Radio, Live Transmission: Tracing Warp’s Radio Broadcast History
WORDS: JOHN DORAN
IMAGES: MICHAEL OSWELL / SYNCHRODOGS
4693 words, 00:15:38
Between Friday 21 and Sunday 23 June this year, global online music platform and radio station NTS was host to an adventurous take over. To celebrate their 30th birthday Warp Records marshalled 33 artists to present over 100 hours of DJ mixes, live in the studio sessions, specially commissioned videos, debut broadcasts of unreleased music and curated archival recordings, before presenting them as a continual flow of radio shows. From Aphex Twin to !!! via Boards of Canada, Flying Lotus, Lonelady, Brian Eno, Danny Brown, Autechre, Kelela and many more in between, it was unlike any other radio event staged this year.
The three day radiophonic ‘meeting of the Warp tribes’ served many purposes but primarily it showed where the label had come from, where it exists now and where it may possibly travel in the future. From the white hot flashpoint of UK rave culture, exploding outwards in multiple directions internationally into drill & bass, post punk, hauntology, dubstep, jungle, post rock, IDM, ambient, art rock, Batida, underground hip hop, trap, jazz, R&B, classical, dub… and then further out again into territories that haven’t even been delineated or named yet.
The dizzying sensation of being hit by an avalanche of sounds… way more than any one person could expect to process over the space of a weekend... was in itself an oblique tribute to the febrile times that Warp records grew out of. The label was founded in Sheffield in 1989 and grew through its foundational years in the early 90s tracking electronic music while it was in a constant nuclear arms race of innovation with itself. (This race initially took place within a national underground network of DIY producers all wanting to outdo one another while simultaneously contributing to the culture as a whole, before gradually becoming interconnected with a global network of radical creativity.) But the weekend of continuous sonic excitement, celebration and redefinition also reflected that fact that Warp has always kept on moving forward, having long since transcended the purist idea of it being a dance label; and that new signings are more likely to produce work such as the bleeding edge contemporary classical of Kelly Moran’s Ultraviolet or the tar thick psychedelic dancehall of Gaika’s Basic Volume (both released last year) than the bleep & bass, acid or hardcore of the label’s roots.
As genuinely exciting as the weekend was however, in a way it was to be expected. Right from the get go, Warp has always had strong ties to radio, with forward looking DJs wanting to be the first to play their new releases; a relationship it maintains to this day across multiple digital & internet platforms and beyond. And this relationship often reaches its creative peak in the format of the radio session, which is a chance for artists to debut work, test out ideas and trial run new processes for a hardcore of engaged fans.
This winter sees another celebration of the label’s 30th anniversary in the form of the WXAXRXP Sessions box set and digital download. This anthology features ten carefully curated sessions from the full range of the Warp timeline (starting with LFO hitting the John Peel Show in 1990 and concluding with the cream of the new WXAXRXP NTS shows and Kelly Moran’s, exclusively recorded and as yet unheard session from earlier this year).
One of the main attractions this box set will present to long term fans of the label is access to music which up until now has really only been available to those who were lucky enough to record it at the time or as moody, lossy MP3s swiped off the darkest recesses of the web. This definitely includes the LFO session for the John Peel Show on BBC Radio 1. This landmark set of four tracks was first broadcast on 20 October 1990, just after the duo of Mark Bell and Gez Varley scored Warp’s first ever top-20 UK chart hit with their self-titled debut single in the July of that year.
John Peel, a veteran DJ and champion of the musical underground, had tirelessly pushed new and innovative music onto an eager public since he became a Radio 1 DJ in 1967 and continued to do so until his untimely death in 2004. And as he had been an evangelist for punk, no wave, reggae, Afrobeat, prog and grindcore before 1989, so he was for acid house and all of its glorious mutations afterwards - often in the form of the radio session, which he oversaw for his entire 37 year tenure at the station. The session, saw a musical act decamp to a cramped studio in Maida Vale, London for the afternoon, to work with inhouse engineers, to record what were often rough and ready or live versions of their current output. This institution was actually invented as an ingenious way of getting around restrictions placed on how many records the BBC were allowed to play per hour, imposed by the then powerful Musicians Union, who wanted to encourage listeners to buy more records instead of hearing them for free on the radio. The initial idea was that session musicians (hence the name) would cover hits of the day for broadcast but this rapidly evolved into the tradition of the bands themselves coming in to record their own music, which in turn opened up a huge amount of creative space for them to experiment and innovate to a relatively large audience.
