Monday, 17 March 2014

Enjoy The Silence: Bill Drummond interview from Plan B magazine on The 17, No Music Day, and the end of music

While Bill Drummond punts daffodils beneath Spaghetti Junction, I thought I’d post this interview I conducted with the man for Plan B magazine, November 2006. The photo (above) is from the original copy, taken by Eva Edsjö.

Bill Drummond, formerly one half of arch-pop provocateurs The KLF, has been having fantasies again. Throughout his teenage years, he would dream up fantasy bands. He didn’t need to write the music but he knew what it would sound like; he knew what they would say in interviews; he knew the stage act and where they would perform it. Years later, as a record producer in the Eighties, he would rip off his own fantasies to inform the real bands he was working with.

Over the last few years Bill’s fantasies have taken a darker turn – but also, perhaps, a more profound one. Inspired by Oxford University’s early music Choir Of The Sixteen (“If I’m being flippant I’ll say that I want to go one better”) and a childhood spent singing in Presbyterian church choirs, Bill Drummond has started dreaming of a fantasy choir, led by text-based scores, called The17. And that’s just the beginning. A literal beginning in fact: a Year Zero, a return to first principles. Rip it up and start again.

Imagine if all music had disappeared...

Bill Drummond: “Wouldn’t it be great if we knew music had existed, but the CDs were blank. You’d go to the piano and you can’t do anything, drum kits don’t work, it’s all gone. We’ve still got the emotional need to make music but it cannot be done on any instrument.

“So that’s kind of where thinking about the voice came from. I wrote this score and, the way it’s written, any 17 people could get together and do it. But as soon as I did it as a performance in front of an audience I realised that isn’t the way it works. Having an audience, it suddenly becomes show business. What had worked really well was just the group of 17 people doing it together. So it’s evolved from that, this thing in my head: not just wanting it to be any 17 people that would do it, but – this is the ideal – it should be done with non-musical people.”

So why The17?

“I always knew this fantasy choir was going to be called The17. I remember hearing that Beatles song with the line, “She was just 17/You know what I mean” on the radio when I was about 11, and I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know what you mean’ – well, years later, obviously I knew what it meant! From that point something clicked in my head whenever I’d hear ‘17’ in the lyric of a song. And the age of 17 is quite a strange age, this dark era – well, it was for me – when you’re into dark music, whether that’s Shostakovich or Nirvana.

“I remember, five years ago, being on Oxford Street, and I thought I’d pop into HMV. I remember just walking through the door and I felt such a dread. There’s aisle upon aisle of CDs, in every genre possible, and I just thought, I know whatever I get here, it’s not going to open another door in my head. That night, I got home, I did some email, and – it was about the time Napster was at its full fame – I remember feeling incredibly depressed. It was as if every piece of recorded music from the whole history of recorded music was behind that computer screen laughing at me. It was saying, ‘Go on, download us!’ I could have it all now, just download it and listen to it, and this, for some reason, really depressed me.

“So I tried an idea the next day, whereby I’d only listen to new music – music made by people this year and who had never made music before. That’s what I did for nearly a year, and I did it religiously.

“Every weekend I’d look at the music pages of the Sunday paper and pick something new – whatever genre – it didn’t matter, it just had to be new. And my thinking was: if you can’t say it in the first album then you can’t say it.

“And most of the time I’d just say to myself, ‘This is shit, this was done before, 10, 15, 20 or even 40 years ago.’ The music wasn’t opening any new doors in my head. It just wasn’t new enough.”

So tell me about No Music Day – it’s presented on the website as a score like those for The17... 

“I wanted to see if I could go a week without hearing music. At all. And I never even attempted it, because the idea was that if you start on Monday, and then late Tuesday you hear a piece of music, even unintentionally, you had to start the seven days all over again. I realised it was just impossible. I mean, I live with a family. This cannot be done unless I go away and block myself off in the mountains. Then I brought it down to one day and I thought, OK, there’ll be one day and it’s No Music Day.”

One of the things I found interesting about the website were the little personal testimonies by people saying that once they’d stopped listening to records and CDs, they started to find all sorts of other things musical and started to wonder to themselves, ‘Am I breaking the rules by paying attention to the music in the sound of the rain?’ 

Was that ever part of the idea from the beginning, to raise this question of the nature of music and how to define it, where its borders are?

“No. I’m not saying, listen to the sound of the rain. That’s not the score. Mine is: give yourself a day off. See if you can go a day without actually hearing anything musically and actually think for yourself what it is you want from music, instead of just accepting it.”

Something that struck me about The17 is that each piece is in a sense both a score and a manifesto. The Manual that you wrote many years ago [with Jimmy Cauty], How To Have a Number One The Easy Way, is also both a score and a manifesto. They’re both: anyone can do it, go out and get a bunch of people together... 

“Basically, I’ve had one idea, and I’m aware of that now. Christ, I’m 30 years older and I’m still doing the same thing. But the main thing for me, the main message that I’ve wanted to put out, is: don’t wait to be asked. If you want to do something, go and do it. Whatever it is.”