36: People see a lot of ambient music as something to help them sleep, but I’m trying my hardest to keep them awake
36 is the experimental (mainly) ambient project of Dennis Huddleston from the United Kingdom. Since 2008, the focus for the project has been to develop warm, hugely emotive loop-based compositions, with particular emphasis on melody and melancholic atmosphere. Dennis has his own label 3six Recordings, which serves as the perfect platform to publish his self-released works. It takes a tremendous amount of effort and talent to manage a project like this all alone, but Dennis seems to be extremely self-conscious and determined enough to overcome any obstacles and just let his music speak for itself. One month after releasing his 6th studio album – ‘Dream Tempest‘ – Sounds Of A Tired City wanted to know a little bit more about this successful one-man show, so we talked to Dennis to shed some light on the various types of creative processes and hardships behind 36.
How did you first get in touch with music? What was your biggest source of inspiration while growing up and becoming interested in sound?
Around the time I was 10, my elder sister and brother used to record and trade tapes from local pirate radio stations, as well as buying tape packs from the raves they went to such as Ark, Orbit etc.. they’re quite a few years older than me, so they had access to stuff I had no clue about, but I grew fascinated with how strange the music sounded compared to the things that were played on the mainstream radio stations like Radio 1. This was around 1991/1992 and hardcore (as in early breakbeat rave/proto-jungle, not rock) was taking off in the UK in a big way. I remember my sister bought this compilation called Kaos Theory, which had the most insane sounds for my young, impressionable ears. I mean, even the name itself “Kaos Theory” was just so wild and futuristic, but you had artists like Rufige Kru, Bizzy B and Earth Leakage Trip, making these utterly fucked up tracks, which just sealed the deal for me. Fantazia was another one. It was like hearing sounds from another dimension. I soaked it all up and when I was a little older, started to buy them myself. We had this local record store called The Disc, full of 20 year old DJ’s with curtain haircuts, spinning vinyl all day in their store, looking all cool and everything, and I used to go in, aged about 12, thinking I knew what I was talking about haha. They probably thought I was nuts. Anyway, by this time, it was the beginning of Jungle, which again was a massively creative time for UK music. It wasn’t until I discovered FSOL that things really clicked though. Until then, I saw music as something that was made purely to make people dance, but when I heard FSOL’s legendary Essential Mixes on Radio 1, my mind just melted. I’d never heard anything like it. Totally alien but really beautiful too. I got my parents to buy me a copy of ‘Dead Cities’ the next day. I think if you ask a lot of UK producers around my age working today, they’ll all cite FSOL as a major influence on them getting involved in music. They made pretty experimental music, but were backed by a major label, so they had the media coverage and the radio airplay to reach out to people who wouldn’t normally have a chance to hear this kinda stuff. They probably awakened more creative young minds than any career advisor ever could. From there I discovered Warp, Skam, Rephlex etc. increasingly more innovative sounds, skirting the lines between dancefloor music and experimental, home-listening stuff. I got the internet around 1998 and from there, just absorbed everything I could find from all genres of electronic music. It’s been my main passion ever since.
The same time you released your very first album in 2009 (Hypersona), you also introduced your own label, 3six Recordings. What made you decide to set up your own label instead of releasing music through other labels? Did you try sending out demos before and have bad experiences?
I actually ran another vinyl label before I started making music as 36, which was quite successful in its own way, but I knew that deep inside, I wanted to make more personal, introspective music, rather than just pure dancefloor stuff. I had finished university and was working in a graphic design studio in Leeds at the time and just felt like something was missing from my life. I was spending nearly every waking hour making artwork and promoting for other people and just felt creatively numb by the time I got home. I wasn’t really in a happy place and decided just before Christmas to leave my job, go freelance, and spend the free time I had making the ambient album I always promised myself I’d create. For the first time in my life, I had the means and opportunity to realise my vision and put my money where my mouth was. I already had a few tracks like ‘2249’ and ‘Inside’ laid down from a couple of years previous, but they were unfinished and quite messy on the production side of things. I spent 12 months working on what would become ‘Hypersona‘, fine-tuning my production methods, learning more about the theory side of music, and just generally trying my absolute hardest to translate what was in my head through to my speakers. It wasn’t easy and drained me in pretty much every way possible, but I eventually finished it and was really proud of the result. I still am. ‘Hypersona’ was my first finished work and probably the purest vision of what my music is all about. I wrote it, somewhat naively, thinking that if it was the only album I ever made, it’d be something worth remembering.
