Martin Christie’s Music Travels: Talking Modular and Apta with Barry Smethurst

  • Martin Christie’s Music Travels: Talking Modular and Apta with Barry Smethurst

In the first of several articles touching on modular music making I talk to Manchester based Barry Smethurst of Apta. Barry has played at some of the Manchester all electronic music open mics (EMOM) and I am also very happy to have a copy of his first limited edition 7” vinyl release. With a new album in the pipeline, it seemed a good time to have catch up.

Before we get underway Barry, tell me a little bit about your background in music making?

I’ve not really got a background in electronic music specifically, but I’ve played guitar since I was 13 and used to be a big skate-punk fan, but then found that synths were something I loved the sound of. If you’ve heard anything I do, it’s all massive melodies and cheesy key changes, massive rock songs but made with synths.

As for the basis of my obsession, the electronic greats certainly had a part to play, that woozy BOC detuned vibe or the clicking folky percussion of Múm, the beautifully mellow keys of post rockers like The Album Leaf or Sigur Rós, they have all played a part in the formation of my sound. Like a musical bubble and squeak.

What do you make of the current electronic scene? Who would you listen to these days?

I think the electronic scene is great at the moment, the accessibility of analogue synths and portable (and great sounding) digital alternatives have multiplied the possibilities for creativity. I’m listening to a lot of retro sounding synth stuff at the moment, deadly avenger and Luke insect (as D.A.L.I) had a great new album out recently on the excellent Burning Witches records (well worth a look), and both Clay Pipe and Ghost Box remain a staple in my collection as well as the more local Polytechnic Youth and Deep Distance labels, both amazing.

I’m also very influenced by, and listen to a lot of videogame soundtracks either through playing the games or just loving the music (Konami Kukeiha Club, Ben Prunty, Jessica Curry, Nobuo Uematsu, Shinobu Tanaka etc etc).

When did you start your current musical project and what tech are you using?

My synth recordings have always been under the name of Apta and started around ten years ago in my bedroom when I got my first standalone synth, a DSI mopho monophonic analogue I still use on EVERY recording. Since then I’ve acquired and gotten rid of quite a few machines, but the setup for my upcoming release is: my beautiful eurorack (mutable instruments, tiptop, expert sleepers, hex inverter modules plus quite a few others) Yamaha DX7, the aforementioned Mopho, a MAM MB33 (analogue 303-alike), a TR-09 drum machine and also some fairly minimal guitar, bass and a few acoustic percussion instruments.

As you know, I’m interviewing a number of artists like yourself Barry that are using modular set ups and mixed modular sets up. I wondered what you could tell me about the origins of modular music?

Wow, that’s a tough one! Well, the original synthesisers that came out were ‘modular’ in that they could be made up of different elements and put together as you wished. Both Moog and Buchla had their own versions in the early 60’s, which are still continuing today in one form or another.

I guess it really kicked off in the 70’s with Roland releasing the system 100, but as for todays systems, Doepfer really set the standards and price-point that makes it possible for people like me to get involved.  But to me, while the history is important and very interesting, it’s not the reason for me using the tools I use, I just find the tactile pleasure of physical controls and the flexibility it affords, irresistible.

So tell me how you’ve released your music to date?

I’ll need to give you some background in order to answer that question. Essentially, everything before my last 7″ was through bandcamp with a smattering of small-scale cd presses, remixes for other peoples’ stuff etc, but mostly self-released. My first two full releases were for a great netlabel called ‘We Are All Ghosts’, Thomas at WAAG releases online through his bandcamp and on archive.org as a not for profit netlabel. I still stand behind this earlier work, but it’s a lot different to my releases nowadays.

With that in mind, a superb label in Sheffield called Black Beacon Sound put out my most recent 7″ as part of their ’12 in 12′ project (god knows how they managed it, but one 7″ from a different artist every month for a year), including remixes and digital content. I won’t say too much for now, but they’re great guys, and bastions of the scene, and our relationship continues through to present day. https://blackbeaconsoundintl.bandcamp.com

Yeah I really like what Black Beacon Sound are doing and as you know I was really fortunate to get a preliminary listen to your new album and absolutely loved it. Tell me more about the thinking behind it?

I’ve always been fascinated by psychopharmacology and the shifts in mood associated with psychedelic states. It fascinates me that there can be a realm beyond what we see and know. The psychedelic experience is something that’s been covered in music since the dawn of time, and doesn’t need re-examining. What is more interesting to me is the ‘afterglow’ people often report after an experience, and the positivity that is brought about by experiencing something new. My music doesn’t speak about the rights or wrongs of any mind altering substances, but much like those experiences, the more you explore, the more you uncover.

There are repetitions of themes, but slow expansions of the boundaries that those experiences occur within, a learned resilience to the main anchors to the sound uncovers hidden realms below, hidden motifs and subverted rhythms.

What are your plans for future music making Barry?

I’m pretty happy to just let my musical influences osmose into my own work gradually and slowly morph my writing into new directions. How something sounds has always been as important to me as the content, and learning how to make it sound exactly how I want it is a constant battle. As for gigs, it’s something I do very infrequently, but enjoy very much. Having EMOM nights available is an excellent outlet, and a superb thing to have in the world.

Thanks Barry and I look forward to buying a copy of the new album when it’s released.

By |September 13th, 2018|

About the Author:

Musician, artist and creator of various happenings including the electronic music open mic tour and Northern Beat Poets Association. Tireless campaigner against musical mediocrity and obviousness. Optimistic believer in the power of music and art to make a difference to individuals and communities.