Irish House of Synth – An interview with TONN Recordings’ Mary McIntyre

Interview  Tonn Recordings

It’s great to witness from the beginning, the birth, from its early uncertain steps, the constant growth and consolidation, with increasingly interesting proposals, a quality independent DIY label. One of the most brilliant examples is the Belfast based ‘Home of Synth’ label, TONN Recordings, run by the visionary artist Mary McIntyre
 
  • Could you please introduce yourself and also talk about your early artistic influences and inspirations.

I’m an Irish visual artist based in Belfast. I work primarily in photography, incorporating installation to present my photographic work in exhibition. A great many things have influenced my work, such as painting, from 18th Century Landscape to 20th Century abstraction, to the audio and video works of Vito Acconci and the cinema of Antonioni, as well as Spanish documentary photography of the 1960’s and 70’s and the theatrical works of Samuel Beckett.

  • When and how did your attraction and passion for cold dark minimal synth music come about?
As a teenager I grew up in Ireland at a time when the idea of new wave was taking form. The post punk artists in Ireland and the UK who I was listening to at that point, such as The FallBauhausThe Virgin PrunesGary NumanJapanBill NelsonJoy Division, and beyond the UK – Einstürzende NeubautenKraftwerkPalais SchaumburgFront 242 and many more, left an indelible impression on me that informed my taste in music. I think that’s when I developed a sensibility towards a cold, brittle sound that I’ve never shaken off. Within that, the dominance of synth came to the fore in a way that deeply embedded a love of electronic. The first record I ever bought was Tubeway Army’s ‘Replicas’ and I recall repeatedly listening to John Foxx ‘Burning Car’ and ‘Underpass’ picture disc vinyl because I loved their metallic sparseness. Thinking back now, I realise what a genuinely exciting period that was for electronic music, the feeling of authenticity and sense of discovery in it, such a contrast with the manufactured shallowness that was to come after that period. The synth that I encountered growing up was infectious and I think it infected me. It was as if synth got into my bones back then, but although my love of electronic music no doubt stemmed from that period in the early 80’s, it’s not now driven by any sense of nostalgia. I still hear synth today that I find equally as infectious.
  • How did the idea come to start a DIY music label? Did you have any current or past label as a model or inspiration?
I remember one day it occurred to me as strange that even though there seemed to be a great many independent music labels around, so many really excellent artists didn’t seem to be working with any of them. I found that odd and the thought just came to me – maybe I should start a record label”

The idea to start a music label came out of the blue and literally happened overnight. Music has always been the thing that excites me the most and over time my interest in synth in particular became almost obsessive. In recent years I found I was discovering more and more artists, more and more synth. I guess you could say my knowledge or awareness of it was deepening all the time. I remember one day it occurred to me as strange that even though there seemed to be a great many independent music labels around, so many really excellent artists didn’t seem to be working with any of them. I found that odd and the thought just came to me – maybe I should start a record label. I’m not sure why exactly that suddenly occurred to me, as I’d never previously thought of working directly with anything music related, but I think my interest in it must have grown to the extent that I felt compelled to take more active role in it. I think at that stage I was so engaged in discovering new music that it had gone beyond merely passive listening and had developed into a desire to do something to support it in some practical way.

  • Do you think that the early 80’s DIY ethos of taking full creative and artistic control over everything – from A to Z – is still relevant and essential nowadays.

I think you only have to look at the proliferation of independent record labels out there to see how relevant it is and you only have to look at how dire, what I would call the ‘mainstream’ music scene is, to see how manufactured and dead that feels and everything associated with it. In view of that, I think that the aspirations of the independent record label have never been more needed in acting as counter to that mediocrity and the DIY approach is the perfect way to address that, to produce things in ways that are truly creative and for the right reasons, for the sake of the music, not for all the other questionable distractions.