I thought the hard work was done, but the first thing you learn when starting out is that making music is the easy part. The real challenge is getting other people to hear it. I made a few promos on CD, sent them out to labels, distributors etc. but no-one was interested really. A few liked the music, but didn’t feel like it would have an audience and didn’t know how to sell it. I can’t blame them really. Sadly, music is mainly about hype and how easily you can be promoted, and for a non-established artist who had never released anything like this before, it was a tough sell. I was proud of the music though and didn’t let it bother me too much. I eventually just decided to press up 1000 CDs and release it myself. 3six Recordings was formed and I sent copies to friends, labels, websites, journals etc. Slowly, I started getting a little coverage and the orders started to come in. It built up gradually from there, to the point where I am now fortunate enough have a dedicated listening base from all around the world.
You release your music in all types of formats – including numerous re-releases – and you are distributing every single piece yourself. What do you find to be the most difficult aspect about running your own label and promoting your own material? Is this a 100% one-man-show or there is someone who helps you out every now and then?
It’s absolutely 100% a one man effort. I literally do everything, right down to sealing the record mailers and putting the address stickers on the front of them. I have had negative experience with distributors in the past (getting them to pay can be like drawing blood from a stone), so I was naturally weary of them. I get infinitely more satisfaction knowing I am involved at all stages and it means that my strict quality-control is in my own hands and my own responsibility. It’s not easy of course and it takes a lot of time and energy, but it’s worked out well for me on the scale I operate. I have a pretty efficient method of working, and after 5 years of releasing music, I’ve got most stages nailed down. Self-promotion is always a little frustrating and I hate essentially having to sell myself so that people know what I’m releasing, but it’s a necessary evil and I try not to do it obnoxiously or spam people every 10 minutes on Facebook, Twitter etc. I do supply my records to a handful of other stores whom I trust around the world, but the bulk of my orders are still managed directly between myself and the listener. It’s quite an intimate process and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
The most frustrating part right now is how expensive vinyl is to send to people abroad. International postage costs have risen to ridiculous levels over the past 5 years and it is turning a lot of people away from buying records. Can you blame them? It often costs more money to ship a record than it does to buy one. People are always asking me to release more vinyl, but the reality is, your average music listener doesn’t want to pay £15/$24 for a 2xLP record and an additional £14/$22 just to receive it. It doesn’t help that I only use the most expensive and heavy sleeve packaging material available! I can make fewer records of course, but that doesn’t actually decrease the production costs by much. Pressing 100 vinyl records only costs about £60 less than getting 250 made, so in the end, labels are lucky to break even. As of right now, vinyl just isn’t worth the hassle, even though I absolutely adore the format. Maybe I’ll press some more in the future, purely for the most dedicated fans, but honestly, as of right now, it’s a stress I can do without.
Could you imagine featuring other artists on 3six Recordings or do you want to keep it strictly for releasing your own material?
Probably not. It’s hard enough just managing my own music and when you factor in the accounting work needed for somebody else, it becomes twice as much time and work. I believe that any label run by a producer should put their other artists first, and unfortunately, I don’t have the time or capacity for that. I also think it’d be a bit strange for other artists to have their music released on a label called 3six Recordings too, which is obviously named after myself, made purely for me. I could always make a sub-label I suppose, but honestly, I just can’t be bothered with the additional stress. I always encourage other artists to self-release their own stuff and try to get involved in the self-management thing, if only so they get complete control of their music, where it is featured, and who can use it. Having copyright ownership of your own material is a blessing you don’t realise until it’s too late. Just ask Aphex Twin the next time ‘SAW 85-92‘ is “remastered” and re-released on R&S.
Regarding the future, would you be open to the idea of releasing your music on other labels? Do you agree that being a part of a team or label community would give you more time and energy to focus on creating music and not have to worry about the other details and responsibilities involved in self-releasing?
