Robin Hatch is the Canadian composer whose 2021 album ‘T.O.N.T.O.’ experimented with the huge customised synthesizer system created for the music of TONTO’S EXPANDING HEAD BAND who also worked with Stevie Wonder on the ‘Talking Book’ and ‘Innervisions’ albums.
Having previously released piano works as well a pop album ‘Noise’ featuring vocals and drum machine, Robin Hatch returns to traditional ivories for ‘Piano III’ although despite its title, she makes use of an EMS Synthi AKS and ARP 2600.
Her sixth album in 5 years, the album was written during breaks while touring as a live keyboardist with Polaris Prize-winning hardcore punk band F*CKED UP. Recorded at the Electronic Music Education and Preservation Project in Harleysville using Keith Emerson’s Steinway Model D, ‘Piano III’ opens the set with ‘Abstract’, a soothing solo piece that recalls the ‘BTTB’ pieces of the late Ryuichi Sakamoto.
‘2600’ is self-explanatory, making use of crunchy rhythmic electronics as accompaniment to the improvisation, recorded by placing contact microphones on the piano’s strings run into an ARP 2600 controlled by ARP sequencer, all while synthetic strings and swoops provide a breezy atmosphere.
The more ambient ‘Fairies’ is gorgeous with its gently bubbling electronics and keyboard treatments reminiscent of Brian Eno’s interferences in his work with Robert Fripp. However ‘Manifesto’ is much more boisterous, the skeletal ostinato cascades recalling Ryuichi Sakamoto ‘Playing the Piano’ and also John Cage when in his more tuneful mindset.
‘Dispatches’ makes more of an ominous piano statement with plenty of drama inspired by Igor Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite Of Spring’.
Perhaps not as straightforward as the other compositions, the idiosyncratic ‘Waterfall’ is artier and avant with the unusual sound of birds singing through Autotune.
A minimalist PREFAB SPROUT cover inspired by jazz pianist Brad Mehldau and classical player Christopher O’Riley (who is notable for his transcriptions of NIRVANA and RADIOHEAD), ‘Bonny’ ventures into pacier melodic inflections before the plaintive ‘Fatal Attraction’ closes proceedings.
Reflecting the deviating mind in solitude, with ‘Piano III’ being the final instalment of her piano trilogy, where will Robin Hatch head next? Not one to sit still, perhaps following her F*CKED UP touring experience, will a synth-punk album be next? Whatever happens, it will be interesting.
Despite the general appetite for nostalgia with boxed sets and coloured vinyl of classic albums hogging the pressing plants, there was a lot of excellent new music released in 2021.
The quality of individual tracks released in 2021 was extremely high but at the end of the day, only 30 songs can be selected as a snapshot of the calendar year. As Monica Geller in ‘Friends’ once said, “Rules are good, rules help control the fun” – rules, routine and structure = creativity and fun ?
So the highly commended group who did not quite make ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK’s 30 songs of 2021 includes Tobias Bernstrup, David Cicero, Alice Hubble, Michael Oakley, Jason Priest, Nina, Eric Random and Kat Von D’s duet with Peter Murphy, along with SIN COS TAN, FIAT LUX, LONELADY, GLITBITER, KNIGHT$, PEAKES, DESIRE, SOFTWAVE, XENO & OAKLANDER, BUNNY X, PISTON DAMP, FRAGRANCE. and HANTE.
So here are ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK’s 30 songs of 2021, presented as usual alphabetically by act with a restriction of one song per artist moniker.
ACTORS Love U More
Thanks to the recruitment of new bassist Kendall Wooding, the male-to-female ratio of ACTORS has equalled up and altered their dynamic. The vocal duality between guitarist Jason Corbett and keyboardist Shannon Hemmett aka LEATHERS takes an increased role in the band’s developing sound. With the brooding baritone counterpointed by girly soprano and male falsetto to provide an uneasy uplift to the gloomy domino dance, ‘Love U More’ was a statement of intent like a goth DURAN DURAN with metronomic rhythms and eerie synths.
Midge Ure finally launched his BAND ELECTRONICA project as a recording entity with ‘Das Beat’, a glorious slice of Teutonic robopop in collaboration with Wolfgang Flür. With “Beats through wires, beats through walls”, the icy motorik bossa nova was complimented by a blisteringly catchy synth hook in the classic Kling Klang tradition and harked back the Glaswegian’s days hearing KRAFTWERK at The Blitz Club and making music with VISAGE and ULTRAVOX. Dancing is a given to the synthesizer rhythm.
