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Music for Fake Instruments: Rob Ellis and His Music for the Home

by dave heaton

Rob Ellis' name is everywhere in the music world -- he's been the drummer for PJ Harvey since the band started, has recorded collaborations with his friends under the name Spleen, has worked as a producer, for some of PJ Harvey's albums and for other bands, has shown up on albums by various bands like Placebo and Swell, has played in Laika, and has probably done numerous things that I know nothing about. But until recently, he had never done an album entirely on his own. The album, his first solo release, is called Music For the Home, with the parenthetical title "Instrumental, Mechanical & Electronic Music 1994 - 1999." It's a work filled with quiet mystery: 21 tracks of miniature classical works, offbeat atmospheric pieces and other sorts of intriguing experimental creations, all performed on what sounds like pianos, vibraphones and other similar instruments. It's a work that's at turns gorgeous and puzzling; conventional melodies alternate with more freeform stretches, and sounds come and go without the listener being entirely sure what instrument he's hearing. There's surprising and engrossing sounds throughout, including a track that uses typewriter noises as its base. Music for the Home is a compelling, attention-holding album, one which piques interest and raises more questions at every turn. Some of the methods behind and history of these unique creations were graciously cleared up for us by Rob Ellis himself, during a recent phone interview. Ellis spoke to me from New York City, where he and the rest of PJ Harvey were winding up their gig opening for U2 on their world tour.

I wanted to start by asking you some questions to find out more about Music For the Home and the making of it. It says that you recorded it from 1994 to 1999 … is this something you were always planning on putting out as a CD, or was it something you were just doing on your own time for fun?

The latter. I put down a lot of material over that period of time, two thirds of which I left off the record. The record was sort of finished, but I hadn't even considered releasing it or making it into a record until 1998, when I had accumulated enough material that I thought that if I took some of it, that would actually merit being a record.

So beforehand it was more like you were just trying out a different type of music than you're used to, just playing around?

Since I was doing it on my own, I could go more into that territory than I usually do when I collaborate with other people. I try and bring some of those elements to anything that I do, even if it's something by PJ Harvey. But because you're collaborating and you're doing what's right for the music, sometimes it isn't as appropriate to be as extreme as that.

So, you did everything on this CD by yourself?


I hadn't heard of other recordings that you had done entirely alone; I know that Spleen was mostly your guidance. Is the first thing you've done that was all you?

Yeah, Spleen was more collaborations, really. It was music I had written, but then I invited friends to collaborate and improvise over it, and then the music came out of that. So it became a joint effort, really, between the people who were involved and myself. Whereas this is actually the first thing that was entirely my own, yeah.

So are you planning on doing more of this sort of thing in the future, have you thought about that?

More of both things, actually. I'd like to do another Spleen album, but I'm waiting. The first thing I'll do is another one of my own, because basically the label told me to go ahead and do another one. They want to release it, they've sort of commissioned it so I'll go ahead and do that. At the moment I haven't been commissioned to do a third Spleen album, but I'd like to. So if that happens, I will.

How did you end up releasing this on Leaf Records--did they contact you about it or did you contact them? I really like that label.

It's a great label, yeah. Well, I knew Lou Ciccotelli, who played in Laika. I played in Laika for some years, so I knew Lou, he's a good friend; he played on the Spleen albums. And Lou had a band called Eardrum…they put out an album on Leaf. That's kind of how I knew about Leaf and Tony. I sent a copy of the stuff to Tony and Leaf, and ostensibly played it as something for him to listen to and think whether he'd put it out, but also to try to get some advice from him as to where I could send it, who might be interested in something like that. Because I actually didn't think necessarily that Leaf would be interested in that kind of stuff. But Tony rang back and said 'Aw I really like it, it sounds really good. I think maybe you should send it to this label,' and, you know, he suggested a few people. I handed it off to them and they passed, because they didn't think it suited them really. But I couldn't find a label at all that seemed to fit, and in the end I just said to Tony 'Well, why don't you do it?' And he said, 'Really? Oh thank you!', which is really funny, you know, because right from the beginning we should have just gone ahead and done it. I had no idea he would have been interested in doing it. So that's how it came about. Even though I still think it's possibly a little bit ... it's as far as Leaf would probably go down that territory.

I wanted to ask a little more about your process of making the music on the album and what instruments you used, because there's some songs where I have a hard time figuring out which instruments you used and I like that fact. I know that there's piano and guitar, and it sounds like there's some computer manipulation going on afterwards

There is, yes, there is. The only real instruments on that record are the guitar and the cello. All the rest are as I call "fake instruments." I like playing around with the ambiguities of it and blurring notions of what you perceive as being real or not real. Because if you listen to it--when I say fake, I mean it's piano, it's a MIDI-generated electronic piano which sounds like a grand piano, but isn't. And other books of tricks and things which sound like vibes and which sound like organs, but they're not. With a computer you can manipulate a piano which sounds like something that we're used to, I would say human beings are generally used to pianos being played by people, and as soon as you have them played by computer you can do stuff with it that creates an interesting ambiguity, and that's kind of what I was fooling around with. Hence 'Music for Fake Instruments' and 'Music for Imaginary Music Boxes' and so forth. Because they're not music boxes or piano, they're actually sound-generated.

That's interesting.

Oh, there's one other thing that's real on the album, there's a recording of some footsteps and that's real. And the typewriter, can't forget the typewriter {laughs}.

