Games, Brrraaains & A Head-Banging Life are pleased to bring you an interview with Tom, one half of Ensemble 1. A duo that combine minimalist composition methods with speed, volume and intricate percussion techniques to create gargantuan soundscapes. Eschewing traditional narratives in favour of geometrical principles, rhythmic complexity and auditory hallucinations, a commitment to an otherworldly sonic experience is at the centre of the group.
Formed in 2017 in Brighton, UK, the live line-up consists of a guitar and drum duo incorporating technology to conjure the impression of a large ensemble of musicians playing in machine-like unison. Their debut album; Guitars, Bass & Drums was released on May 14th 2021 and you can read our review here.
1. Hi Tom. It’s a pleasure to speak to you. How have you been holding up during the COVID times?
Cheers Carl and likewise. I can’t complain too much all things considering.
2. What, if anything, has helped keep you in a positive mind frame?
I’ve managed to keep fairly busy the whole time, and a lot of the things I do with music require long periods of working in isolation, so that’s probably helped I guess.
3. Do you have any advice for those who may be struggling, particularly from a musical perspective, with the industry in such a state?
Tough question, as everyone is different and will have had their own unique set of personal circumstances to deal with. From a musical perspective, my general advice to myself and possibly to others if it’s helpful, is to keep working on the thing you do in any way that you can and remember that there is a bunch of like-minded people out there who are also eager to reinvigorate the industry and engage with the music scene again when it becomes possible.
4. Can you give us some detail about how and why you started playing music?
A few friends of mine played in a band, and through them I picked up the drums and then quickly got kind of obsessed with it. We started out playing music in the vein of RATM, Primus, Mr Bungle, Pantera etc. This is back when Emo was massive, and we wanted to be the opposite of all that.
5. How did that lead to the creation of Ensemble 1?
It took me a while, but I eventually discovered more about experimental composition, and that there were others who had been using rhythmic architecture, sound design and process as a way of writing music (particularly Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Glenn Branca). I’d mainly been a drummer who wrote music on the side, but after I discovered all the minimalist stuff I started focusing on writing more, and then a bit later I was very lucky to meet Joe who’s a phenomenal guitarist and we started playing together.
6. Early on, did you know exactly what you wanted Ensemble 1 to be? Or was there a ton of experimentation to find your sound?
Kind of both; I had a general idea for the sort of music that I wanted to do (minimalist, heavy, fast, rhythmically-driven, abstract, etc.), but then there was a lot of experimentation around the possibilities within this. I spent a lot of time doing practice recordings of various ideas and assembling them together to see how it sounded, even if most of it didn’t get used. The album we’ve just released consists of early music written during that time, and since then there’s always a ton of experimentation poured into each new bit of music, but still more or less within the same overall kind of style.
7. You’ve released your debut album ‘Guitar, Bass & Drums’ now. How have you found the reaction to it so far?
We’re very happy and humbled by the reaction that we’ve had so far. More people have engaged with it than we expected for an album of instrumental long-form process-driven metal released by an unsigned band, and the feedback we’ve had has been very positive and encouraging. Huge thanks to everyone that bought it/listened to it.
8. The idea of a large group of musicians playing in a machine-like way is very much realised on the album. Is that harder to portray live considering venue sound quality and that fact that the audience can see just two of you?
Haha yes. We were maybe just about on the verge of getting a semi-decent handle on the live realisation of the music, then lockdown happened and we’ve done like two rehearsals in the space of a year, so we’ll probably suck at first when we start playing again. Long term, we might expand the group if we’re lucky, and we’ve already started incorporating a larger sound palette into the music through the use of electronics. Generally, I enjoy the differences that arise from experiencing music in a recorded format and through a live performance, and I try not to worry about it too much for our own performances.
9. Are you concerned about the future of grassroots venues in the UK and what, if anything, can be done to help save them?
Yes, big concern. These kinds of venues are essential for us and the underground music scene in general, and when they’re open again and it’s safe to do so, one of the best things that anyone can do is to make use of them as much as they can. We actually started putting on several shows ourselves around Brighton in the months prior to lockdown with other local experimental/heavy acts, and we had a great time meeting others and playing live more. When it becomes possible to do so again, I’d encourage anyone with a bit of inclination towards this to have a go at putting small shows on yourself in your local GMVs with other like-minded bands and friends, as you can wing a modest DIY gig without having loads of background experience and knowledge, and it helps everyone at the grassroots level.
10. What’s in the works for Ensemble 1 going forward?
We’ll try and pick up where we left off in terms of live shows once the dust settles, and there’s another album’s worth of material waiting to be recorded (we’re playing catch-up with this). New music is slowly in development, and the latest one that’s been finished during lockdown is another epic 10-minute avalanche titled ‘Virtual Septet’ and my favourite yet, and I’m very much looking forward to when we can start playing it live.