Strange Emissions: Q&A with em:t label founder David Thompson


by Mike G for Ambience Magazine, November 1996. Republished 2020.

Meet maverick UK record label Emit (spelt em:t if you’re a purist) – purveyor of strange and exotic ambient wonders, and the subject of much salivating from the dance and electronic music press. I spoke with label co-founder David Thompson to find out more.


Emit was launched in 1994 as a division of Time Recording, a more dance-orientated independent label operating out of Nottingham, England. Now, almost three years later, the offshoot has become Time’s main focus.

Em:t’s growing roster of artists – with suitably oddball names like Gas, Woob and Qubism – have been producing experimental ambient of striking originality, sophistication and subtlety, with stunning nature-based cover art to match. Heard on both compilations and single-artist albums, Emit’s output captures no singular label ‘sound’ as such, despite occasional echoes of the forward-thinking ambient techno of Warp Records’ Artificial Intelligence series, or the eclectic, hazy trip hop of the Mo’ Wax label’s current Headz compilations.

Some media bytes to date:

“Tunes aren’t outlawed, merely concealed from idle ears…if music were visual art then most Of Emit’s contemporaries are still finger painting…” (Orbit Magazine).

“A snapshot from the avant-garde frontline – immaculate…” (Muzik Magazine)

“One of the sharpest labels, audacious, open-minded and uncompromising… will surely go down in history for being as important in the 90’s as the albums of Brian Eno were in the 70’s.” (Coda Magazine)

“…uncompromising ideas and unabashed intelligence – and never at the expense of emotional impact.” (DJ Magazine)

“…magnificently oddball cocktail of organic electronics and funky ambience…dig the new breed.” (Melody Maker)

And on it goes.

Forthcoming albums for the label include Undark which features visual artist Russell Mills collaborating with, amongst others, Brian Eno, Michael Brook and David Sylvian. There’s also a self-titled album new artist Slim which, according to the blurb, should surprise more than a few people with its twist on notions of song.

Time Recording’s roots are in early dance music and Britain’s underground rave scene – acid house, techno, dub, trance – but as dance goes mainstream in Britain and superclubs take over the scene, Emit’s contemporary electronica remains resolutely underground. Break it down into various hybrids of ambient, funk, techno, lounge and avant-garde noise if you must; just don’t do it within earshot of label A&R man David Thompson. From the outset, the philosophy driving he and co-founder Chris Allen (who together also make music under the alias Bad Data) has been one of open-endedness, and any attempt to pigeonhole Emit’s output meets with steadfast resistance.

Sharp, outspoken and frighteningly brainy, Thompson drily refers to interviews as ‘interrogations’. He spoke with Ambience about Emit’s quiet revolution.

*

Ambience: Can you tell us about Time Recording and what were your aims were when you formed the Emit offshoot? How are the two operations related, philosophically and musically?

Thompson: Time is the umbrella company for our activities. It keeps our structure open-ended and allows us to explore whatever areas and media might interest us now and in the future.

Initially, the idea of releasing EP’s and 12-inches on Time seemed to be an effective and affordable way of introducing our ideas, and these early releases were intended to function in both club and home contexts. It soon became apparent that the culture of the club environment was becoming increasingly fragmented and tribal, with celebrity overshadowing talent and the DJ usurping the artist. I think the expression is ‘tail wags dog’.

Ambience: So Emit’s output is a response to all that?

Thompson: Well the series grew from our interest in music which invites and rewards the careful listener. As such, it stands in opposition to much of the prevailing culture.

Ambience: What is Emit’s relationship with dance culture then? Was that where you first found an audience?

Thompson: I’m not aware of Emit having any real relationship with what you call dance culture, except perhaps as an antidote to its regressive collectivism. It’s curious how such a diverse spectrum of music is now automatically seen only in relation to a club context, whether appropriate or not. I don’t think our work can really be contained within the narrow parameters of a simplistic 4/4 thudding designed for chemically-overexcited children.

Ambience: Oh dear! Then who IS buying your albums? Your sounds are so diverse.

