Mark Spybey: Dead Voices On Air
Paradigm Shift Interview by Philip H. FarberMark Spybey is the creative force behind Dead Voices On Air, a musical project that transcends categories and descriptions, offering unusual auditory experiences for the adventurous. Now residing in Vancouver, Spybey originally hails from Marske-by-the-Sea, a small town in the north of England. Although he sometimes denies being a musician, he has worked with numerous bands and musicians including Zoviet-France, Not Breathing, Download, Pigface, and Spasm, among others. DVOA's latest release is the two-CD ":piss frond:", easily one of the more remarkable recordings of recent years.
PHF: What does the title refer to?
Mark Spybey: Nothing really. I have a penchant for using odd words and mixing them up. I remember one night messing around with a whole bunch of words. The two words together, I liked. I liked the combination. That's about it. That's the kind of level of satisfaction I have, physical satisfaction for words.
PHF:A sort of mental cut-up process?
Mark Spybey: Yes, yes.
PHF: How about a little history? When was DVOA conceived?
Mark Spybey: It started when I moved to Canada in 1992. I started to play music again, not having done so for a few years. I encountered a couple of people in Vancouver who were keen improvisers and that's pretty much my kind of background. I'm not that accomplished a musician... I started improvising again, started jamming, and it got to the point where I was doing more and more recording myself, so I took it on to develop this thing myself. I sent off a couple of tapes to various labels and I got some interest, surprisingly. Really, it just developed from there in a very organic way. It's not a band, you know, it's a personal endeavor of mine... Along the route I became involved with other people, such as Download and some of the people from Invisible Records, and started to release more and more things. It just nicely kind of snowballed to the point where it is now.
PHF: Has this become a full time thing yet?
Mark Spybey: Full time in the sense that it actually pays money?
Mark Spybey: [laughs] No, it doesn't. I hazard a guess that somebody could live off the earnings that Dead Voices On Air makes, but I certainly couldn't. I desire to live my life with a certain degree of comfort. But I am spending more and more time on it, which has its own sort of problems because it impacts on the other things I do in my life, in terms of work. There's certainly a lot of work involved. I think.
PHF: What else do you do for work?
Mark Spybey: I'm an occupational therapist, and I've done that for many years.
PHF: In what direction has DVOA developed over the years?
Mark Spybey: It's become increasingly commercial, in a strange kind of way. I can't honestly say I did that by design, but I've become much more familiar with the equipment that I use, with the materials that I use, with my ideas. I spend a lot of time thinking about what I want to try and achieve. I've never been interested in music that's just computers and synth. In a sense I use this as a sort of emotional release or physical release, or whatever. And I've never been interested in transmitting music that consciously did appeal to people. I've never tried to set out to disturb anybody with what I do, or to do anything other than 'This is my right. It's my right to make music. It's my right to express myself.' It's become more focused, probably a better word than commercial. I now know what I want to achieve by music. I have a repertoire of skills and techniques that I use. Strangely for me, because I've always been proud of the fact that I'm not a musician, I have become much more focused on sound in the last year. I think my ears have been growing or something because I've just become much more attentive to sound. Having been involved in making sounds with my voice over the last three years, I've also started to realize that I actually enjoy singing. The words I've been writing for many years -- I've been involved in arts and poetry and all sorts of things, I guess twenty years I've been writing poetry -- the words that I'm actually writing now, I can see some relevance to them, I can see that other people may be interested in them. Other people tell me they are interested in them. That kind of feedback helps me. It helps me build on what I'm trying to do, to the point where I'm, at the moment, very interested in song structures and I'm very interested in the ideas of using words that people can actually understand, instead of just making up languages or assimilating different kinds of languages from around the world.
PHF: Seemed like there was more emphasis on that on "piss frond".
