Xanadune & Update Jammer – in conversation with Lil Data
This conversation took place as a live stream on Youtube, on the 19th February 2021. It is the first edition of a series of conversations brought to you by One Take Records and presented in collaboration with Passive/Aggressive. Edited by Greta Eacott.
Lil Data [Jack Armitage] is a live coder and instrument builder, who has released music on the UK record label and art collective PC Music – including his debut album Sup in 2014, and his latest album Folder Dot Zip in 2019.
Xanadune [Wilhelm Gustaf Ljunggren Dahl] is a computer music artist, who released his debut release Xanadune & Update Jammer as a split cassette on One Take Records in November 2020 with friend and fellow computer musician Update Jammer [Villads Posselt Mikkelsen].
One Take Records is a Copenhagen-based independent label run by Greta Eacott.
The conversation begins
Update Jammer: Ok, so Jack. The main thing to start with or point out with your is your connection to live coding and coding sounds, and I asked how it came to be that coding became your main compositional tool for creating computer music, and how you found your way into the live coding scene. if you’re part of a live coding scene now?
Lil Data: Thanks for starting us off with that question. I’m pretty sure my first encounter with it was around 2012-2013, I was in my final year of study at Leeds University and there was a new guy who’d joined the faculty at Leeds, called Alex McLean – and he’s the creator of a programming language called Tidal Cycles, and he joined because he’d just finished his PhD i think. and he had a postdoctoral position at Leeds, and I didn’t really know him or speak to him, but I just saw him hiding around in the school sometimes and I didn’t really know what he did. But he played a show in Leeds I think, so I got to see him perform with Tidal Cycles. And you know, he was sitting on the floor, with his shoes off, like in the crowd, with his keyboard and stuff and was typing words like Gabba or something like the names of different sounds. And then he was just creating these patterns that were so rich in terms of timing, and rhythm and patterns, and there was hardly any text on the screen, and that was just completely mind blowing for me.
And at that point in my life I was really lacking in musical inspiration – I think I’d burnt out on audio workstation software and wasn’t really having fun making music anymore. When I first got into making music I was about 14, and it was pure fun, made lots of really terrible, but fun music. Fun to make, not to listen to actually. But so yeah, I kind of lost the fun with traditional music making tools and then I saw this live coding thing and I was like WOW I have to learn that. And it took me like 3 or 4 years.
First of all it took me a couple of months to even install the software, and I know that people still have trouble with today so that’s why I want to mention that. Even when I started it took a long time even to just install the software, and then I played my first Algorave in December 2015 in a venue in Dalston, East London called Power Lunches which is sadly no longer existing, Rest In Peace, Power Lunches. And I was absolutely terrible, I was so bad I could barely… I was so terrified and nervous, I wasn’t improvising anything or even making good music at all. It was just some really basic stuff, and I was just like sweating and I felt like I was going to melt or something. So it was kind of in a way a really horrible experience but that kind of decreased over time and I got more fluent, I guess, with not just making weird complex stuff, because in a way that’s the easiest thing to do with live coding is to just type in a bunch of numbers and then some crazy stuff comes out, and that’s really exciting, but I really wanted to join up that world with pop and dance music, and music that I was enjoying in a live context or with friends.
Because at that point I already had the first release that I did on PC Music as Lil Data was this EP called Sup, and that was all made before I really learned live coding, but I wanted to continue developing that sound but with the live coding. So it took a long time to do that but it was a good project or a context in which to develop the skills. Because it was always like the goal was to make something that could fit onto a normal line-up, because you know, you mentioned the algorave scene which is really unique and a precious community I think. Pretty different to how dance music scenes work in a lot of ways, really kind of fresh. But I also wanted to play on line-ups where there was no live coding or where I wasn’t being invited because of live coding, it was just wanting to hear my music. I always tried to have those two worlds to play in. And that is what has driven the development of what I’ve been doing with live coding, making remixes of really simple pop songs and stuff using live coding, is really fun but also represents what I’ve been trying to do with it and I don’t really know what’ll happen with it next. I think I’m ready to destroy my practice again, in the same way that I did 8 or 9 years ago.
UJ: It seems to me also, being not that familiar with live coding, but checking some stuff out. Of course now that I’m looking into your work. It also seems to me like the coding aspect of the music is also as much an aesthetic, as it is the tool you use for making music. It plays a huge part in the visual.
LD: Yeah, for sure.
UJ: It’s also very dominated by the tool.