Speaking about the importance of the Peel Session, Mark Maxwell, one of the last broadcast assistants on the show, says: “They were massively important and perhaps the only option for those living outside of major cities, who couldn’t always get to see these musicians play live, to hear something special… music that wasn’t available on record. It was an integral experience for a lot of people. You can’t overstate the influence the show hand on developing people’s tastes.”
LFO eased Peel’s fans into their world with ‘Take Control’ which was, for them at least, a relatively vaporous and hypnagogic swell of synth pads (albeit with slamming cybertronic beats punching a rigid framework through the delicious mist). The real revelation of the session however was ‘To The Limit’, which also featured Susie Thorp on suitably ecstatic house diva vocals. ‘Rob’s Nightmare’, while probably more of an electro-facing tribute to the horror theme music of John Carpenter, seen from our current vantage point feels more like precognition of hardcore’s descent into sketchy darkness by the end of 1992 when the vibe plummeted and the tension shot up; while altogether more utopian sounding is ‘Lost World’. These sketches gave us some of the first clues as to what Frequencies, LFO’s debut album and one of British acid techno’s foundational documents, would sound like on release in 1991.
Peel would become one of the staunchest supporters of the label and he was still booking Warp acts in for sessions right up until his untimely death in 2004. His son Tom Ravenscroft, who is, in a lot of ways, carrying on his dad’s good work via his show over on 6Music, grew up in a house where the name of the label carried a lot of weight.
Speaking today, Tom says: “There was a box in Dad’s room that was always filled with the records that he was currently using for his show. I’d wait until he went to London for the week, sneak into his room and go through them. I remember getting awfully excited when I came across the Warp logo because the design made the records seem like magical, precious things that I wasn’t meant to touch. I’d try mixing them on his decks, fail and then put them back before he noticed. I still get a sense of excitement when I come across Warp records in his collection now.”
Anyone who listens to Tom’s show today will know that he still possesses this sense of wonder. Talking about this early influence, he says: “I developed a great love for all electronic noise really, the less familiar and unpredictable the better. The relentless inventiveness of it all. I have always been in awe of how the artists on Warp kept finding new sounds or avenues within their music.
“It was the controlled chaos that caught my attention at the beginning and is still the thing I find myself drawn to in new artists now. All this beautiful music hiding behind often terrifying sounds.”
In chronological terms, the second set featured on WXAXRXP release is the first Peel Session recorded by transcendent experimental post rock group Seefeel, which was originally broadcast on 27 May, 1994… although quite why it took the band so long to make their inaugural trek to Maida Vale studios to record these four songs has been lost in the mists of time, as one of the first things the four piece ever did was make successful contact with the DJ.
As Mark Clifford reveals today: “We had a conversation with John Peel way before we even released any music as Seefeel. After we recorded our demo, me and Sarah went down to Broadcasting House and waited outside to give him the tape. When he came out after his show he actually offered to give us a lift home because we lived in South London and it was quite late. We declined the lift but he took the cassette. He called Sarah about a week later and said, ‘This is John Peel from wonderful Radio 1.’ He said he’d been listening to it quite a lot in his car and that he liked it. I imagine at first she thought it was a joke but then she was quite stunned when she realised it was really him.”
As with a lot of people, Mark’s introduction to leftfield music came via the show, a love nourished by him tuning in to record new tracks by groups such as the Cocteau Twins. It was because of this that he was initially excited to learn that Seefeel were going to be doing a session after they left Too Pure and signed to Warp in 1994. That said, the reality of the Maida Vale studios contrasted with how he had imagined them: “The studio we were in wasn’t huge. You had to go down this little old fashioned corridor which was a bit like being at school. We did walk past a door that had Radiophonic Workshop written on it. The control room was tiny, the size of your front room and the live room was very small indeed but it was really nice with an amazing desk. We only had two hours to do the whole session, which wasn’t much time. It was very surprising.
“When we went in we played three of the tracks live, which we would never normally do in a studio because usually they were pieced together. And the fourth track, ‘Rough For Radio’, was made up there and then. I wanted to do something with an element of chance - it might sound good, it might not. I remember sitting on the floor with a sampler writing it and there was real pressure on us to get it done because time was ticking by.”
