As If. No Mixtapes! Vol. 2: Thomas Ragsdale

Thomas Ragsdale‘s music is in part introspective, subtle, beautiful and restrained, using space and echo to bring the listener gently into a new reality – a reality that is built of shimmering lights and ethereal glows. Partly this, partly droney darkness, fraught with eeriness, hypnotic basslines and pounding kicks; and partly also post-rocky chords and melodies layered with nostalgic ambience. His sound is multifaceted and ever developing, though every piece has the common trait of being very cinematic, building an aural landscape for the listener’s mind to discover and explore. Take ‘As the Rain Went on Falling‘, one of my favourites off Thomas’ 2015 album: Bait.

Starting gradually, and slowly building with an almost unnoticeable crescendo, this minimalistic piece evolves into huge choral chants that take on almost satanic overtones for the climax and then fades almost instantly; the next track on the album is called, rather aptly: ‘Take a Look at God’s Face‘.

If you are a keen As If. disciple you may remember our previous article reviewing Thomas’ performance supporting Tropic of Cancer at St John on Bethnal Green (in which we described him as ‘punk as f*ck‘!). The energy exhibited in his performances is innate in all of his productions, which are at times so organic sounding that they seem to take on a life of their own! For instance take the following track, his 2016 single: ‘Blüdhaven‘…

It’s sparse, slow and processional, and over the 12 minutes builds from just a single bass pulse into a vast soundscape with a coldwave/synthwave feel, all the while sounding like the climax of a super futuristic sci-fi movie.

Thomas is also one half of ambient/post-rock/techno outfit Worriedaboutsatan alongside Gavin Miller, with whom he also runs imprint This Is It Forever with releases from Sunset Graves, Thomas, Gavin and worriedaboutsatan amongst others. We contacted Thomas for an interview and mixtape and he replied with the mix above which is (in his words): “…based around my favourite singers and my favourite uses of the human voice.”…The mix is a true blend of very different styles and genres.

AS IF: When did you start producing music?

Thomas Ragsdale: I started to seriously think about producing around twelve years ago when I’d left university and managed to get hold of some pirated music software and a cheap PC. I didn’t have any other equipment apart from a guitar and I was using Reason and Pro Tools to record audio and make beats. Ironically, when I was studying music I didn’t have any desire to make music at all, but when I finished it was all I could think about.

 What was the first style of music you started to produce?

I went in for glitchy/ambient/IDM/electronica kind of stuff, trying to imitate Autechre and 65daysofstatic. I hadn’t really been going to clubs and so I didn’t know about techno, I was more into electronica and making it as ‘jittery’ and awkward as possible! If you look up ‘The Butterfly Effect‘ by worriedaboutsatan you can hear my first ever production.

 What did you start listening to when you were younger?

My teen years were all about metal… And classical guitar. I had a good diet of Deftones, Tool, Machine Head, System Of A Down and Slayer to feed my teen angst and appetite of finding the heaviest riff of all time. I REALLY wanted to be a serious classical guitarist and I was practicing for a few hours per day, but it never really went anywhere! I ended up swapping the nylon strings for an Ibanez in drop C tuning.

 Has producing music shaped your taste? And if so how?

Definitely. It’s opened my eyes to more techniques of writing music, which naturally leads on to discovering more music. I also meet a lot of musicians at gigs and I get introduced to new sounds that way. When I’m writing music I’m refining why I like music and that takes me down specific paths for my listening time. So if I’m making a lot of ambient/droney kind of stuff I’ll get back into searching for that kind of music to draw influence from.

What instruments do you play / what equipment do you use?

I play the guitar quite a lot and I like keyboards too. I try and keep everything as fun as possible, and if I can’t get some interaction from equipment I don’t use it. I’ve never been a fan of equipment that doesn’t have buttons/switches on as I get bored easily. At the moment I’m keeping things minimal and mainly using my guitar and a keyboard; and I’m now experimenting a lot more with my voice. I quite like making loops of noise, so that’s quite a big part of my set up in the studio and also when I play live.

