Tim Whitt, has released his latest album Geisel. Geisel is no ordinary album; it was created using sound samples from the city of Adelaide. With his portable recorder always in hand, Whitt documented the world around him. From the roaring crowd at the 2016 A-League Grand Final to the everyday sounds of Adelaide’s trams, trains, and pedestrian crossings, nothing was off-limits and nothing stayed as it was heard.
Whitt collaborated with nearly a dozen vocalists and instrumentalists to accompany his instrumental production. Together they wrote about their city, their personal experiences and how their own reflection on the city they call home carved their personal identity. Tim did a quick interview with Hi Fi Way: The Pop Chronicles ahead of the release.
What an exciting concept for an album to use the sound samples of the city of Adelaide? Was that an idea bubbling away in your head for a while?
For a year beforehand I had separately been trying to produce music from field recordings that I had been taking for other projects while also attempting to make what I call “wonky hip hop” which are songs with a really off kilter and irregular beat, both without much success. Around October 2016 I started combining the two practices and it all just seemed to fall into place. Then at the start of 2017 I received a position in the Jon Lemon Artists in Residence program which allowed me to collaborate with 11 of my close musician friends to add vocals and other instrumentation over the top and that was that.
Were some sound samples more obvious/easier to choose?
I didn’t have any plans for which sounds to use during the creating process, I just added and took away sounds based on what sounded good. There were a lot of sounds that didn’t end up making it to the record that were really interesting and I’m bummed that I couldn’t find a place for them. For example, my father in law is an antique dealer and he lent me a collection of old cast iron jail cell keys from the 16th century which I recorded because of the tremendous amount of history they have behind them but in the end I just couldn’t get them to fit. Alternatively there’s a lot of everyday items like cutlery, pens and beer bottle caps that did make it to the album.
Did you get many strange looks when you rocked up at the football or on the train with a sound recorder?
I would always get weird looks from people whenever I pulled out my recorder. When I recorded worksites people would think I was some sort of undercover safety inspector. At events like the football, drunk people would just come up and start talking to me. I tried to come up with a system of hand signals that explained (silently) what I was doing but the best could come up with was pointing at my ear and then giving a thumbs up. I had security called on me for trying to record the cricket over the fence once.
How far would you push the boundaries given nothing was off limits?
I keep a small recorder on me at all times now so whenever I hear something interesting I can quickly pull it out and start taping. For a while I was recording drunken arguments on Saturday nights and then turning them into compositions. I went urbexing (urban exploring) with some street artists who took me to abandoned train yards though there weren’t many exciting sounds to be heard. At a meeting with my lawyer, there was a fantastic sound of wind whistling through the gap under a door, so when no one was around I started taping it only to have their secretary discover me crouched on the floor, recorder in hand. I recorded my friends playing beach cricket at a birthday, which made it onto the album. The batsman kept being struck in the groin by the bowler and everyone was having a great laugh.
How did you mould this in to something people would listen to?
I really focused on having a musical outcome and creating something that was accessible to a wider audience rather than for a niche group. There has been a lot of sound art and music made over the years, even as far back as the 1930s that has used recorded sounds but I found that a lot of them focused on the process rather than the outcome and result in something that is sonically very interesting but is a bit too “arty” for me. I wanted to essentially make pop music but created through sound design.
Was that a tricky process?
With the processing power of computers, it is a lot easier now than it used to be. I remember sampling records and having to use trial and error to speed them up or slow them to down to try and fit them into a song over and over. Now I can record an air conditioner, load the sound into a program like Ableton and then play it like a piano all within minutes. I use a few pieces of software that allow me to visualise the sound as well so I can see what note a sound is and then put it in the right key for the song. It’s really mind blowing what can be done with technology today.
The Geisel City Soundtrack Tour sounds a really cool idea and something quite different from the typical album launch?
I partnered with Adelaide tech start up, Wandering Sound to launch my album on an interactive app called SoundPocket which gives you the music at specific locations within the city. From the start of the project, the album has been about Adelaide and the everyday sounds around you so it really made sense to release it in a way that could be experienced in the city in a fully immersive way. I scoured the CBD for interesting places that you wouldn’t normally discover or ordinary places that I felt had something unique if you were looking for it. I should also point out that this part of the project was funded in part by The Helpmann Academy and The City of Adelaide.
Interestingly and being curious where are you taking this concept next? Melbourne? Sydney?
I would love to take this project international. My dream would be to have cities around the world invite me to explore their streets, making sound recordings and turn them into musical compositions. Every place has really unique sounds to them which go under the radar to everyone who lives there and hears them every day so it would be exciting to be able to go and present those sounds in a different way and show people how interesting they really are.
Interview by Rob Lyon