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Pete Bennie & Maxwell Hallett: Coma World

Pete Bennie & Maxwell Hallett: Coma World

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Many a science fiction writer has found thematic material in the ideas of alternate realities and parallel worlds. Anyone willing to follow them into these conceptual maelstroms can find solace in the exotic wonder of infinite possibilities, but risk exposing themselves to the anxious existential conundrums of illusory perception. Even as some physicists explore the legitimate theory that our own universe could be but a simulation, one is easily tempted to question the foundations of our own reality. A friend's experience of a coma, trapped in a cognitive world that seemed unmistakably real, was what crystallised such shared philosophical ruminations in the minds behind a brand-new musical partnership.

Coma World brings together the talents of two London-based artists. Peter Bennie, bassist from Speakers Corner Quartet, partnered with drummer Maxwell Hallett , who goes by the stage name Betamax and makes up a third of the futurist London jazz outfit The Comet Is Coming (alongside saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings and electronic artist Danalogue the Conqueror). They have known each other for a while but this is their first recording together, the result of two sessions of improvised sound acrobatics in a makeshift DIY studio in the back shed, complete with a cornucopia of new and vintage equipment duly collected over the years. Aural ingredients at the intersection of jazz, dub and post-rock coalesce into their brooding cauldron of psychedelic beat-science, forming eddies of shifting electronic textures, with morphing landscapes as apt projections of the pliancy and volatility of our consciousness.

A 300 vinyl press and digital release of Coma World is set for February 2021.


All About Jazz: So what's the idea behind the title of this new project, Coma World ?

Pete Bennie: The concept was inspired by a guy I used to know and work with. A while ago he was attacked and beaten into a coma for a week. He described how he felt very much awake but in an alternate reality. You're walking down the street, maybe even living your same mundane life, but all of a sudden there might be a giant bunny on the corner.

Maxwell Hallett: That story made me question the way our brains constructs our own reality, how everything we experience is filtered through our minds. We can never escape that. Everything around us is fluid and unstable, and that instability is something that inspired the sounds, with music as a metaphor for that change, that constant searching.

PB: For me these ideas were a real focus at the time. I got quite obsessed with these concepts of illusion and shifting realities, how things can change overnight, all the ways in which the world as we know it can be destroyed, and what we perceive to be true can be revealed false. Obviously Covid had brought a lot of that quite brutally home, and Coma World encapsulates those feelings.

AAJ: How would you say these feelings feed into your process?

MH: To me, it relates to this idea of truth in music. There's a lot of artificiality in music today since we can control so many aspects of its production. The more people do this, the harder it is to believe what we're being shown, and it can be difficult knowing what's real anymore. So we tried to make something that was raw. Music is about trying to reveal what is true to you, trying to make your sound an honest sound. Whether the audience buys that is very important. Again, it ties into the idea of a coma world. Reality and creativity are linked. Your mind is generating your reality constantly. Consciousness is creativity. When I'm making music, I like to remind myself that I'm engaging with something truly fundamental. Creativity is the tap from which everything flows. The collapse of the waveform if you like. That's the source of all the world's energy. It's absolutely divine and it's important to respect that and be humbled by it. You have to trust the delicate voice in your mind that is leading you, amplify that honest voice and protect it from egotistical pressures, telling you to do this, play like that... This is something all musicians and artists are confronted with. You can easily be distracted from your actual voice. It's a challenge, but you have to let your own truth become your reality. It's hard but when you get it right it's extremely gratifying.

AAJ: How did the two of you meet, and what triggered this collaboration?

MH: We'd already played in a few bands together, usually as guests in other people's projects to play drums and bass. We were at that sort of age when you're just trying to play as much as possible.

PB: We would meet at jams as well, such as at the Walpole (in London).

MH: We also had this gig at a comedy club. We were the house band in between the stand-up acts. We did that for a little bit, it was great fun.

PB: The most you'd ever get was about 40 quid, but we were really doing it because it was fun. We'd do this funky jazzy skit to bring the actors in, and then it would be whatever we wanted to play for the next 20 minutes. Sometimes it would be nice and straight ahead, then at other times really cracked up, really out there stuff.

