Nik Colk Void Talks New Factory Floor, Carter Tutti Void, Upcoming Solo Work, and the Thrill of Improvising
Nik Colk Void captures our interest here at WMF in all sorts of ways. Besides her important solo work, Nik Colk Void is one half of Factory Floor and one third of Carter Tutti Void (alongside Cosey Fanni Tutti and Chris Carter of storied experimental projects Chris & Cosey and Throbbing Gristle). Nik's experimental work with guitar, modular synths, and vocals defies pigeonholing while embracing "mistakes" and the exploration of new and uncertain musical territory. In other words, exactly the kind of approach we love here at WMF.
Following up on the recent release of Factory Floor 12" "Heart of Data", in anticipation of more Factory Floor releases later in the year, and in the midst of new solo recordings, we were recently fortunate and grateful to be able to speak at length with Nik Colk Void about all this and more.
Bobby Weirdo: What have you been up to on a day like today? Are you working on music?
Nik Colk Void: I’m in exactly the same place I was when you called me the other night; I’m working on my set. I play for fifty minutes, which is quite a long time to fill when I’ve not got an official record out. I’m kind of developing my live sets all the time.
BW: In situations like that, do you have a loose plan in your head of how you’d like the set to go? Is it really specific, completely improvised, or somewhere in the middle?
NCV: It’s planned out enough so that I can improvise if that makes sense. I’ll have sections; I wouldn’t call them tracks. I work out how those sections can be put together – like bricks, almost. And the equipment determines what section comes after another section. I’ll take a picture that I can send it to you.
When performing with other people, you interact with each other and help each other along, but when you do stuff solo with machines you have to calculate everything and get it to the point where you’re comfortable with it so then you can go off on one. Using a similar BPM [like] 127 or sometimes complete opposite like 55 -- one of my favorites. I can freely put those samples from one track to another. So you can mix it up; depending on the feel. It really depends on if you’re full of confidence on that day because if you are, you can just fly through.
It’s a different headset to DJing because of the infinite choices, but you can get into it and keep up the momentum if you feel confident about approaching this patch, or un-patching another without losing the thread – in hope that it continues to sustain itself. I’ll have other times when I’m not feeling madly confident or lack of sleep the night before because I had an early flight, and I freeze because I think “If I unplug that cable, then everything might fall flat.”
BW: Do you have a worst-case scenario, in case the gear fails – like, “OK, if this cable doesn’t work, I’m going to bang two pieces of metal together and sing,” or do you have a cut-off point where you can’t perform if “X” is not working?
NCV: Luckily, so far I’ve not really had anything that’s fallen apart. But sometimes when it completely goes off path then that's when it gets exciting and creative accidents happen --this is the thrill of improvising.
In situations like with Factory Floor, our equipment would fall off tables. Our sound guy would rewire systems to make us super loud. The bass would make everything bounce, so I’d have tabletop instruments unplugging themselves and falling off [and] switching themselves off. So in this kind of scenario, I’d just hit the guitar and create feedback to give me a few seconds to reconnect. But I think if I did that playing solo, people would just look at me as if I was a crazy -- or maybe not.
BW: You and I have spoken before about your “Gold E” single, and I wanted to verify some of its background information. There are only about three hundred copies of it, right?
BW: And each copy is vinyl, and has a playable “sleeve”, right?
NCV: I ordered a test pressing, then made a rubber mold from this, then pressed up a further five hundred seven inches, so somewhere I’ve got two hundred of those. I managed to do three hundred sleeves, and I have to admit that after about the hundredth time doing it, I was getting dizzy, headaches, and was throwing up, so Tim [Burgess] helped me do some.
That was when I was living in the warehouse in Seven Sisters. We had these big metal steps with platform space that went up to the front door because it was above a fabric factory. I was out there on the metal steps where I could cast the records and make a mess in the fresh air of North London (ha!). So I started off thinking I would do five hundred but limited myself to three hundred. The conditions just got crazy.
BW: You mentioned somewhere along the line while doing them that the process was pretty toxic and that you were looking forward to being done with it. I think it’s interesting that it’s music, but it’s perilous. The sleeve might be perilous for the stylus on your turntable, it might have been perilous to your and Tim’s health as you were making them…
NCV: This whole release just seemed to grow with its connotations and concepts because it had so many dimensions to it as soon as the idea grew. I didn’t really think about the material warping or expanding -– it just happened to be that way.
At the time I was working as an assistant for artist Gary Hume. I was working in a railway arch studio in London Fields, making his sculpture requests, which function-wise couldn’t really evolve – so there was endless experimentation going on. I was using this polyurethane plastic resin with plasters and things like that. Later, when I was got back into making music after giving it up for a few years, I referred back to that work and noticed that some of those experiments had changed color and shape.
So I’d be intrigued to see if anyone still has the [“Gold E”] records and whether they have changed the sound. I also did a couple editions using bronze filler, which made them really heavy. But was a bit too expensive to do three hundred of those.
BW: When you speak about music, you use a lot of visual and concrete terms -– language that sounds almost like architecture with words like “bricks” and “grids”. Then, interestingly, you work with something like music which is so ephemeral. You’ve spoken of sound experiments and solid sound, which is an intriguing concept.
NCV: I think it stems from when I was young. My mum used to walk into a room and know where I’d been sitting in the room because there would be a space, and all around it would be "stuff" from making things. I used to make things out of anything; it’s a bit like where I’m sitting now. I quite like the chaos – I’m always thinking ahead of what’s actually in front of me to create something new, at the same time unaware of what that is. I work that out as I’m making it. I don't like to force things into something I know already, a safe place. Some people approach things in a very different way and they have a fixed idea of where they want to end up, whereas I could have anything in front of me really. That’s how I work with sculpture and music. I have a palette of different things and I make something out of it. I see sound as a solid, I don't know why but it has always fallen in the same bag as something physical.
People tend to recognize that it’s me who has made it, and I think that’s taken a bit of time. It’s what I’ve done naturally, and I think if I couldn’t do it, I’d get down on myself. That’s why when I’ve gone searching for somewhere to live – like when I moved to London – it’s been all about getting a space where I wouldn’t be in one room in a house shared with lots of people. I wanted somewhere with space for everyone to create, and that’s where the warehouse came into play.
BW: You’ve actually worked in factories, correct?
NCV: Yes, I’ve done lots of different jobs and I’ve always felt really good about that. I started working when I was fifteen and still in school. It was just having the means to do things, like passing my driving test so I could go out and search, get myself through Art School, buy my first guitar. I worked in a chocolate factory, which really put me off chocolate.
Having a job -- like in a factory -- actually gave me space to think up ideas and develop them in my head. The repetitious nature of the work weirdly gave me free-thinking, and it is amazing who you get to meet. I have never taken a job that would take me away from my art or music, its just there to facilitate it.
BW: I think it’s always interesting to hear about what kind of work artists have done besides their art.
NCV: I’ve been fortunate enough since 2012 to be able to live off the music, but it’s taken a long time to get there. When we first started Factory Floor, I think I had a couple of jobs going at the same time -- I was working at the White Chapel Gallery and sculpture assisting. When getting on stage I couldn’t -- but still can’t -- get myself into the persona of a performer. Having the reality of a day/night job didn’t make much difference. This is why I like my machines -- to put my head down and work on stage.
BW: Is there something significant about the floor of a factory?
NCV: Why we’re called Factory Floor?
NCV: No. Factory’s Floor’s name existed before I joined, so it was just a coincidence.
BW: Speaking of joining projects already in existence, you and I have spoken before about your work with Chris & Cosey. What is that dynamic like when there’s a unit that has already been working together so closely, and already legendary in their own right? Is that a thought you had before working with them as Carter Tutti Void? How does that all work when you’re collaborating?
NCV: I was aware when jumping into it that Chris & Cosey are a unit – they’re almost the same being. I was scared and excited at the same time, and I really didn’t know what I was going to do or what was going to come out. But when I actually got there, it felt totally natural. I set up my equipment on a table they’d cleared for me, gazed up, and saw one of Cosey’s magazine shots in a gold frame, almost like one you’d put a family portrait in. And then you’ve got Chris with all of his workings in the studio…I just kept my head down. It was silent, and I was dropping cables.
Then as soon as Chris started his first sequence, it just completely clicked. I think we played for about three or four hours without even looking up -- we were just really engaged. It helps that Chris’s rhythms are so tribal and instinctive, and Cosey’s approach to playing I found was similar [to mine] -- she must have seen it in me before they asked [me to play with them]. We were both experimenting with guitars, and giving each other space and total mutual respect. When I could see she was getting excited, I was getting excited as well. It was an amazing experience, like a conversation uncovering all these connections we had with sound.
BW: Were Chris & Cosey initially familiar with you through your recordings or through your live performances?
NCV: They came to a Factory Floor show at The ICA [Institute of Contemporary Arts]. Paul Smith, my former manager, invited them down. It was actually the Cosey Club hosted by a friend of ours Richard Clouston. So Chris & Cosey were there, and I was introduced to them after we played. They said they enjoyed it, and that it kind of reminded them of TG with the excitement of it all. I got an e-mail a couple of weeks later inviting me to collaborate with them. I could not stop smiling when I read that e-mail, and I think I responded about ten times before I actually sent one.
BW: And you’ve told me the story of them picking you up at the train station…
NCV: In shades, wearing black in May.
BW: You went out to Nashville for the sessions for Tim Burgess’s Oh No I Love You album.
NCV: I was already in the U.S., touring with Factory Floor. I went from Ashville to Nashville! So I went over there and didn’t really know what to expect. The producer Mark Nevers was super talented and organized directing these super professional musicians. It was a big eye-opener, and Kurt Wagner has one of the best voices in the world.
BW: Were you there when R. Stevie Moore came by?
NCV: Yes, I was. I went to see him at his house, which is full of neatly stacked cassettes. It’s a beautiful inspiring place; we went for pizza. Later he came to London and stayed at the warehouse, and I put the band up. He’s this awesome guy – the real deal.
BW: Have you ever played “Gold E” on a DJ night?
NCV: Kind of! think my first solo show after its release was at The Nest in Dalston. I had the idea that I would perform “Gold E” live, and also have a portable turntable playing the polyurethane sleeve. My set was half an hour, and -- for some reason at that point --I felt it necessary to have two big Marshall cabs. It wasn’t necessary at all, it was hard work getting them into a tiny venue in Dalston.
I began the noise, and the record was playing at the same time, but because of the nerves I played everything so fast, I think my set lasted ten minutes. So I stopped, and that was it. The promoter said he thought I was going to play more. It was a really small room, so I could talk to him, and the audience was listening in. They began to say “Go on -- play more!” I said that was it, and walked out through a door to what I thought was another room, but it was a broom closet at the back of the stage.
BW: Depending on which of your solo or collaborative projects you’re in at any given time, there are experimental aspects, electronic aspects, dance aspects…so I wonder where most people who hear your music live or recorded are hearing it. And what type of audience do you imagine most of the people hearing your music belong to? Is it a dance or experimental audience, or do you find yourself at art galleries and festivals more often than traditional venues?
NCV: Part of me hopes that because I cross the boundaries and merge music and art, people just follow wherever I go, like an art audience that wouldn’t mind going to a club. You get a crowd that would do that, and the thing that you do get from going to all these different spaces is that you will probably play in front of people that are not aware of what you do and hopefully will get it. In exhibition spaces, the art crowd sometimes tends to lose themselves if it’s very dark…but then again it’s kind of like that in a club as well. I don’t really know where my musical identity fits because I go down so many different paths, and my interest in the music is the creation of it. Whatever instrument I have in front of me, I will make it work with my own style, or what I feel.
At the moment, I’m trying to build a record, and it’s pulling in all different directions. I think I’m having to learn to accept that, and my solo shows at the moment are about trying to understand where my music fits. All the titles on the record I’m working on are “No Music.” “No Music 1”, “No Music 2”, because I can’t really label it at the moment, and I can’t label the crowd either.
BW: The new record you’re talking about is a Nik Void record, right?
BW: And new Factory Floor music came out earlier this year with the “Heart of Data” single, which is part of the larger soundtrack to the classic film Metropolis.
NCV: It’s the most recent version [of the film] where they discovered files that had been lost --I think the BFI restored those files. It’s two and a half hours long, as opposed to the original, which was only an hour and forty minutes, or something like that. The soundtrack is a reimagined soundtrack of the existing one, and it’s away from what we’ve done [in the past]. It’s coming out later in the year, and a second 12” due to be released in the autumn.
BW: And not only is this first single titled “Heart of Data”, but also your label has that name too, right?
NCV: Before we signed to DFA, we were toying with the idea of starting our own record label. After I released “Gold E”, and the collaborative stuff that [Factory Floor] did at the ICA with Haroon Mirza, Stephen Morris and all different projects, I wanted to archive and put them out on our own label. Then DFA came along, and we started thinking that maybe we needed to put some records out first with someone who’s really passionate about what we do. At that early stage, it would be too much pressure on us as three people to put it out ourselves when we hadn’t put out our own record before.
So after that last Factory Floor record came out, I visited the distributor who offered this to us before and we decided now is the right time to put recordings out and make them come alive again.
BW: The concept of the heart and data is remarkable in its juxtaposition of the organic and synthetic.
NCV: If you think deeply about it, it’s the same thing as the “Gold E” record. You come up with an idea and it takes on a life of its own to so many people. “Heart of data” does make so much sense right now because everything is inwardly processed now. The way that you socialize on social media is internalized. The way that I, as a creative, get excited about ideas or get inspired is to work or sit and chat with other like-minded people. But nobody really does this anymore, because you don’t have to go out to sit and chat. And that makes the flowing of things come to a halt. I think “heart of data” is such an organic contradiction, as you say. It’s kind of what are you giving your heart to at a given moment.
Cover Photo: Tim Burgess