The difference between strange and eccentric, the creative spur of restriction, and the brilliance of Billie Eilish - all unpacked by legendary producer-magician Guy Sigsworth.
DLMDD Creative Director Anil Sebastian meets with legendary producer Guy Sigsworth, celebrated for his pioneering work with some of the most iconic artists including Bjork, Britney Spears, Madonna, Robyn and Imogen Heap.
Anil and Guy discuss the difference between strange and eccentric, the creative spur of restriction, and the brilliance of Billie Eilish.
You started touring Europe playing harpsichord for the European Baroque Orchestra. How did you go from 14th century early music to being the pioneering producer that you are today?
After Orchestra, I moved to London and had a few paid gigs playing harpsichord. But then I started to think that maybe there were lots of other people who were good at this too. I started to listen to pirate radio, and I loved the sort of electronic music I was hearing, and I got some very basic gear – a sampler, a synth and a computer. Maybe I could do something that was totally me, but in this other world.
In art there are no real mistakes: whatever you do, it’s just whether you like it or not.
I grew up in a house where my dad only really played classical music. I didn’t grow up with pop as a starting point. I came to pop late. I still think I speak it with a foreign accent, and I never want to lose that accent. With everything I pursue, I want to know more and get better. But I also know that my mistakes, my misunderstanding it, might be interesting. Because I think in art there are no real mistakes: whatever you do, it’s just whether you like it or not.
And that leads me on to thinking about STET, your solo record, and STET itself, what does it mean?
There’s a poet, Peter Reading, who has a collection called “Stet”. That’s where I first came across the word, and I instantly. loved it. It’s an acronym, from Latin, used in book publishing, and it means ‘let it stand’. It’s a way of signalling to a proofreader, when you use a word with an unusual spelling or an unusual grammatical construction, that ‘yes I really do mean it this way!’. I would imagine that whoever first proofread E.E. Cummings’ poetry must have seen that a lot, because it’s constantly, deliberately breaking the rules of grammar and punctuation – and that’s part of its character. Ultimately I called it “Stet” to tell myself, “Guy, this is not a mistake”.
I think the tricky thing in all artistic endeavours is keeping that balance of being self critical, but not to a point of self laceration where you don’t believe in yourself.
I think the tricky thing in all artistic endeavours is keeping that balance of being self critical, but not to a point of self laceration where you don’t believe in yourself. We all worry that we’re frauds; any moment we’re going to be found out as not very good at anything. But at the same time, we have some inner spark of confidence, the belief that the voices in our heads are not crazy, that they’re telling us good things to do with our melodies and chord progressions and jumbled-up lyrics. We have to listen to that voice.
It’s actually really reassuring to hear that. I remember you once talking about the difference between weird and strange, if you remember?
I’ve just been reading the writer Mark Fisher, who develops this idea in a much deeper, more philosophical level than I have. My thought is that in music, there’s eccentric – where you mix up musical styles in quirky and unpredictable ways. A lot of Frank Zappa is like that: there’s five seconds of doo-wop, jumping into five seconds of Edgard Varese, jumping into five seconds of free jazz, in a crazy collage.
Strange is not like that. It’s where, when you hear it, you can sense that it has its own internal logic, but you can’t yet grasp what that logic is. It’s like hearing somebody talk Martian. It has the regularities of a language but you don’t recognise any of the words. You don’t yet know what anything means. And I love that initial strangeness, that mystery, where you can’t immediately refer it back to the music you already know.
That makes me think of the architecture of your own music and how you work and interact with the artists that you have worked with. I’ve always been struck by the detail and the architecture of your work in the studio.
I think it’s really interesting. I recently did some shows with Imogen Heap, and I think that live shows and recordings are very different. In recordings you can be incredibly fussy about things, almost to the level of stop frame animation, with everything controlled in this very precise, architectural way. I love that. But live, I’d prefer it to be as close to free jazz as it can be. That’s probably why jazz is primarily a live art form, and the recordings are always just a provisional snapshot of a particular moment.
