We’ve had a chat with Graham ‘Dids” Dowdall, aka Gagarin, after listening to his recent release “aoticp”, on his imprint GEO records. This new ring in his chain – after the acclaimed album “Biophilia” – features really atmospheric and melodic music, which doesn’t adhere to any style or genre, but “draws on influences ranging from contemporary classic to techno and every point in between and beyond”.
Chain D.L.K.: Hi Graham! How are you?
Gagarin: I’m well, sweltering in the London heat for once.
Chain D.L.K.: Even if lots of our readers know you and your experience is really remarkable, could you introduce yourself?
Gagarin: I’m Graham, aka Dids, aka Gagarin. I was originally a drummer, worked in a Manchester band called Ludus, then worked together with Nico for 7 years and did loads of other projects. I now make solo electronica as Gagarin, play in Pere Ubu and in Roshi ft Pars Radio.
Chain D.L.K.: Your name came up a couple of years ago during a chat with your collaborator Roshi Nasehi, who praised your creativity. What were your impressions when you met her? Any work in progress with that talented singer?
Gagarin: She struck me as a fabulous singer, but also someone with a wide ranging musical taste and talent; with a strong will, but also open minded – classical, jazz, pop, avant-garde.
Chain D.L.K.: You are a member of Pere Ubu, at the moment.How do they handle their legendary past, in your opinion?
Gagarin: PU always look forward – the next record, the next adventure, whilst always being aware of their heritage. There is no nostalgia in Pere Ubu.
Chain D.L.K.: You also collaborated with another music legend, Nico. Are there any mistakes or untold stories in her official and unofficial biographies you’d like to share with us?
Gagarin: Hard to find one to start with. A lot has been written about Nico – most of it, not very accurate. She had an amazing character. Here’s a short one that sums her up. We were in Italy; it was a beautiful day, sunny and warm. Gigs were going well; Nico was smiling and happy as she sat in the van and started to sing “This is the place where he found the blade to cut his wrist”!!
Chain D.L.K.: Is there anything in your musical past you’d like to perform live again? Or a moment in music history you experienced that brings back nostalgic thoughts?
Gagarin: It’s all nostalgic, but I wouldn’t want to go through any of it again. I wish Nico had lived longer – whenever I remember her, it’s with a mix of happiness for her friendship and sadness for her loss.
Chain D.L.K.: What’s the origin of Gagarin’s moniker? Nothing related to your work about Moscow for Fishpool Dance Theatre?
Gagarin: I was in Russia in the mid-90s playing Britronica with an electropop band I had and I came back inspired to start a solo project. I’d always been fascinated by Yuri Gagarin – the heroism of going into the unknown, the old school futurism.
Chain D.L.K.: Speaking of nostalgia, you recently made an experimental cassette based on sounds from analogue radios. Could you tell us more about this release? Do you think that format is really dead, in spite of many musicians seeming to have rediscovered it?
Gagarin: Cassettes are interesting instruments. They never sound good, as such, but they age quickly and interestingly – the sound degrades as wow and flutter arise. Everyone is looking for a way to stand out; an odd format can help you do that. I like the fact that it’s a cheap and DIY format and, of course, the nostalgia for the Walkman generation still exists.
Chain D.L.K.: Let’s talk about your recent output “Aoticp”. What’s the meaning of the title? And what’s the connection between Aoticp’s music and the field portrayed on the cover artwork?
Gagarin: The title may or may not be a real word. I’m saying no more. The connection with the cover art is related to the interface between the urban and pastoral – city and country-side, industrial noise and ambient melody – it’s all about contrasts and collisions. I’m obsessed with this and the photo of the South Downs, in Sussex, which my artist, Vince, desecrated with the Gagarin logo!
Chain D.L.K.: Some sounds resemble the “trance ambient” of the second half of 90ies that labels like Warp or Rephlex made popular. Is there any connection with that phase of electronic music?
Gagarin: Yes – I draw from all generations of electronic music – from Varese to grime. I like to play with little elements from a particular genre, but not stay within its boundaries. Certainly, in Aoticp I touch upon the 90’s ambient-trance, but also happy hard-core – the 90’s were a very productive period for dance and “post dance” music!
Chain D.L.K.: You used plenty of field recordings. Which sources are the most hard to recognize?
Gagarin: Everything I do has some sort of field recording in it, ever since David Cunningham (producer of Flying Lizards) came to my studio and I complained that the trains outside my window were always very loud. He said “well… use them – they are part of your sound”. So I did – I always have a mic out in the garden so that birds, trains and traffic are always recorded. I use some of the sounds raw and others I process so that they are indeed unrecognisable – Aoticp includes a fridge, radios, rain, birds, planes and many others.
Chain D.L.K.: Is there any connection between the above-mentioned “Outside Broadcast” and any other releases of yours?
Gagarin: Yes, I have revisited a couple of tracks from “Outside Broadcast”, so they could be heard in hi fi, as well as lo fi. In particular some, very low bass frequencies originating from the fridge can’t be heard on cassette.
Chain D.L.K.: You quoted Epidiolex for the title of a track. How come?
Gagarin: Like most musicians, I have a creative relationship with cannabis. It does not give me creativity, but it certainly helps getting quickly into the zone where sounds can be heard and analysed in a particular and detailed way. I’m pretty old and worried that recent breeding for high THC has taken away much of the balance that old weed used to offer. Part of this process has involved the reduction of CBD which seems to have a lot of potential medical benefits. Epidiolex is how one of the pharma demons has named their CBD product.
Chain D.L.K.: How did you involve Bakelite in the amazing sound processing for the homonymous track?
Gagarin: Bakelite is the material from which most old radios, but also my home telephone, were made . It was once the material of the future, but now it’s just a pretty expensive plastic. The solid feel that Bakelite possesses – chunky, almost organic, but still synthetic, represents that track pretty well for me.
Chain D.L.K.: Have you tested “Aoticp” on live stage? If yes, what was the most unexpected feedback from the audience?
Gagarin: Quite a lot and I’m keen to do more all over Europe. When I take the stuff out live, I re-interpret it without a computer and use the same material to create the ambient, the abstract or heavily composed versions. People are surprised with how different I can make the same tracks sound, with just a sampler, drum pads and iPad – people always comment that it’s like “real music” i.e. played, not programmed.
Chain D.L.K.: Any news about forthcoming releases on GEO?
Gagarin: Not sure – we are working on the next Roshi album, but she is having a baby (who won’t be released on Geo), so not sure when that will be finished.
Visit Gagarin online at: gagarin.org.uk