big block 454 inteview
(January/February 1998)

When you come across a demo called "I changed my dentist...I changed him into a horse" that consists of 30 straight minutes of rampant genre-hopping created on a sampler-based orchestra and conducted by an octopus with the DTs you sit up and take notice. When this is followed by a further tape which purports to hold 3 soundtracks from imaginary computer games called "Theme 34.1", "Theme 34.2" and, yes, "Theme 34.3" (which presumably implies the existence of at least 33 others), but in fact manages to sound less like computer game music than any sound known to man and instead moves from errant drum and bass to Slayer-speed metal in three easy paces you begin to wonder what on earth Big Block 454 are on....

What on earth are you on?

The pillion seat of the Chariot of the Gods? A staple diet of ugly food? The Top of the World, Ma?

Why are you making music like this?

"It's in us, and it's got to come out."

Years of listening to a wide variety of sounds has made us want to produce music which incorporates elements of everything we have been stimulated by, such as Krautrock (Faust, Can), Funk (Parliament/ Funkadelic), English bands (Syd Barrett's Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Soft Machine), key producers (Brian Eno, Joe Meek), Jazz (Miles Davis), general weirdos (Harry Partch, the Residents, Captain Beefheart), interesting composers (Bela Bartok, Frank Zappa), heavy rock (Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath), and modern dance and ambient music.

We want to make stimulating music, that exists out of time. If you come back to it in five years' time, it would still have new things there to discover, and it would not sound dated. "If you're not in fashion, you're never out of fashion."

We like to create an atmosphere, and then jar the listener by jump-cutting to a totally different scene. Hopefully, pieces don't outstay their welcome.

We take tiny sections of improvisations, especially errors, blow them up and use them as the basis for a piece. "Mistakes as intentions."

We try to compose in different ways each time. Above all, we want to make something that's very different, interesting and listenable-to. There's no point in making something so weird that no-one wants to hear it.

Who's in the band, and who does what?

This could be answered in two ways:

  • The English Way: Big Block 454 is a nebulous, amorphous blob which exists outside the normal constraints of space and time.
  • The American Way: We use and endorse Ernie Ball strings and USA Nylon 0.88mm picks; vehicles supplied by the Ford Motor Corporation of Detroit.
Colin and Pete use whatever instruments that suggest themselves for each piece of music. Guitars; basses; old analog synths and sequencers; more modern synths, samplers and computers; a harmonium; saxophones and so on.

We have constructed quite a few instruments, for instance The Thing, a wood and metal stringed instrument (a form of monochord) played with an E-bow. We make use of found items (especially money). We have a collection of old mainframe computer hard disc parts, used for percussion and bell sounds. A lot of these things are sampled and become rhythm tracks.

We never sample anyone else's music, or use break-beat discs. We would rather record rhythms ourselves, and sample these. Other musicians, artists and film makers are collaborated with as and when.

The "Oblique Strategy" cards by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt are used for stimulus during composing, as are various other random and aleatoric methods.

Our recent music for the "Measured in Shadows" Installation used the Fibonacci Number Series (whcih occurs in nature in organic growth patterns such as the Nautilus shell) to construct musical scales and frameworks.

So there.

Have you been going for long enough to see if you are making that music that "exists out of time"? And can you explain what the "Oblique Strategy" cards are?

In answer to that, I have to say yes! I can't say that I spend much time listening to our old music, but when I do, I enjoy it and I do hear different, interesting things---and I can't remember how we did it!

To quote Eno:

"Over 100 worthwhile dilemmas" These cards can be used as a pack or by drawing a single card ... when a dilemma occurs in a working situation.
They are a set of oracle cards based on the Chinese I Ching. When you get bogged down in a creative situation, you draw a card and obey (or ignore) the aphorism on it, eg "Retrace your steps", "Turn it upside down", "Is it finished?", and so on. This can often start you off again, quite possibly in a different direction. There is an online Internet site where you can access these cards---there is a link on our site. Just go there, push a button, and follow the instructions!