Available on the single ‘Das Beat’ via BMG Rights Management
Although a seasoned musician as the sax and keyboard player for Bryan Ferry over the past 10 years, Australian multi-instrumentalist Jorja Chalmers did not release her first album until 2019. The superb take on SIOUXSIE & THE BANSHEES ‘Rhapsody’, an orchestrated gothic epic off their ninth album ‘Peepshow’, featured an intriguing electronic warble within its stripped down arrangement. From its claustrophobic cocoon, Chalmers sounded trapped inside an unsettling icy soundscape of synthetic strings and choirs.
CLASS ACTRESS is the nom de théâtre of one-time Giorgio Moroder protégée Elizabeth Harper. Releasing a new EP ‘Sense Memory’ which initially featured three cover including THE SMITHS’ ‘Ask’ but steadily expanded with new material, the percussive ‘Saint Patrick’ featured an array of infectious synth hooks while Harper’s richly passionate vocal over some strident keyboard work combined like Nerina Pallot fronting BOY HARSHER for a brilliant slice of modern electronic pop.
Perhaps more intentionally pop than Hattie Cooke has ever been before on her previous two long playing outings, an intimate gravitas comes with the expanded electronic texturing on her third album ‘Bliss Land’ and this is undoubtedly stamped on its opening song. The hypnotic ‘I Get By’ was superb with ringing hooks, sweeping soundscapes and airy understated vocals that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on an Italians Do It Better ‘After Dark’ compilation.
‘The Absurdity of Human Existence’ is the debut album by DANZ CM, the artist formally known as COMPUTER MAGIC. New York based Danz Johnson is the synth girl behind both vehicles with a passion for the development of the electronic music. Reflecting the album’s title, the total melancholic brilliance of ‘Human Existence’ sees our heroine make a sombre declaration that “you can’t save me, I can’t save you” in a manner reminiscent of CHROMATICS meeting OMD.
Danceable dreampop trio DAWN TO DAWN feature in its line-up Tess Roby who released her debut album ‘Beacon’ on Italians Do It Better. Also featuring Adam Ohr and Patrick Lee with their Minimoog, Roland System 100, Roland Juno 60 and Korg 700s armoury, ’Care’ was written on a cold winter’s night and unsurprisingly captures that mood. Nocturnal yet rhythmic, Roby’s alluring folk-tinged vocal offsets the various synthetic overtures for a mysterious weightless quality.
Leeds based duo DEVOIR comprise of Imogen Holmes who released the impressive ‘Lines’ EP as IMI and Jacob Marston. A product of lockdown, although ‘Mercer’ is entirely electronic, it differs slightly from IMI in its four-to-the-floor construction. So imagine GOLDFRAPP at an Alpine rave in the Hornlihutte basecamp next to The Matterhorn. As the cinematic techno builds, the magnificent voice that graced IMI soars and shines, expressing itself at the extremes of alluring spoken word and piercing high soprano.
DIAMOND FIELD is the musical vehicle of Andy Diamond, the New York based Kiwi who, looks to studio icons such as Hugh Padgham, Rupert Hine and Peter Wolf as his heroes. With a backing track like NEW ORDER’s ‘Your Silent Face’ reworked by OMD, ‘A Kiss Apart’ is superb and sees a velvet performance by Belinda Bradley of New Zealand collective SELON RECLINER; akin to the other Belinda, Ms Carlisle crossed with Marcella Detroit there is a gorgeous chorus and some great synth interventions recalling lost Mute trio PEACH.
Inspired by the spectre of the former Soviet Union, Minsk trio DLINA VOLNY explore post-punk with a dance beat not unlike NEW ORDER. Having already had two albums already under their belt and singing in English with an inherent Eastern Bloc gloom in Masha Zinevitch’s vocals throughout their Italians Do It Better period, their fifth single for the label ‘Bipolar’ was dark disco with plenty of synth and mystery that asked “But what is it like being on the border?”.
Available on the album ‘Dazed’ via Italians Do It Better
With her mix of modern synthpop and synthwave coupled to her deep nonchalant vocals, Laura Dre captures the rainy dystopian air of ‘Blade Runner’, but with a sexy enigmatic allure and a mischievously wired groove that wouldn’t go amiss in a West Berlin nightclub. The glorious uptempo disco number ‘All Day, All Night’ offers great crossover potential; drenched in sparkle and a delicious percussive base. It’s a number for fans of early PET SHOP BOYS, complete with a classic Tennant / Lowe styled instrumental middle eight.
Celebrating 40 years as recording artists, DURAN DURAN released their 15th studio album ‘Future Past’ in a “live for the moment” reference of how something today can become a cherished memory in times to come. The chiptune inspired ‘More Joy!’ was reminiscent of past glories, its syncopated disco poise capturing DURAN DURAN at what they do best and with hypnotic electronics offset by a wonderful bass guitar run and chants by Japanese rock band CHAI, its exuberant manner presented the right dose of escapism.
