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Short Circuit

With the instrumental album, Firmament II, Main has all but pulled the plug on Rock. Razor triangulates by Robert Hampson's a new direction pole star. Claudine Shafer flicks the switch.

The first thing Robert Hampson tells me, after the initial "hello"s, is how much he hates music. He says this while we're still settling down in Beggars Banquet's plush little office, and before I've even fished the tape recorder out of my bag. I immediately warm to the man immensely, since I fight daily battles with other Lizard writers who still seem to have a good word to say for the wretched stuff. You may have started this magazine so you can wax lyrical on the virtues of that silver disc that just popped-free-through your letterbox, I tell them. Me, I just need a chance to point out to the world how shite it all is. And we laugh, because (dammit!) even a cynical curmudgeon has his faves. Somebody will still manage to yank on your heartstrings when you're least expecting it. It simply isn't fair.
spacer Robert keeps up a staunch front for a while, dissing Rock music as if it were coming back into fashion and slighting the efforts of most of his contemporaries. He's also champion at pointing out how Krautrock's emergence as a mid-90s buzzword has led to some idiotic statements about Main from would-be aficionados. "Amon Duul II were just the German equivalent of Hawkwind, and I detest them more than I detest Hawkwind, and that's a lot. To be compared that this is Amon Duul II... that is just so off the mark." But even Robert is human. By the end of our conversation, his eyes are lit up, and my tape captures him saying:
spacer "There's incredible records that were done in 1956 or something like that that probably sound more modern now than they did then. It's exciting. It still holds an element of something that just makes you think 'This fucking does something to me'."
spacer Anyone familiar with recent(ish) Main records like the Firmament EP or the album Motion Pool perhaps won't be too surprised to learn that it's old Musique Concrete stuff that's got Robert so animated. It was usually implied at the time of Main's first EP that its dedication to Karlheinz Stockhausen was an act of frightful pretension, but Hampson has put his record contract where his mouth is. Subsequent releases have materially grappled with the dissolution of Rock by way of turning riffs into drones, songs into wisps of vocal aftertouch, guitars into wellsprings of imagination. Robert describes it as a process of eradication; a process that's led to, but certainly doesn't culminate in, a new instrumental album Firmament II.

"Firmament II is the most bare we've ever been. It's very, very stripped down. I dunno, we probably still will write song-orientated material, but I think now the driving stuff is slowly disappearing. Certainly if you follow it from Dry Stone Feed to Motion Pool, it's slowly being pushed out. I guess technically the song will have a push to it, but it's not so dominated by drums and things-we've completely got rid of the drum machine."
spacer There's a kind of throb just to using a sample loop, isn't there? You have to search much harder for the beat.
spacer "Firmament II is more sort of pulsing music, lots of ebbs and flows to it." You've said in the past that you've always wanted to retain an element of rhythm to what you're doing. Is that still something you want to hold on to, or do you think that will be eradicated eventually as well?
spacer "I think so, yeah. I think you have to retain a certain amount of rhythm to it to make the more vocal tracks work properly.
spacer "We really blitzed Firmament II, I mean we recorded that in about two and a half weeks which is really, really, really quick for us. Motion Pool took about eight months, because we're extremely methodical. We're so desperate to get away from all these other bands that just create Wall Of Sound, that's all they ever do, and that's what Loop was about: each element was fitting to what it was, but it wasn't that detailed. With Main we're trying to get away from this approach that everybody seems to have about this Wall Of Sound; we want every single detail that's in there to be audible within the whole range of hearing. You can say 'That's come in there' and you can follow that strand.
spacer "I think where we're going to go in the future, I think we're probably going to get even more self-indulgent in that respect, in really really pushing every single identity of the tiny little particles that make up a Main piece, and in doing so the more song material is slowly going. But we'll still have vocal textures and stuff like that. I'm not completely sick and tired of singing. Generally I don't like it, but when it comes to it I actually think it's kind of essential. It's one of those bugbears, where you feel certain things have to have a vocal texture to them."
spacer Working by improvising onto multi-track tape and stripping away the bits that don't work, keeping on layering and paring until they're satisfied, Robert and Main partner-in-crime Scott Dowson have established a methodology that depends totally upon their judgement and intuition.
spacer "We just push everything, and when we've got to the point where we've got a collection of sounds, like say forty minutes worth of sounds, then I'll think 'Well, I've got some vocal ideas for that one; that one I haven't'. So we sort of weave out the stuff that's gonna become more of a Firmament idea."
spacer Oh, I should have mentioned. Firmament is the umbrella under which Main's most precious drumless, vocal-less pieces take shelter. So if you're expecting klangfarbengrooves like 'Blown' from Dry Stone Feed or the thundering ear-blitz of Motion poors 'Rail' you won't find what you're after in FIfs two 25-minute wafts, entitled simply 'IX' and 'X'. But if your ears are open to the rhythm of the universe (or at least Robert and Scott's delay boxes), let 'em breeze in.

"We do want to see the end of Rock music as we know it," Robert confesses, "because Rock music doesn't mean anything any more. It's stale. Boring. Regressive. I love Rock music; there's some really killer Rock albums-even some of the Sonic Youth stuff a few years ago. But now it's dull. It's so fucking boring; it's anally retentive. The whole point of us doing something is that we're still playing guitars. But we're completely taking the guitar in an area that... has been covered before by bands like AMM, but we're trying to do something a bit different to what they did."
spacer This is the issue, really. Reaching back into the past to try and find a way to replace something that is worn-out and unexciting today. But you have to be aware of why that thread hasn't previously led to anything. And you have to maintain a spirit of moving forward into a new area, even as you make your strategic retreat. Falling back on Stockhausen and Krautrock in the 90s is no more inherently progressive than falling back on the Velvets was in the 80s; it's how anyone develops those old faithful ideas that counts.
spacer The problem with a lot of the experimentalists Main embrace is that they tended to elevate minute detail and revile large-scale structure. Over-arching logic is something that has been too long lacking both from our art and the way we understand the world: witness the popularity of relativist philosophy and artistic minimalism; perhaps an excusable response to the absurdly dictatorial rationale of interwar Big Ideas, but even then intellectually vapid and undevelopable. For Main, their total reliance upon their wits is an act of bravery that does not necessarily deny structural integrity. The layering of long, overlapping textures is a sound basis for a new, consolidated form of music. It would be a real step forward to see such a thing emerge from Main's painstaking doodles.
spacer Robert's response to the genuine Death Of Rock (cue dirges) has been the systematic elimination of its naffest elements: drumbeats, song structures, 4/4 rhythms, key, riffs, etc. Fair enough. But doesn't there come a point when you have to start adding rather than taking away? How, having eradicated the parameters that make Rock so tedious, can you replace them? Robert's answer tells me all I need to know; that, though he might not be there yet, he is trying to escape history's wild loop:
spacer "All I can say is you're going to have to listen to the further adventures of Main."

Ligature is out now on Beggars Banquet and includes remixes by Jim O'Rourke, Paul SchOtze, Paul Kendall and Main. Firmament II is released on 28 November.

Originally appeared in Lime Lizard magazine, December-January 1994-95
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