If you’re not familiar with Graham Lambkin, one of the great sound-gatherers of our modern time (and I suppose probably ever, since humans have only been gathering sound for so long…), whatever little intro I share with you now won’t even be a few snowflakes on the tip of the iceberg – go Google the man, find his recordings, investigate his record label Kye, treat it like you found out you were secretly adopted and just handed the names of your biological parents. His records display modern life in a way that only he can, magnifying the little moments we take for granted and ignoring the obvious, re-framing other peoples’ memories and discarded detritus into hilarious, baffling and meaningful statements. Either that or he’s just having fun. I get the impression I could have asked him about the 2016 presidential race, extreme sports or Ming vases and he’d have an equal range of well-considered ruminations on the topic at hand, but we mostly stuck to his process and the various musical formats currently available.

At what point did you realize that you could gather non-musical sounds and present them to an audience? Was there some epiphany or was it more of a gradual process?
I’ve never drawn a distinction between the ‘musical’ and ‘non-musical’ in my own work – it’s all just sound as far as I’m concerned. It’s always been my instinct to look behind the couch for ways to make sounds, and I’ve always shunned efforts to learn a conventional instrument. Whenever our paths have crossed it’s been through happenstance, and our relationship has always been tenuous and brief. Working within a spectrum of impure sound has been a major part of my process since I became interested in recording. I feel excited by sounds that are traditionally unloved, ignored or viewed with suspicion, sounds that are seen as detrimental or offensive to a greater goal. Last December I was going through some old cassettes I had recorded back in the early 90’s and had forgotten. Most of it was absolute rubbish and extremely crude: mics dragged across carpets, ashtrays bashed against tables, moaning and groaning… and it dawned on me that for the past few years I’ve really been finding my way back home to these primitive sounds.

How is it the case that you never made the ‘musical / non-musical’ distinction? I feel like the concept of appreciating sound as art is one that has to be learned or discovered, rather than just assumed, but I certainly could be wrong. Was that not the case with you? At what age did you start making recordings?
As a teenager I was a fastidious listener and collector of records, most of which came from the Spastics Society and could be brought for little money. I was quite a fan of sound effects LPs which were fairly easy to find and good fun. You could buy an LP devoted to sounds of the English countryside, military processions, horror noises – the human leg being cleaved from the torso… and many a rainy afternoon would be spent listening to them. I remember getting Atom Heart Mother for my 16th birthday and being wildly impressed by “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast”, with its confusion of sound effects and conventional instrumentation. That was as close to an epiphany as I came. The same was true when I started buying bootlegs. There was always something perversely appealing about the fifth generation no-fi demo, or the wooly concert recording made from the Portaloo adjacent to the venue. The corruption of sound gave more pleasure than the song struggling beneath it. So my earliest recordings offer a coarse response to these exposures.
The question of whether or not I was making ‘real music’ existed in the shadows at that stage, but it took longer to come into sharp focus. Certainly “that’s not music” was the mantra most often heard from family or friends at the time, and that did reinforce the question of when does a sound stop being just a sound and start becoming music. If one accepts the definition of music as organized sound, does that then disqualify a field recording of the sea from having musicality? So within my own work I’ve always preferred to level the ground and call sounds for what they are, and if someone else wants to call it music I’m happy to accept that, but it has to be up to the individual.

Is there any sound you’ve wanted to work with that has eluded you? Any specific sound you’ve yet to capture but want to?
No, I already feel spoiled for choice. I think the question of finding new sounds is more applicable to someone who is devoted to a specific musical instrument. Guitar players often seem to be locked in the endless pursuit of coaxing new and exciting sounds from their instruments, through the use of effects pedals, extended techniques, or what have you. I only have the sounds that already exist to work with, and the only way I can affect them before they are immortalized on cassette is through mic placement. But something as simple as that opens up huge possibilities for variation and scope, so I’m not so much interested in finding new sounds, as I am in finding new ways to capture old ones.

Should I take it that you don’t do much post-recording processing? Do you stay away from adding effects and distortion to the sounds you initially record?
If I’m interested in affecting or distorting a particular sound in my solo work I’ll try to do it in the recording stage, either through unorthodox mic application, or by recording onto treated cassettes and “damaging” sounds as they are captured to tape. But by and large I try to and keep my material as unprocessed as possible. That approach suits my work better than relying on lots of artificial application after the fact. These considerations don’t necessarily apply when working in collaboration with other artists though. The trilogy of discs produced with Jason Lescalleet leans quite heavily on distortion and recontextualization of sound, particularly Air Supply and Photographs. Those techniques are far more prevalent in Jason’s work than mine, so it was interesting to take my methodology and surrender it to such a radical process.