I’ve been asked to release music on other labels before, but it didn’t work out, at least for full-length albums. Too many egos, agendas and opinions unfortunately, which results in other people trying to interfere in the creative process. Fuck that. If you ask an artist to spend a year of their life making music for you, then stay the hell out of their way and let them do what what they do best. It’s just insulting to think they know your music better than you do yourself. If a label has the respect and trust to let me make the album I want to make, then I have absolutely zero qualms giving them my music to release. It’s definitely less hassle for me and they often have their own communities and promotional channels to sell more copies, so there are definite benefits to it. Ultimae in France for example released a track I made on their popular Oxycanta compilation series and they did everything right. They’re lovely people too and operate like a proper family. It’s important for the artist to feel at home with their label and have a mutual trust and understanding. For now though, I’m more than happy doing my own thing.
I would say there is an interesting tendency in your œuvre – while usually the emotional state of a musician reflects in their sound, resulting in a strong fluctuation between different albums, 36 seems to always be in a gracious peace of mind, especially in the case of your latest album, ‘Dream Tempest’. Does this refer to an ultimate equilibrium in your life?
I actually think all of my albums show a different facet to my character and emotional state actually, so it’s interesting you see it differently. For example, ‘Lithea’ was without question my darkest, most isolating album and was written as a direct result of certain events in my life needing to be resolved. The new album sounds far different. Not necessarily lighter or less intense, just less moody and generally more positive I suppose. I try not to think about it too much though and don’t really sit down planning an album, thinking thoughts like “this time I’m going to make the darkest, most emotionally brutal album I can do” or anything exact like that. It’s an organic, ever-shifting process and I like to mix things up, constantly trying to surprise the listener. It’s why I sequence tracks like ‘Hyperbox’ directly after ‘Enshrine Exit’. It keeps the listener on their toes and stops them zoning out. People see a lot of ambient music as something to help them sleep, but I’m trying my hardest to keep them awake!
‘Dream Tempest’ is the first album where you’ve featured a real instrument – nothing less than Steven Wilson’s guitar. How did you get in touch with the founder of Porcupine Tree and why did you choose him?
I’d say at least half the sounds I use in all albums are actually from real instruments actually, usually from my massive collection of Kontakt libraries I spend ungodly amounts of money on each year. I like to mix them up with my synths and manipulate them to the point where they blur the line between real and synthetic. It’s a staple for a lot of modern music and I try not to limit myself to purely acoustic or purely synthetic sounds. What’s the point?
In regards to Steven Wilson, I sent him a message on Myspace around 2010, asking him if he’d allow me to remix tracks from his Bass Communion discography, with the hope that I could eventually release it as a bonus disc to my ‘Memories In Widescreen’ album. Steven is a completely down to earth, deeply knowledgeable guy and has an appreciation for all kinds of music, especially the weirder stuff. His Bass Communion material was a big influence for me and I honestly wasn’t expecting a reply, but to my surprise he did and was kind enough to allow me to work with his material. He understandably didn’t know who I was beforehand, but I sent him my entire discography through the post and he listened to it, telling me how much he enjoyed it. This was pretty amazing, since he is so deservedly highly regarded by his peers, and his opinion obviously carried a lot of weight with me. By the time I made ‘Lithea’, we had been in pretty regular contact via email and he eventually included it as one of his favourite albums of 2012 on his website. That brought a whole new set of fans my way, which is always great, but honestly, I was just really chuffed that this incredible artist, who listens to so much great music, found my own album worthy of inclusion in his best-of list. It’s a lovely feeling when anyone tells me how much my music means to them, but it felt extra-special coming from Steven.
Anyway, earlier this year, he emailed me and sent me an unreleased recording he made as Bass Communion, which was a 20+ minute guitar-based drone piece. He didn’t know what to do with it and basically said I could use it in my own music and do whatever I wanted with it. I used a short segment of his track as a kind of texture/starting point and eventually added my own “guitar” section, chords, melody etc. and it morphed into ‘Redshift’ a few weeks later. The funny thing is, I say “guitar” in inverted commas because it’s not actually a guitar I used at all. It’s a distorted synthy lead/bassline, which again, goes into that whole real/synthetic thing, adding an extra dimension to what was there previously. It’s ironic, because he was using his guitar to sound like a synth and I was using a synth to sound like a guitar! It sounds totally different to what he sent me, but I really liked how it eventually turned out and hopefully he does too.
