Interview: Nurse With Wound’s Colin Potter By David Keenan (31 March 2015)
The experimental musician talks about his long and winding career in the UK underground.
Colin Potter has been a central figure in the UK’s DIY and post-industrial underground since the late ‘70s. His ICR label, founded in 1981, blurred the lines between post-punk experimentation, crude pop, Krautrock-inspired drone work and contemporary electronica, with releases by everyone from DIY legends The Instant Automatons through Chris & Cosey of Throbbing Gristle, experimental composer Trevor Wishart, drone soundists Andrew Chalk and Darren Tate and Bryn Jones’s Muslimgauze. He has also been a key collaborator with both Current 93 and Nurse With Wound, working in the studio with both groups since the late ‘90s as well as serving as a member of Nurse With Wound’s current live line-up.
From the late ‘90s to the late ‘00s Potter’s IC Studio, based in a Victorian Water Tower outside Preston, was a lightning rod for musicians working beneath the radar and a focal point for the nacsent UK drone scene. Recent years have seen an upsurge in interest in Potter’s solo works, with early cassette releases being reissued on vinyl by labels like Deep Distance and Sacred Summits.
In an wide-ranging interview Potter recalls his early days as an electronics obsessed Krautrock fan as well as his founding of the IC studio and label, his adventures with Nurse With Wound and what it was like to be at the hub of the ever-evolving UK drone underground.
What sparked your first interest in experimental sound, were there particular early epiphanies?
I started buying records at a very early age (around nine, ten years old), mostly instrumental and guitar groups. I remember a couple of TV shows that used primitive electronic sounds – Space Patrol and, of course, Doctor Who. I became interested in those sounds and slowly tried to find records that featured them but in the early and mid-’60s it wasn’t easy. But as the hippy/prog era developed, suddenly there was more weird music available. I had a bunch of friends who all listened to similar stuff and we’d all come up with new LPs and it was great to find so much new music. One particular favourite was Alchemy by the Third Ear Band. For some reason, we decided it would be easy and great fun to make that sort of music. So, with virtually no musical ability and only the minimum of equipment (one cheap acoustic guitar and a melodica – the rest was “percussion”) we started improvising. It was something I really enjoyed so I bought a domestic tape recorder and a cheap and nasty home organ. We never really intended our “jamming” to be taken seriously and it was around the time when we started going our separate ways – university, jobs, etc.
So when did you start working with electronics?
I ended up at York University and I was delighted to discover that there was an Electronic Arts Society and their prized possession was an EMS Synthi A briefcase synthesiser, that they had somehow managed to get a grant to buy – they were really expensive at the time. Even though I wasn’t a music student, members were allowed into the music department which was then pretty well known for experimental work. Not only did I get to see a huge number of concerts of electronic, contemporary classical and improv music, I also managed to borrow the synth for a couple of months, which taught me the basics of analogue synthesis. Around that time I also started building some simple electronic circuits for generating and morphing sounds. I dropped out of University after two years as I was wasting my time and got a job which enabled me to buy a decent tape machine and a few other bits and pieces. Over the years this kept growing and I eventually moved to a house near York where there was an outbuilding which I converted into a basic studio.
What was your first studio set-up like?
Up until then most of my equipment was pretty primitive but I decided to take the plunge and buy semi professional 4-track and 2-track tape machines, a proper mixer and some mikes. Not long after that I bought a Korg synth and sequencer. Having fairly minimal equipment and plenty of time meant that I could experiment and learn how to get the most out of what I had.
Colin Potter – The Lope I
Were your listening tastes mutating at the same time? The late ‘70s definitely seemed to witness a boom in DIY releases, especially on cassette, from musicians that were drawing on influences more further afield than the standard punk canon.
