now.

Third Law is out now on Tri Angle.

Words: Cosmo Godfree