"Yeah, maybe what my dad is doing is cool." Lisa Blanning hears about the unusual background that shaped this UK artist's distinctive sound.
WeTransfer supports Breaking Through. Download a three-track excerpt of Rian Treanor's current live set, recorded last year in Moscow.
Most people don't have formative musical experiences at kindergarten age, but the British dance music experimentalist Rian Treanor had an unusual upbringing. "I must have been about five," he recalled, grinning at the memory. "I remember that Whigfield song, 'Saturday Night,' really clearly. Someone DJing in our living room and people going for it." Treanor's parents were ravers in Sheffield's late '80s bleep and techno scene, and they had him when they were young. His father, the artist and musician Mark Fell, was 21 when Treanor was born. Treanor's musical education—house parties, outdoor raves—got started early.
Treanor grew up in Rotherham, near Sheffield, as a skate rat and graffiti writer who collected rave and speed garage tapes around the age of 13, learned to DJ at 15, and made his own music when he was 16. But he waited until he was 27 to release his first record. "I think I'm quite picky," he said in his strong Yorkshire accent. "I'm not a perfectionist, but I wasn't making something that I thought was my own thing. Rather than replicating stuff that already existed, I was trying to work out how to do something that had my own character in there somehow. Maybe I could have released stuff when I was 18—looking back, I had things that were alright. But I guess I was waiting for the right opportunity, where I had the right material that worked with the right label."
His debut EP, A Rational Tangle, released in late 2015 by the Boomkat imprint The Death Of Rave, didn't exactly come out of nowhere. You can hear an IDM heritage that goes back as far as the mid-'90s, especially in the sound palette, and there's more than a touch of his father's algorithmic precision. But Treanor has a flavor that's entirely his own, a feel for fluid funk rarely heard in computer music. This emphasis on the dance floor, something that was lost in the self-indulgence of peak IDM, is clear across all three of his EPs—including 2016's Pattern Damage, released on The Death Of Rave, and his latest release, Contraposition, on the revived Warp sub-label Arcola. While some have compared his music to footwork—Treanor is a fan, as he is of many different kinds of "unusual dance music"—he's never tried to make it. Instead, the similarity is tangential, borne from a shared DNA of syncopation and rhythmic permutation.
If you ask the unfailingly modest Treanor to describe his sound, he'll quickly talk himself out of the slightest praise. "I'm trying to make something that I'm not really sure what it is," he said. "That's probably my aim, to come up with something that's unusual to me. I would say something like, 'It's weird dance music.' But it's not weird at all. I think it's quite formulaic. Using these sounds that have already existed for 20, 30 years, and using some elements that have existed for ten years. It's absorbing things that already exist and returning them together in different combinations or something. So it's not unusual," he laughed. "Yeah, it's not anything new."
If reduced to its most basic parts, that description of his music is technically correct, and it's true that most new music in the post-internet era works by combining or recontextualizing existing elements. But to listen to Treanor's music is to enter a rare zone that's both fully accessible in its grooves and experimental in its construction. Loops evolve instead of repeating, and patterns last closer to 16 bars rather than the standard four bars we've become accustomed to in popular music. Although he refuses to call it IDM—"maybe stupid dance music is a better phrase," he said, and I honestly couldn't tell if he was joking, although he clearly was when he called it "chavant-garde"—he rightly thinks of his release titles as descriptions. A Rational Tangle, Pattern Damage and Contraposition all evoke a glitch in the matrix of computer music, but they don't reveal the true nature of their commitment to the body.
If it took Treanor time to find his voice as a producer, settling on the right software seemed to help. After working for years with drum machines and standard programs like Fruity Loops and Logic, he decided on Max/MSP—favored by improvisers and experimental electronic musicians, including his father—for practical reasons. While at university in Leeds, studying fine art and organizing the Enjoy project space, which housed artist studios and exhibitions, he was working with different acoustic musicians and improvisers. "And I'm there, programming drum machines; it'd take me five minutes to make one change," he explained. "So I needed an interface to be able to change things and create music on the fly. And that's why I started using it, to make interfaces to improvise with." (He still has an experimental duo with saxophonist Karl D'Silva, a Rotherham cohort and one of the musicians who prompted his switch to Max/MSP.)
