Tim Shaw aka Tim Exile sits in a bar in Berlin’s creative hub, Friedrichshain, winding down after an extensive day of programming.
Warp Records’ new protégé moved from hectic London to blissed-out Berlin, which helped him craft the unique sound as heard on his latest album ‘Listening Tree’, whilst also re-developing his live set up and working on new technology to accommodate it.
With an extensive repertoire Shaw started off with drum & bass productions on legendary labels Moving Shadow and Evol Intent Records. Not content with being confined to the formulaic approach that the drum & bass world succumbed to, his style progressed into more IDM territory, which was predominately released on Mike Paradinas’ Planet Mu label.
Whilst this was happening, Tim worked on new technology and software to help him craft the sounds and ideas that were in his head. Working alongside product developers Native Instruments, Tim Shaw has helped develop some of today’s most common software packages and is behind the latest NI release, ‘The Finger’, coming September 16th.
The software package allows users to key in different effects with the use of a solitary finger.
If anyone has the had the luck of catching a live Tim Exile show over the past five years they will tell you that it is an electronic cabaret of extreme proportions, that engages the audience, by sampling them and using them as part of the piece. As he says, “It’s all about the performance.”
Recently his sound has progressed from experimental IDM to more melodies, and he has won over a new global fan base. “It’s all just a process of growing old,” he says.
We met Tim Shaw to find out more.
Has moving from Planet Mu to Warp affected your approach to production?
It might have done at first, but not anymore. I suppose my approach to recording is changing anyway so it’s difficult to say. My approach is changing all the time.
I suppose it always does to a certain extent. It’s almost a psychological thing when you get to the bigger label and you take into account those things.
There’s always a period of re-adjustment and then it takes a while to adjust. So I feel I’ve been through my adjustment period.
By adjustment, you mean progressing from when you were making more challenging music with Planet Mu, to more ‘radio friendly’ music that appeals to more people? How come you ended up down that route?
I think it’s the natural process of growing old and getting over the hill. I think moving from doing really extreme music is kind of like moving on from wanking to having sex. The first one is totally introverted, and it pleases you and indulges all of your own fantasies. At the other side of the spectrum you engage people more.
It’s what I’ve wanted to do increasingly because the life of an extreme musician is limited and there’s not much joy in it. There’s great satisfaction in making sections of highly-tweaked music but then it becomes harder to communicate with people and not with just music, but also socially.
Would you say that’s why your live set up has changed – to engage more people?
I feel it’s actually changed less than it has before. But where I am now I’m sort of planning a new phase of changes.
Certainly for a lot of shows I’m going to throw away a lot of the improvisations.
How much of your shows are actually based around improvisations?
Everything that isn’t one of the songs on the album, which is about 60 – 70% of the set is completely improvised.
I mean there is absolutely nothing there. Recently I’ve been putting in loops of other peoples tracks, and fixing in and doing mash ups. But before that it was all improvised and I’m beginning to realise that that was more of the “wanking” train of thought rather than the “bonking” train of thought.
I want to “bonk”, not “wank”.
Can you summarise how your live set up has changed over time. When I first saw you it was basically a laptop with a few external control units and now you seem to have several mixing units and a whole world of buttons and levers?
It started off five or six years ago making music, mixing tracks together with this kind of finger mashing. I eventually started adding more channels and controllers and more lively things. Eventually drum machines, synths and a second laptop came along until it become too unwieldy and spaghetti like. So I threw that one out and built a brand new thing.
One of the things I wanted was to not be behind a laptop. Which kind of at the time was a real issue for me, as there were lots of people stuck behind laptops, but maybe today people have become less concerned about it and it has become more acceptable.
I wanted to have my box of tricks in front of me and have all my controls there and all my information. Like Daedulus, his show works really well because he’s not stuck behind a laptop, he’s got this thing and it’s his show and it’s a performance.
What does it actually involve now?
It’s just controls; everything runs off the laptop, there’s three different midi controllers, loads of knobs and faders, keyboards, a joystick, and drum pads.
Video: A live improvisation session with Tim Exile
Who’s got the most knobs and buttons then, out of you and Daedulus?
Well Daedulus doesn’t have any knobs as such, but he’s got lots of buttons. He’s probably got more buttons, but then I have a keyboard which has 49 buttons. But we’ve never had a showdown or anything.
Where do you want to go with your live performances?
At the moment if I want to change loads of things at once, I have to press 20 things at once and that’s impossible. With the performance, improvisation…it’s really difficult. It has quite a few limitations.
So I’m gonna change it so I can actually write and perform songs and the machine is a bit more automated and a bit more behind the scenes. Such that I can do all the live sampling, all the live sequencing and so on but instead of having to think all the time where’s the machine at and how I’m going to do all of these things at once, you can be precise and say in eight bars time I can go to the chorus, then the drums will drop out and then this effect will come in and then the voice process will change and then harmonise and get the machine to do all this stuff.
Is there anyone you look up to for inspiration for this set up?
Beardyman, he’s really good. He’s got the whole performing thing down, making it a real performance. He does a similar sort of thing, obviously he’s mainly a beatboxer.
He plans things, he has structures and he knows how to interact with crowds. Then there were Jamie Liddel’s older sets, but when he was jamming it was less structured. I would love to be able to sing like Jamie but that will never happen.
No John Michel Jarre then?
No. There are people who inspire me, but I don’t feel like I’m following a particular path or trail that someone else has already trodden. I just basically do my own thing, but I would say Beardyman is my benchmark.
You seem to have become more comfortable with your own voice and are using it more live. Did this come naturally?
Less naturally than I’d hoped. I used to sing loads at school, I was in a choir and everything.
I think it has lots to do with the fact that because I spent so much time behind a computer that the whole of my upper body has become like a brick because it’s so tense and when you’re singing you need to be the complete opposite and relaxed. It takes a ridiculous amount of warming up and exercise over weeks before I can actually sing well. But it’s definitely getting better I think.
On the last album my singing sounded a bit self conscious, it sounds a bit nervous and I want to chill out a bit and not feel bound to pop song structures.
And is there a new album in the pipeline?
I’m in the planning phase at the moment, yes.
In comparison to your live work, do you prefer one to the other or do you appreciate them in different ways?
Definitely both in different ways.
My priority at the moment is to bring the two closer together. That basically centres around the machine, my instrument. At the moment my machine is optimised for live performance and improvising and not for performing songs. I mean I have the backing tracks from the album on there, but that’s bollocks really and it’s not how I want to be performing.
It comes down to the machine, developing various technologies that are optimised for song writing. Basically developing technology that isn’t around at the moment.
And tell us about the software package you’ve been working on?
It’s called The Finger and it’s basically an effect and you play it on the keyboard.
It’s got a bunch of different effects, it has a loop, a scratch, distortion, reverb, delays.
It’s super playable and you can either tweak it out a bit or go really crazy on it. You can do IDM crazy hyper edits, then hit quantise on what you’ve recorded and then you’ve got instant cut up IDM sound. You can also do much more subtle things.
It’s like a bunch of guitar effect pedals, and when you press a key you plug the audio through this effect pedal and when you release you unplug it and then when you press more keys then it plugs the audio through the effects in that audio. And everything is plugged and unplugged in real time.
It’s not just marketed towards the IDM crowd?
No. You can totally use it for loads of genres.
On the NI website there’s loads of demos. There’s hip hop demos, there’s housey demos. Instead of having to get an effect from your plug in, it’s just there. You put it literally on your master and do a little edit and have a little jam.
It was designed originally for live use but then I adapted it so you could use it in a sequencer as well.