• Tom Furse / Synthesist

    In conversation with Tom Furse.

Founder member of The Horrors, in demand video director, visual artist and sound artist in his own right. We talk to Tom Furse about all that the future holds. The venue: fittingly, a traditional greasy spoon café at the seaside.

Tom has become synonymous with the use of AI in visual arts. I ask if people now look for more of the same from him: “I seem to have positioned myself by accident where suddenly people are finding out about using AI for animations, AI for artwork so I’ve had a lot of work recently where I was developing on the job how best to use these techniques”.

His video for HAAi “Baby We’re Ascending” still looks like nothing else. Where a trio of dancers overlaid with bird plumage and flowers dance against a morphing backdrop of stark black, popping clouds and then a lush psychedelic Forrest that opens up. The title itself has become a useful shorthand, but it’s important to not forget what it is and what the piece evokes:

“It was a weird process of trying to trick it (the AI) into turning these dancers into these sorts of weird flowery, bird god things. I had to trick it into thinking that the dancers look like birds, a bit more colourful, change the colours. I ran some weird processing on the video and only then did the AI pick up and was like “Okay, I see what you’re trying to do here.””

Crucially, Tom had to continuously manipulate and use the AI as a tool to arrive at his vision. He was steering it. Not vice versa. There is the impression that the coming of AI makes the artist obsolete but during this process the tech was nothing without the artist.

When you look at it this way, through the lens of a tool. You can see how AI appeals to Tom. Someone who’s always been a true student of form. He talks of his love of the psychedelic garage bands of the 60’s (from things like the Nuggets compilation) and its evident from previous interviews around his love of synths. Tom frames his path into this medium through what came before:
“I got very into generative work which was very much inspired by old techniques that Eno has been using for ages. Delivering a system in which you want a thing to happen but you don’t want control over everything. We have been in an era of music where precision is everything. What I like about early electronic music is that it was super living”

Tom sees AI as a potential remedy to an era we are now in of over precision. Where the instability of it offers something truly new. Something that is rare in the Postmodern era where “everything eats everything”. He makes the point that all music history features “borrowing” too and that AI is only the latest chapter in that:

“It seemed like nothing came from nowhere and you could easily trace where record influenced that and scan it for a decade. It seems to me like everyone is pilfering or pinching consciously, unconsciously. Claims to be a “new thing” is intellectually dishonest in some ways. Did someone ever have an original idea that shook the world or are all ideas are just different combinations and reconstructions of things that are already out in the world. AI is the most radical tool we’ve had to explore this in a long time.”
Case in point being when Missy Elliott’s “Lose Control” from 2005 comes on over the café radio and Tom points out that it features a sample from Juan Atkins’ Cybotron song “Clear” from 1983 which lifted its melody from Kraftwerk’s “Hall of Mirrors” from 1977. Phew.

He was inspired towards the medium when he heard Holly Herndon’s and Mat Dryhurst’s Interdependence podcast. A piece that he still returns to. It reinforces the idea that AI is simply the latest chapter in the history of music – rather than its disrupter/destroyer:
“Kraftwerk had the opportunity to do that for the first time. They set the template for electronic music and we’re still feeling the ripples now. We have another moment to do new shit!”

He feels that it is very much still in its infancy. Like the early stages of synth music where it would be used to replicate existing music like Bach: “This isn’t a new scary thing; this is something that’s always been there. I feel that there will be ground-breaking work in the next 5, 10, 15 years. It will have the kind of ripples Kraftwerk had.”

Given Tom’s academic approach I ask if he has any ideas about where to take the Tech itself as a builder / coder:
“No. There is an eco-system going on and I am an end user. Robert Henke of Ableton talked about this, 80% of the time you’ll spend building the thing and 20% of the time you’ll go making the music you built the thing for in the first place. So, I just stay away from that”

He is still close to the community that occupies this space via Discord. Where the turnaround time of advancement is something genuinely exciting for the artist: “I just hopped onto Discord with guys who were at the absolute bleeding edge. Very different from Ableton where you would have to wait two years or whatever to get the functionality you wanted. Now that’s kind of like two days making a request and someone actually bothers to do it.”

In framing AI within the grander context of music history, Tom suggests that even criticisms of imperfections that people level at it will come to be its defining feature: “Stable Diffusion is really bad at hands. It will draw a hand with 8 fingers and people are down on it. Personally, I think that’s actually a new aesthetic. Like Eno said, “Any new medium, what’s wrong with it becomes the defining feature of it”. I think it’s funny that something genuinely new might come from something that recycles everything.”