AAJ: Where was it?

PB: Up The Creek in Greenwich. Many connections have been made through that club. In a way it was both one of the shittest gigs ever, but also one of the greatest because of the people it brought together.

MH: It was a very easy gig because no one really cared. The audience were not there to see you. You could do what you wanted. But it was a bit of a comedy dive. It often wasn't great... I remember you were pretty blazé Pete, you wouldn't laugh at anything!

PB: Well, after a while you'd seen it all so none of it was funny to you anymore. We'd been there four years. We saw the entire cycle of their roster go round and round.

AAJ: Was this fresh out of school for you?

PB: For me it would have been both during and after, maybe year 2 and 3 of my degree. I was at Goldsmiths. We met each other through other students there.

MH: We did these funny shows for a while then sort of lost track of each other, but eventually linked up again. I'd just had a shoulder surgery, only had one hand, with the other in a sling. Pete suggested he come over and have a jam.

AAJ: How does a drummer deal with only having one hand?

MH: Kind of minimally, I guess. It was great though, no one else wanted to jam with me! I was incredibly grateful. And that sowed the seed of this project. Pete makes some pretty weird sounds with his equipment and that inspired me to pursue that line. This led to a couple of days mucking around in my home studio. It came together very quickly. We found our sound.

AAJ: So did you end up recording improvised sessions or were you bringing in compositions that you tweaked and played around with?

MH: It was more freeform than that. There were two sessions, one with me on drums and Pete on bass. We would fiddle around, find a sound then record it straight away on reel to reel tape. Then I thought: let's do something that's without drums or bass, but with electronics. So the next day we just created weird noises with electronics, then we sort of stitched the two together into a timeline. There's no overdub, all live.

PB: Max had a fully analog setup so we were improvising with different tools, then finished it off through an analog process, sending everything through a bunch of pedals. We were just jamming, kind of how I imagine King Tubby might have done things. Friends in a shed playing together, with an oxygen meter on the wall saying 'Get out, you can't breathe anymore!' [laughs] Just playing around.

AAJ: A big part of the album's identity comes from the quite dark, wavering electronic sound design. Can you tell us more about the setup and equipment you used?

MH: Part of the impetus behind the project was to try to make music without a computer. I like to detach from screens as it heightens my hearing. We used old equipment and machines I've collected over the years to build a DIY setup. I had some drum synths that I control with pads. I like combining them with real drums, I find they're very complimentary. Pete obviously brought a bunch of his equipment over as well. In fact, one of the key sounds I hadn't anticipated came from experiments with one of his pedals. It's a pitch harmonizer. Pete played a lot of the bass through that, but then we started putting the whole mix through it, the drums, etc.. The bleeping fractal spillage, the machine really creates that, it sprays the pitch in all sorts of directions. You get an intense cascading effect.

AAJ: What about the mix?

MH: I wanted the mixing to be a performance as well. It hasn't been carefully mixed on a computer to make it perfect. We used an old '70s Alice mixing desk and ¼-inch tape on 8-track reel to reel. We're looking for an all-hands-on-deck approach, mixing on a take, adding effects spontaneously. This way we are keeping the trace of a moment, of an action. The mixing process was very similar to the actual composition. I spent a long while worrying about what sounds good, the correct way to do things. This project was sort of a repudiation of those thoughts. I'm done with that, I just want to mix intuitively and experiment with the sound. We know what we like, what sounds interesting. We know how we're responding to the sound, and you don't need to put much more thought into it than that. I often think mix engineers have a method in mind that they think is the 'right' way go about it, and they try to apply it everywhere. Our method was different and atypical. The mix is reactive and organic. Some people assume you can't mix like that, and maybe you can't, but we certainly tried. I was so happy when we did it. With a lot of dub producers, like Lee Scratch Perry, you can feel the performance on the mixing desk. It's rough. They're trying to ride and wrestle the sound. The mix takes on a performative dimension and is no longer just a finishing tool. It's not for tidying up, it's for making more mess.