LD: Yeah, that’s right. And that’s something that I’ve always tried to work with on one level, because you can’t just pretend it’s not there. But try and be fluent enough that I can say what I’m trying to say and not be completely dominated by the presentation of it. I think it goes back to just having fun because with live coding, you can’t really present it in a serious way because you’re always going to mess up. There’s always going to be bugs, or your laptops just going to die sometimes or stuff just happens that means that you can’t really be all that serious about it. But anyway I even just try to take that further and imagine things like what’s the equivalent of a really over the top guitar solo, but for a live coder. Because that’s funny to me. The idea of doing a guitar solo is like, I’d never do that, but I’d do it if it was entertaining. So like, what’s the equivalent of that in a live coding sense or other stage drama type stuff, like how do you fit that into a live coding context because when you do that people are so surprised. Initially, if people don’t know it they’re surprised by live coding anyway, but then if you do some kind of joke, or you start messing around in a silly way with it as well then that kind of humanises it for me I think, and it breaks that barrier you get from this very strong presentation.
Initially, if people don’t know it they are surprised by live coding anyway, but then if you do some kind of joke, or you start messing around in a silly way with it as well then that kind of humanises it for me I think, and it breaks that barrier you get from this very strong presentationLil Data
But, I listened to your really lovely record a lot this week and fun was probably the main thing that stood out to me. I just hear that.. It makes me think ‘God.. I’m not having enough fun’ you know in music making, because I can just hear that you guys are having so much fun and I guess I’d really be interested to turn the question over to you and ask you about your music making and, I don’t know if you’re making music together as well or you just made your own music but have been friends for a long time or.. I don’t know anything so I’d be really interested to hear the background.
UJ: Yeah, for sure.
Xanadune: I guess it’s just a mixture of all the things you just said. We’ve been friends for a long time and we have made music together on many occasions but it’s just been parallel..
UJ: Yeah, it’s been very parallel. I think musically speaking we basically grew up together because when we first met we were both more rock types, but then when we first met when we were 14 or 15..
XD: 14 or 15 yeah.
UJ: We started bonding over going to record stores and looking in the cheapest bins and stuff like that. Growing up on music like kitaro & dungeon synth and stuff like that.
XD: Loads of dungeon synth
LD: What is dungeon synth? I don’t think I’ve come across this as a specific.. Is it a genre?
XD: I guess it’s just kind of this..
UJ: .. It’s like an off-shoot of dark ambient.. I guess people would say. The early nineties or even the late eighties, alongside with black metal. It was some of the off-shoot projects of the black metal bands. They started buying these nineties workstation keyboards
XD: Like very cheap Casios..
UJ: Yeah Casios and also Wavestation and things like that. And composing these very medieval fantasy inspired epic sound journeys that you would.. I guess in the traditional community would play them along with their Dungeons & Dragons campaigns and stuff like that.
XD: A lot of Dungeon Synth projects are very driven by, not necessarily a strict narrative, but the feeling of a narrative is very heavy.
UJ: And then in these recent years it’s become very popular right?
XD: Yeah, very popular.
UJ: It’s had a resurgence on the internet.
XD: Yeah, in 2016 it got very big again.
UJ: Yeah, I would say it really influenced that sound that is in Copenhagen right now, to some extent. But yeah, I guess we grew up on this really goofy synthesizer music I would say.
UJ: It’s true it’s one of the biggest inspirations for the stuff that we made together, but also separately. Yeah, as you said, just having fun with it but also trying to push ourselves towards something that might not be the coolest sound or the hippest thing to do. Which is, for me personally, I think when you make music and you want to make something that is.. you want to future proof something or.. make something that could be a classic in 20 years, you always have to deviate from the stuff that is cool right now, your local scene.
In Copenhagen, everyone is making ambient soundscapes but to make something that is future proof you have to go for the goofy synth stuff for example, the kitaro records that nobody wants and their selling for like 1€ per record in the record stores. And that’s always a battle within myself when I make music because there is always an urge or an instinct maybe even.. To go for the hip stuff and the contemporary stuff that your friends are making.
XD: Or maybe the stuff that you’ve already made for a long time..
UJ: Yeah for sure. But it’s always very important for me at least to go with the un-cool. The un-cool styles or sounds. Yeah, the goofy stuff or whatever you’d like to call it.