Like a tattooed Marilyn Monroe dropped into Twin Peaks, GLÜME is a shimmering new starlet in the Italians Do It Better stable. From her debut album ‘The Internet’, ‘Get Low’ was an intriguing slice of accessible avant pop about the high of falling for someone where brain chemistry and nervous systems are affected. Applying some rumbling electronic bass, stabbing vintage synths and simple but prominent digital drum beats, ‘Get Low’ sounded not unlike an experimental hybrid of OMD and LADYTRON!
Made using the T.O.N.T.O. synth complex created Malcom Cecil and Robert Margouleff which was made famous by Stevie Wonder, the same titled album is the fifth solo body of work by the Toronto-based neoclassical composer and multi-instrumentalist Robin Hatch. The sinister ‘Airplane’ took shape around an avant garde soundscape. Utilising the talents of doom metal violinist Laura Bates of VOLUR alongside the synthetic strings and hypnotic generative blips, this encapsulated an unsettling gothic grandeur.
For Italian musician veterans Fred Ventura and Paolo Gozzetti, the ethos of ITALOCONNECTION is “to sound vintage in a modern way”. The superb ‘Virus X’ featuring French veteran Etienne Daho sprung a surprise as a suave slice of Gallic synthwave. With its downbeat verse and an emotive chorus, this was as a fitting musical document of the past year and half’s tensions while using toxic personal relationships as a poignant lyrical analogy.
Hailing from Turkey, JAKUZI’s Italo flavoured song ‘Hiç Işık Yok’ saw the usual cowbells substituted by processed pots and pans, while the mix of classic brassy tones and chilling synth pads blended to create something rather unusual and extraordinary. Working with Maurizio Baggio who mixed the most recent albums by BOY HARSHER and THE SOFT MOON, the Italian producer turned what had been a gothic futureless mood piece with a sombre vocal intonation into a dark but catchy electronic disco number.
2021 was a year craving for more ‘Good Times’ and JOON, the electronic solo project from Maltese producer Yasmin Kuymizakis did her best to remember them. Another recent signing to Italians Do It Better, she reflected on “The way you sing your songs and make me dance, the way you take a chance on a little romance” before affirming “You remind me of the good times”. It all captured a charming innocence in a dreamy Mediterranean take on Japanese City Pop.
КЛЕТ is a music project of Bohemian-born composer and producer Michal Trávníček. Primarily celebrating the Soviet space programme with its impressive series of firsts, while the ‘Alconaut’ album’s pivotal track was its opener ‘Gagarin’s Start’ which honoured the handsome hero who was the first man in space as he prepared for lift-off, the spacey Sovietwave mood over 13 tracks made for an enticing listen. The sparkling sparseness of ‘Eternity’ with its stuttering vintage drum machine provided another highlight.
LEATHERS is the more synth focussed solo project from ACTORS keyboardist Shannon Hemmett. The undoubted highlight of her debut ‘Reckless’ EP was the title song. Resigned and accepting, she was still alluring in her voicing despite the heartbreak of her love being so cruel and dangerous. A rather lovely slice of synthpop in that classic melancholic vein with an infectious steadfast motorik beat, it again showed that Canada again was leading the way in the modern version of the form.
Available on the EP ‘Reckless’ via Artoffact Records
Having treated the world with her charming cover of the Alan Wilder penned DEPECHE MODE B-side ‘Fools’, Philadelphian songstress CATHERINE MOAN launched her debut album with the self-composed ‘Drop It!’, song craving the joy of nightlife after a year of lockdown confinement. Dreamily floating over a classic four chord progression with an eerily sombre apocalyptic understatement, ‘Drop It!’ channelled her innocent sound in the manner of ELECTRIC YOUTH meeting STRAWBERRY SWITCHBLADE and MARSHEAUX via her own bedroom aesthetic.
While Karin My has been working with TWICE A MAN and MACHINISTA over the last ten years, it was only in 2019 that she stepped out to front her own traditionally derived electronic songs. A steadfast drum machine propels ‘Loop’ while sweeping symphonic melodies in the vein of ULTRAVOX accompany the despairing resignation. The closing computer generated female speech declaring “identification – procedure – quote – hyphen – perform – display – go to – loop – full stop – execute” added to the dystopian unsettlement.
Using a rigid motorik backbone and capturing a danceable ethereal shudder, ‘This Fractured Mind’ breathed new life via its sprightly synth tones in a reference to the past. Although there was also some frenetic bass guitar grit to provide a hint of claustrophobia, the machines that had only been friends previously became family in the NATION OF LANGUAGE sound. Dealing with the spectre of unrealised dreams and jealousy towards more successful others, by the end of ‘This Fractured Mind’, any inferiority complex is countered with hopeful acceptance.
