Shackleton’s stock has never been higher. In a rare interview, the sound designer and arch-collaborator opens up on his gloriously hypnotic new album,  a disorientating miasma of woozy hauntology and “cracked-mirror oddness”

If time feels like it’s speeding up for Sam Shackleton,  it certainly hasn’t affected his productivity of late.  The Lancashire-born electronic producer forged a sui generis reputation via the influential Skull Disco imprint in the mid-2000s, which he ran with his underground dance companion, Appleblim. Fourteen years after shutting down the Bristol independent label, and moving from his home in London to Berlin, Shackleton is arguably on the creative roll of his life.

This year alone, he’s released albums with Wacław Zimpel and Siddhartha Belmannu, Heather Leigh and Scotch Rolex (aka DJ Scotch Egg), and has  also established another alias, The Purge Of Tomorrow, eschewing beats for a more meditative approach. This, in turn, feels like the successor to a further side project, Tunes Of Negation, which unfortunately was forced into early retirement when marimba player Raphael Meinhart had to return to Austria during the pandemic. 

And then there’s ‘The Scandal Of Time’, Shackleton’s psychedelic and, at times, disorientating new record which doesn’t shy away from the big questions, examining the eternal sleep that awaits us all. 

Woven into dreamlike tapestries are three traditional folk songs performed by Anna Gerth. These include the 16th century ‘Eine Dunkle Wolke’ (‘A Dark Cloud’), a hallucinatory opener phasing from choral liturgy to ruminative dub; ‘Es Fiel Ein Reif’ (‘A Frost Fell’), which folklorist Anton Wilhelm Florentin Von Zuccalmaglio apparently had a hand in updating  during the 19th century; and another poem from the same century, ‘Abend Wird Es Wieder’ (‘It Will Be Evening Again’), sung to the famous melody by Johann Christian Heinrich Rinck, it’s given a ghostly 21st century makeover  in Shackleton’s inimitable style. 

So who is Anna Gerth? 

“She’s a friend of mine,” reveals Shackleton, who speaks in a thoughtful, unhurried Lancastrian burr, undimmed by many years of living away, in Turkey and Hungary for short spells, as well as London and Berlin. “She’s a hobbyist singer and she likes to sing these traditional songs – she’s got a day job and that type of thing. Her husband is a very dear friend of mine, and he always says, ‘These songs can bring me to tears’. And I have to say that I have the same kind of experience when I hear them.”

What do these songs, written over a period of 300 years, have in common? 

“I think the actual history of each particular song is different,” he clarifies. “The origin stories are a bit murky, but they all have this almost fatalistic attitude to life, especially about how love will be denied to you in the end and you’ll probably have some kind of horrible death.” 

He emits a stifled chuckle. 

“Life for people was generally probably pretty horrible in many respects, or at least how we would understand it today. So I’m not sure this is necessarily for everybody. Maybe it’s good to be confronted with these things in songs or poetry, just to be able to explore them, because you will have these moments in your life.”

You’d be very lucky not to, I suggest. 

“Or unlucky… I don’t know,” he replies. “I guess it’s all about preparing yourself for the end, one way or the other.”

To say that Sam Shackleton rarely gives interviews would be an understatement. In 2021, he spoke to Pitchfork for his ‘Departing Like Rivers’ album, and then you have to go back a further 10 years to find another. Naturally, I’m delighted when he agrees to speak to me… then mildly perturbed when an email lands in my inbox with the heading, “Sam Shackleton here,” in which he explains that there has been  a misunderstanding between him and his PR. 

“I do not do social media and I’m normally very publicity-shy,” he writes.  “That is why there are not so many interviews with me, generally. I looked at your magazine and can tell that it’s good stuff, but I would like to know what kind of thing you want to talk about.”

I do my best to reassure him, and eventually, before midnight, a reply arrives with him agreeing to talk to me by phone the following morning. Expecting taciturnity, even evasiveness maybe, I’m immediately disarmed by Shakleton’s warmth and articulacy, with only a tiny trace of nervousness detectable in his voice. When I suggest he should do more interviews, he admits to a distrust of having his words turned into misleading soundbites, although the only thing off the table today is current affairs. 

