Watching Over Machines with Love and Grace: An Interview with Hyperdawn

Interview by Kalum Winters of Do Your Best
Prelude by Hannah Tinker

With releases spanning a plethora of the experimental audio spectrum, including bunny hoova, Pun Collins, Chris Ruffoni, Hyperdawn and more, ThemThere Records are proudly celebrating their fifth anniversary this year and marking it with a takeover (by way of local promoters Grey Lantern) at Salford's iconic venue, The White Hotel, on Saturday 25th September 2021 with bunny hoova, Otis Jordan, Hyperdawn and j. b. glazer.

Purchase tickets here.

Speaking of the label's graceful rise, founder Carl Brown says: "When we started I think we tried to a lot of things that didn’t quite work or just kind of worked and then rather than trying something else, I forced it to work. But we were naïve, we didn’t have any connections to the scenes outside of Preston, everything we know now has been learned recently and we adapted super rapid. 

These days it’s different, things come naturally or not at all. Me and Rhi had a baby the two months after the label started so it’s always been hectic and I’m just enjoying some chill time. My confidence in myself and in the music has grown and I’m much happier and less stressed and good things keep happening so (I) must be doing something right."

If you’ve ever listened to Hyperdawn’s music or had the pleasure of sitting down for longer than five minutes to talk with staunch experimentalists Michael Cutting and Vitalija Glovackyte, it may feel odd that their debut album was titled ‘Bleach’. Imperfections and a sense of the dirty, or ‘faulty’ as they often call it, hands-on work of music production are an integral and beautiful part of their project and the project is all the more memorable and vital as a result of this.

Yet, it is unsurprising given that such seeming contradictions are also part of the driving force behind the music. Pop seamlessly melds with musique-concrete inspired tape loop experimentation, whilst vast swathes of electronic noise on the album’s title track is rounded off by the album’s closer ‘Early Hours’, a track that is equal parts tactile and ethereal.

Speaking to the duo it becomes immediately apparent that this is both a result of improvisation and not an accident at all. Referring to themselves as ‘controllers’ or ‘assemblers’ of the early music they made, there is equal importance placed on the ability to relinquish yourself and allow for sound to find its own path, as well as an intimately personal relationship with the construction of machines, items and harmonies to form new ways of thinking about music. In this sense, the duo take on a deeply refreshing stance towards music and quite a beautiful position - that of both performer and spectator, joyfully watching the products of their own creation. 

In Richard Brautigan’s famous and probably over-referenced poem ‘All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace’ there is a dystopian beauty to a future world where machines have freed human kind of their labour and the two interact in a “mutually programming harmony”. Whilst this quote could almost be used to describe Hyperdawn’s music at times, Brautigan still holds on to a distinction between nature and machine, as well as underlying fear of this interaction and separation. This is not the case with Hyperdawn. Their music abounds with a hopeful sense of play, of exploration and of embracing the unpredictable, of reveling in the physical, or of not seeing the distinction between what can be controlled and what can’t. They can almost pinpoint the second that Paul McCartney almost inaudibly swears in the background of ‘Hey Jude’, if that’s not a commitment to the study of the life that is often hidden within the fabric of music, then what is?

What is Hyperdawn? How did it start? What was the spark?

M: Hyperdawn is a duo. It came about from both of us doing solo projects then this one time we were both commissioned to do a piece, potentially separately, and we thought why not just do it as a one-off collaboration and perform as us two. It was one of the first times we’ve performed as well as we were both composers, so we didn’t do so much performing on stage we were often sat in the audience. We just had some fun with two reel-to-reel tape machines, doing some frippertronics stuff and it was all live, so we were jus trying to make a live performance out of the live looping of tape. And then we kept getting the opportunity to perform that again and again as a set. So it took about two years from that to go from there to being like ‘this is a duo, we need a name and we’re going to release an album’. So we called it Hyperdawn and it very much became about switching it round from this live set to making tracks for an album and then making that back into a live set again. 

So we’ve always been focused on the live performance and that physicality of everything, so that the audience realises that it’s happening then and there and it could all fall apart and that it’s temperamental. The tension is key to the live performance and it’s fundamental to the album as well, we wanted to keep that sense of non-perfection, of the faulty.

