“… I can’t understand those musicians who make the most beautiful music, but show little care or attention for the visual side. It’s like stuffing a Rembrandt painting inside a £5 plastic frame from IKEA …”
The ‘Tracks I Wish I’d Written’ series is perhaps the most personal, preferential and esoteric category of the blog. The title is self-explanatory and the concept straightforward. I hand-pick records from my collection – records I am fondly attached with and I wish my name was credited on the sleeve – and present them emphasizing on the background stories, the imagery and the messages the music conveys.
When I started the series, I had in mind a set of restrictions, a self-imposed dogma in order to confine the scope. The blog is mainly d&b-oriented, as is my record collection, so intuitively all previous instalments featured drum & tracks, or to be more precise tracks loosely or directly related to the drum & bass template and aesthetic. The concept has been captured eloquently by Ulrich Schnauss in the opening line of the 10th edition of the series:
‘77’ seems a piece that has a rather elegant flow, something I always appreciated about d&b very much. Although this might not be a d&b release from a ‘genre-stalinist’ perspective, I’d still argue that it at least attempts to relate to that kind of aesthetic…
As mentioned in previous posts, nowadays I enjoy and listen to a broader spectrum of electronic music and I feel that it should somehow be reflected on the series. It’s an idea I’ve been toying with for quite some time and the trigger has been the closing track of Klute’s latest album. Also, it’s made sense that the featured tracks are at least a few years old, allowing sufficient time for the beauty and subtleties of music to resonate. However, I eventually decided to bend those ‘rules’ for the first time and present a fairly recent, exceptional piece of modern ambient electronica, written by an artist I’ve been quietly following for a long time. His articulate views extend well beyond the musical sphere, so it seemed mandatory to combine the traditional structure of the series with a mini-interview and an afterword.
Regardless of tempo and genre, the ‘Tracks I Wish I’d Written’ will always be about shedding light to sentimental music with a profound vision and purpose; an endeavour to unlock something magical, to capture that moment in time and that beautiful place, which both are tantalizingly at your fingertips, but seem always out of reach.
36 / SYNE
36 is the main recording alias of Dennis Huddleston, a prolific artist, who has found a unique, signature voice in a niche, yet saturated market, partly because he doesn’t fit the description of a standard ambient musician. His productions are a seductive, compelling and powerful interplay between music and images; dreamy, introspective and emotive, where the lines between composition and improvisation blur and the abstract intersects with the tangible.
“In terms of where I stand in this grand musical theatre of ours, I leave that for other people to decide. I just make music to please myself and only share it with the rest of the world when I think I’ve got something worth listening to. I don’t even understand how I got to this point really, because I certainly had no intention to become a musician. I always admit that a large degree of luck was involved during the initial breakout period. It’s quite a surreal feeling to know I make music for a living. I still get a bit embarrassed when people ask me what I do, because it doesn’t feel real to me, even a decade later. Still, I shouldn’t downplay things too much, as I put my heart and soul into my work. Honestly, I’m just really happy that the music I make, alone in the studio, eventually finds a place with other people all around the world. It’s the greatest feeling. We all think of ourselves as these unique, singular personalities, but we’re a lot more similar than we think. Music is the great connector.
SYNE is my techno side-project. I’ve only released one LP so far, but I do have on-going plans for it. I made some new SYNE tracks this week actually. It’s a fun deviation for me. It lets me fulfil my dance-floor desires, which I realize can alienate the people who just like my beat-less stuff. In fact, it probably alienates most of the techno heads too, now that I think about it! Certain sounds may cross-over occasionally, but in general, I want to keep 36 for the beat-less ambient tunes and SYNE for the more explicit techno material. It’s less messy that way”.
