Ross Tones on his latest album 'Embers'. Plus, overcoming the challenges of Fabric's plight, outdated music industry thinking and a gobbling turkey
“It’s funny how a love of something comes from the most bizarre things,” Ross Tones muses, deep into our three-hour conversation. “I remember there was a guy who always played the same Nirvana tape in the common room and he played it so much it warped. I loved that sound but when I got my own copy, I was disappointed it didn’t do that. If that tape hadn’t been played so much and warped like that, I wouldn’t have liked weird detuning synths. You just don’t know when things trigger.”
It’s a casual anecdote but in the context of Tones’ work as Throwing Snow (and one half of Snow Ghosts), it’s a Butterfly effect that’s undoubtedly contributed to the incongruence of his music ever since—it’s there in the cold atmospheres, woozy electro and brash breakbeat of 2011’s ‘Too Polite’; the shifting digital sands on ‘Clamor’; the dark, skewed drama on ‘Pathfinder’; and the warmth and beauty on ‘Aspera’.
Armed with a Masters in Creative Music Technology and a degree in Physics and Astrophysics, his creative approach is inspired by the point where art and science meet, and where that EP back catalogue created the building blocks, his debut album, ‘Mosaic’ was a culmination of everything that had come before—a literal, digital patchwork of his musical DNA.
“I can see a narrative within my own output,” Tones says. “I did lots of EPs and singles beforehand that were all over the spectrum of where they fit, and ‘Mosaic’ was me putting all the things I like together. It sounds varied and all over the place but it was a cathartic process and meant I got rid of all the stuff I wanted to do in an album. It also meant I could push toward finding my own sound and who I am.”
That discovery continued with ‘Axioms’ where he was determined to combine the creative with the mathematical. Centred on the concept of an axiom starting with a statement that is taken to be true, to serve as a premise or starting point for further reasoning and arguments that intent characterized an EP that was brighter, brasher and much more deliberate in its sound.
“Basically I said I was going to start with some basic rules: if you have simple rules, that leads to infinite complexity,” he begins. “It meant all the songs could sound different, so I was able to create this whole framework to be able to write music like me. That’s why the front cover’s a snowflake, because they have the simple rule of a hexagonal structure, but every snowflake is different due to the melting degrees, and where they were born. So even though the same simple rules built them, their lives are infinitely different and complex. That EP was a transition period for me to understand myself, so the next step was to take it to an album.”
The album in question was ‘Embers’. Released at the start of the year, Tones describes it as “my own little world” and it’s a record of structure and science that burns with a bleak, ephemeral splendour. Holed up in Daddry Shield, County Durham, he used field recordings from the surrounding area and made them an intrinsic, natural part of the music as he created a digital cycle of life, death and rebirth.
“I’ve always been obsessed by natural life-cycles and the underlying laws behind something, so if I’m creating a musical world, it’s going to have lives,” he explains. “Each track has a life, but every living thing dies, so the idea was that every track was going to start with common themes, and then die, then from the building blocks left at the end of that track, something new was built. And so because it’s all about natural cycles, it’s got to be able to loop back on itself.”
‘Embers’ represents Tones’ most ambitious project to date. Not content to create a digital world in the confines of an album, he extended the cyclic concept into the cover artwork and accompanying video for lead track, ‘Cosms’. Up until ‘Mosaic’, his process had been about experimenting, exploring and amalgamating — this time, he had a clear, if complex, aim to fulfil.
“The process of that, honestly, it’s the most in-depth thing I’ve ever attempted,” he admits. “This album has been so huge for me because I came up with a concept and for the first time I felt like I actually managed to achieve the project I set out to. The difference between ‘Mosaic’ to ‘Axioms’, then ‘Axioms’ to this album has gone haywire. If people are perfectly willing to listen to it and go ‘fucking hell, it’s all over the place, I don’t like that’ that’s fine, because it’s already fulfilled its purpose for me in being able to join two parts of my life together.”