I wanted to do something with an element of chance - it might sound good, it might not. I remember sitting on the floor with this sampler writing it and there was real pressure on us to get it done because time was ticking by.
The following year Aphex Twin recorded his second session for Peel. Obviously, this glimpse of the working practices of Richard D. James operating at full throttle in 1995 is an exciting prospect in and of itself (some of this music didn’t turn up again until the Soundcloud dump of 2015) but it also exemplified a radical change for the show itself, as then Radio 1 senior producer Alison Howe explains: “What was interesting with the 1995 Aphex Twin session was the idea that the recording no longer had to happen at Maida Vale. Historically, if you were an artist, up until that point you went to Maida Vale, you worked with the in house engineers who recorded it for you and you did four songs. That’s how it worked. But, at some point around this time, possibly even with this session itself, the artist started recording the session themselves and sending them in on DAT.”
Alison, who is now an executive producer for BBC TV, says that the period that she worked closely with John Peel, between 1992 and 1998, happened to coincide with a fertile time for new scenes emerging ranging from grunge to electronica; many of which the DJ was often first to report on, in many cases helping the sound to break through to mainstream consciousness.
She acknowledges that the new way of working - allowing electronic artists to record their own material and post it in - was simply keeping abreast of the times and it had other advantageous effects. She explains: “You simply couldn’t tell someone like Richard D. James what to do but that was part of the charm of this development… I can’t imagine it happening anywhere else in the media today, just letting an artist to get on with exactly what they want to do.”
She adds: “The session would arrive at the BBC by post but you’d have no idea exactly when it would turn up or what would be on it. You just had to wait and see what you got, which was half the excitement.
[John Peel] felt artists could make music that had a strong element of humour to it but still be credible and legitimate; that if the music moved past the idea of novelty it could become something long lasting.
“I do remember this particular session was turned around pretty quickly. We played it within days of receiving it. That just wouldn’t happen now. An artist of the size of Aphex Twin? The amount of planning that would go into broadcasting it would be colossal. The number of meetings you’d have to have just to plan it would be massive. But we just got it through the post and broadcast it.”
Mark Maxwell, Peel’s former broadcast assistant remembers having several conversations with the DJ about the importance of Aphex Twin’s music and the mutual respect that existed between the two: “I think Richard D. James understood John Peel’s attitude towards his music, which was one of massive fandom essentially. But John also got the whole tongue in cheek element of Aphex Twin. Our conversations revolved around the idea of music and humour. He felt artists could make music that had a strong element of humour to it but still be credible and legitimate; that if the music moved past the idea of novelty it could become something long lasting. John was the sort of guy who took music seriously but didn’t necessarily take himself seriously and so it perhaps led to him understanding that kind of dynamic.”
John Peel’s son, Tom Ravenscroft, hones in more succinctly on the relationship between the two when he talks about Richard appearing in the 1999 Channel 4 series Sound Of The Suburbs: “I remember after Dad interviewed Aphex Twin on camera with Luke Vibert in Cornwall, that he said he was quite touched that Richard had actually turned up. Apparently no one else was expecting him to.”
One of Warp’s best loved acts is the enigmatic Scottish electronic duo, Boards Of Canada, and perhaps unsurprisingly, John Peel was an early supporter. Their session, which was originally broadcast on 21 July 1998, came just months after the release of their full-length debut album Music Has The Right To Children. The broadcast included notably different, dreamier, more psychedelic and pastoral versions of key tunes ‘Olson’ and ‘Aquarius’ plus the noticeably alternative hip hop influenced version of ‘Happy Cycling’. Perhaps the most interesting track here for BOC spotters is ‘XYZ’, which has been left off previous official releases of this session due to sampling rights issues.
The sessions nearly always tended to be recorded in advance either at the BBC or mailed in on DAT (this was in contrast to bands playing live on air during the show which weren’t counted as sessions). For some reason however these four tracks were recorded while the show was being broadcast meaning that Boards Of Canada, a notoriously publicity shy duo, were one of the only bands to give a live interview on air as their session went out.
Mike Sandison of BOC recalls sneaking off during a break to nosey around different rooms situated off the warren-like corridors of Maida Vale, with the vain hope of bumping into Radiophonic Workshop and KPM library music legend, Paddy Kingsland. What they found instead was “a shabby old place illuminated by the ghosts of Hendrix, Marc Bolan and Ian Curtis”.