The project of Andreas Kubat and Sebastian Bohn, the 2001 NORTHERN LITE single ‘Treat Me Better’ was a cult favourite on the electroclash scene. Translating as “I don‘t think so…”, Kubat reflected on enforced isolation and staying sane. In a chorus that could be roughly interpreted: “You can‘t be happy and by liked by everyone at the same time”, ‘Ich Fürchte Nein’ was a delightfully catchy synthpop tune with a bright and jolly melodic section contrasted by a vocal of a more anxious disposition.
While ‘Savage’ depicted a deserted post-apocalyptic world, clad in darkness, The Ade Fenton produced ‘Intruder’ saw Planet Earth react to human kind’s self-destructive misdemeanours by unleashing a virus! “It feels betrayed, hurt and ravaged. Disillusioned and heartbroken it is now fighting back” said Gary Numan poignantly. ‘The Chosen’ was fast paced synth rock and filled with pleading messages embroiled in frustration and despair, asking “Do you need one more sign?” and “Can you see, or are you so blind?”
Mark Reeder first met Fifi Rong who at the Berlin Kraftwerk in 2016 when she was singing in concert with Swiss trailblazers YELLO. From his album ‘Subversiv-Dekadent’ , the opening track ‘Figure of 8’ was a magical new collaboration between the two with a cinematic backdrop of sparse piano and glistening sequences over which the exquisite Chinese songstress added her distinctive air of mystery to a more metronomic rhythm construction than perhaps heard on her own work.
New York City-based darklings R. MISSING are fronted by Sharon Shy, a vocalist with an elegant Jane Birkin-like presence while the studious Toppy Frost does the music. 2020’s ‘Placeholder For The Night’ signalled airier developments in their increasingly synthy sound, but the wonderful ‘Crimeless’ was R. MISSING’s most electronic pop noir statement yet. It was like CHROMATICS carefully reconfigured for the dancefloor with Sharon Shy presenting a whispery singing style that could easily be mistaken for Ruth Radelet.
Available on the single ‘Crimeless’ via Sugarcane Recordings
Subtitled ‘Hommage à Florian’, ‘Danse Du Robot’ was a magical tribute to the late KRAFTWERK co-founder with hints of ‘Trans Europe Express’ from Swedish producer Martin Lillberg, the man behind SCHÖNHEIT. Not exactly a prolific project with singles in 2014 and 2019, Lillberg however records under various monikers including as DEOLETUS, DESTINY NATION, INESI, LAURENTIA, LOVE ON DRUGS, MY SWEETEST PUNCH and WML as well as holding down a day job as a classical percussionist.
SEA FEVER are the new eclectic Manchester combo featuring second generation members of SECTION 25 and NEW ORDER, Beth Cassidy, Tom Chapman and Phil Cunningham. ‘De Facto’ was a delightful electro-disco feast with a rhythm rush that screamed strobelights and likely to fill indie club dancefloors while also crossing over to lovers of synth. With echoes of NEW ORDER and THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS, it captured a vibrant energy worthy of Manchester and its musical heritage.
As the prospect of interacting with others again set off anxieties after 18 months of social distancing, for Scottish Swedish duo UNIFY SEPARATE, it was time to ‘Embrace The Fear’. While the theme was relatable to lockdown, the lyrical gist touched on the more general existential crises that afflict many as they navigate a life crossroads. But despite the air of unease and the grittier disposition, as with most of UNIFY SEPARATE’s output, there was light at the end of the tunnel.
Gorgeously melodic within a claustrophobic drama, ‘Lost In The Cloud’ did as the title suggested like Vangelis meeting Giorgio Moroder at the Necropolis on a dreamy dance trip. A lovely little uplifting synth instrumental, Tom Andersson the man behind WAVESHAPER suggested something darker, saying “Imagine Red Riding Hood trapped in the Digital Cloud, behind the Mainframe. How would she feel? What would she see? There is probably more to fear than a wolf in the forest…”
Available on the album ‘Mainframe’ via Waveshaper Music Production
A wonderful delightfully odd experience that is accessible on many levels, ‘T.O.N.T.O.’ is the fifth album in 3 years by the Canadian musician Robin Hatch.
The eight track body of work uses the huge customised synthesizer system created for the music of TONTO’S EXPANDING HEAD BAND, the duo comprising of Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff who together co-produced some of Stevie Wonder’s best known albums such as ‘Talking Book’ and ‘Innervisions’.
Hatch was first introduced to “The Original New Timbral Orchestra” by Cecil at a Los Angeles trade show in 2015 while later, she met up with Margouleff to discuss the suitability of her compositions for T.O.N.T.O. Having previously issued piano and experimental works, Hatch’s fourth record ‘Noise’ featured vocals and drum machine with occasional inclinations into pop.
But the entirely instrumental ‘T.O.N.T.O’ was written and recorded by Hatch at the National Music Centre in Calgary where “The Original New Timbral Orchestra” is now based, just before Malcolm Cecil passed away at the age of 84. Hatch has dedicated the album to him, which has also been mastered by Robert Margouleff.