Up to then most of what I listened to was European experimental stuff, mainly German – the usual suspects – and I guess I tried to produce music that was similar. But towards the end of the 1970s I became aware of the whole punk / DIY thing and the beginning of the era when it became possible to produce and distribute cassettes and vinyl independent of the mainstream music system. I think it would be overly nostalgic to say it was a golden era because in reality not many copies were sold, certainly of the tapes (although the two compilation LPs I was involved with did reasonably well). Also, there wasn’t much exposure on the music press, other than a few little “ghetto columns” in some of the mags or papers. But what was good was that a lot of people began producing stuff with little or no regard of commercial potential or musical convention. I gradually found likeminded people through fanzines and word of mouth. There was also a great record shop in York called Red Rhino, where you could find all sorts of weird music. One of the fanzines was Mirage which mainly covered European music. I ended up writing some reviews and also sent Martin Reed some of my recordings and he put out my first release, The Ghost Office.
Was Throbbing Gristle’s vision of “Industrial Music” important to your own musical genesis?
I was never particularly happy with the term “Industrial Music” as a catch-all term, though I think TG’s use of it for what they were doing was clever. I think a lot of people were inspired by them to do things for themselves, which was also what punk did. I’d been making noises for a long time but that whole period made me think I could do something more than just messing about. Also the sense that you could make music any way you liked. I think a lot of people realised that. I’d been making noises for a long time but that whole period made me think I could do something more than just messing about.
How did you your own label ICR come about?
In 1981 I got together with a few people in the “cassette underground” to put together a jointly-financed compilation LP,We Couldn’t Agree on a Title and decided I had a label, Integrated Circuit Records – a bit of a mouthful, which was soon shortened to ICR. Not long after that I moved to a village outside York called Tollerton. The house had an old barn at the back which I proceeded to convert to a proper studio. I packed in my day job thinking I could look after my kids, run the studio and the label, which was then releasing tapes by myself and other people I liked. After a few years of doing this I realised I couldn’t keep up with everything, so I decided to put the label into hibernation and concentrate on bringing up my daughters and running the studio, evenings and weekends, as a commercial facility. I’d upgraded to 8-track just before the move and after a while I got a 16-track tape machine which seemed like heaven. The bulk of the work I did was with local musicians, some of which was pretty grim. But I learned a lot about engineering and producing (and diplomacy). I also got a lot of work producing sounds for a big local company who installed museums and exhibitions, which enabled me to compile a large sound effects library. Another sideline was cassette copying, which I originally started on a small scale for ICR. Some of the smaller tape labels found out about this and I ended up doing copies for a lot of them.
How did you first come into contact with fellow UK DIY drone experimentalists like Andrew Chalk and Darren Tate?
Andrew was one of the studio’s early customers. He lived in York and I knew him through buying ICR releases. I did quite a lot of work with him and learned a lot in terms of miking up all sorts of strange things, recording outside and playing instruments in a very unconventional way. I released a couple of his tapes and some of the other recordings made it on to various LPs. I was aware that he was also working as Ora with Darren Tate who was very reclusive. Eventually Andrew persuaded Darren to come to the studio but he was quite shy and kind of withdrawn, but after a few visits he began to relax and contribute more. At that stage I was just engineering the sessions, but I’d often suggest things – treatments, sounds, ideas – and I guess, by osmosis, became part of the project.
Current 93 – The Ballad Of Bobby Sunshine
So when did you first connect with Nurse With Wound and Current 93?
Around 1988 I was approached by David Tibet of Current 93 who wanted some tape duplication. His parents lived near York so he called in while visiting them and had a look at the studio. I think the place in London that he (and Steve Stapleton of Nurse With Wound) used had closed down and they were looking for somewhere “sympathetic” to work, so he decided to give me a try. Current 93 had released the album Swastikas for Noddy but were unhappy with it, so they decided to do a remix. David arrived with Steve and Tony Wakeford. Due to a difference in tape format, we had an additional eight tracks to use, so extra material was added, resulting in the Crooked Crosses for the Nodding God album. I guess things went well as I ended up working on more Current stuff and also Sol Invictus. Steve and David also did The Sadness of Things album at IC. If my memory is right I think the first Nurse thing I worked on was the Creakiness/Firepool LP (from 1991) then 1992’s Thunder Perfect Mind, on the release of which I was very pleased to see myself listed as a member. Out of that album came what I would say is my favourite Nurse album, 1994’s Rock ‘N’ Roll Station. It was an odd project brought about by the fact that it wasn’t exactly simple for Steve to get to the studio, as he lived in Ireland. So he asked me to treat, remix, and restructure certain sections and post them over to him. I must have done hours of stuff and he then worked on it over there and I was really blown away when I heard the finished album. A lot of the extra material later resurfaced on Second Pirate Session.
