Douglas Benford

Douglas Benford has had so many guises, side projects and collaborations, that you might well be more familiar with his label and music night Sprawl, which he co-runs with German-born musician and photographer Iris Garrelfs

By Elizabeth Wells

Douglas did a lot of experimenting in the 80s with pop and ambient music, moving into more full-on instrumental dance music later in the decade with the whole acid house revolution. He released numerous 12"s under the Sidecut>>db moniker, working with artists such as St Etienne's Sarah Cracknell, Momus and Scanner. Gradually this metamorphosed into si-{cut}.db, in a kind of 'intelligent electronica' guise. He also worked under a number of pseudonyms such as Mr Wrong and Radial Blend, and formed co-projects Pantunes Music and Phoenix Jig, dabbling later in drum 'n' bass and jazzy surfaces.

Sprawl has since metamorphosed from a simple night to a record label and the engine for a number of music events around the UK. It has also spawned a variety of different projects for both founders, such as Douglas's Tennis collaboration (with Benge aka Ben Edwards) and Iris's own laptop-orientated monthly event, Field 61. In terms of where Sprawl locates itself musically, Douglas says that "a lot of the good stuff we hear is from laptop artists, but we're pretty open-minded. We have sought to maintain our integrity by not following the club motifs of what is regarded as 'electronica' or 'breakbeat', or whatever." He considers such genres by their very nature, limited and unchallenging. The reason they have lost a lot of their original audience, he suggests, is because they refuse to pander to genre-based expectations. Instead Sprawl's contribution is "to be restless and not live in the past, but also we do not want it to become a club full of cronies, just putting on our friends. Although we will put on friends if they are playing good music though... as finding this in London is very hard nowadays!"

Consequently, Sprawl 's musical direction has moved more towards soundscapes and improvisation, with recent highlights featuring Kaffe Matthews, Hayley Newman, Freeform and Si Begg. Then, last year, Douglas and Iris put together the GroundSwell event at the ICA in London with Jan Jelinek, Fennesz, Sutekh and David Toop, which was "artistically a resounding success". Yet Douglas could never be accused of complacency or resting on his laurels; he works hard at doing what he loves best. Recently he and Iris have done solo sets as si-cut.db and Bit Tonic respectively at the Camden Mix event in London and the Deep Burnt festival in Glasgow, and have "a few things up our sleeves" for the future. Douglas has a si-cut.db 12" coming out on A Touch Of Class in Germany, followed by an album on Bip-Hop coming out in December, then another full release next year on Fallt.

"Iris – as Bit Tonic – and I are also working together on generative software ideas and installations. My next big project is a joint recording with Stephan Mathieu (Mille Plateaux/Orthlorng Musik), and we are working towards a third Tennis album (with Benge), with remixes by artists such as Scanner and Kim Cascone". The Tennis project began as a conversation between the two artists at a festival in France, although Douglas's admiration of Ben(ge)'s "fantastic studio" probably had something to do with it: "I was lured into it like a child into a sweet factory!" Tennis' methods and approach to working seem to change with each with each project, as much to maintain their interest as to prevent repetition; their last album, Europe On Horseback, received much acclaim in the music press for its stripped-down dub-led approach.

Asked if he has a 'musical vision' as such, Douglas seems again to suggest a strong unwillingness to compromise. "Although it is difficult to know whether what one produces will stand the test of time, I don't really care about that, I just do it for myself at the time. I always start with the question 'what do I want to hear?' rather than what should I play to please other people...I make music that I would want to go out and buy."

At the moment, Douglas is focusing on the next si-cut.db material, keeping it minimal and flexible. Of the forthcoming album, Enthusiast, on Bip-Hop, Douglas says he has forged a completely different sound from his last si-cut.db album, reflecting his interests in dub/sound processing, but still rooted in melody and rhythm. "It's far closer to the Tennis material. A lot of the sounds were fragments of the sound of wood splintered and broken, although they are integrated to such a degree that you can't really tell what they are." The Bip-Hop press release talks of the album as playing with 'different timbers and timbres, the grain on the wood becoming almost the grooves of a vinyl record, spiraling forward'. He's keen to move the sound on further, whether on his own, or through collaborations, which help him 'think and work differently': "Iris and I want to move towards more generative software approaches – a kind of controlled improvised feel, within parameters of course. The Stephen Mathieu joint material sounds radically different for me. I've also made the decision to re-sample my own work more, just because there is so much of it, so many interesting ideas I discarded which I can now go back to and treat with new software. Sprawl will continue as a social/musical event as long as we enjoy it... we might even get to do another Sprawl release one day".

Testimony to his disciplined work ethic is the number of international gigs he's done recently, playing new material out live in the US, France, Germany, Australia and Spain. Not surprisingly, his music seems to have accrued a rather cosmopolitan flavour: "In the US I am presumed to be Canadian, in France I was asked if I was German. So it's good not to be associated with English music!' With that in mind, it's not surprising that Douglas's idea of a compliment is to be told that he sounds like 'Jan Jelenik on a good day', which someone bestowed on him in Glasgow. But with increasing attention being paid to him in the music press over in the UK, with accolades from the likes of Time Out and The Wire, he may not be able to abstain from giving his music a nationality for very much longer.
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