Interview / Jon Tye / MLO / Music From Memory

Earlier this year I was privileged and honoured to be asked to help out with this particular project. For the second installment in their planned Virtual Dreams series, Music From Memory have put together a retrospective of work by MLO – most of it actually archival and previously unreleased. They very kindly enlisted me to pen the sleeve / liner notes. In prep for that prose I spoke to one of MLO`s two protagonists, Jon Tye – the other being Peter Smith. Now I’d interviewed Jon a few times prior, about his solo productions – as Ocean Moon, and his long-running partnership with Pete Fowler, as Seahawks, this piece however is focussed solely on Jon and Peter`s mid-90s “ambient adventuring”, their then relationship with rave ringmasters Rising High, and R&S, and touches on the formation of Jon`s incredible imprint, Lo Recordings. 

How and when did you meet Peter Smith?

I met Pete in Exeter, Devon in 1977. We were in rival punk bands – Pete played guitar in The Brakes and I played bass and sang in XS. When The Brakes split up after the unfortunate death of singer Phil Pentecost, Pete asked me to play bass with Joe Photograph, an art rock band fronted by designer Joe Ewart. When Joe left the band Pete asked me to take over as singer and we changed the name to Missing Chemicals. Our sound was influenced by Talking Heads, XTC, Pere Ubu and The Pop Group. After a couple of years playing around Exeter we moved to London. We struggled to find a stable line-up, despite a publishing deal with Island Records and interest from Rough Trade and Fast Records. We were going nowhere fast when Pete was offered the job of guitarist with a band called OUT who rehearsed under a clothes shop called DEMOB. Later, the owner, Chris Brick, and his partner Jon Baker, opened the Rivertown Recording studio, where Pete became engineer and producer. Looking for bands to test out the studio I introduced him to a band called Scatter, who became Dogman and the Head and then Stereo MC’s, who together with Jon Baker, then started Gee Street Records. Gee Street started off as a hip hop label but moved into house after Jon met the Jungle Brothers in New York. This led me and musical buddies Jan Pomerans and Martin Sheller – of The Regents who had a number one single with 17 – to form Funtopia and release several records including the acid classic, Beautiful People, and Freedom – with Chicago born singer Jimi Polo. We also got to work with Derrick May, who at one point was going to release a Funtopia E.P. on Transmat.

You’d produced some big dance records as Funtopia – plus not all of MLO`s output was chilled – you’d been signed to R&S! – what prompted the move toward more ambient sounds?

It was acid house that really got me into dance music. Initially I’d been making electronic library music for Bruton, which sparked my interest in making electronic records. Suddenly we had access to so many synthesizers and drum machines. It seemed much more fun than being in a band. Bruton was owned by Jive who asked us to write some ‘house’ music for them and we released the K-Roc acid track Turn It Up. Pete meanwhile was still working at Rivertown studios with Jon Baker.

I’d always been into the more chilled side of things and was really tired of four to the floor house beats. MLO started when Pete and I made New Generation….very much a club track but with a more mellow cosmic vibe, and with breakbeats instead of a four to the floor. Pete had released the Radical Rob single Monkey Wah with R&S so we sent New Generation to Renaat at R&S…He left an answerphone message saying ‘I LOVE IT!’ and MLO was born.

When the ‘ambient / chillout’ scene arrived I jumped on the chance to make an ambient album…most of the stuff that Rising High was releasing was not to my mind ambient at all… filled as it was with beats, ominous bass tones and vocal samples…the MLO album Io was meant to be a ‘proper’ ambient album.

Were there any artists, or pieces of music, “life changes”, that inspired this musical move?

I grew up listening to a pretty eclectic selection of music thanks to my brother and sister, and their friends, who were around ten years older than me. I vividly recall albums by Soft Machine,Terry Riley, The Incredible String Band, Ravi Shankar and Berlioz along with more mainstream bands like The Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd and The Beatles. Later, after I moved with my Mum to Devon, I would return to Maidstone to see my Dad in the holidays. My Dad was a Headmaster and would take me to a record library that was only open to school teachers. I could take out anything I liked, and take it back to my Dad’s to record on to cassette. I would pick albums I liked the look of …Weather Report`s I Sing The Body Electric, John Coltrane`s Giant Steps, John Klemmer`s Waterfalls, Neil Ardley`s A Kaleidoscope of Rainbows, Albert Ayler`s Ghosts, are albums that I recall…

My Dad also used to send me tapes of classical music and I remember really liking Erik Satie, Claude Debussy and Mahler. At sixth form college I was asked to play 4.33 by John Cage and Composition Number 7 by La Monte Young, and this had a profound effect on me and led me to explore the music of Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Michael Nyman. I was a big Roxy Music fan which led me to Eno’s solo albums and in particular the Cluster & Eno album. Cluster led to Neu! and in particular Neu 75. Seeland is an all time favourite. Laraaji’s Day of Radiance and Bearns & Dexter’s Golden Voyage albums took me deeper into the ambient / new age vortex. I channelled these experimental leanings into soundtracks to accompany tape slide shows by Janine Rook, who then was a student at the Slade Art College. These will soon be added to the BFI archive.

