Turning off our critical brain and giving our creativity a chance, is a struggle we all have. Talking with Angus Finlayson, aka Minor Science, it is particularly relevant. As a writer for music journalist giants Resident Advisor, where he has contributed for years, he picks apart an enormous amount of music each week.
While as Minor Science he produces off kilter and bass laden dancefloor music, contributing to London labels Trilogy Tapes and Whities, the latter providing a home for his last three releases including his latest ‘Volumes’.
We meet in the Friedrichshain district of Berlin, round the corner from the RA office, to discuss the dilemmas of making and critiquing music.
It’s quite a facing interviewing you because you’ve been a writer for Resident Advisor for ages. The latest feature I read of yours was the one on tinnitus.
Yeah that seemed to reach a wider audience and it’s quite a good topic to inform people about.
Do you prefer writing those sorts of features, getting an opinion across?
I think most or maybe all of my writing is quite opinionated, which sometimes I can get in trouble for or people don’t like me for, but different formats I like for different reasons. I really like doing reviews because I really like engaging with a record, properly listening to a record and really deciding like “ah, how do I feel about this?” Of course the bigger features that involve deep research into something… it uses a different part of the brain.
How do you feel about ratings in reviews, you know, giving it a number?
Obviously it’s not easy to put a single number on a piece of art, it doesn’t always feel super natural. It’s always going to be an imperfect system but maybe inspite of that it can give something to the reader.
What are you personally looking for? How would you judge something to be good?
There is no fixed criteria. One way of thinking about it is to work out what the record claims to do then measure it against its own criteria. First step: what is it trying to do? Second step: is it successful in doing that? Then if not, in what way does it fail? That’s one way of looking at it, sort of adapting to the context of the music that you’re discussing.
Of course in some cases I’ll bring my own, fairly entrenched, taste to something. There might be certain kinds of sounds or ideas that I’m just not into, and that obviously bleeds through.
Do you not think then it’s sometimes a question of, if someone has rated something badly, you were the wrong person to review it?
Of course by its nature there’s no objective correct way, unless you’re pointing out literal factual inaccuracies – they make some claim about a subject and it’s wrong. Beyond that there’s no objective review so of course for every bad review that someone like me might give there’s someone out there who would give the same record a good review.
At least it starts a conversation about it I guess…
Yeah. I mean they are slightly different questions. ‘Oh you didn’t like the record maybe you were wrong for it’, I’d disagree with that. I mean you can get something productive out of somebody reviewing records they don’t like. There’s a separate issue of whether this person was fully equipped to review the record. Maybe they didn’t get it in someway. You feel like they missed a reference point.
Anyway, we won’t get bogged down in that just yet.
No, but obviously it’s very interesting for me.
Where did it start for you? Did you start out as a music journalist and then produce?
I produced before I was a music journalist. I mean I was in bands when I was a teenager up until when I was in uni.
What sort of bands?
The first band was very Radiohead and then a bit later on it got very ‘prog’. I was very into The Mars Volta, I was obsessed with them. I mean it’s so different to what I’m into now I find it quite baffling how much I was into it.
I’m still a big fan of Mars Volta, do you not listen to them anymore?
No, the classic music journalist thing to say – their earlier stuff is more salvageable than their later stuff. The first Mars Volta album, or At The Drive-In stuff, connects across the years, but I was mad into the later, super excessive conceptual albums.
I think I was drawn to the idea of complexity like how many ideas, how much stuff can you pack into the music. For me, the further it went the more exciting it was, which isn’t a view I share now or have now.
No, the music you make now is quite minimal.
I think in another way the music I do now is also quite maximal, which is something I kind of grapple with. I always feel compelled to put a lot of detail in and really sculpt certain moments and heighten the drama in a track. There’s an extent to which, you know, am I straying away from something fundamental about dance music there? Because it’s all about repetition and the fact that you don’t need it to be composedly detailed to make it effective in this context.