Ambient x Drum & Bass
“As musical cultures, ambient and drum & bass certainly find parallels in each other – they both loosely connect around personal freedom – be it euphoric or mindful, as genres they are similar in the emotions they elicit…” (Ryan Griffin, A Strangely Isolated Place)
Anyone who has enjoyed electronic music in the 90’s has an attachment to drum & bass somewhere along their musical tree and Dennis Huddleston has been no exception. He grew up listening to UK hardcore music and all the genres it splintered off into afterwards. Those have been the roots of his music and even if his ambient productions sound a world apart, there are still threads to the past that will never be unbound. 36 has stated that FSOL have been a major influence to his music [as well as the unofficial sample pack for 90s d&b I would add], so however gossamer or disguised the connections are present.
“I’ve spoken about it a lot in the past and the UK hardcore scene was fundamental in my musical development. Probably more so than any other genre, since I was literally just a 10 year old kid when I first started listening to it. Those early ‘Fantazia’ tapes in particular were a big influence on me. When I look back now, it’s one hell of a weird initiation into music! But I fell in love with the sound. I still love it. It was an amazing time for music and though it took me a few more years to truly understand the scope of what was happening back then, I hold these tunes with the absolute highest admiration in my heart. I made a playlist here with some of my favourites from this era, which I’m sure many of your readers will already know and love.
It’s quite funny seeing people’s reactions when I tell them about this, as most just naturally assume I grew up listening to Brian Eno or Tangerine Dream, who share a much more obvious connection to my own music. But despite my love of these artists too, they weren’t the people I was listening to in the formative years of my musical development. Even if my own music doesn’t share much in common with the UK hardcore stuff, it’s still at the deepest part of my musical identity. Listen closely enough and you might just hear a glimpse of it every now and then”.
After graduating from university, Huddleston started working in a graphic design studio in Leeds. Really soon though, he decided to go free-lance and embark on a mission to realize his musical dream: to make the ambient album he had always promised himself he’d create. After a year of fine-tuning his production methods and learning more about music theory, he recorded his debut album ‘Hypersona’ (2009), which is probably his purest vision of what his music is all about: “I wrote it, somewhat naively, thinking that if it was the only album I ever made, it’d be something worth remembering.”
The real challenge though was to garner attention and get other people to hear it. Defying the initial frustration of low interest from labels and distributors, he took the brave decision to form 3Six Recordings and release it himself. Fast forward a decade later, 36 and his label have elevated from timid beginnings to a dedicated fan-base all over the world.
3Six Recordings is the platform for Huddleston’s own material and a love affair with the LP vinyl format. A certified album writer, 36 has produced more than 20 albums and compilations in the course of 10 years and his discography is a musical statement in an era and culture of distraction, where new music and especially LPs are relentlessly buried underneath an endless scroll. If you haven’t already stumbled upon 36’s music, I highly recommend that you start with some of my favourites: Hypersona (2009), Memories in Widescreen (2010), Dream Tempest (2014), Tomorrow’s Explorers (2017) and Ego Death (2018).
“I used to be overly precious about my music, which is probably why I kept everything for my own label. I’m under no illusions that I’m probably quite difficult to work with, but that’s simply because I care about what I’m doing and demand the highest standards from myself and others. In recent years, I have learned to let go a little bit and work with other labels like ‘A Strangely Isolated Place’ and ‘Past Inside The Present’. These labels respect my independence and mostly just let me do my own thing. It’s a good thing too, because I’m a micro-managing freak. Bless them for having the patience to put up with my ridiculous demands! Both labels are run by the nicest people, who share my love for music. Honestly, after working alone with my own label for so long, it’s quite nice to let others take the reins a bit. I know they share my level of passion and commitment and every release I’ve done with them has turned out great.
In terms of my own label, I like to handle as much as I can myself. From production, to artwork, to packaging design, right up to handling orders and shipping them out to people. It’s just the most natural way for me to operate. It also lets me save some money, which I can pump right back into my studio. After 10 years, I like to think I’ve got things under control! There are people who were buying my first record in 2009 that continue to support me today, so I guess I’m doing something right”.
