“Right Now is the Only Bit that Matters”: An Interview with Claude Speeed

Julian Brimmers talks with Claude Speeed about nostalgia, playing on the radio, and the horrors of AI.
By    August 3, 2017


Here’s how you can tell a cynic crank from a person with real convictions: talk to them for an hour and weigh their rants against the things they’re enthusiastic about. In the case of Scotland-bred, Berlin based producer Stuart Turner AKA Claude Speeed, the latter comfortably outshines the things that annoy him, which nevertheless make for a compelling exchange.

His music under the Claude Speeed moniker stems from the same, anti-nihilistic place. No matter how menacing his drones, and how conceptual his approach, all theory gets overpowered by a tangible drive to experiment and a deep trust in the cathartic effects of art.

The first time I heard about the collection of songs that became Infinity Ultra a few years back, it felt like that record might never see the light of day. At the time, Turner had already amassed a large amount of material, too much to find a structural framework for it. The longer it took, the more he struggled with fears of losing the rat race against the zeitgeist by putting out music that sounded dated.

Between the oldest and the most recent composition on Infinity Ultra lie about 10 years, a significant time traveling, the release of his debut LP, and the move to his current base in Berlin (where he’s back working part-time in the legal field.) The album clearly benefits from the time it took to get done. Taking cues from ecstatic anime and video game soundtracks, post-rock build-ups, drone minimalism, and spacious, pristine electronics, the album offers an emotional depth rarely reached in instrumental records.

Despite settling down in rave nerve-central Berlin, Claude Speeed’s IRL alter ego has an ambivalent relationship to clubbing. In his formative years and during his stint with the LuckyMe signed post-prog outfit American Men, Turner lived straight edge for more than ten years. Despite having opened his lifestyle towards measured levels of debauchery, he still runs a soft private boycott on Berlin’s Berghain for not granting him access once. The deconstruction of rave tropes and nostalgia-inducing sounds is only one of the major album themes we discussed, alongside the merits of good A&R work, his beef with AI research, lazy songwriting, and more. —Julian Brimmers

Congratulations, Stuart, the record is out. People like it.

Claude Speeed: I read some fucking horrible reviews as well. I don’t mind, I have to say. I quite like reading bad reviews, maybe that’s perverse, but often I think, “Yeah, that’s a good point, I should have thought of that.” Or, they’re just the kind of person who would never like my music, whatever I did. That’s fine. We can still be friends.

I can totally see why people don’t like your record. It’s sort of uncomfortable in a good, focus-demanding way.

Claude Speeed: It’s not a very nice album. I sent it to one of my old mates and he was very complimentary about it but he said, “I think this is your difficult record.” I didn’t think too much about what listeners will think of individual tracks while I was making them. When we were putting it together into a sequenced album, I got really bored by any section of the album that wasn’t at least a little bit confrontational.

Quite a few people have described it as ambient. Aside from a lack of drums it doesn’t serve a lot of the effects conventionally associated with ambient.

Claude Speeed: I don’t think it functions in the classical ambient way, y’know, sit in the background as part of the furniture. If you use it for that, it’s not effective. I used to describe my music as drone and that was equally a misnomer. I don’t mind what people call it, so ambient was almost a useful handle.

Oftentimes your tracks have something familiar to latch on to, but it always feels like these elements are there to serve a purpose, and my expectations are not going to be fulfilled. For example, “Ambien Rave” builds up a lot of energy but never reaches any…

Claude Speeed: …release?

Yes. And “Dream Dream” plays with a very ecstatic, saccharine texture, but there’s something eerie in there too.

Claude Speeed: The funny thing about that track is, when I mixed it years after making it, I opened up the project and realized that one of the vocal tracks is a horrible discord. It’s completely out of tune with the rest of the song. When I took it out it sounded too bubblegum, although you barely hear it. So I left it in. There’s something sinister going on in that track.

Things that I think are nice or very unpleasant, I think other people just get it the opposite way around. The second track, “Serra,” is very noisy, but I see that as a quite friendly track.

What did you use for that, a distorted guitar?

Claude Speeed: No, some corny instrument… it’s a Logic pre-set called “Funk City”! [Laughs]

I remember you once mentioned how no one ever described your music as “funky.”

Claude Speeed: Yes, which is funny. I never made dance music, that’s a fact. But I definitely made music that has a lot of movement in it. I just think it’s really difficult to be funky without drums. It’s difficult to create a swing or shuffle without them, it makes things sound corny, like a TV theme or something.

