Scanner takes the chair and braces himself for the quick-fire question machine
Does it feel like 25 years since you released ‘Mass Observation’?
“It feels like time travel to listen to these recordings from so early on. I’ve kept all the recordings I’ve made since I was 11 on cassette and I find that audio more than images brings back a moment so vividly.”
The original idea was strikingly simple…
“I was interested in using voices within the electronic sphere and this way of intercepting phone calls offered access to anonymous voices, with no history or context. The issues of public and private, surveillance, morality and so on followed.”
Talk us through the “scanner”…
“The device was a sophisticated radio receiver that allowed me to pick up radio transmissions from taxi and courier services, hospital paging systems, mobile phone conversations and even earth to space transmissions, although I never heard any alien communications!”
Where did the recording take place?
“I recorded them with Jim O’Rourke and Robert Hampson in a tiny studio in Croydon. We used my recordings as source material, with live radio signals and an Eventide harmoniser, recorded direct to DAT. We performed twice, but only the first, shorter mix was released.”
Was it key that you were recording at a specific time and location?
“I always felt my works were pictures of a certain place and time, ‘Sound Polaroids’ as I called them. Even recording in the same location a few hours later would have offered up radically alternative source material. That’s what made recording so thrilling.”
Did the idea of eavesdropping present you with a moral dilemma?
“Never actually. Being able to listen back to a conversation again, and again, is a rare opportunity. I would learn so much about how people communicated with one another. I wasn’t interested in exploiting these people beyond the tales themselves.”
Do you still think about the people/voices/stories you half heard?
“Absolutely. Some of the conversations are like pop lyrics of a song I can never forget. I loved so many of these people and how they spoke and shared their lives with one another.”
Do any of the voices know they’ve been immortalised?
“I doubt it. These releases originally came out on small independent labels but I always awaited someone saying, ‘Oh yeah, I was the guy ordering a prostitute’ or ‘I was the man selling drugs in south London’. As if!”
Care to admit to any planted voices?
“Never needed to. There was simply too much good material out there. I still have masses of it in my archive too!”
Tell us about the “expanded” version…
“In digitising my archive recently I discovered this long unheard mix and felt it was of interest to listeners. There’s still at least another 600 hours of unreleased material sitting on the hard drive!”
What would ‘Mass Observation 2019’ sound like?
“It would be the sound of a million text messages and emojis pinging across the globe!”