Talking about the session he says: "It was an honour to be invited by John Peel to perform in the haunted environment at BBC Maida Vale in 1998. Sadly we never got to do our second session for John which had been scheduled shortly before he passed away in 2004, but we still hope to play it to him someday.”
The following year Plaid got the call to make the trek to Maida Vale at the behest of Peel, their session going out on 8 May 1999. Ed and Andy of the group had taped electro and hip hop off the show in the mid-80s when they were schoolboys growing up in Suffolk, so they were thrilled to be asked. Their pleasure was heightened by the knowledge that they would be versioning their own songs for the show just yards from the studio that housed the highly influential Radiophonic Workshop.
While many may think of the Peel Session, generally speaking, as having a sketch-like quality, for Plaid, conversely, the experience for them was a case of being able to introduce heightened quality in some respects: “We were able to improve the mixes substantially with the BBC’s equipment. It was a luxury to have access to high end compressors, a fancy mixing desk and top of the line monitors.”
And the impact carried over to the day of broadcast: “Hearing John present the session when it was broadcast was unreal having listened to so many others before. It felt like a major achievement to have been asked.”
It was an honour to be invited by John Peel to performing in the haunted environment at BBC Maida Vale in 1998. Sadly we never got to do our second session for John which had been scheduled shortly before he passed away in 2004, but we still hope to play it to him someday.
Some of these sessions are audio evidence of a groundbreaking creative change or revitalisation in a career, and this kind of mercurial switch can be heard in the Flying Lotus presents INFINITUM recording, according to the man who commissioned it for BBC 6Music, Gilles Peterson.
The session was recorded with full band that included string player Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, bassist Thundercat, saxophonist (and cousin of Fly-Lo) Ravi Coltrane, harpist Rebekah Raff, percussionist Andres Renteria, drummer Gerry Gibbs and vocalist Andreya Triana. It stood in stark contrast to the more traditional beat making Flying Lotus had been concentrating on live with his trio featuring Dorian Concept and Richard Spaven just months beforehand.
Gilles raves about the session, which was broadcast on 19 August, 2010, and the amount of space being created for Ravi (the son of John and Alice Coltrane) in which he could extemporise fully: “This music is super-jazz isn’t it!? I loved it because he was opening up a door that a lot of people were reluctant to open, because jazz was a dirty word back then, pre-Kamasi Washington.
“Fly-Lo never had that problem of jazz being unpopular because he’s American and he’s got a different history to us but I think he played an important role - indirectly - in opening up the door to this wave of British jazz that’s going on at the moment. This new wave was helped by the fact that Flying Lotus through Brainfeeder introduced the world to Kamasi Washington and then kids would go, “Oh yeah, this music is cool.” Which, let’s face it, they might not have done otherwise.”
Probably one of Warp’s most adventurous radio sessions to date wasn’t produced for the BBC, or even in the UK at all. It was KCRW, the American public radio station based in Santa Monica, California who invited Daniel Lopatin, aka Oneohtrix Point Never, to interpret material from his 2018 Age Of album using live, if mainly cutting edge, electronic instruments. The specially assembled Myriad Ensemble featured Lopatin himself on electronics; Kelly Moran on piano and synths; Aaron David Ross on keyboards, vocal synths and triggered foley sounds; and Eli Keszler on drums and triggered/untriggered percussion.
Speaking about the highly ambitious project, which was transmitted on 23 October last year, Eli says: “Daniel Lopatin is excellent at striking a balance between keeping formal control and creating space for his collaborators. Because of this, the music really felt like it was specific to our group by the time we performed it live.
“The approach [for the radio session] felt authentically new to me. My main philosophy has always been to respect the music and get myself out of the way and as an acoustic percussionist working with physical materials, it requires control, unusual techniques and specificity to blend with the contemporary sound of electronic production.”
One of the most inimitable sessions broadcast by NTS during the WXAXRXP weekend was by electronic folk musician Bibio, which saw him revisit his 2009 debut album for Warp, Ambivalence Avenue with three tracks and another from 2016’s A Mineral Love.
Stephen Wilkinson recorded the sessions himself remotely as he considers the studio an essential component of the Bibio sound and the isolation it affords allows him to ‘go into the zone’ when creating. He considers the biggest creative problems he had to solve were the intricately layered close vocal harmonies, especially on the tracks ‘Haikuesque’ and ‘Lovers’ Carvings’.
