Notes On Fred Again..’s Artistry

Once in a while a musician moves to the foreground of the electronic music production landscape with many musical assets in play. Such musicians have a fully formed sound—a world unto itself that feels like discovering an overlooked way of listening that was available to you the whole time. Fred Gibson, aka Fred Again.., is such a musician. Until recently a producer for famous pop artists, Gibson recently stepped out with his own material, much of which is built around audio recorded on his iPhone. Most of this audio captures voices which then become melodies and lead vocal lines for tracks. On his Spotify page, Gibson describes his music as “‘Actual Life’, a trademark sound that features vocals uncovered from the unlikeliest of sources; from obscure YouTube clips to personal FaceTime conversations, random Instagram accounts and iPhone video footage of half-remembered nights out.”

There are a few qualities in Gibson’s work that merit discussion to better understand his artistry.

Resourceful. Given the recording capabilities of smartphones and the ubiquity of online confessionals and music making on social media (everyone is sharing everything all the time), it’s surprising that more producers don’t use what Gibson calls “actual life” samples rather than ripping off old records. There is, of course, still an element of ripping off to Gibson’s approach, but that may be offset by the personal and informal nature of the sample material. As a producer, Gibson is an ethnographer of the everyday, using his field recordings to both document and reflect the world of his listeners back to them. As he notes in an NPR interview: “One thing that’s beautiful to me is the fact that so much stuff is recorded now, that you can make art out of the actual experience.”

Conceptual. Working exclusively around voice samples gathered from everyday life–or what Gibson calls making “art of out of the actual experience”–is a conceptual approach that insists on adhering to a set of constraints. Gibson’s samples don’t necessarily sound great, but what they lack in sonic fidelity they make up for in their social fidelity to the voices, experiences, and moments in time that have some connection to the producer. Brian Eno, Gibson’s mentor from his teenage years, describes Gibson’s use of samples as a way of relating to his community:

“What he’s doing is quite unfamiliar — I’ve actually never heard anything quite like this before. He always seems to be doing it in relation to a community of people around him — the bits of vocal and ambient sounds.”

Inventive. In interviews, Gibson explains how he creates drone beds out of his vocal samples and drum samples from recording himself knocking his the kitchen table. The drones are used as harmonic landscapes to “frame” the vocals:

“Long drones—different ways of framing what the person is saying. Generally with samples I’ll make like five or six drones that it can live in, and the harmonic landscape of those drones will affect the emotion of the song—that’s what they’re born out of.”

Elsewhere Gibson describes the advantages of recording such sounds on his iphone, specifically how the iPhone foregrounds ambient soundscapes: “When you record something with your iPhone and stop speaking for a second, it amplifies the room around you. Everything. It has these very crass compression algorithms that I love, so I record everything from drums, vocals, piano, all on my phone.”

Casual. Perhaps the most significant quality of Gibson’s work is its apparent informal-ness and spontaneity. The music, although carefully crafted, doesn’t feel labored. Gibson’s tracks, observes Eno, are non-linear in their construction:

“What I noticed with Fred is that he would start something, and he wouldn’t turn it into a loop that’s going to run through the whole track…He doesn’t clean everything off, so in every piece of recording, there’s a sort of context that comes with it as well. The sound has a history built into it.”

The apparent casualness of the music is mirrored by Gibson’s bare bones production set-up: his studio is a laptop and and a pair of (regular) headphones. This allows him to produce anywhere, often in transit. In fact, as The Guardian notes, “Much of the Actual Life albums were made while on the move, be it via long train journeys, or on meandering tube excursions.” For Gibson, there’s creative energy all around us and the appeal of working while on the move is about “finding places where you get a conveyor belt of humanity to subconsciously affect you.”

13 Production Concepts

Beat Fatigue

Chords To Nowhere

Frequency Fights

Harmony Shortcomings

Higher Register Copy

Incremental Editing

Instrumental Ambiguity

Iterative Improvising

Modular Arrangement

Obvious Structure

Post-Composing Shaping

Simultaneous Variation Energies

Texture Blur

The Main Thing And Its Peripherals

The main thing is the thing that needs to get done before everything else in a track—the part that every other part depends on, the part from which everything else flows. Here’s an example: for practice, I’ve been working on a series of pieces built around mid-tempo Afrobeats-style beats. Afrobeats–not to be confused with Afrobeat–is an umbrella term for Afro-pop or Afro-fusion popular music originally from West Africa, but now popular in Europe and North America. I’m no expert on Afrobeats rhythms, but they’re like a slowed down soca beat, and at minimum require an interplay between a kick drum on beat one against a high-pitched snare/clap/cross/stick/clave hitting on the last 16th note of beat 1 and the And of beat 2. This interplay gives the beat a half-time feel. There’s space in Afrobeats rhythms because, unlike in soca, the kick drum doesn’t play on every downbeat. This sense of space forged from a rhythm as much felt as heard–as listeners we infer the music’s pulse from the “missing” kick hits–is one reason why Afrobeats tracks feel laid back, yet energized. In a word, the rhythms sound chill.