Mary McIntyre founder of TONN (with artist & curator Phillip McCrilly)

  • As a visual artist, it’s natural that you pay a close and deep attention to all the graphic and the visual details, from the covers to the videos, can you tell us about this artistic interconnection and its possible future developments?
I have a very particular aesthetic that I’m interested in and from the outset I think the decision to work with one designer set the visual tone for the label. There was only one designer I was really interested in working with, Christopher Martin, who I consider to be one of the best working in Ireland today

My long standing relationship with visual art has probably informed the way I’ve gone about developing TONN visually. I have a very particular aesthetic that I’m interested in and from the outset I think the decision to work with one designer set the visual tone for the label. There was only one designer I was really interested in working with, Christopher Martin, who I consider to be one of the best working in Ireland today. He brings a very strong visual sensibility to the label and one that I’m intent on maintaining. As an artist who uses photography myself, I was always going to be interested in the idea of associating the label with images, but I didn’t want to use my own photography, I didn’t want to use the label as a platform for my own art work. The label is about creating a focus for the artists it works with and their music, not my work. So it seemed like the perfect idea to use not just Christopher’s design, but also his photography for the label’s releases. That’s also enabled us to develop a sense of visual continuity in our output. With the TONN films I also wanted to develop a long standing relationship with an artist, rather than commission one off music videos. I’ve actually never been very interested in the concept of the music video. I’ve rarely ever seen a music video that I’ve rated. In the main they seem to adopt a fairly predictable structure that often feels clichéd, banal or repetitive. What interests me more is the idea of working with artists and film makers who would make interesting films in their own right, not just as music videos, where the film is seen as a secondary element, but instead, film for it’s own sake, so that the film and music could co-exist in a way that’s perhaps more meaningful. The film makers that I work with, who I’ve come to think of as TONN’s resident film makers, Jared Longlands and Dara Flanagan, seem to find a way to tap into the music that brings something special to the process. Jared is currently working on a series of short films for a collection of This Is The Bridge previously unreleased tracks, which we’ll produce as a limited edition DVD. I’m also in the process of producing a series of other TONN film works, based on contemporary dance pieces, which I’ve had specially choreographed for synth. The idea stemmed from a conversation with Richard Anderson and was conceived to be filmed live and unedited, so these films act as a document of the dance pieces from start to finish. This series of TONN danceworks is underway, with the first featuring Xeno & Oaklanders’ beautiful ‘Movements II C’.

That’s the main criteria – if someone’s sound resonates with me, that’s what motivates me to work with them. At the same time I’m very aware of not endlessly duplicating one kind of sound on the label. I’d be wary of repeatedly putting out the same type of sound over and over. I know that people often prize continuity, but it doesn’t interest me to take a narrow approach in how TONN’s sound would develop. That’s why on the label coldwave from France sits alongside minimal synth from the U.K. and synthwave from the U.S.
  • In just over one year of existence your catalogue already spans eight European countries plus the USA, what is your process in selecting artists?

The international dimension of the label was not intentional. I didn’t set out to represent artists from all over the world, so I didn’t anticipate working with people beyond Europe, as far afield as Australia or the US, but certain countries have become represented by TONN as a natural part of the label’s progression, as synth is so prevelant in those places. At first, as so much of what I listen to comes from France, I half expected that TONN’s output might become almost exclusively French, but fairly soon after coming into contact with so many different artists, it became clear that TONN’s geographical make-up would inevitably widen. It’s been interesting to encounter such good music in so many different places, Croatia for example, has produced some great artists – Iv/An, Zarkoff. But my process for selecting artists hasn’t been driven by location, it comes down to my own love of certain artists’ work. That’s the main criteria – if someone’s sound resonates with me, that’s what motivates me to work with them. At the same time I’m very aware of not endlessly duplicating one kind of sound on the label. I’d be wary of repeatedly putting out the same type of sound over and over. I know that people often prize continuity, but it doesn’t interest me to take a narrow approach in how TONN’s sound would develop. That’s why on the label coldwave from France sits alongside minimal synth from the U.K. and synthwave from the U.S. The label’s output could be seen to be diverse – the way these genres co-exist on TONN, but I think there’s a sensibility that runs through it all, which goes back to that cold sound that I spoke of earlier, which first influenced my taste in this music. In terms of how working relationships or my selection of artists has come about, it’s been evolving from the starting point of the label, when I initially approached the label’s first artists at that early stage, to things having progressed now to being approached by artists who are interested in working with TONN.

  • Can you give us a brief report of your 1st year of consolidation, or if you prefer which have been your fondest moments so far?