Interesting that there is maybe a parallel there with my teenage tastes. I do sometimes wonder why I can’t just relax and let something loop for 32 bars without my doing anything to it.
It’s a mystery to me how electronic music is actually made and I wonder if I made electronic music whether I’d be better equipped as a music journalist.
I suppose I’m speaking from a privileged position. I have a music degree. I know in a broad sense how music is made. So when I’m writing reviews or whatever, I use that knowledge I have. In general it shouldn’t be super important because a music journalist is more of a listener than they are a musician. You’re writing for listeners because it’s them you’re talking to when you’re explaining why this is good or why it’s bad, or when you’re helping to contextualise something.
It doesn’t make your view any less valid if you have no idea how the thing was made. Maybe some people disagree with that, but I feel like you’d get some totally refreshing and insightful opinions from people who have never touched a synthesiser but have a deep understanding of music as a listener. They understand the culture even if they don’t understand the techniques.
How do you put together a song then – do you play around to see what works or do you take references from what you’ve heard before like maybe a song that’s inspired you?
Definitely more from column A than column B. It’s definitely sort of like fiddling, which at some point coalesces into an interesting idea. I guess there’s often a point later in the process where I realise that things I’ve been listening to recently that really caught my ear are actually bubbling up. I don’t realise it at first. It’s not a conscious attempt, but then later on I’m like, ‘oh yeah I can see how I’m attempting this idea that I heard in something else.’
For instance, the B side [Another Moon], about halfway into the process I realised there’s a bit, you know this guy Leif? He’s affiliated with Freerotation, and some of the records he’s done recently are polyrhythmic. So I realised halfway through, ‘oh yeah I’m processing that influence,’ but then by the time the track is finished that influence is no longer super audible anymore. it’s moved in some other direction.
Are you consciously getting rid of it?
No not at all. I think that it’s almost always the case that, ‘oh it sounds like that,’ but not to the extent that it’s bad, or to the extent that it’s a ripoff, or it’s unimaginative. I rarely find myself in a position where it sounds too much like X or Y.
When you first started producing what was your attitude to it? Did you know that you could do something different?
I went through different phases. The first stuff I did on computers when I was 16 wasn’t very good obviously. I was just feeling my way making music electronically, and it was also very early in discovering electronic music itself. I was really just bumbling around. There was definitely a later period at university in London, 2009 probably, that I really discovered Rinse FM in earnest and the Hessle Audio show. I would listen to it religiously in my tiny bedroom in Deptford.
At that point I started making more obviously club oriented stuff and began to feel, “Oh there’s this network that I can key into. There are certain DJs I like, certain parties, certain radio shows, certain labels.” I became very obsessed with the idea of getting into this world. So the stuff I was doing then I feel was a learning process. I think it was natural, but it was very nakedly attempting to be something in order to get the attention of certain DJs, of someone like Ben UFO.
He spoke very highly of your latest one on Twitter…
Yeah that was really nice. It’s still a little thrill when he’s very supportive of things because he was this sort of towering figure earlier on for me. So yeah, there was definitely a period when there was too much imitation and not enough imagination, but I think that’s natural. At some point it develops into something else.
So you wanted to have music to contribute to what they were doing?
Not necessarily just Hessle Audio, but this whole thing that was going on then with producers and labels who had been involved in Dubstep and were sort of discovering House and Techno. There was this sort of strange hybrid stuff going on and it was a very fertile moment branching out in lots of different directions and particularly for a younger person like me, who hadn’t really encountered the wider world of House and Techno and didn’t have a strong sense of how everything in dance music connected.
You’re quite clinical with your releases. Are you sitting on a lot of music?
No, I guess it seems clinical, it’s not clinical. Basically, once a year I finish two tracks and they get released. Unfortunately I’ve not been capable of producing any more than that.
Would you put more out then if you could?
I guess it would be healthy to be in a position where I made eight tracks a year and I released the four best ones.
