It’s impossible to write a comprehensive guide to Richard Youngs’s music. By the time you get a handle on his discography, which currently runs to well over 150 albums, EPs, and singles, he has moved on to something else: a new alias, a new collaboration, even a new genre.
Youngs’s music is impressive for its sheer variety as well as its scope. He’s made minimalist drone, pop music, prog rock, country, and jungle. He’s made an a cappella album and a kazoo album and several by playing guitar with his feet. “I think I’ve always done what the hell I wanted to do, and if there is a theme [across my work], it’s that,” he tells me from his home in Glasgow. (Though originally from Cambridge, he’s now spent the better part of his life in the Scottish city.) “I’m pretty convinced that you could play one album, and then play another, and someone might not hear the link at all. But the link is that, at the time, it gripped me, and I needed to do it.”
So how does Youngs make sense of his own career? Though he doesn’t like to look backwards, he can identify distinct eras. “Certainly, there are phases,” he explains. “When Covid started, I stopped writing lyrics. I didn’t write lyrics until a few months ago when I started performing at a few shows with Damon and Naomi, who’re very much song-orientated. I came away from those shows and I wrote some lyrics, which is the first time I’ve done it in ages. Similarly, I go through phases of, say, playing the guitar. Months can go by when I don’t pick up a guitar, and then I pick up a guitar for whatever reason it might be.”
Youngs got his start in the mid-’80s playing with tape recorders and practicing gradually more sophisticated recording techniques. First, he attempted basic overdubbing after hearing the Beatles’s “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Things got more complex once he found a two-speed reel-to-reel tape recorder at a jumble sale and, influenced by McCartney II, began altering the speed of his productions. And finally, an Open University radio program introduced the concept of tape loops. Crucially, around this time, Youngs heard Cabaret Voltaire’s Voice of America. “I thought, ‘My God! People make records like this!’” he laughs. “Yes, I was listening to the radio underneath the bed covers, these Open University programs or John Peel—it all kind of coalesced into music-making with friends.”
After being introduced to England’s burgeoning industrial scene, it wasn’t a great leap to begin releasing albums himself. Youngs began producing records made by himself and his friends for his short-lived Jabberwok Records and Cassettes imprint in 1984. “Well, it was in the air, you know. If you made music that no one who’s of a financially sound mind would want to release, you had to do it yourself. I think I did a bit of cleaning or something around the house and amassed a bit of money. I thought, ‘We could blow this money on making a record!’ So that’s how it happened. Pure vanity publishing.”
The first album that gained attention outside of his circle of friends was 1990’s Advent, a work of lo-fi minimalism fashioned around a relentless two-chord piano figure, made while Youngs was at university. That album eventually made its way onto Alan Licht’s influential “Minimal Top Ten” lists and was reissued twice, first by Table of the Elements and then by Jagjaguwar. Initially, though, its run of 300 copies didn’t budge.
Richard Youngs and Simon Wickham-Smith
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At university, Youngs overheard someone talking about John Cage and introduced himself. That person was Simon Wickham-Smith, who turned into one of Youngs’s most important collaborators. By the end of that week, they had gone to a Stockhausen concert together; soon, they would release music together. “When I released Advent, I turned to Simon and said jokingly, ‘The next one will be a double album,’ because I made 300 records and hadn’t sold a single copy. No one was interested,” says Youngs. “And he called my bluff and said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’ So we made a double LP, which was LAKE.” The album, full of spoken word, tape experiments, and exercises in extreme minimalism, is a good representation of Youngs’s interests early in his career. Some tracks, like the 12-minute closing drone “Goat,” remain hallmarks in his catalog.
The duo decided to send Advent and LAKE to Boston’s Forced Exposure magazine. “We loved that magazine. You’d read a review, and the reviews were so exciting that you just had to hear the music. So we sent off copies of Advent and LAKE to Forced Exposure. And they loved it, ran reviews, and within a fortnight, we’d sold out the pressing.” The magazine’s founder, Jimmy Johnson, invited them to record a single for their label; when Youngs and Wickham-Smith responded with a full album’s worth of songs, they released that instead, and Youngs found his first label.