AAJ: You mentioned producers from the dub world, such as Scratch Perry and King Tubby. What other musical common ground were you starting from?

PB: I don't necessarily think of it in that way. The way we recorded was very spontaneous and not necessarily geared towards reproducing a specific style.

MH: We're not trying to emulate something or somebody in particular. A few hallmarks come to mind nonetheless, cases of musicians allowing themselves the artistic license to do something new and innovative simply because they like to sound of it and want to keep exploring. Some of the Miles Davis electronic music. The German band Can, the way they jammed. You're witnessing the creation of the sound. Again, there's something fundamentally true there.

AAJ: How do you imagine performing this music?

MH: That's a good question to which I don't know the answer because we haven't had a chance yet. I hope we will be able to play it live, and we'll want to keep some of that ethos of spontaneous performance. The playing and mixing will have to be done at same time. Maybe it's back to one hand playing for me then?

PB: This is really the next problem on the list for us to solve. I've gone down the midi route fully, so I would have it all programmed on my pedals and action it with my toes.

MH: However, we're not too fussed about it sounding like the live record. We just want it to sound as original, recreate that thickness, but it'll never be the same. It'll be a spontaneous mix of creating and reacting. When I go to see a live show, I'm not interested in how well they execute their previous work, I'm interested in seeing someone who's really getting off on what they're doing, who's really feeling it. It needs to be like two scientists with a petri dish. You want to witness something incontrollable, an experiment. It'll be fun for sure.

AAJ: What other running projects do you both have ?

PB: I am currently working with Speaker's Corner quartet and a live electronic dance band called Myo. And we intend to do plenty more of this (Coma World), if and when Covid allows. More shed sessions.

MH: I have a new Soccer96 album with my usual partner in crime Danalogue the Conqueror. There's also a new Comet Is Coming album on its way out. We use similar principles of improvisations in all these bands. I've also been playing with Champagne Dub. And during lockdown I managed to make a record with my dad (Clive Bell) who's also a musician. He plays several reed instruments, including the flute, but his main intstument is the shakuhachi. I've been wanting to do this for a while so I'm really happy about it. Covid offered a good opportunity to so that.

AAJ: The Covid crisis is proving to be an incredible challenge for so many of us. For those who rely on performing to an audience to make a living, it's creating an existential crisis. How has your personal experience been?

PB: One way of thinking of this year is that so many us, at different points in time, have sat down with friends, sharing a beer, and said 'if only I had the time at some point to do A, B and C.' For better or for worse, this might be the opportunity. So from a creative point of view, this year has been quite successful, although financially terrifying. We have to keep moving forward either way.

MH: I guess it has given us some creative possibilities. It's allowed us to experiment, try things out because either way we're not thinking about money. I had so much touring last year with The Comet is Coming, that I was actually praying for it to stop. Be careful what you wish for... Now I'm itching to play live again. But with every day that goes by, music is ceasing to be a viable way of making money which is terribly sad. What frightens me is that I don't know if the music industry will ever go back to what it was, and I'm not sure if I'll be able to adapt to new formats of performance, fully online for example. I need that realness and I'm not sure that I'll be able to get what I want out of music if I lose that.

PB: I've done a few things online, and yes you're definitely missing something, the contact with other humans, but you can get pretty close. It was a genuine creative exchange. I did one with Speaker's Corner. My friend Giles (Kwakebass) runs a business called The Room Studios and in the early stages of this we managed to get a good latency-free piece of software which allows you all to play as near as damnit in time from wherever you are over the internet. We were able to get that out there into the world. It was for Kate Tempest's Live at Focus Music festival. Room Studios has done a lot of these live jams.

AAJ: Are you able to keep the drive going? To keep creating?

MH: For now I suppose so. But I think unfortunately there's worse things coming down the pipeline. Without wanting to be a doomsayer, I think that with the additional challenges of global warming, the addictiveness of technology, the fragmentation of reality that comes with, and the weakness of the human mind to sustain that addictiveness, is driving us to a dark place.

PB: At the core of it, somewhat selfishly, we keep going, hanging on to this as much as possible because it's what we love.

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