Exteriors (released April 27) is the second release by International Debris on Arachnidiscs, though the first under that moniker. Ross Baker previously provided a side of a split-tape with Tranzmit under their own name. The UK-based genderqueer musician has worked in various styles over various aliases, but generally falls into the category of sound collage, tying together acoustic and electronic instruments with field recordings and samples. Baker refers to their sound as ‘horizon music’, signifying a recurring theme of open space and a fascination with that which we only know from a distance. In an attempt to lessen that distance and get to know them better, I asked them spare some time for a chat.
Ross Baker: Feel quite tempted to answer every question with ‘yes’, ‘no’, etc., just to be awkward
Jakob Rehlinger: How very Jesus and Mary Chain of you.
RB: Did you ever see that Sigur Ros interview?
JR: I don’t think I ever have.
RB: It’s worth five minutes of your time at some point*.
JR: I’ll watch that later. Speaking of music history, Exteriors is an album that collects a bunch of your own musical history, from 2002-2018, as well you’ve just embarked on a reissue campaign. Why is keeping your past alive important to you?
RB: I really like chronology, I think. I think the best art, whatever medium, has to be able to stand up in its own right, but at the same time it’s also really interesting to hear things in context. It can be fascinating to compare an album with the two albums found either side of it. So that’s something I want to represent in my own catalogue.
I’ve also been through a long period of self-doubt that’s caused me to continually reassess past releases and change their tracklists and such, countless times in some cases, and having come out of that and made some peace with my past, it’s nice to be able to present ‘definitive’ versions of the albums I suppose.
Exteriors came together because I basically released I had a bunch of tracks that never found a home. The bulk of them all had a similar theme which never became an album in its own right, and I thought it was about time I actually made that album. I kind of feel like I owe it to my past self, the me who made these tracks at various points over the past fifteen-or-so years.
JR: I do a similar revisionist history thing with my own music for similar reasons. Sometimes I’ll create a new project name to suit the music. Often I only release, or reissue, these as digital files on Bandcamp. You’ve made your reissues physical CDs. Is having them exist as physical objects important to you as well?
RB: I don’t listen to music on my computer. I tried for a while, and I ended up just not enjoying it as much. My CD collection was on the other side of the country so I was restricted to my digitised versions. I was so happy when I finally moved house and got my CD collection back, I just listened to more stuff and enjoyed it more. So I was basically planning a way to make my own copies of my own albums in a way that I could listen to and enjoy, and that basically set the whole thing in motion, gave me a reason to finally make these definitive versions.
As with just about everything, I have a fairly polarised view on it. I’d actually really like to be able to just have a digital collection—it’s cheaper, more space efficient, more environmentally conscious—which is why I like to ensure all my albums are available digitally, because anybody who wants to just have the download version has my blessing! But yeah, I can’t get out of that physical thing. I’m sure my autism comes into it a lot, 25 years of doing something is a hard habit to kick for anyone, but given how rigid my thought processes are, it’s next-to-impossible I think. And I know a lot of other people like having physicals, something to hold, artwork to look at, so I want to offer that to those who want it. But I’ve done it through an on-demand service, which means I don’t end up with a load of unsold copies, and it also discourages people from buying it purely for its ‘limited edition’ collectability, which is something I really dislike. I’ve been thinking of putting my stuff on Spotify, but that’s another can of worms entirely… [The first run of Exteriors sold-out on the day of release. There are still a few copies of the ‘limited’ second edition available.]
JR: My attitude on that is people can stream it off Bandcamp if they want. Maybe Bandcamp needs to tweak their app a little more to make it more appealing to Spotify users, I’m not sure. But I feel like it’s there already and people can go stuff themselves if they want my own or Arachnidiscs artists’ music basically for free on the platform most convenient to them.
RB: I suppose the thing Spotify has is a wider audience. It’s more streaming in general that I have a weird relationship with, because—ignoring the financial side of it all—the one thing it’s doing is killing the idea of a record collection. If you have a paid Spotify account, or whatever service you want to use, then you effectively have access to most music, and it cuts that idea of curation out. I’ve never been that much into music ‘culture’ in a lot of ways, but one thing that’s always appealed to me is the curation of a record collection and how it reflects a person. You can look at someone’s shelves or iTunes library and it’s full of memories, associations, reflections of their personality and quirks… with Spotify, you effectively ‘own’ your favourite album alongside ones you hate.