Is that your general beef with drums, that any type of groove turns compositions into more of a commodity?

Claude Speeed: No, I think drums are great! They’re my favorite instrument, and the one that I would really like to play well. I mostly find that I’m out of my depth with club music, which is so reliant on rhythm.

In any walk of life or any field you end up with two choices: do you keep doing the things that you think you’re good at and the things you find fun or do you try and patch up all of your weak points? If this was a job, I could sit down for a few weeks and learn how to do club music drums. But I don’t need to be an allrounder. So me finding drums difficult served me perfect artistically.

That said, I did make an album with drums on every single track that is pretty good. The album was under a different name and it got signed to a label. But I was so slow at making this Claude Speeed record and didn’t feel I could devote more time to the other one. Even though it’s kind of finished it never came out, maybe never will. Some of it is almost kind of gabber [laughs].

Talk a bit about using your own voice as an instrument.

Claude Speeed: I do it less. The first track has me singing on it. “Contact” as well, that is almost just me singing. What I used to do is sing directly into my Macbook microphone, and then I made an effects chain for the first track of my album. I wanted a pad sound, but I wanted something easy to control. I just used pitch shifting and pitch correction. That’s pretty much how I always used vocals before. “Contact” was different—I cellotaped two contact mics to my face, one at my nose, one at my neck, and started humming. I see the human voice as a fully formed, brilliant instrument. Doesn’t matter if you can sing or not, it humanizes everything by definition. I just don’t want to worry too much about things like coming up with lyrics and melodies.

I’d be curious to hear your lyrics.

Claude Speeed: I think lyrics are just really difficult. Most of the bands I was in I used to be the singer. I stopped writing any music with vocals in it for a long time. That meant coming back to writing lyrics was super difficult. I can do it in a way that I’m alright with, but it’s not very narrative. I don’t tell much of a story, it tends to be more impressionistic.

Trying to nail down a thought or sentiment in stanza form can feel corny very quickly. Statements age weirdly.

Claude Speeed: I don’t know how other people imagine writing lyrics. For me, the default position would always be hum along to it, think of some kind of melody, jam in some words—and the last word in the line is the most important, because that’s meant to be the rhyme. If you actually try to write lyrics like that, well, good fucking luck. I think that this kind of first order way of writing lyrics is responsible in large part for people’s lyrics being so horrible. There’s just a natural way to do it—and it’s shit.

I need other strategies to avoid ending up with songs that have “brain” rhyming with “insane.” Although I do want to make a mixtape with every single instance of “insane” and “brain” being rhymed [laughs].

The b-side could be vaguely spiritual, ”love” and “above.”

Claude Speeed: Definitely, it could be some sort of megamix. It’s like this chord progression that’s in every song in the whole fucking world. For me the two songs where I first noticed it were Smashing Pumpkins’s “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” and “Save Tonight” by Eagle Eye Cherry. One is angsty, one is a happy-go-lucky sorta tune. There are some guys that put together a five minute video of all the hit songs with that chord progression in it.

Yeah, this Australian comedy band. The video is hypnotic.

Claude Speeed: It’s just every forgettable song ever. Basically, once a song has that chord progression you’re not gonna remember it unless you have some other good reason to do so. I think it’s even easier to write something interesting by accident than it is to do on purpose [laughs]. Very intentional writing is exceptionally difficult.

Which brings us back to editing. The first time I heard of what I think became this record was about two years ago. It felt a bit like the record would never come out, to be honest. How did you end up with a collection of tracks that made sense to you and the label?

Claude Speeed: Whenever it was in the past years that we spoke about it—I didn’t think at any point I was finishing this record. It took grappling with this horrible process.

I have a folder in iTunes that has all playlists that were the potential album order. It goes back to 2012 and it must have more than 100 different orders for this album. It’s pretty fucking wild, just too much material. The person who helped me in the end was Kuedo, who is a musician, runs a label, and helps Planet Mu with A&R. We talked at length about writing a piece of software that would help people sequence an album.

A&R is so underrated. I thought, I wanted to deliver a record to a label and they would say—perfect let’s put that out. That they would sign me just on faith. In the end, what A&R meant in my case was helping me find the direction for my record and which tracks would make the record. I made all the final decisions eventually, but it was super helpful to have someone’s insight.

And do you feel good about it now?