Mark Spybey: Yeah. Certainly the first CD has a lot more song structure. It's a lot more coherent. I get sent a lot of stuff by people who enjoy my work, a lot of music by people who enjoy my work, and I think that sometimes, some of it is great. Some of the people that I've actually collaborated with have been people who sent me stuff -- but generally speaking, the thing that I think a lot of people don't pay enough attention to is focus in their work. That's what I've tried to do. I've tried to consciously think about the structure and give something to people who listen to it in the course of three minutes or ten minutes or however long the piece of music is. So, I've really become conscious of the structure and how it is presented to people.
PHF: If there's something that you want to give to somebody in the course of that three minutes... what would it be?
Mark Spybey: I hate to use the word "profound," because I think that's in the eyes of the beholder -- but I do want to give feelings of experiences out in the course of the music. I do want to communicate some things, even if it's the fact that I'm not communicating anything in particular. I think that's really important. A great deal of music has become extremely easy to understand, or easy to comprehend. A great deal of commercial music has become extremely easy to understand. I've always been interested in music that's a little obtuse, or music that's hard to fathom initially... I hope that... people see things in my music that's quite unique to them. The process of hearing is a very dynamic one, or it should be. I think a lot of music ignores that. I think that other people, not too much myself, have referred to visual information as given over in music. I think that music should invoke images in people's minds. It should invoke memories. It should invoke a smell of the environment that the music should be played in. To me, my music does that. It certainly does to me, and some people say it does it to for as well. Music that's evocative -- I really want people to get a sense of something out of the music, even if it's just that it stimulates their own imagination. I can't think of a higher praise, if someone said that about my music, that it enabled them to think a lot. I get a lot of weird e-mail from people who tell me about the dreams that they've had just after their listening experiences. That's kind of stimulating to me, as well, because I think it's had some sort of effect. Music with resonance has always appealed to me. Music that is not just concerned with giving over the very basic message, which is usually around a certain number of subjects, like "society sucks," or "baby, I love you," or "we can work this out." There's a whole host of cliches involved in music that seem to sell a lot and seems to be very appealing to the masses.
PHF: I was going to say that, to me, your music communicates more a state of mind than anything...
Mark Spybey: That's the case. I'm not afraid to say that there's some powerful stuff involved in that. There's some powerful emotions involved in that. Because that's how I feel about life. I don't feel trivial about very many things in life. I really feel that we interact in a very dynamic way with our environment, whether it be with other people, or the actual place we live in, and things have a very direct influence on us. I think that one of the missions of art is to try to explore that, not to give a definitive reason why we do it, but just to explore it. The process of the exploration, or the process of the creation of it, is the most important thing to me, because I do believe that I learn more about myself by being involved in this... A great many people have made an impact on me, like Leonard Cohen, or Michael Gerard from the Swans, people who have managed to capture a great deal of emotion in their work and managed to say it in a very literate but interesting way. I'm hoping to exploit that kind of territory. It's a journey, though, The more you invest in it, the more focused you become. I think that, probably, I've only just begun to do that.
PHF: What is your process of creation?
Mark Spybey: I started like a visual artist would, in terms of a blank canvas. I rarely enter into anything with a concept about what I'm trying to achieve. What I want to do is basically play with things. I use lots of different sound sources. I'll just pick up some things -- usually it's the closest thing to my hand -- and I'll make a sound with it, mess around with effects processors, get the sound that I'm actually wanting, then I'll lay something down. I usually try to lay it down first take. The difference with ":piss frond:" to my other releases is that once we'd actually made those basic sounds, we then worked on them again, and again, and again. We did that with Download a little bit, though most of my contributions to Download were first take. I certainly wanted to get that first take feel. Traditionally, I didn't do a lot of mixing, or I would mix it very, very quickly. In the old days, I used to be able to make an album in a weekend, but now it's taking more like a week or two. [laughs] No, the new album really did gestate over a period of about a year, which is quite different for me. I have become, certainly over the last year or so, much more preoccupied with the whole mixing process, and about what I can do with that. I also find that I'm a lot less easy to please for myself. I think that's a good thing, because it means the quality control element in my work has become a lot stronger as well.
PHF: How does this translate to live performance? I saw you on the Lowest of the Low tour, with Pigface and the other bands...