Do you use any nonconventional instruments in your productions?

To be honest, I don’t! I’m quite boring in that respect! However, I think I use regular instruments in nonconventional ways and I like to get strange sounds from my voice or the guitar.

How would you characterise your solo music in terms of style / influence?

This is a tough one, but I would say it’s definitely on the creepy side of music. I usually tell people ‘I make very eerie electronic music, and it’s great for film trailers’! It’s atmospheric, organic and intense. I think because a lot of the music I write and release is for films I get a lot of variety and different tones within my tracks. I don’t really follow any ‘rules’ when I’m writing, so I don’t feel easily categorised. I’m influenced by anything that’s violent, ethereal and emotional, whether that comes from doom metal or early 20th century classical music. I can take something good out of (almost) all music.

What are your favourite labels at the moment?

Obviously This Is It Forever (my own label!). Haha, but seriously my favourite labels at the moment are Death Waltz, Maeve, Informa, ГОСТ ЗВУК, Burning Witches, Spun Out Of Control, Just This, Dystopian, Indigo Area, Holy Roar, Ahrpe, Front & Follow, Ghostbox and Concrète.

What’s you favourite radio station?

Obviously Bloop London (were I do a regular show!). Again, seriously I LOVE Mary Anne Hobbs’ shows, Scuba’s podcast, Thea’s NTS show and Throwing Shade’s NTS show.

Your mix is on the theme of human voices but there is a huge range of genres from metal to grime via techno. We love that concept of having a nonconventional way to characterise music. How important is genre to you when you’re producing?

No importance at all to me. I don’t consider any genre when I’m writing music, I just focus on the sound and what comes out of my mind on the day/night. Sometimes I have started out writing ambient music and it has ended up techno. I think as long as the music is true and (literally) sounds good then that’s all that matters. I think when you impose rules you’re going to hit a downward spiral.

There are a few (pleasant) surprises in your mix that I wouldn’t have expected you to listen to given the nature of your music. What do you mainly listen to? What style of music that you listen to do you consider most different to your work?

Thank you! I really don’t want to fall into a certain genre or style when I do mixes or radio shows, so I’m constantly looking for new music or old music that’s new to me (and hopefully other people). I’m trying to listen to EVERYTHING and I have been for quite a few years. I’m trying to read every book, watch every film, eat at every restaurant… And of course listen to all the music I have time for. As I write this I am listening to Joel Mull & Heiko Laux, but I can see that I have some old skool jungle from Krome & Time coming up next. I have a desire to listen to every piece of music in the world, and I find it hard to dislike music as there is good in everything. I mainly listen to things that are extremely intense (and that goes for ambient and heavy music) and that push my listening to the limits. I have been buying lots of records by Lapti, Sim Hutchins, Non Phixion and Monoloc lately and I’ve just discovered rockabilly music based around Halloween, which is AWESOME. I think I’m the complete opposite of rockabilly to be honest, but there is even something in this genre that I’m taking influence from.

The mix showcases the versatility of the human voice as an instrument very well. How did you decide on that as a theme? How important are vocals in your productions?

I’m just starting to use my voice in my tracks, so I’m listening to vocals a lot more at the moment and taking notes on how people use their voices. I’m a TERRIBLE singer, so I’m looking into ways I can ‘sing’, but not completely ruin a gig!

We saw you perform in St Johns on Bethnal Green. The acoustics were incredible! Had you ever performed in a space like that before?

I haven’t! And I loved it. It was an amazing experience and the venue was VERY forgiving for my kind of music. There’s something about churches that’s brilliant for ambient music.

There’s a lot of atmosphere and space in your productions, how do you create that? How important do you think the use of space (reverb, stereo width etc) is in music?