Were you aware of Nurse With Wound prior to working with Steven Stapleton?
I was aware of NWW from interviews and various tracks on compilations, but I didn’t have any albums. But when I started copying tapes, that was like total immersion as I basically was given masters of the entire United Dairies catalogue. So you could say, I got to know the music quite well. It took a while to get to know Steve. Initially I felt it was my role to just get on with the job of being the engineer. Most of the early sessions involved other people but when we started on Thunder Perfect Mind it was mostly just the two of us and I think we got to understanding each other better. Some of the ideas he had were very contrary to standard recording methods, which I normally used for my other commercial work. But neither of us gave a fuck about that and just tried all sorts of weird stuff. He’s got an incredible “ear” for what works, often in the most seemingly unlikely combinations. And humour is never very far away.
Can you tell me a little bit about the famous Water Tower that IC Studios moved to in the late 1990s?
There was a bit of a hiatus when, for reasons beyond my control, I had to move to Preston. The building was interesting in that it was a converted five-storey Victorian water tower and the studio was located on the 4th and 5th floors. It took a while to get the studio back together again. The control room was on the 5th floor with the live room underneath. It was a good place to work, there were lots of windows which was great, as my previous studio had none. I gradually improved the studio equipment and moved from digital tape-based recording to a hard disk system but eventually I realised I needed to learn how to use a computer, as there was so much potential there. I was working with local musician Paul Bradley on numerous drone-based projects, and he taught me the basics of computer, recording, processing and editing.
You reactivated ICR as a label and a distributor when you moved to the Water Tower, is that correct?
I decided to start ICR again shortly after rebuilding the studio as I realised that running a music mailorder operation using the internet was probably a good idea, so ICR distribution was re-born. I initially sold a few tapes, CDs and CD-Rs by people I knew whose music I liked and released the first ICR CD in 1999 – Sumac by Jonathan Coleclough and Andrew Chalk. I released the next one the following year, my own solo album, And Then, which was actually the first album of completely new music I had made for over ten years. The label continues today and we’re almost up to our 80th release.
Colin Potter – We Are So Glad [from We Couldn’t Agree on a Title]
What do you regard as the key ICR releases?
The key releases for me were the compilations – 1981’s We Couldn’t Agree on a Title and 1982’s Flowmotion. I like the element of cooperation in the finance and production and also the mixture of different strands of music. Later I put together a compilation tape, 1983’s Integration, again featuring a wide range of styles, which I think worked really well. Later, the CD releases of the Nurse With Wound Shipwreck Radio projects were very successful and probably introduced a lot of new people to the label.
You worked with some of the most mysterious and enigmatic artists in the UK underground, semi-legendary figures like synthist Paul Kelday, the obscure free music troupe New 7th Music and DIY legends The Instant Automatons. Can you tell us a little bit about your experiences with them?
I lost contact with Paul Kelday shortly after I put ICR into hibernation in the late ’80s. A few people have contacted me over the years asking about him, but I couldn’t help. All I know is that he’s disappeared. It’s very sad, as he made some great music, very unlike most of what was around at the time. I think this was partly due to his personality and the fact that, as far as I could gather, he used only one synthesiser, which was itself somewhat unconventional. It was a Korg MS50, an analogue modular which didn’t have a keyboard. I’ve got one myself and they are strange machines and not particularly easy to use. I’ve still got the cassette masters for all of the albums I distributed. And I’ve no idea what to do with them… Paul’s brother Phil was in New 7th Music, and was my main point of contact with them. As far as I remember they were a fairly loose organisation that met semi-regularly to jam and recorded – fairly crudely – most of what they did and released what they considered the best of. I think they played live a few times.