Robin Hatch kindly chatted to ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK about her career to date and utilising the vast possibilities of T.O.N.T.O. for her own expressive purposes under some challenging circumstances.
You have described yourself as “a classical player trying to play jazz and not being very good at either”, why did you say that?
I don’t practice enough, so I think it’s just a way to cover my bases there, plus it immediately lets people know about my neuroses.
You effectively lead a triple life as a musician in classical, alternative rock and experimental synth, are your tastes quite eclectic? Is there any genre which you don’t embrace?
I enjoy listening to all types of music — left to my own devices, I generally listen to yacht rock or music that sounds like it could be on ‘The Immaculate Collection’. I don’t like present day Top 40 pop music all that much, but you still get a good song in there every couple of years or so.
How did you get into synthesizers and what was your first acquisition or experience?
I think my first synthesizer purchase was for an all-female WEEZER cover band I played in, SHEEZER. I got a digital Roland Juno-Di I think because it was the cheapest synth available where I could easily replicate the ElectroComp 101 sound that they used on ‘Pinkerton’. My first analog synth was a used Nord Lead 2X that I picked up when I joined OUR LADY PEACE on tour.
You’ve cited avant garde composer John Cage as an influence on your approach as he “embellished the weird”?
I love John Cage, he was so strange. I like how he treated the composition of music as high art that you might find in a gallery (such as his list of New York waltzes where it’s a list of groupings of three streets, and performing the waltz requires you walk between the three streets), and then could go on television and show a TV host how he’d made a distorted microphone face mask and laugh maniacally at his own invention.
I think there is a fine line between this and insanity and John Cage was always good at remaining in the academic realm. I’m reading a book called ‘Where The Heart Beats’ right now about how he got into Zen Buddhism.
I once did DJ set of 4’33” covers between live acts during an event that even made Jonathan Barnbrook who did the minimalist artwork for David Bowie’s ‘The Next Day’ raise an eyebrow, what’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done for the sake of artistic expression?
Ha ha! Well I never went to school for theatre or visual art so in my early 30s, I think I’m just discovering sides of performance where people who study performance might roll their eyes. I get pretty outrageous on Twitter and I think it’s interesting to call that artistic expression, whether or not that’s valid artistic expression. It’s about as artistic as a personal blog, I suppose.
There’s a very vibrant outspoken guy here in Canada named Frank D’Angelo who is a very successful businessman, film director, and jazz musician. He also hosts his own talk show called ‘Being Frank’.
I had chirped him one day on Twitter, saying a song of his that I’d heard on the radio sounded like it was ripping something else off.
He name-searches, so he replied right away and ended up inviting me on his talk show, where I played one of my strange 5/8 time signature piano pieces.
He gave all the guests on the show that day (me and many Canadian television actors) a copy of his latest film script, and told me he’d “f*ckin kill me” if I ever showed anyone. It was a fun day overall and hope to work with him again someday.
After the experimental ‘Hatch’ album plus your previous piano works, you opted to feature vocals and drum machine on your fourth album ‘Noise’? ‘Tie A Bow’ is almost the closest you’ve got to pop?
I’m trying harder for these new songs I’m working on! If I had unlimited budget, the rest of it would have sounded poppier too but still sort of figuring out mixing and arranging on the fly.
‘Planetarium’ sounds as if you are exorcising demons?
Yeah, I was trying to be as strange as possible. I think I had this idea during Covid that I could do some sort of girl version of Klaus Nomi. I can’t even listen to it now because the vocals embarrass me so much.
So how did you discover T.O.N.T.O. and its history?
I was in LA for a trade show called NAMM in 2015 to try and network myself for sponsorships. I had auditioned for Dave Stewart the day before to play in his daughter’s band, and turned down the gig offer because I had a boyfriend back home (like an idiot!).
This was the final day of the trade show, and this is still true but it’s pretty hard to get taken seriously by most people you speak to as a female musician, so I was on my way out with my tail between my legs and saw a mad scientist-looking fellow frantically pointing around over
by the Moog booth.
I basically walked up and cold-asked him who he was… it was Malcolm Cecil and he very kindly told me all about T.O.N.T.O. and gave me an autographed copy of TONTO’S EXPANDING HEAD BAND CD. I was already a Stevie fan from Motown cover bands I was playing in back in Toronto, and that interaction sort of solidified that love.
It represented for me, at that time, an appreciation for music which was separate from needing to have success within the industry, plus I got to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of the type of knowledge you need in order to create any synthesizer, let alone a massive Frankenstein like T.O.N.T.O.
How did you come to conceive a work around T.O.N.T.O.?
In the summer of 2019, I toured the National Music Centre in Calgary, AB, where T.O.N.T.O. is currently housed, and found out about residencies they offer there.