[CDs from Ross’s curated collection via Instagram]
JR: You mentioned your autism. Obviously, you’ll have no perspective on what it’s like not having autism. But how do you think it informs the way you, as opposed to neurotyptical musicians, make music?
RB: How does being autistic inform my music… I suppose I make my music to soundtrack places in my head. I have a very, very detailed geography in my head of where the majority of my albums are ‘set’. This imaginary world is made up of places I’ve been, dreams, things I’ve seen on TV / film and stuff from my own imagination, but it feels very, very real to me. It’s a place I like to retreat to when I need a break from the real world and other people—which is a lot of the time!—and I suppose most of my albums are a way of trying to paint a picture of these places to show other people.
That and my utter lack of ability to collaborate with other people. I’ve done collabs, but the only ones that have worked remotely well are ones where I’ve been given a bunch of material and allowed to take complete control of the project, or where I’ve sent over material and let the other person take control. I can’t do anything halfway because I can’t really comprehend what the other person is thinking. My girlfriend and I have a project and every time we do something it ends up in a row, haha.
JR: I have a similar relationship to collaboration. I’m on the spectrum too, but far, far closer to the center than you are. I either have to be the ringmaster or take a completely subservient role in the jam, to the point I feel like I’m not even contributing anything. Or maybe I’m just a narcissistic asshole. I’ve spent probably over 20 solid years trying to learn how to play empathetically with other people. I think I’m almost there.
RB: Haha yeah, even when I was a kid making tapes with my friends I had to say what the song was about and if anybody deviated I’d get really angry. There’s one song I always remember which has loads of bits where the tape is stopped for me to shout at my mate before pressing record again. It happens about eight times in the same song.
JR: A drummer in one of my bands used to do a good impression of the sideways glare I’d give people when I was unhappy with what they were doing. I never yelled, I’d go very silent and very still.
When you were talking about ‘soundtracks’, that sounds very familiar to me. I can’t imagine anyone not approaching making music that way, but I suspect they do. What’s more interesting to me is your talking of it being an escape. Do you find music, listening and making, an effective therapy?
RB: Music as therapy… listening definitely. It’s always been a way for me to lose myself and just be in the moment, to forget about a lot of my issues. The soundtrack thing doesn’t just go for instrumental music, I also associate a lot of song-based stuff with places in my head. Usually more ‘normal’ ones. A lot of indie records make me think of suburbia, people living normal, balanced lives, having normal relationships, and it’s nice to get lost in that and pretend it’s the life I’m living sometimes. There are some bands who have such a specific sound to me that I can actually picture specific streets and houses that their music sounds like.
Making music can be therapeutic and it can also be a massive nightmare. I go through periods of hideous self-doubt and often end up in the worst moods because I absolutely loathe a track or even several weeks or months worth of output. Most of it I make my peace with at some point, but it can be really, really difficult at times. I’ve actually been using music making as part of a routine recently, though, just working on some every day regardless of how it comes about. Having that structure in my day has helped me cope with anxiety.
JR: Getting back to Spotify and the idea of curation. I think the average person has never historically been into the idea of curating a music collection. It just used to be owning records was the only way to access your favourite songs. I think the average person secretly resented it, and that was proven to be true with Napster and now Spotify. And that’s fine. I just bristle when someone, who hasn’t bought a download or cassette emails me to say my music is important to them, and when am I putting it up on Spotify? I bristle, I tell you. Curation, though. My CD collection is definitely fueled by a mild OCD. It definitely comforts me to collect discographies. It’s something that also causes me anxiety and I have to monitor myself.
RB: I agree with you about the average listener, but I think there are a lot of music fans who would be the sort to curate a collection who use Spotify instead. Again, I have contradictory views. I have huge respect for people who are able to cast off possessions, who are able to live happily with as few things as possible—it’s something I try and do myself— but at the same time I do think what we collect over the years can also become part of us in a good way too. If all we do is rent then at the end of it we end up with nothing.
