Music Interviews

Interview: Martyn Ware

Martyn Ware is talking about a musical legacy. Intriguingly it is not Heaven 17, of which he is a founder member – and nor is it the Human League, with whom he was attached for their first two albums.

No, we have gathered here today to talk about The Clarke & Ware Experiment, his long running musical partnership with Vince Clarke, whose legacy has finally been documented by Mute in a 10-disc box, loftily titled The House Of Illustrious. The pair released two albums in 1999 and 2001, so it represents a considerable advance to have another 10 albums’ worth of material released in to the public domain.

The box documents a long body of work running back 12 years – and there is a lot of previously unreleased music to be experienced. “There is,” confirms Ware, “and the box is just the edited highlights! There’s probably about 20 hours of the stuff all told. During the distillation process we had to omit some compound works because of copyright, so that narrowed it down to about 12 hours. I wanted to incorporate the Pretentious and Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle albums especially. Originally I liked the idea of having them released on just one USB, but that turned out to be a bit OCD, and once we had the cream of what was left, and were amassing it, we decided it should go on to CDs.”

The process of compilation was a labour of love. “You get distracted by actually earning money, so putting it together was like a hobby. Funnily enough I was talking about it in 2005; I thought it would be worth a box set even then. If you’re doing a major set like this it has to not be derivative, and the design alone took 18 months. It’s a really beautiful thing, and I’m really delighted with it, although it went through many iterations. Going back to 2005, we started with the title, like Hammer House of Horrors, and it was redolent of Perfume House – the idea of an appealing luxury passage.”

He explains: “I always liked those Scritti Politti album and singles sleeves, reinterpreting perfume imagery, like Faithless did. When we released Penthouse And Pavements with Heaven 17 we followed that sort of idea, and we wanted to represent London-Sheffield-Edinburgh. With the box set it’s an artistic concept, and the notion was a 21st century box set in gothic packaging. If there is such a thing as Gothic perfume, it would be this. My vision was a bridge too far, though; I had a picture of it encased in acrylic so that you have to destroy it to get there. The idea was that it was the need for proliferation becomes the artwork, but they thought it was a bit too bonkers. I also liked the idea of a velvet box with a tiny USB stick.”

Ware is refreshingly direct in his conversation. “Essentially this is an art object, because the music is free. The elephant in the room is that it will be online for free. If it is embodied in an object that people find desirable, it’s conceivable that in The Antiques Roadshow in 2040 it could be a valuable commodity though.”

Clarke and Ware tended to keep themselves to themselves, even when composition was taking place. “It is an iterative process,” says Ware, “but we were never in the same room when we were composing it. I would take the brief, if there was one, and interpret it. He would write the raw material, the timbres and the structures, and like top quality organic produce, would send to me. I would sometimes reconstruct, add things to it, and spatialize in 3D. I would send it to him for approval and then that would be it, with a few amendments.” Clarke worked in a similar way with sometime Depeche Mode bandmate Martin Gore on the duo’s collaborative VCMG album SSSS, which was also released this year.

This way of working appealed to Ware. “It’s nice to have some head space to do your own thing, a different form of collaboration. With Heaven 17 the three of us would be in the same room all the time, and it took me a while to get out of that way of thinking. We don’t record in the same room now, because we get on each other’s nerves! With this, Vince gets involved in the projecting when it’s more musical. Basically if it’s quite abstract, or sound or speech based, that’s more my thing. For instance, Illustrious did a big installation on the Millennium Bridge based on a composition that I did with Vince. We work together in different ways, it depends what’s required.”

“Essentially this is an art object, because the music is free. The elephant in the room is that it will be online for free”
– Martyn Ware

When asked how much music of today he listens to, Ware is quick to retort. “Not very much to be honest with you! We spend most of our time avoiding what other people sound like. We’re fairly confident in the sort of thing we do, and it’s best not to absorb things from other people. I would say though that Brian Eno and ambient noise in general have been an influence. I think people found their own ways through it. The Kubla Khan piece that we did though, I was asked by someone at Radio 4 about synaesthesia and poetry, they said would you be interested in writing a piece of music that interprets the poem? So that’s what we did, like writing a soundtrack. You’re left with an impressionistic view of something without words. Even having the idea in the first place is pretty mad.”

The pair have also used images from photographer Marcus Lyon as their inspiration – ‘pieces of urban’, says Ware. “There is a piece called Exodus, which is one particular photo with an aerial view of containers in Hong Kiong. I was interested in doing a soundscape based on his photos, interested in supplying that, so I’ve just finished this soundscape inspired by this three by two metre photo. The way it works is that software analyses the image, and then creates sounds from it. There are no real rules, we are making them up as we go along, and that’s the excitement of the process. It’s irrelevant what other artists are doing, and that’s not arrogant – it’s a distraction. You are what you eat, and if you’re in experimentation, it needs to be original.”

Thinking more of his legacy, is it satisfying for Ware that the Human League and Heaven 17 have become such established artists? “It’s amazing!” he says with feeling. “We have put a lot of work into it, and I believe it’s not just coincidence. We put a lot of time and effort into ensuring it seals our legacy. We feel it deserves longevity and I’m amazed and thrilled that people still listen to it 30 years on – 10 years was our aim. For people – younger people – to get into it is gratifying. We’ve benefitted from the iPod generation. My teenage daughter and son apportion as much weight and time to Prince‘s early work as I do now – it’s not Dad’s dog-eared singles, it’s still new.”

It’s easy to see why he is so enthusiastic – but the Human League camp is less inclined to join him at the party. “We’ve just finished the UK leg of the Heaven 17 tour, and we’ve been very heartened that 15-20% of the audience are in their 20s or younger. It’s amazingly gratifying. I’m very proud of the first two Human League albums too, and I’ve been trying to persuade Phil Oakey to do the first two albums live, but I think the words ‘over my dead body’ were uttered by the management…”

The Clarke & Ware box set House Of Illustrious, a limited edition release of 1,000 copies, is out now on Mute. Head over to their website for further information.

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