Squarepusher biography, July 2006.
Tom Jenkinson has the image of an archetypal recluse, including the daft facial hair.
If it weren't for his singularly prolific recording output and occasional live performances, I'd be surprised if even the Inland Revenue would know about him. Unlike stable mate Richard D. James who has cultivated a very visible form of hermeticism, Tom seems to be plain distrustful of human interaction. Interviews, if conducted at all, are over e-mail (of course). Warp reportedly had not heard from him in two years before the completely unannounced delivery of his new LP. An ex- housemate said that John Peel had rung up asking him to do a session but Tom couldn't be bothered to answer the phone (apparently it was "too cold"). Needless to say I was shocked at the request to talk to him.
I knock on the door at Tom's studio-cum-disintegrating farm house. Before the front door is fully open I'm offered a cup of tea with a nervous hyper-Englishness that comes as no surprise. The moment I hear Tom's forcibly well intoned speech cut with a sprinkle of Essex twang amidst his chosen surroundings of dilapidated machinery and a mixture of '60s, oriental and Victorian furniture, the corners of my mouth begin to turn up. Here is a modern day manifestation of that oft-ridiculed but steadfast tradition - the English eccentric. Before I'm in the door there is a shout from the kitchen: "Do you want Earl Grey, Darjeeling or Lapsang souchong? Oh, tough shit it's Earl."
Tom was born in 1975 in Chelmsford, heart of London's commuter belt. The train and cab rides give me a picture of high streets populated with chain bars and mobile phone shops, an astonishing amount of estate agents and housing estates too nice to be bleak and too bleak to be nice. Tom, now armed with tea, begins to tell me about how he and his friends would divert themselves from amongst other things, the "superabundance of estate agency" by putting on nights at the local football club. "Hardy (co-founder of Spymania) would play records, I would play bass. Old funk, breaks, Detroit, acid, adverts and always the theme tune from Whicker's World." Immediately the idea of Tom jamming a double-speed slap bassline over the top of investigative journalism's most evocative musical formulation makes me laugh. "It's those orchestral stabs that do it," he says grinning.
Tom was educated at the Grammar school in Chelmsford. After initially being bound for a degree in physics, Tom tried his hand on an Art Foundation course on his year off and ended up changing course to Fine Art at Chelsea Art School. "I had no real choice, having wholeheartedly internalised the values of selective education. Only the best is acceptable," he says with a tone that hints he sees it as much as an affliction as an advantage. Indeed, it isn't hard to see this in action in his work – a beautifully played classical guitar followed by a sarcastic barrage of noise. World class electric bass work accompanied by something that sounds like a chicken being trodden on. Yet this aspect is so commonly overlooked in Squarepusher; as well as virtuosity by the truckload, there is also critique of virtuosity.
"A lot of people write me off because I'm not shy of using highly complex instrumental passages in my work. To me it's just the same as kids in town telling me I'm a poof because I go to clever school. I'm used to it, and it just makes it all the funnier to get even better!" Nonetheless, Tom goes on to say that he has little time for pure "wig out" music on account of it's artlessness; "music often falls down for me because it seems to imply a one-dimensionality of cha racter in the listener. Pure wig-out material implies the listener exists only for the sake of admiring the technique of the performer. Indie bollocks implies that it's normal to take the whole world on your own shoulders. And so on ... People should be more aware of the assumptions that artists make about them, and how it feeds back into their character." Tom, far from being uninterested in the audience, seems acutely aware of it. "The only tenable approach for me is to make work that is a contradiction, work that critiques itself and the relation it has to the listener. It makes for uneasy terrain, always verging on nonsense, but anything else would be true stupidity."
I feel myself coming close to the paradoxical centre in Jenkinson's thinking. As an artist, to be absurd is to have integrity in our era. And that to have integrity - that is truly absurd? And then my head starts hurting. To break the deadlock I venture, "what about this record then?” “It's full of tunes!" A broad grin breaks out on Tom's (currently unbearded) face. "Yeah I know. It's what you do after you've gone to the brink. Have a laugh!" Brink of what I ask, but I'm diverted: "On my last LP I put my face - I realised you can up the ante by showing that you are a human being, not software designed by some malevolent university department. Now the game is funnier, more popular and involves more girls!" It's true that at Tom's brain melting performance last year at Koko, the audience was a healthy mix of kids, jazzbos and punks male and female - the latter certainly rare for music of the highly bearded variety!
A suspicion creeps in; is Tom really just afraid of commitment? Is that the real reason why his music skips about so freely across genres, why he used to have such a terrible reputation for not turning up at shows, why he... I'm cut off: "Have you any idea how much commitment it takes to play a fucking instrument to that level?" I am silenced, but I struck a chord albeit a somewhat discordant one. Later he adds "in order to make sense of utter commitment, you need flippancy. Otherwise you end up a dictator, someone who wants to remake the world in his own image." Again, the paradox. Again, the sense of brutal self critique only a little milder than the determination that it mitigates and transforms - the equation that allows Tom to make some of the most beautiful music of the last 10 years.
Having been to a handful of Tom's shows, I have watched him gradually develop an approach to live performance that is at once technically unsurpassed and utterly captivating. Flea from the Chili Peppers, reeling from Tom's shockingly powerful Hendrix tribute last year at the Royal Festival Hall said: “I am back at my hotel listening to Squarepusher, he is the best electric bass player on the earth, he is pushing the instrument the farthest he is the best”. Hyperbole or not, it is clear that Tom is so much more than the tinkering sociophobe he has often been portrayed as. Somehow combining intellectual force with a heart rending melodic sense, he smashes his way through modern culture discarding so many ideas on the way you'd assume he's confident of never running out. That said, in his latest offering he seems to have chosen to hang on to some ideas temporarily, and develop them in a way that has arguably produced some of Tom's most accessible work yet.
Hello Everything brings together a prismatic array of tonal colours, harmonic diversity and carefully controlled rhythm. From the surreal and apparently unironic title onwards, we gain an impression of a man genuinely enjoying himself. He sounds as if he is finally free of the "one-man cultural battleground" responsibility of his more opaque earlier work. Certainly it is a far cry from the psychedelic jazz-anoia of Music is rotted one note and the later vocal works 50 cycles and F-Train where Tom seems to personify a Baudrilli an rupture in reality. No, this is simpler than that. Simpler, and dare I say it all the better for it.
Logically or otherwise, our conversation ends up where most good intentioned discussions do - down the pub. Tom often plays at their jam night where he is referred to as "Tom the bass." Anyone wielding criticisms of weirder-than-thou aloofness should bear this mind: who can you name of international acclaim that still plays in their local boozer!? Down to earthiness aside, Tom discusses his interest in realist and anti-realist tendencies in epistemology and consumerism as a substitute for religion, all with an admirable eloquence. But I'm still left thinking about the music. Six pints later: "what are you supposed to do when you listen to your stuff?" Tom says, "You can put it on and dance around like a chicken on fire." Enough said.