He adds that it was important for him not simply slavishly recreate the originals: “I didn’t want to faithfully recreate them as that would seem fairly uncreative, and also I don’t think I could. The originals were recorded over 10 years ago and I was different then, I was in my 20s. I know more now and lack some of the naïvety that can sometimes make music what it is. I wanted to approach these sessions like I was making something new, yet I wanted the results to be familiar.”
I wanted to be able to share different versions of these pieces... there's a lot of dimensionality to the music when you play around with the arrangements.
The other session from the NTS WXAXRXP solstice weekend comes to us courtesy of Mount Kimbie. This recording, perhaps more than any of the others, shows how music can’t help but naturally mutate and evolve when played by an intuitive band out on the road. The touring incarnation of the group were joined by Marc Pell (Suit Man Jungle, The Shapes) on drums and Mica Levi, aka, Micachu, reprised her vocals on the track ‘Marilyn’, while Andrea Balency took the mic on ‘You Look Certain (I’m Not So Sure)’.
Kai Campos of the core duo explains that over the decade or so they have been operational, Mount Kimbie have taken what is essentially studio based music and gradually brought it into the live arena. He says: “It is better to change the music to fit around an involving and malleable live practice. We’ve done this over the years, trying things out and finding out what works in terms of changing studio records and ours change more than most. This process is captured in the sessions.”
Talking about the ambitious long weekend of broadcasting on NTS he adds: “The planning we had to do for our session was massive. We were speaking to Stephen [Christian, Warp creative director] about it for at least six months beforehand, so god knows how long the label were planning the whole thing in advance for. But that’s Warp: they don’t tend to do things by halves.”
In chronological terms, the most recent session, because it has never been transmitted and therefore was unavailable until this release, is the work of New York-based composer, multi-instrumentalist and producer, Kelly Moran. Even though the five tracks are ostensibly ‘just’ solo piano work, in many regards they have the widest scope in terms of musical ambition and range. In temporal terms, their influence goes back to the avant garde composer John Cage (who pioneered the use of treated piano) and then even further to the precursors of minimalist composition who influenced him, such as Eric Satie. Also through her use on two of the tracks of the newly designed Yamaha transacoustic piano, which features both built in transducer speakers on the soundboard of the instrument and MIDI capabilities, the session looks forward to the future.
As she explains: “Whatever MIDI sounds you want the piano to trigger, it will play them through the transducers in the piano, so the sounds are resonating through the instrument and creating sympathetic vibrations on the strings. As you can imagine, there are a lot of really interesting timbral possibilities for how to combine the acoustic piano sound with the synthesized timbres resonating through the instrument. That session was really the first time I worked creatively with this piano in trying to make new versions of my pieces. It was quite challenging, to be honest. I walked away from the sessions feeling like I had only just started to understand a good way of working with the instrument.”
She concludes: “For me, the radio session was an opportunity to showcase how my music has evolved since I’ve been performing and touring it. I recorded all the piano tracks for Ultraviolet in October 2017, so I’ve been physically inhabiting this music for two years now and the way I play it has evolved.I wanted to be able to share different versions of these pieces because there’s a lot of dimensionality to the music when you play around with the arrangements. If Origin EP was about showing the roots of Ultraviolet, I think my record on the box set shows how this music evolved further after the release!
“When I started playing the session version of ‘In Parallel’ in a higher key, something really clicked for me and I felt like I had unlocked a different perspective of the piece - especially when you strip away the arrangement of the electronics, it becomes a lot more fragile and emotional and vulnerable.”
When we listen to the music created by the last three artists featured that are mentioned in this essay, it is clear that Warp has travelled a long way since its inaugural release three decades ago. Through the 21st century folk music of Bibio, the post dubstep of Mount Kimbie that is reaching out into the field of avant indie rock and especially with the forward thinking piano experimentation of Kelly Moran, the label has never felt less like a purist dance label, although an evolutionary through line can be found with each one. They are all as much ‘Warp artists’ as L.F.O., Autechre and Aphex Twin and their presence is vital.
In a way the WXAXRXP Sessions box set is like a photo album that helps us picture how this evolution has taken place and allows us to experience it every step of the way. It is an artefact that helps us trace the evolution of Warp from its DIY underground origins in Sheffield 30 years ago to where we find it today, not just an international label based in London but also as an important musical hub operating in the digital realm, connected rhizomatically to a wider world of boundary pushing art and culture.