"I think today should be great."
"It will be if you ask me some interesting questions. If not, it's going to be shit."
I first met Russell Haswell on a bright afternoon in October 2014, in the main square of Kraków, Poland. We were scheduled to talk in front of an audience for a live edition of RA's Exchange at that year's Unsound festival. Haswell was running a little late, and he was in a bad mood. Oscar Powell, who'd recently released an album from Haswell on his label, Diagonal, mentioned something about an incident at their hotel. Once we were inside the Goethe-Institut, Haswell seemed to perk up at the sight of the audience. He cracked a joke, and took his seat.
"I'm not going to hold it," he said, gesturing towards the microphone. A card on the table in front of him had a synopsis of the talk printed on it: "Russell Haswell is a multidisciplinary artist known primarily for his music, including a series of albums for Editions Mego and collaborations with the likes of Aphex Twin, Pan Sonic, White House Yasunao Tone, Masami Akita and Florian Hecker."
"'White House' should be one word," he said.
Haswell told the audience that he has mixed emotions about playing festivals. He mostly doesn't see himself in the same light as the artists he's booked alongside, but this tension stirs his creativity. "I have issues going to festivals because I don't like 99% of the artists who are there," he explained. "My work is based on attacking their work, and their adhesion to genre and style and fashion. I'm anti all of these things. I'm only interested in the advancement and development and critique of what already exists."
Later that night, Haswell took the stage at Hotel Forum for a live set based on 37 Minute Workout, the record he'd released earlier that year on Diagonal. The album was notable for its use of beats, something Haswell had been resisting for years. In the past, friends and former collaborators of his like Aphex Twin and Autechre had apparently told him to "just stick a fucking beat on it, Russ," but 37 Minute Workout was the first time he'd properly done so. (He agreed to the project on the condition that Powell got him a drum machine.) On the record, beats were used less to mark rhythm and more to create chaos—one of Haswell's favourite words. His set was even further from the techno deconstructions the album was supposedly based on; by its climax, sheets of distortion rained down on the room. Haswell, periodically swearing at the crowd, faked the end of his set a few times, a sort of twisted encore, before retaking the stage and emitting a belligerent belch of noise from his machines.
When it comes to music, Haswell believes in spontaneity, provocation, emotional expressions and a loss of control. 37 Minute Workout, for example, took him two hours to make. Using a simple modular rig, he created a scenario where the record "made itself," which is a blunt way of saying that he worked out what the modules might produce and then influenced the results. "I like to straddle the illusion of producing something that somebody doesn't know whether it took five minutes or five years," he said. Another key ingredient is a feeling. "Some records may be aspirational, some of them are about longing and hoping, and wishing and dreaming," he later told me. "Projecting into the future, but often they're about the here and now."
If, in simple terms, artistic expressions are an attempt to translate something of one's self into a chosen medium, then Haswell has been achieving this aim spectacularly for 20 years. He is straight-talking, bloody-minded and sometimes salty—he's also smart, funny, culturally engaged and happy to share the knowledge he's amassed over his long career. He's lived in the UK, the US, Japan, Sweden and Finland, and although he's most readily associated with sound, he's worked extensively in visual arts and curation, which helps explain why he's as comfortable performing in a pub as he is in an art gallery. Whatever he's doing or wherever he's performing—and whether he's pleasing people or pissing them off—Haswell's art feels as close to a direct extension of himself as it's possible to get.
Haswell is also credited with helping revive the career of Peter Zinovieff, who was the founder of EMS, the company behind the legendary VCS3 synthesizer, a favourite of Kraftwerk, Aphex Twin and David Bowie. As a curator for Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary in Vienna, in 2010 Haswell commissioned Zinovieff (by finding his address and knocking on his door) to compose a piece for a project called The Morning Line, a pavilion that had five surround sound zones. Zinovieff later described the project as the starting place for a new career as a composer, after years spent away from electronic music.
These projects—cross-discipline, conceptual, sometimes academic—are one side of the creative coin for Haswell. The thrill, uncertainty and immediacy of performing live in a music venue is also what drives him. In an ideal scenario, his sets will provoke, challenge and divide an audience. "I think it's good that some people don't like what you're doing, and I think it's great when you get a split audience," said. "Because then it turns into a debate. If everyone thinks you're fucking brilliant, it just fades out and the next thing comes. If they all think you're shit, it all fades out and you disappear again. But if you get a kind of 50/50 scenario going on, the dialogue starts and it seems to keep it alive for a lot longer than just everyone thinking it's great really."
