Electronic musician, DJ and champion of all things noisy, Ben Chilton discusses textural sound design, cult horror films, multipurpose modular systems, and divulges his enthusiasm for scrappy bootlegs and DIY event posters.
Ben welcomed us for a chat into one of the UK’s only physical synth stores and hub of Bristol’s electronic music scene, Elevator Sound.
What has been inspiring you lately?
I’ve recently been listening to a lot of punk, dub and noise music. I hosted a Danger music special on Noods radio where I played HANATARASH and the Yamantaka Eye era of Japanoise punk.
I’m a big fan of films that have a weird atmosphere to them. I recently watched Mother Joan of the Angels, a 1960’s Polish film that quickly jumps from being comical to threatening. I regularly put on Tetsuo: The Iron Man while I make music because it looks how I want my music to sound.
How do you approach making music?
I turn on the table full of machines and jam! I tend to sketch out the arrangement in my head. I’ll record a few variations into the sampler, program a few different sequence patterns and then hit record.
I record my tracks as a single stereo file into Ableton. However, sometimes I restructure in the DAW and occasionally overdub a few passes as I only have so many arms!
What do you listen out for when you find new music?
A combination of Bandcamp, NTS and my notes folder on my phone where I store tunes that I have found, been recommended or shazamed while I have been out!
I’m really into music that has been poorly recorded, like old synth-pop or coldwave, as it has loads of grit and texture to it. I love when synths are out of tune or if there’s a broken cable on the drum machine that causes the loop to crunch and crackle!
Which companies are doing exciting things?
Qu-bit are designing conceptual modules. They have their Aurora reverb inspired by the aurora borealis and their Nautilus delay inspired by how sound travels underwater. The concepts influence panel design as well as the module’s sound.
I like companies such as Befaco, who consider panel design with performers in mind. Jolin Lab recently released a series of modules that use touch control — gitgud, gitrekt, goblet and ashnico. They are single panels without circuit boards on the back where hardware is fixed to the front panel instead of being hidden behind a faceplate.
"IT FEELS LIKE EVERYTIME YOU TURN AROUND THREE NEW COMPANIES POP UP"
Can you talk me through your live rig?
My modular case always stays the same and is a three-voice synth with sequencing, modulation, and effects; I use the Qu-bit Nebulae as a sampler. I always perform and write in the same case because, whether I am doing fast techno, industrial dub or ambient, I like having a consistent sound across everything I do.
I use the Erica Synths LXR-2 drum machine and an old Korg Electribe sampler. The Electribe is limited compared to modern samplers but has trashy, early 2000s digital effects that I love. I use an OTO Boum compressor and a big Soundcraft mixing desk.
How do you prepare for a live set?
I have six to nine drum patterns pre-written on the LXR that I can use over an hour-long set. I prepare a few different kits and have banks of processed samples pre-loaded. I patch the modular to have a lead voice that I send into effects and two bass voices. I write the sequences on the fly as they are mainly percussive embellishments or sound effects.
"I LIKE TO KEEP A RELATIVELY LOOSE APPROACH TO IT SO I CAN IMPROVISE MORE LIVE"
What is special about running a synth shop in Bristol?
Having the shop in Bristol is amazing. There is a large crossover between active scenes. You’ll go to a noise show and see the same people who were at the grime night; then you see them again at the punk show. Raw energy is everywhere; it permeates everything.
You might see an artist from Bristol come in and buy something and then see them playing out and using the thing they bought! Robin from Giant Swan often buys modules from the shop. He tours with a Damaru case built under the shop. Every time I see Giant Swan live photos, it feels like there is a bit of us in it!
What are customers' first impressions when entering the shop?
People think we sell aeroplane controls; we are a telephone exchange; we get people asking for router or computer repairs! Some people think we are a clothes shop which is always weird.
We are one of the only physical synthesiser shops in the country. It is about explaining to people what we are and getting them to press a key and see what happens!
"PEOPLE SEEM REALLY SHOCKED THAT THEY CAN JUST HAVE A GO AND PLAY ON ANYTHING"
The Elevator Sound visual aesthetic is really unique; could you tell me the story behind it?
Marco and I have always liked bootlegs and the trashy cut-and-paste style. We wanted to combine that with cheeky sci-fi art from old paperback book covers. Most of the source material comes from Tumblr and Pinterest. Threads of retro sci-fi art and weird black-and-white photos from the early days of robotics.
I remember Marco showing me posters from his Glasgow days. They would rip images out of magazines and put speech bubbles on them saying "party tonight, 9 o'clock, bring some beers."
For the newsletter, we often need to highlight a particular product. We will source a photo of someone holding an object and I will photoshop, say, a drum machine into their hand. Somehow, the worse it looks, the more authentic it feels!
How did Elevator’s monthly night Escher Music Connection originate?
Production is often a solitary pursuit; Esher has always tried to bring people together. The idea of the night would be to get community members to play their music on the rig without having to fess up. However, sometimes we would play a tune and everyone would be like “oh my god who is this!?” One person at the back would raise their hand!
We used to host Escher in the shop — it was very chaotic! People brought a few cans and a USB with tunes on. It looked like a party from the outside! After the lockdown, the night was outgrowing the shop. We moved to Strange Brew and hosted it on the last Monday of every month.
Have there been any achievements because of the night?
Lots of collaborations started at Escher. Artists on the first Pressure Dome release were signed off the back of tunes heard at Escher!
We hosted a competition for Escher community members. Hodge, who has been a big supporter of the night, picked two hours of community-submitted tunes and mixed them live. Hodge also did a mix of Escher community tunes on his Rinse FM show.
What are the plans for Elevator Sound’s Machina Bristronica Festival?
Machina has been a wild ride! We had the one in 2019. The 2020 festival got cancelled five days before it happened, and in 2021, the venue caught fire!
After visiting Superbooth in Berlin, we realised there is nothing with that vibe in the UK. We wanted to host a more music-focused event than other UK-based synth events.
We are planning to come back bigger and better in 2023!
What is the future of Elevator Sound? I see you have a new store in Barcelona.
The new shop in Barcelona will be open next summer! We aim to have a similar level of community there.
Everything we have done has always felt organic. If there is a demand for something like a workshop, course or even a festival like Machina, if someone else beats us to it, then we will be grumpy!
We’ve got to the point where our building feels like a hub for electronic music. There are us, Damaru cases in the basements, BeepBoop electronics upstairs and 1020 radio in the back.
"WE'VE GOT THE STORE THAT WE ALWAYS WANTED"
How can we keep in the loop with you and Elevator Sound?
All my socials are @lifeisfeedback. I put all my gigs and releases up there.
For the shop, we use Instagram. @elevatorsoundbristol and @elevatorsound_eu. Any Machina Bristronica news will get posted here.
You can sign up for the newsletter on the website. The newsletter includes delirious photoshop edits and silly write-ups of new products from that week!
Escher is @eschermusicconnection on Instagram. We advertise our events on Headfirst, an independent Bristol-based ticketing service.
Words and interview by Joe Dean Photographs by Tom Ham December 2022