Martyn Ware has been on the cutting edge of electronic music for decades as a founding member of the Human League, Heaven 17 and BEF. The artist and producer has pushed into “3D Sound” with his Illustrious Company, which makes immersive sound-experience installations based on clusters of speakers arrayed on all sides, and above and below, the listener. Always pushing the boundaries of music creation, Martyn was one of the first artists to pick up a Seaboard GRAND, which he uses to “create unique and unusual timbres and textures that would be impossible to contemplate using any other means.”
ROLI: What are you up to today?
Martyn Ware: I’m finishing off my BEF arrangements for the Rewind Festival, then I’m taking a few days off exploring the historical sites around Naples and Paestum with my son, who hopes to study ancient history at Oxford.
ROLI: The BEF arrangements are exciting. What can you tell us about that project?
MW: It’s an hour-long set featuring the full Heaven 17 band with famous guest singers. They all perform one song of their own and one cover version of their choice, and I do the arrangements in the BEF style. It includes Robin Scott, Shingai Shoniwa, Thomas Dolby, Eddi Reader, Peter Hook, and of course, Glenn [Gregory].
ROLI: Any Illustrious Company installations in the works?
MW: Loads! I recently finished a huge 3D sound installation in Liverpool, and I’m now working on several 3D soundscapes to be performed at Festival No. 6 in Portmeirion in Wales. I’m also working on several projects associated with the National Trust and the British Library. They’re making a sound map of the British coast, and I’m helping them collect recordings.
ROLI: Let’s take it back a bit. What are some of your earliest memories of creating music?
MW: All the usual stuff at school, but no formal training. My first synth was a dual stylus Stylophone! That was around 1973.
I was completely amazed and engaged with the idea of creating imaginary instruments – maybe even sounds that no one had heard before.
ROLI: What was your first synthesiser experience like?
MW: With my first wage packet I bought a Korg 700 monophonic and I was in love. I still use it today. I was completely amazed and engaged with the idea of creating imaginary instruments, maybe even sounds that no one had heard before.
ROLI: And that imagination still keeps you going, exploring?
MW: That’s the driving force of everything I do creatively in the music industry. To be honest, I have more in common with a formal artist than I do with the acquisitive and greedy attitudes prevalent in large swathes of the industry now. I suppose that’s a little old school, but I don’t care.
I find the Seaboard has enabled me to create unique and unusual timbres and textures that would be impossible to contemplate using any other means.
ROLI: What has the Seaboard GRAND done for your music-making process?
MW: I use it largely to inspire new musical texture. I’m no virtuoso keyboard player, nor do I want to be, but I find the Seaboard has enabled me to create unique and unusual timbres and textures that would be impossible to contemplate using any other means.
ROLI: Are there any other works you’re using the Seaboard on?
MW: I’m working on an artistic project about the legacy of post-industrialism in Port Talbot and Sheffield. I’m going to use the Seaboard to create never-before-heard sounds that are redolent of a kind of retro-futuristic industrial soundscape. Also any future soundtrack projects I have will feature the Seaboard extensively.
ROLI: You were a pioneer of 3D sound. How did you get involved in that?
MW: I was invited to consult on a 3D soundscape auditorium in Sheffield around 1999. In our research we discovered there was no software around that was designed from a musician’s perspective, so we co-designed 3DAudioScape, and the rest is history.
ROLI: Do you think there are ways the Seaboard can be incorporated into 3D sound performances?
MW: I want to find a way to map the intuitive controls of the Seaboard to potentially enable it to be used to fly multiple individual notes around a 3D space. Trippy!
ROLI: Trippy indeed! What are your thoughts on the possibilities of sound interacting with visual art, with one controlling another?
MW: We’ve done quite a lot of it, and it works spectacularly well. Anyone wishing to look further into it should look at our projects on our Illustrious Company website.
ROLI: What artists do you consider as influences on you and your work?
MW: Too many to mention. Bowie, Eno, Philip Glass, Moroder. Many, many soul artists. Gorecki, Arvo Part, Brian Wilson. Many hip-hop artists. Kraftwerk, et cetera.
ROLI: Your contributions to synth pop and new wave with the Human League and Heaven 17 have been very influential. Can you tell us what led you to found the Human League and create that sound?
MW: I was messing around with my friends in Sheffield, never believing that anyone would ever be interested. Then Ian Craig Marsh and I invited Phil Oakey to join THL. We never really looked back from that.
ROLI: Would you ever get involved in another Human League project?
MW: THL own the name, so it would have to come from them. I’m an open and collaborative kinda guy.
ROLI: Can you tell us about your general creative process? Is there a method you typically use for writing or recording?
MW: Soundscapes often originate with a creative idea, or a brief from a third party. But songwriting is different. It usually starts with the seed of a musical idea – it could be a sound or a loop, for instance – then it quickly suggests other things. A lot depends on what one has been listening to recently. You are what you eat!
[Technology] has enabled the creative process to become much quicker and more intuitive as well as cheaper and more emancipated. That’s the positive. The negative is that it has also created a musical zombie apocalypse – of facile EDM, for instance. When everything becomes too easy, we have a problem, because that becomes a negative feedback loop of lack of expectation of quality.
ROLI: What is your view on technology’s role in music-making, generally speaking?
MW: It has enabled the creative process to become much quicker and more intuitive, as well as cheaper and more emancipated. That’s the positive. The negative is that it has also created a musical zombie apocalypse – of facile EDM, for instance. When everything becomes too easy we have a problem, because that becomes a negative feedback loop of lack of expectation of quality.
ROLI: You get a lot of acclaim for your work as a producer, having worked with Erasure and helping to revitalize Tina Turner’s career with “Let’s Stay Together.” How would you describe the differences in producing music for other versus creating your own music?
MW: I’ve always used recording and production as part of my creative process right from the start, so I don’t differentiate. My stuff, other people’s stuff, it makes no difference. It helps if you can get on with people and encourage them to perform to the maximum of their potential.
ROLI: What kind of advice would you give to a developing artist or producer?
MW: Be nice to people, all people. Everybody’s winging it, so don’t feel embarrassed, your musical vision is just as valid as anyone else’s. Be brave, be resilient, accept disappointments. If you can’t, this isn’t the business for you.