Rian Treanor: ‘Being creative is also about not being happy with how things are’

Rian Treanor reimagines the intersection of club culture, experimental art and computer music, presenting an insightful and compelling musical world of fractured and interlocking components.

Having left a vivid impression in 2015 with his debut 12″ ‘A Rational Tangle’ and 2nd EP ‘Pattern Damage’ on The Death of Rave, Warp sub-label Arcola relaunched with his single ‘Contraposition’ in 2018.

His debut album, ATAXIA for Planet Mu, rewires hyper-chromatic UK garage and pointillist footwork, establishing him as both a disruptive and essential new voice in British underground club music. His upcoming album, File Under UK Metaplasm, is released via Planet Mu in October.

Where are you now?

I’m in Rotherham, near Sheffield. It’s a small working-class town. I thought this was going to be this safest place to be in lockdown because the virus was never going to arrive in Rotherham, nobody ever travels to or leaves here. But it’s turned out to be one of the worst-hit areas in the UK.

Have you had the mental space to also focus on music?

I’ve been working on this new album. I’d kind of finished the music before the lockdown but I’ve been working on the post-production and artwork etc.

I’ve not actually been making much music over lock down, though, I’ve kind of just given stuff some head space. There’ve just been more important things to do, you know?

I’m sure it’s going to have some sort of effect on lots of stuff that’s going to be made in the next half year.

I like to make music for a situation: an upcoming gig, or an installation, a specific context to make something for. But I guess making stuff just for the sake of not being bored is good too.

How to make club music without clubs. It must be strange, but it’s probably an interesting challenge as well.

It opens up directions and opportunities to reconsider what we’re doing day to day anyway, not just in culture and music, but also how we produce and consume, how we share things. Our kind of collective being.

We actually first met at the Nyege Nyege Festival in Uganda in 2018, where SHAPE had a showcase that year. Your new album, which is coming out via Planet Mu, draws on your experiences there.

Yeah, you interviewed me and Ocen James, who I was collaborating with. They were a crazy few weeks; this record is a sort of response to that. I was over there taking part in a residency at Nyege Nyege Boutique Studios in Kampala. There were around 20 artists, all collaborating and sharing ideas, DJing together and working in the studio. I worked with Ocen James, who is an Acholi fiddle player and Acholitronix producer.

The last night I was there, there was a party in this little bar called Hollywood. Ocen and I ended up playing, the Modern Institute played, Errorsmith, Sisso and J Mita played too. I was DJing and I started playing some slower stuff and it just cleared the dancefloor. I had to play everything at like 200 BPM. I started playing all the music that we’d been making at the residency really fast, like playing footwork at the wrong speed. It was an intense energy and I started to make music in that vein afterwards, that’s what lead to this record.

Those producers around Nyege Nyege are using free DJ software. It’s rough, making and sharing loops. It’s a very creative way to use something that I wouldn’t necessarily think of as an amazing music tool. But I guess using inexpensive gear is a tradition in electronic music, like with acid house where people made music on equipment that was thought of as junk. The opposite of it, as we say here in the UK, is all the gear and no idea.

In one interview you mentioned that your music is somewhere between functional and dysfunctional.

I’ve always been interested in weird, obscure music. But I’m also really into club music and pop music; in some ways those might be opposing aesthetics. I’m interested in trying to find ways that they can react or work together. As a listener, I really want to hear music where I’m not sure what’s going on exactly. And I guess that’s what I’m trying to make as a producer as well.

Compared to your previous album, ATAXIA, the new one uses much faster tempos, but in a sort of clinical way.

It has a digital and clean aesthetics. I guess with this I just wanted to try and make something that’s really danceable. It was all developed after DJing a lot over the past year. I made a live set, which was basically like using DJing software, throwing tracks in really quickly. It reminded me of what I was doing when I was a kid, or when I first started making music.

Historically, music was mostly functional. The notion of people sitting at home listening to music is relatively new.

One thing that I find interesting with Acholitronix or Singeli music is that tradition is deeply integrated in the music but it’s also a radically new direction. Radical music or contemporary music in the West often attempts to be anti-traditional. It was insightful to see some of the freshest, new sounds and how they relate to their respective traditions through sampling and readapting them.

Regarding dysfunctionality, I was talking to Ocen and we were just playing music to each other. He was playing some traditional Acholi music, and I ended up playing more obscure noise and computer music, stuff like Autechre or Okkyung Lee etc. He had never heard anything like it and asked, “how do people dance to it?”. When I said it wasn’t made to dance to, he was really confused asking, “Why?”. I think all Acholi music is ceremonial. It’s mad, but he’d never really heard music that you don’t dance to. It really made me rethink my musical upbringing and relationship to sound.

