Squarepusher dispels any Misconceptions about him or his latest album, Ufabulum.
By Joshua P. Ferguson
Originally published in Time Out Chicago magazine | 11.01.12
Tom Jenkinson is troubled. The experimental electronic producer and self-described “hard-baked, self-taught” musician Squarepusher, he’s bothered by the dominant opinion that his latest record, last May’s Ufabulum, is a return to form. Not only does Jenkinson not hear it that way, he feels that perception points to larger problems with music criticism in the Internet age.
“Doing interviews when the record first came out, the interpretations were much more varied,” the 37-year-old Essex native says on the phone from his London home. “Now everyone’s saying the same thing to me. I’m not sure if that’s an Internet-based phenomenon where these interpretations coalesce very strongly…and everyone follows suit and starts obeying what they read.”
Whatever the cause, respected music outlets like Drowned in Sound, Pitchfork and XLR8R have described the album in similar terms: if not a return to form, then a return to an earlier—and seemingly preferred—chapter in his 18-year career. “In a very superficial way, it has some of the same tempos, and the drum rhythms are to some extent similar, but to me it doesn’t sound anything like an old record of mine,” Jenkinson concludes.
Each side has a point. Jenkinson is a bit of a bass-guitar obsessive. As a result, a slap-bass jazz fusion has dominated his more recent material. Ufabulum, which contains no live instrumentation, will remind fans of earlier records like 2001’s Go Plastic. At the same time, Squarepusher’s passion for manic mechanized breaks has remained largely uninterrupted since ’96’s “Squarepusher Theme.”
Ufabulum maintains Jenkinson’s jazz spirit while showcasing his electronic experimentalism, and it does both with great bombast. Songs like “4001” and “Dark Steering” are stadium-size in their twisted drumming and big-beat-era grandiosity, while “Energy Wizard” and “Stadium Ice” are as 8-bit as they are electro-jazz-funk. For critics, there’s a refreshing familiarity; for the artist, there’s distinct growth sonically. For both, there’s also significant growth visually.
Except for a short stint on the West Coast this summer, Squarepusher has not been to the U.S. since 2004. His tour resumed this winter with a number of U.S. stops that boasted a stunning new live show—one that resolves a long-standing issue of Jenkinson’s: being a performer. “I’ve never been particularly comfortable with being the center of attention on the stage,” the nonconformist says. “I don’t really like the cult of personality that springs up around performers and the kind of weird alienation between you and the audience.”
Pushing the music to the fore, Jenkinson has camouflaged himself within the visuals—which he constructed side-by-side with each track on the new record—by wearing an LED helmet that looks like a cross between Magneto’s headgear and that of Geordi La Forge from Star Trek: The Next Generation. The helmet’s screen mimics endless permutations of hypnotic patterns cascading off an LED backdrop. “What I’m trying to do is make myself more of a canvas,” Jenkinson says. “I become a way of conveying these visual interpretations of the music.”
Both Jenkinson’s groundbreaking new stage setup and his bristling at the typecasting of Ufabulum speak to his visionary experimental drive. “I never actually set out intentionally to make electronic music,” he explains. “It seemed to be a domain where there was no, or very little, idea of what it should or should not be. A big part of what made me want to make music is to make things that my imagination was coming up with. My skill is to actually go and manifest it.”