"I'm not a computer programmer, I'm not an articulate person in that kind of way," Treanor said. "I'm a visual artist, and Max is a graphical interface: you move objects around and connect them with wires. It's a bit like this modular system, you can do really versatile programming with it, it's right open-ended. With standard timeline-based software there's a start and finish point. It's more like you're composing a song, you're plotting out music over time. But Max is a bit more event-based, where you can trigger things. You can make algorithmic stuff, but also you could make weird interactive interfaces that you can do quite non-standard things in. I've built loads of weird bespoke sequencers that you can do intricate stuff with. But I guess my standard way is, I'll have a sequence where you can draw in a beat. But then I'll have lots of different variations, ways of inputting beats. One drum machine might be a step-sequencer. Another drum machine might be typing in some numbers and it will spit out additions of a number. And they make the rhythms that I have spent hours trying to program dot by dot myself."
Although Treanor makes it sound simple, saying that his EPs were recorded on the fly, he concedes that his sensibility steers him towards an innately human funk. "You need to coerce it quite a lot for it to have any interesting output," he said. "You can't just go, 'I'll generate some random numbers and dance to it.' I think human brains have got so much more capacity to be able to find patterns or shapes and structures within things than the computer will ever have. And that might be why we find some things funky or some things hysterical or some things boring."
Treanor had his own reasons for using Max, but he was well aware of his father's work with it. It took him some years to warm to his father's music—Fell's first release with Mat Steel as SND came out in 1998, when Treanor was ten years old—but eventually he made the connection between his own interests and what his father was doing.
"I remember being really annoyed by it," he laughed. "Him and Mat were doing SND stuff, and I walk in the bedroom, the studio, like, 'What are you doing? It's not even music! It's crap!' You're not even good at what you're doing, you need to fill it out with more hi-hats and things.' I guess it did my head in a bit. But growing up, I was into rave, and I definitely remember Warp Records stuff as that was happening. First time I heard 'Windowlicker' or 'Come To Daddy,' I must have been about 11, it really blew my mind. But I started listening to techno and I'm like, 'I recognize all this. And I know that my dad makes music, this is somehow related.' And then I started bringing mixtapes home that were obviously techno or rave or something, and he was like, 'I make techno.' And I'm like, 'Do you?' And looking into it a bit more, and Warp were coming into my world, and then thinking, 'Oh yeah, these things do all fit together.' And somehow connecting these dots, like, 'Yeah, maybe what my dad is doing is cool.'"
There are clear differences between what Fell and Treanor do. Fell's music has almost always felt more academic, while Treanor's is unapologetically for the dance floor, and more melodic to boot. But when an artist has been so clearly imprinted with his father's influence, it can be difficult to escape that shadow. It's a question that Treanor struggled with during our discussions. Our first interview was in Porto, backstage during preparations for an event in a weekend of special commissions of new Fell works at Museu De Arte Contemporânea Serralves, one of Portugal's leading contemporary art institutions. After finishing university, Treanor spent some years living in Glasgow, and, following an internship at a design firm in Hong Kong, has been mostly nomadic, living between London, Glasgow and Yorkshire, and traveling for live shows, artist residencies and other projects. He was in Porto assisting his father and also to DJ one of the events. Our second interview was over Skype while Treanor was in India for The Algebra Of Listening, a series of performances and installations with his father and a group of musicians working in Carnatic, a southern Indian classical music tradition.