XD: Yeah, I think that’s also been a very vital part of our musical journey together because every time.. well not every time.. but a lot of instances where we’ve sat down and made music together, it’s also been very coloured by where we are at in our music making, and what music we like which is also, as you say.. The best thing you can do for yourself is do the thing that you might not think is hip at the moment.. Or things that you might not find to be aesthetically pleasing to the music you’re doing right now. So I think that’s been a pretty good thing, at least for the music we do, that we’ve made a lot .. not the same music.. but followed the same style sometimes and then you can kind of agree on evolving it or just.. like you said, just destroying it and making something completely different. At least that is how I’ve seen it a lot of times for when we’ve made music together, or not together.. It’s not like we’re making the same music either..
LD: Yeah, I guess when I heard your record I could really imagine why Greta [One Take Records] wanted to put us together, a little bit. And I think that kind of goofiness is definitely something that I’ve worked with a lot as well. But it’s just so interesting that I didn’t even know about this dungeon synth thing.. But I think it’s maybe because the goofiness that I’ve been playing with comes from a technological era of midi and cheap digital instruments. My reference point with it was always like.. browsing the web in the 90’s basically. That was really my reference and I don’t know if you guys even have any memories of that?
UJ: Yeah, I mean we’re a lot younger so.. There’s definitely the comparison because I think we’re inspired a lot by people, musically speaking, who were browsing the web in the 90’s – and we’re making music based on that. So we’re like the next step, the generation after that, that gets inspired in turn.
XD: I think also, a lot of the music.. there is of course right now a lot of music on the internet, and people who are making music on the internet and stuff going on on the internet.. So maybe the reason that a lot of musicians from your generation are so inspired by these internet deep-dives, and internet explorations is that, probably it’s something that was a little bit newer. And I think that it’s very expected of us to do a lot of internet deep-dives and base a lot of our stuff on that, and that’s maybe why.
UJ: That’s another thing that we should try to destroy.
XD: Yeah, definitely.
UJ: And getting off the internet is definitely a priority. And always has been over the last years. Yeah, at least trying to break up with that. And I think for me personally, or the scene that we are in, musically speaking, that’s definitely where the most interesting stuff appears, when you get off the internet and go back to other media for example.
LD: So it’s kind of like a full cycle, because you’ve become interested in this genre and revived it but in doing so you’ve created a real physical community in real space, and then that has now become its own thing, and then you want to follow where that goes.
Now it has switched around, so if you want to go to the new frontier you have to get off the internet and do some disturbing underground stuff in real life that no-one on the internet will know about.Update Jammer
UJ: Yeah, for sure. And I can imagine that maybe to some extent it was the same feeling that media artists had when they were pioneering on the internet for example, that it was a free space, or a new space. Where it was the new frontier where they could do anything they wanted to do. But now it has switched around, so if you want to go to the new frontier you have to get off the internet and do some disturbing underground stuff in real life that no-one on the internet will know about. Like, nobody at Discogs will know about, or something like that. That’s where the new frontier is, for us at least.
XD: Yes, I think that is very true.
LD: So how does that translate for you guys when you are.. Do you perform together or do you imagine performing any of this work you’ve done for this record for One Take Records, or is the idea of live something that would take a completely different process?
XD: I guess it depends, because we’ve performed live many times but not so much as our Xanadune & Update Jammer projects, but at least with you [Update Jammer], one of the last concerts you played there were almost no computers involved.
UJ: Yeah that’s the same point definitely, to try to take this stuff that is so rooted in the computer and the internet both technically and aesthetically – to take it out of the computer and – it sounds a bit grandiose to say breathe new life into it but like.. do it in a different way – that would maybe make it more exciting also live. For both the performer and the audience.
XD: I think there’s been so many years now of Ableton performances live, and that’s also the picture that I am also trying to corrupt. The picture of this computer music concert as being only a person who’s deeply inside the computer and that’s all you see. Just like you have, with being on the internet, I think I’m scared of not performing with my computer – and that’s what I’m trying to get away from.
And you know.. a composition is always a composition right. Your composition doesn’t have to be an Ableton Live production, so that’s maybe one of the things I want to strive away from the most.
I think most people who you’ll ask right now in Copenhagen, if you ask them what their last computer music concert was like , it was probably someone with a computer in front of them with Ableton on it or something.. It’s deeply rooted.
LD: Yeah, I guess that presents a lot of problems. The music on this record [Xanadune & Update Jammer OT22,2020] is very tightly programmed and complex and intricate and mixed in very interesting ways, and there’s dialogue sometimes, and then sometimes it’s very quiet and ambient and then sometimes it’s quite dark. So it’s just addressing this problem for you, does that mean that you have to make entirely different music? Or would you be looking to deconstruct what you have at the moment and find a way to make it feel more present on stage?