Claude Speeed: Yeah. I feel great about it. While we were finishing it, I came to terms with the fact that people would probably not really be into it. It might not get any reviews or any features or anything. It might just be pissing into the void and I was completely fine with that. I felt free. Finishing the album with Erik Breuer in Cologne was a great experience for me, too, as I was able to admit the things that I thought I was meant to know, but I don’t. I was able to admit that I don’t know what I’m doing in a proper studio. It’s not as strong as an epiphany but I had a moment where I accepted all of this vulnerability and failure. I’m having fun and I like this record now.

Hua Hsu, the music critic from the New Yorker, mentioned how he at one point just surrendered to the fact that he felt every other book was better than the one he was writing—but it was still okay for him to finish his. This seems like an important thought to get anything done.

Claude Speeed: Yeah, totally. Also there is this thing about people who make music. When you meet someone else who makes music—any art, but for me specifically—there’s this moment where you want to say, hey I make music too! At the same time you don’t want it to come across like, “Hey man, we’re the same, me and you, both musicians!” [Laughs]. There’s something slightly desperate about that. I would be embarrassed about it, because they would never have heard of me. I’m making a claim, and immediately the claim is being disproved, because the currency of the musician is people having heard of you.

Being able to come to terms with that was important. I think that the worst thing in the world would be being famous. The worst thing in the world. I would kill myself in a second. So why would I want to be a little bit more famous and a little bit more well regarded? I don’t give a shit. If people hear the music and they’re into it that’s a really nice thing. I’m starting at zero and it’s all good.

Considering your personality, do you feel confident to promote the record at all? It seems like you’re cool with it.

Claude Speeed: I like speaking to people, I think it’s nice [laughs]. And I really, really appreciate anybody who is willing to spend whatever time of their life engaging with my hobby. The flip-side is that I’ve got asked to play a well-known online platform that shows people playing live [laughs]—and I turned them down for various reasons. But the main reason is, I don’t want to be on telly, man. It’s too embarrassing. Playing on stage is different because everybody that comes to see you gives something up to be there. Most of the time they paid money. They’re having to stand up in a smoky room, somehow that means we’re on the same level.

Whereas at one time, I did a radio session for the BBC in the Glasgow studio, broadcast live on the radio. That was probably the most frightening experience of my whole life. Worse than being robbed. There’s something about being observed but you can’t see your observers, and they could say anything about you and you have no right of reply. Absolutely terrifying, like being in a car crash for an hour.

But with interviews, I’m generally too lazy to promote myself in a systematic way. I’m not a good enough marketeer, I wouldn’t know what it is that makes people go, “This guy’s alright, I’m gonna buy his records.” It’s also more fun to just say the first thing that pops into your head. Even if I get asked where I got my name from, that’s my favorite [laughs].

Embarrassingly enough I do want to ask about the title of the album—I was sure Infinity Ultra was a Frank Ocean reference. But then you told me it was actually older than Nostalgia, Ultra.

Claude Speeed: I felt really ambivalent when that record came out. On the one hand I was like, that is a sick cover and a brilliant fucking title, and a really good idea to put ULTRA in capitals. The other side of me went, “I came up with Infinity Ultra before 20-fucking-11. If this means I can’t use this title anymore I’m gonna be very upset.” [laughs] I can say with honesty that for five years I knew what my album was gonna be called.

I thought it was clearly a play on Nostalgia, Ultra, because nostalgia as a theme is so prominent in your album. Not evoking nostalgia gleefully but as commentary on the experience.

Claude Speeed: When I was younger, I really saw nostalgia as some beautiful hypnagogic state that was innocent. My girlfriend at the time was studying art history and she was thinking about aesthetics a lot. And she went on a rant about how nostalgia was bullshit, and that its political cousin was being reactionary because it’s about reinstating the status quo ex ante. For me, it went from this innocent feeling of what it might have been like when I was a child into being something that I really did think was a little bit manipulative and limiting.

How did you get to that conclusion?

Claude Speeed: There is this English philosopher John Gray who is most famous for his claim that there is no such thing as social progress. Because for progress to exist in any meaningful way, it would mean that you get to a certain level and you don’t go back again. For example, with technology you can really talk about progress. You can build upon the things that were there before and it’s very rare that scientists will believe something that’s disproven. You could even say that they’re not scientists anymore if they’re saying something that’s been disproven. The only thing that would stop technological progress would be some sort of disaster amongst people. If society continues without any major disasters, technological progress will also continue. Social progress is not like that.

You can go backwards tomorrow. There can be a revolution and then suddenly we’re in the dark ages again. Nostalgia plays into this whole idea not just that the past was better but it is anti-making the real world better in the present moment. Because nostalgia is the thing you feel right now about things that used to happen. And right now is the only bit that matters.

