Oliver Coates recently adopted a kitten. He’s named it Alanis – after Morissette, of course – but not out of admiration for her musical exploits. Instead, he explains, it’s in homage to the Canadian singer’s recent and unexpected rejuvenation as an agony aunt in the Saturday Guardian. “That’s actually quite ironic,” I suggest, mischievously, to the concert cellist-turned-electronic producer as he’s being photographed. He takes the bait, and starts to point out how Morissette’s most famous song is genuinely full of ironies, and not merely ironic because, as the stand-up routine goes, it describes no ironies whatsoever.
Coates excitedly tells me of staying up late discussing the idea of irony with his friends as a result of all this, even going so far as to look up the word in the dictionary to gain objectivity (definitely, I’m informed, not an ironic act). The upshot is that Coates is certain that Alanis (the singer, not the kitten) is on firmer ground than many would believe.
He tells the story with a smile, as if to acknowledge its inherent ridiculousness, but there’s an accompanying seriousness to his voice that reveals a sweetly earnest predilection for leaving nothing in his life unexamined. It’s a habit that, over the course of the next hour or so, will play out in a series of intense, tangential and largely unprompted speeches about the contemporary classical composers Feldman and Xenakis, electronic producers Actress and Shackleton and the works of Hitchcock, Kafka, Christopher Hitchens, Eco and Beckett. Even the socio-cultural mores of music in Russia receives a brief heartfelt tribute.
In short, Coates is a serious man. His meticulousness and super-analytical approach to life has, inevitably, fuelled his music-making, too, and nowhere is it more evident than in the unusual creative process behind his second album, ‘Upstepping’: nearly every sound on the record, which owes a debt both to the garage rhythms of ’90s London pirate radio and to 20th-century classical music, originates from Coates’s cello, which he has played and then manipulated to mimic hi-hats and kick drum sounds, washes of synths and dense white noise. From one angle, the album is a demonstration of his microscopically detailed mastery of the instrument (Coates received the highest mark ever given to a graduating student from the Royal Academy of Music, and his work as a soloist is how he pays the rent), but from another it’s a rather touching act of devotion to the music for which he has an almost cosmically reverential love.
Coates began playing the cello after seeing one in a neighbour’s house in Wandsworth when he was six, and by nine he knew he was going to be a musician. “There was no question,” he says, of his early determination. “My mum said, ‘oh that would be a nice life, but I imagine it would be a hard one,’ so I knew that if that was my decision, it had to be intense; I couldn’t do it half-heartedly. And I think I’ve been doing that – taking that decision just not to mess around – ever since.”
He spent his teens listening to everything from Radiohead and the Manics to Shostakovich and Prokofiev, while becoming increasingly proficient at the cello (“When they put a book in front of me and said ‘I’d like you to learn this by next week’, I found that quite easy,” he admits), but his first exposure to the dance music that has found its way onto ‘Upstepping’ was via Coates’s teenage obsession with a specific style of drum programming. “There was a time in the mid-90s where you got a particular kind of snare rush on pirate radio, and I spent my Sunday afternoons searching for them on the car radio,” he explains, painting a vivid picture of an awkward, musically prodigious teenager academically deconstructing the somewhat feral worlds of illegal urban broadcasting from the passenger seat of a parked family hatchback. “I was just obsessed – I didn’t know how they did it. I was so impressed with the amazing snare programming of the time.”
He soon developed a taste for the Warp Records stable and started messing around with drum programming software himself, creating, he says, “beats that were a bit Squarepusher-esque”, but found it difficult to get beyond what he describes as “just noodling”. The problem, he insists, lay in setting limitations: “When I was just performing, I liked that the texted, scored, prescribed stuff was all there, on the page. I got really into memorising and learning scores,” he explains. “It was nice when somebody else arbitrated the limits.”
However, now 33, and with over a decade of international performance behind him, Coates has discovered a little more confidence there. “Now, I’m the one deciding the numbers,” he says. “I am more comfortable these days being the person who sets the limits. It’s like everything I’ve done in the last ten years, every situation where there’s been an externally imposed limit, where I’ve done that phrase four times but I wanted to do it twenty times in ten different ways – I couldn’t, because I wasn’t the author. I’m much happier now with this quiet agony of counting out and designing structures of my own.”