XD: I think as I said before, you know a composition will always just be a composition right, these are just sounds that we’ve chosen from some plugins that we’ve had on our computer, and as happy as I am about the sounds.. it’s just always interesting to destroy it and then you try it in a different realm. You can do anything with it that you want, and I think that is maybe the problem that I was talking about is that, that’s how we see, we just see it as an Ableton project.
LD: One thing I’ve been thinking about recently is just fantasising about shows that could happen eventually.. and that kind of keeps me going a little bit.
And I was just wondering, at the moment do you have a kind of show or performance in mind that you feel would create the kind of tension that you’re looking for and address the problems you’re talking about.
UJ: Lately I’ve been trying to take everything out of the computer, and destroy everything. So I would like to go completely from scratch. And maybe doing something that is not so, grandiose, that it can get on the computer, because you have so many options to deal with and you have all the tools at your disposal. So going completely down to basics – and going for a smaller sound I guess.. But it’s not anything so specific so far I guess.
I’m working completely without a computer right now, I destroyed my computer.. And we’ll see how I do, hehe. It’s kind of up in the air right now.
LD: If you had to perform in one months time, and it was going to be a really cool show and you were excited about it and there with no problems with public health or anything.. what would you do?
UJ: I think what you should do as a computer musician, or what would be very interesting for most computer musicians is letting your own computer go, if you’re computer based and then going to your friends houses and using their computers. That’s basically what I’m doing right now.
Yeah, and I think that would be so cool to bring just all my friends who have this editing software up on stage .. I could imagine a line of them, with their editing software and then you get all the options, and all the nit-picking, because I always get very OCD with the audio editing and this kind of software. Then you take it out of your own hands, and just focus on the more creative stuff I guess. But it also creates a very interesting dynamic I think because it depends on your set-up, but I think a lot of computer musicians are very used to working alone, just on their software. But once you put it in someone else’s hands, it creates this pretty interesting dynamic.
LD: So like, swapping laptops?
LD: That already makes me feel kind of terrified, so it must be a good idea.
XD: I think that’s maybe one of the problems I’m having a lot with being dependent on my Ableton software and my softwares in general is it gets to this nit-picking point.
UJ: Yeah, it can get so unproductive.
XD: I very often find myself in a spot where I’ve sat down for a long period of time and there’s been no drive.. The composition hasn’t gone anywhere, it’s been nit-picking on these minimal production bugs that I find in a track.
LD: So with the record on One Take, how much does that represent fighting with the computer, or fighting with the nit-picking.
XD: I don’t think it’s that representative of that mindset. Because, I think a lot of the tracks, the production on it was very nit-picky, and was very OCD.
UJ: Yeah, and I think as I said before, it’s always this battle within yourself. Fighting against the urge to go with the sound of the times, or to lose yourself programming the MIDI clips of whatever..
And personally speaking for my side of the tape, I think that most of the tracks were from 2018 to early 2019, and I feel like I’m getting better with fighting the urge to go the easy route. I definitely fight more against that now, and I think that’s also definitely something you can see in the music. Because my side [of the tape] is this very, as you said, tight, sequenced dance electronics sound, and I think it would definitely sound different if I did it now. And I think, with the stuff I have going in my hands, and I feel I’m at a completely different place. Musically.. and I guess I just have different stuff in my hands now.
XD: If I hear one of the tracks that we’ve put on our tape, I don’t feel like I’d want to produce something like that again, because also, my tracks.. Some of them are a couple years old too.
UJ: So in that respect it’s also like a timeline of our musical journey together. Which sounds kind of corny, but that’s a good light to put it in, I guess. Which is why I also think it works as a split-tape.
XD: Yeah, it works really well. It was a good way for us to do that.
LD: So you kind of captured a moment where.. It seems very maximalist. Like you chose the extreme in every decision that you could make. And is that also about using all of the computer’s abilities as well?
UJ: Yeah, it’s probably come out of the problems that we talked about before. And I guess that’s mostly one of the nice things about coding, and coding in a live situation that you’re so much more restricted in the moment that you’re doing it.
LD: Yeah, you’re restricted in some ways and then you’re free in other ways. In lots of different ways.. So it’s not really something that I could easily or quickly summarise..
UJ: But the possibility that your computer crashes or that you mistype a line, a sequence or something, and everything is in your production.