Is that your style of working? Even if you had all the time in the world.
I would like to say the main issue is time. It often feels like the main issue is time but there are people with less time than me who finish more music and very good music often. It’s just something to do with the way I work, or my psychology in terms of making music, but very few stuff jumps every hurdle and makes it to the finish line.
Are you aware of your music having a style?
Before this we were talking about where I was churning out post dubstep tracks that weren’t very good. There was sort of a period where I realised I’m trying very hard to get a release or whatever but I’m not contributing anything that someone else couldn’t probably contribute or contribute better. I sort of stopped making music for a while.
When I came back to it was when I made the first track on the Trilogy Tapes record, the first record I did. So I guess at the base of it there was this idea of, “I want to be original.” It’s not something that certainly I could plan in the long term or articulate to you what my sound is.
Are there particular sounds you go back to?
Yeah I think any producer who has releases over a relatively extended period time, you hear these common ticks, and if you don’t then I do think that’s a problem. It doesn’t excite me when a producer can adapt to different styles and sounds but there’s never anything recognisably them that carries from one to the next.
I guess that’s more of a world view I have. What those sounds are for me… I feel like it’s probably easier for other people to notice them than it is for me.
I would say I can hear recurring themes in your music.
That’s good to hear and it’s definitely the case with the A-side of the new one ‘Volumes’. I finished it in February/March and a few DJs have been playing it since then and it was noticeable that some people guessed it was me before it was on any tracklists, which is very gratifying because there’s obviously some signature there and that’s nice, but I couldn’t set out to do that. I think if I were to do it it would descend into self-parody. For instance the use of voices is something that people mention quite a lot…
Yeah they’re very short bursts…
Little samples, little clips. I can see that that’s a signature sound but obviously I’d be wary of approaching it like, “I need to stick one of those in the tracks,” because then very quickly you’re limiting yourself.
Once you have a style or a signature how can you make a song different each time?
It’s kind of about stimulating your own pleasure centres when you’re making something. You’re waiting for something to have an effect on you that it would ideally have on a listener. Essentially you are being a listener as you make it. You’re noting how it’s affecting you then you’re working out, “oh that felt good, I should extend that.”
I think part of that is to do with novelty or originality or surprise. It’s part of what makes it pleasurable. Everyone has different thresholds of what constitutes novel and to what extent novelty is even necessary. Some producers are quite happy to repeat themselves much more, but for me it seems that that threshold is quite high. I think this is partly why I don’t produce such a high volume of stuff because if something falls below that threshold then I’ll can it.
Is there a purpose for your music?
What’s interesting about dance music is that there is a purpose for it, it’s to make people dance in a certain context, in a club. Coming from being an experimental rock snob as a teenager, then I had a jazz phase where I was very into contemporary jazz, and I had a brief flirtation with some kinds of 20th century classical music. I was very into this idea of pure art, of art as unfunctional, useless. Thinking – What are they trying to do?
What drew me in about dance music is that it doesn’t really make sense to work like that. It’s this kind of tension between those impulses to push beyond what’s familiar or what’s expected. The tension between that and this need for functionality. With the Trilogy Tapes record the relationship is less clear, but it all essentially was meant to be played in clubs, it has no other function other than that. It has other effects but that’s it’s only function.
Do you think in order for you to be able to develop your own music it’s key that you keep listening to other music in order to hear different sounds?
I think it’s rare that an artist stops listening to music. It’s a certain archetype of an artist’s personality. There’s like the Aphex Twin , Venetian Snares…
of people who don’t listen to other people’s music…?
whose music is this self contained universe and the borders are sort of closed so their music always sounds like them. You have the sense that if they stopped listening to music tomorrow they could still keep doing what they do. I think that is a very specific artist personality type.
