Tullis Rennie: audio innovator

Tullis Rennie has co-founded a record label, Concrete Moniker, released one solo and two collaboration albums (with another one shortly on its way) and runs sound workshops, If Walls Had Ears in his resident city, Barcelona.

Besides that, he DJ’s monthly at Café Rouge and is involved with another host of creative projects, including sound-inspired walking tours of Barcelona and a live multimedia performance of ‘Intergalatic Red Riding Hood’ – a bizarre and wonderful visual opera currently being developed for November’s Mirá Festival. This is a man who appears to be constantly busy, either fine-tuning his ears to the noises around him, or pricking the senses of those who delve into his eerie and abstract soundscapes.

His latest production, The Electronic Exchange, is a 4-track EP written and recorded together with soulful singer Najia Bagi. Incredibly, their collaboration took place entirely via the internet from their respective homes in Manchester and Barcelona. A mix of electronica with elements of trip hop and soul, the tracks remind me of Four Tet and 2010’s brilliant album by Gold Panda. BBC Manchester Introducing has called the collaboration “a twisted electronic beauty”.

On the 14th October, The Electronic Exchange will join Catalan musicians Balago & Wooky (who played the Forum stage during La Mercè) for a night of audio innovations, spine-tingling sounds and evocative electronic beats at The Apolo. Having greedily sunk my ears into the undulating rhythms of Tullis’ latest album and nosied my way through the fruits of his sound workshops, I was intrigued to find out how exactly he goes about cherry-picking his sounds. There was clearly more meaning to his music than simply sounding good, or as is the case with the deluge of thoughtless tracks that tend to dominate the charts; not even sounding good at all.

Tullis confessed, “Musically, I am happy to abstract sound from a source and use it for its sonic qualities. In terms of If Walls Had Ears, meaning is really important because it’s about telling a story or having a connection, capturing a moment with the sound.”

Using sound to document what is happening around us is exactly what If Walls Had Ears is all about. The city acts as Tullis’ sampler; he uses his sound workshops to go around collecting sound-bites from people, places or things, which are then mixed, tweaked and twisted into a story told through sound. “Sound is a really effective medium to communicate or to discover about where you are,” says Tullis. “It’s about opening your ears a bit, about discovering that you can document something not just with photos or with paintings or writing – you can document it with sound.”

What comes across strongly with Tullis, is that sound is his medium; he seems naturally inclined to use sound as a mode of self-expression and a way of recording the world around him. We are quite used to visual expression and documentation – we click away at cameras and visit art galleries, but it takes a bit more effort to heighten your audio senses enough to really appreciate the distinction between the crackles, grinds and staccatoes of our surroundings. Sure, we listen to music, but do we distinguish between the individual components that create it, or think about how the sounds were made? Half the time we humans don’t even listen properly to each other! Tullis’ sound workshops work on heightening the sense of sound and listening objectively to the soundtracks of our urban and natural environments.

Tullis explains, “We begin by spending a day recording, and that includes spending quite a lot of time listening. You have to realise that a microphone is kind of a leveller – if you put headphones on your recorder, you´re going to hear the people talking there and the bus over here just as loudly as our conversation. Subconsciously we sort of lower those volumes because we´re trying to concentrate on the conversation, but microphones don´t do that. So we try and get people to balance out their listening and that really opens up a new world. From there it’s about finding sounds that are interesting – it’s like taking kind of snapshots… a little moment, something you wouldn´t have heard otherwise.”

Tullis’ blog showcases these audio snapshots of his life in Barcelona, documenting for example the polyphony of footsteps that cross in the metro of Plaza Catalunya, or the sounds of the ‘Los Indignados’ demonstrations that filled the square with political activity this May. Yet the recordings aren’t just taken at random; they give a clear indication of a backdrop of environmental and political awareness that seems to push Tullis towards particular narratives.

“Sound really focuses your mind. It gives you the ability to imagine. I think it’s going to become more important because it’s not just listening to pretty snow on a leaf, it can be a way of understanding more about something and investigating it.” After the sociopolitical protests that dominated Spain in May, Tullis used the hash tag #SpanishRevolution on Twitter to attract hundreds of listeners to his recordings of demonstrators in Barcelona, who recounted the personal effects of the economic crisis. The constant developments in technology and communication are creating much wider possibilities for documenting experiences and sharing them with others, meaning that journalism is becoming more and more accessible. Apart from the musical side of Tullis’ work, this is an interesting area to which his blog is contributing, as a creative idea that encourages a positive process of reflection and consciousness.

Then it gets to the technical bit. Tullis reassures me that you don’t have to be a computer whizz to take part. “Technology can be something organic, exciting and beautiful – it’s not just geeky! We get in the studio, learn about EQ – equalisation, how to bring out the right frequencies to make it sound good. It’s a bit like if you take a photo and then you work with it on Photoshop to bring out the colour or to give it more focus.”

Tullis bought his first copy of Q base, an audio editing programme, aged 12. But it was his electro-acoustic compositions course at Manchester University that really opened his mind to the vast possibilities of electronic music. “What I like is the freedom it gives you, the palette of sounds. I work with vocals, instruments, field recordings. I like to piece things together and not take everything from synthesizers, but use real sounds.”

Before the Manchester DJ scene stole Tullis’ heart away from more traditional musical pursuits, he was proficient in classical piano and trombone. He tells me he has always been a die-hard fan of music in all its shapes and forms. “I kind of eat music for breakfast,” he admits. “Really early as a kid I started taping my radio shows – I used to listen obsessively to Giles Peterson and John Peel, Steve le Mac and May Anne Hobbs. I used to tape it and listen to it on my paper round.”

What Tullis calls an unhealthy obsession has clearly paid off, as now he can relish the opportunities he has carved out of his life-long passion. The Electronic Exchange is a particularly impressive combination of Tullis’ prowess with sound engineering and Najia Bagi’s rich, soulful voice that is well worth witnessing. What is especially impressive is that the upcoming Apolo gig will be only one of the first times the pair has actually been in the same room, having negotiated the production of the EP entirely over Skype and email.

Tullis extols the virtues of this distanced writing and recording process. “It’s the perfect combination between letting your own ideas flow and having someone else’s opinion. Quite often we talk about a story, then I make a beat, then Najia makes a melody. A lot of its unplanned, it just happens, we go with our intuition. It’s good to let your ideas stray.”

The tracks combine ballad-like lyrics with gripping rhythms, free-flowing beats and rich vocals. “This EP is quite dark. It’s very atmospheric I think and definitely a bit sinister,” confesses Tullis. “The new album that is coming out has got a bit more light to it, it’s a bit more hopeful.”

At the Apolo on October 14th, you’ll be able to hear a mixture of the two albums in a gig that promises to give some edgy musical food for thought. Together with Wooky and Balago, who make all their electronic music using entirely analogue equipment, it is sure to be a unique night. “When we play live it’s not a repetition of the EP, every gig is different. You can expect versions of things that are on the EP, but it won’t sound the same,” says Tullis.

Tullis seems so happy in what he is doing that it won’t take much more to fulfil him. “I think music is just such a great communicator. As long as my music still means something to other people, that’s the goal. I have to do it anyway, I can’t not do it, so I just hope it’s worthwhile for other people.”

Judging by the originality of this EP, it will be.


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