A photo-story set in Toby Ridler’s live-work space in the famous Cable Street Studios; and a conversation concerning his revelatory, beautiful electronica. Taken from Notion Magazine Issue 58.
“There was something about using music as a sculptural form,” Toby Ridler is saying. “It was just something about working in this medium, this medium that seems more… indefinable and indescribable, maybe.”
He’s talking about the moment when, in the final year of his fine art degree at Kingston, he decided to commit to music as his primary mode of expression. Previously he’d worked with collage and film (though had been playing music since he was thirteen). “What the beauty of music is, what led me to that, is that it’s more slippery in language, it’s way more subjective.”
“I was working with theory, Lacan, the imaginative and symbolic, and the order of the Real. He’s saying the more you talk about the Real [the absolute embodiment of a thing, experience], the more you involve it in the symbolic realm of language—the further you get away from what you’re trying to talk about.
“I was thinking about dreams as something you could compare to the Real, with elements that can be traumatic. The more you try to explain a dream, the further you get from how cosmic and bizarre they were. Music, being subjective, seemed like the appropriate medium to explore that.”
It’s revelatory to encounter a new artist who’s set the right parts of the music world alight who has an idea of what he is doing as an artist. What I love about Becoming Real – I say this upfront and seek to prove it later – is that he’s making music to work something out, for his own sake. And it shows! God, that’s refreshing.
With Becoming Real, musically, we’re not in the realms of the abstract. The music is viscerally exciting, futuristic electronic music – incorporating grime and techno into sexual, terrifying soundscapes. But something is at work beneath the music, something juicy and dark; a subconscious. It’s a quality you can’t get at with words, a quality that exists only in the creating and hearing. When Toby talks about it, we don’t get close to what it is; but we understand perhaps some of the elements that combine to unspeakably affect us.
At the heart of Becoming Real’s aesthetic development is a young Toby’s obsession from afar with London, coming from his love of grime. “There was a romanticism to it. My interest came about through grime, and I can give a lot of that credit to someone like Trim [formerly of Roll Deep].
“The way he rhymes and talks about certain areas has this dreamlike quality – there’s a depth to the imagery, a visuality. He conjures, draws—even just extracts, or even just shows this other side of London that is always there in the shadows. Almost like the Real, so to speak.” From afar, he fell for what’s murky in London, ineluctable; what car headlights briefly illuminate as they go by, accompanied by their thrum.
As a part of his working practices, he adopted an Iain Sinclair-esque Psychogeography approach to the distant city. “When I was studying in Kingston [on the very edge of London and Surrey], I would spend a lot of time walking around places, taking inspiration from those haphazardly constructed areas of London. It’s got this beautiful schizophrenia about it. I would be once-removed from the scenario and then it’s easier to get lost in the hallucinogenic, more magical portrait of nightlife in London. Since I’ve moved here I feel like I’ve become a part of that photograph of London, rather than looking at it from a distance.”
That doesn’t mean London has no effect on his work; rather, those rhythms and contradictions that once crashed together in his abrasive earlier work – “bizarre amalgamations of genres,” he says of them, “distorted and mutated” – those rhythms have syncopated with his, affected him, become real to him.
That’s reflected in his move away from more vicious vocals into music more concerned with sonic texture—despite it having been originally the vocal imagery of grime that inspired him. It fits: his music has moved deeper in to the subconscious, smoother at the surface belying trauma beneath.
“This mini-album, ‘Solar Dreams / Neon Decay’, is a lot further into my line of inquiry, you know? It’s coming from other stuff now, beyond words.”
You may have noticed that Toby peppers his conversation with references to mental disorders. Not in an uncouth way, though; it’s descriptive, following naturally from Lacanian psychoanalysis and that era’s philosophical metaphor of schizophrenia as a path to free creativity in opposition to capitalist social norms. The references very much tie together the stage his work has reached: beyond the articulable, music.
Two things on this new record highlight that best, and the exciting direction his work may be going in. Opening track ‘Snow Drift Love’, hints of ambient AFX and 2-step, uses a simple cut-up sample of pronoun ‘I’ as its core—repeating awkwardly and ecstatically. “It was something unconscious when I’m doing it; but listening back it’s got this ghost in the machine, shell of a memory quality: all it can do to continue existing is repeat. It’s this ‘becoming’.”
The ‘i-i’ sound reappears in final track ‘Zoning’ – the very same sound. “I quite simply picked it out one day and put it there. But as soon as I did – it felt almost like I opened up this portal. Listening back, it bookends the record: at the beginning, this insisting; and at the end, there’s a schizophrenia to it insisting again. Like they’re becoming aware they’re dreams of genres, like this repetition is like the tracks have psychosis.”
It draws a line between the Real and music: in the moment of constructing a song, and in the listening, is unconscious and possibility. It’s impossible to speak of or define the absolute moment; but through acknowledging language’s symbolism you can realise an interpretation that is its own utterance – as Toby does with collage, dream and psychosis, as he uses those in thought and within the music self-reference seals us in.
“In the last year I have found that talking about music in terms of dreams and visualisations – I struggle to think about it any other way. When you strip back music being melody, certain tunes that make up the sound and experience you’re being immersed in, it’s just this universe, this cosmos of sounds and rhythms that circulate the room. I think there’s something intergalactic with that.”
Album high point, Toby’s favourite track, ‘Anthropology,’ is an incredible song. Sombre and sinister, it is punctuated twice by an animal yowl: “That ‘yow-owrrrr’, it’s like a piercing, traumatic memory that rears up. Almost like the song has some kind of Parkinsons – it’s a meditation on mental disorder, I suppose. That yowl decides the momentum of the rest of the track and how these sounds accumulate.
“A friend came round to do vocals for this track, and she sang melodies but I ended up using the space in between them, the breath. There’s a split second, where she goes ‘hh-h!’ after the yowl which brings in another dimension to the song: because of the way it’s mixed, it sounds like this breath is behind you. Even though there is this dreamlike quality and you’re contained within the speakers or headphones, this one sound feels like the music is watching you. I think it points where I’ll go in the future.”
What a place to go. It hints at a world of music brave enough to think deeper while producing something that relates to our current taxonomy of music; asks more. No more stylistic bromides or aesthetic sedatives: take those tropes and shred them, pile them up and present them new. Music that, as you walk those night-time streets, flashingly illuminates the world outside and your inner world, so you might glimpse something terrifying, exciting.
Text / Michael C Lewin
Photography / Sam Hiscox
Picture Editor / Becki Bull