Centres is one of the most overwhelming albums to be released this year. It's an intensely personal listening experience, one that allows and provokes you to take your mind wandering through itself, leaving it entirely up to you how far you travel. We asked Ian William Craig to talk us through the album track by track, with the hope of adding to the deep emotional connection that we already have with the music he makes. I hope that you also find what you are looking for.


Contain (Astoria Version)

I actually don't remember writing this. The beginning actually has no beginning as it turns out. I remember making a bit of a hash of it in the studio, recording several different versions of it that I was not really stoked on. I remember listening to a lot of Phil Elverum at the time and I think I unknowingly quoted him in the lyrics. I remember the ending of this was a live set I performed at the Astoria in Vancouver. I remember placing four different synth lines with completely different tempi on top of one another and it finally sounded right. And I remember that the auto-tune was the genius work of my engineer Marek Joseph. But this one is a bit vague around the edges, which I think is probably appropriate for a song trying its best not to contain things.


A Single Hope

I was involved with a woman whose life had been taken over by an eating disorder for many years. At the time, I was reading a lot about the difference between western composition and eastern composition. The author (broadly) noted that western composers start with nothing and place notes into a piece whereas eastern composers will start with everything and either coax notes out of totality or subdue the parts of totality that are not needed until a piece comes out. And so, at the risk of speaking out of my depth, the single hope in this song was my way of trying to understand how my partner's life came to be how it was, how the compulsion she had came out of a desire to belong and be whole and continued to be this. One day I understood that she was not separate from the things that troubled her in this way, that this is what had been pulled out of her totality. I hope she is okay.


Drifting to Void on All Sides

Sitting down to write this I realise how difficult it is to unpack each of the pieces. They are like chemical reactions that have already happened, the constituent meanings within them forever lost in an alchemical blaze. My approach to composing is a layered one, placing fragments one on top of another until something reveals itself, or making space by way of erasure for something else to land. I am terrible at prediction, being much better at responding to something I can hear. Most pieces end up in a shipwrecked soup somewhere and I throw them back into the kiln. I'm reminded of a lamentation I read long ago, saying that we no longer know how to make stained glass as vibrant as it once was because the ingredients were never properly recorded. We are left in the ignorant present to stare in awe at churches made of impossible hues. And so I enjoy not knowing what I am doing for the most part – I'm way better at dumb awe than record keeping.


The Nearness

I booked my friend's studio for a day to record sixteen small tape recorders with loops in them as they slowly failed. You can hear it at the end of the song. We took several of his beautiful beautiful microphones, set one up on each, turned them all on. It took about two hours for the majority of them to either snap their tapes or run out of batteries. A slow deteriorating choir of obsolete technology that was once cutting edge. We ask technology to make our hope manifest: into utopia will our new advances finally take us! A future perpetually five years away. Oh I know, technology does a great deal of good to be sure. I will not play the total luddite here. But my apartment is full of discarded devices that promised our past selves this same utopia. We listened, never learned to use them fully, cast them aside for new promises. Everything present will be replaced in this way and we will still look outward. The nearness in this song is about breaking out of this cycle, coming in from things that no longer provide information, looking for meaning here instead of there, or maybe looking at a different way to mean altogether.


Set to Lapse

This song gets to me for some reason. I think it's because it's actually backwards. It's not literally backwards as you hear it, but the process is. Usually I'll start with some lyrical ideas and blur them out and rearrange them and sing them again and they'll be something else by the time we're finished. I'll be able to trace a line back to their beginning though, even if the listener can't. But this song started out being just glossolalia, which is like inspired gibberish, and was improvised on the spot in a room somewhere. The words are not words. I put the song away. Listening back to it, lyrics emerged in my head out of the meaninglessness of the vocal line, and I wrote them out, and they actually made an eerie sort of sense, as though this song went from jumble to unexpected clarity rather than clarity to unexpected jumble. These hands are set to lapse, never knowing to say when. Not sure what it means but it was haunting to hear.


Power Colour Spirit Animal

Tape decks are generous machines as long as one is not expectant with them. The signal that goes into them is an actual tangible thing, and they therefore don't give any thought at all to how that signal moves around within them. They don't have anything resembling thought at all, they just are. Putting signal where it's not supposed to go might fry something irrevocably, but since nothing is being emulated like on a computer, that signal will continue on its journey and end up somewhere actual instead of merely throwing an E up on a screen somewhere. I love the sound of these machines overloading, taxing, unknowing, rediscovering themselves. Singing at them and into them helps me understand my own edges, helps me rely on thought less and less, helps me to be okay when something within me becomes unusable forever, like melody lines or memories I used to have.