Because that really is music – where anything could happen in the moment of performance, right?
I’m imagining Albert Ayler in New York in 1963, where there’s real danger in each gesture. But in the studio, we’re able to focus the listener’s hearing on one element or another very precisely, down to the nanosecond. And you can put in Easter eggs, sounds that people may not pick up on first listen, but they’ll start to notice on their second, third, 100th listen.
I still find new things in STET. And actually, funnily enough, my partner teaches dance and uses the tracks from STET in is his stretch class.
Dance is one of those art forms that I love, while also being quite clueless about what’s going on. Every culture comes up with some way of dancing, whether it’s flamenco, or street dances or even Morris dancing. My favourite classical composer is Stravinsky, and we forget that all those amazing pieces he wrote that revolutionised 20th century classical music were written to accompany dancing. There must have been interaction between the feet and the rhythms that fed into it at some level.
There’s a beauty in viewing art-forms that you’re outside of. I think religious ceremonies feel like that, especially when you view them as somebody from outside their specific tradition. I have a vivid memory from when I went to India in the 1990s. I went into this temple in Kerala. I don’t understand the exact meaning of the rituals, but basically, there was this beautifully painted elephant, and a musician playing a nadaswaram, which looks like a giant saxophone, but is technically a kind of oboe. He was playing this delirious, virtuoso, Albert Ayler-like solo to the elephant. I’m sure it all makes sense, just in a way that I don’t really understand, and I love it. I love that element of intriguing ritual that’s in these ceremonies. Maybe that’s what dance has, and what musical performance can sometimes have: the quality of a mysterious ritual. The idea that you’re witnessing some strange ceremony.
Absolutely. How has lockdown and the pandemic changed how you are listening to or making music?
I had my first lockdown experience in Krakow, in Poland. I couldn’t leave because the Polish authorities closed all the airports, so I wound up in a kind of exile for three months. And, secretly, I enjoyed it. I lived like a lighthouse keeper, but in a beautiful city, suddenly bereft of tourists. I found the restrictions really productive.
You can go to a restaurant with 100 things on the menu, but after you’ve read through all of them, you’re no longer hungry. And you can go to a restaurant with just 5 things on the menu, and you find exactly what you want. In Krakow I just had my laptop. It wasn’t in a great state, but it was all I had to make music with. I really had to ration its resources. It would crash if I tried to use plugins which were too intense on the CPU. Just re-learning, ‘Where do I really need to use this, and where do I not?’ was a great experience for me. It took me back to my early days because I used to have to work like that when I started, making music with almost nothing. It’s easy to bloat out your setup with terabytes of sample libraries. It was good to be denied that for a time.
What would your advice be to young creators and musicians working today looking to develop?
I think that the demystifying of technical skills, being able to watch tutorials about everything on YouTube is really great. Those skills are really valuable. But what I really want to hear is music that’s personal and individual. It’s great when you hear Billie Eilish, and you discover it’s just her and her brother, and they’ve done it all themselves. As a consequence, it has an individual voice. I was really upset about the sudden death of Sophie. Sophie had a very new, very original, very particular sound. You could always spot a Sophie track. Not because they all used the same trick – they didn’t. There were lots of different elements to what Sophie did. It really stood out. I just love hearing that individuality.
But what I really want to hear is music that’s personal and individual. It’s great when you hear Billie Eilish, and you discover it’s just her and her brother, and they’ve done it all themselves. As a consequence, it has an individual voice.
It comes much more from what you have within yourself than what you own. Ultimately, thousands of other people will have the same synths or sample libraries as you. So if you lean on those too much, you’ll just end up sounding the same as everybody else.
I started out with virtually no gear, and I got to make records with Trevor Horn, and he really liked the sounds I created on my crappy equipment. And then later on, I got more money, and I got more gear, and I discovered that with about 80% of it, I’d wind up not using it much. Only 20% of it became gear I’d go back to again and again. It’s very individual. The point is to find and celebrate that thing you do that other people don’t. And keep doing it.