Interviewing… Alex Cowles

3 Sep 2019 · Karl Finch · Permalink

‘…people can’t see any process in a screenshot.’
‘…people can’t see any process in a screenshot.’

Leftfield’s first interview victim is designer Alex Cowles, who also produces electronic music as Stillhead. I pick his brain on creative identity in the information age, navigating the strange landscape of crowdfunding, and the nuances of Nordic aestheticism.

Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

How do you take your coffee?

I wasn’t a coffee drinker until about five or six years ago, so I started on super-weak vanilla beans with half a mug of cream, slowly made my way from cream to milk, from vanilla to regular beans and even went through a period of trying to find super-caffeinated beans, since the whole purpose was to get off the energy drinks.

It worked for a bit, but now I drink sugar-free energy drinks from time to time and tend to enjoy coffee two or three times a day, too. I just use a Nespresso machine in the mornings, then we have nice filter coffee at work. I wouldn’t say I was picky about beans or grind, but I do take probably double or triple the milk most people do. Brings the temperature down, too, so I can drink it more quickly. ☺

As you’ve confessed to having a ‘penchant for brutal geometric sans-serif type’, let’s get serious: what’s a font family that hits the spot for you every time?

DIN, every time. Regular, condensed, bold, light, italic, you name it—if it’s DIN, I’m IN. Haha. I’m also a fan of Pill Gothic, which is less abundant and what I used for the Stillhead and Brightest Dark Place branding/logos.

You wrote previously about a sort of crisis you had over your precise job title, how ‘designer’ is often a vague descriptor for the scope of work you do. Has this impacted your self-image or the way you work in the years since?

I’ve realised I’m very much NOT a full-stack designer any more. In 2014 or 2015 I would have been for sure, but nowadays I’m crossing blurred lines between user-experience consultant, visual designer, and brand and marketing designer. It’s gone further from the build aspect and more into conceptual stuff, ideas and research-led decision-making.

People never seem to be content when I say I’m a designer anyway—I often leave it open-ended when they ask. I’ll say ‘I’m a designer’ and leave it at that, but people always ask ‘oh, what sort of thing do you design?’ I used to hate saying ‘websites’, so I tend to say ‘digital stuff—websites, interfaces, screen-based things’. It's not strictly true, given the scope of my job, but it usually suffices in order to move the conversation on!

It’s probably similar to somebody saying ‘oh, what sort of music do you produce?’ and I say ‘electronic’ or ‘stuff you can listen to on headphones’. ☺

People never seem to be content when I say I’m a designer

In that article you described how the diversity of work and processes in contemporary media calls for a multidisciplinary approach. How important do you consider this for the typical independent artist today? Do you see any relation of this to the gig economy, or industry shifts in response to increasingly broad and technical media requirements?

It rings true across all creative industries, I think. If you want to give yourself the best chance of making it, you have to be prepared to be everything to begin with, till you find people willing to fill those roles for you as you grow.

When you start out, you have to create the stuff, then brand it, package it, market it, sell it, etc. You need to be your own manager, publicist, representative, booker, everything. Slowly but surely, as you build your audience, you can find people willing to step in and help out at various points, so ultimately, you can take things back to being a creator only, which I think is where the enjoyment comes back.

Not that I don’t enjoy juggling multiple elements, but sometimes it’s nice to know you don’t need to work [so hard] to get your creative work to an audience. I actually idealise this through a method I’m refining and have written up as a course, ‘Build Your Audience’, on howtoselfrelease.com. The main gist is building autonomy into your gathering so that when you have something to sell or show, you have an audience waiting who will buy enough to fund the next piece of work, and then you need to rely less on paying for PR or working social media.

What do you reckon is the worst trend in electronic music in recent years?

Some years ago now I used to be really into my electro, the sort of stuff that had monstrous basslines and sort of wild, hard-hitting 4-4 beats. I liked it because it felt like every track was pushing the limit of what was possible with synthesised bass. My love for that grew into a love for bass in things like dark garage and dubstep (and I’ve always loved the growl of heavyweight drum and bass).

What I found, though, as I felt the electro genre starting to decline around the late 2000s, was this situation where every track that came out got more silly. The basslines felt over the top; I used to describe it as a ‘stupid noise competition’.

The very same trend happened with drum and bass (multiple times, I guess) and stuck in places. It also happened with dubstep as the genre became more commercialised. I think that’s sort of peaked and come back down to earth now, especially with some of the really nice ‘dungeon’ sound getting put out in the past five or so years, but I’ve started to get promos recently with more silly electro noises, and I’m worried this whole daft sound competition thing is going to rear its ugly head again.

So I guess that’s one of the trends that really grates on me—people going nuts with their sounds for the sake of it. Not because of the musicality, or the story behind the tunes, or to complement lyrics or instrumentation, but because it sounds like epileptic robots on crack.

I think for a while we were all on this daft mission to find new ways to describe something that defied description

You once ran a blog featuring the more amusing blurbs aspiring producers had provided alongside the tracks they submitted to your label. Absurdity and adjective abuse being values of Leftfield as they are, can you remember a favourite of these descriptions?

One really early on was ‘a fruity techno roller’. Me and a mate used to say this to each other all the time, so it’s stuck with me, but honestly, the crap you find on one-sheets and PRs [press releases] is out of this world. I think for a while we were all on this daft mission to find new ways to describe something that defied description. I don’t know if it’s calmed down these days, since I just lost track and couldn’t keep up posting stuff with the amount of silly descriptions I got.

You’re something of an advocate for the Nordic sound [in ambient and dub techno music]. What does it mean to you aesthetically—and personally? Would it be fair to describe it as Scandinavian design’s take on electronic music?

Well, I’m a designer by profession, so visuals are crucial for me. Design often lends degrees of insight to the sounds before you’ve had a chance to experience them, so I don’t know if there’s a direct analogy to be had between the worlds of design and audio. Perhaps more importantly, they need to coexist side by side. Maybe one can’t truly function without the other.

I imagine synesthesially (if that’s a word) that the sounds of Nordic electronica mix very well with the visuals of sleek, minimal design from the Nordic countries. I do suppose, though, that both elements (Nordic design and Nordic electronic music) could easily mix with other styles of design or music well enough that it would feel natural.

I think the more I produce (and hear), the more I wonder if there was really anywhere for Nordic electronic music to go. Perhaps it was destined to exist in a specific time and place alone, and the development of my own sounds has taken me somewhere else. Time will tell, no doubt.

Design often lends degrees of insight to the sounds before you’ve had a chance to experience them

Your main gig has you working on design consultation and web design, among other things; besides making music and DJing, you manage a record label or two; you host a podcast that aired for a time on Latvian radio. Point being: you have a creative balancing act going. Do you have particular methods enabling this? What’s a major lesson you’ve learnt through bouncing between projects?

I think the main thing is that I’m a fast worker. If something needs done, I’ll blast through it rapidly and generally put ideas into motion very quickly—I don’t like to sit about trying to figure out all the angles. I just pick my best guess and run with it, then deal with the eventualities as they arise—it makes for a way less stressful start, and generally means I don’t spend time worrying about decisions before making them. I also try very hard not to regret any decisions, even bad ones—they’re maybe mistakes, but if I’ve learned something (which is almost guaranteed) then it’s not wasted time or effort.

I’ve cut down on my commitments, to be fair—I do the podcast maybe once a month at the moment, and have Patreon to keep me motivated, as well as help me justify the three to four hours it takes to get it all recorded and uploaded each episode (not including time to listen and curate music, that is). I’ve stopped taking on freelance design work, so my day job is nine to five and stops, so I don’t need to worry about whether I should be working on design jobs or music. I’ve also cut down the Cut Music releases from once a month to just whenever I feel like I have something worth releasing.

I also stopped forcing myself to have something ready to release all the time—I often go weeks without opening Ableton Live, but I’ve told myself that’s OK. I’m trying to get away from screens a bit more.

I’ve taken up Warhammer again (used to do it as a wee guy), and it’s super relaxing—I don’t really play the game, just sit and paint miniatures. It’s almost meditative for me. I often feel very present when working away, trying to make a 4 cm-high bit of plastic look like a real animal with textured armour and leather bags or whatever the model requires.

Warhammer dune crawler
A miniature Alex somehow found the time to paint.

You emphasise asking why as part of your design process. How does the purpose or reason for being of, say, a brand or concept inform your creative direction?

The most important question one can ask in any design process (and, dare I say it, creative endeavour) is ‘why?’ I consider design to be the effective communication of information, so asking ‘why are we doing this?’ allows us to remember that we’re not just decorating some text or making a picture look fancy—we’re doing this because somebody needs a certain thing. A user has requirements, and when we ask why, it allows us to find out how we can get that user what they want in the most effective way.

Why also impacts other disciplines. Why are we making this film? That often leads us to understand cultural and contextual relevance. Is it important that we make this film right now, considering our current political, social, economic climate? The same goes for art. Why are we making this statement? What is important?

I’m purposefully vague when asking why, too, because it often uncovers either hidden requirements, or it reveals real problems as opposed to what the client perceives as the problem.

A client says ‘we need a new website’—why? ‘Oh, because the old one is outdated.’ Yes, but why is that bad? ‘Because people aren’t buying anything on it.’ OK, so why? ‘Well, the photos aren’t very good, the logo doesn’t instil trust, and the payment processor is dodgy.’ OK, so we’re now at a point where I can tell the client they probably don’t need a new website—they just need to update the photos, get a new payment processor and rework the logo.

It’s an obtuse example, but you’d be amazed at the sort of things that have happened through running workshops where you really drill down to actual reasons, or where you force a client to think about their audience and what’s going wrong. Generally, what they think they need and what they actually need are totally different.

