A constant and often overwhelming influx of new technologies-always bigger, always better, occasionally completely unnecessary-is enough to make most people take it all for granted. When so much of our identity, our person, is placed within the hollow chips that define our modern age, it can be difficult to extract those missing bits and pieces we once may have been. Soulless though they may sometimes seem, these gadgets come to represent a part of our past, stitched within the fabric of our ever-altering lives, indeed becoming a large part of who we are. For The Rollercoaster Project’s Johnny White, it’s a muse he knows all too well.
The London-based musician has been making music for over a decade, ever-embracing an aesthetic that reconciles the sometimes fractured memories of his past with similarly forgotten technological methods and means.
“I used to have a storytape, The Lost City Of Submarines, the music on that was an early influence,” White says. “It was this epic analogue synth, sub-Vangelis type music, probably not very good if you heard it now, but I think it hardwired a taste for certain sounds in my brain, which I rediscovered many years later.”
The Rollercoaster Project’s forthcoming release, Revenge, cobbles together seemingly far-flung influences. Electronics swell with unusual grace and triumph, tugging unseen emotional strings in a hundred different directions all at once. Occasionally, black metal vocals scream chaos into the swirling void. Ambient and experimental touchstones flirt fleetingly among a metallic robot voice and elsewhere, a piano plinks melancholic notes which echo across somber skies.
It was at the lonesome age of twelve that White first became a student of the DIY ethic of hardcore, an important landmark that helped to shape his musical motif. “There are a couple of reasons why I always cite hardcore [punk] as an important influence. It was through hardcore that I gained confidence to believe that what I was doing was the real thing, so to speak,” White explains. “When I first started doing RCP (Rollercoaster Project) stuff, when I made a tape it wouldn’t be my â€˜demo,’ it would be my album. That way of thinking is really liberating.”
Fitting then that the new album takes its name from a Black Flag song. In keeping with the hardcore punk influences that affected him from an early age, White taught himself to record his burgeoning musical creations on a 4-track, a tradition he carries on to this day. “I like the way my 4-track sounds,” White says, “It kind of sticks all the sounds together in a pleasing way. Plus I like the way it smells and looks. I suppose I tend to have more fondness for it than I do the computer, but the computer is where everything ends up.”
Though White assures me he feels some people get too hung up on the nostalgic underpinnings of working with dated technology, the idea of using older machines to create something new, to inform the future with bits of the past, serves his aesthetic well.
“I think I’m close to superstitious about using the 4-track,” White continues, “I definitely trust the sounds more if they’ve come from the 4-track.”
Latent distrust for new technology, in no way a new feeling for a modern audience, does much in explaining White’s drive. The cassettes of his youth often lend a hand in melding the artistry of his adulthood. “I also use conventional cassettes to find snatches of sounds and then use those on the computer. “For To Become” was originally four notes taken from a cassette of compositions my class did for our music lesson at school, which I then recorded into the computer and cut up and sped up and slowed down to create all the chords and melody. I have an instinctual feeling that â€˜cassette tape=memory.”
In making his own music, White has discovered an avenue in which to explore the sometimes unsettling and painful associations memories bring with the dredging up of the past. “A while back I found the notebook which contained the original Rollercoaster Project, which was a (non-musical) â€˜project’ I was doing,” White says, “the aim of which was to try and erase my memory, my history. Memory has always been something that confuses and interests me. My actual memories of childhood are all mixed up with dreams and stories as well as false memories, which means I’m constantly trying to unravel it and rearrange it.”
With its polarized colors and tones, Revengeinvites listeners to make their own impressions about the pastiche of cassette snippets, the shiny synth tapestries and guitar distortions that flare wild into the vast, ungainly reaches of ever-changing memory. “I realized when I was making “Self-Telepathy” (from Revenge) that I was trying to get the sound of an over-played VHS,” White explains. “It’s always more to do with replicating the â€˜feeling’ of listening to something, rather than the thing itself.”
White readily admits that such creativity often came at a price.”For a long time I’ve had problems with fear and that kind of thing, which has slightly governed my life to greater and lesser degrees. It’s only recently that I’ve been helped to understand that this was largely in my mind and not some special information about life no-one else could see. That created a lot of odd feelings, which is where a lot of the songs (on Revenge) come from. There’s some sadness in them but also quite a lot of hope, and as much as those feelings influence the songs, the songs themselves provide a kind of shortcut for me to get to those feelings. It makes me hopeful to hear them.”
In the process of creation, then, lies both a desire to relive the past but also to exorcise the demons that may be holding us back. For White it is a double-edged sword with which he cleaves his way forward. “I once read this Sepultura interview where Max Cavalera said he could hear this heavy sound in his head that he was always trying to replicate and, although I’m reasonably sure we’re hearing different sounds, I feel the same,” White explains. “It’s one of the things that keeps me making music.”
Though he now counts himself fortunate to be releasing a new album and holding down a steady job (teaching music to children), things were not always so certain. During a rocky period, White sought refuge in a gardening shed (which he rightly describes as more of an “outhouse”) belonging to a former teacher of his. “I felt a strong need to leave my hometown,” White explains. “I sought some kind of sanctuary in this outhouse in a garden in Hertfordshire. The people who owned the house had no idea what I was doing there but they were nice enough to let me stay anyway. In a way it was quite pleasant (and rent-free). I had a little gas camping stove and camping cutlery and a tiny TV in there. I managed to make â€˜Christmas Eve’ (from Revenge) in the shed. I can remember going in the house when everyone was out to record those piano notes. It was kind of a bleak time, but pretty funny at the same time. I was only there for a short while before all the dust gave me a bad asthma attack that landed me in the hospital for a week, which, again, was pretty funny.”
White’s self-chosen solitude proved the needed spark that ignited the flame of Revenge, which will see its release on label Absolutely Kosher later this month. Of course he doesn’t want people to get the wrong impression of him. “I’m not the kind of bedroom-music monk type person I imagine people might think I am. I’m actually very sociable and I’m interested in making all sorts of music and working with all sorts of musicians.”
Something he will do in earnest as he takes The Rollercoaster Project on the road in support of the albums’ release, and something he does everyday, albeit in a more casual manner. “I teach guitar to 6-10 year olds in a primary school,” White explains. “They don’t really believe me when I tell them I make music â€˜outside’ of the school. I think it’s hard for them to imagine your teachers doing anything apart from teaching you when you’re that age.”
Besides old cassettes and long-lost memories, his students deserve credit, at least in some small part, for influencing their teacher in his musical endeavors â€˜outside’ of school.
“The school has an autistic unit and I do a bit of piano teaching there. One day one of the kids came over to me and quietly told me a joke he’d made up about the way the air was moving through the room. There was something about how he told me it that really stuck with me. It’s hard to explain.”
Like memory, I suppose.