An awful lot has happened in just one short year. When I look back over the amount of releases and the range of artists who TONN is now working with, I have to admit that I hardly know how it happened. I started out working with only a few artists, but that number quickly grew. There have been so many highlights during TONN’s first year, but there have been some particularly important moments, that looking back, I can see determined how things went. The very start of the label coming into being was one such moment that I won’t forget. As a visual artist whose used to taking leaps of faith everytime I embark on making a new piece of work, I tend to be a ‘do-er’. As a visual artist if you sit around worrying – should I do this or should I do that?? You’d never make anything, you’d never accomplish anything. So I tend to be led by instinct and if an idea is insistent enough, I’ll act on it and it was like that with the label’s starting point. When the idea came to me one morning, even though I didn’t have anything planned or set up, I just decided that same day to contact Boris Volant to ask if Mode In Gliany could be represented by the label. I had no expectation that he would even reply, but he did reply and when he said yes, I thought – so that’s decided then, I’m doing this now. I have to say that Mode In Gliany being TONN’s first artist will always be a source of great pride to me, to have begun with an artist of that calibre was a wonderful thing for the label. There were other such moments, coming into contact with Richard Anderson of This Is The Bridge was another important turning point for the label. When you know of an artist and respect their work to such a high degree, to one day find their name in your inbox is a special thing. Egoprisme, Iv/An, Misfortunes, NOx, too many to mention, each first contact has been the same, a really wonderful occurrance. But I think that the really great moments often happen behind the scenes, on all of those occasions when I receive new tracks from artists, because you’re working on a release together, or simply because they want you to hear their new material and give feedback on the way their music is developing. Every single time that happens, I’m acutely aware how priviledged I am to be hearing this music first and how lucky I am to be working with such talented, prolific and loyal artists. I feel incredibly grateful to everyone TONN is working with for what they’ve brought to the label during this early stage in its development. Those conversations that have carried on throughout this first year, have been something that have shaped and developed the label in ways I could never have predicted.

  • I’d like to single out your fellow Belfast musician under the moniker of Crystalline Stricture. I believe that since his debut, he’s constantly and amazingly improving the quality of his music. His last tracks have made a great impression on me. Do you have the same view about him?
Alan has also confounded my expectations that cold wave could come from somewhere like Ireland, but’s been wonderful to see him develop that sound here in Belfast and put his individual spin on it. I was very amused when I read a recent review of Crystalline’s collaboration with Pedro Peñas Roble’s HIV+, ‘The Balance’. The reviewer referred to it as, ‘French electro’. I thought – yeah, French electro, made in Belfast

The starting point of working with Crystalline Stricture was very unexpected. Being based in the same city, I’d actually known Alan for some time. One day after starting the label, we ran into each other and got talking about music. I knew Alan had an interest in electronic and so it came up in conversation that I’d started TONN. He was a quite taken aback, as people know of me as a visual artist, so no-one ever expected me to start a record label. A little while after that Alan passed on some of his own music to me and asked if I would give him my opinion of it. I was a bit apprehensive, it’s always tricky when someone asks you listen to their music, the thought goes through your head – you wonder what you can I say if you find that you don’t like it. But I was curious to hear what he was producing. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but when I listened to it I got quite a shock. I thought – if I came across this music I’d be trying to find out where I could buy it. I knew the minute I heard it that it had something. I remember as I stood listening to it for the first time, thinking – I didn’t expect that! So I was able to tell him that I thought what he was producing was excellent and perfect for TONN. From that point on, I agree with you, Crystalline Stricture has been going from strength to strength. Every time he sends me a new track I think – this is the best Crystalline yet and then he sends me another and another and it just keeps developing. And he works very fast. Alan will produce a really fantastic track, send it to me on an evening and then the very next morning I’ll receive a re-work of it that pushes it even further. His ability to re-imagine something is incredibly inventive. Alan has also confounded my expectations that cold wave could come from somewhere like Ireland, but’s been wonderful to see him develop that sound here in Belfast and put his individual spin on it. I was very amused when I read a recent review of Crystalline’s collaboration with Pedro Peñas Roble’s HIV+, ‘The Balance’. The reviewer referred to it as, ‘French electro’. I thought – yeah, French electro, made in Belfast. But one of the nicest things about working with Alan is that because he’s also based in Belfast, he’s one of few TONN artists who I’m able to work with directly. It’s refreshing to be able to work with someone face to face, as everyone else on TONN is based in other countries, by necessity communication has to be remote. It greatly speeds up the process to be able to discuss and make decisions on the spot, which helps when you’re working on releasing new material. We’re currently working on the first Crystalline Stricture album and it won’t disappoint, his new material is incredibly good.

  • Your label releases are from synth finest, such as Le Cliché and well known artists among aficionados of the genre, even if they deserve a wider recognition. Please could you talk about them?

