Greg Haines is an English musician and composer who has been living in Berlin since 2008. He was born in a small town in the south of England in the 1980s, where he began from a young age to develop an interest in sound and the devices used to create it. Having release numerous records on various labels he most recently released as part of The Alvaret Ensemble – a record which, without doubt, is one of my favourite of the year so far and, in May he will release his new solo record through Denovali. Whilst on a recent tour with The Alvaret Ensemble, Greg was kind enough to spend some time each day answering my questions and engaging in discussion about his work. It was a real pleasure talking to him and I hope that you enjoy the results. You can check out his work both as a solo artist and as part of The Alvaret Ensemble here or here.
TSP: The Alvaret Ensemble record is one of my records of 2013 already and come the end of the year I imagine will be on my end of year list. I heard that much of the record was improvised by the performers. Can you explain a little about the idea behind the record and how you managed to come together to share such a, potentially complex and challenging, vision in such a successful manner?
GH: I first met Jan and Romke Kleefstra at the house of a friend and collaborator of mine, Wouter Van Veldhoven. He was organising a little house show and the Kleefstras were playing. We had been in touch through email before, and we began to tour together and play in the same evenings, which usually led to a improvised collaborative set for an encore. A little later on I met a friend of theirs, the percussionist Sytze Pruiksma, at another we were all playing. This led to more concerts as the four of us, and slowly we began to discuss recording something together. We definitely wanted to make it something special, with the perfect atmosphere and the conditions for a really great recording, so we planned three nights at the Grunewaldkirche without knowing what would occur, with Nils Frahm on recording duties. The album was entirely improvised over those three nights, with no discussion before or during the sessions. Later, I listened back to the many hours of recordings and began to piece together something that eventually became our first release.
TSP: How nervous were you prior to the recording sessions or were you confident that you’d either come out with something special or nothing at all and either way the process of improvised collaboration, to see what was/is possible, was the point of the exercise?
GH: We had already played together a lot, as I mentioned, so we already had an idea of the area of music we were usually found ourselves exploring. I wasn’t nervous at all as we didn’t have a particular outcome in mind – if we had come out with nothing, we just would have accepted that and perhaps tried again another time in the future. Concerning the point of the exercise, I try not to think about those things. I mean, whats the point in anything at the end of the day? It was just a good excuse to get together with some great people and attempt to create something beautiful together.
TSP: Does this improvised approach permeate in to your own solo work or do you have a more focused and structured approach when approaching a new Greg Haines record? I also find it extremely interesting that you say ‘what’s the point of anything’ because I guess ultimately this is true, but in terms of creating music is this an attitude you have always held or something that has developed the more successful you have become? I guess I am interested from the point of view that a certain level of success must afford you the freedom to attack your new work with less worry about what the results will be?
GH: When I am making a solo record, its usually a combination of thoroughly planned ideas and elements that are completely spontaneous. Often I will envisage a certain sound, and a certain kind of melody or rhythm, and then just record a few takes to see what happens. A lot of the sounds of the albums end up being first takes, as often that seems like the best one.
I wouldn’t say that the more success you achieve, the less worry you have about your output – in fact I would say it was the opposite. There is always more and more pressure to better the last release, both from within yourself and in a certain respect from the public, so its a never-ending cycle. I would say the most freedom you have is probably the early days of making music for no reason, just to perhaps play to yourself or to some friends. The second you think of something as a release, I think your freedom can be limited somewhat as whether you like it or not, there is always an element of the public’s perception of what your “should” create, that is at play in the creative process. Its a difficult force to fight, but its definitely one to be aware of. If you start to worry about it, you will never get anything done, or never move forward.
TSP: I think for me I’ve always been quite selfish in my approach to music. I am aware of course that my music is going to become available to the public but first and foremost I want to create something that is challenging and exciting to me. I know lots of musicians who focus too much on ‘what will others want’ and then it becomes something driven by the need for approval. I think there is a fine balance between the two because ultimately when you create something, that you want to be released, you are releasing it for public consumption and there must be an element of that in the music but if it becomes consumed by that then I feel you lose the truth of what you are.