Do you approach your creative process differently when collaborating than when working entirely on your own? What I’m wondering is, do you leave your work a bit more open-ended or unfinished, knowing someone like Jason is going to transform and alter it? I’m curious as to how possessive you feel over the sounds you create, and if you’ve ever had a moment of ‘that’s my baby you’re messing with!’ when you hear what your collaborator has done with them.
The process is completely different, and it varies with each collaborator. Fortunately, I’ve been lucky enough to work with people who have shared certain core sensibilities, but are not so similar that the collaboration is pointless. A good collab needs to start with mutual respect and a shared trust, but also a willingness to lower boundaries and allow the second party to influence the shape and flow of the work in ways that may not have seemed obvious to you. That has to continue on through the recording, the editing, mixing, mastering, sequencing… and then into titles, packaging, the whole shebang. It’s rare that this kind of total collaboration happens and is successful, but I found it in my work with Jason, I found it with Keith Rowe, and most recently with Michael Pisaro. If you’re defensive toward the idea of change, or it’s taken as a personal insult, then you probably shouldn’t be in a collaborative position to begin with.

Have any of your friends or contemporaries ever come up with a specific sonic moment or audio trick that you wished you came up with first?
It’s funny, but I don’t really pay much attention to contemporary goings-on. Of all the things I listen to I would say about 10% of it was current, and I don’t feel in competition with any of it. I stopped trying to keep up with the latest happenings about 10-12 years ago. There’s just such a continuous glut, and my tastes were drifting further away from anything I was hearing, so it wasn’t a tough decision to make. I do still buy a lot of new releases but they’re usually historic/archival in content.

How much effort do you want the listener to put into your music? Does it make a difference to you if your fans are listening intently on repeat, or if they just throw it on in the background while cleaning or eating dinner?
It’s really none of my business, and wouldn’t expect my audience to be sat in constant rapture anyway. They’ll be times when it’s convenient and appropriate for the listener to lend a more concentrated ear, and they’ll be times when my stuff will take a backseat to a more urgent activity. I would like to think my work could survive in both those situations. A lot of the material I produce comes from thinking about, and observing music in that type of supporting role: music heard in the car, music playing in the home, a half-remembered tune whistled in the street. This has kind of become my hunting ground, so I am perfectly happy to imagine a person in their kitchen, making a delicious bolognese, with Millows rattling away on the kitchen counter boombox. Quite a lot of my listening is done in that exact environment anyway, so if it’s good enough for Jimi Hendrix then it’s good enough for me.

MP3, cassette, vinyl record, CD… do you hear a difference? I’m curious if the format matters to you, from a sonic perspective, and if so, if there is a specific preferred medium for your own work.
There’s room for all the formats, and each comes with its own strengths and weaknesses, depending on what the consumer demands of it. On a personal level I prefer CDs. I believe they have the best potential to accurately reproduce sound when mastered knowledgeably, although of course they are as vulnerable to abuse as any of the formats, and a poorly mastered, or “brickwalled” CD will invariably sound awful. There’s something aesthetically pleasing about the possibilities of the digipak/booklet combo, and I like the potential for creative CD box setting (Magma’s Studio Zünd would be a good example of that done right). CD is also a very practical format, which again, makes it appealing. I like that I can play them in the kitchen, or car, which is perhaps my favorite listening environment of all, or when I’m working on art – I don’t have to worry about handling expensive vinyl with ink-stained fingers… these are all factors to consider. Moreover, the majority of things I am interested in listening to are really only available/affordable on CD, so from an economic perspective they also make sense.
LPs are more fetishistic, have scope for nicer packaging, and will probably always be the most romanticized format, but I’m not sure they all sound that great anymore. Purists talk about the superiority of the all-analog format but overlook the fact that there’s almost always a digital link in the production chain, and in worst case scenarios LPs are pressed using masters intended for CD, rather than a specifically produced independent master of their own. This leads to all sorts of ugly issues, and a pretty ropy sounding record at the end of it. This isn’t always the case of course, but it’s a practice that’s on the rise.
Kye puts out the majority of its titles on LP because it’s the preferred format right now, and if I didn’t recognize that fact sales would suffer. But I am dubious about the long-term viability of this vinyl resurgence if things don’t change. There needs to be more money invested in the production of new presses, as well as maintenance of the existing ones, and there needs to be proper training available for the manufacturers who work at the plants. The craft and artistry involved in making a quality end product seems to be on the wain, and the time investment needed to properly skill employees has been trampled down in the mad rush to fill orders for Record Store Day – all so some silly sod can buy a warped “limited edition” 7″ picture disc of Brown Sugar for $15.00. The vinyl manufacturing industry is under enormous stress and has become steadily more unreliable over the past few years. In 2014 Kye produced six LPs, each in an intended edition of between 400-500. Out of those six, four had to be returned, and the complete run repressed due to flaws (despite signing off on faultless test pressings for each), then out of those four repressed runs, two of them had to be returned and repressed a second time, due to flaws that were even worse than before. This all added months of time to forecast release dates, was tremendously frustrating, and in the latter two cases remains unresolved. These kinds of situations are becoming more commonplace, and if this industry hopes to avoid self-asphyxiation then it needs to address the concerns of supply and demand, and quality vs. quantity.
Another reason I don’t take this resurgence all that seriously is like everything else, vinyl has become the target of nostalgia. A generation of music consumers who are tired of spending money on faceless download files are currently reveling in the novelty of a handsomely adorned physical object. But novelty passes, and it’s no great stretch to imagine the next generation pining for the archaic delights of the jewelcase, the bonus track, the glorious prism of rainbow light, the halcyon days of 1989… Everything comes around again, and CDs will enjoy their resurrection.
The cassette is another example of a format that lived to read its own obituary. I love working with cassettes and use them exclusively, having no digital recording means. There’s something magical to me about the flaws inherent in the medium, and I’ve used them in much of my work over the years. MP3 is the most disposable format, and the best thing you can say about it is it’s quick and easy. I don’t value MP3, and I don’t purchase music on it. My kids will rip CDs to MP3 and make mixes for their iPods, and that’s about all the format’s good for as far as I can tell.

