David Toop: 'I try to use a different set up every time I play, just to undermine myself'

David Toop: 'I try to use a different set up every time I play, just to undermine myself'

credit: Fabio Lugaro

Author, musician and professor discusses his upcoming Scottish dates

Over the past half century, David Toop has travelled between the worlds of experimental music and pop, journalism and academia, ethnomusicology and sound art. Along the way, he's worked with Brian Eno, Björk and Ryuichi Sakamoto, and appeared on Top Of The Pops as a member of pop subversives The Flying Lizards. In addition to his many solo recordings, his longest running musical projects include a duo with the late Paul Burwell, and the improvising group Alteration. A major thinker on music and sound, Toop is the author of several important books, including Rap Attack (1984), one of the first serious studies of hip hop, Ocean Of Sound (1995), an exploration of 'ambient sound and imaginary worlds', and Into The Maelstrom (2017), a history of improvised music. He is currently Professor of Audio Culture and Improvisation at London College of Communication. Thurston Moore and Eva Prinz's Ecstatic Peace Library publish Toop's autobiography Flutter Echo in May, with an accompanying three-day festival at London's Café Oto to mark his 70th birthday. We spoke to him ahead of his appearances in Edinburgh and Glasgow this week.

Your Scottish dates have been organised by Ceylan Hay, aka Bell Lungs. I understand you're not following a conventional gig format?

I met Ceylan last year in Dundee. She said to me, would you be interested in doing something like this and I said, yeah of course, I'd just like to play around with the format a bit, not just treat it as a straight gig. So I was quite interested in the idea of doing a conversation. I'm always interested in exchanging ideas with people, in particular new people I meet. [Ceylan] has a lot of ideas and energy. I think she was interested in talking to me about experiences I'd had decades ago, people I'd met, things which excited her. So it seems to me that's the best possible start for a conversation.

As for the musical side of things, do you have a particular plan?

I try to use a different set up every time I play, just to undermine myself. I'm working a lot with bone conduction speakers and creating amplification from everyday objects, like paper and books and small metal objects. But I still play various flutes, and resonators of various kinds – I'll probably bring a lap steel guitar. I'm the kind of person who likes to try and do something different and constantly try and evolve what I call my instrument. Everything you use is part of a strange instrument without a body. It's kind of a conglomerate instrument without clearly defined boundaries. That's the way I think about it. But to be honest, it doesn't matter. When I'm teaching students improvisation, some of them say, 'I've never played anything before, what should I bring?' And I say they can bring anything. You can just bring some paper and your phone and see what happens. I say that being aware it's quite challenging for them, so I should be able to apply that to myself. I should be about to turn up having lost everything en route, left it in a shop somewhere, and still be able to produce some sort of creditable performance. In practice I bring a heavy bag!

The limitations are liberating.

Yeah, of course. Limitations shape what you do. I think that's one of the things we talk about in the improvisation class I do. You begin with this idea of freedom and interrogate that because it's a word that has now got very dubious connotations. It tends to have been taken up by the extreme right wing as a banner, which is quite a reversal of what it meant in the 1960s when improvisation was really getting going. But then of course you discover there are endless limitations to this idea of freedom, whether it be our physical limitations or how much free will we actually have or what the word freedom means in a collective situation, trying to find a group language. I think we work with limitations all the time.

For all that you're associated with experimental music, your love of pop music – and black pop in particular – comes through, whether it's in your writing, or your work with The Flying Lizards.

I tend to forget that brief interlude in pop music! But it's funny, working on this new record, I've got a lot of fragments here and there on various hard drives, half-finished ideas. And this weekend gone, I spent the whole of Saturday and Sunday working on it, producing what I can only describe as tunes. And I thought this feels a bit unusual, but in fact, if I look at my whole history, that's always been the case, this kind of tension or relationship between tunes and structure and then improvisation. So if I go back to my duo with Paul Burwell, which began in 1969, when we started out we were trying to be a free rock band, we were working with pieces, with structures. Then we got involved in the improvised music scene, because we couldn't get anywhere with the rock scene. Then I got involved with this group Alterations, with Peter Cusack, Steve Beresford, Terry Day. We'd constantly be referencing other types of music whether it be easy listening or reggae or funk and soul. And then I did a whole string of albums in the 90s where it was always moving between songs or tunes and improvisation. I was thinking about it this morning and thinking it's not unusual at all, it's consistent. I've always had that thing of wanting to be in both worlds. I don't see anything wrong with that.

At the moment I'm listening to a lot of contemporary hip hop, which is strange, because I wrote my book on hip hop in 1984 and then gradually I stopped listening to hip hop. I thought I was too old to listen to hip hop! But then I started hearing things and I thought, I really like this again. I think what happened was that a lot of hip hop became uninteresting to me, but then suddenly it got interesting again, so it wasn't particularly me, it was the music. And you know I'm listening to a lot of contemporary R&B and finding it all inspiring. In fact, I did this guitar piece the other day and really the inspiration for it was a track by Tyler The Creator. Just this really loud, raw guitar played in a room, with all the buzz and stuff that you normally try to get rid of, very much in your face. And I found it really liberating. I thought, what the fuck!

I'm really loving playing small improvising gigs in tiny rooms, that to me is incredible, I just love it, and I find it a real learning process. Not just the act of playing for myself, but also listening to other people playing. I suppose the past ten years, what I've tried to do is bring together all the different elements of what I'm doing – the playing and the writing and the research – and see it as an integrated practice, or what I'd call fluidity of practice. That it doesn't actually matter the materials you're using, it's how you use them.

SOA#4 David Toop, Linda Keefe, Luke Fowler, Veronica Mota, White Space, Edinburgh, Wed 27 Mar; David Toop, Rashad Becker, Bell Lungs, The Old Hairdressers, Glasgow, Thu 28 Mar.

David Toop / Rashad Becker / Bell Lungs

David Toop will be in conversation, talking about his writing. The talk will be followed by performances from Rashad Becker, Bell Lungs and David Toop. David Toop (b.1949) has been developing a practice that crosses boundaries of sound, listening, music and materials since 1970. This encompasses improvised music…

SOA #4 David Toop / Linda O Keeffe / Luke Fowler / Veronica Mota

Concert featuring David Toop, Linda O Keeffe, Luke Fowler and Veronica Mota.