Artwork and graphic design
I have an obsession with record sleeves. Whether they are hand-made or mass-produced, meticulously arranged or spontaneously created, the cover artwork adds a literal dimension to the music that a digital thumbnail simply cannot replicate. As an accomplished graphic designer, 36 pays painstaking attention to the bespoke artwork design and visual aesthetic of his productions.
“Since day one, the visual identity of my records is just as important as the sound itself. When I’m making a record, I have key visuals in mind and do my best to realise them when I’m designing the artwork. Often I make both the music and the artwork at the same time, so they naturally evolve together. I can’t understand those musicians who make the most beautiful music, but show little care or attention for the visual side. It’s like stuffing a Rembrandt painting inside a £5 plastic frame from IKEA”.
The musical format
There is a common misconception, almost de rigueur, that unless pressed on vinyl, music is unworthy of serious attention, of second-tier quality or even disposable. I have to admit that I have been silently complicit, in the sense that every track presented in the series is taken from my vinyl collection and not my hard drive, but I will claim the unwritten rules mentioned at the beginning to get away with it. I already see purist eyebrows raising, so I have asked for Dennis’ insightful views regarding the alleged vinyl resurgence and the importance (or non-importance) of the media format from a label owner/producer’s perspective:
“Vinyl is the most beautiful format, but also the most frustrating. It’s expensive as hell to make, takes ages to manufacture and is prone to failure at literally every single stage of production. The effort and expense does act as a pretty good quality filter though, because if you’re going to go through the agony of dealing with vinyl, then your music better be worthy of it! However, I’m always conscious of the fact that the whole thing reeks of elitism. Because of the expense involved, vinyl is beyond the reach of many artists and labels. It kind of contradicts the working class roots, which many of these electronic genres originally came from. I know from my own perspective (born and raised on a council estate, never really having any money until I reached 30) that it took me a long time before I felt comfortable pressing vinyl. If it failed to sell, it would have effectively ended me. I love music and I’m not shy of taking a gamble, but people shouldn’t have to worry about becoming homeless, just to please some music nerds online.
It seems that people are often more concerned about the format, rather than the music itself. If a new album doesn’t have a vinyl press, then it’s somehow considered inferior or not worthy of your time. To be clear, I’m sometimes guilty of feeling this way too. Vinyl apparently turns us all into music snobs eventually! It’s undeniable that albums that are released on vinyl get much more attention than those that are just released digitally. There is a prestige factor to vinyl, which digital (and even CD’s now) just doesn’t have. It’s seen as a more serious format, when in reality, it’s just a hugely more expensive one. Ultimately, a good track is a good track, whether it’s pressed onto a 12″ disc or just binary data on your computer. I think we forget this sometimes”.
The merit of music writing is to live and breathe through various shades of shifting interpretations, so the listener can conjure his own imagery and vision. I love thought-provoking track/album titles, apparently one of my many compulsions. I delve into the semantics trying to deduce and identify hidden messages, themes or allusions that might or might not be there. Like photographs, individual chapters of a book or torn pages from a diary, song titles sometimes create streams of thought that might stray into parallel narratives and ‘sliding doors’ type of endings. 36’s unconventional and resourceful titles though debunk the above, as the process is more complicated (or mundane) than I’d imagined:
“I’ve always struggled with track titles. Even when I make music with specific visuals or memories in mind, I always stumble a bit when it comes to deciding what to call them. I’d avoid them entirely if I could, but obviously that’s not really an option, so I just try to find words that best describe my intentions for the track. It’s hard to put into words, but I don’t really “see” my tracks by the written name I eventually give them. When making the tracks (and even after releasing them), I remember them more by the sounds they have, the melody etc … It’s why I’m always forgetting track names when I hear a piece of music I haven’t heard in a while! I will rarely forget a melody though. Once that is buried in my head, it stays there forever”.