Could you imagine working with more instruments in the future? Which instruments do you think could complement your sound? Can you play any real instruments?
I’ll work with absolutely anything as long as it helps me reach my end goal. ‘Play’ for example uses a distorted Wurlitzer 200A piano as the main melody, whereas ‘Always’ uses a phased Hammond Organ. I don’t play any acoustic instruments in the traditional sense, but it has never hindered me on a practical level. I learnt how music works by listening to music, experimenting, researching, finding my own way of understanding how it was made etc. I’m sure my methods would horrify purists, but I don’t care about any of that anyway. I make music for myself and do what feels the most natural to me.
With a single exception – ‘Mist’ with Black Swan – you have not done any collaborations so far. Is there anyone you would like to work with?
The collab with Black Swan was interesting. We bounced fully-rendered mixdowns to each other, adding bits to it each time. It was a unique way of doing things, because we didn’t have access to each other’s multi-track sequence or individual stems. It meant that whatever me or him bounced down, we had to work with by over-dubbing. I sometimes like setting artificial limits, as they often force you to do interesting things with what you have. It turned out really well in my opinion and we promised to work with each other again, when we find the time.
Generally though, I’m not really interested too much in collaborations. I’ve discussed it a few times in the past and said that artists mostly make their best music alone and undisturbed. Maybe it’s a little anti-social, but there’s nothing really social about studio production anyway. It’s just the artist, finding a means to an end, getting what is inside their head onto the computer/mixing desk, usually with a lot of trial and error. I’m sure many other artists would totally disagree, but if you and your collaborator are on totally different wavelengths, with no unified vision of where you want the track to go, it’ll probably end up being a disappointment that tarnishes both of your names in the process. I’m happy doing my own thing for now. It’d be pretty strange to argue with myself, after all.
You are making music to keep people awake whilst they’re trying to sleep. Do you listen to music before you go to sleep or while you are asleep? What tracks are keeping you up nowadays?
I can’t sleep to any kind of music playing in the background. It just makes my mind race and I start having stupid production-related thoughts, like how did the artist make this sound, what reverb did he use on that snare, what would I do differently etc.. haha. It’s just no good and because sleep is something I enjoy, I don’t want my over-active brain interfering with it.
You create your own album artwork as well, which also suggests a tremendous creativity on your visual side. The style is memorable, unique and recognizable – how do you make all these covers and what is the story behind them?
Well, as I mentioned previously, graphic design is my main job. I spent 5 years studying it and continue to do work in the field both professionally and personally, so it’s just a natural extension of who I am. The principles of design and music are very similar. At its core, both are about layering and sequencing, making the images, type or sounds work in harmony with each other. More than that, the artwork should be an extension of the music and vice-versa. The Germans call it Gesamtkunstwerk. There’s a natural symbiosis between the arts and are all equally important to me. Each cover has its own story, but I like to work with ambiguous, amorphous imagery, which leaves room for interpretation and lets the listener find their own meanings from it. I love reading stories about how other people visualise my music, which is often the complete opposite to how I imagined it when I originally made the tracks. I don’t think it’s right for me to tell them their understanding of the sound is wrong, which is why I tend to avoid using explicit imagery, which leaves little room for other people’s interpretations. It’s the same with liner notes. I prefer to let the listener make their own story.
What is your favourite album cover?
Bola – Fyuti, designed by Michael England. I still have the picture discs framed on my wall. Utterly gorgeous. I met him in Manchester a few years back and he told me it took him ages to get the colours right. It’s just perfect and beautiful. Great album too. SKAM is a fantastic label and I am lucky to have met a lot of the guys who work with them.
Who would you like to read an interview with on Sounds Of A Tired City?
FSOL. I love reading Garry’s ramblings and all the stories about him and Brian’s career. There was this retrospective interview with them a while back, where they discuss the production of ‘Papua New Guinea’ and its impact on the music industry. It’s one of my favourite tunes of all time and Garry has a brilliant way with words. I’m sure a lot of people would find him quite difficult in person, but him and Brian are just ridiculously influential and I think they’re great.