Oh yeah. Along those same lines, I was wondering about the pieces, about how carefully composed they are as opposed to improvised, because some of them sound more structured than others, and some of them have a very free feeling to them.

Yeah well, that's interesting. A lot of them actually start off as improvisations because, as I say it's a fake piano, a MIDI-generated thing you can actually {?} that goes into the computer into record and sit down and just improvise, just reams and reams of stuff. Generally if I happen to be in particular mood that day it'll come out like that. And then the next day I'll listen to it--you know, I was probably drunk when I did it, and I'll listen back and think 'Oh my God' that's just bloody awful,' but then there might be something there, just one little bit which is improvised and it's 'Oh, I kind of like that bit'. You just take it and edit, and take that section, and then you can manipulate it using all kinds of various tricks…you know like if I stick it backwards that put it next to it again and mirror it, stick it backwards or upside-down, and somehow try to develop it and use as many compositional tools to develop the improvisation until it sounds like it's finished. That's basically how those things came about. Not all of them, but most of them.

Since you did it over a few years time, was anything sitting for a very long time before you realized that it was something that you could do something with?

Yeah, a lot of it. Even down to the right title for it. I had one track called "American Dream for Three Pianos," but I decided that it's not three pianos, it's just my fake piano. But I thought, it sounds like it's three pianos so I thought why the hell not go for that? Yet it didn't seem to work for me, as it was sort of too, as far as a conceptual idea to fit on the record until I had that title. So yeah, again it's the ambiguity thing. A lot of them were sitting around waiting for quite some time before they were considered OK to go on the record.

So I would assume just by the nature of this that it isn't music that you would try to perform live?

No, I have been asked, and I have considered it. The thing is, it's all computer-generated, or mainly. And I don't like the notion, I think it'd be pretty boring--I know people do it, they sit there with their laptops and press go, and they'll sit there and the audience will sit in front of them, they'll listen to it and the music will come out of the speakers, and then they press stop, and then they press go again for the next thing. So that's really dull. I thought about maybe doing something like that, because there's no other way of reproducing the music really; it can't be played, really, unless I got some crack players, and logistically that would be a nightmare, and probably very costly. Another alternative would also be to do something slightly theatrical, would be to get up on stage, press go, play the music and press stop and so on, but while doing that maybe have an ironing board and a lampshade--get that whole home theme going--and invite the audience to send up their shirts and I'll do the ironing. And I thought, well no I don't know if I could do that. That might be too theatrical for me. I'm a nervous stage performer as it is. I like to hide behind the drum kit and other band members, really. I don't know, I'm definitely considering it, but when I do the next album I might have to just succumb to it and find a way of doing it. But it might involve actually getting other musicians up there with me and doing it--you know possibly doing stuff where I have stuff on tape and computer and people play along to that.

That makes sense. So, you're in the middle of the big rock and roll tour right now, how's that going?

The big rock and roll tour, the circus? It's going fine, we're nearly finished! We've got three more (shows) to do after three months of doing it--that is, the U2 part. We've been actually on tour for 10 months, and we've got a further four months to go, but we've only got three more of the U2 dates to go, and I'm actually amazed and relieved that we got through it.

Is it really intense to play in front of that many people, or is it just unusual?

No, it's more of the fact that you're away from home for three months, and the traveling. You get used to playing in front of people like that. It's actually really nice to go out and support somebody else, because it takes a lot of the pressure off of you. You can go out and play for just 45 minutes, which I think is actually the perfect length for any gig. If we had our way we'd play 45 minutes all the time, because it's like a record--it's a good length for a record, a good length for a gig. Attention span is, I think, about 45 minutes to an hour, no more. And I think it's been good for us. We can go out and have fun, and it comes over. It's been good for us. We have festivals to do next, so it's good practice for that.

So what else are you up to in the coming months, or the coming year? I know that you're pretty busy, you seem to show up on lots of other people's albums and all that.

Yeah, absolutely. I think we finish the third of October. It's the last PJ Harvey gig, in the Evershot Village Hall in Dorset. Which is actually like a wooden shed in the middle of a field, but we'll have our own friends and family there, and that's it. We actually started the tour in a tiny pub in Dorset, so we thought let's round it off by playing another tiny venue in Dorset. So that's the last thing. And then after that I'm doing a bit of production for a Belgian group, and then I'm doing an album with another project that I have called Christmas.

Oh yeah, I wanted to ask you about that--I've heard the name but I don't know anything about it really.

It's a collaboration between myself and the guitarist from the PJ Harvey band Tim Farthing, who I've worked with before on the Spleen stuff, and his brother. And it's kind of our gentle, ambient guitar band really. And then, as I said I have plans for the follow-up to Music For the Home. So that will occupy the beginning of next year, really, and the end of this.

I have one last question that I ask everybody I interview, which is: if there's any album or live performance or movie that you've seen recently that's blown you away, I'd like to hear about it.

Actually, there was something last night, it was something that Dana from Bubblecore…she was doing the sound for it at the Tonic club, and I can't actually remember the name of it. I think they said Clogs. It was a four-piece: a violinist, a classical guitarist, a bassoonist and a drummer. And they played really really beautiful melancholy, atmospheric, angular avant garde music. I can't explain exactly what they were doing, but it was really stunning.

{editor's note: the group was indeed Clogs. They have a great new album called Thom's Night Out, on Brassland}

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