36 – Fade To Grey (A Strangely Isolated Place, ASIPV013, 2019)
‘Fade To Grey’ is the closing track from 36’s eponymous album. Released by A Strangely Isolated Place (ASIP) on January 2019 as the follow-up to the ‘Infinity Room’ (2016), ‘Fade To Grey’ highlighted the exceptional partnership between 36 and ASIP; music and ethos perfectly aligned. Dennis reflects on the album’s vision and background story:
“I first spoke to Ryan from ‘A Strangely Isolated Place’ around 2010, after he wrote some nice words about one of my albums on his website. He’s a very kind, positive person, with a deep passion and understanding for the kind of music I’m involved with. When he took the plunge into creating his own label, he offered to release a 36 record. It was a no-brainer for me. We released ‘The Infinity Room’ in 2016, which proved to be a big success. Around 2017, we talked about doing a follow-up and I started brainstorming ideas. Brexit and the US presidential elections were still deep in people’s minds. Friends, families and strangers were going to war with each other on social media, fuelled by the 24/7 news cycle of perpetual misery. Social media networks became very effective propaganda tools, seemingly welcoming the increasing hostility between people with open arms. Bots became indistinguishable from real people, echo-chambers formed, and it just felt like this really strange, deeply unpleasant alternative reality; an endless sea of negativity. I felt fatigued by it all and retreated, shutting myself off. I sank completely into my work and a few months later, I had finished the first draft of Fade To Grey”.
‘Fade To Grey’ shares the same title and theme with one of my favourite 80’s new wave/synth pop songs written by Visage. Although there are no lyrics here, 36 visualizes, captures and portrays the desolate feelings of loneliness and isolation in a contemporary context. The exquisite album’s artwork goes a step further illustrating the abuse of technology as a substitute for human interaction. The soft, gentle elegance of watercolour is juxtaposed by the violent splatters of machinery. As with pretty much every 36 album, the music invites the listener to stretch towards some sort of wondrous alchemy, limited only by their own imagination.
“It felt like a fitting name for the album. Isolation and escapism are usually seen as negative traits, but they can also be incredibly addictive. I think we all want to just hide away from the world every now and then. But real-life continues without us and despite our flaws, people are ultimately what make life interesting. The colour from our world disappears when we shut each other off and retreat completely into technology. It got me thinking about how easy it is to disappear from each other lives without our all-encompassing dependence on social media. It’s probably a cliché at this point, but we’re often at our loneliest when we’re surrounded by other people. We compare ourselves to the fake, ultra-idealised versions that other people present themselves as online. It’s like we’re living two separate realities at once, except one is built mostly on lies. It’s a phenomenon that is entirely unique for our generation and I think we’re struggling to truly understand the damage we’re doing to each other. I hope that’s represented in the artwork. It’s a real person, but distorted and fragmented. Blurred out. Hollow.”
Instead of a short closing vignette, ‘Fade To Grey’ is almost eleven minutes long (a long track even by bvdub’s standards), but not a single second is wasted. Emotionally charged and melancholic, almost mournful notes lead up to a cascade of arpeggios around the 7th minute mark, which sadly fades away and a guitar riff leads to a breathtaking closure. The saturated glimmers of hope retreat into the myriad shades of grey reality and Boards-of-Canada-esque unease.
“In terms of the title track, it felt like a fitting closer to the album. It connected all the themes I explored in the previous tracks and glued them together in a kind of grand finale. All my music is melancholic. I’ve tried to shake it, but ultimately, I just can’t. I am just naturally inclined towards it. Even so, I don’t want to just write sad tunes to make you feel down, because depression shouldn’t be glorified. It’s why I always strive for a kind of euphoria among the sadness, because even in the worst times, we have a natural disposition to overcome it. We try to find that elusive light. In terms of track length, I guess it is quite long (and I’ve certainly argued that most ambient music is way too long in general!), but I’m confident that I didn’t waste a single second of the track. It said exactly what I needed to say.
