Holly Dicker talks Broken English Club, Blueprint Records and J.G. Ballard with the veteran UK artist.
Ho has been releasing music for the last 20 years, and working with Gillard for just as long. He was performing with Gillard when he first met James Ruskin. The live show didn't quite go to plan, but it caught Ruskin's attention anyway. Ho went on to become an integral part of Ruskin's Blueprint label and a key figure in the history of British techno, known for pioneering the funky tribal techno sound through his label Meta, as heard on albums like Listening To The Voice Inside and Universal. His more minimally inclined music as Raudive was just as significant, turning in highly effective clubs tracks across an impressive seven-year run.
Nowadays most of Ho's creative energy goes into Broken English Club, a different instance of man clashing with machine. The project has deeper roots in post-punk and treads a path between the dance floor and rock music's outer rim. Last year's Suburban Hunting, for Veronica Vasicka's Cititrax label, distilled some of the project's key themes—bored suburbia, repressed violence, derelict space—into a compelling long-player. Ho is currently working on its follow up, Headland, inspired by and written in Dungeness, an eerie stretch of coastline in the southeast of England. Dungeness is an incongruous mix of natural conservation land, a working nuclear power station and an oddball residential area, as good a metaphor as any for the contradictions that make up much of Ho's current output.
Where did the idea for Broken English Club come from?
I was listening to a lot of stuff like Godflesh and Napalm Death. All those things that I was really into as a teenager were seeping back into my music.
I also read that J.G. Ballard had an influence on the project. Which novels in particular?
One was Crash and the other one was Concrete Island. And High Rise as well. They were painting this really bleak English dystopia that existed in a suburban landscape that I could really relate to. He was taking about a place kind of close to where I live, in between central London and Heathrow.
There's always been this feeling of the pull of London but also the pushing away, out into suburbia as well. You get this tension when you can feel two places—the energy of the countryside and the energy of London—pulling at you. And it was a kind of creeping dread that he has in a lot of his stories that really made sense, the kind of dynamic I was wanting to explore in terms of my music. I like stuff that has this estranged heaviness to it, there's a kind of emptiness at the same time as it being quite brutal.
Is Broken English Club inherently a reflection on England, then, or London?
It's not as specific as that. It's not about something, it's more about what has been distilled down into it. It's the result of lots of different things. So it's a lot of the stuff from Ballard and this kind of boredom that exists in a lot of his books; boredom in suburbia. It's also the result of having a bit of timeout from techno, and from making music in a couple of bands around six or seven years ago. The first one is The Eyes In The Heat, and the other one was called Neurotic Mass Movement.
I really enjoyed that time in my life because I was playing guitar, an instrument that I started out with as a teenager. I was exploring a lot of musical ideas in terms of the band situation, which opened my head to a more holistic way of seeing all the music that I am into. It stopped me from having everything divided by genre barriers.
Where does Zov Zov fit into the picture?
We pretty much meet once a week and make music, but we started the project at a time when I was releasing music on other labels, so I didn't have the means of releasing it myself until quite recently.
Why was Mira a good fit for the project's debut release?
It was the fact that [Shifted] was very happy for us to present the project how we wanted it to be. I had chatted to some other record labels and they wanted to add rhythmic tracks or club tracks to balance it out, and the idea of Zov Zov isn't that at all. It's an abstract, experimental project.
As someone who's used to running his own labels, do you find it hard to work to another's specification or vision?
It is difficult, especially with the Zov Zov project, which is part of the reason why there's Death & Leisure, so I could have a means of putting out the Zov Zov stuff in exactly the way I want it to be presented. And also putting out stuff by people I know, who I think are really good but are not getting enough exposure.
Let's talk about Myth Of Steel & Concrete. That's quite a striking cover.
It's Richard Serra. He makes these huge concrete sculptures. For some strange reason I've always got those in my mind when I'm making a lot of Broken English Club stuff.
Does your music often come from a visual or physical starting place?
It all goes into a melting pot, and certainly visual art is one of them. I find that it helps with creating that texture, that space, because there is something quite architectural about making tracks. And if you think about a track as a three-dimensional space, influenced by sculpture or photography, then those things start becoming more relevant in the process.
What other references helped Suburban Hunting take shape?
A lot of Ballard's psychogeographical ideas. I don't know if you're familiar with psychogeography?
It's basically a way of writing about places. It's the idea that places, as well as being physical spaces, contain their own history and collection of ideas that creates their identity. There's a guy called Iain Sinclair who's written some stuff about psychogeography, and also a guy called Nick Papadimitriou as well. Nick Papadimitriou has this term called "passing through the eye of the land," which I love; passing from your own self or consciousness, through a place, and coming out the other side into something else. It's transcendental, I think.
Again, some very strong, very severe artwork there—are they manacles?
Manacles and a bear trap. That was photographed by Corinne Schiavone. She lives over in LA and she does a lot of photography for Jealous God. She's really talented. Corinne, Silent Servant and Veronica [Vasicka] came up with the imagery for that. They've certainly been an inspiration to me as well. Veronica and Silent Servant, they're visually motivated and really into photography, so that really came out well. I was very happy for them to interpret the album in that way.
How did the first Jealous God EP come about?