So what other methods do you use?

Aleatoric---depending on the throw of a dice or by chance; (music & art) involving random choice by performer. But what is random?

A number of years ago, I constructed various formulae based on a number of outside influences---one such being the date and time. This determined things such as tempo, scale. chord changes and so on. Recently, we used the Fibonacci Series as a basis for some pieces. The Fibonacci Series, in which the next number in the series is the sum of the previous two numbers (0,1,1,2,3,5,8,13, etc). This was used to determine song length, dynamics and so on in an organic way---perhaps the piece would be 89 bars long, with a climax at bar 55. This gives us scaffolding to work within, but the music is still ours.

We often improvise straight onto tape, then find useful sections of the improvisations to use as starting points for pieces. We give out an "Oblique Strategy" card to each performer (unseen by each other), so one person may have the instruction "Do nothing for as long as possible", whilst another may have "Be extravagant".

We've also tried this using a pack of cards given away by NME several years ago, featuring photos of bands. The instructions might be: Pretend that you are this person (card 1) but playing a song by this person (card 2). I've just tried this out for an example: I would have to play like Marc Bolan playing a Madness song!

Another "narrowing of choice" method that we use is to load the sampler with a selection of discs taken at random, and construct a piece using only those sounds.

Do you think that you can really take credit for composing if you're using aids like those?

Yes of course! (but you knew we'd say that!) All these methods exist to throw you out of your usual mind-set and stimulate you in a somewhat-unnatural way, a form of lateral thinking.

It is very easy to fall back on your technique or favourite style of playing, especially when you're not feeling very inventive. This can produce a lot of similar-sounding pieces, as can always writing in the same way, eg:

  1. Get a nice rhythm on the drum machine
  2. Bass line over it
  3. Slap the rest of the instruments over the top
If you always write this way, you will sooner or later become stale.

A lot of our writing involves setting the process of composition in motion, without knowing where it will lead, instead of aiming at one goal. Using random methods to take decisions for you narrows your choice and helps you along the path, but ultimately, it's what's inside the players

Have you got a sordid past in indie bands which you then became disillusioned with, or have you always been interested in the more avant garde side of things?

Talking about this, we discovered that Pete and myself have very similar beginnings: rolling things (ball-bearings in my case, batteries in Pete's---what would a psycologist make of that?) down a guitar and recording the results. And hey!---we're still doing the same thing today!

I played guitar in improvising bands---we would play for hours in rehearsal rooms and record everything. I would then go away and analyse the results---and then roll a few more ball-bearings down my guitar! We imagined at the time that we were playing jazz-rock, but we weren't.

I then played synthesiser, saxophone, guitar and bass in various bands that featured people playing guitars and people singing, eventually ending up in a band with Melissa Sinden (cousin of Donald Sinden, name-dropping fans) on vocals, who features on some Big Block 454 material.

At the same time as the above, I've always collected odd instruments and junk and made extensive tapes.

Pete played guitar in jazz bands, including a band which welded the music of "comedy" trombonist George Chisholm to the writings of William Burroughs---the band was called Jism. He also busked as a one-man-band around the streets of Miles Platting, playing euphonium, didgeridoo and banjo.

We eventually met up, found a symbiotic relationship existed with our equipment, and progressed into what we are today. Still, it could have been worse.

Do you play live? is it possible with all the stuff going on in your songs/pieces/tracks---what do you call them?

We have played live, but not on a regular basis. It is difficult to recreate some of our material live, in fact nearly all the live performances we have done have involved material written specifically for the event.

We prefer to play at specific events, rather than just a live gig. We have played at various Art Gallery private viewings, using computers and guitars.

We did a great event at the Viewpoint Gallery in Salford, where there was a fashion show, dancers, a free-improvising band (Those Who Celebrate) and ourselves. We provided the rhythms, along with TWC's drummer, whilst they improvised over the top. The dancers had rehearsed to our rhythms, so they knew what to expect, but there was the added element of chance.