I’ve certainly noticed that the Kye titles that remain available for purchase the longest are CDs. Do you truly think CDs will return to prominence at some point? To me, they lack the romantic nature of LPs, or the personalized warmth of cassettes, and if you are looking for ease of use, an iPod can play the entire recorded works of John Coltrane with the push of a button, not just an album or two on a CD. Then again, I don’t think anyone in 1994 would’ve predicted the collectible vinyl boom of the past couple years…
Right now CDs are the whipping boy of the new vinyl generation. They’re uncool, they’re ugly, they’re characterless, and no one who truly loves music should want them. Vinyl is back. My mother phoned me up today and told me she’d just bought a turntable with built-in speakers that plays LPs, 78s “and those other little ones.” – and it was only thirty quid…

You talk about the sound quality, and poor mastering running rampant… do you think this is only going to get worse? I feel like artists are expected to release so much music these days if they want to stay relevant, sort of a side-effect of the 24-hour news cycle, and this pushes less sexy aspects of record-making like mastering and production to the background.
The productivity of the artist and the caliber of their product (in terms of its actual construction) should be mutually exclusive. I think what you’re seeing is just a general decline in standards right across the board. Take a moment to browse the threads in any given audiophile chat-room on the topic: ‘Just brought the new 180gm deluxe edition of Nevermind and it sounds like shit’; ‘This new Lana Del Rey LP’s warped and has all these fingerprints on side 1’; ‘My beat up old 50¢ yard sale copy of Mahogany Brain sounds better than this new one’ – it’s endless. People are bound to get cheesed off eventually, because these things aren’t cheap, and when you’re spending $25-$30 on an deluxe LP that sounds like it was mastered by an intern and pressed on asphalt that’s going to start to burn.

Do you like retrospective boxsets, generally speaking? They seem to be more and more prevalent these days.
I do, but I have to be really strict with myself because they can be quite an undertaking, and a real commitment of time/money. I had that King Crimson Starless box in a shopping cart a couple weeks ago, and I kept going back and forth. It’s a lot of money, do I really need to hear umpteen different mixes of the same LP? (One I already own three versions of) and 20-odd discs of the group running through essentially the same set every night in varying degrees of completeness, half of which I already have on bootleg or traded tapes? Some of it’s on Blu-Ray so I can’t play those… I don’t have 5.1 Surround, so that’s no good either. Do I really want to spend $200 on a 12″ X 12″ print of Bill Bruford? I probably will get it.

Does your family understand your passion for sound? Is it something you’ve had to explain? It seems like being in a punk band is hard enough for an elderly uncle to understand, let alone a sound collagist…
My parents were baffled and thought the whole thing was ludicrous at first: “What the bloody hell’s The Shadow Ring? Why would Graham and his dodgy mates suddenly be making this racket every week? They can’t even play, yet alone release records”… But they never tried to stop it happening, and as time went on I think they realized it was just something beyond their comprehension. Certainly, the occasional foreign fan letter and a few American tours lent more ballast to our cause. Seen from the other side of the fence, I don’t think my kids really bat an eyelid – it’s just what Dad does.