I guess I must have been in touch with [Regis and Silent Servant] as I was just beginning the Broken English Club project. I really didn't know what I was doing with it, if I was going to release it—I had no concrete idea of what it was going to be. Silent Servant was very interested right from the start, from the very early tracks that I sent him. He really understood it, because I wasn't sure if many people were going to get it.
I love the Dadaist feel of Jealous God. It reminds me of the work Danny Passarella is doing. Can you tell me about your collaboration with him, Multi?
I've always been impressed by Danny in the way that he expresses a series of ideas or a narrative in different ways. It's this attitude he has where there isn't one thing that's the primary piece of art, all the different aspects of it are equally important; this gestalt thing where the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.
We'd been talking about music a lot—I met Danny when he was playing live with his band Passarella Death Squad—and it happened really organically. We ended up doing these four tracks, and we were talking about what we felt had influenced them, what we wanted to do with them, and it ended up being a performance piece in London.
We're talking about KAOS XII Birthday at Electrowerkz, right?
Yeah, yeah. That was amazing. I want to get into more of that, working with performance artists, and finding different ways of creating an event or happening. We found this performance artist, who happens to be a regular at KAOS, and Lee [Adams]—the guy who runs KAOS—comes from a performance art background, so it was the perfect place for us to put this on, like a meeting of different people who were all into the same idea.
What's the concept behind KAOS?
KAOS is a club that's been going for a long time. I was introduced to them when they moved to Electrowerkz, and played for them a couple of times. It's an amazing space and group of people. You feel very free to push boundaries a bit more, which is what clubbing should be about. It should be something that's not too conservative.
It was a really good experience in terms of experimenting and allowing something to unfold, because me and Danny didn't know exactly what was going to happen and how all this would manifest itself. We just wanted to extend what was going on in the music out into the real world.
What was the thinking behind the Multi video that your brother, Rufus Ho, shot?
I had the image of the Warhol personality Candy Darling in my mind, and we wanted to make the piece a meditation on that. We thought it would be interesting to have someone become that character, and the simplest way of that happening is someone applying makeup. The Candy Darling idea also represents a process of transformation because she was a transgender person. We wanted a process of transformation to occur through the changing of one's physical self. At the end of the video, once the physical change has occurred, there is a feeling of transcendence and moving to a higher plane.
You've also worked together on a trio of Zov Zov pieces.
The videos are inspired by alchemy and transformation—I think that must be an obsession of mine. I particularly like alchemy because it explores the idea that the creative act is a kind of spiritual device that creates a conduit between this world and others. I believe art was the original spiritual device, before religion solidified it into something more dogmatic. The imagination is at the heart of magic, it's a way of hacking or programming reality, to remake and become authors of our own landscape.
The videos are a process of actions that form a ritual. Through the acting out of that ritual the character is able to commune with something energetic, something that is allusive in everyday life.
What was it like returning to Blueprint after so many years?
It was really nice to work with that label again. It's where I started out, so there will always be a strong bond there. You had me and James [Ruskin], and Karl [Regis] and Surgeon in Birmingham, and this emergence of an identity, a UK techno identity. The Blueprint 20th anniversary has rereleased some of the older stuff too, and I really feel like it has a place and it relates to what I'm doing now.
What's your relationship with the past like at this juncture? How do you feel about looking back?
I guess certain tracks pop up and seem to feel important or relevant. When I look at tracks that I've made over the years, I can see some continuity in terms of what I wanted to explore. There was the deep techno stuff, and then the really heavy tribal stuff—a lot of which I released on Meta. I can see those strands of music I was making, and see how specific releases still feel like they're part of my evolution.
Are there any records from the back-catalogue that especially resonate with you?
There's a couple. Light And Dark Part Two, the one with the Mick Harris remixes on it. He was originally the drummer in Napalm Death, and then he went on to do Scorn and various other things, so that, for me, was an amazing full circle thing. That was a really important record. It was the first time I had the feeling of all those things being connected, which has stayed with me in terms of what I'm doing now.
There was a release called Total Pure, which was a Raudive record, and that was almost the first time I started exploring the Broken English Club ideas. It was like a prototype for what I'm doing now.
What about from Blueprint?
Blueprint six would be a really important one from my discography. It's called Cosmetics and it represents a certain time... I guess it was the pinnacle of hard, psychedelic techno in the late '90s. And it's nice listening back, because they do sound of their time, but at the same time I can see things in them that have seeped into what I'm doing now.
Would you say there's a line through it all?
I think in everything I've done I've been obsessed with a hypnotic quality. That's the thing that's running through all of it, this repetitive, hypnotic quality. And vocals as well. If I wasn't singing, I was sampling a lot in my old Meta stuff. Also with Raudive I was using a lot of vocals. I've always loved the way in which they can morph and the way they sit in a piece of music.
I think psychedelic is fitting term, too. Hypnotic feels too one-dimensional.
Yeah, I'd agree. I'm always wanting to go to the same place, I have just taken different routes along the way. And that's the fun of making music. You want this psychedelic effect but it can be achieved in so many different ways, and the way I make music is reflected in the way I listen to music. I find listening to death metal as powerful as listening to Philip Glass—they're both equally as powerful, but in different ways, which is kind of what I've wanted to do with my music.