Were you hanging out in London record shops, like Ambient Soho, and Fat Cat – and finding new music there?

I spent a lot of time in Ambient Soho. They would take vinyl or CDs to sell and were definitely the best place for new ambient music. I used to take all the Lo Recordings releases in – I remember being there one day when Joe Strummer bought the Slack Dog E.P. that I’d made with Luke Vibert and Kingsuk Biswas. For some reason I don’t recall Fat Cat so much, but the Rough Trade basement shop in Covent Garden was a regular haunt.

Where were the tracks recorded – F2? What kind of equipment did you use? Was there any piece of equipment central to the MLO sound?

The tracks on the album were recorded after Pete stopped working at F2. Most of them were made in a studio in Barnes, which we got to use in return for working on some tracks by an Icelandic singer called Ragga. Ragga’s husband worked at the Icelandic Embassy and somehow had access to the studio. The studio was great in that it had an Emulator 2, which I loved, having used one before when working for Bruton Music, and a very rare Korg PS 3300, which sounded great. Other tracks were made in the studio I had underneath Spitalfields Market, The Centre of Sound. One track was recorded in the R&S Studio Ghent, which was a rundown house by the river, full of rare synths and an Amek Einstein mixing desk. The Akai sampler was definitely one of the main instruments for all our tracks. We went from the S-900 to the S-3200. The sampler really was a revolution in music.

How did the collaboration work? Who did what?

Pete was a great engineer, having spent time at Rivertown and F2, so he generally took care of the mixing. We both used Atari computers and C-Lab hardware interfaces. Generally I maybe did more beat programming and Pete more sequencing. Both of us played synths and sampler. The Roland SH-101 was the first synth that I bought and we always had one – and at one point two – in the studio, but for the tracks recorded in Barnes it was the Emulator 2 that really inspired us. That and the Korg PS 3300.

Looking back at your “catalogue” on Discogs, you`ve made some amazing music, and connections, worked with a wide range of wonderful collaborators – it looks like a “whos who” of UK electronica. Was there a scene? Were you mixing socially or otherwise with other similar artists?

There was definitely a scene in London in the `90s, and a lot of that came from The Electronic Lounge nigh at the ICA, created by Robin Rimbaud aka Scanner. I met a lot of people there, including David Toop and Rob Young – from The Wire magazine – who, along with Tony Morley of The Leaf Label, I went on to start the Scratch Club with. Scratch showcased a really diverse array of music. Derek Bailey, Cornershop, Silver Apples, Talvin Singh & Squarepusher, Dr Rockit, Four Tet, Lol Coxhill, Eddie Prévost and Andrew Weatherall, all performed there to punters – including David Bowie. There was a lot going on and the mixture of live bands – like Tortoise and Fridge – overlapping with Electronica made for a really exciting time, with so many different but related genres of music – trip hop, dub, ambient, electronica, avant garde, drum and bass, hip hop, easy listening, soundtracks, library music. Megatripolis and the KLF White Room at Heaven were also memorable experiences that inspired me to start playing DJ sets – mixing DAT tapes of my own material with records and sound effects. I also recall Jimmy from the KLF would have great parties in a huge squat in Stockwell. Funtopia played at The Brain Club a lot and it was our favourite place to hang out. We appeared on the Live At The Brain Club album, along with Orbital and Mr Monday. I also recall a short tour of Scotland with DJ Harvey and Audio One.

The Big Chill events at the Union Chapel were very inspiring. I played at several of the Sunday sessions, and it was there I first saw The Mike Flowers Pops, leading to the collaboration between the MFP and Aphex Twin which was one of the early releases on my label, Lo. I went on to play at many of the Big Chill festivals – including the first one – in many guises over the years, and curated a Milky Disco event at one with Prins Thomas, Idjut Boys, Black Devil and Richard Sen.

I can remember being at a mid-week party, where Luke Slater was DJing, and chatting to Scanner and Bjork. 