I’ve spent the last six or so years battling with some horrible OCD, my brain starts telling me I’ll never be happy with my CD collection the way it is, which stops me from enjoying music at all, so I’ve ended up selling stuff only to regret it and want to buy it back again. It’s been really bad at times—I’ve ended up in hospital—but I’m gradually getting on top of it. I think that’s how these anxiety conditions work, they latch on to the most important things. At one point I went from owning about 1,500 CDs to about 200. Then I had a moment of enlightenment and this huge “What the hell have I done?!” feeling. I sort of reacted against having complete discographies, partially inspired by what I was saying about not owning things you don’t need—why the hell would I actually want a copy of David Bowie’s Tonight?—and that got out of hand until I was just getting rid of anything I didn’t absolutely love at that exact moment in time. The human brain is absurd and I have no idea how we’ve lasted this long as a species sometimes.
JR: I’ve done that so, so many times. I mean, I have gladly not owned a copy of Tonight for years. But I’m back up to 3000-ish CDs from 200. It’s that owning objectively terrible albums by your favourite artists that gets you. Now I just accept, yes, I do need to own Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s second album that I’ll never listen to again. But not Tonight. No. Never again.
RB: After Bowie’s death I thought it was time for a reassessment of his catalogue. I’d sold everything but Low and Outside at some point, despite liking a considerable number of them. So I bought them all back, and then Tonight, Never Let Me Down, Black Tie White Noise, Hours, etc. All got sold about a week later. I try and think “Can I genuinely see myself listening to this in five years time?” when purchasing an album these days. None of those Bowie albums would have passed a ‘five minutes’ test, let alone five years.
JR: Oops. Wait a minute. I was confusing Tonight with Never Let Me Down. I actually quite like Tonight. Well, the singles from it anyway. But not enough to own it. Up until The Next Day and Black Star, singles collections are generally the way to go for his post-Scary Monsters period .
RB: That feeling of doubting your own music taste though, it’s absolutely horrible. I’ve never known anybody else who had it, so it’s strangely relieving to know somebody else has been there.
JR: I never exactly doubt my musical taste. I’m too egotistical on some level to deeply doubt my convictions. But I sometimes fall into a tailspin of wondering what is the point of owning music at all. That maybe the idea that any of it ‘matters’ is just an illusion and I feel like a fool for devoting so much of my life to it. It’s more that because I’m bored of something in the moment erroneously assume I’m over it for good. I always over estimate my own judgement.
RB: Yeah, it can be easy to confuse ‘I don’t like this’ with ‘I’m not in the mood for this at the moment’, especially if you’re not in a great place and looking for stuff to sell. I’ve applied a similar inaccurate thought process to my own music, which is how I ended up re-structuring my own albums in the past, and why the whole definitive version thing seemed so necessary. There are albums of mine like cer and Eyebrook which I realised are actually pretty damn good, and yet at one point I didn’t even have them on my Bandcamp.
JR: At the moment of creation, everything I do is the most brilliant thing I’ve ever done. Some previously ‘brilliant’ things are the most embarrassing and are now hidden in a vault permanently.
RB: There are a number of releases conspicuously absent from my definitive reissues series for the very same reason hahaha.
JR: It’s always great when you can see the brilliance in your previously perceived failures though.
RB: Making peace with an old album I thought I hated is always a really lovely moment. If I had to make a ‘top 5 of my own albums’ list I’d definitely put Eyebrook in there now. It’s probably the one I’ve listened to most in the last year or so. Funny how these things happen.
JR: It’s a pretty good allegory for life too.
RB: Yeah, I try not to judge too much these days, I’m happier just letting things be, and letting myself gain pleasure from them as and when it comes around. Be that music or… whatever else. It’s usually music for me.
JR: That sounds like a good note to end on.
RB: And there was me waiting for the “why did you utilise that particular synth sequence in track 7” type questions.
JR: No one cares about that.
RB: I care about that! I always get excited when an artist mentions a particular song in an interview. It’s something to get nerdy about. “Oh wow, that song was written two years before the rest”. That’s what life’s all about.
*Note: This Sigur Ros interview which Ross mentions above is the exact reason I try not to ask questions about writing process and recording technique.