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Relive London’s Most Famous 90s Ambient Party with Sam Kidel’s Exclusive Mix

The Bristol producer talks about trolling call centre employees for his latest album and the legacy of Telepathic Fish.

by Geoff Snack
22 June 2016, 12:13am

Photo by Rob Manuel, courtesy of Sam Kidel

This article originally appeared on THUMP UK.

Sam Kidel's solo album Disruptive Muzak is a questioning of our uneasy relationship with technology and the tools we use to communicate. Released this past spring on Manchester-based label The Death of Rave, the Bristol producer made the record by calling up various call centre employees and played his ambient compositions over the phone, recording the workers' confused responses.

The resulting two 20-minutes pieces are minimalist, lush, and slightly off-kilter, with the voices of the employees and Skype hang-up tones consistently interrupting the music. It's a childishly simple idea, redeemed by the elegance of Kidel's execution, which also addresses heavier topics of economics and socio-politics in the UK right now.

We wanted to know more so we recently called up the Young Echo and Killing Sound member on Skype to discuss the project, ambient music's relationship with politics, and his exclusive mix for THUMP.

THUMP: I want to start by asking you about call centres because I understand you worked in one. What was that experience like?

Sam Kidel: I worked in a number of different call centres since I was about 18. Most recently, I was working in one taking inbound calls. It was for a part of social services that I thought was doing a good job so I felt OK about it.

Working there, I got a real sense of what the regulations and policies that the government are imposing on you and how that affected you. I became aware of how little agency you have as a worker. If you deviate from those policies, you're on your own and you'll get in trouble if things get backed up. You're very much expected to tow the line.

There's something very dehumanizing about the job, where the main task is communication, but it isn't actual communication since you're just following scripts. Disruptive Muzak highlights this because it effectively leaves the employee on their own.
Yeah, and they have to go off script, they're not prepared. I had this idea and it seemed like a good idea, but I was a bit unsure if it would work out. When people are off script, they're immediately like humans again, and they react in their own human way.

The music that I was making was quite close in sound to conventional Muzak so obviously it sounds a bit like that. I was also very keen to deliberately make it a bit more strange, unpredictable, and maybe even jazzy so people got a slight shock. Not an assault, but a strange experience where you're not really sure.

The concept reminds me of "phreaking," the action of exploiting telecommunication systems and phones, which has a long history of being used as a subversive tool by activists. Have you ever been involved in a protest of that sort?
Around the time I was doing my master's [degree], I started participating in "hive spam." There was a person who was going to be deported by the [UK] Home Office, and there was strong medical evidence that this person shouldn't have been deported. Luckily they had really strong networks among the protest community so a protest was organized on those grounds.

On one side, there were lots of emails sent and people calling up inquiring about the specifics of this evidence. On the other, there was a call for as many people as possible to ring up and waste the time of those working at Home Office so they couldn't get any other work done that day. This particular protest was successful, and I think it's a really effective way of protesting because the state is inaccessible, you have to go through these phone lines.

There's a long history of music as a vehicle for political commentary, but Disruptive Muzak has no lyrics, no overt political message, and the music is quite pretty. What influenced you making this album?
I listen to a lot of ambient music regularly, though it's not usually considered political. I know that it has been used a lot in advertising and the Muzak end by businesses. But what's ambient music used for by listeners like me? It's self-care. So if I've had a rough day, I put on an ambient album. I think that's the same way a lot of people use it.

Then there's this conflict that if you make a really pretty album that is accessible and that people really like, it will be used by an advertising firm for an advert for banking or for an insurance broker. I was kind of concerned about writing ambient music and it being co-opted. I was trying to think about how to stop that from happening.

What was the inspiration behind your mix for THUMP?
This mix is a remix of four other ambient mixes from 1993, the year following the first Telepathic Fish party in December 1992. These parties took place at squats and other informal venues in London, with attendees lounging around on reclaimed mattresses and sofas, talking over a backdrop of ambient music played at low volume. Mixmaster Morris, one of the DJs who regularly played at these parties, famously invited participants to "lie down and be counted."

So my fabulously idealistic image of these events—which I know is not entirely true but I hope is at least partially true—is that as the music played and people sat together on soggy mattresses, they talked about a better future. That they talked about the drudgery and alienation of modern life, and how to imagine other ways of organising our relationships with one another. That's my fantasy—that the escapism of the rave movement was meaningful, and the hope that blossomed with it might be reawakened.

Where do you see your music fitting in that DIY tradition?
Growing up in Bristol, we have a really strong DIY scene here, that's a really important thing for all my friends. I think Bristol has a bit of a chip on its shoulder for not being London. So people are proud of the city and its heritage, and keen to support things locally rather than importing them in from London, which would be easy because it's really close.

With Young Echo, that's something that we've really tried to do. We've been putting on regular radio events and club nights, trying to get lots of people from the city to play together who wouldn't play together normally, so isn't just electronic acts but bands and other artists too. I love doing things in the DIY way, it gives you a lot of freedom.

Tell me a little bit about your upcoming conference, The Politics of Ambience.
That's a conference I'm putting on at Oxford Brookes University [in Oxford, UK]. It's kind of exploring the same ideas I was looking at with Disruptive Muzak, and the ideas I've been interested in relation to ambient music in the 90s and the rave movement. It's about bringing in some other people to see what they think about the era because I'm quite aware that people have very opposing views.

I'm excited to have [English musician and author] David Toop talk because his [1995] book Ocean of Sound had a really interesting bit about ambient and rave music. I'm also looking forward to Janna Graham and Chris Jones of Ultra-Red's workshop, they were a group active in the early 90s interested in ambient and chill-out rooms, and how they could be brought together with musical activism.

Hope @ Telepathic Fish 1993 Mix Tracklist

Unknown - Unknown [Sangeet - Zenith, Ambient Vinyl Mix, 1993]
William Orbit - Silent Signals [Mixmaster Morris - Ambient Mix @ Telepathic Fish, 1993]
Unknown - Unknown [Open Mind - Ambient Mix, 1993]
3 Phase - Space Generator [Mixmaster Morris - Ambient Mix @ Telepathic Fish, 1993]
Unknown - Unknown [Open Mind - Ambient Mix, 1993]
Unknown - Unknown [Sangeet - Skywalker, Ambient Vinyl Mix, 1993]
Ralph Hildenbeutel - The Journey [Mixmaster Morris - Ambient Mix @ Telepathic Fish, 1993]
Cluster & Eno - Wehrmut [Mixmaster Morris - Ambient Mix @ Telepathic Fish, 1993]
Unknown - Unknown [Sangeet - Zenith, Ambient Vinyl Mix, 1993]
Unknown - Unknown [Sangeet - Skywalker, Ambient Vinyl Mix, 1993]
Coldcut - Autumn Leaves (Irresistible Force Chill Mix) [Open Mind - Ambient Mix, 1993]

Geoff Snack is on Twitter.