Noise shamen Richard Youngs talks to Chasny—of Six Organs of Admittance—about kazoo music, the nature of memory and Youngs's new "country" album Summer Through My Mind.
Richard Youngs is a man who has been making underground music for longer than most people have even known that there is a thing called "underground music." In the early ’90s he played as a duo with Simon Wickham-Smith, releasing mind-blasting sounds with ultra bad-ass labels like Forced Exposure, Majora and VHF. Nearly every Richard Youngs release explores a different sonic avenue, yet every release sounds distinctly like Richard Youngs. He seems to single handedly destroy the idea that there could ever be a formula for creation. His records can range from heartbreakingly melancholic (Sapphie) to alien pop music (Beyond the Valley of Ultrahits) to slabs of guitar noise to, well, just everything. But again, I have to emphasize, it is always Richard Youngs.
Richard has been a huge influence on my own music since the mid ’90s, mostly in terms of attitude (if such a word could be used to describe a person with such a warm personality). His sincerity, singularity and vision is staggering. Richard will be releasing Summer Through My Mind in September, his first record for the Badabing record label. I spoke to Richard about the sweet country sounds of this release along with his first U.S. tour, which will include a performance at the Hopscotch festival in Raleigh, NC opening for John Cale.
Ben Chasny So,you’re coming over here, it’s true.
Richard Youngs Yes it’s true, that’s the plan.
BC It’s been a while since you’ve been over.
RY I was last over in 2001 on holiday with Madeleine. This is my first official tour.
BC Ben Goldberg (head of Badabing Records) sent me the record. It’s awesome.
RY Thank you. It’s my attempt at a country record.
BC A country record?
RY Yeah. Couldn’t you tell with the slide guitar?
BC It had a bluesy thing. Did Goldberg suggest that you make a country record?
RY He did. I asked him, Since this is the start of you releasing my records, what would your dream record be? He sent me some ideas and that just seemed the most absurd of the lot. I haven’t got a country bone in my body.
BC Yeah, the slide guitar is really great on it, it comes off as country. I heard the story that you had asked for suggestions and my friend Utrillo (Kushner, drummer for Comets on Fire) immediately told Goldberg that he should suggest that you do a rap record.
RY Yeah, a rap record. That would be tough.
BC Would you have picked that up? Is there a limit to what you might be able to pull off?
RY Would I do a rap record? Um…Have you ever heard that Mr. Fox record where it’s kind of like a rap in the middle but it’s in a Yorkshire accent? It’s not one of their finer moments…
I’d have to look at what rap is and make it my own, as they always do in these X-Factor or Britain’s Got Talent shows on the telly where they say, “You made it your own.” I might look at something where you’ve got a certain amount of beats per minute and you’ve got certain sounds...
BC Because if this is your version of a country record, I don’t listen to it and think of Hank Williams or anything. It seems like no matter what you do it has a distinctive style that very much sounds like you all the time.
RY I don’t think I could come up with the sheer quantity of words for a rap record. And that could be a stumbling block. I’d do a rap record and each song would just be about four lines repeating endlessly.
BC There are a lot of words on “The Story of Jhon,” that Simon Joyner reads on the new record. I heard you wrote those when you were a kid and the images are very childlike with kings and kings of the desert and ships and other fantastical ideas.
RY But I used a lot of words there because I wrote those words when I was seven or eight years old. Now it’s 40 years on and I can’t write words in bulk.
I don’t know where I got those ideas from because I lived in an East Anglian village. As far as I remember it was a happy childhood. I didn’t have a tyrannical father who whisked me away on a ship, like in the story.
BC I didn’t know if I should ask you about that.
RY It was definitely something else from what I actually experienced.
BC When I heard the Naive Shaman record it was the first time I thought, “Oh, is he recording on a computer?” not that it sounded digital but that you were doing things with manipulation of tracks. Do you record on computer?
RY Yeah, that was on a computer. I’ve got a four-track reel-to-reel that is broken again at the moment but occasionally I do things on that. Core To The Brave was on a four-track. But mostly I use the computer.
BC It actually inspired me to start recording on a computer when I heard that record because of the way you were taking tracks apart and manipulating them. I thought, “ That can’t be an analog thing” and I hadn’t thought before that that you could do things that creative on the computer.
RY I had a four-track that was on the way out and I thought, How can I afford to carry on recording? And the computer was the only option. It wasn’t because I saw creative possibilities. It was out of necessity.
BC But it seems like you found creative possibilities within that.