I posted about that to my Instagram, and a friend of mine reached out that he knew Robert Margouleff through the VR microphone industry.
I was in California that fall for a wedding and went to meet Robert mostly out of corny fan interest in picking his brain for stories. At that time I had released my first album, ‘Works For Solo Piano’, and Robert asked to hear some of the songs off of it.
He is the only person who has ever immediately identified Béla Bartók as one of my influences, ha! He comes from a classical background as well. It was Robert’s advice to try to sort of re-conceive the contrapuntal piano pieces I already write as separate voices in chamber pieces, and to run those parts into the separate synthesizers in T.O.N.T.O. essentially treating it as a MIDI chamber group automaton.
For the uninitiated, please can you tell us what is incorporated within the T.O.N.T.O. system and how did you find using it?
It has two Moog Modular 3 systems, two ARP 2600s, Oberheim SEM modules, and custom Serge modules as well as modules designed by Malcolm and Robert. While I was there, the Oberheim modules were out of commission so I used Studio Bell’s Four Voice instead.
There was a massive learning curve. It helped to study the Arturia Vintage VSTs in advance and get somewhat of a sense of the layout of those synthesizers. It is incredibly difficult to keep the thing in tune and most of the time, the best you can get it to sound, 50 years since it was built, is sort of like when you hear a group of children playing their first violin recital.
Jason Tawkin at Studio Bell had a lot of hands-on experience with Malcolm Cecil and (the late engineer and equipment technician) John Leimsider who restored T.O.N.T.O. – so Jason’s expertise in assisting with programming was invaluable, especially for songs like ‘Water’. I found the ARP 2600s easier to dial in, but the Moog modulars were a nightmare.
Was a four day residency enough to fully explore the possibilities of T.O.N.T.O.?
No… originally it was supposed to be twelve days but because of COVID, it was postponed for a year and pushed back to four days. I could have used a lot more time plus “heads up” time to write the record, but I wasn’t about to complain when I got the e-mail it was moving forward!
‘Buttercups’ and ‘My Lucid Mind’ recall Wendy Carlos, has she always been a source of inspiration for you?
I am a massive fan of Wendy Carlos’ early film scoring and if it reminds you of those, that is extremely flattering.
I think I was trying to rip off the orchestrations from ‘Peter & The Wolf’ and then Robert Schumann for ‘Buttercups’… I had written the melody part on electric guitar and then fleshed it out more via that ostinato line. Then ‘My Lucid Mind’, I was trying to experiment with the tritone and diminished scales plus adding a countermelody that could play with and bounce off of the main melody.
You bring in a LinnDrum Computer for ‘Rest Stop’, was it the LM-1 which didn’t have enough chip memory for a cymbal crash?
I think that’s true of the LM-1. I was working with an LM-2 which had been hacked so it had MIDI. You know, I only had four days in studio and wish I had had more time to dial in a proper Linn sound for the record. It was what it was, but I almost wish I had overdubbed the song with VST LinnDrums because they don’t sound as full as I’d like.
How do you find the digital drum machines compared with the primitive analogue rhythm boxes?
In terms of digital drum machine emulators of vintage analogue rhythm boxes, it’s pretty difficult to tell the difference at this point.
But it’s a lot more difficult to get a good sound from the analogue rhythm boxes and I imagine they sound beefier live.
‘Brazil’ ventures into jazz, what’s the story here?
I think the goal was to try and make something that sounded musically like a Stevie Wonder song, the spaces in modal jazz where you can’t tell if someone is playing in sharps or flats. It originally had LinnDrums similar to those on ‘Rest Stop’, but as a shot in the dark, I asked Eric Slick if he would drum on the song, and his playing plus Leland on sax just caused a more jazz-like sound.
‘Airplane’ is very solemn and tense, it features the violin of Laura Bates?
There was a Therevox (Canadian-made version of the Ondes Martenot) in the production room and I decided to attempt my best Jonny Greenwood there. Not being a string player myself, only about 20 seconds of that ended up on the recording, but Laura Bates, who is an incredible violinist and has a great metal band called VOLUR, helped me out with nailing the rhythm properly on those lines.
Amongst all the analogue synths on the ‘T.O.N.T.O.’ album, you use a Fairlight VST for a voice sample on ‘Mockingbird’, but have you ever used a real Fairlight CMI before?
No. I got to see one in person at EMEAPP this past month in Harleysville, PA. Hoping to get to use theirs someday. It’s on the “bucket list”.
Are there any other synths you would like to try out or are you happy with the set-up you have for the moment?
That new ARP2600 that Korg has out is pretty killer. I have a Prophet 12 that I’m still learning the ins and outs of, and I picked up an Elektron Rytm MkII drum machine last year with some of my pandemic unemployment, so I’ve got plenty to keep me occupied before I delve into modulars, for instance. I wouldn’t say no to a Moog Grandmother.