LD: But then on the other hand you can very quickly change the structure of everything with one function, in a way that is just not possible with an Ableton project or something.
So… it’s not all pain… Although there’s definitely also a lot of pain.
UJ: But, it’s good with the pain.
XD: But do you still think it lacks unpredictability?
LD: I think that really comes down to your own custom set-up because you can make it completely pre-determined if you want. Or you can set it up so that you’re very unlikely to have anything go wrong but for me that really takes all of the fun out of it, and I don’t, for example practice that much. Because if I practice too much I’m already bored by the time I get on stage. And I can’t get into it. So there’s the perfect amount of practice where you know roughly what you are going to do but there’s enough unexplored territory that you can get lost in it when you actually perform.
On a basic level, you’re always attracted to the thing that you don’t have access to, and with live coding the main thing that I’ve never managed to get full access to is tactility and detailed timbre, the quality of sound.Lil Data
XD: You said before that you were looking at ways that you could destroy your practice right now.
Do you think maybe finding your own practice would be influenced by taking away some of the safety that you know that you have in your live coding, because after all you have quite a lot of years of practice in your praxis – so what do you think it could be, the thing that removes the safety?
LD: That’s a really good question. On a basic level, you’re always attracted to the thing that you don’t have access to, and with live coding the main thing that I’ve never managed to get full access to is tactility and detailed timbre, the quality of sound.
Because live coding is very event driven, in a MIDI kind of way. Mostly you’re just triggering events that play notes or samples and so on.. And then obviously, for your body, you’re very much locked into a very small physical space and you can’t really communicate very much with an audience, in your body language.. and your hands can’t do much apart from be in front of you.
So I really want to.. I guess in a similar way to last time where I wanted to move away from audio workstations but keep the music, the silliness of the music, and the fun. And this time I think I want to somehow find a way to take with me the algorithmic expression, which I think is really unique, and I wouldn’t want to lose that.
The ability to control time using algorithms is somehow part of me now. But I want to have a much more tactile hands on relationship with the sound, and I want to be able to do more with my body, and that’s definitely quite a big challenge because I’m quite an uncoordinated person, and you know I started out playing guitar, but I stopped because I don’t have very good fine motor skills or… I’m just not that kind of person. But that’s what I’m attracted to now.
I’ve been doing a PhD the last five years and have been building new physical interfaces for ways of manipulating sounds that are more tactile and hands on.
So, it’s not very concrete for me yet..
But I can picture it ..
Having some kind of devices that maybe are attached to my hands, or they’re fixed on my body and I touch the devices as they’re fixed on my body, and then I’m free to move around and there would be no screen anywhere, so that I can make eye contact with the audience. But somehow still be doing some kind of live coding, making algorithmic music. So I don’t really know how that can even exist at this point, how do you write code without text or any visual representation and so on.
So that’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. I think I’ll need to build lots of prototypes of something. Which is kind of what I was saying about fantasising about shows that might be possible.
I want to have a much more tactile hands on relationship with the sound, and I want to be able to do more with my body, and that’s definitely quite a big challenge … Having some kind of devices that maybe are attached to my hands, or they are fixed on my body and I touch the devices as they’re fixed on my body, and then I’m free to move around and there would be no screen anywhere, so that I can make eye contact with the audience. But somehow still be doing some kind of live coding, making algorithmic music. So I don’t really know how that can even exist at this point, how do you write code without text or any visual representation?Lil Data
UJ: So your practice is also evolving into instrument building?
LD: Yeah, my degree in Leeds was about music technology and electronics and then I was working for this company called ROLI, that make this Seaboard instrument for a couple of years and after that I started on the PhD, and that has mostly been about the idea of subtlety and detail in digital musical instruments and how do you take digital making processes and make them more like handcrafting processes.
XD: It’s also very much what music on your laptop can do to you, it can make you feel like you’re not holding it, or it’s not physical. It can distance you from what you’re making.
LD: It’s funny though because for me, over time, the algorithm has definitely become something that I feel in quite a deep way, but it’s not in a corporeal way.
It’s not like this algorithm is in this hand, and this algorithm is in this hand or something.
It’s inside somewhere, but it’s not something that directly relates to my physical body, so I almost want to find ways of letting it express itself. The music within…
XD & UJ: hehe
The conversation ends
Thank you to Xanadune, Update Jammer and Lil Data for being a part of this first edition of One Take Records in conversation with... If you’d like to know more about the artists, you can follow them and their work: