Rian Treanor: interview

Over the next few months we're conducting a series of interviews with those for whom packaging a record is a real labour of love. After kicking off the series by talking to esteemed visual artist/THESIS label boss Gregory Euclide we’ve followed up by interviewing rave innovator Rian Treanor.

To listen to Rian Treanor’s music is to temporarily surrender control of your physical functions. The Sheffield-based producer has spent the past few years developing a helter-skelter style of electronic music, one that makes him stand out even in this post-genre age. His records pull apart the history of rave, pin the segments up on a drawing board, then connect them up with multicoloured string. Footwork, bleep-techno, hardcore, singeli and more are dissected in Treanor’s lab. What emerges is a strange kind of dance music that is at once precision-engineered and erratic, unpredictable. As the title of his 2018 debut LP ‘ATAXIA’ implies, it’ll have your limbs jerking hither and thither.

Treanor has long been a visual artist as well as a music-maker. As well as containing some of the most original club fare we’d heard in years, initial runs of Treanor’s first two EPs ‘A Rational Tangle’ (2015) and ‘Pattern Damage’ (2016) were both notable for featuring artwork screen printed by the man himself. As well as creating the cover artwork for ‘ATAXIA’, he’s also designed sleeves for various other projects, including Slip artist Otto Willberg and ‘n-Dimensional Analysis’, a 2013 EP by his father Mark Fell. Prior to kicking off his musical career he was an active member of the artistic community in our home city of Leeds, helping to found and run the now-defunct studio/gallery/venue ENJOY.

Previous interviews with Treanor have revealed a personality similar to that of his artistry, playful and witty yet also serious about the rigours of what he does. However, while Treanor has spoken on his music in detail, his visual practice has not been as well documented. As such, we thought we’d try and find out a little more about it. Over the course of a forty-minute discussion Treanor went deep with us on DIY beginnings, his inspirations and process, synaesthesia and a good deal else.

FRED: The series is focussed on people who aren’t simply making copies of the same sleeve in a warehouse - those who are screen-printing artwork, say, or people who have a visual practice alongside their music. For instance, we just did one with Gregory Euclide who runs a label called THESIS - he hand-crafts all his sleeves and prints everything himself.

RIAN: It’s an interesting process, everyone you speak to will have a completely different angle. It’s nice to get involved, thanks for asking.

F: Thanks for talking. I’m a fan of your music, and I think a lot of other people are here at Norman. But you started off as a visual artist as well.

R: Yeah, in Leeds actually.

F: I saw you were part of the ENJOY space.

R: Yeah, a couple of us set that up, probably about five or seven years ago. I think we set it up in 2010 actually, shit. 

F: Time flies.

R: I’m in Sheffield at the minute, but I’ve been here and there. I think I moved out of Leeds in 2013, but I was there for seven years or something.

F: It’s a shame ENJOY’s not there any more, I went to a couple things there. That area around Mabgate is changing quite a lot.

R: That building is getting knocked down or renovated or something. Some friends carried on that space after we left and they were there until they got booted out. But it’s good that Hope House have got some money to make their space more permanent, and at least East Street Arts is there too…

F: Yeah that’s something. There’re a lot of people down there, like the Temple Of Boom lot.

R: I think I might’ve moved out of Leeds when that was happening. I think I’ve been there but I don’t know it that well.

F: Now one of the people behind Temple Of Boom and Dominic Clare who runs Declared Sound Mastering upstairs, they’re trying to buy their own complex a bit further out of town, because Mabgate is just turning into flats.

R: It’s a strange area isn’t it. It’s basically in the city centre but just over that ring road it’s a bit of a wasteland. It’s begging to be redeveloped basically. Makes sense. But it’s shit for all the interesting DIY stuff that’s going on.

F: On some level these forces are out of our hands, but you worry for the people who are making their own way there. I was going to ask you about ENJOY. My understanding from having done a bit of reading is that, primarily, you were curating shows there. Is that right?

R: There was a group of us that set it up for an exhibition, we did it out with no money, using found or repurposed materials. We did a couple of shows and made enough money from the bar to pay the next month’s rent, then we just kinda carried on doing that for a few months. In that time we set up some studios and Kayleigh Morris and I ended up managing it full time. Other people came and went, but we were organising the projects or curating or whatever.

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F: In a couple of interviews you’ve said that you came to music relatively late - you had a visual practice and you were doing graffiti, and obviously the curation and management of a studio and events space. Do you feel like working in visual practice and curation influences your music-making on some level? I was thinking partly about how you build synths in [digital audio workstation] Max MSP and how that’s quite a visual way of making music. Do you see a link, do you see one feeding into the other, or are they seperate?

R: There are definite distinctions, like separate process or aesthetic outcomes, but also there are definite ways that they relate. Not necessarily even to do with their aesthetic qualities, it might just be that things are informed by one another. Like I’m really into surrealist performance art, specifically things like Dada or Fluxus. It’s not that I am a surrealist performance artist but in a weird way that might influence some rhythmic idea, like doing something disruptive that’s not just straight down the line. 

In a more direct way, at ENJOY we started off doing weird exhibitions in squats or warehouses, really temporary DIY stuff, and as part of that there’d always be a music element. We got people like EVOL to play, or Tom Knapp [SDEM], or my dad [Mark Fell], all that crew. And then also, as part of that, I was making music to play specifically at those events, so that process directly informed it - but also it’s intangible in the way that they inform each other. It could be like, I’ve been to a visual art exhibition and seen some weird shape and that kind of reminds me of some music. Especially with graffiti I see a direct relationship with pattern structures or contrasts between shapes or colours, I can really relate to some abstract beats.

F: I get the sense of that from some of the pattern modulation stuff.

R: Yeah, like abstract forms interlocking and connecting. They’re definitely different practices, but some things relate - I’m not sure exactly how...

F: I read your Resident Advisor ‘Breaking Through’ profile where you talked about some of the connected terms that come up in relation to your work - ‘fluidity and syncopation’, ‘systemic and unpredictability’, ‘irregular symmetry’, that sort of stuff. Then, when I went on your website and I scrolled through the miscellaneous work section, all of that stuff reminded me of those terms. For instance there are lots of bodies at points of disassembly, and there’s that one of the reattached hands before and after plastic surgery.

R: That was a billboard in India, a surgeon’s advertisement. I’ve never thought about disassembled bodily forms and how that relates to my music, but that does make sense. 

F: I thought about it relation to ataxia specifically.

R: I’ve always been really into figurative drawing. Especially hands - all the different combinations of finger shape, or how you can distort and modulate them. Also bodies, I drew loads of characters and figures, bodily shapes that we’re in a sort of state of transition. I never actually thought that, but ‘ATAXIA’ must be quite informed by that.

F: Once I started looking at those in that way I could see connections between your practices. Sometimes you need to step back, you don’t see it when you’re in the midst of it.

R: Ultimately it’s all a bit unfathomable in your head. Things rolling round that you’re kinda spilling out.

F: I was wondering about the ‘ATAXIA’ sleeve. ‘A Rational Triangle’ and ‘Pattern Damage’ were screen-printed right?

R: It’s ‘A Rational Tangle’ [Ahem! Sorry!]. It was the first record I did, and when the first review had been written about it, it said ‘A Rational Triangle’ on it and I was really gutted. 

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F: That’s my bad - sorry! You screen-printed them, and then ‘ATAXIA’ is a single reproduced image. Because of the colour schemes and some of the shapes I initially saw a through-line or a development between the artworks...

R: Yeah definitely, they’re part of the same project. I saw ‘ATAXIA’ as the culmination of that musical project, or that kind of process and set up. They’re all 150-bpm tracks using FM synthesis and sequencers built in Max MSP, and ‘A Rational Tangle’ and ‘ATAXIA’ are all using that same system.

For the ones on The Death Of Rave [‘Pattern Damage’ and ‘A Rational Tangle’] it made sense to screen-print as it was a small enough run. Obviously for the Planet Mu release [‘ATAXIA’] there were more copies being made, so it was impossible to screen-print for that - I would’ve needed a team of people. But for the Death of Rave stuff there were only like 300 copies of each one. I’d done screen-printing before, but only just messing about, like really rough.

I set up a screen-printing studio in my basement. It took about four days to do it and I was going to Hong Kong straight after. It was the most stressful deadline ever! I had to expose the screens in the sun because the bulb broke. And then I was down in this basement, it was really rough, dust and shit everywhere. I was just like a machine, churning them out really fast.

F: That sounds pretty intense.

R: I was like, I’m never doing that again - but then I decided to do it for the second record.

F: Greg Euclide from THESIS was saying that each individual THESIS copy takes three hours to make.

R: Fucking hell. How many copies is he doing?

F: He doesn’t do as many as you did, they’re these really bespoke things - he’s hand-cutting everything and whatnot. But even then, a friend of mine screen-printed the artwork for his albums, it was quite ornate artwork and he said it took ages, so I’m surprised to hear that you could get it all done in four days. What was the process?

R: It was a one-colour print and there were two sides. So basically I’d go through the 300, print one side, by the time they’re printed they’re basically dry enough to start the other side. Half of the time was just doing tests and making loads of mistakes. Setting up a studio and actually doing it to a level that wasn’t a complete mess was quite difficult! I like things being a bit messy, but there needed to be some level of acceptability. 