V: All of those things that people normally polish out. We were talking with our friend about it recently about how so many recent releases, specifically on vinyl, that are just so overproduced and it’s such a shame to lose that life that used to be much more embraced. For example, even in The Beatles where you can hear McCartney swear in ‘Hey Jude’ at like 2 minutes 20 or something. You can’t really hear it but it’s there, it’s definitely there. That live aspect is really key to what we’re interested in. 

In a world where digital approaches to music are allowing us to make things very clean and very intentional all of the time, what keeps drawing you back to this very physical element of music? Is there something about the hands-on manipulation that gives you a level of control?

M: I’d say we got into electronic music for this very same reason, because we were both studying composition so we were writing primary for classic instruments. We never studied electronics really, I did Music Tech at A Level and that’s about it. But personally when I was exploring my compositional practice and the idea of cyclical motion in music, you know like very academic, I was doing a PhD so I had to come up with this sort of stuff. So I became interested in looping and repetition in music and bought myself a tape machine, because you can’t really get more purist when it comes to looping I guess. So then I started playing with cassette machines but thought ‘you can’t really see it on stage’, whilst the conceptual idea is nice you can’t really see what’s going on inside so I thought ‘what if I got a reel to reel machine?’. Once I got myself a reel-to-reel machine and then I was just exploring this thing and not many people have much of a performance practice around this machine so I developed my own way to manipulate sound live with it. It was at this point where I physically got the machine and I was in control of it but in the way you would be with an acoustic instrument, not a laptop. For me that’s one thing I never wanna lose, sure I could do it easier if I just used a loop pedal and Ableton but we never want to lose that kind of ‘faulty’ connection.

V: I’m very similar, for me it all started with a project I did with Apartment House, the London-based experimental group. We did a nearly two-year residency where I created a 50-minute work for them and it was all about collecting broken devices from beaches, alleyways, recycling centres. Basically anything broken, from cassette players, to tools, to massage machines. Anything I could repair and make it viable again to be treated as a musical instrument. Then again the performance was full of construction and lighting and it was all about what you can do with your hands and how can you amplify all of this stuff and it’s amazing how suddenly this incredible harmonies come from these devices. Even now, we are working on something that is also to do with re-recycling with a slimming belt motor that will be amplified and used as instruments to sound like this weird, kind of mutant performance. And with this project if one of the motors breaks, we will try to replace it but they are essential to the piece and if they break -

M: Especially the main one.

V: Especially the main one, it has a sort of eight-cord loop based on the different speeds that are used for like your muscles. 

M: But they have different pitches. And obviously they wouldn’t have thought about the devices pitch because it’s not its primary function, so this one motor has different pitches when set to the different speeds all within this one object. 

V: So we both started working on this project, Hyperdawn, on that one project that connected these ideas of our hands-on work and the live aspect of building itself in front of people to make it unique for that specific time and place.

So where there’s that element of control with the physical there’s that element of surprise, of tightrope-walking in a sense.

M: Our first sets we would say that our roles were controllers 

V: Or assemblers.

M: We were trying to keep it all together, we weren’t really performing anything, we were just trying to coax them to do what we were hoping they would do, or at least within certain boundaries. It was improvised to a certain degree but we had some level of control to what we were wanting. 

V: Yeah we always have a bit of a plan just in case. Though I feel like we know each other well enough now, like there was a show where something went wrong but we immediately knew how to build that into the set using other techniques so if you didn’t know the track you wouldn’t know what had happened. We’ve had situations where things have broken down but I think that really adds to the tension. We had this gig with Kelly Moran, we were supporting and we had this one track ‘Avalanche’ and the way it works in the chorus is two iso-rhythmic loops, one loop is running and the other one is about to run for the chorus and specifically before this gig I thought I’m gonna have a bit of sellotape in case something breaks, which I never do. Anyway, we’re performing and I’m ready for the chorus and I look at Michael and he’s just standing there with two ends of a loop of tape so I start giggling and the audience caught. I grabbed the sellotape, Michael quickly stitched the tape loop up whilst I was speaking to the room -

M: and the whole time the other loop Is still running so that tension was never really lost. 