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Youngs is associated with an earnest DIY ethos that revels in amateurism; the flamboyant theatrics and precise musicianship of prog rock would seemingly be anathema to his style. Yet he finds something to love in almost any genre, and embraces prog from the relatively experimental, like early Pink Floyd, to the unabashedly virtuosic, like Yes’s Going for the One. “The Pink Floyd I love is not a particularly popular era of Pink Floyd. I love the stuff post-Syd, pre-Dark Side. There’s something that happened when he left where they just became four guys trying to figure out what to do. They didn’t have a clue, and they were just messing around, and I love that,” he says. Regarding prog’s reputation for virtuosity above all else, Youngs is agnostic. “There are people who are proficient who make horrible music and people who are proficient who make lovely music, he says. “And equally, there are people who are inept who make terrible music and people who are inept who make wonderful music.”
ILK is Youngs’s band with frequent collaborator Andrew Paine. In the tradition of the best British prog, the project embraces joyous excess, with dazzling guitar solos, semi-serious spoken word interludes, and cosmic synth freakouts. Though they’re only a duo, Youngs and Paine pay homage to the genre in a way that respects its grand ambitions, playing nine or ten instruments apiece to create a truly epic sound.
Summer Wanderer is Youngs’s a cappella album, though the singing was less of a challenge than the songwriting. “That wasn’t so much a technical challenge, but maybe a challenge to write enough words to be able to sing,” he says. “I quite like music that tries your patience a bit, that stretches out. My dream folk record at the time would be very long unaccompanied voice, maybe something like Mike Waterson singing ‘Tamlyn’ four times over. That would be a great record!” Youngs is serious about music that tries your patience; the opening track here is 23 minutes of unaccompanied musings on the seasons. Once it begins, though, its fragile beauty carries you through to the end. For a less intimidating introduction, try “No Longer In This Perdition,” a haunting meditation on the afterlife.
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At times, label owners will approach Youngs with a request for a certain type of album. For Summer Through My Mind, Ba Da Bing’s Ben Goldberg sent him a list of ideas. Youngs chose country, as it was the most challenging—“I’m not sure I have a country bone in my body,” he admits. And so he set about cobbling together the sounds of country and western: “Slide guitar was one thing I settled on. And there’s a track with Simon Joyner narrating on it. I was thinking, ‘Who’s the person I know who has the most deep, serious, country narration-style voice?’ and his voice was just the one.” He pauses. “I mean, in retrospect, maybe it wasn’t that country,” he laughs. However authentic it may be as a country record, Summer Through My Mind is prime singer-songwriter material from Youngs. “Mountain of Doom,” a song he wrote with his son, is alternately gothic and childlike, a beautiful demonstration of what can result from a simple prompt.
Youngs’s perhaps most infamous phase lasted from April 2017 to December 2018, when he played guitar solely with his feet. “It started when I was taking my son to football practice,” he explains. “I got bored with the guitar, and I said, ‘Well, how can I play the guitar that would make it interesting?’ and without pause, he said, ‘Play it with your feet.’ Of course, that’s the solution!” Across the seven volumes of Foot Guitar, you can actually hear him improve; what began as a charmingly awkward attempt to make coherent music eventually turns into quite a sophisticated approach. For example, the 28-minute “Foot Guitar XXXII” features dreamy, meditative strumming that’s temporarily interrupted by dramatic incursions of static. Without the name on the tin, you’d never know what appendage was responsible.
“Maybe that’s why it became boring, because I could begin to control things a bit more,” Youngs says. “I do quite like stuff that feels like a runaway train, you know? When you can’t quite catch what you’re doing, and it remains a mystery how you can produce what you’re producing.”