I think the secret is to focus on a few ideas and not have too many sounds. It can really make your music ‘muddy’ I find. And yes, using A LOT of reverb definitely helps! I don’t use any special software to make music and I don’t really know how to use EQs, compressors, limiters etc to mix music. I do everything by ear and if it sounds good I keep it in.

From what I gather you grew up in Yorkshire (but correct me if I’m wrong). How much inspiration do you draw from your surroundings when making music?

There is a lot of inspiration from my surroundings. I live in a very small Yorkshire village called Honley and there are a lot of farms and woods here. I have a dog and we like to walk around 5 km per day, so I can listen to an album or two during the mornings. I’ve come across some beautiful walks that have breathtaking views and I record a lot of nature sounds around the area. At night the area comes alive with owls and sparrow hawks all howling at each other. Apparently there is a wolf here, but I haven’t seen it yet.
I’m also the loudest person in the village by a long way.

You worked with Gavin Miller on worriedaboutsatan before your more recent solo productions. How do you think your work is different when working on solo projects?

I don’t think it’s hugely different really. Writing music is the most fun thing I can ever do, so just the idea of writing more and playing more gigs is perfect for my lifestyle! I think working solo is a very precise way of working, whereas working in a duo or a band is more involving. It’s hard to ‘jam’ on your own, and you don’t get the visual interaction. I think writing music on your own is good for discovery and it’s very meditative, especially if you’re going with the flow for a few hours.

Also, where did the band name come from and how was it formed?

The band name is taken from a b-side of the band dEUS. Gavin was in a post rock band who were looking for another guitarist and I was living with their drummer at that time. I ‘auditioned’ and it went well, but the band only lasted a few months. Gavin then came to me with some electronica demos he’d written and we started from there.

Tell us a bit about The Hagg the included photos, the name etc.

Originally it was written for a short film (that’s up on my YouTube page) that came out in July. It’s a very simple piece of music and only took around an hour or so to complete. I’m very much into elaborate packaging and I like to bundle items with the releases I do. I collect old photographs and thought these might fit the style of music well. The Hagg is the name of a house near to where I live. There’s a picture of it on my Facebook page too. It’s currently for sale at £800,000 and I’m waiting for someone to kindly buy all of my CDs so I can buy it.

How do you see your sound changing / developing in future?

I can feel an urge to go darker and heavier in the near future! I’m working on some music right now that has some extremely low guitar tunings and a lot of distortion. I also want to find a way to use my voice more too, so maybe I’ll try some chanting or something choral. But I’m not 100% sure until I get in the studio, and I like it like that!

Your music has a lot of electronic and acoustic elements. Are those sounds created naturally with acoustic instruments or synthesised? Do you think all electronic music should contain acoustic sounds?

Yes, they’re all recorded acoustically. I try to record as much as I can with instruments, but I do like working with a computer too in shaping sounds. I definitely don’t think all electronic music should contain acoustic sounds though, and I have written a lot of music purely ‘electronic’. Some music just doesn’t warrant acoustic sounds.

What do you think of the vinyl craze?

This is a tough one! I think as long as the music is good then that’s great, and that’s all I’m interested in. I don’t quite understand why labels don’t release their music digitally as I can’t walk in fields with a record player. It can be a very selfish and snobby way of consuming music. It’s also very expensive, and I don’t believe in excluding people from hearing music these days because they can’t afford a £15 record. I don’t think you should punish people like that as they could end up being pioneering music makers.

Do you go to techno parties and, if so, what’s the best one you’ve ever been to?

I do, yes! I used to DJ and release a lot of techno on labels like Acid Test, Skint and Chiwax under the name Winter Son. I’ve played a lot of club gigs. I’m not sure on the best though, it’s impossible to think! I think Dave Clarke at the MINT club, Leeds in 2003 was a good one though, although the memory is slightly blurry.

Sounds like a great night …Thanks!

Thomas is currently touring and will be playing an experimental AV set at the Seabright Arms, East London on Sunday 1st October which will include visuals programmed by himself. RSVP HERE.

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