The result was a record that combined nature and technology in philosophy and execution. Each track has its own personality – where ‘Cantor’s Dust Pt II’ growls and grinds with guttural bass, ‘Helical’ jumps back to the busy energy of ‘Lumen’; where ‘Klaxon’ scythes through the electronic fog; ‘Recursion’ plunges deep with skewed synths and a restless offbeat to scratch any Four Tet itch – but there’s an audible unity that’s nuanced when it needs to be. Tones intent is most apparent on ‘Allegory’ where birdsong field recordings most obviously come to life. On record, it feels symbiotic – a perfect synergy between song and surroundings – but the reality wasn’t always so seamless.
“Once I’d decided on the process, I went away for six weeks to where I grew up in the North East of England, and spent the summer with my dog, all the windows open, writing music. That period of me getting my ideas together and then getting them out was special but then things like starlings [who typically imitate other bird calls] started copying a riff I’d been playing for three days, so I was there doing an album about natural cycles and making my own little world yet the natural world around me was interfacing with what I was doing.
He continues: “My brother works on wildlife nature documentaries and he had to breed turkeys by hand for a film, so when they’d finished it, he asked my mum and dad if they wanted the turkeys for the farm. I haven’t said this to anyone yet, but when I was recording all this beautiful stuff like the thunder and the starling warning cries, all I hear in the middle of a minute of recording is a turkey gobbling! I had to keep the take, because it was perfect, but there’s a bit where you hear the thunder stop and you get this ‘waaaaaaaaaer’ sound that I had to change to fit with the music…so the turkey is in there. There were times when nature was working with me but then this turkey comes along and fucks it up,” Tones laughs.
It wasn’t just rogue turkeys he had to contend with for ‘Embers’ to see the light of day, as intended. On the 7th of September 2016, Fabric had its license revoked by Islington Council and was ordered to close its doors by London Metropolitan Police after the drug-related deaths of two club-goers. With the countless DJs, producers and artists taking to social media in a show of support, and the music community in uproar at the closure of another iconic London venue, it had a tangible impact on the album with it set for release on the Fabric-owned Houndstooth label.
“A day after accepting the album, they said that Fabric was shutting because of the court case, so with Houndstooth and Fabric being so intrinsically linked, it totally fucked everything. I was quite vocal about it, because I had my own opinions about the whole situation, and then there was the fact I’d just written an album about how everything’s interconnected, and how all these things that happen have an affect down the line, so it was ironic that a few days after delivering the album, two teenagers die from a drug overdose which inadvertently closes a club which fucks it all up,” he says.
“But at that point I was so proud of the album that I would’ve released it myself or it would have come out some way. I also felt that Fabric, Houndstooth and Rob Butterworth [Fabric Label Head] had been such an amazing team to work with, I owed them loyalty to stick through to the end. For me, it wasn’t a relief that the album was coming out, it was joy at the fact that there were so many people supporting not just Fabric, but the music community as a whole.”
In the months that followed the initial ruling – the successful appeal, the debate, the finger-pointing and the eventual re-opening – that initial joy and relief turned into frustration. Away from the album, the rescued jobs, preservation of a venue and firm middle finger to feckless property developers and an aggressive policy that continues to eradicate many of London’s live music venues, there was still the hard truth that the additional security provisions agreed on by Fabric and the London Met continued in lieu of dealing with Britain’s long-standing inability to discuss, debate or deal with drug culture in dance music — an issue that’s a continued source of exasperation for Tones.
“Personally, the provisions that were enforced in the agreement, I believe, could have wider ranging, longer impacts that we haven’t seen yet. It’s great Fabric’s become this gold standard again but now we have that, anything that happens in clubs, is that going to be the thing that’s forced upon them? My clubbing started in Bristol going to free parties, so I baulk at the mentality that just going to a club means you’ve done something wrong,” he says.
