Interview: Richard Youngs
Interview by Grayson Currin
Richard Youngs is a 41-year-old librarian's assistant living in Glasgow. He and his wife, Madeline Hynes, have a new baby boy in the house, and, since his arrival, they sometimes spend evenings listening to Gregorian chants. Youngs wrote a vegan cookbook in the mid-90s, and it was re-published in 2001 with illustrations by Hynes. Such a life-- steady job, progeny, a productive hobby-- seems sufficient.
Except Youngs has another hobby: Since the release of a solo album, Advent, and a collaboration with Simon Wickham-Smith, Lake, in 1990, Richard Youngs has appeared on well over 100 releases on labels as small as his own and as big as Jagjaguwar. His collaborators include Jandek, Acid Mothers Temple's Kawabata Makoto, Vibracathedral Orchestra/Astral Social Club member Neil Campbell, and Skullflower's Matthew Bower. He runs No Fans, his second label, from his kitchen table, and he masters records by his friends. Later this month, he'll complete his first remix, a reinterpretation of a new Astral Social Club seven-inch.
Indeed, Youngs' massive body of after-work recordings is one of the richest and most intriguing collections of the past two decades. He seems as tireless as he does fearless, recording much more than he releases, he says, and moving openly between instruments, roles and forms. Youngs has recorded exquisite 18-minute guitar-and-voice pieces (see "The Graze of Days" from Sapphie) and puncturing 12-minute electronics experiments (see "Alban Stands Here" from Festival). But whether he's engaging acoustic or electronic, harmonic or harsh, collaborative or cloistered muses, he has gone about this creation with middle-class humility. He's put in a lot of work over a long time, and he's content just to be able to continue working. After all, it's the hurdy gurdy he'd like to explore most in the future: "But they're hard to come by, you know? Cost a lot of money."
Pitchfork: Something that interests me about your career is that it's not a career. You record a lot of music, and sometimes it fits together as an album. In the day, though, you work as a librarian.
Richard Youngs: I know what you're saying. I've always recorded, probably since I was about 10 or 11. I got hold of a reel-to-reel and you could change speed on it. I always kind of experimented back then with the thing. For at least a decade, I made music for my own enjoyment, completely different from any wider public. Maybe a few friends were entrusted, and then, having released Advent and Lake, I suddenly found that there was a public for this music. Other people wanted to put stuff out, so that was quite a change-- a very exciting change. I carried on as I had done before, but I had the opportunity to put records out. A record is a very nice thing. You've recorded something, and you have a record. It's closure on it, if you know what I mean. It excited me. It felt good.
Pitchfork: How do you feel about that physical byproduct of your hobby slowly becoming obsolete? I'm holding a copy of your latest album, Autumn Response, in my hands, but I could have just put it on my computer.
RY: With downloads, you mean? I've never downloaded music in my life, so it's strange. I remember growing up and to get music was really quite a process. I might hear something on John Peel or on an open university program, and then I'd have to make a trip to London and go to a specialist record store and part with hard-earned money. You know, I was cleaning my parents' house for this money. I'm a teenager here. You then get it back to your home. There would be a record player in the living room. It wouldn't be like the computer in your bedroom. And you get your chance in the living room to actually play the record. It made that record something you'd worked hard for, and it was a treat to play it. If you're downloading, I guess your relationship with it is different. Maybe it is more like reading a newspaper-- now what is the music for today? Then again, you could come across stuff that would be really special to you, and you'd play the download lots, I guess. Do you download?
Pitchfork: I do, but, like you, I'm still fond of the physical product. I still buy a lot of records. Holding music is quite an experience, you know?
RY: I think it is. Things have changed, and I probably haven't changed. I'm stuck in the past.
Pitchfork: Do you think that physical tie to music reflects itself in your job as a librarian?
RY: I work in a reference library, and there certainly is a lot of use made of resources that aren't physical. You might have online resources or resources on a CD-ROM, which you don't really hold. But there is the joy of the clunk of the microfilm or a nicely bound book.
Pitchfork: You called someone wanting to release your music "a change." Was it also a surprise?
RY: Oh, yes! Total. This was pre-internet days, and there wasn't the community out there which was easily accessible. Growing up in a small town and moving to Nottingham, which is like a city-- or is it a town, actually? It's a larger place from where I grew up. I did come across people who were interested, but it was just a handful of friends. I didn't really conceive that there would be other people. It was a social thing, something we did to amuse each other-- making music.
Pitchfork: How did it pass to the next level?
RY: Forced Exposure gave rave reviews to Advent and Lake. They suggested that we [Youngs and Simon Wickham-Smith] record them a single for their label. We recorded quite a few tracks and said, "Just choose what you want." Jimmy Johnson wrote back and said, "Why don't you just record a bit more and make it an album?" [Laughs] Pretty mind-blowing at the time. We did, and then he went on to release a couple of other things as well. He started suggesting us to people who wanted to do likewise, which was really quite something.
Pitchfork: Had you simply submitted those records to Forced Exposure?
RY: We were aware of Forced Exposure, and it was a very exciting magazine. You'd read about these records, and the way they were written about, you just wanted to hear them. Of course, it was very hard to get hold of the records, so you were reading about things you'd probably never hear. We were sitting on 300 records, and Simon said, "I'll send 'em. They might refuse 'em." That was that. He just sent them. We didn't know who else to send them to for review, and the rest is history.
Pitchfork: I'm quite younger than you, and I often hear stories from older music fans about reading about obscure records as kids and being fascinated but still not hearing them, even now. If you would have heard the records you were reading about then, do you think the sounds you've made would be different?
RY: That's an interesting one because back then you were probably exposed to a lot less. How old are you?