Our most recent live performance was at an ambient/dance event at the Rocket Bar in Manchester, organised by Booombient (see their site at There, we played guitar and bass over machine-driven rhythms. We knew the basis format and riffs we were going to use, and took that as a starting point for improvisations.

We like the juxtaposition between composed and improvised themes; for instance, live I may be playing a symphonic tone poem based on the kora music of the indigenous population of Burkina Faso, whilst over that, Pete may be playing any old crap that comes into his head, usually Led Zeppelin.

What do we call our pieces? Good question---what do other people call them, that's more important! I suppose the ones with vocals are songs, whilst the others are pieces---maybe they're all pieces.

Don't you feel pretentious/fake/whatever calling your music "pieces"? I always do, when I say "I've written a song" when all i've actually done is play random chords until they sound OK and scribble a few words down.

Hey, it's only a name! What is writing a song, if not playing random chords until they sound ok and then scribbling a few words down? How do you think Dylan did it? How do you think Stravinsky did it (well---not like that, but never mind).

Our "pieces" tend to start as backing tracks on the computer (which have to have a recognisable file name so that I can find them again) or improvisations/experiments recorded straight to DAT. These are allocated a code number, such as IMP.298.2 for the second improvisation recorded in February 1998, purely for admin purposes. When these "pieces" start to gain a form and become finalised, they are given a proper title. Thus, if one of our so-called "pieces" has a title, it could be said to be ready for unleashing onto an unsuspecting public.

We tend to start the creative process with an idea for a sound or texture, and see where that takes us, rather than already having a complete picture of the finished piece (unless we're writing to a commission). However, we do construct our pieces; they don't just fall together---I like to think that this is where our skill comes in!

As for lyrics, that is something separate. Pete and myself both tend to write complete lyrics, separate from the music. Pete sometimes approaches the recording with an idea for the chords to go with his lyrics; I rarely do. What I tend to do, is have a collection of musical ideas in a semi-finished form (backing tracks, if you like) and a sheaf of lyrics. I then have a go at matching a lyric to a piece of music. I will then rewrite the lyric (if necessary) to fit.

I keep notebooks full of phrases that I feel will be useful in a song. I also tend to write down ideas or phrases from dreams, as these tend to stimulate me in ways different from the norm.

I have used cut-ups, and also various computer programs. Recently, I've been playing with a Haiku program, but I changed the database to a more English set of words (eg replacing bamboo and waterfall with cricket and garden shed).

How do you use the Internet? Have you done any jamming on the web?

Obviously, we're using the site as a promotion tool, but also as a place of interest, not just for Big Block 454. We're expanding it all the time, and hope to make it somewhere that people will visit more than once. We want to get a lot of our music available on the site.

We hope to get interviews on other ezines and so forth. We have already met two groups of people over the internet that we hope to be collaborating with---in fact, we've already started work with the artists "The Art of Slackness", providing some music for their on-line video gallery.

We haven't tried jamming on the net---I saw Tomorrow's World as well! We hope to be collaborating with a Russian musician---we send him samples; he sends us samples; and we both create hybrid pieces of music.

Can you give us a discography, especially stuff that's available now?

  • 12" single "Know What This Is?"
  • Cassette "Three Lucky Boys"
  • CD "Measured in Shadows"
  • Cassette "I Changed My Dentist...I Changed Him Into a Horse"
Finally, is there anything you have never been asked in an interview, that you would really like to be asked? If so, what is the question, and the answer?

Q: Would you like to take advantage of this opportunity to engage in some gratuitous self-promotion?

A: No.

Projects at the moment:

  • Music for 7 short videos by the Art of Slackness (two computer artists, Paul Sucksmith and Victoria Jones).
  • Themes for Imaginary Games: 3 pieces which I have just finished mixing two minutes ago (after having lots of problems with the studio).
  • A collaboration with a Russian industrial/ambient musician, involving the swapping of samples and pieces of music over the Internet, resulting in two sets of Collaborative Music---this sounds like it could go well, I'm really interested in giving someone some bits and pieces and letting them build them up how they want.

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