Yes, I think that many of the people you are thinking of deserve much wider recognition, but I guess when you’re working in such a niche area, there is only so far one can take it within a genre which is so specialist. However, I don’t let that constrain or inhibit what I think we can do together, when working with an artist. I don’t ever consider the limitations, my focus is solely on the need to find a form for their music, to create a space within TONN where they can develop their work and that takes time. In all aspects of my work I take the long view. Even though the label started up almost overnight, that didn’t determine a quick fix mentality, I approached it as a long term activity. And it’s been a pleasure in the space of this year to have worked with so many artists who are producing such high quality synth and Le Cliché is certainly one of them. When I first heard Gerard Ryan’s material I was immediately impressed by the quality of his music. It’s incredible synth and music that I personally listen to time and time again. Although it’s not of prime consideration, the fact that Gerard is also Irish makes for a really enjoyable working experience, as it allows for a vernacular aspect to our communication. But beyond that, having Le Cliché’s material on the label has been a great source of pride for TONN as it’s just some of the best synth I’ve heard. Working with someone of that quality has been a really important thing in building on the label’s work and sound. By the same token working with This Is The Bridge, Iv/An, Misfortunes, Mode In Gliany, to name just a few, the quality of synth on the label has been something which I feel incredibly fortunate in. As for the wider recognition, hopefully the label can do something to help the artists it works with in producing their music. But whatever the ups and downs of seeming popularity or reaction, I don’t pay any heed to that. In the society we live in, where social media has such a grip on people, it would be easy to fixate on that as a quantifiable measure. But as a teenager I grew up in a world without social media, so I’m highly skeptical of it. Getting the music out there is the primary focus.

  • I have left to the end the new six track EP by Chicago’s trio Canter, that many already considered, myself included, possibly one of the best dark wave releases of the year, a record that could stand as a kind of landmark for the label. Do you have the same feeling about that?

Thank you, it’s nice to get a sense of how TONN’s first physical release has been received. I completely agree, it’s been an amazing thing for TONN that its very first vinyl should be an album of such high quality. Canter are an incredibly talented group, as well as being so productive and professional. They have a very interesting sound, one which is not easy to pin down and which doesn’t easily fit into any one genre. There’s incredible depth to their sound, resulting from that very special combination of Corban’s exceptional vocal and Ryan and AJ’s superb synth, which creates a sound that is at times very beautiful and that has an epic quality to it. So its gratifying to hear that my high opinion of it is shared by others who have listened and found it so memorable. In terms of your earlier point, about artists deserving wider recognition, Canter certainly do. They are an exceptional band and an absolute pleasure to work with.

  • Your last batch of releases marks the launching of the label’s 1st physical release format across CD, cassettes and vinyl. Even if in very small limited quantities, is it just an experiment or as I hope, will it become the norm?
Yes, the recent releases saw TONN’s first physical formats come into production. It was always my intention to produce physical releases, so it’s been very rewarding to have seen that through. It’s an interesting thing to be involved in, becoming more au fait with the process of producing vinyl, from the first stages of production to the final pressing, with so many decisions to be made during each step in the process. But yes, it’s ongoing, so there are more albums coming out on TONN vinyl. Having recently just released Mode In Gliany‘s beautiful album ‘Convulsive’ on vinyl, we will also soon be releasing vinyl from This Is The Bridge, Iv/An and Misfortunes, as well as CD’s and limited edition cassettes. Working on the cassette format has been really enjoyable. It’s by its nature a faster process than vinyl, so can feel more immediate, although we’ve taken as much care with it as the vinyl, pushing the production values of the cassette beyond what they usually are.

 

  • In a scene and music industry dominated by men, where few labels are run by women, where comes to mind only Hante’s Synth Religion and a few others, have you had any inconvenience dealing with it? And when might we hear the 1st female act on your label?
we can’t ignore the fact that it is a male dominated scene. Sometimes I’m taken aback by the number of male artists outnumbering the females working in this area. That’s not to say that there aren’t incredibly strong female artists working alongside their male counterparts. You only have to hear the sound of Xeno & Oaklander, Mitra Mitra or Mala Herba to get a sense of the powerful female presence in this music. And I would love for this female voice to be present in TONN’s output. But it’s very telling that the demos I’ve received to date have tended to come from men. That’s made me even more acutely aware of the imbalance, an imbalance that I would like to see addressed