Like most of my music, the title track and the album itself used a combination of both real and synthetic instruments. The combination of both brings out the best in my sound. It’s a pretty heavy track, that keeps building and building. After that arpeggiated synth crescendo around 7 minutes, I stripped everything back and let the strings take focus. Then these fade away too and all that’s left is a single solo guitar among the distortion; a kind of beacon in the night. Along with ‘Apartment 451’, it’s my favourite tune on the album and I intentionally sequenced it at the end as a thank-you to the listener for trusting me with an hour of their life. People seem to care less and less about the album format now, so tracks at the end often get relegated, especially in today’s world of instant-gratification via Spotify and co. But for me at least, the album is still the ultimate expression of an artist’s sound. I’ll never abandon it”.
Slightly deviating from the album’s narrative and purpose, my interpretation has a different, more pessimistic and bitter ending. In my eyes, ‘Fade To Grey’ is a metaphor for the chasm between reality and projection, the battle between person and persona: the fictionalized version of you, partly constructed by truth and partly to comply with a simplistic archetype. When the persona takes over like a ventriloquist dummy from a horror movie and the real you is suppressed by the imposter, you realize that the costume stitched for you and you wore with pride is in fact ill-fitting; Technicolor fantasy fades into monochrome existence.
“Fade To Grey was eventually released in January 2019 and once again, it was great to see such a positive reaction to it. I think Ryan was really pleased with the album and said it was one of his favourite works he heard from me, so I’m glad I didn’t disappoint him. Obviously time will ultimately tell the full-story, but I hope that the album will continue to be relevant in the years to come. I’m very proud of it and I’m happy it made enough of an impact for you to invite me to talk about it on your site! I’d like to thank Ryan for all his hard work and Rafael for his assistance in making the record sound the best it can be. Finally, I’d like to thank all the people who bought it. I know it’s been said a million times before, but if people stop buying music, then smaller artists like myself will no longer be able to make it. Buy a record you love. Treasure it. It’ll be with you forever”.
Fade To Grey Re-interpreted
The vinyl edition of ‘Fade To Grey’ included a bonus CD (released later as stand-alone) with a track-by-track re-interpretation of the original dystopian Fade To Grey story. Designed to be listened to as a continuous mix, the discrete moments of the source material dissolve and regenerate into longer (the lead track extends to 17 minutes), abstract and distant versions, closer to the sound 36 has been renowned for.
(Excerpts from the respective press releases)
Lower Lights/Audio Diary
‘The Lower Lights’ and the companion release ‘Beneath The Lower Lights’ is a compilation album from 36, featuring 19 tracks of vibrant, eclectic ambient music released on Past Inside The Present. They have been carefully chosen from a larger selection of tracks, made between April 2018 and April 2019 as part of a year-long ‘Audio Diary’ project. These showcase the more energetic side to 36’s production, whilst still retaining that glowing melancholia, which has become the hallmark of the 36 sound.
Dreamloops Tape Series
‘C45 Dreamloops’ is a 3-volume cassette tape series released in 2019. As the name suggests, they are loop-based tracks, made for C45 cassette tapes. Each tune in this series is 22:30 in length. These are slow, hypnotic tracks that exist in their own time and space. All tape-related artifacts such as hiss, saturation, wow & flutter are both intentional and encouraged.
Dennis has been very vocal about the abuse of technology and the impact of social media on personal choice and human interaction:
“Social media has given us this beautiful way to connect to friends and strangers, but also augments the absolute worst qualities within people. Beyond that, practically all the companies running these sites have proven to be amoral assholes, seeing people as nothing more than data cows to milk for their advertisers. Or worse, political entities, using your profile to try and subliminally influence your world view. It’s grim. I removed all my personal social media accounts years ago and have been infinitely happier ever since. I think we need to learn how to deprogram ourselves and limit our dependence on them. Stop letting them hold your life hostage. It’s a lot easier than you think. Well, maybe it was easier for me because my generation didn’t grow up with sites like facebook. It’s probably a hell of a lot more difficult for young people today, who have never known anything else. I guess that Pandora’s box is much harder to close”.
For everything ‘36’ related visit the official website here.
The ‘Tracks I Wish I’d Written’ archive is available here.