Testing music that you’re working on in a club is also an interesting creative process. That sort of dubplate-y idea of testing new music on a sound system.

It can be interesting to make stuff without being sure where it will be heard. But sometimes I can get lost in that. When I have a specific situation in mind, I always find it more direct and focused. But inevitably, when you end up playing it in that situation, it’s totally different to how imagined so you have to tweak things when you get back home. Playing music is a conversation. It’s so abstract and kind of impossible to articulate, but it’s really direct, too – if you play a club track and nobody dances to it, it’s obvious.

You did an internship at the famous studio Duplates & Mastering in Berlin. Has this influenced the way you perceive and work with sound?

I did work experience there when I was around 20. It was incredible. At that time, I wasn’t really that technically aware. There were some days when things would go wrong or not be so smooth, but I remember learning a lot at those points because I could see some of the reasons why or how things should work. One thing that I really took from it is when I was working with Lupo and he said that with mastering, it’s specifically about taking parts out of the sound, stripping them back, EQing things out so there’s more space for the integral parts to be pushed further. He said it’s like sculpting a piece of a rock.

In Max/MSP, the software you are working on, you can sculpt sounds as well.

I tend to use Max for generating patterns. With the new record, I started making tracks very quickly to use in DJ sets and when a collection of tracks started to work together, I spent a lot of time focusing on the production, working on the DSP and sculpting stuff in a DAW.

Towards the end of the last year, I went to Japan and got to play it on some really high-end sound systems, I spent as much time as possible sound checking so that I could do more production. That’s one thing about this record that I find interesting – it’s a weird kind of collision of two approaches: rough pattern making and a clinical production process.

You mentioned that you had a memory from this club in Kampala and then you start making music – is it more about sculpting sound or is it a vision of a certain atmosphere that the sound should have?

This record was more about thinking of the energy of a live set, about what would really work in a specific situation, or thinking ‘that was an intense experience and I’d like to make something in response to that’. For this, it was about getting ideas out very quickly. Basically, the week after I got back from Uganda, I made about 10 tracks that I thought would have worked in that situation.

You also did a project with Indian classical musician Nakul Krishnamurthy.

I met Nakul in India when me and my dad were there for a project with the Counterflows Festival in 2017. We started collaborating and have since performed together in the EU and India. We have been developing some pattern-generating systems in Max/MSP that explore elements of Carnatic music. South Indian classical music is insanely beautiful, it is centred around some incredibly elegant algorithmic systems that create very complex musical structures. We have been trying to make music that explores that, but it’d take 50 years to scratch the surface.

I guess you’re interested in exploring the rhythmic structures of different cultures.

Yes, I’m really interested in learning from traditions other than my own. But I’m also collaborating with a friend I grew up with who lives down the road in Rotherham. We both have totally different musical backgrounds, he’s into jazz and doing improvised music and I was into electronic and programming stuff. Although we are from the same place geographically, our musical upbringings are so different and working with Karl D’Silva has been a really insightful learning process: improvising and working spontaneously. How can you leave things more open to how they might change in the moment rather than predetermine everything? It’s all a learning process, I guess, and collaborating with people who have a different angle to you is fundamental to developing new ideas.

You were also into graffiti when you were growing up.

There was basically nothing to do around here. It was literally either going to shopping centres or causing trouble. I was lucky to be in a group of friends that were interested in making music and doing art, they all had aspirations to do something else. We were bored and had to create our own entertainment.

Boredom ultimately is good for creativity.

If you’re content, you don’t want to do something different. Being creative is also about not being happy with how things are. Being anti-dogmatic, basically.

Lots of these artistic movements have come from places that are not necessarily cultural hubs and hotspots.

I think you need to live in a place that’s really cheap, where there’s nothing happening, so you can just focus, and not where you have to work three jobs just to get by. These ‘cultural centres’ are a bit of an illusion, culture is everywhere.

With your dad (Mark Fell) being in music as well, do you comment on each other’s music?

We both always have a bit of an input into what the other is doing. For this record specifically, he keeps laughing at me for tuning a kick drum in about 20 different ways in three weeks. We both have quite different working processes. I could spend weeks on small elements whereas he does things quite quickly. I ask him lots of questions. We talk about what we’re doing all the time. It’s really good to be involved in each other’s practice to such a level and understand what the other is doing and where we are both coming from. But we don’t ever sit down and say, “Let’s write a song together”.

Interview: Lucia Udvardyova