No, we can’t ignore the fact that it is a male dominated scene. Sometimes I’m taken aback by the number of male artists outnumbering the females working in this area. That’s not to say that there aren’t incredibly strong female artists working alongside their male counterparts. You only have to hear the sound of Xeno & Oaklander, Mitra Mitra or Mala Herba to get a sense of the powerful female presence in this music. And I would love for this female voice to be present in TONN’s output. But it’s very telling that the demos I’ve received to date have tended to come from men. That’s made me even more acutely aware of the imbalance, an imbalance that I would like to see addressed. To date Marta from Somewhere In The Future, has been the sole female working with TONN and I’ve been very glad to have her strong voice on the label. I hope it will be only a matter of time before other female artists follow suit. As for myself, it’s not the first time I’ve worked in a male dominated context, but I’ve never allowed that to inhibit or constrain what I do. I take my work seriously, so I’ve never been about to suffer sexism at any stage in my career. I just wouldn’t tolerate it. But it’s perhaps worth noting that I’ve not encountered any in my work on TONN, well not directly anyhow. I can’t say whether there is an attitude that I’m unaware of due to being a woman. But it hasn’t been brought to my attention and so far I’ve not experienced a sense of people treating me differently because I am one of the few females running a label. Maybe it does have an influence on people’s perception of the label, who knows, but if that were ever the case, that’s their problem, not mine.

  • What music, bands, artists are you currently listening to?
But if I had to pick only one artist to listen to, it would have to be Martial Canterel. To my mind Seán McBride’s modular synth has a quality of depth that is unparalleled

I’m constantly listening to music and since starting the label that’s been taken up with reviewing demos and preparing for releases that involves really close listening, which can be very intense in the run up to working on a new album or EP. There’s so many things that need to be focused on when you’re listening like that, from track listing to audio quality in the mastering process. But of course I’m also listening for pleasure. There are a great many artists on TONN, so there’s never any shortage of superb material to listen to and it’s wonderful hearing the music you love coming out on your own label. But of course I also listen to other artists and other labels, Peripheral Minimal, Distag, Tesco Germany, so many labels consistently producing great new releases. As I already mentioned, much of what I listen to comes from France. Minimal synth is my first love, but I also love what I’ve come to think of French wave, that certain brand of cold wave and electro that has a very distinctive French origin, Peine Perdue, Orchidée Noire, Position Parallèle, Projet Marina, Phillippe Laurent, La Chatte, Monsieur Crane, Lovetaraxx, to name just a few of the artists whose work I love. A lot of what I’ve been listening to recently has come from Unknown Pleasures Records, whose output is immense – La Main, Blind Delon. The best album I’ve heard in years has to be UPR’s Maman Küsters ‘Sous La Peau’. I must have nearly worn out that Maman Küsters CD from playing it so much, it’s an incredible release. But I don’t exclusively listen to French electronic. I’ve also been listening to artists like Tanz Ohne Musik, Wermut or older recordings from the likes of Flash Zero, Cha Cha Guitri, D.A.F. So there are of course long standing favourites that I find myself coming back to time and time again. But if I had to pick only one artist to listen to, it would have to be Martial Canterel. To my mind Seán McBride’s modular synth has a quality of depth that is unparalleled. His music is not just exquisitely executed, but has a compositional sensibility that has a reach far beyond what synth aught to be able to achieve. So the albums of Martial Canterel are and always will be, essential listening for me.

  • Many thanks for being our welcome guest and many thanks for a year of compelling dark synth music. I hope to meet you again next year to recap on another incredible achievement… I’ll just ask you one last question about your plans for the near future.
Most of all I’m looking forward to the brand new synth that gets sent to me late a night, when I’m least expecting it and the pleasure of hearing it first. There’s no better feeling

Thank you. The label is so time intensive that it’s not often I get the chance to take a step back and look back. So it’s been nice to be able to take some time out here to reflect on the past year. The coming months will see a whole range of new releases, with not just brand new albums from TONN’s existing artists and a great many more physical releases, but also music from new artists on TONN. I’m very much looking forward to producing FOKKER‘s first album and the first modular synth release on TONN with Alan Currall, as well as a very special new voice in electro from France – Me and a Box. So there are exciting new things ahead for the label in the coming year. But most of all I’m looking forward to the things that I wasn’t anticipating. Most of all I’m looking forward to the brand new synth that gets sent to me late a night, when I’m least expecting it and the pleasure of hearing it first. There’s no better feeling.