The Instant Automatons, well, they were extremely important in establishing the tape/DIY network. Their early compilations were a who’s-who of that scene and helped form a primitive system of what would now be called networking. They were very prolific. Maybe the quality control was a bit lax sometimes, but hey – who am I to criticise? They came over to my first studio to record their tracks for the We Couldn’t Agree… compilation LP and it was good to finally meet them. I remember afterwards we all met up in London to finish off the masters at the slightly scary Street Level studios, then taking them round to Porky’s to get them cut. Happy days.
You started playing live for the first time in 1999, what prompted that and what was the set-up you were using?
My idea was to basically try to set up a small studio on stage and remix prerecorded tracks, adding extra sounds, sampling and processing. It seemed to work OK, but it meant transporting a huge amount of equipment, including a 32-channel mixer. Once I started performing abroad, I realised I needed to streamline the set up and once I started using a computer this reduced the amount of stuff I needed to carry. Although it is still a bit of a pain in the arse to set everything up.
You’re a long-standing member of Nurse With Wound and a key part of the NWW live show; how did that come about?
My “joining” of NWW came as a surprise to me. When I received a copy of the Thunder Perfect Mind CD and saw myself credited as a member I felt honoured. It was always great fun to work with Steve. In the early 2000s I’d been playing live for a while and it was going OK. A festival in the Netherlands asked Steve if it would be possible to perform there. We spoke about how this could be done and it was decided to do a live mix of (Nurse With Wound’s 2003 album) Salt Marie Celeste. I prepared multi track tapes for a quadrophonic mix which we took over and it went really well. There followed a few other, not quite NWW, appearances around the world, but then we were persuaded to do a live version of SMC as a band, along with Diana Rogerson, Andrew Liles and Matt Waldron. Again, it went well, so despite reservations (Steve had had some bad live experiences in the 1980s) it was decided that NWW live was a viable proposition. The first “official” NWW shows were in San Francisco in 2006, followed a few months later at All Tomorrow’s Parties in the UK. We’ve done about 60 shows all over the world since then, usually with a core line up of Steve, Matt, Andrew and myself, although this fluctuates and extra performers are often drafted in. NWW is whoever Steve says it is. The live shows can be great fun (although not always). Despite the presence of guitars, basses and recorded drums, I don’t think we can be called a rock band, we’re too messy for that.
The Water Tower studio came to an end in 2009, what happened? Do you still have a studio set-up?
I stayed at the Water Tower for ten years, during which time several Nurse with Wound and Current 93 albums, as well as many others, were recorded. I worked with a lot of people who were non musicians and I always found their approach interesting in that they have no musical rules and are willing to try all sorts of unconventional ideas. In 2009 a change in family circumstances brought about a move to London. There followed a period of living in flats and most of my equipment was put into storage, although I still managed to always have a basic studio wherever I was. Fortunately at the end of 2013 my partner and I moved into a house in East London which has an outbuilding which we’ve soundproofed and I’m now almost finished fitting it out. I have a lot of equipment, some of it quite unusual, and I want to wire it all up so that it’s easy to connect and use everything. I’d also like to go back, where appropriate, to mixing in real time on the big 32 channel desk. Much as I like using a computer to record, process and mix, as it can really save a lot of time, I miss the “performance” element of hands-on mixing – moving faders, turning knobs, etc. I’m not sure how it will work out or if anyone else will be interested, but I’d like to give it a try. Back to the future, so to speak.
There has been a recent upsurge in reissues of your early release from the 1980s, has that surprised you? What else can we expect to see?
I’ve been amazed by the amount of interest there’s been in my early stuff from the 1980s, certainly more than there was at the time. Some of that music I’m still happy with, whilst some of it I find embarrassing. Why in God’s name I ever thought I could sing is beyond me. A lot of the playing is also a bit dodgy. As I’ve said before, it was a case of my ideas outstripping my abilities. But I think in some of the early stuff you can hear a connection to what I do now. Upcoming releases are a 12-inch of mainly unreleased music in May, a CD re-release of the Ora album from 2000,Amalgam, and two CDs of collaborations with Phil Mouldycliff. The rest of my early 1980s tapes are also due for re-release on vinyl this year. ICR will also be releasing an extended two and three CD version of the NWW Cabbalism project. There’s also a vinyl box set of NWW live recordings coming up. I might even squeeze in a new solo album somewhere!