For most musicians it would be a deeply weird state of affairs, and often it’s very damaging to stop paying attention to other stuff. I’m in a position where, because of my job, I hear an enormous quantity of music, and also anyone who DJ’s for a living is in this position too, and that brings some negatives with it, but I think it’s a positive thing in terms of refreshing the gene pool, preventing things from getting too inbred.
I guess you could play around for ages…
Every now and again a new idea comes out of the blue and you come up with something extremely fresh. In general though, I’d go so far as to say that when someone has a creative idea, it’s a synthesis of other people’s ideas. If you’re not taking in other people’s ideas then you’re never going to have that original idea, there has to be some input.
Would you say your new release does something noticeably different or more than your other ones?
I think it does some things more. I had this discussion with a friend around the time of the first Whities one [Glamour]. I was saying that what I was trying to do with that record was to make two club bangers, but because of the sound of the record and the certain technical ability that I lacked it didn’t turn out…
Really?! Your next one ‘Naturally Spineless’ must have turned a few heads though surely?
Again once people knew it, it did, or in some context it did. Playing your own track out is a good test of how well people in the room know who you are. I mean that track, if it wasn’t recognised, it didn’t tend to get a huge response because it’s quite strange…
But if they hear it before it ‘drops’ so to speak, they hear it building up, that would be a better indicator of whether they know it surely? They’re always likely to react to it when it drops whether they know it or not, no?
There is a familiarity effect. There is that impact of the track, which has nothing to do with whether you know it or not, either it bangs or it doesn’t should we say, but if people recognise it and they’ve sat at home and listened to it and worked out what the track’s doing and they like it then that response is amplified. I think DJs have always played with this by playing tracks a lot. The tale of Larry Levan in the Paradise Garage in New York in the ’80s where he’d play a track at the start of the night and no one would really respond and then he’d play it three or four times in the night, and by the end of the night people would be going crazy for it – effective repetition.
To go back to that track, Naturally Spineless, it felt like when it didn’t have that repetition factor it didn’t always have the impact that I’d hoped. The new track ‘Volumes’, the A side, it’s the first time I’ve had it where I was getting excited about it in the studio when I was making it and that is also reflected on dancefloors.
Why do you think that is?
I think it’s just my technical ability. I think part of becoming a better producer is narrowing the gap between the way you imagine things to work in their ideal context i.e. on the dancefloor, speaking as a dancefloor producer, and the way they actually do work.
When you don’t have so much experience the gap can be quite wide, you think, “Ah, this will sound great,” but then you hear it on the soundsystem and somehow it’s a bit flat, and over time you just learn how to close that gap.
Could you pinpoint a thing about your latest song that is the reason it’s getting more of a reaction?
I couldn’t really articulate it.
OK, is there a bit you’re particularly fond of?
Well to go back to your original question, the particular thing that gets an effect. The second breakdown, when the bass goes all distorted, is often the moment that has a certain effect. There was a lot of back and forth and discussion with Nic Tasker, who runs Whities, and with some friends, who are producers and DJ’s whose opinion I value and respect, about that breakdown because originally it did less. Then it was like maybe make it more and then maybe it’s too far now, maybe it should go further. Calibrating this moment because it is quite extreme sort of silly.
That’s what I like about it – I almost imagine you smashing away on some drums and it literally ‘breaking down’. It’s refreshing to have that moment where it suddenly loses it a little. Thinking back to when we were saying you needed to listen to other music for original ideas. Since working at Resident Advisor you have to listen to so much music, how does one affect the other?
Well one thing is, I am very much aware of the unbelievable abundance of music being made at the moment. I guess we all have a sense of that, but going through promos every day and having a professional obligation to keep up with as much as possible, gives me a sense of, “If I don’t have anything extremely good or that I consider worth contributing then why contribute?”
There’s so much stuff out there. It’s part of what is fatiguing about hearing a derivative release. We have access to so much stuff, the tools for making music have been democratised to such an extent. Why would you make a track that sounds like someone else?
So it puts you in a certain position of power being exposed to this much music?