I’ve been building upon Afrobeats-style beats because the beats are the main thing: in fact, without the beats there is no piece. But once a beat’s structure is in place, I can play with its peripherals. Peripherals are details on the edges of the musical main thing. With the Afrobeats rhythms, the main thing to get right is their tempo and core patterns, but beyond that everything is fungible–which makes the music-making process exciting. I mentioned earlier the idea of the beats requiring “at mininum” a relationship between the rhythms of two main percussion sounds. Playing with a beat’s peripherals whilst preserving its rhythm opens up variations. I’ve truncated the drum sounds into tiny shards, processed them into amorphous blobs, added delays to make their rhythms float a bit and distortion to make them buzz. I’ve elongated the pattern from 4 to 32 or even 64 measures and muted bits of it here and there in non-repeating ways to create space. In sum, my workflow is to start with an obvious (and sometimes uninteresting) beat and alter it until it sounds un-obvious and enchanting. Once you have the main thing in place, you’ve anchored your process and you’re free to play with its peripherals. 

Running, Tempo, and Time

As a runner, I often think about running’s relationship to time and how we inhabit time differently while in motion. Time seems to pass more slowly—or not pass at all—when you’re running. Your mind floats: past becomes present, and future scenarios play themselves out—perhaps because you’re grounded in the tactile stepping of your stride. When you’re running, you aren’t consciously thinking about tempo and time the way a percussionist or drummer does, but rather enacting them in your movement, practicing them again and again and again. If running has a secret, this is it: to run is to become, for the duration of the run, a rhythm machine.

Each day, getting into comfortable running tempo requires warming up. I don’t mean warming up before running but rather warming up through running. You begin at an easy shuffle, feeling not quite up to the day’s training, and hang in there for ten minutes (or thirty in the winter cold). With experience you recognize that the moment the body has warmed up is the same moment it resumes its life as a running machine. Your recognition is like when you walk the dog and then surprise him with a sudden burst of speed. He looks at you for a second— Really? We’re actually doing this?!—and gets galloping, his four legs in a fluid cooperation, powered by joy. Once warmed up, it’s as if the runner has become both the dog walker and the dog.

Now you can get into the training and feel out how you respond to the day’s demands. While most training—like most creative work—is done at an easy or conversational pace, it’s beneficial to intersperse this easiness with more difficult paces such as “Tempo” or “Threshold” workouts which are about pushing one’s default tempo up to a faster speed. Runners practice these paces to be able to move more efficiently.

On a run one has lots of time to think about the limits of our adaptability to training. Speedier workouts bring to mind the idea that each of us have comfortable default tempos for moving. Can we alter these tempos? To some degree, yes. With training my pace has quickened: my at speed pace is up to three minutes faster than my easy pace. The important thing about pace/tempo is understanding how it feels in your ever-changing body in the ever-changing contexts of runs. The same pace held in a headwind, going up a hill, or in the early morning rather than late afternoon feels very different.

Sometimes how my body feels doesn’t match the numbers on my GPS watch which has lost its satellite signal and can’t figure out where we are, and therefore, how fast we‘re moving. This creates a funny disconnect between what I feel my pace is and what the watch says it is. On a recent run the disconnect between watch and me was so vast that I decided to keep speeding up—faster and faster and faster into an all-out sprint—looking at the watch to see if the numbers would change. But they didn’t! Was it possible I was mistaken about my pace? To quote Wallace Stevens, experience teaches us to trust not ideas about the thing but the thing itself. Like percussionists tracking tempo, runners remember with precision how different paces feel. (Side note: I replaced the watch.)

A runner’s pace/tempo gels into a groove on long runs, which are runs over an hour or two. Long runs are not just about endurance; they’re equally about sustained pacing. Long runs ask us to calibrate our speed with the knowledge that we’ll be maintaining it for a long while. Go out too fast and you’ll struggle to complete the distance at that pace and have to slow down; go out too slow and you’ll be stuck in an un-fun and non-elegant shuffle, missing the benefits born from faster running’s flow. But when you move at a sustainable pace you experience time like a surfer appears to hover on a wave, riding its energy and gradually getting into a calm steady state. The rhythm machine leads you through far away neighborhoods while you’re free to observe, wonder, obsess, consider, and occasionally come upon new ideas.

Resonant Thoughts: Christopher Alexander on Dynamic Structures

“Things that are good have a certain kind of structure. You can’t get that structure except dynamically. Period. In nature you’ve got continuous very-small-feedback-loop adaptation going on, which is why things get to be harmonious. That’s why they have the qualities that we value. If it wasn’t for the time dimension, its wouldn’t happen.”

Christopher Alexander in Stewart Brand’s How Building Learn (1995)