RY: Oh, then you've probably grown up listening and had good access to quite a variety of stuff. Don't think we had that! There was the John Peel Show, and in Britain there were programs very late at night or very early in the morning through the open university. They would do a program on Stockhausen or Gaelic singing. This was stuff you'd never hear otherwise. John Peel played records you'd never hear otherwise. You came at stuff in a different way. I think one of the differences was that there was a certain filtering done for you, perhaps, where now you can just go online and surf, surf, surf away and come across stuff you wouldn't have come across back then. It's very hard to compare times, and I don't want to make out I'm some fuddy-duddy. But I don't download. Actually, as I've gotten older, I listen to less and less music. There comes a point where you get favorites which you go back to. The chance for music to shock you-- like, "Wow, that's something I've never heard before."-- becomes less and less. You don't hunt for new sounds quite so vigorously.
Pitchfork: Do you remember the last time a record shocked you?
RY: Yeah, yeah. My friend John Clyde-Evans sent me some recordings he had made. He went to India for a year. He always played very harmonic music. He went to India for a year, and your expectation might be that it would further mellow what was there. But he started making very harsh, brittle, shrieking music-- very strange. He's released a couple of these recordings, but I've got a CD-R that hasn't been released that he burned for me. I think it's the most definitive take on this period he's going through with music. It's very stately, and there are a lot of quite unpleasant sounds in there. It's quite unlike anything else, I think.
Pitchfork: And what are the records to which you return?
RY:In the last year, I've been listening to a lot of Gregorian chants. I've got a baby boy, and it was one way that seemed to improve his sleep. We just started playing Gregorian chants at night and grew to really like it. In terms of rock and pop, Syd Barrett's first solo album I think I can come back to endlessly. I think the songs are really rich. It's got a lot of beauty to it. I've got possibly unquestioning love for Pink Floyd. It's one of the first things I ever heard in my parent's space. The Meddle album I really like and come back to a lot. When I was a teenager, I listened to Cabaret Voltaire and [Einstürzende] Neubauten, and I like to hear that once in a while now. I think, "That's exciting stuff," but I'm not sure I'd come back to it too often. It would be an occasional pleasure certainly, as would Metal Box by Public Image Ltd. Steve Reich...Anne Briggs.
Pitchfork: I've seen you mention Pink Floyd as an influence several times. What first struck you about that band?
RY: The first stuff I heard was the early singles. The next thing I heard after that was Animals, which was several years later. I heard "See Emily Play," and I thought that was all they had ever done. I didn't realize they had a career. I moved away from Cambridge and someone had Animals. It was very different. I remember playing along with Animals a lot. But if you asked me now what I liked about Pink Floyd, it would be the period from Atom Heart Mother through to Meddle, when they were just four middle class guys making music. They weren't necessarily writing songs or making concepts. They were just making music. Meddle is a really good example of that. You've got your side of songs, and then you've got a longer piece on the other side. It possibly doesn't all fit together, but it's all just very enjoyable. There's that video, Live at Pompeii, and I love that. Again, it seemed to me to be a fortnight just making music.
Pitchfork: The way you described Pink Floyd, it almost sounds like you're describing yourself, in terms of recording what you want.
RY: I'd go along with that. The other thing would be why wouldn't you make what interests you? Why would you make something that doesn't interest you? I might want to sing unaccompanied, or I might want to ram 24 instruments over one another. Whatever I want to do at the time, I'm free to do. I'm not chained to any preconceptions…or having to make any particular type of music. There are songs and more experimental elements, so whatever.
Pitchfork: Does it surprise you then that people still want to put these records out?
RY: I think so. If you do songs and people respond positively, that's very nice. It is a nice surprise.
Pitchfork: With John Clyde-Evans, you mentioned this movement from pretty to harsh music. There are a lot of examples of that in your music, like the abrupt movement between noise and a very beautiful acoustic track on your album with Kawabata Makoto. Is this a conscious thing for you, sort of a reflection on life?
RY: I don't know. I think it's reflective of the way the recordings turned out and nothing else. [Laughs] But life's very rich, isn't it? But I have quite a short attention span, maybe, so I get bored and frustrated. I go mad if I stick to one thing.
Pitchfork: Must be nice to have friends who want to make music with you then.
RY: It is, yes. I have a couple of regular sessions in Glasgow. One with a friend Andrew Paine and another with Alex Nielson. They're duos. It's very nice, and it's a social thing as well. It's not just business. Some people play golf. We play music. It's very much a part of my social life.
Pitchfork: When did music first become a social outlet for you?
RY: It would have been at school. We were probably about 11 or 12, and we called ourselves the Rejects. We had a drum kit built out of Tupperware and meccano, and we had some acoustic guitars which we strummed. There was four of us. They were very much songs-- three verses, chorus. I had classical lessons, and I didn't know any regular chords for quite a while. It was always a bit of a mystery how people wrote pop songs with chords, so I remember struggling quite a bit to come up with songs with chords. I was holding down two open strings and just one fret. I wanted that chord sound, but I couldn't quite get it.
Pitchfork: Did you have the normal adolescent rock-star dreams?
RY: No, I don't think so. I probably wanted to be able to make a different sound than I was managing to make. "Wow, wouldn't it be great to have an electric guitar and sound powerful? Wouldn't it be great to record with a certain degree of fidelity which I'm not getting at the moment?" Those were my thoughts of the moment.
Pitchfork: Have you ever dreamed of at least making music your career? Or, if someone offered you $100,000 for a record, would you take it?
RY: [Laughs] It's hugely hypothetical, but I've kind of drifted into having some sort music or recording career, I suppose. I certainly would be very interested in the offer. I'm sure there would be conditions attached to it, but, yeah, find me that person, and I'll talk to them.