Paul Alty - "Can our brains really fathom the idea of infinity or the idea of time stopping?" - Stereo Stickman

Paul Alty “Can our brains really fathom the idea of infinity or the idea of time stopping?”

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The UK’s own Paul Alty recently released his third project this year – the superb Behind The Clock 3: End of Time. We were blessed with an in-depth chat with the artist to find out more about his journey, his creative process, and his hopes for the future. Here’s the conversation in full.

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Hi Paul – it’s an honour to be able to interview you, thanks for your time! For those who aren’t aware – how did you first get into music production and composition, and how would you describe your approach to making original music?

I first got into making music in 1998. I got a Yamaha DJX keyboard and just started to play. The DJX offered something different to the usual keyboards – it had a filter, a sampler, effects, a ribbon controller and a four track sequencer, so it had loads of the building blocks that I wanted to learn and experiment with. I learned that instrument inside out and squeezed every bit of life out of it. All my music at that time was mixed using an old Tandy mixer and recorded, track by track to MiniDisc.

My approach then is not so different to my approach now – I want to make music that I would like to listen to, that I would pay money for. The difference now is I have a bit more of an idea what I’m doing and how to achieve certain results and now I have enough knowledge to be able to decide what kind of music I want to write. Crucially though I always approach any new track with the mindset that it must have an emotional connection.

The last thing I would ever want to do is write soul-less music – the track must take the listener somewhere. It doesn’t have to be a big rollercoaster of a ride, but even if it just transports them somewhere else for a few minutes or evokes an emotional connection, then in my mind, job’s done.

You’ve released an astonishing amount of new music this year alone, yet with that the quality and captivating nature of it all is incredibly impressive. Is this something that takes up all of your time, and have you always had such a dedicated workflow, or has this year in particular been one you’ve chosen to push a little harder with?

I’m really liking your use of the words quality and captivating! It’s important to me that my music is both of those things. This year’s releases was more like the perfect storm rather than being planned. Behind The Clock 3 naturally progressed whilst I was still finishing Behind The Clock 2, so as soon as I drew line under part 2, part 3 continued – It felt like that conversation was far from over so I just went with it and it just so happened that I reached a point where I had 24 tracks and I needed to make a conscious break otherwise it could go on forever! The risk there is I could keep writing in the same style and get stuck or the quality starts to diminish.

Oloswave, which will be released in October (31st – ‘Brexit day’, to be precise!) actually has its origins all the way back to 1998/1999. It sat dormant for along time and as a result of both technical and creative issues, it was never finished until recently when everything finally came together, so I set myself a deadline to at least finish it, which I did, so in that respect, yes, I did push myself a little to get things finished.

And finally Skyline. This four-track EP is a mix of old and new, two tracks were written last year and I didn’t know what to do with them, and two tracks were written recently, sort of by chance. I was just playing around one day and two tracks appeared at once, so I decided combine them into the Skyline EP. When I’m feeling particularly creative, music can take up a lot of time, so Behind The Clock 2 and 3 became a mini obsession to see where the journey would take me – I couldn’t get enough of it.

I don’t have a dedicated workflow; I write when I’m feeling creative and see what happens. I write when I’m not feeling particularly creative as a way to try and stimulate something. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

What does the album Behind The Clock 3: End of Time represent for you?

Behind The Clock 3 – End of Time is the third album in the Behind The Clock trilogy and the trilogy is a soundtrack to a film I’m yet to make. The film is the story of Jim who is a retired gentleman who fills his time with his hobbies as an amateur astronomer and electronics tinkerer. He loves physics and cosmology and dreams of space. The story deals with time and space but also mortality, life-cycles and our place in space.

Behind The Clock 3 as a piece of work happened really quickly as some tracks were written alongside tracks from Behind The Clock 2. But ‘3’ seemed to take a different direction and sounded even more cinematic than the previous two albums. Behind The Clock 3 is, for now, a completion of the musical journey and I hope it represents the story and a musical maturity.

What was it about time and space that drew such passion and intense thought from you?

Beauty, majesty, light, dark, mystery, size, scale…I could go on. Everything about space is almost incomprehensible. Can our brains really fathom the idea of infinity or the idea of time stopping? As a child, it was the imagery – pictures of stars, planets and galaxies, but as I’ve got older, I now read about relativity, quantum physics, the science behind the universe and the natural world. It’s mind-blowing stuff and a weird and wonderful place to forget about ‘reality’ and just let your mind wander.

How did you first get into composition, and do you remember the very first piece you composed? If so – what was its purpose, and how does it compare to the work you create today?

I was obsessed (and I really do mean obsessed!) with Jean-Michel Jarre as a child and his music to me wasn’t a ‘piece of music’ it was something else, as though it just existed like a living thing. During the 90’s I progressively got interested in synthesizers and the tools JMJ used and I dreamed of making the noises he did. However, it was a performance by Madonna that triggered something. She performed Frozen on TV in 1998 and her keyboard player (I think was actually William Orbit) played the drum hits on a Korg MS-20. At the time I didn’t really realise they were drum hits nor did I know what an MS-20 was, but I just knew I needed that synth and those sounds. I now know, of course, an MS-20 cannot make those sounds, but that was the trigger for me getting my first keyboard, a Yamaha DJX.

