“Then I just went off and decided that I wanted to make music that was the opposite of everything I was learning so I got more into more beat-oriented stuff then”.
Our first encounter with the intense and oppressive music of Cork-native Ellen King, operating under her name stagename ELLLL, came when she opened for Canadian drone guru Tim Hecker back in late 2014 in the Button Factory. On that night, with little internet presence and hidden behind the banks of Hecker’s gear, ELLLL played a set of curious noise that left her remaining elusive.
Our most recent encounter was altogether different. From high over the crowd on the Anachronica stage on the first night of this year’s Electric Picnic, ELLLL – along with fellow DJs Cáit, Lolz and Cailín Power – held sway over the hypnotic rave in the woods. All four were representing Gash Collective, a grassroots organisation set up by King that provides a platform for female and non-binary artists, producers, and DJs through gigs, parties and workshops. It was a celebration both of their talent and their visibility and was one of the highlights of the festival.
That night also served as a marker of how far King has come in those three years, which have also seen her release her debut EP, Romance, through Sligo-based label Art For Blind. Ahead of her appearance at this year’s Metropolis Festival in the RDS, we chatted about everything going on in the busy world of ELLLL.
When I wrote the review of Romance, I said that the tracks felt like sketches of larger explorations – is that a fair representation of what they are?
I’m not sure. It feels like so long ago now, even though it only came out at the start of the year but the tracks were finished so much longer before that it’s strange to think about it again. Kind of yes and no, in so far as some of the tracks, Tease in particular, I’d been playing in different incarnations live for quite a while and it came from a completely improvised thing. Two of them, Bear and Romance, were written as tracks [for the EP].
I actually find it quite hard to do that because so much of what I played before the record came out was entirely loose and really improvised, and they weren’t tracks at all, it would be different every time. It’s quite different then when you have four finished things and you have to incorporate those.
How much does your live performance influences the recording process, or how much the idea of finishing tracks to put on a record influence the composition of them? Which one feeds the other?
That’s a good question [laughs]. Writing those tracks was quite improvised, and my method of working would quite literally be that I would record maybe a 30 or 40 minute improvisation and then edit that later, but I try and do it as much as if it was live, because I really don’t like being in that “arrangement view” – in Ableton, for example – where you’re adding bits. It’s really tedious, and it doesn’t feel very musical. I’d prefer to do just a live recording, and it could be really long and I could edit it later and hone that down.
I had read a quote from you in another interview which was: “The minute any set becomes rigid it stresses me out too much and I don’t want to do it any more” So has your live set-up changed to try to move away from the computer screen?
So, it kind of goes back to having that record and it being these four tracks Before it came out, everything was really loose and I could do what I wanted but then after it came out, I almost felt this obligation to play those tracks. Like I said, three of them were written just to be tracks and not really for a live context. Then I was getting stressed thinking, “Oh, I have to play Romance, or I have to play this song or the other,” which was making it really not fun because I didn’t have the flexibility to just do whatever.
I kinda had to review all that then over the summer for the sets I did, it was a lot free-er, and I tried to take a lot of things away and just use core parts of the tracks. Definitely, going into next year, I can’t see myself playing anything off Romance anymore, and going back to lots of different sounds and something that will be completely different every time.
It’s not so much using the computer that I find rigid, it’s feeling that everything needs to be exactly as the track was written, that type of rigidness. I use the Ableton Push [a hardware instrument built specifically to control Ableton Live software] as well a lot, which I wasn’t before, and that’s pretty flexible too.
I believe you’re a piano teacher as well and you do some stuff with the composer Irene Buckley as well, so I was wondering, musically, what your background is, and how did you come to this quite avant-garde techno that you’re playing? Was it through the academic route, or was it through clubbing, or was it Wire magazine, where did it come from?
A bit of all of those things. My background is that I’m a classical pianist, and I studied music in UCC. After that I did a Master’s in Contemporary Composition, so that was a good mix of writing for instruments and electronic programming. When I was in my undergrad, I went in as a classical pianist, but, honestly, I just didn’t really find my niche for ages, so I just took lots of different classes available to me, which just happened to include music technology classes. I got really into them, they struck a chord with me. I took all of those music tech classes that were at my disposal, but I still wasn’t really listening to a lot of dance music at that time. Even the classes, they weren’t based around composing, or a certain genre, it was all just about using the software, so everything was really abstract, more sound design-y.
Then after the Master’s, to be honest, I found it really challenging. Then I just went off and decided that I wanted to make music that was the opposite of everything I was learning so I got more into more beat-oriented stuff then. So around that time, maybe I was going to more clubs, but we don’t really have a lot of clubs here in Cork in the first place, so I would say it was probably just more listening to things, finding things on the internet and headphones on, writing off the back of that.
What differentiates the music that you make with Irene as WRY MYRRH from the music you make under ELLLL?
I guess the music I make under ELLLL, especially in the last couple of years, it’s definitely more catered towards a club environment, that kind of zone. The music myself and Irene, it has beats in it, but it’s not really club music.
You probably know yourself, doing music, that you say, “Oh, I’ll collaborate with you,” but a lot of the time collaborations just don’t work! But me and Irene met and it actually just clicked, we didn’t have to discuss anything, we just sat down, played some music together and recorded the session. Afterwards we were like, “Oh, we’ll meet again,” and that’s always been our approach. It’s not pre-planned, it’s completely improvised, and we just record those sessions and our gigs are the same. It’s actually therapeutic compared to my own thing, where sometimes I can find it kind of stressful, like, this needs to be here, this needs to be this tempo. The thing that me and Irene do is so free for both of us. It’s so rare that you can just play with someone like that, and it works and you’re both happy with it. It’s very different to my own thing that way, in the kind of spaces we play in, it’s a different approach. It’s free-er is what I’d say for the most part.
In terms of releases, you mentioned before that the tracks on Romance were composed around a certain time period in 2016, so what have you got planned, what comes next nearly a year down the road from Romance?
In the New Year, I’m looking at another EP and then maybe another one before the summer, but it’s all a bit to-be-confirmed. Hopefully, another two releases early next year anyway, and they’ll be physical, twelve inches again. That’s next on the agenda, but especially coming from the summer with gigging, and the Gash Collective workshops, I haven’t had time to write a lot of music. Hopefully in the next month or two I can just get the head down because it takes so long with pressing and everything that by the time the record is actually out, you don’t even feel that connected to it anymore. Mentally, you’ve already moved on to the next thing.
You mentioned Gash Collective there. How has that project developed over the last 18 months that it has been alive?
It’s been a bit mad! It’s gone from strength to strength. From when we started it, everyone was overwhelmingly positive about it, I have to say. We haven’t really hit any hurdles or negativity.
We started the workshops in production and DJing, in January this year, kind of DIY, in Cork and in Dublin, we had one in conjunction with Dublin Digital Radio. Then we had a load of them during the summer with Smirnoff sponsorship, and that really got our name out there more. The response since then has been really just insane. It’s been really good, and I think what I’m most interested in now, especially with the workshops, is all the people who attended them and all the stuff that they’re going to come up with in the next year, if they start producing or DJing or getting gigs.
Other than that, Lolz [Laura O’Connell] who’s involved with Gash, is planning some gigs for the future. So we’ll try to continue with really inclusive and diverse line-ups, putting a spotlight on people who are up and coming, giving them a platform maybe to play live or DJ for the first time. It’s been a kind of crazy 18 months. It’ll be interesting to see this time next year what we’re up to, because there’s stuff happening all the time.
Words: Ian Lamont