“I’ve been doing this for quite a long time,” he adds with an ironic self-awareness. “I don’t want people getting sick of me and saying, ‘You never hear nothing apart from that bloody bloke these days’.”

So why the avoidance of social media? 

“I kind of remember the Twitter thing starting, and I just thought, ‘I don’t really fancy that’.”

He does use YouTube, and has a tendency to disappear down rabbit holes. Does he read the comments under his own work? 

“I have done so in the past. I don’t think it’s necessarily healthy, though.” 

photo: miki

Are there any comments that have stayed with him? He cites a disgruntled fan writing under one of the videos for 2017’s ‘Behind The Glass’ with Berlin electronic singer and musician Anika: “Normally I like Shackleton, but this sounds like music for a Victorian funeral parlour.” 

“It’s stuck with me to this day – not because I felt offended, but because it was so funny,” he laughs. “When the criticism sticks in the throat, it’s usually when you find it unfair, like if somebody was to say, ‘That Shackleton guy really makes some rubbish dubstep doesn’t he?’. You’re welcome to your opinion, but I never tried to do that in the first place, so it’s judging from the wrong standpoint. Whereas, if someone were to say, ‘The new tracks on this album of his… I can see he’s tried to be ambitious with it, but actually, none  of it works on a compositional level’. I could say, ‘Well, that’s your personal taste, and I can live with that’.”

He seems surprisingly sensitive to criticism for an outlier living in self- imposed exile. I tell him how much I enjoyed the prog-like whimsy of ‘Devotional Songs’ with Ernesto Tomasini.

“I’m really pleased you like that one because I got the impression people were a bit lukewarm with it,” he replies. 

Similarly, when I comment on the rich detail that permeates ‘The Scandal Of Time’ in contrast to the minimalistic approach of ‘Stalker’, his first single from 2004, he recoils. 

“I generally make things until they sound right to me, but I have to say,  I do wonder if I have developed this tendency of putting too much out there.” 

I assure him I meant it as a compliment. 

“I’m happy you think that it sounds right. Because there are very few elements going on with some of the musicians I like the best.”

If Sam Shackleton’s erroneous classification as a dubstep artist two decades ago has remained with him, then his career can be defined by his ongoing move away from that milieu, towards ever more idiosyncratic abstraction in his work. 

Even when he was making dance music, ostensibly speaking, it tended not to resemble other people’s. Take his ‘Fabric 55’ album from 2010, a recreation of the set he played at the legendary club, which often plateaus on a hypnotic wave with ne’er a drop or riser. Moreover, Shackleton avoids the default kick drum/snare combination – a staple to most – for the more regulated continuum of West African congas or other hand percussion patterns created with a homemade sequencer. 

Shackleton frequently substitutes what he describes as “easy signifiers” in a DJ set with less recognisable sonic semiotics, although he believes they can still carry a similar emotional resonance on the dancefloor if administered with sensitivity. 

“If you’re bringing in an element that might normally be considered a little  bit left-field or avant-garde for people who are expecting something to happen – which might normally be a big bass drop or something like that –  I think they can still really react to it because you’re using the same grammar of the dancefloor.”

Why does he dislike the snare so much? 

“I find the kick and snare combination is a bit too directing,” he says, opting for an unusual present continuous use of the verb. “I’m not some percussion maestro, it’s just that when I’m dancing, I need to have a certain groove going on. I want to put my own groove in there. Does that make sense?”

Is the kick/snare combo too didactic, then? 

“I was going to use exactly that word, but then I thought, ‘Oh, does it sound like I’m telling other people they’re being too authoritarian when they use it?’. Everyone’s got to do what they’ve got to do, and I’m just interested in when I’m dancing.”