Thompson: We presume very little about the people who connect with our work. But we hope our position as artists – rather than merely shopkeepers – is understood and valued for what it is. We don’t try to second-guess what people want or expect; we simply do what seems important to do. We don’t insult people’s intelligence and we don’t whore after being fashionable or cool. No doubt this excludes us from the preoccupations of hype charts, style magazines and idiot name-droppers, but I think it’s a trade-off worth making.

Ambience: In reviews of Emit releases, “ambient” is a term that crops up regularly. It’s clear that you’re very much wanting to avoid Emit’s music being labelled or pigeonholed. How do you see that particular term – ambient – as limiting?

Thompson: Any generic description should be seen as disappointing – a lazy and limiting dismissal loaded with presumption. The idea of music existing without a prefix has become alien to a generation obsessed with reductionism, pigeon-holing and soundbites. Our work covers a diverse range of shapes and suggestions, and to reduce it to one glib word is ultimately offensive.

Ambience: You made a comment to Melody Maker about today’s audience being the most sophisticated generation. What makes them so?

Thompson: Hmm, in many ways the opposite is also true. There are, however, a number of people who appreciate levels of abstraction and complexity which are extremely sophisticated. I’d like to think our work rewards these careful listeners. It’s perhaps relevant to point out the difference in, say, dynamic range and timing signatures which exists between our own recordings and so much club music.

Ambience: Are there any other record labels that have inspired Emit’s open-ended philosophy?

Thompson: Perhaps a good example is Editions EG, a label with a catalogue of consistently interesting music like Brian Eno and several albums which have been enormously innovative and extremely influential. As a direct result of this open-ended approach, EG was of course difficult to categorise. The idea that an album might actually surprise the listener and challenge expectations almost seems anathema in today’s climate.

Ambience: What benefit do you think electronic music’s increasing popularity since the 80’s has had on the sounds of music we are hearing today?

Thompson: I think the arrival of electronic instrumentation has certainly extended the palette available to artists, making possible music which is non-representational. By that I mean, in the sense it can be free of the associations which still colour the use of, say, the guitar. There are obviously bands which exist primarily to be seen as ‘bands’, which is to say the image of four or five people clutching their respective instruments is much more important than any music they might actually make; the music is almost an incidental side-effect of some dysfunctional role-playing. Much of our own work leaves the listener unsure of what instruments or devices were used to shape the music, and is abstract in the sense the instruments may become transparent.

Ambience: Could you explain how the Roland 3D imaging system used on Emit recordings works?

Thompson: The Roland Sound Space system was devised primarily for use in film, multimedia and virtual reality environments. As far as I’m aware, we are the only label to make this spatial imaging technology a recurrent feature of our recordings.

The system uses a series of complex real-time transformations in phase and delay to create the illusion of sounds being positioned outside of the conventional stereo field. Sounds can be localised with unusual definition, giving extra depth and detail to the recording, and movement of individual sounds – around, above and below the listener – can be recorded using MIDI or manipulated in real-time. This 3-D effect can be reproduced when played back using standard stereo systems and headphones.

Ambience: How important to yourself and Chris Allen is critical feedback on Emit releases? Do you care?

Thompson: It’s often interesting to hear what others make of our work. It’s possible a kind of symbiosis can be established between artists and critics, leading to a progressive refinement of the music. How often this actually happens I wouldn’t like to speculate. As I’ve said, we don’t aim to please anyone but ourselves; getting the work as close to perfect as time and budget allow is what matters.

Postscript

In 1998, Emit’s parent company went bankrupt and closed down. Details are still murky, but in a blog post in 2001 artist Dallas Simpson told a tale of exploitation by powerful distributors who wouldn’t pay for stock (e.g. “send us another 1000 CD’s and we’ll pay you for the first 1000”), knowing full well that small indie operators like Time Recording didn’t have the legal muscle to force the issue. Emit artists subsequently went unpaid and the end inevitably came.

Emit then returned in 2003 under new ownership, releasing some excellent albums, before closing for the final time in 2006.

A few of the original albums by artists like Woob and Gas have since been re-released on CD and/or online; otherwise, happy hunting.

More Emit

Review: AMG’s Essential Albums: Emit Records

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