Mark Fell is one of contemporary electronic music's most intriguing and consistently excellent practitioners. From his work with Mat Steel as glitch giants snd to nearly-dancefloor-friendly collaborations with Terre Thaemlitz and Errorsmith, along with the gloriously tactile material he's produced under the Sensate Focus moniker, Fell is an unabashed experimentalist, constantly exploring the limits of programming, software, and the very idea of what electronic music can be. This month sees Fell taking part in Art Sheffield's Up, Down, Top, Bottom, Strange and Charm programme, a multi-site, multi-disciplinary series of events featuring the likes of Hannah Sawtell and Florian Hecker. Fell's decided to bring the past and present together in haunting fashion, taking up residence in a derelict pub for an exploration of how sound can haunt space. Regular THUMP contributor Robert Barry caught up with Fell earlier this month in London to talk about pirate radio and more.
The Park Hill estate towers over Sheffield like a great concrete behemoth. These honeycomb configurations of brutalist blocks were granted Grade II listed status in 1998 and English Heritage promptly partnered with developers Urban Splash to redevelop it. Together they set about decanting the estate's council tenants to make way for a massive regeneration project that would see asking prices rise well beyond the means of the original residents.
So far, only one quarter of the site has been gifted brightly-coloured exterior panels and swish new glass lifts. The rest, since the bottom fell out of the property game in 2009, has been left to rot.
The Link pub, once notorious as among the very roughest drinking establishments in the country, is situated somewhere amongst that blighted remainder. "When I saw this space," Mark Fell tells me when we meet up to discuss his new project there for Art Sheffield, "I thought, oh god, what can I do to make this work?" With paint peeling off the walls, shredded sofas, broken bulb-less light fittings, dust and grime everywhere, the place looks – quite literally – like a bomb site. "For a while I was completely stuck how to use the space."
The solution arrived one morning when Fell's partner drew his attention to an old pirate radio DJ set from 1992 that had been uploaded to Mixcloud. Featuring floor fillers from the era like 'Eterna' by Slam, 'Eliminator' by Modular Expansion, and 'Structure' by Reese & Santonio, the ninety minute set seemed somehow to encapsulate for Fell all the shifts and mutations of what he regards, in retrospect, as a "pivotal year," both personally and in the wider scene. Apart from anything else, halfway through the set, the DJ gives a shoutout to Fell and his partner.
"I knew the two people who were doing the show," he explains. "One of them, Becky Seager, was a good friend. We were at university together. So then there was this personal reference in the mix. It had this personal resonance, do you know what I mean?" He pauses for a moment. We're sat outside a Costa Coffee in Spitalfields Market. Neither of us really wanted anything to drink so we're sort of squatting here on the cafe's spindly metal chairs. Fell slouches into his anorak against the brisk air of early spring. "This all happened while we were sat round having breakfast one morning," he says, "and then it became really clear: this can be the focal point of the work."
1992, for Mark Fell, was the year "the scene started to change." Having grown up listening to "weird electronic music like Throbbing Gristle", around 1988 he started to get into house music. "Around 88, 89, I was fully into the party scene," he says, "so I'd be going out and staying up all night dancing and having a good time. But then I just became more and more cynical and unhappy about it all as time progressed."
It may have all started to fall apart when the finger snaps came along.
"I hated finger snaps."
What's your problem with finger snaps? I ask.
"There was this period around 91, 92 where there was loads of music coming out with finger snaps instead of hand claps and I hated it. I always thought of some cool person snapping their fingers."
Mark Fell, I'm beginning to gather, was not identifying with this notional cool person snapping their fingers. "I wasn't a massive party-goer," he admits, "because I didn't do drugs or anything. I'd turn up and enjoy it for ten minutes and then just get really bored and think, well, this music's shit, these people are just talking nonsense. I was always an observer, if you know what I mean."
What he observed, circa 1992, was a moment of transition. "The scene started to change," he recalls. "This thing that was called house and techno started to split off into different sub-genres. Hardcore emerged or progressive hardcore or trance. And it all just seemed to fragment. Music technology was changing around that time too. We were caught between two paradigms."
"You have to remember," he continues, "that was the moment between Clause 28, the Poll Tax riots, things like Sinn Fein not being able to speak on British television, and then just after that the Criminal Justice Bill which outlawed repetitive beats. So it was a moment of massive musical change, technical change, and political change. All that hinged on this 1992 point. And all this seems to be embedded in this mix." Fortuitously, as he would later discover, the pirate radio station that originally broadcast the mix just happens to have been based in Park Hill.
For Fell, too, it was an important year. "It was the point at which the problem became posed: what do I do in response to this musical language and tradition? And then about five years later I started this group SND and that really was the first meaningful response to that dilemma." After a trilogy of acclaimed albums for Mille Plateaux with SND, his collaboration with Mat Steel, around the turn of the millennium, Fell's first solo album, Ten Types of Elsewhere, was released in 2004. Since then he has combined releases for the likes of Raster-Noton and Editions Mego, plus continuing SND activity, with sound art and installations at galleries from Berlin to Hong Kong.
Fell grew up between Sheffield and Rotherham, in a little village just outside Orgreave, the town where police and striking miners famously clashed in 1984. Though he went to school in Rotherham, most of his friends, he says, were in Sheffield. A few lived in Park Hill. But he never went to visit them there. "I wouldn't have gone to Park Hill," he tells me, "because even if I walked through the centre of town I stood a good chance of getting beaten up. If anyone was gonna get hit, it would've been me."
"I started going out around 83, 84-ish," he recalls. "I started college and was old enough to get in pubs and things. At that time, they were very dangerous places. I was stupid and didn't know how to keep my mouth shut and stay out of trouble. Even today, the press woman said do you wanna meet in this pub, and I was like, I don't go in pubs. Just because I have so many bad memories of being in pubs and getting beaten up."
It must be a little odd, I suggest, making a site-specific installation in this notoriously rough pub on Park Hill – a place that, when you were growing up, you probably would have done almost anything to avoid going anywhere near.
"Yeah," he says. "But also, those spaces, later on, once they became derelict, they became the places that we had parties in." There is an odd kind of utopianism to the final project as presented. A sense of a place ever so briefly, precariously reclaimed. A kind of temporary autonomous zone of infinite license, flashing lights, pulsing beats, and dry ice drifting through the quasi-apocalyptic scene of The Link's old back room.
"That was the good thing about Sheffield," Fell says almost wistfully. "At that time I was unemployed. I had a massive warehouse apartment. And everyone was like that. No-one had to get up for work. You had to go and sign on once every two weeks and get a small amount of money to live on. You can't do that now. The conditions for people to do things were just perfect in a way."
Mark Fell's exhibition Structural Solutions to the Question of Being is part of Art Sheffield 2016, and runs until 8 May. Head here for more information.