When it comes to US noise weirdos turned club messiahs: I'm more of a Container guy. Container is the alias of producer & musician Ren Schofield, who cut his teeth in the chaotic Providence, Rhode Island noise scene of the 1990s. In 2009, Schofield started Container as a project to produce "regular, almost generic, techno," but the noise shit crept right back in. It's in the bones at a certain point.
Nevertheless, Container's made waves in progressive techno circles, dropping an EP on underground experimental techno imprint Morphine Records last year and garnering some rad Pitchfork hype for Adhesive, his 2014 LP on Mute sub-label Liberation Technologies.
Ahead of his China debut this Friday night at Shelter, I asked Ren a few questions about moving from noise to techno, moving from Providence to Nashville, Tennessee (and back), and what we can expect from his set on Friday (spoiler: will be loud)...
SmartShanghai: You started making music as a drummer, right? How did you first become active as a musician? What were some of the key projects / bands / experiences that shaped your early compositional development?
Ren Schofield: Well my first instrument was guitar, but after a while I started focusing on drums and that’s what I played in the first bands I was in that did any type of touring, recording, releasing, etc…
Discovering the local scene in Providence as a teenager was my first exposure to any truly weird or abstract music and that completely changed everything for me, just the DIY nature of the venues and the community aspect of it all, and how fucked up all the music was. It really opened my mind to a lot of possibilities. I’m very thankful to have grown up there.
SmSh: What led you to move from playing live music in bands to pursuing solo production work? When and how was the seed that eventually grew into Container sown?
RS: I never really made a decision to stop playing in live bands, but eventually my interests shifted towards working on music alone. I had this Roland MC-303 groove box that I bought probably in 1999 or 2000 that I didn’t really use a whole lot, and after listening to a bit of '90s minimal techno one night, I decided that I’d dust the MC-303 off and have a go at making something similar. This is how the Container project started back in 2009.
SmSh: The buzzword being used to define your aesthetic is "noise techno," which from afar seems to me to be a catchall term describing the moves of people like Dominick Fernow and Pete Swanson from abstract, harsh noise to more structured, beat-oriented, four-on-the-floor compositions. I realize "noise" has specific connotations in music, especially in places like your home base of Providence, but on a more general level: how does your work as Container scramble the "signal" that people normally associate with techno or club music?
RS: My intention when starting Container was to make regular, almost generic, techno. But apparently because I had no real knowledge of or background in this type of music and scene, I failed at doing this. After my first record came out and more people were exposed to the music, I was quite surprised that people were describing it as "weird" and "noisy," because I had actually tried to remove those elements from it. Now, a couple of years later, I’ve played in lots of legitimate techno clubs and had a lot of exposure to this scene. Seeing how it works and looking at my music in comparison, I can realize that what I’m doing is, in the context in which it’s presented at least, weird and noisy.
More straightforward techno artists seem to be concerned with having very smooth transitions between tracks, making tracks that DJs can easily incorporate into their sets, getting the tone of the bass drum just right, and those are all things I never would have considered doing. So when I get on stage at the club after someone has been perfectly beat matching all these highly produced techno tracks for an hour, and I start in with the feedback and abrupt tempo changes, I guess this is what "scrambles the signal" so to say.
SmSh: What is the aesthetic overlap between your previous work in noise and your current work as Container? I know that structurally you have a similar approach, using hardware as opposed to creating sounds in the box, and typically playing short sets. Is there also a guiding principle in your head that bridges your shifting practices as an artist?
RS: Honestly I try not to over think things like that too much, I’m just doing what comes natural and what feels right, and using the things that I have at my disposal to make it happen. I suppose I do have some guidelines in my head about the way certain projects (Container for example) should be, specific musical confines, etc, but I’m not even sure if that's a good thing. I’d like to start a project that's more free in terms of what it could be actually, but I feel like as long as you aren’t forcing anything, especially drastic change, and you let yourself progress "organically," you don’t really need to set these principals and parameters for yourself.
SmSh: You spent some time living in Nashville, a Southern city off of the US's major urban metropoles that possesses a vibrant, distinct history within American music culture. In what key ways does Nashville differ from cities like Providence or New York for a working musician, and how has this contributed to your development of Container?
RS: Yes, I lived in Nashville for about 3 years in total, and it absolutely just blew my mind to write that down right now. The biggest problem I had in Nashville was that I wasn't into any of the things that were happening there musically. There really isn’t a tight scene for anything electronic or noisy or weird at all, everyone is pretty content with '90s indie bar rock. The plus side is that you can live in a private house with a yard for quite cheap and it’s very easy to find odd jobs and easy schemes to make extra money between touring. But literally nothing fun ever happens, so it’s a tradeoff.
In Providence it’s a bit more expensive than Nashville, and you don’t get as much free space to yourself. It’s a much more urban environment, but the music community is much more supportive and active, and geographically you’re closer to other cities with similar interests. I’ve never lived in New York and never plan on moving there. I honestly have no love for New York and don’t understand why anyone, let alone millions of people, would choose to put themselves through that type of punishment on a daily basis. I visit there only when necessary.
Container live (photo by Johann Kauth)
SmSh: Outside of local or DIY gigs, what venues best suit Container? In Shanghai you're playing at Shelter, which has a progressive booking mindset but is ultimately a dance-oriented electronic music club. In your mind, is this the ideal context for experiencing a live Container set?
RS: Something that has been nice about touring with Container recently is that the music appears to lend itself well to different audiences and venues, so I’m not always playing similar places or types of events every night. Over the last few months I’ve played at dance clubs, shitty bars, storage units, art galleries, basements, outdoor festivals, and an abandoned meat processing factory… I like that I’m able to cover that vast a territory of scenes simultaneously. In terms of what I would consider an ideal setting, I would say as long as the sound is clear and loud and there's cheap drinks, you’re all set.
Pretty much my life philosophy, that last bit. Container plays live at the Stockholm Syndrome night on Friday, September 26 @ Shelter.