Since moving to Berlin, Shackleton has ploughed an individualistic furrow, but often in tandem with the artists he meets along the way, be that Anika, Ernesto Tomasini, Pinch or the 92-year-old East German film director Jürgen Böttcher, aka Strawalde. Prior to his 2008 move, his regular collaborator, Vengeance Tenfold (who he also recorded 2017’s ‘Sferic Ghost Transmits’ with), could often be heard muttering ominous words. 

In the German capital, he’s found himself working with a variety of vocalists from very different backgrounds, none  of which was premeditated.

“I’ve never made big plans to do it in a certain way,” he explains. “I think the singers bring a quality I just can’t achieve on my own.”

One of those is Glasgow-based Texan singer Heather Leigh, who first entered Shackleton’s orbit when her vocals featured on Tunes Of Negation’s 16-minute odyssey ‘The World Is A Stage / Reach The Endless Sea’ from 2019. Soon after, Flesh & The Dream were born, and their debut album ‘Choose Mortality’ was released last July. 

“I needed a female voice with a kind of esoteric element, and Heather was recommended to me by a mutual friend. I thought, ‘Wow, she seems brilliant’. The first time we met, I think we both realised we liked each other and we’ve got very similar interests. And then, of course, her husband is David Keenan, who’s a great writer and also a really interesting person. These are the kind of people you’d like to work with artistically.”

Shackleton is a big fan of Keenan’s fiction, and had a surprise when he recently read ‘Industry Of Magic & Light’. 

“Basically, I turned up in there in kind of a different character, which made me laugh so much. He’s quite sneaky like that. I’ll say no more!”

Another project, which begat the album ‘In The Cell Of Dreams’, is a collaboration with the Polish folk-trance exponent Wacław Zimpel and the Indian singer Siddhartha Belmannu. 

“To say I’m very, very happy with that record…” he pauses. “I consider it to be the best music I’ve ever been involved in. It’s just beyond what I could have possibly hoped for. I think I’d really like to do that again.” 

Given all the other activity, another Shackleton LP looks increasingly unlikely in the coming years. 

“I’ve got a couple more collaborations to come,” he reveals. “And I’ve got The Purge Of Tomorrow, which is something I want to be concentrating on  a lot more. I see the potential for it – I called it a side project, but I think I want to make it my main project in the future.” 

More than anything, The Purge Of Tomorrow is made to aid the listener in achieving a kind of psychic transcendence. It’s psychedelic, but perhaps not in the way others might perceive that adjective. 

“People automatically associate psychedelic music with drugs,” says Shackleton. “There is some crossover there, but I would think more that there’s a variety of colours to it. A variety of textures. It has a lot of different angles that you can listen to it from, a lot of different things you can focus  on… layers of meaning, perhaps. It’s quite the opposite of that word you  used – didactic.”

The scandal of time means there are only so many hours in the day and  so many days and years left to get things done. 

“And time just somehow seems to be running quicker and quicker away from me, which is a little bit annoying.” 

‘The Scandal Of Time’ is out on Woe To The Septic Heart

You May Also Like
Read More

Unloved: You’ve Been Framed

DJ? Electronic recording artist? Producer? Soundtrack composer? Drawing on 60s girl groups and epic film scores, Unloved sees David Holmes combining his considerable skills into one deliciously noir-ish album
Read More

Trevor Key: Key Works

Featuring iconic record sleeves by the late Hull-born photographer, a new exhibition, ‘Trevor Key’s Top 40’, opens at the city’s art school, where he studied, later this month. We doff our cap to the great man
Read More

Matt Berry: Turn On, Tune In, Sit Down

TV themes from our formative years are as much a part of our lives as the pop we cherish. With A new album of theme tune covers, Matt Berry is doing more than looking back, he’s preserving them for future generations
Read More

Crammed Discs: Measure of the Man

Crammed Discs’ avant-garde ‘Made To Measure’ series has recently reactivated to serve up reissued classics as well as new releases. We meet Crammed boss Marc Hollander and some of the Belgian label’s always idiosyncratic artists