What did you hope to achieve from music and at this point in your career have you surpassed what you expected to happen, if you expected anything at all?
GH: Its best not to expect too much I think. I’m not sure what I expected when I started, but I’ve certainly had some great opportunities and experiences that I couldn’t have anticipated.
TSP: What artists inspired you when you were younger and are there any artists nowadays whose work you particularly admire?
GH: When I was younger, I was extremely inspired by the “Minimal” composers, like Steve Reich and Gaving Bryars. A little later I discovered Arvo Pärt and that changed everything for me – I really felt like it was exactly the music I had been searching for and it had a profound influence on me. Back then I was also listening to a lot of stuff like William Basinski and Deathprod, and of course all kinds of other music. Brian Eno should definitely be mentioned too – there is a lot of stuff he did that I think still can’t be surpassed.
These days I seem to be buying a lot of African records, and a lot of dub music. I am really listening to a lot of dub at the moment – somehow buying it is really addictive! I haven’t got so into the later “digi-dub” stuff yet, but there are just so many good dub records from such a short period in the seventies and early eighties, that I am just enjoying so much at the moment. I’ve also been listening to a lot of spaced-out German records from people like Klaus Schulze. Some of it is on the border of being a bit too esoteric for me, but some of it sounds great, especially if you are into synthesizers! I’m also always coming back to Tom Waits – if I had to pick someone to work with, it would probably be him. There is such a consistency and integrity to what he does, I really admire that. The last two Talk Talk albums and the Marc Hollis solo album have been favourites since the first time I heard them, and I think they always will be. There is just so much music that I love, I am sure I am forgetting some really important names, but its extremely diverse and hard to narrow down to just a few names.
TSP: I remember reading Will Self say that the key to being a successful writer was to read widely and be a good reader. Would you say that is relevant as a musician too? Does the diversity of your listening help you stay fresh as an artist and help you try new things, whether consciously or subconsciously, in your work?
Also, it’s interesting you mention Tom Waits as he’d probably be my all time favourite artist, if I had to choose one. He once said that he had to step away from the piano because when you know an instrument inside out your hands are often drawn to what feels comfortable. He wanted to create away from the piano to ensure that didn’t happen and to stay fresh. Do you try to mix up how you write and what instruments you use to compose?
GH: I think I also saw an interview with Philip Glass where he was saying that there are two types of composers – those that listen to all kinds of music and those that listen to none at all. I think I definitely fall into the first category. I’m always curious to find music that is unknown to me, and I think with each thing I hear I must draw some kind of influence from it, on a subconscious level at least.
I think I have a similar predicament to Tom Waits – sometimes I feel like every time I look down at the piano, I just want to play the same things, so then I try to give it a break for a while and then come back to it fresh. I normally try to not play too much before a concert, so all the ideas are still fresh and I can still be surprised by them. Even though Tom Waits stepped away from the piano for a while, he still came back to it later and made some beautiful music. I have a feeling that I will always be returning to the piano, but I have basically given up playing the cello these days. People keep trying to convince me to get it out of its case again, but it doesn’t feel right at the moment.
TSP: On your site you recently posted a piece about Berlin. How important has the city been to your work? I guess I am interested in how place can shape or influence music. Would you say that the city has changed your music in any way given that it has clearly impacted on you deeply as a person?
Also, you have a new album ‘Where We Were’ out in May witha string of live dates to support this release. What can you tell us about the record and how important is it to get out there and tour to support the work?
GH: Its hard to say how much of an effect Berlin has had on my music. I’ve met some great people here, and there is so much good music around, so I’m sure it has played a role in that way. Its also a city where you feel as if you have quite a lot of personal freedom, so that is definitely helpful too.
The new album will be quite a surprise to some people. The strings have been replaced with synthesizers, rhythms have been introduced…everything sounds much older and dustier. It really felt like a good time to try something completely new, although hopefully it is still recognizable as me in some places.
I love to get out there and play concerts – its such a direct way to interact with your audience and also to try new ideas. Its also great to play on large soundsystems, and variations in frequency and dynamics can be much more drastic than you can realistically put on a record.