V: Then once it was fixed we kicked backed in and there was a big ‘woooo!’ and that was one of the best moments. 

Following on from this line of thought this feels like a silly question but I’m going to ask it anyway, but is there a typical or a common process behind writing Hyperdawn songs?

M: We’re getting into some kind of pattern or process I think -

V: Whilst really trying to avoid patterns though as well. 

M: There are certain techniques but I think most of our stuff comes from just hours of jamming and recording all of it and going through it trying to find gems, building form there. 

Like archiving almost?

V: Oh my goodness yeah! My laptop is just sooo full of ten-hour sessions and then from that ten-hour sessions I might hear five tracks and make another five files. It’s probably a bad process -

M: Well we’ve tried different processes and it’s the only one that really works because like I say we used to compose music in quite a controlled way but you can’t do that with machines that you don’t know what they’re always going to do. You almost allow the machines to take the lead and try to control it and the tracks are born from that. 

V: It was the same issue that arose when we though ‘oh, we should go to the studio and record’ it just wouldn’t work. It’s not like getting a bass player to do their part.

M: It’s also what makes it quite frustrating when trying to edit or master something when all of those layers are just slammed into a two-track on a machine you can’t separate them, you can’t get a bassier sound as that’s what you’re given.

V: Often we go with the first take, the first one that we were just mucking about with that often turns out to be the best one because it’s so unique and there’s no way to replicate it. For example the last track on the album ‘Early Hours’ that was all just in one take.

M: That was after days of un-productivity where it felt like nothing happened at all and then it was like 9pm -

V: - and I remember I put the music on and used a really bad microphone from like a vintage Sony tape machine and as a joke I started singing this melody and it must have come from some genuine place

M: - then we tried to re-record the vocals and it just didn’t feel right -

V: - so we just mastered it as much as we could and I think still it just has that feeling. 

So we’ve spoken about machines and improvisation, but on the record there seems to be a commitment to melody and pop elements coming through as well, how important pop music to each of you and how important do you think it is to musical experimentation in general?

M: I think I keep coming back to when I was studying in the conservatoire pop music was to do with enjoyment, I wasn’t really collaborating with pop musicians I was collaborating with classical musicians, with ensembles, with orchestras. So with me, coming from the suburban south where it felt like there was only really mainstream music without any underground unless it was thrash metal or something. So when I was younger I was learning piano and so when I listened to my metal bands I remember there being this massive void between the two. Then I got to college and thought how weird it was that I had music that I listened to and then music that I saw as my profession which I still enjoyed but I wouldn’t put on when I’m in the studio. So I really want to get to a place in my own music where I would want to listen to it as well as making it. So basically when Hyperdawn came about we decided we wanted to make an album and not just a live set, to make tracks that we wanted to put on in any setting you would put on your favourite band or whatever. So we went towards pop in a kind of unconscious way, whilst being keen to keep that level of experimentation, to form a version of pop music basically. 

V: I think in the classical world there was this weird association with pop music as if it were too simplistic and the we should prefer to listen to say, Stravinsky. And then I came to college to study in Manchester and since being here I think I’ve noticed things becoming a lot more open and I feel like I started learning a lot from pop music, taking bits and bobs. Even autotune for example, you might try to take these elements and integrate them into experimentations and I thought there was just so much you could do when you connected these two worlds, or not even two worlds - almost everything became connected. So like my parents were huge rock music fans of stuff like Led Zeppelin and ZZ Top and suddenly you find yourself open to features from that kind of music, or funk, or cheesy pop. Like I looove things like Lionel Richie, so I’ve started to take elements from other genres and embracing these elements. So I think there’s a lot of pop in the record, but a lot of everything as well.

It’s really interesting that the way that you’ve just spoken about these genres is almost like how you were speaking about machines at the start, almost like you’re treating things as tools that are useful. 

M: Yeah, I guess its like Stravinsky’s term ‘magpies’. You take things and you get rid of the baggage associated with these things and treat them as a sound object and your own baggage comes into play, and obviously you’re still going to have those associations but hopefully you’ve done enough to create something new.