Mark Spybey: It's interesting. With that kind of chaos, with having four or five bands every night, I wasn't going to take a lot of people or a lot of equipment, so it was a very compact performance. The way that it typically translated into the live performance is that I would have always have the bare bones of stuff on tape, which I would have a lot of potential to change in the course of the performance, then I would really add a lot myself. In the case of the New York show, I played with a friend, James Plotkin, and he just improved through the whole performance with me. I really like that kind of dynamic, playing with people live. The way that it's going to change in the future -- I am going to be working with a band, I am going to be pulling together a live band... We will rehearse songs and will do things like ":piss frond:". In the process of doing that, we will come up with new material as a group of people. That's how I'm interested in doing it now. I think I'm no longer going to be satisfied with just me up there doing something. If I do that, it's going to be more spontaneous, more improvised... It's changing. It's becoming more of a band format. I've always wanted that. I've just been searching for the right people. I've finally done that through friends here in Vancouver, notably the two people who produced the record...
PHF: Do you have any particular plans for another album or tour?
Mark Spybey: There's always something on the grill... I'm always making music. I say always -- I mean, take time off it, because I think that's really healthy as well. And I don't do it for a living and I don't have any deadlines, though. The first thing on the agenda, though, is another CD with James Plotkin, which is a substantial deviation from dead voices on air, not to be confused with dead voices on air. It's just James and I. We have a CD which is going to be released by Cranky Records, in time for a tour with two guys who used to be in CAN, Damo Suzuki and Michael Karoli... We were invited to support those guys on a tour which is the first tour that these guys have ever done in North America. They are now in their mid-fifties, so it's going to be a real pleasure for us. Both James and I are huge CAN fans, always have been. That will be happening in late September. I did want to take dead voices on air on the road this year, but I can't do it because of work. I can't afford to take any more time away from my job. So it looks like we're now going to be touring next year. We hope to be touring in both Europe and North America... During the course of it, I'm going to continue to be working on new ideas for songs for dead voices on air. I always have several different projects ongoing with various people. I'm on the new Jarboe CD (from the Swans). I'm on a few tracks of that. I continue to be intrigued by the possibility of working with other people. Jarboe and I hope to do the show in Chicago for the Internet later this year. The prospect of working with her in that kind of format is very interesting because she has a very established way of working that I'm keen to explore. The weird thing about this business is that things change very, very quickly. You're never quite sure that something's going to happen until you've basically got the air ticket in your hand. So let's see... I'm very intrigued to hear what happens with ":piss frond:" because I think it's the best thing I've ever been involved with and something I'm very proud of. I usually hate my own music. I haven't listened to most of my CDs, the things I've done in the past, since I did them. It's like looking at yourself in the mirror. I'm not that vain. I don't have to go around listening to my own music. But with ":piss frond:" I actually do like it. I think that's probably because it was a collaborative thing. There were four or five people involved instead of just myself. So I can appreciate what they did...
PHF: What kind of response are you getting to the d.v.o.a. web site?
Mark Spybey: Lots of really good feedback. The web site was started by a fan, and it was continued by a fan. I have a big input in it, because I respect the people who do it and design it. They want me to contribute, so I do it. They are just extremely diligent, incredible guys.... They are very, very dedicated. The Internet is an important place for communicating with people. We have an IRC chat that's really active and really busy (#dvoa on EFNET). We support one another. One of the thing I try to do is to say that musicians are not special people. They're not special at all. Most of them are complete fools. They are the kind of people I wouldn't hang about with for all the tea in China. Incredibly self-indulgent, destructive personalities. I don't feel like I'm like that, and I hope I don't act like I'm like that. I think the Internet is one way of musicians to actively communicate with people, because it's real expensive and time consuming to be on the road all the time... I've always tried to make the web site compatible with what the music's all about... I make these mythical kind of hero-figures in my imagination, about what a musician is actually like as a person. When I meet them, when I have met them, I've inevitably been disappointed, because they're human. And they fart. They swear in public. They don't like their mother, or whatever.... We shouldn't pretend.
Music by DVOA.