I don’t think necessarily because I don’t think it’s the case that it makes my judgement better that I hear so much music. It just makes me more discerning, perhaps critical of my own creativity, to the point that at times it’s not constructive. I think to make good music or good art you at some point need to switch off that critical brain. It’s perhaps harder for me to do that than for some people who aren’t using that brain all the time.
On RBMA, Ben UFO spoke about it being impossible to keep up with the constant stream of music and that physical records for instance are good in that they slow this consumption down.
As a music journalist too I’ve been put off review writing because of the fact you have to keep up with so much music and it can blur the lines of what you actually like and don’t like. Do you find it impacts your own music taste listening to that much music? Do you lose a sense of your own taste?
I think what you discussed is a phase that all people go through when they get into writing about music. It’s that period when you feel saturated and you lose the ability to tell what you actually think. Maybe I like it because of X,Y and Z or maybe I don’t like it because of A, B, and C, I can see both sides intellectually.
Somehow you learn to get through that and eventually you learn to tap into this little voice that’s telling you what you actually think. Maybe you develop techniques or whatever, and that gets developed over time. I’m not full time anymore, but I was full time for several years up until about two years ago, and it’s the sort of relationship you have with music where you get sent so much music everyday that you don’t have the time or the energy to explore of your own accord. You’re constantly listening to things that are right there. That is a really unnatural relationship with music and for sure that has some influence on my music, I’m not sure what it is.
I do daydream sometimes about not looking into my inbox for six months and going back to a teenage state, that state of early discovery, where you are just wandering. There’s no purpose, you don’t have to get anything out of it and you’re driven by your curiosity. You discover things in unexpected ways and follow your nose basically. I think non journalist producers experience a similar thing when they’re also DJs with promos so I’m not saying I’m unique but for sure it does have an effect.
Do you have any plans for writing an album?
Yeah I’ve started to consider it as an idea but I think it’s quite a long way off because either something in the way I make music or something in my life situation would have to change in order to make it possible.
What do you think an album should be trying to do that’s separate from an EP?
Well I think there’s no hard fast rules. The relationship between album and EP is quite specific in the dance music world and in that world the question should always be – could this album that you made in fact be two EPs and then you cull some of the worse tracks? Say your album’s ten tracks, could you make it two four track EPs and you don’t release two of the weaker tracks that you’ve sort of shoved on there to fill up the tracklist? If the answer to that is yes, then you shouldn’t release an album. There’s so many redundant dance music albums out there.
And it stops it from becoming a compilation.
I mean when there’s artists who exclusively make very functional dance tracks, there can be value in compiling them on one record – maybe because they’ve had an illustrious career for instance…
Kyle Hall’s latest album reminded me of that...
…the example that was in my head was the Head High album by Shed. He did an album where he just compiled a load of Head High singles, and there would be some new tracks in there as well. I think that kind of an album is fine for what it is, it doesn’t claim anything more than being a collection of dance tracks. I think if there’s scope in the project, scope to do something a bit more involved when you do an album and you don’t do that then it’s a missed opportunity.
What would you do if you put together an album?
I don’t know. I wouldn’t want to make any commitment. I think you define it in the negative though – what can’t I do? What doesn’t make sense on a Dance 12”? Those are the things that it would be interesting to explore on an album.
I’ve found dance albums a funny one recently because if I’m comparing it to something like say Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Damn.’ there’s a storyline there, but with a dance album they may well be really good songs but it can be hard to see a theme.
I think with someone like Kendrick Lamar you have a major natural advantage because there are lyrics, there are so many words, there are texts that people can read to understand. It’s part of what makes dance music so interesting that often there are no words. So how do you convey emotion or meaning or personality without words? That’s one of the fundamental characteristics of dance music that dictates why it is the way it is. There are examples of [dance] albums where there’s something about them.
