Michael Coldwell is the man behind Conflux Coldwell aka CC. Part of a number of solo and group projects including the Urban Exploration collective based in Leeds, CC is primarily an outlet for his more experimental sounds. We spoke to him about his work and explored the genesis behind his new album AM – a eulogy to shortwave radio.
Tell us a little bit about yourself. What’s the story behind Conflux Coldwell (CC) and how would you describe your sound?
I’ve been making electronic music since I was kid. My Dad built a modular synthesiser in the late 1970s, and I grew up with Tangerine Dream and Vangelis records playing while we had tea, so it feels like it’s in my blood really! I consider myself an artist more than a musician. I’m a bit of polymath I suppose. I’m currently studying for a PhD in photography, but even this is influenced by the music I’m into, and by the late great Mark Fisher – his notion of “hauntology” and the idea that all recorded media is somehow haunted.
Conflux is an alias I’ve used for a good few years now. It’s a name I devised for my various audio-visual projects – so the visual element is as important as the music to me, they flow together, they’re symbiotic. I don’t consciously have a specific sound or style really, the work is largely concept-driven so it is different for each project, each album.
There are definitely some strong recurring themes though. I’m very interested in manipulations of time and memory, illusion and noise, and there’s always a strong cinematic feel, sonically as well as visually. CC brings together all the different strands I’m involved in – making a space for photography in my music, and a space for sound experiments in my visual research and short films.
What motivates you and inspires your music, aesthetic and vibe?
I’m really inspired by the urban environment, particularly the forgotten, hidden or decaying areas of the city, odd spaces, the strange remnants and traces of the past you can find. The ambient noise of the city is also an influence on the sounds I make – I’m really into field recording.
In terms of other people’s music, I’m listening to The Caretaker, Pye Corner Audio and various stuff on Opal Tapes a lot at the moment, but I’ve taken influence from all sorts over the years; techno, hip hop, krautrock, drone, library music, classical, strange things I find DXing on the radio. John Cage, Brian Eno and Autechre have also had a lasting effect on how I view music making.
You are part of the Urban Exploration collective – what do you think are the main differences between working with others and being a solo artist?
I really love both ways of making music. The best thing about working with other people, particularly if improvisation is part of your method, is the element of surprise. You never know quite what’s going to come out of a jam, and that keeps it exciting for me. Most of the music we make in Urban Exploration starts off life as improv, jamming on synths and drum machines, and then we use the studio to mangle the recordings beyond all recognition. It’s all analogue hardware and very hands-on. We try to finish tracks quickly to stay true to the original idea or vibe.
Working on my own is slower and more methodical. It’s not as fun to be honest, but the advantage here is that you can see a single idea to completion. There’s always an element of compromise working in a band which isn’t there when you write alone. If I have a very specific idea for an artwork, or a full piece of music comes to me in my head, I’ll try and realise it on my own.
Your most recent album AM has a very interesting central concept. What inspired you to create an audio-visual piece about shortwave radio?
It’s something I remember from childhood, messing around with my Dad’s radio listening for weird noises – I always remember liking it when it was between two stations, one signal interfering with another, garbled speech and Morse code, strange sounds seemingly from another world. A couple of years ago I bought an old AM radio with the idea of making a record using it, but I was disappointed with how little I could pick up. I remembered there being loads of interesting sounds out there, now it was just a sea of static with the occasional station lost out in the aether. Eventually I realised that my old Sony radio was broken and that that was a factor in my difficulties. But there is a lot less out there now, for sure.
Shortwave radio is slowly dying. I spent most of my time listening to white noise, straining to hear very faint signals. Did I really hear that? The album basically documents my failure to successfully record “numbers stations”! For those not in the know, these are enigmatic military signals which have been broadcasting since the Cold War, coded messages sometimes featuring odd melodies and children singing and things – probably most famously sampled by Boards of Canada.
A big part of what drew me to the idea of making an album in this way was limitation. I’m a strong believer in limitation being the mother of invention. The fewer choices you have, the harder you have to work to get interesting sounds, the more original the result. Using a broken radio as the sole sound source for this record gives it a very unique sonic character I think. I often start a project with a set of rules or limits I have to stick to.
AM was the first release on a new label, Crooked Acres Records – how did that come about? Are you involved in the label side of things as well?
Crooked Acres Records is a new label set up by members of the Urban Exploration collective to finally release some of our material on tape and vinyl, after years working away like hermits in the studio, we decided we needed a proper outlet for all this music. The label won’t be limited to putting out music by UE and its extended family, but that was certainly the initial driving force behind it. I’m not really involved in the day-to-day running of the label at the moment, but I’m certainly part of the group effort.
What’s up next for Conflux Coldwell and Crooked Acres Records? Is there more new music on the horizon, other projects?
I’ve got a few things coming up – I have a live album, a sort of spin-off from AM called Dead Air, which was recorded using three radios in a church. It’s quite different to AM in that it focusses on how the three machines interfere and affect each other in that space, it’s more of a straight drone piece in style I suppose. This should be coming out on Crooked Acres in coming months. I also have a new EP in the pipeline called The Metaphysics of Urban Change, which uses field recordings of demolition in its construction. I plan to self-release this in early 2018.
The next release on CA is coming up very soon – it’s another cassette, an old school style mixtape of Urban Exploration tracks from the last couple of years. It’s called UEMIX and it’s all lo-fi techno and noisy electro stuff mashed together. In a way it has a similar mood to AM, like it’s some dusty artefact you’ve found in the wastes, but it’s certainly a very different musical style.
You can find out more about Conflux Coldwell and other Michael Coldwell projects on his official website, whilst the album can be streamed on Bandcamp. For more information about Crooked Acres Records, click here. Coldwell is currently studying photography and Leeds University and you can see his work and inspirations on his Tumblr page.