One of the first records on Jabberwok Records and Cassettes is attributed to The Creation Room. It’s the name that one of Youngs’s friends gave to his teenage bedroom, where much of his music production took place. “Fast forward, and it’s been years living in sort of tenement flats and the like,” he explains, “and then about a year ago, I moved from a tenement flat into a house for the first time. I’ve now got my own room to make music again. In fact, you are in the Creation Room now!” Youngs spins his laptop around to show me his new creative space, with guitars, keyboards, and recording equipment lining the walls.
The Creation Room series is a run of EPs created when he moved into this new home studio. “The concept was to take a very cheap drum machine”—here he holds up a Yamaha RY9—“and what I did was I tape phased [the drum parts], so they kind of go out of time, and then shake a shaker”—and he holds up a Tupperware of rice. “This was also in the middle of a phase of not writing any lyrics. I’ve always really been into songs where I can’t understand what they’re saying, so I thought, why am I even bothering to write lyrics? I can go ‘Kama-sa, na-ha!’ or anything, almost like singing in tongues. Occasionally I’d get a book out and blur my eyes on an expression and try to render it. And so I did Live [at the Creation Room] and I was so gripped by the idea, I did another one.” And then another one and another one, for a total of five. The last of these, Get With the Creation Room, features the purest distillation of this phase, with tumbling percussion, minimal guitar, and nonsense lyrics sung in a cadence that remains somehow affecting.
THE YOUNGSIE E.P.
Recently, Youngs lost access to The Creation Room due to building work, leaving him with only his laptop. Of course, he was not going to let that stop him—he immediately started making jungle music instead. Influenced by drum & bass legend DJ Sappo, he downloaded sample packs and tracker software and began making breakbeats to be mastered by the man himself. “I sent off a couple of my tracks to Sappo to master, and he mastered them within about 24 hours,” he says. “They came back, and it was like, ‘Whoa!’ Everything had just come alive. I got gripped by this idea and just plowed a furrow of making this tracker software jungle music and sending it off to Sappo to get mastered because he took it to the next level.”
As YOUNGSIE, Youngs makes relentlessly energetic jungle music. He opts for an all-out assault, ignoring the genre’s focus on pads and builds. “I’ve never been a fan of development in music,” he explains. “Jungle music does develop and build. I don’t do builds—I just establish what’s happening and then let it randomly kind of cut in and out. And to me, that’s more exciting than building, you know? So I don’t think I’ll ever cut it on the jungle scene as such,” he laughs.
Modern Sorrow is the result of another request from a label. Oren Ambarchi of Black Truffle asked Youngs for a pop record. Youngs responded with CXXI—an excellent work of aleatoric minimalism, but not exactly pop. Then he became interested in Drake. “I looked at some YouTube tutorials on how Drake records were made, and it’s fascinating,” he says. “Absolutely fascinating. The whole idea of downsampling the backing so that the vocalist can shine on top is a genius production idea. And you know, there are various online tutorials on YouTube on how to do this. I did one and just sent it to Oren, not thinking it was a record. He just wrote back saying, ‘Yes, this is the next Black Truffle Record!’ But then things mutated, and I kept working away at these modern record production techniques of downsampling, pitch correction, using very slow tempos, and it got to a point where it sounds like Modern Sorrow, which is nothing like what the initial track sounded like.”
Modern Sorrow consists of two side-long workouts featuring Auto-Tune, drum machine, and slow R&B chords. This is pop as only Youngs could imagine it, stripped down completely to its constituent elements. Not only is it a new take on minimalism, it also changes how you hear modern pop production.
Asked if there’s any aspect of his career that he’d like to see included here, Youngs demurs. He’d rather look ahead. “I’m always moving on. Maybe more interesting is what’s coming next, which you can’t write about,” he says. “I’m always making music, and there are things which I’m making now. But what kind of shape they’ll ultimately take? I don’t know.” Whatever it is, we won’t have to wait long to find out—another new Youngs record is always right around the corner.