Image via Filip Preis
Show your love of the game by subscribing to Passion of the Weiss on Patreon so that we can keep churning out interviews with legendary producers, feature the best emerging rap talent in the game, and gift you the only worthwhile playlists left in this streaming hellscape.
Michael McKinney understands the cultural importance of Kreayshawn’s “Gucci Gucci.”
Lee Gamble isn’t interested in the future. Electronic music, which the British producer has been neck-deep in for decades, is filled with ideas about alternative timelines and far-flung utopias. Techno and electro are built, in part, upon disassembling umpteen existing cultural motifs and reassembling them into gleaming, neon-coated monoliths: relics of the past transformed into barely recognizable transmissions from a better timeline. Again and again, club nights gesture towards times that have yet to happen by reaching backwards, melting our cultural detritus into something new along the way. But the future is, by its very nature, imprecise. What does it mean, and to whom? Which levers of power will move, and when, and how?
Instead, he’s focused on what sounds like now. This, in retrospect, comes as little surprise. When he was a child in the early ‘80s, his dad would blast The Police and Japan on the stereo, and his mom’s (Irish) side of the family would sing together around the piano. When he first heard Inner City‘s Paradise, he was at a fairground with his cousins. This is all material rooted firmly in a time and place: it might have been made with forward-thinking technologies or approaches, but people always came first. When he was 16, he fell into production, sampling breaks from records and piecing them together with a cousin in Birmingham.
For a time, he fell out of love with jungle and techno. He started listening to, and studying, Stockhausen, Xenakis, and Morton Feldman. He started making what he calls “experimental and multichannel computer music.” After moving to London at the turn of the century, he enrolled at the Lansdown Centre for Electronic Arts, where he studied Sonic Arts. There were no keyboards allowed in the department, and if he wanted to interface with something, he was encouraged to build it himself. That spirit carries into his work to this day: “If everything gets switched off tomorrow,” he said over a recent Zoom call, “Just give me a stick, a microphone, and a hammer. I’ll make some music with that.” Slowly, though, club culture was starting to come back into his work. He’d moved to London as dubstep and grime were rocketing in popularity and quality, and he began “inject[ing] computer music sounds with strings and pads that sound[ed] like old jungle” records.
In 2012, after years of sound art and electroacoustic work, Gamble released Diversions 1994-1996. The record sits at a relatively brief twenty-odd minutes, but it carries years of baggage. It is his reflection on “a time in my life that’s gone.” The album’s genesis was a box of cassette tapes and memorabilia returned to him by his father: jungle tapes from the years when a young Gamble was DJing with his cousins. The resultant LP sounds like classic jungle records misremembered. It takes the crackle and hiss of warped vinyl and pushes them to the forefront, every drum break nearly muted and buried under a mountain of dust. At the time, it read as a culmination of his years of parties and training in sound art. In retrospect, it looks like the start of a new chapter. He put it simply during our call: “I’m more likely to be interested in the trace of something than I am in the thing itself.” Since then, Gamble has prized feeling over form. Maybe that was always the case.
In 2020, the world shut down. Suddenly, he had a lot more time than he’d planned for. He started painting, slowed down a bit, and thought a lot about neural networks and AI. He read Kit Mackintosh’s Neon Screams, a book that explores the history of the processed voice in pop and hip-hop; he dug into Agnès Gayraud’s Dialectic of Pop, which traces the disembodiment that is inherent to the recorded voice. He listened to K Allado-McDowell, a writer and speaker whose work looks at AI in a “spiritual” way. Eventually, though, he had to put the ghost back into the machine. “I wanted to smell the f*cking petrichor rather than the inside of a Mac,” he said, laughing.
This oscillation between the digital and tangible worlds became the genesis for Models, his latest album. The name recalls large language models, but also simulations, stencils and silhouettes; it sounds like a photonegative of a pop record that doesn’t exist. In the recording process, he treated a neural network like a songwriting companion, conjuring a choir of voices without vocal chords. He fed a computer’s output into itself until any specifics were smudged away, replaced by digital detritus and half-remembered earworms. Models is the sound of Gamble reacting to a technology that is evolving faster than any one person can track.
The result is both remarkable and of a piece with the rest of Gamble’s work. It doesn’t sound like the “future,” whatever that means. It sounds like the present: beautiful and a bit eerie, informed by budding technologies that have a million unknowable paths ahead of them—terrifying, thrilling, rapturous, and unsettling at once. The club nights Gamble went to as a kid, filled with the slamming rhythms of Birmingham techno and jungle, took pre-existing building blocks and constructed a universe out of spare parts. Decades later, with Models, Gamble has done the opposite. Models takes hypermodern songwriting techniques and makes them sound ancient. It is the sound of data sets and moss-encrusted iPhones, of “Believe” and dancefloor utopianism, of streaming-era sonic dissociation and timeline collapse. What is there but the present?
In advance of the release of Models, we caught up with Lee Gamble. We explored how painting informed his latest LP, the club nights he threw in the 2000s, the ramifications of “artificial intelligence,” the slipperiness of the future, and lots more.
(This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.)