There’s a great distorted pipe texture on ‘Inspector’, how did you sound design that?
That is basically a sine wave patch where one of the oscillators is then running into a ring modulator. It gets pretty gritty towards the end but the ring modulator happened to be in tune enough and it was my favourite take of that song.
You used an RMI Explorer with its Flying Hammers?
I played the RMI Explorer on ‘Water’ and ‘My Lucid Mind’. For the former, the (excellent) engineer Jason Tawkin had helped me patch in a sound similar to water flowing on one of T.O.N.T.O.’s two Moog Modular 3 systems, which we were using on ‘Airplane’ and it was the end of the second day and we decided to jam out over that particular sound, and that plucked RMI Explorer patch seemed to complement the flowy, river-like nature of the Moog atmospherics.
For ‘My Lucid Mind’, it was the final day and I was tossing off some overdubs to add a more whimsical, weird circus-like energy to the song.
What were your personal favourite moments during the making of the ‘T.O.N.T.O.’?
I had some free time and I dialled in one of the sounds listed in the original ARP2600 patch book called “Jonathan Synthesized Seagull”, and it sounded exactly like a seagull. I’ll send you a video clip of it.
It made me laugh to think of the guy who stayed up and designed that for the manual, and how keyboard patch name humour hasn’t really changed much over the decades.
Just before the pandemic hit, I passed the audition to play in Dweezil Zappa’s band for some summer dates, and it felt like I was finally able to break out of the glass ceiling. I’ve been sober for four years now and it has been a real struggle to get my life back in order. I live with my parents and one of them was high-risk so I hardly had any social interaction for the entire year. Obviously a bleak year for everyone; I was extremely depressed and the Canadian employment benefit was running out.
So having this residency scheduled was sort of like going to heaven, or getting the golden ticket to go to the chocolate factory. It was a Cinderella moment to get an e-mail asking which of the other synthesizers in the museum’s collection I’d want to use for additional overdubs.
Are you tempted to build a modular system of your own in the future?
Hmm. I doubt it.
What’s next for you? Do you think you might venture into songs and vocals again?
I am working on more pop-focused synthesizer music that is influenced equally by indie music of the early noughts as it is by early 80s Top 40 New Wave… I actually read a lot of the synthesizer track breakdowns posted on ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK to get ideas! Then I think it would be a good idea to finally get out and play some shows… I’ll likely do another piano album at some point. Playing my first American show this month in New York City, and hopefully some more US dates down the line.
I’ve got a New Year’s gig playing in Andy Kim from THE ARCHIES’ band that I’m quite jazzed about. Aside from that I’ve been writing music for podcasts, and hoping to break into film and TV composing. Like all musicians, I am incredibly desperate for work at this time!
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its warmest thanks to Robin Hatch
T.O.N.T.O. is an acronym for “The Original New Timbral Orchestra”. It contains a customised collection of Moog III, ARP 2600, Oberheim SEM, EMS and Serge modules connected to a central brain designed by its esteemed mastermind Malcolm Cecil.
T.O.N.T.O. featured on the music of TONTO’S EXPANDING HEAD BAND, the duo consisting of Cecil and producer Robert Margouleff. Impressed by their debut record ‘Zero Time’, Stevie Wonder hired the pair as producers and used the system to record classics like ‘Superstition’ and ‘Living For The City’ while The Isley Brothers put it to good use on ‘That Lady’.
Sequencers, drum machines, digital sound-generation circuitry and MIDI control were later added to the system which was sold by Cecil in 2013 and relocated to the National Music Centre in Calgary where it remains in use following a four year restoration programme by the late John Leimseider.
Made using the T.O.N.T.O. synth complex, the same titled album is the fifth solo body of work by the Toronto-based neoclassical composer and multi-instrumentalist Robin Hatch. Also previously a touring keyboardist for Canadian alternative rock band OUR LADY PEACE, she wears many hats thanks to her eclectic artistic interests.
Her first experimentation with synths came on her second album, the Wendy Carlos influenced ‘Hatch’ comprising of improvised instrumentals. Having issued piano works on either side, her fourth record ‘Noise’ was an avant synth record that featured vocals and drum machine with occasional inclinations into pop.
The entirely instrumental ‘T.O.N.T.O.’ was written and recorded by Hatch during a four day residency just before Malcolm Cecil passed away at the age of 84. This album is dedicated to him and the legend of his electronic creation lives on in this work.
For Robin Hatch, ‘T.O.N.T.O’. is a conscious attempt to exorcise deep seated baggage, a self-imposed multitimbral catharsis to transmute painful ugly experiences like psychosis, post-traumatic stress, delusion and hallucinating voices into cosmic horror electronica.