RY Oh yeah, I found it quite gripping what you can do, definitely.
BC I hadn’t done any recording on computer before and when I heard that record I got a program and all the things you need to record. I do it sometimes as well.
RY That surprises me about you, actually. I wouldn’t have thought you were a computer recording kind of guy.
BC For a long time I used a Tascam 4-track. Sometimes I combine the two. I’ll throw the tracks back and forth to have that tape compression.
RY It’s a glorified tape-machine.
BC I’ve heard from other people that all of your live shows are different, that you don’t have a set.
RY I don’t have a set, no. I mean, you saw me at Install possibly? I think I’ve probably travelled a fair bit since then. The way it’s gone now though is I can get up on stage without a thought in my head and think, Right, this is what I’m going to do now. It could be a batch of nice songs. It could be something—Well, someone said to me after a show about a year ago, “It’s not about entertainment, is it?”
BC Are you bringing your guitar to the States on this tour?
RY Yes, an acoustic guitar, so I can do an acoustic guitar set that is sort of teetering on the brink of music and I can do an acoustic guitar set that is recognizably a singer songwriter set. You know, it can go either way.
BC Goldberg’s not cracking the whip and making you play the hit singles?
RY No, Goldberg, as you call him—
BC I’ve known him for almost 18 years now, a while.
RY He’s seen me play live once and that was when he asked me to open for Beirut. I don’t know if he told you this story.
BC Yes, but I would very much like to hear it from you.
RY Well, it was to a room of one and half thousand Beirut fans; people who have never heard of me. They had me billed as Richard Young, no “s” on the end, so I had to start the set by saying, “I’m the support act, Richard Youngs. Y-O-U-N-G-S.” There was half the room talking and uh, you know, I egged them a bit, I’ve got to say. I did a lot of pauses, waiting for the noises in the room to build up before I’d do anything. Yeah, it wasn’t a particularly...friendly audience. At the same time I wasn’t out to make friends.
BC Sounds like you were playing off of the tension in the room.
RY Very much so, yeah. I was reasonably pleased with how it went in the end. It was an odd one. It wasn’t me in a typical situation. It felt like a return to my roots where I was playing to a room of indifference which was kind of what it was when I was a teenager.
BC Goldberg told me about that show. He said, when it was done, he didn’t know at first how you felt about it and maybe he put you in a bad situation but when he saw you backstage you were in a very good mood and said, “Didn’t that go great!”
RY I was probably happy that it was all over.
BC Did you have a chance to talk to Beirut at all? Did they say anything to you?
RY Yeah, a couple of them enjoyed it. I would say that probably wasn’t what all of them felt.
BC I had heard another story about you playing a show in a gallery.
RY In Inverness? That’s probably a three hour drive from Glasgow, up north. We played there one time and Simon Wickham-Smith and I made arrangements to do the same the next year. Assuming it was a done deal we drove to Inverness and called in on the person who had arranged the show the previous year. They were away for the weekend, so we ended up sitting in their flat and her flatmate did magic tricks with cards. We ended up being entertained by magic tricks all evening. And yeah, it was a complete wash-out. I don’t know if that was the story you heard.
BC So you didn’t play?
RY No, we couldn’t get in to the place as I remember it, at least not that night. But, my memory isn’t the best.
BC The legend has changed. The original legend is that you showed up but they weren’t expecting you because it had been a year, and then they opened the place up and you played, but there was no one there. Afterward you declared it to be one of the best shows you’d ever done.
RY (laughter) Oh probably. Let’s stick with the legend. I honestly can’t remember!
Here’s another illustration of how bad my memory is: I was recently contacted by Jeff Fuccillo, who ran Union Pole [a cassette label active during the 1990s]. He said, “I have a recording of yours that I was going to release as a single. It’s called Kazoo Action.” I said, “Really?!” and he sent me a link to it saying, “Can I release it again?” It’s a live recording, clearly more than just me playing kazoo. I had no memory of it whatsoever. I couldn’t say where it was recorded, who it was recorded with, when—I don’t know. So I told him put it up and hopefully people will come forward saying, “Yes, I was playing on that.” At the moment it is credited to Richard Youngs and Friends. In due course, it will be Richard Youngs and bla dee blah dee blah, and someone might even know the year.
Honestly, no memory.
BC Today I actually asked people online if anyone had any questions, and someone asked if you were going to do another kazoo record.
RY That was a kazoo record, yeah. (laughter) I mean there was New Angloid Sound which was sort of a kazoo record, but Kazoo Action is all kazoo. It’s going up as a very cheap download. The world is a better place for it.