What is something you listen to that that you think would surprise people when they listen to Hyperdawn?

V: I don’t know can you surprise people anymore. Anything from Berg to the Bee Gees really.

M: I was gonna say you’re pretty obsessed with The Bee Gees, which I think maybe comes across very slightly in the harmonies of your voice but I think that would be a surprise. 

V: I think it would be hard to surprise people with the appearance of the internet as people are just exposed to so many different types of music now. I’m not sure it would be so surprising for people to find out that we listen to classical music or rock. 

M: I think I would probably end up saying something like The Bee Gees that comes up a lot, or I suppose Gérard Grisey, a French spectral composer, but you could probably hear that in the textures.

V: Oh but I love American country music and I’m really getting into it.

That would surprise me. I mean having listened to the record that would surprise me, having listened to you both talk about music for the last half an hour it doesn’t surprise me at all. So following, who would be a dream collaborator of yours?

M: David Lynch, that would be pretty cool. I think I’m gonna stick with that.

V: It really depends, if it’s film I would love to work with someone like Jonathan Glazer but that’s just in this moment. You kind of pushed me in that film direction. But I personally love working with people that we already know or friends of friends, starting from a close collaboration and an intimate point.

M: Where there’s already a deeper understanding.

V: It’s just so much more fun and you feel so much enthusiasm when you work on that intimate scale. 

M: Similarly it would be cool to do a one-off project with someone with their own perspective and their own ideas.

V: Yeah if Lynch approached us and was like ‘yeah I really liked Bleach…’

M: Yeah you wouldn’t turn it down.

(Chorus of laughter)

V: But yeah if it’s a genuine connection and there’s that mutual element then I think it always works better. 

Who’s an artist that you like that you think people should look out for that they might not necessarily have their eyes/ears on?

V: Again, the people that jump into my mind are friends and close collaborators. Them There Records, there’s just a really genuine community there. Carl just has this very specific, immaculate taste that is very hand-picked with Bunny Hoova and j.b. glazer and such.

M: It’s a funny thing because in a way a lot of the artists we’re really interested in being part of the underground and being niche is kind of part of them. 

V: Yeah, I’m also very into this guy from LA, who I would love to share a stage with one day, Slauson Malone. That very niche scene but there is so much detail and the it’s so raw, very cut and sliced up and refuses to avoid imperfections, there is so much beautiful imperfection in it. He’s definitely someone to look out for. 

I would agree that Slauson Malone is criminally underrated, but then again I always wonder if that’s part of working on the fringes.

M: Yeah it’s like Watch Repair, like no one knows who it is apart from this label ONO and the guy that runs it Michael Holland. There’s three or four records of this stuff on ONO and it’s stop-clock chimes, or 50 minutes of grandfather clocks or something and it’s incredible.

V: It’s beautiful and so well harmonised and Michael always laughs when we’re like ‘who is it Michael?’. We always laugh and say ‘is it you Michael?’ Sadly ONO have stopped releasing now but it’s an incredible label, so much interesting music and Michael has such incredible taste.

I mean ONO was very much him and his brain in a very eclectic way that was very nuanced and slightly chaotic. It was really very vibrant and he was an artist more than anything making collages. It just became this all-encompassing art and sound thing.

V: The artwork was incredible as well, like the release I did with them before and it was all hand-stitched into a booklet that so much work wen into. The collage work was always just insanely good. 

What’s the plan for the rest of 2021?

V: Album number 2. So we have a gig at The White Hotel on the 25th September as part of a ThemThere night and we’re saving a lot of new stuff for that night. We had offers for other gigs but are keeping it under the radar and we’ll kick off from there. 

M: And then a load of collaborations and we just wanna play a load of live shows. 

V: I’m hoping it will all kick off from that time and we can look at releasing the second album, but we’ll see. But I think it’s gonna be a hectic time for this half of a year until Christmas and I hope we can start to get back into something a little more normal, taking it slow and steady.

See Hyperdawn at The White Hotel on Saturday 25th September.