Opening with a cascading arpeggio, the spacious ‘Buttercups’ comes from the Wendy Carlos school of classically influenced synth construction, pure vintage interplay laced with appealing vibrato and bend.
Named after the Terry Gilliam film and featuring Eric Slick on drums and Leland Whitty on sax, ‘Brazil’ offers some jazz fusion to showcase another aspect of Robin Hatch’s eclectic headspace. But ‘Airplane’ takes shape around a more avant soundscape, utilising the talents of doom metal violinist Laura Bates of VOLUR alongside the synthetic strings and hypnotic generative blips.
A tongue-in-cheek reference to the duet by James Taylor and Carly Simon, ‘Mockingbird’ rumbles and hooks over a subtle Maestro and CR78 drum machine backbone with contributions from Nick Thorburn of ISLANDS & THE UNICORN. But despite the use of T.O.N.T.O. alongside a Yamaha CS80, an Atari chiptune synth, Roland Jupiter 4 and Korg M1, Hatch goes computer with a Fairlight VST chipmunk voice sample to add some Enya-inspired atmospherics to the chorus.
The bouncy ‘Inspector’ featuring drummer Lowell Whitty makes use of an otherworldly texture that sounds like a flute being played down the bottom of a hundred foot well while ‘My Lucid Mind’ returns to more Wendy Carlos inspired climes with a cacophony of spacey sounds, some seemingly appearing and random but cleverly arranged for an experimental ear-enlightening whole.
‘Rest Stop’ brings in a LinnDrum Computer and staccato bass lines as grainy strings that sound trapped inside an iPod on speaker mode penetrate through for an engaging oddball passage of electronics. ‘The Standoff’ has a retro-futuristic Tudor presence with its electronic approximations of harpsicord in harmony with Joseph Shabason’s processed ambience to head down the home straight before the very short sinking art piece ‘Water’ closes the collection.
‘T.O.N.T.O.’ is a wonderful delightfully odd experience that is accessible on many levels, despite its melancholic cerebral dynamic. Independently conceived, realised and released, ‘T.O.N.T.O.’ showcases even more facets of Robin Hatch’s talent. Now, what will she do next?
A purveyor of neo-classical piano and synth, Robin Hatch is a composer from Toronto.
Primarily known as a classical virtuoso and a touring keyboardist for Canadian alternative rock band OUR LADY PEACE, she effectively leads a triple life. She had experimented with synths previously on 2019’s Wendy Carlos influenced ‘Hatch’ which featured improvised instrumentals using a Jupiter 8, Prophet 12 and Malekko Industries Manther. It was all very different from her debut solo album ‘Works For Solo Piano’ which also came out earlier that year and an eponymous piano only follow-up that came at the end of a prolific 12 month period.
Recorded at home during the lockdown, ‘Noise’ is unlike her three previous works as an avant synth record that incorporates vocals and drum machine. It is also presented with some rather raunchy imagery, although this amusingly offset by the wry use of a Ford Focus! By way of an ‘Introduction’, the opening track of ‘Noise’ does not deviate too far from the experimentation of ‘Hatch’ although it contains more pulsing rhythmic elements.
‘Trophy’ though brings in vocals although this is far from a conventional format of song, with Hatch expressing herself poetically over a sparse backdrop of drones, ring modulation and minimal machine percussion. Meanwhile ‘Hivemind’ is instrumental avant pop with hints of Berlin based Nordic duo ULTRAFLEX and their ‘Olympic Sweat’. The incessant synth bass, sweetened with the flute of Alia O’Brien, provides a tune with a marvellous cosmic groove.
Slightly more gothic overtones make their presence felt on ‘Heatstroke’ in the shape of baroque vocals in the manner of a deeper AUSTRA crossed with BAT FOR LASHES; the percolating drum machine pattern is reminiscent a more minimal ‘Pearl’s Dream’ and compliments the bed of bubbling electronics.
The excellent hypnotic instrumental ‘Lake Water’ swoops like a sci-fi odyssey driven using an understated rhythmic passage, while the delightfully odd ‘Planetarium’ chills hauntingly over a metronome beat. But then over eight minutes comes the mysterious sound sculpture of ‘The Mirror’ before ‘Tie A Bow’ closes proceedings.
Structured around rumbling drones, some exquisite synth tones are displayed as well as an honest weary vocal for Hatch to provide a superb introspective set piece of ‘Twin Peaks’ proportions. Despite its disconcerting title, ‘Noise’ is an intriguing esoteric adventure that showcases an inherent musicality and documents the beginning of a journey into more accessible climes.
Across eight tracks, it develops Robin Hatch’s avant garde inclinations into pop, not unlike the Ana Klimova character in the wonderful independent French film ‘Le Choc Du Futur’ that celebrates female synth musicians.