You’ve self-released two albums successfully via crowdfunding. On the consumer side we usually hear about the great successes and bizarre concepts coming out of this sphere, but not so much the reality of a creative realising and capitalising on their work. Did you find any unexpected pitfalls or revelations in your crowdfunding experiences?

Well, with crowdfunding it’s easy to mess it up—to over-promise and under-deliver. You have these grand ideas about how it’ll all be so easy logistically, but when you’re packaging up your seventieth CD set and traipsing to the post office to send almost 100 packages to random places across the globe, you start to realise that the time and effort involved also has a cost—not to mention the handful that inevitably come back returned to sender, and the wild goose chases to find out what went wrong where.

I’d also say it’s easy to jump to crowdfunding for smaller artists assuming that the audience will just find them and send them money—but it’s tough. You need to really work hard to build your audience BEFORE you crowdfund, and then hope enough percentage of your fan base don’t think you’re taking the piss by doing yet another ‘give me money up front’ type thing.

I think it has great potential to be a pre-order-type system, but only if your fans already trust you, since they’re basically buying an album they’ve barely heard on a format which won’t be with them for months. I’m sure places like Bandcamp are likely to move into the pre-order-to-fund-pressing model soon. It really cuts piracy, too, since you’ve got to buy it to hear it, I guess.

I still think starting digitally is the way to go, though—everybody’s rushing to get their stuff on vinyl or CD or tape or whatever, and it’s great they’ve got that integrity, but slow down, people… You’re only going to end up with 700 copies of an old album in your attic that in five years you’re probably not even going to be feeling.

the more time I spent away from my hometown of Edinburgh, the more I felt it wasn’t all that bad

You’ve spent time living in Copenhagen [Denmark] and Riga [Latvia], and DJing has taken you around the world. Do you have a favourite city, European or otherwise?

I loved Copenhagen. It’s an amazing city—so much going for it and very liveable if you can afford it. Riga has plenty going for it, too, if you can handle the ex-soviet state hangover which becomes fairly apparent if you’re doing more there than a weekend of drinking.

The thing I’ve found, though, is that the more time I spent away from my hometown of Edinburgh, the more I felt it wasn’t all that bad. I left the city after living there for about thirty years. At the time I was of the opinion, ‘how do I know this is the nicest place to live if I’ve not lived anywhere else?’ Seemed logical to me. Now that I’ve returned, I’m far more appreciative of the place than I was, but I also have different priorities, so I guess it’s a hard one to answer.

I’d love to say Edinburgh, but I do worry that given an unlimited budget and the ability to get a job without too much hassle, I’d probably end up choosing one of the amazing cities I’ve visited. Vienna, Prague, Amsterdam, Berlin, Stockholm, Tallinn, Helsinki, London—all these places have their merits, and given the right place to stay and the right combination of work and pleasure, I’m sure they’d all be liveable.

I wonder if perhaps my historical experience needs to answer this one. Copenhagen is the only place I’ve visited and immediately felt, ‘why don't I live here?’ so maybe that's the answer. I managed a year before my circumstances changed but to be honest, it might have been my favourite of the lot.

I always tell people how much I enjoyed Chicago. I was only there for a night, completely unplanned. I had a cancelled train to San Fran so stayed a night and took a flight the next day, but I had some crazy-good pizza, a good walk around town, and just got the nicest vibe from the place. Would love to go back.

I’d also love to return to Greenland—I was in Sisimiut, their second-biggest city (5,600 people or something). Completely different to Chicago, but it was an amazing experience at what felt like the edge of the world.

houses by calm water
Sisimiut, Greenland presumably has the sort of chill, introspective atmosphere that inspires Nordic sound. (‘Wooden Homes’ by David Stanley licensed under CC BY 2.0.)

Back to music: what’s been a real standout album/track for you recently?

Well, I’ve just started building my vinyl collection again. I used to have loads, but when I left uni and moved back home temporarily, I sold lots of it. I had loads of singles and EPs for DJing, lots of drum and bass, dance, that sort of thing. I’ve now gone the other way—I’m collecting albums, mainly, and being super picky about it. I made a list of the albums I’ve really loved, and I’m being pretty ruthless with it, since I don’t want vinyl that I’m not proud to say I love.

The thing that triggered it, though, was Djrum's Portrait with Firewood. I could listen to that album on repeat forever, and it would still sound fresh and immersive. I utterly adore it, and it was the first album where I thought, ‘I need to have this on vinyl, and it needs to be in the lounge, next to a nice record player where people can see it and enjoy it’. So I have this goal of finding all the albums I’ve loved in the same way and building this perfect collection that I can enjoy and enthuse about.

At the other end of the musical spectrum, I’ve really been enjoying The Kinks’ Nothin' in the World Can Stop Me Worryin' 'bout that Girl. Might seem like an odd choice for me, but I heard it in that TV show Legion (which is incredible, by the way), and since then I’ve not been able to shake it!

Alex, thanks for your words.

Alex's projects
music by Stillhead
Insight Podcast
Alex on Twitter
Alex on Instagram

Edit 25 Sep 2019: minor corrections and link summary added.