In 2016, shortly after the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, Tom Jenkinson released a plaintive protest song under his Squarepusher alias, titled “MIDI Sans Frontieres.” Though he’s better known for maximalist explosions of breakbeats, hyperactive acid synths and fusion-jazz frippery, the producer and multi-instrumentalist is also capable of moments of utter beauty, and this was one of them.
In addition to offering the song as a free download, he released sheet music and audio tracks for the piece, allowing other artists to create remixes and reworks that he then hosted on his website, in what he described as an “internationalist collaboration.”
It was a small but significant gesture for an artist who has typically been guarded — at least in newspaper interviews — about his opinions on non-musical topics.
“That was a real step into the unknown for me,” he says. “I’m not very well-adjusted to this kind of stuff, but it really felt like: look, it’s time to step up and at least fly the flag for being open, collaborative, cooperative and, frankly, kind to our neighbors. It’s just, for me, basic decency.”
Two versions of “MIDI Sans Frontieres” are included on a new Squarepusher EP, “Lamental,” to be released on Warp Records next month. As the name suggests, the pieces on the EP strike a mournful tone; Jenkinson says they were all “written on the basis of sorrow, and on the basis of something passing.”
That sense of sorrow has only deepened since the “Brexit” referendum, as the racism and xenophobia it unleashed in Jenkinson’s native U.K. have become a global malaise. Arriving in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the EP feels even more timely.
On the day we speak, President Donald Trump has just announced that the United States will bar travelers arriving from most of Europe in a bid to contain what he pointedly described as a “foreign virus.” By the time you read this, that will probably feel like a happy memory.
Although he doesn’t mention the C-word, Jenkinson notes that “things have moved on, in various quite frightening ways” in recent years.
“I believe it’s not too much of an exaggeration to call it a kind of quasi-fascistic tendency in politics,” he says.
Does he think there’s more he could be doing to fight back?
“On a personal basis, I already do, and have been for all of my adult life,” he says, explaining that he prefers to confront hate one conversation at a time. “If I encounter racism, xenophobic bulls— … I’m the first to call it out.”
“I’ve been pleasantly surprised on a number of occasions, where people actually do stop and take a minute to think about what they’ve said,” he continues. “So that’s how I operate on this. I don’t sound off on social media: that’s not me. I believe that is shouting into a void.”
Before COVID-19 threw an almighty spanner in the works, Jenkinson was supposed to be heading to Japan in early April to kick off his latest world tour, in support of new Squarepusher album “Be Up a Hello.” It would have been an appropriate setting, given that the country plays a starring role in his most recent video.
In the clip for “Terminal Smash,” a woman roams Tokyo’s Shibuya district wearing a pair of glasses that transforms the crowds and omnipresent billboards into pulsating, abstract shapes. It was conceived by Daito Manabe, the digital wunderkind behind multimedia art collective Rhizomatiks.
Though some viewers have interpreted it as depicting a technological dystopia, Jenkinson says the idea was more positive: to “portray a kind of near-future representation of what might be possible with MR,” or Mixed Reality. Hijacking Shibuya’s relentless commercial assault was part of the appeal.
“Personally, I hate the way that we’re drowning in all this s— all the time,” he says. “So I quite like that way of turning an advert billboard into something which has suddenly got something that’s fun, engaging or subversive about it.”
Jenkinson’s only quibble with the video, in fact, was that the manipulated adverts were intermittently transformed into promotions for some guy called Squarepusher.
“There’s something peculiar about turning one advert into just another advert,” he says.
The video’s high-tech slant is typical of the musician’s work, which can sometimes feel like an escalating theoretical and technological arms race. 2012 Squarepusher album “Ufabulum” showcased a dazzling “visual synthesizer” of his own design, while 2015’s “Damogen Furies” was created on a software system he had programmed himself, in a protest against “off-the-shelf gear and the culture of consumerism that engulfs electronic music-making.”
Over the past decade, he has also written for a robot band (2014’s “Music for Robots” EP), led a flesh-and-blood group of his own (Shobaleader One, heard on 2017’s “Elektrac” album), and composed music for organist James McVinnie and a children’s TV show, “Daydreams,” on the CBeebies network.
With “Be Up a Hello,” released in January, Jenkinson has done the last thing anyone would have expected: dug out his old analog gear and made some straight-up bangers. The end result is as enjoyable as anything he’s done, full of delirious rave anthems reminiscent of 8-bit video games. But if it bears a surface resemblance to the Squarepusher sound circa 1999’s “Selection Sixteen,” the album is more than just a return to his roots.
Jenkinson started working on it after breaking his wrist in early 2018. Unsure if he’d ever be able to play bass guitar again — which he describes as “completely central to my existence, let alone work as a musician” — he diverted himself by revisiting the equipment he had used on his early recordings, making a new track every day.
The exercise acquired added poignancy when a close childhood friend, Chris Marshall, who had joined him on his first forays into the world of synthesizers and samplers in the early 1990s, died not long after his accident.
“At that point, frankly, I just wanted some distraction, some therapy and some comfort,” he says. “So I found it in messing about with this old gear, and knocking out tracks without much thought.”
Jenkinson’s technical knowledge is far deeper now than it was when he started out. Though his re-acquaintance with his vintage gear initially involved making music “that you probably wouldn’t be able to distinguish from a 1988 Chicago house track,” he began to use it in ways that his younger self might not have imagined.
He describes manipulating the MIDI data he was sending to his synthesizer to produce “dense clouds of sound, like a kind of granular synthesis approach.”
This, apparently, was one of the factors that made him feel his musical therapy might warrant a wider audience.
“I don’t personally want to contribute to that sort of tide of retro-focused music,” Jenkinson says. “Yes, I’m using old instruments — it’s part of what made this record, and it’s part of what makes it special for me, and goodness knows, not every millisecond of it is totally pioneering and original — but still, I hope there are some elements in there which feel fresh.”
Squarepusher’s “Lamental” EP will be released on April 10. For more information, visit https://squarepusher.net.
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