Arrive, Arrive

A dear friend I met in art school lives in Gothenburg and some years ago I visited him out on the coast of Sweden. One of his schoolmates was performing a piece where a bus line, a location, a duration and a conversational topic were all picked at random using dice, and we would go there as dictated, wander the given route, chat or not chat as instructed, and return. It struck me as quite poetic, calling into question our preconceived notions of arriving anywhere at all. How do we know we have arrived when our intention to be somewhere is formed by chance? What schema should we therefore use to measure the success of our movements? It donned on me in some literally random part of Gothenburg that arrival is either impossible or continuous, and that chance fuels more of our interactions than we care to admit, so I wrote a song celebrating never going anywhere, or rather constantly just only going everywhere always.


A Circle Without Having to Curve

Here is a small list of locations this track was recorded in: a small forest beside a train-yard, two lovely recording studios with cedar walls in Vancouver, New Brighton Park, some random classrooms in UBC, a darkroom, a particularly nice-sounding corner of my apartment. I think the recordings themselves span about four years, and include the use of a Prophet, three big circuit-bent reel to reels plugged into one another, a mangled old Audiotronics deck, a Loopstation, a customised Sony deck whose insides I mercilessly prodded, and lots of tape and glue and patience. The whole thing is a bit of a drawing, maybe a bit more like collage, but I prefer drawings to collages so I'll go with that instead. It might be finished, it might not be, but it has shown up here either way.


An Ocean Only You Could See

The modifications I make to the decks are mostly to do with their heads. These are the parts that imbue the sound into the tape and lift it back off again for us to hear. You can think of the sound going into them as water through a hose. When the heads function normally, the flow is as expected, but when the flow is impeded, the sound gets trapped or fails or sprays out somewhere unpredictable. Feeding a single loop of tape through multiple decks that have been modified in this way produces the decaying you hear on the vocals in this track. The sound is lost as it spills out over the edges of the container, cycles through, transforms, is lost further, becomes something else entirely.


Purpose (Is No Country)

Despite being labelled an opera singer, my background is more within the realm of the choral tradition than opera. But being anything at all is rather strange, and is really just our way of sensing pattern from the nothingness we are surrounded by. Labels can be equal parts generative and dangerous. Whether I am a choral singer or an opera singer though, I am through and through a perfectionist, and so I confess I have spent a great deal of energy looking for justification and commendation and in so doing will forget what sent me joyfully out into the woods in the first place. For this I apologise. John Cage's ideas come up a lot with me, and his notion of purposeful purposelessness is one that resonates at times when I imprison myself in my own bag of labels and tricks. I wrote this song as something to remind me that over there is never better than over here, the past is never as good as I remember, we can be whatever we want and are indeed that thing right now, and sitting in a university bathroom with a tape deck laying down harmonies all weekend is as good a way to spend one's time as any.


It Need Not be Hopeless

I purchased a wire recorder from a man next to a bus stop during my evening commute one day. Other than it being a hundred bucks, he didn't know what it was. I sort of only half knew what it was. Turns out it's a device that predated tape as a way to record sound, using instead thin filaments of wire. It's brutal stuff. Requires hands that are far steadier than mine to operate. But it makes everything sound like it's eating cereal too loudly inside of a tin can inside of a fire, and that makes me happy, and in this song you can witness it electrically stumbling over itself as I feed it endless fumbling wire.


Innermost

It's hard to know what to do when you can do anything. Cutting the variables off at a certain point to impose a set of creative boundaries is something I learned in my time as a printmaker, and can be a paradoxically freeing creative technique. Upon reflection, this is another thing that choosing to use analogue tape provides, otherwise I get lost thinking about what could be and never return. I forget to call, my mother gets worried. And so I endeavour to stick to my own walls, even if they are arbitrary, in order that at least some documentation exists and not just the billowing idea of everything, even if it is everything that one aspires to describe.


Contain (Cedar Version)

I usually don't write songs, just scaffolds – things that I can drape myself over and fill in as the present moment requests. Most of my compositions are landing pads. I hardly ever finish things, or consider things to be finished even when they are far beyond my ability to tinker with them into oblivion. This song, for example, is the same structure as the first song on the album, but they don't share very much in common except a core idea. I rewrote the whole of it, improvised in a single take after making and remaking it countless times, and I thought including it here as a bookend was a fitting way to clarify how no idea or explanation is ever really finished. The lens shifts, the tape flakes off, an entirely new glow reveals itself, and so on and so on for always.


Ian William Craig plays the following live dates:

  • Aug 8th - Fuse, Bradford, UK
  • Aug 10th - Cafe Kino, Bristol, UK
  • Aug 11th - Cafe Oto, London, UK
  • Aug 12th - Glad Cafe, Glasgow, UK
  • Aug 14th - Flow Festival, Helsinki, FI
  • Aug 22nd - Feeerieen Festival, Brussels, BE
  • Aug 23rd - Venue TBA, Prague, CZ
  • Aug 24th Acud Macht Neu, Berlin, DE
  • Aug 25th - Jazzhouse, Copenhagen, DK

Centres was released last Friday, you can buy it here, and you should. Or you can stream it on Spotify if you're one of those people.