That was almost certainly the Electronic Lounge. I had a lot of good nights there and it really fed into the early Lo releases. There was a really broad selection of people from different age groups and musical backgrounds which was great when it came to making the Collaborations album and later the ROOT project with Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth. 

MLO were later signed to Rising High. Was there a “Rising High extended family” that helped forge these creative collaborations?

I guess I met some people via Rising High, like Kingsuk Biswas of Bedouin Ascent and Mixmaster Morris – I also introduced them to Luke Vibert, who was a friend of my niece in Cornwall – but a lot of their releases were from non-UK artists, so there wasn’t that much of a scene around the label. Pete fell out with Casper at Rising High over royalties for The Hypnotist  – just one of their many successful joint studio projects….they sold a LOT of records! – so it was really after that, with the Electronic Lounge and Scratch, that I started to mix and mingle and to engineer the collaborations that formed such a big part of Lo. Mike Flowers Pops vs Aphex Twin being a memorable example.

What about Ninja Tune, were you tight with them? Didn`t Strictly Kev / DJ Food work at Ambient Soho for a while?

Yes. I met Pete Quicke at the Electronic Lounge and we realised that we’d been at school together in Devon. So I ended up going to a lot of Ninja nights and making the 2 Player records with Daniel Pemberton for Ninja. I think you’re right Kev did work at Ambient Soho…he was also doing most or all of the Design for Ninja and their ambient offshoot NTONE. The MLO track, Sleeper, features on the NTONE album Tone Tales From Tomorrow Too.

How did the collaborations with Jonah Sharp come about? 

My friend Phil Smith ran a restaurant in Kentish Town called Le Petit Prince – he also managed Adamski. Jonah worked at the restaurant for a while and was just getting into electronic dance music. Head trained previously as a jazz drummer. I remember he came to see Funtopia, and was really inspired by the fact that we were playing live rather than DJing. Jonah was planning on moving to San Francisco so I suggested we got together in the studio before he left. All the tracks we recorded were extended improvised jams and part of the reason that they never got released was that it was so expensive to edit tracks at the time – unless you used tape which was very tricky and time consuming. Now it’s so easy to record into a computer and edit audio but back then it was still a dream.

The name you chose to work under was / is pretty obscure. How did you discover the Mauna Loa Observatory, and why names yourselves after it?

We were fascinated by space and saw the Mauna Loa Observatory in a book of stars….we already had the MLO idea as shorthand for the word Mellow, the two came together and seemed to fit with the spatial nature of the music.

The title of the forthcoming Music From Memory compilation refers to an unidentified object – some say comet fragment, others say alien tech – possibly from beyond our solar system – that`s traveling, tumbling, accelerating toward the sun – again a Hawaiian name – again how did you learn about OUMUAMUA, and why use this for the compilation title?

I feel that the unreleased tracks are like UFOs that have been floating in space, unheard or seen but nevertheless existing for almost thirty years….Encountering them again was a very strange experience like meeting an alternative version of yourself from the past. Neither Pete or I have any recollection of making many of the tracks.

Why did the MLO collaboration come to a close?

A lot of the tracks on Oumuamua were intended for a follow up to Io, for Rising High but when Pete fell out with them over non-payment of royalties, we no longer had an outlet. I also wanted to explore a mixture of styles rather than just electronic dance-related music so I decided to start the Lo Recordings label…the last MLO track to be released was Fish Shack, with David Thomas of Pere Ubu, on the Lo label.

What did you both do next?

I started Lo and Pete went on an extended road trip to the USA. As a direct contrast to the ambient music I’d been making I decided to explore extreme noise with the Twisted Science releases. Extreme Possibilities was both a release I made for Ninja and the mission statement of the Lo Recordings label.

Are you and Pete still in contact? 

Yes indeed. I see Pete a few times a year when I’m in London which obviously hasn’t been for a while due to lockdown and he’s been down to Cornwall a couple of times.

Why did so much wonderful music remain unreleased for so long?

The Lo Recordings label and later the Lo Editions production music library, not to mention numerous musical projects, kept me very busy. Also the process of recording to DAT tape meant tapes full of different takes, abortive versions, stops, starts and oddments, leading to a sprawling archive of over a hundred tapes…it always seemed too massive a proposition to contemplate investigating.

When Tako and Jamie got in touch I wasn’t sure what we’d find on those tapes. Both Pete and I recalled the material being much darker and sketchier than what we actually found, and is included on the Oumuamua album. It was a nice surprise to hear the music again, but even so I think it would have been very hard to pick tracks for a compilation myself. It really feels like music from a different place, a different time, made by different people.

MLO`s Oumuamua is available to preorder over at Music From Memory’s website. 

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