It was quite tricky setting up the studio. I built all the screens myself, exposed the prints myself, set up this little press, this table and this drying/washing line. I’ll send you the photos.

F: Do you see the sleeves as representing the music within in some way? I know they are separate practices, but do you see the music embodied in those patterns or colour scheme or something?

R: I’m not really into the idea of representation in art but I can see something as being complimentary to something or contrasting something.

The music is totally digital, but the artwork is … not analog, but it’s actual real texture. There’s something there that I quite like. With these really textural, abstract marks I quite like how they mirror or contrast the syncopation in the music. Also, those first records, those tracks were really spontaneous in a way, more like a jam or a live recording. I basically played on a drum machine. I like the handmade element of both the art and the sound - I feel like you can see a messy sort of mark-making in both.

F: Yeah, I’d read those early records were more free-form than ‘ATAXIA’, which was more put-together. 

R: Those first ones were more improvisational, while ‘ATAXIA’ was like doing some improvisations then working into them a bit more - basically editing out more mistakes...

Regarding the artwork for ‘ATAXIA’, I was helping a friend move out of their screen-printing studio, I think in Dalston actually. I was down in London, and I thought “I’ll help them move out”. We spent all day moving all this equipment and she had loads of interesting things that she had to get rid of. She gave us all this stuff for foil-printing which I’d never seen before.

I got all these rolls home and was testing out how to use them. Basically, you put glue on one side of the foil, stick it down, and then peel it off. Where there’s glue the foil peels off, but where there’s no glue there’s no foil. It’s sort of like screen-printing, you can get loads of weird different densities of glue and foil. I had those images and I thought that would be really nice for this record, so I just ended up using that.

F: That’s really cool. When I looked at the cover of ‘ATAXIA’ I couldn’t quite understand how you’d created that kind of texture.

R: I’d never seen it either. I think that’s how they make t-shirts with shiny chrome letters.

I just thought that the cover related to those previous records, but it was a different process - different but related, it made sense. When I was listening to that ‘ATAXIA’ record, usually I would get a colour to mind. You know when you’re listening to a track and you think “this one’s quite bright or chromatic”, or “this is quite deep or blue”, or “greyscale or something”, you know that kind of thing? Usually I’d get a colour in mind about what I think ties to that aesthetic of that sound. For ‘ATAXIA’, I thought “actually, it feels like red” - I wanted to do a different colour, but that’s what colour fitted.

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F: Do you reckon that you have a bit of synesthesia?

R: No I wouldn’t say so. Do you not get it? If you listen to something you’ll think this is a “bright” sound, or “dark”, or “blue”?

F: I’ll get “bright” or “dark” but I don’t get colours. I get the general timbre. I was watching a thing with Yung Lean the other day and he was like “I hear this as red”, “I hear this as blue”, whatever. I’ve read the same thing about Blood Orange. But I’ve never really got colour off of music.

R: It’s really mad how much detail people feel in music, or if they have an aesthetic response to it. Some people listen to one thing and they see words or letters, it’s totally mad really. Crossed wires. 

F: I know your sound is indebted to early rave sonics and a lot of rave cultures, but also dance musics from further away - I’ve heard your Fact Mix with the Nyege Nyege Tapes stuff in. Obviously a lot of rave subcultures have really strong visual aesthetics. Do you feel like the visual aesthetics of rave have influenced your sleeve work in any way? I can’t discern any in there, but I’m not good at drawing visual connections between stuff.

R: I don’t know about that. Maybe it has. As a kid I’d collect fliers for events, I collected so many fliers, and I was always looking at design. Stuff like Designers Republic were really influential when I was younger, and they’re a part of the rave thing. But I wouldn’t say that I’m so influenced by the typical 90s hardcore rave stuff, like the smiley face or acid whatever.

When I was younger, not necessarily rave, but like I said Designers Republic and Chris Cunningham and all that Warp stuff was really, really influential when I was a kid at college in Rotherham. But also more minimalist stuff as well you know, like Raster Noton and that pure abstract, sort of digital aesthetic - Ryoji Ikeda, that sort of generative visual stuff. I remember being into graffiti and seeing all that kind of stuff and getting into exploring that more. I don’t think it’s really apparent in what I do now, but it was quite inspiring when I first saw it, that kind of stripped back and raw digital stuff.

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F: Last question - what’s the trajectory of your practice now, both in terms of music and visual stuff? Is there gonna be any crossover or are there gonna be separate works? What’s in the pipeline, basically.

R: I’m just finishing off loads of music this past month or so. I’m also thinking about artwork, but that’s all really in the process. I don’t know what to say about it, it’ll end up being something totally different in a week to what it was two weeks ago. It’ll be good to talk when I’ve got something concrete to talk about. I’m making loads of music - hopefully I’ll have something coming out before end of t’year.