Unlike many electronic music “live” shows which appear about as spontaneous as a Cirque du Soleil routine, Squarepusher’s hypnotic set on Day Two of Los Angeles’ Hard Summer festival put his newest album, Ufabulum, through a kaleidoscope – refracting his songs into new forms, as a massive LED backdrop mirrored every twist and turn.
The English breakbeat mad scientist, born Tom Jenkinson, who has for over a decade and a half pushed the boundaries of drum and bass, acid techno and more, sat down with Rolling Stone backstage to explain his latest creation. “It’s all as I did it in the studio running live on stage, so it’s all happening live,” he said. “If I tweak the music, that will have certain effects on how the visuals are generated.”
The Ufabulum live show is a hodgepodge of custom-built software controllers that enables Jenkinson to manipulate – chopping, sampling, pitch-shifting – his songs on the fly while concocting a dynamic visual response to each change he makes.
Jenkinson, however, said that when he started working on Ufabulum and the accompanying visual display, he wasn’t setting out with any sort of grandiose plan to save live electronic performances. “I wasn’t thinking so much about shows. I just wanted to make a really well-rounded audio-visual item,” he explained. “I don’t get too bothered trying to plan things out.”
Still, Jenkinson is uniquely well-suited to fuse electronic music with visuals. He’s been getting his hands dirty with musical hardware since a young age.
“There’s no discontinuity between that, when I was seven or eight years old, pissing around with electronics, and now, doing what I’m doing in the studio,” he said.
That background means that Jenkinson doesn’t draw a line between his technical duties – engineering, programming, sound design – and his songwriting and performances, an approach made clear when he takes out his bass guitar during a set and uses it to trigger sounds it’s safe to say no bass has ever made.
“For me, the guitar, it’s a grid. Certain patterns correspond to certain sequences of notes, intervals, ratios. It’s all math. It’s all the same thing to me,” he said.
Jenkinson, whose plans for the rest of summer include “gigs and the gaps between gigs” in Europe, said that ultimately it’s the performance itself that matters, not the blueprints.
“The point is, I’ve designed a piece of software that allows me to give free reign to my imagination,” he said. “If I don’t make it come across through what I do with the software, it’s not worth bragging about the fact that I made it.”
Watch a clip from Squarepusher’s Hard Summer set below: