patten is the musical project of London-based multidisciplinary artist Damien Roach. He has released music on Warp Records, made tour visuals for Caribou and graphic design for Daphni, built a community around club night and online forum 555-5555, and exhibited visual artwork at the Venice Biennale and Tate Modern.
His latest album Mirage FM was released in spring 2023. It extends his interest in new technologies, using text-to-audio AI systems to generate hours of sample material that form the basis of the record. Described by Roach as “crate digging in latent space”, Mirage FM asks fundamental questions about the nature of music production in the nascent age of AI.
The first thing that struck me about Mirage FM is how quick the whole process has been.
Yeah, it's true. I didn’t plan to make this album; it just sort of happened. I released four albums between autumn 2019 and the end of 2020, and they're all very different from each other. I think that it's been interesting for me over the past years to have that opportunity to do things on my own terms and step out of a slower, out-of-date system of thinking about what it is to have a practice. All of those things very tied to conservative and change-averse institutions like record labels and commercial art galleries.
One fundamental in the way Mirage FM challenges that notion of practice is the use of text-to-audio AI systems like Riffusion to generate your source material.
I've been working with AI-assisted systems in my design, creative direction and visual artwork, and have been really interested in all the potentials they seem to offer up. This was the first time I used AI in terms of sound and music. As soon as I saw Riffusion, I thought it was going to be everywhere, but that hasn’t really happened.
I was really struck by the potential of it as a sample source. I generated the material that became the raw material for the album in December 2022 in about 36 hours without sleeping much, and then it was only a couple of weeks working on it non-stop before I'd done the record. Now looking back with a bit of distance I'm seeing how intense that was. It was really fast!
I was playing around with Riffusion before speaking to you. One of the hardest things I found was knowing what to type into the text box. I could have summoned anything but was immediately confronted by the limits of my imagination. How did you try to break out of the patterns that might have guided what you searched for to begin with?
I think that's the problem with search. The problem with search is how do you engineer the chance meeting between yourself and some new data that you didn’t know you were looking for, that you may or may not be interested in? How do you engineer serendipity within the space of search?
It reminds me of the early days of file sharing. The way that peer-to-peer file sharing like Soulseek or Napster worked, is that if you could find a user who had really good stuff you could go on a journey that was outside of the limits of what you already knew. I remember searching for Stereolab or Tortoise, and then bumping into all this other stuff in that person’s collection.
Planning for the unexpected or engineering this notion of being lost has always been important across all the different things I do. Sometimes new tools or unknown processes can be an inspiring method for breaking out of your own habits and breaking out of your own well-trodden pathways of thought.
One thing I find interesting is that the prompts in text-to-audio and text-to-image AI are words. In these systems, language has become the primary creative tool once more.
You’re right, there is something quite interesting about the main interface being words and language. I've been describing these prompts as being like spells or incantations. I'm really interested in language as a tool, and there being magic words. It's back to abracadabra and the idea of conjuring things up using language. On the other hand, I was talking to someone recently and they didn’t have English as their first language and they were saying that they felt slightly locked out from some of these processes, because they felt they weren't that good with words.
You also used to work with collage. Is there an analogy here between sampling, cutting and pasting and text-to-audio materials in creating new ways of thinking about things?
Yeah, definitely. I think the frictions that are created between disparate materials has been quite central to the patten project. Within that friction there is a potential for something new to be created. More than new, just something that is emotionally or conceptually resonant.
It's funny because it reminds me of an old track title of mine called 'Words Collided' which is obviously a play on 'worlds collided'. Within Mirage FM I'm very interested in those collisions and those frictions and the potential production of something else.
When we spoke in 2016, you were also talking a lot about hacking formats, and interrogating form as well as content. You often take a creative approach to the mode of delivery as much as what is being delivered.
Thinking about where I'm at in terms of my creative practice and speaking to different friends about how we navigate the present, I'm quite interested in people sidestepping the systems of how you go about releasing music, or how you go about sharing it with a community or a public. That felt so cast-iron for a while. People are starting to do what feels right for them and the work, and rejecting the idea that they have to put everything through that same sequence of environments for it to find an audience or have value.
An album is probably not the primary form these days in terms of how people consume music, but an album is a holding place for tracks that are pulled out of that context and put into playlists that are made by individuals or different editorial nodes.
You’ve played with club nights and the 555-5555 forum as modes of production too.
In some small way, what I’m trying to do with both that club night and the forum is provide infrastructures not just for my own work but have some kind of wider input in the way that things happen. I'm trying to make frameworks that could enhance or extend what's possible.
Bringing this back into the AI conversation, has the concept of latent space influenced the way you think about disciplines interacting beyond the silos of art, design and music?
Yeah, I think the opportunity to hack the canon, or to hack the framework of understanding of where things sit within a cultural topology is interesting. I feel that with these tools like Riffusion, DALL-E 2 and Stable Diffusion, it's like being given a key to all of these modes of production. There is huge possibility in making these very mutated forms that are very individualised. It's really an incredible moment in that sense. It's about utilising that and harnessing it to do whatever it is that the individual is trying to do.
One of the reasons for making and putting this thing out was to talk about that. To say look, this is possible, what is it that we want to do with this stuff? It's a question and an invitation to others. Just because there's something that a new system can do it doesn't invalidate that which already exists. No way! It's just another space that we can explore.
How do you feel the record has been received? When the story becomes about the way something is made, it can draw attention away from the work itself.
Obviously an important part of apprehending the album is a knowledge of what it is and how it's been made, and so I'm interested to know what it's like for somebody who bumps into it on a playlist and has no idea. What I hope is that there's a perceptible value in there that can exist outside of the technical processes that have gone into its making.
On the other hand, I think that I've tried to put something together than would ask questions and in a practical sense mark out a territory for thinking through and experiencing those questions in a non-academic way. I was talking to someone recently and they said they heard a lot of garage music in places on the album where I hadn’t really perceived it. What I hope is that there are many access points woven into the way the album has been made, as well as all the visual material that I'm making as part of the album.
You are also releasing a CD-R with extra material and developing a live show too. Speaking of formats, it’s like the record is no longer a fixed entity, but can feed off itself to keep living in the world.
Exactly. In the same way that the ethos behind the starting point of this album was looking at history, looking at all recorded music, looking at aesthetics as a resource, a data set that can be drawn from to make completely new things, I'm trying to think about what happens next. Like you said, if the album is fixed, how can that process continue? Refashioning, remodelling and not being revenant to the idea of a fixed artefact, but instead forcing things to stay liquid and full of potential.