BC Ok, I’ll bring it to the present. You’re playing in Boston with Damon and Naomi. How did you get in contact with those two?
RY They did a concert in Glasgow years back. It went well and we just got on very well and stayed in touch. Then they were in Glasgow again and Damon said, “I’ll be your drummer.” It was a joke. A year or so later, I was finishing a record and I needed some drums so I asked Damon. I called his bluff. He called mine and said, “So, when’s the tour?” Which led to some concerts in the UK with him drumming for me.
BC I think I’ll be at that Boston show with Dan Ireton who does music as Dredd Foole. We’ve been doing a duo together, so I’ll see you there. We also share a collaborator: Alex Neilson.
RY Yes. When did you play with him?
BC He came on tour with Six Organs about 2009, I think.
RY Oh hang on, yes. I’ve got a memory of that happening. I remember you playing in Glasgow.
BC Are you still in touch with him?
RY I actually jammed with him for the first time in years a couple of months back... He keeps busy. He supported Paul Weller last night with Trembling Bells, the band he plays drums with. It seems absurd.
BC So you’ve been playing live more than you used to. If you were to cut your career in half, you would have been playing out a lot more in the second half.
RY Oh yeah. I think I have more confidence now. I know what to do. It’s quite a difficult thing to learn I think. Also, I’ve been asked more, really. I’ve found that whereas before it was the trauma from hell, now it’s not too painful. Though if I haven’t done it for a while it can be a bit nerve-wracking. I’m going to Ireland this weekend to play a show and prepare.
BC Do you enjoy it? I don’t particularly enjoy it. I enjoy it when it’s over. I could never be able to say I ever got much pleasure from ever being on stage.
RY (laughter) I certainly don’t enjoy the lead up. I remember the last time I played was in Madrid and I was very tired and had a headache from flying. I had to get up really early to travel and I remember sitting backstage and thinking, “Why am I doing this?” You know? It makes no sense. I just want to lie down in a dark room, drink water, and get hydrated. But the moment I got on stage it was quite alright. Against my better judgement, I get a bit of a buzz from it.
BC When I play solo it’s a lot different from when I play with other people. When I play solo I am much more prone to getting that particular feeling that you mention, which is “Why am I here? What am I doing? What’s going on?” I think that is the worst part playing solo.
I find I have a lot more fun playing with other people.
RY You play solo quite a bit, right?
BC I will go on a tour for a month or so here or there.
RY That’s long. It’s lonely going on a solo tour. I do one-offs, but I couldn’t do a solo tour without company.
BC I always bring friends.
RY I’m glad you said that.
BC My last solo tour, I set up thinking I was going to be on the road in America, I had my own idea about it—you know, traveling alone with my car, a bit of romanticism about it all. By the end of the tour I had flown my friend Donovan from San Francisco out and told Elisa [Ambrogio of Magik Markers], You gotta come with me and my sister. By the end of the tour it was a party car. It was just way too lonesome to be by myself.
RY I think it would be a strange person who could do a month, solo, by themselves, in any sort of reasonable emotional state.
BC I think you’d have to be a robot. Ok, people want to know what you’ve been reading.
RY Truthfully, probably something like Programming in Supercollider. Something like that. A real nerd audiobook.
BC What is Supercollider?
RY It’s this music program that is all in machine code. It’s what people like Florian Hecker use. It’s like, “SinOsc, brackets, numbers, closed brackets . . .”
BC Is that an analog to what a circuit would be? Are you making circuits with code?
RY No no, it’s not even that—you are already seeing it as a visual thing. It’s not like that. Are you familiar with Basic coding?
BC Are you going to be using that to record?
RY I have used it in a live situation with Luke Fowler. We did a concert in Bristol where I was doing live Supercollider.
BC When you say live, you are typing on the spot...
RY Yes. I have to type in the numbers, live.
BC That sounds nerve wracking.
RY I made a few mistakes. (laughter)
BC What makes it a mistake? Does it go silent?
RY (laughter) No no, we had all these numbers. This is going to sound like maybe we have too much time on our hands. But we derived all these numbers from a phone book and used those in our code. We had to type these numbers we had taken from phone numbers.
BC How many times have you done that?
RY Live just once, but we have recorded it too. I should say, we are working on a 4 LP box set. A combined personal history of electronic music. Starts with very primitive tape works, moves through to modular stuff, closes with the Supercollider sounds. It’s a journey.
BC Of course it is.
RY Seriously! We have about 3 LPs done already!