By the time we spoke on Skype, Treanor had come to a firm conclusion regarding his father's influence. "For me it's really inspiring," he said. "I've grown up with this music being a massive part of my life, coming into contact with some of the music my dad was listening to and things he was making has had a massive impact on me. I've always been fascinated to learn more about it. So making music has always had this side to it: trying to figure out what it is my dad actually does and how I can make sense of it and what can I do with it, without just imitating it. I remember him taking me to events in weird old potato factories, art spaces or warehouses with all these brutal sounds going on. Seeing stuff like Autechre, Goodiepal, Russell Haswell, Terre Thaemlitz or Yasunao Tone, really full-on electronic stuff. Listening to all this when I was a young chav going to bassline nights and raves in the Peak District, but also studying art, was a mental mixture of influences.
"I do feel some pressure working in the same field as him, but it's always been a part of what I do," he said. "Helping set up his installations, playing about on equipment at home and stealing his records. So, it's inspiring for me rather than something negative. Now being able to come on this project in India and study these things together, and how that relates to work that he's done in the past and what we are both exploring now is an amazing opportunity." Treanor is under no illusions about the benefits he's received but, true to his character, it was only after multiple informal conversations that he mentioned the hard graft of working day jobs to support his own artistic practice and the years spent trying to find a balance between his creative output and finances. He's much more willing and excited to talk about the projects he's working on now, without ever forgetting how he came to them.
"This piece I'm doing in India explores algorithmic composition," he said. "I'm working with the musician Nakul Krishnamurthy on a new multichannel piece based on Carnatic time signatures. Carnatic music uses rule-based systems to generate rhythmic structures. I've spent the past year or so involved in this project, working with Nakul and other artists, learning some of the components involved and developing sequencers in Max that explore these behaviors and patterns. Listening to some of the stuff my dad did like ten years ago or longer, it sounds really similar. It's hard to compete in that way. I'll come to something and think, 'This is quite a new thing,' and then he'll say, 'Oh right, I did that ten years ago.' And it's just like, 'Oh right.' I'm influenced by his music, and that comes across in what I do, but there are still definite differences. I think also these past few years, he's been quite busy on more art production stuff. I've been more involved in that. I've also been releasing these records and it is more closely related, that dialogue really seems fitting for where we both are right now. It's really productive and inspiring, and when I'm at home, I'll make loads of stuff. And we're all listening to records and sharing our influences. He's a harsh critic [laughs]."
If Fell and Treanor share musical tendencies, it's also worth noting that their backgrounds are essentially identical: two working class Northern kids who grew up on rave in a town where the industry had collapsed. "Rotherham is a bit of a dead-end town in the north of England," he said. "It's not as bleak as some places on earth, and there are some proper quality characters, so I'm really lucky to have come from there. But it's not a very aspirational place to live. There's no industries to get into. There's not much opportunity; the government and council have stripped a lot of resources. When my granddad was young, he was in the steel industry; there was a job there, and there was a community around that. All that's been really dismantled. There really wasn't much outlet for kids. So what are you going to get into? Either going to shopping centers, or getting into drugs or crime, or getting into creative things."
He went on: "I think my thing growing up on a council estate in Rotherham was like, 'Oh my god, this place is really boring. I need something else from life.' A lot of time I think anti-inspiration is a big source—'I want to do something else.' How do you work with that in a positive way? Like in a lot of working class towns in the North, drugs are rife—I think it's partly down to this vacuum—and I have seen how they can totally destroy people. I really think what got me out of all that was getting into making music and finding more creative ways of wasting time. So, I was lucky because Rotherham is just outside of Sheffield. All that musical history is still part of the town, and is something I feel a strong connection with. All the good parties were happening in the industrial areas between Rotherham and Sheffield, so it's all part of the same place for me. It's something that I got more and more into as I grew up, exploring all the abandoned buildings and all its electronic music history, too. Obvious things like Cabaret Voltaire, Forgemasters, Human League or Warp are all really important to me. But then it's the weirder stuff that I now relate to: the working-class, post-industrial energy of the place, certain individuals there and the kind of nonconformist attitude that's part of its makeup. It's something that's in my DNA, and something I'm working from when I make music now."