“It doesn’t solve the main problem which is with the UK’s view and inability to educate and deal with drugs. As opposed to that being an issue that was raised, discussed and deliberated on, we haven’t done that, we’ve saved a club because obviously they have to look after the people they support in the business, and quite rightly they’ve looked to ensure people’s jobs and investment, but as a whole I’m worried that the drugs thing hasn’t been discussed enough, so now we could be left with a standard that makes things even worse with people triple-dropping incredibly strong pills before they even go in. It’s symptomatic of the times we live in because nothing seems to be based upon actual sensible statistics, facts, reasoned argument. Even the way these arguments happen, it’s called ‘debate’ but it’s never truly a conversation, and that’s systematic. It’s a knee-jerk reaction.”
In this context, Tones isn’t your archetypal producer. As a former label intern, a label boss, a music licensing manager, a music consultant, lecturer and mentor on the Gilles Peterson Brownswood Bubblers youth scheme, he’s has spent most of the last 16 years straddled across different sections of the music industry and hasn’t always liked what he’s seen.
“Luckily for the last four years I’ve just been doing my stuff and not had to go to a day job. Working for HearNoEvil [music consultancy] was great, and it was good to see the industry from both sides but I also think it’s really difficult because all the producers I know, bar three or four, have other things that they have to do just to pay the rent, no matter how big they appear, or how hot the record is, there’re a lot of people who don’t want the stress of having to live off their own music, so work in record labels and things like that,” he says.
“I do quite a lot of lecturing around my process and how to write, but also the business models, and why music’s so fucked and no-one’s making any money. I know exactly why but there’re certain powers that be that don’t want musicians to make as much money as they should be able to,” he adds.
It’s a subject that’s long sparked debate, and with interests and experience on both side of the industry, Tones reserves a lot of ire for the long-standing Performing Rights Society for Music (PRS) legal disagreement with Soundcloud (settled in 2015) that eventually, in simple terms, saw PRS agree to bring its artists to Soundcloud providing Soundcloud paid royalties to PRS members.
“It’s the fact that PRS challenge Soundcloud so they have to pay people to use it as a streaming service, whereas Soundcloud is used as a promotional platform, and nearly all the musicians and producers putting their music on there knew they weren’t going to make any money from it,” Tones explains. “So instead of asking musicians and thinking about it, PRS have thought they can make some more money by slapping this legal case against Soundcloud, crippling how it works as a useful resource that made you more money as an artist through secondary and tertiary effects like people booking you because you had so many Soundcloud plays. The PRS don’t see that, they just see a top-line opportunity to make some money and look good because they’re seen to be doing something when what they’re actually doing is ruining a really good service and boasting about it.”
It’s a debate that’s long rolled on between artists, labels and digital streaming platforms, but the crux of it all for artists like Throwing Snow is the lack of transparency, education and the lack of any forward thinking from all involved.
“I think there is enough money and the market is big enough for everyone to rise to the top and have a decent wage. The trouble is it’s becoming less possible for that to happen and that’s mainly because of misconceptions about what’s going to benefit the industry. It also has to do more complex publishing issues but that’s why I do these lectures and talks about it because it’s really difficult to understand, and no one raises it because often people are just responsible for looking after their own area. We need some people to see the bigger picture, because market size and having any ability to make money from music, disappears.”
For Tones, it remains a daunting prospect, particularly because he believes so few can objectively speak to the whole subject. It’s also a battle he believes he shouldn’t have to face alone, and while he’s a largely reluctant white knight, it seems that a debate as outdated, entrenched and legally intricate as this could do with his kind of critical thinking.
“I’m trying to create time to do this but it’s not because I want to do it, I wish it was just work. I don’t believe there’re many people who’ve been an artist, worked in labels, worked in publishing, done the live music thing, and can see those things as both an artist and as someone who’s been involved on the industry side. I believe I’m one of the people who can speak to this, so I just think ‘fuck, it’s gotta be me’ so that if I emerge with a killer album, it’ll make more than £5.”
It seems that exposure to the industry’s intricacies are as much of a blessing as they are a curse, and although it’s kept him busy over the years, for Tones, it’s also left big questions unanswered or stubbornly ignored. How he navigates that remains to be seen but Throwing Snow’s sweet science is something we can all believe in.
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