The music I made from 1998 onwards was recorded to MiniDisc and I was essentially trying to make noises and soundscapes – more ambient stuff that required holding pad sounds for about 3 minutes! I just wanted my own musical escapism. The first track I recorded to disc was this weird soundscape with samples pitched really high and really low. Maybe one day I’ll work on it and turn it into something remotely musical!

In comparison to my music today, some of my recent work is quite similar, albeit more musically advanced and it sounds better!

Which other artists or composers do you think have successfully managed to express the complexities of a concept such as space or existence within a composition, and what would you say are the qualities that make it so?

As a concept album, Muse nail it. I’m a huge fan of Muse and from Black Hole and Revelations onwards, they have totally nailed the concept album idea. Every track responds to the main theme, but each track explores it in a different way but they’re all coherent to the main theme. As far as complex concepts go, naming an album The 2nd Law is quite a statement. Who would have thought that a huge commercial rock band would have entropy, the second law of thermodynamics as a central theme. Genius.

Another artist I love who also perfects expression of ideas is Ludovico Einaudi. Le Onde (The Waves, in Italian) is a perfect album and the title track is exactly the movement of undercurrents and crashing waves. It’s perfect. It’s not really space or existence but Royksopp’s Senior album has all the qualities of a concept album. Released as the antithesis of Junior, Senior sounds old. The pace is slower, the sounds more muted and filtered; everything sounds like a sepia photograph. The composition is more melancholic as opposed to Junior which is brighter, cleaner, more optimistic.

How do you get started when composing, and is there an element of live instrumentation to your work?

I get started by sitting and playing. I could start with the piano, by firing up a soft synth, with a drum loop or a sample. I don’t have a plan or formula but usually my mood will dictate what sound I start with and that usually directs the rest of the track. I don’t use live instruments such as live guitars or drums etc, but I do play everything into Logic. So chord progressions, melodies and sometimes drums, I do physically put fingers on keys and play around with ideas until there’s something worth recording. If there are fast arpeggios though, I’ll often create the sequence by playing and then alter it with the mouse.

I couldn’t create the music I do without putting my hands on a keyboards – it goes back to the emotional stuff – I need to feel what I’m doing.

Is live performance an important part of your plans?

Yes, it’s something I really want to start exploring but probably not as a musician on stage surrounded by banks of instruments; something a bit more creative and that’s something I’m working on at the moment.

You’re also a lighting designer and visual artist, do the two art forms connect for you in each case – is there always a visual in mind when crafting the audio experience?

Always. Synthesia is where one sense translates into another, so for sounds, people hear sounds in colours. I definitely do hear some sounds and parts of music in colour and my sound choices often are led by what ‘colours’ go well together. The fundamental building block of any of my music is emotion, whatever genre I’m writing in, it has to have emotion, and that combined with a visual image will dictate the direction.

As a lighting designer, I often think about colours, shapes, angles, visual montages of how a sound or full piece of music would look and synthesia plays a part in that. Light and sounds are intrinsically linked and when done well, you can visualise a sound in light.

I have loads of music that’ll never see the light of day – perfectly good pieces of music, but for some reason, there’s no picture or colour so they’ll languish on the hard drive!

Do you hope to create specific journeys for your listeners, or are you happy for them to form their own understandings of each experience as per their own world-view and thought process?

I write music with my own visual in mind, and often the titles of the tracks reflect that. I’d love someone to follow the same journey as I did, but I also love to hear other people’s interpretations too. The same piece of music can mean so many different things to so many different people – that’s the joy of it. If my music can help someone in their own thought processes whether that’s to reach an important decision or just drift away from the world for a bit, then job done.

Do you hope to branch out into television and cinema or other art-forms with your work?

Yes, and I continue to dabble in that area. I started licensing some music a few years ago and got interest from 20th Century Fox, but I couldn’t agree the contract terms with the licensing agent so nothing ever came of it. It would be a dream to hear my music in film or TV, especially if it was a science/space visual.

I keep tweeting Prof. Brian Cox to write music for his live shows but he chose Orbital instead – good choice!

If you had to recommend just one of your compositions to a new listener, which would you suggest, and why?

Very difficult question because I do ambient cinematic stuff and more upbeat dance tracks. I think I’d have to follow my heart and say Grandfather Time. That track (and Earth Funk) was a turning point for me and it holds a very special place in my musical heart, so I’d have to go with that.

What’s next for you, and what’s the best way that people can support you?

Next is a sidestep. I’m creating audiovisual multimedia pieces which combine my music and lighting design work into sensory installations. The first one is an extension of Behind The Clock 3 and specifically the track, End of Time. It is a performance of the music but with a real 6 foot black hole and lasers that people can walk around and experience. I want people to enjoy the music and the visuals, so come and say hello on Twitter or Instagram which is where I’ll be advertising and promoting any audiovisual work. But also, my music is available on all the usual download and streaming sites, so I’d love people to listen and tell me what they think..good or bad. I write music for other people to enjoy too, so I’d love to know if they actually do!

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A big thank you to Paul for his time & insight. Download Behind The Clock 3 via iTunes or stream it on Spotify. Find & follow Paul Alty on Twitter & Instagram.

Rebecca Cullen

Founder & Editor

Musician & writer with an MA in Songwriting.

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