Haswell mentioned his performance at 2015's Sonar festival as a particularly rewarding recent gig. "It came really naturally. I think it helped that I was a little bit inebriated, I had my champagne supplied, I was drinking it during the gig, I had people chanting, "Cov! Cov! Cov!" before I went on the stage. I had a guy, who I think was on acid, who kept climbing the stage, and tried to nick my champagne while I was playing. All these things really inspired me. A bit of heckling goes a long way with me. If it's a dumbstruck, quiet audience I kind of invert. I almost can't function; I don't know what to do!"
Late last year I saw Haswell play two such gigs at the Victoria pub in East London, although the audience's mousiness didn't disrupt his flow. There was something perverse about seeing him on a Sunday evening in the backroom of a pub, and on both occasions the simplicity of the setup—a very dark room and a soundsystem—placed the audience's attention squarely on the sounds. Haswell's performances, untethered to any traditional notions of musicality, deal only in what's immediate and visceral, and pose a very simple question: "Is this racket moving me?" For me, most of the time, the answer is yes; the response of people I'm with is usually split in the way Haswell aims for. It's rare anyone sits on the fence.
These gigs were part of a series called Different Circles, which was organised by the experimental grime artists Mumdance and Logos. Since he moved back to London last year from rural Suffolk, Haswell has been part of a loose community connected to the events. Ten to 15 years his junior, some of the artists seem to see Haswell as a sort of mentor figure, something that's especially true for Powell. "Russell is an amazing human being, and I could bang on about it forever," he told me last year. "But ultimately, he's an artist, and he believes in his art. Before meeting him, I wasn't really exposed to that kind of raw, all encompassing mentality that he has, where he wakes up every day and his entire being is an expression of what he is as an artist."
"He has an encyclopaedic knowledge of music and sound," Mumdance told me over email. "Over the past year and a half, especially around the Different Circles events, we've spent many evenings staying up till the crack of dawn listening to and discussing all sorts of weird music, which has definitely had a big influence on me as an artist and the way I think about sound in general."
Diagonal, which Powell runs with Jamie Williams, is now one of Haswell's main labels. They released his most recent album, As Sure As Night Follows Day, which Haswell described to me as a regression. "Because I'm getting older and I'm starting to feel old, I'm trying to make myself feel like I'm 16 again," he said. "So as a consequence, I'm looking back at the music from my youth, from my teenage years and into my early 20s. So it's a kind of amalgam of techno from the early '90s with noise, and influences from grindcore and death metal and all those kinds of things that we know I'm interested in."
"The easiest way to give yourself a headache," TechJ88 commented on Ian Maleney's RA review. "Torture room on repeat music forsure."
As Sure As Night Follows Day is an extreme record by anyone's standards. It has a ferocity that transcends most of the early '90s techno Haswell is referencing, and it was composed across a few days in a blur of improvisation. But, as Haswell said himself, it's possibly the "least radical" record he's written. If you squinted, there are tracks, such as "Gas Attack" and "Hardwax Flashback," you could imagine techno DJs playing. A remix EP that featured Autechre, Powell and DJ Stringray made these links clearer. This isn't entirely new ground for Haswell. Following a so-shambolic-it-was-great live show at Corsica Studios in 2012, he released an EP on PAN with Regis as Concrete Fence, a record in which menacing sound design was subdued by measured, club-ready drums. Haswell keeps clubbing and club music at arm's length, but he enjoys coming close enough to challenge its conventions.
20 years into his "non-career," Haswell is beginning to think pragmatically about his place in the world. "I'm probably at a sort of limit of success for the kind of stuff I do," he said. "I mean, I hope it's going to get better, because I wanna survive and I wanna keep doing it. I don't wanna do anything else. I'm kind of beyond employment now, where I don't know who'd have me. I mean, they probably wouldn't even let me stack shelves in Tesco."
But after all of this time there is no lack of clarity over who he is and what fuels his work. As he told me at Unsound: "I'm a voyeur, I'm a pervert, and that's where my interests are: in excess and consumption, extremity and nihilism—all of the exciting things in life."