I don’t mean to say that things can’t get better, that’s not what John Gray meant either. But there’s no guarantee that once things have gotten better that they will remain that way. Anyway, I’m not a big fan of nostalgia and I try to critique it on some level.

Agreed, but is it even possible to use the trailheads of nostalgia in a commentary way, without evoking its effects?

Claude Speeed: That’s the challenge, right? This happened to me with “Moonchord Supermagic”. That track I made mostly by drawing on midi notes. A couple years later I learned how to play it live and it made me really sad, because I realized what the song was about. It’s about siblings who are exceptionally unhappy and are acting out as a result of it. Just playing it made me very sad. I read a review of the record saying that that track was pretty, or pleasant, until the end. That made me feel like I messed it up. It’s not meant to be leaving people with the warm and fuzzy feeling of a Super 8 video. It’s partly meant to leave you questioning, how good was the past really and do you want it to come back?

It’s interesting how sonic or visual aesthetics are much more the vehicle for nostalgic sensations than the content of the artwork.

Claude Speeed: Necessarily, people will have different references for different chord changes, melodies, and notes. The aesthetics however are pretty much an agreed upon language. For example, I don’t think that minor chords are sad. I was trying to compose music for ads and film and realized that I’m really bad at it because I have a completely different idea about what different chord changes mean. It doesn’t work for me to put in a minor chord which will make the listener feel sad.

It can be quite difficult to be prescriptive and clear about the message in your songwriting. It’s difficult when you realize you don’t have a very reliable common language when it comes to the meaning of chords and harmonies. I once heard someone say, “There’s no money above the fifth fret”. I don’t even know the context to that but I thought that was fucking amazing. Now I don’t play any chords below the fifth fret. I don’t want any money [laughs].

Having discussed nostalgia so much, let’s talk futurism. You’ve been lashing out against artificial intelligence quite a bit on twitter. Now I’m surprised to hear you’re planning a software that will get A&Rs out of their jobs…

Claude Speeed: [Laughs] No no no, it wouldn’t be that at all! I won’t go into details here but it wouldn’t have any element of AI in it and it will definitely keep the human element.

Obviously playing devil’s advocate here, what about the chance to get rid of a lot of boring and dangerous jobs with AI?

Claude Speeed: Getting rid of the boring stuff has two obvious consequences, one of them is you got time to do something else, probably. The other one is it puts people out of work. Lots of jobs require doing rather repetitive things. If you can’t get rid of the job you get rid of the person, that’s just a natural consequence of capitalist thinking. Even dumb AI has ugly ramifications on the work front.

One example regarding the argument that it gives you more time: there was an app invented three or four years ago that took advantage of the fact that when you read, you don’t read all the letters in a row. When you look at a word there’s a natural center to a word and you just look at it and your peripheral vision reads the rest of the word. So for any word, if it’s centered in the right way, you can read it just by seeing it for a split second. That means if the words are fired at you, you can read exceptionally quickly. I tried this app and you can read a huge amount of words a minute, it’s unbelievable. I excitedly showed it to a friend in Berlin and he almost got upset about it, like, “What do you think will happen when this catches on? You’ll be expected to have read a thousand emails in your inbox.” All this means is more work.

And I think that AI is somewhat similar. Anything that’s a time-saving device means that either you’ve got spare time to fill or you just have to work more. That’s dumb AI, smart AI just worries me because the stewards of AI, of technological development are not people who care about other people in a meaningful sense. I don’t think that Silicon Valley is or even has elements of a humanitarian project. I think it’s the purest capitalist project there is. It’s Skynet already and it’s been here for a while.

On the plus side—lawyers will be out of business…

A good lawyer has always a certain performative element to him/her, but more importantly an empathetic motivation, hopefully.

Claude Speeed: An essential part of the legal system is the people being defended who can’t afford it. So let’s say you have an immigration or human rights lawyer. If you have taken out the possibility of training and getting lots of good work, it’s problematic if you don’t have good lawyers who are in a position to oppose the state. At the end of the day the interest of the state quite often aligns with the corporate interest. I recently came across the phrase “surplus population” referring to people who used to be exploited labor. Once you augmented all the things they would have done, what happens is that as far as the system is concerned, these people are literally surplus to the requirements, they’re just using up resources. So as more decisions are made by algorithms, you’re getting closer to bureaucratizing evil.