So like the DJ Richard album on Dial, I liked it at the time, I reviewed it actually, but it’s grown on me even more since then and you put it on and there’s just something about it, there’s this really specific language that it’s speaking, a really specific set of colours that it’s using and it feels extremely satisfying to have it on, to go into that world. It’s harder to explain how you would do that [yourself] or in what way it works.
Is there anything you’re looking forward to doing with your music?
I feel that in general when you make music you start to develop a distinctive set of approaches or styles, something you consider in some way personal to you, whether that’s detectable to the listener or not. It’s like you’ve made a certain set of propositions and then you can explore these propositions. “OK, there’s this basic set of ideas or tools, techniques or whatever. How far can I push them in this direction? What happens if I do this with them? How far can I develop this idea or this feeling in my work?” I feel like I haven’t explored those propositions very far yet.
Again, I don’t think I can just blame my life situation I think it’s also psychological, but I often feel frustrated by the amount of progress that I make. There’s so many different directions something could go in but I just barely manage to explore one of them. That’s quite an abstract answer, but just that general exploring of those propositions thrown out by the first few records that I’ve done.
Have you ever had a bad review?
I’ve not had many reviews.
No, I’ve only seen your Resident Advisor reviews and they’ve all been good because I was going to suggest that maybe if you had a bad review it would be a good thing because then you could say “Oh, I pushed it too far here.”
I think there’s many factors at play – who wrote the review? In what way is it criticizing it? I can imagine a full spectrum of responses and, as a journalist, have received a full spectrum of responses, from artists who get a bad review but somehow feel like it’s correct or it pointed out some weakness in their work. These are very rare by the way, I’m not saying it happens all the time, but very occasionally that does happen. Through to people who feel you’ve missed the point and they don’t get anything constructive out of that review because they just feel like you didn’t get what they were trying to do.
It’s the optimum situation when you get a bad review that you get something out of it at least, “Oh yeah actually I kind of had that concern or that’s a good point I hadn’t thought about it from that aspect,” so you know, maybe one day. There’s quite a lot of uncharted territory there. I’ve yet to have my social media meltdown where I’m raging about a bad review – there’s still time.
Well there’s a feature at the back of last month’s Crack Magazine talking about how no one writes bad reviews anymore.
Oh yeah I read that.
I can see how they’re constructive because they either begin a discussion or they can highlight music you may not have given the time of day. Sometimes when bad reviews are given though, probably a weakness on my part, even if I enjoyed it with the first listen the review then makes me doubt my taste.
I think it’s the power of a review. I’m not saying it’s the point of music journalism, to spoil the fun or whatever, but if a review can change your opinion of a record either way that’s powerful. It shows the music to you from a different angle, it gives you a different perspective, and when you go back to it your own perspective is changed whether it’s for better or for worse. I think that’s a positive thing.
It’s positive in general in the arts to have your perspective widened as much as possible, to see things from as many different angles as possible, and then when there are things you do enjoy I think it deepens your enjoyment because you’re appreciating them from perhaps multiple angles or a wider perspective. That would be my argument for the value of reviews.
It [the article] certainly highlighted something that I’d never thought about, similar to what you were saying earlier – if music reflects the society that made it, be it politically or socially, then it’s the job of the music critic to explore what the issues were it was trying to reflect, and then whether it’s done a good job of it. If not, it deserves a bad review.
Anyway just to finish, how has it been working with Whities?
It’s really good. Nic’s really invested in working closely with artists over a sustained period and working to develop them. He has opinions on the directions things are going and certain creative or professional decisions that I might make. He’s invested in helping me to make the right decisions in those ways so it’s super helpful.
It’s also nice and beneficial to be part of something that appears to have a certain momentum behind it. The records coming out are really good, people are really paying attention to Whities. For me, being early in my career and the label being early on, it has made a lot of sense for both of us. There are a lot mutual benefits, kind of like shacking up together.
Words: Joseph Francis
Featured Images: Kasia Zacharko
Whities 012 is out now on Whities Records. Order it here.