It seems an extension of the way Tom uses synths as well. A potential tool that also acts as a foil: “I was looking for ways to have an interaction or conversation with the program. So it would spit something back at me. Whatever would do that best”

He touches on a future where artists like Aphex Twin’s body of work needn’t be static: “If he dies tomorrow, he leaves a great musical legacy that could be sampled and chopped around. But it really is a something to be absorbed and witnessed somewhat passively. It’s not like you can go in, pull it apart and have a conversation with him. But now we could be like, I’m going to train the Aphex model, that special moment in history that he got to be is now something you can converse with and that skill set gets put in the repository of culture intelligence”. He compares this potential jump to that of us having only the sheet music of Mozart vs the recorded output of modern music.

Given that Tom is excited by the possibility it all holds, the next natural touchstone is the potential dangers AI poses to the artist. In music it has already been noted that the streaming giants populate playlists with fictitious soundalike artists to increase their own revenue. I ask Tom what dangers he perceives and if he thinks it will come to eclipse the living artist: “People want a name”

Every article touching upon AI will surely use the Nick Cave description of Chat GPT mimicking his lyrics as a “Grotesque mockery of what it is to be human”. In mentioning this to Tom he laughs heartily because he doesn’t disagree: “I don’t think capital A artists are endangered by a new tool coming on the block because there’s so much more that goes into making an artwork and what makes an artist popular and what they’re trying to say and the wider context and things like that. These are really important things.”

In terms of more commercial gigs being subsumed by AI he notes: “You’re having to leverage this special thing to do something that just feels wrong and weird. I never loved commercial work so I won’t shed a tear for that work disappearing. What I don’t want to see just because you can make work cheaply, is for visual work to suffer the same kind of devaluation as music. Use these tools now. If AI is gonna come for your job. Learn how to use AI now. I think people think “Oh that’s something else I don’t have to worry about now””.

I ask whether him stepping away as a touring member of the Horrors will change the way the band work and record, but he notes that has already been evolving with some of them moving out of London. He thinks he may have “dodged a bullet” in stepping away from touring in that even vital bands in the cultural consciousness like Animal Collective are “Tapping out”. That there is a danger of touring becoming open to the elite alone:
“There’s a lot of anxiety there, so a lot of promoters are passing their worry about selling tickets onto the bands. For a band like Animal Collective to not be able to make touring work told me there’s something deeply wrong.”

But he concludes that even bemoaning this could seem very insignificant compared to the potential tearing of the fabric of society that could be coming due to the devaluation of specialist knowledge and breakdown of consensus reality: “People always ask me about the effect on the artist. These are valid concerns, but on the news you have stories about how people can’t afford food or to heat their homes and then enters a new technology that allows anything that is distillable into a pattern to be repeatable. Specialist knowledge is just there. Expert Knowledge is just there. What effect does that have on society? Society might be quite upset at that point. Then we’ve got to decide what kind of society we want.

The talk of studio time leads to the Beatles Get Back documentary, as I feel sure it will have resonated with Tom: “I guess for me coming into the thing where I was like, I want to step away from gigs. I’ve been doing this a long time and there’s lots of other things I want to do. Seeing the biggest band in the world go through all the same stuff was really nice. For 15 years, 10 hours a day, music is what I did and it drove me fucking mad. It’s been so nice to have something else to do and it not be this all-encompassing thing where that’s all I can think about”.

After listening to the aforementioned Interdependence podcast Tom was inspired to “Start messing around” with visuals. It removed a lot of the anxiety that he describes coming from music when you must hold a fixed point of time in your head: “It’s much more peaceful because you remove the time element of it. I don’t have to worry about the beginning of the event here. It’s all kind of just so. That period of time that is exhausting in some way. I don’t even know how to describe it.”

Like with how he wants to make music too that’s not overly precise or mapped out Tom describes the release of working in this way:
“I did a series of images called “Magic Happens Here”, very dense pastoral, psychedelic forest scenes. I made most of the background using some obscure AI techniques and then used in-painting on DALL-E in which you can scrub out and prompt what you want in there instead. It was a fun technique because you’re not 100% sure with what you’re going to get. So, if you suddenly get a man pointing like this or something, you’re like, what’s he pointing to? I’ve got to figure that out. But I really like that process, there’s something really fun about it. It’s a little bit like casting a spell or even the biblical Genesis – you write the right words and in the right order and you get something really glorious”.

This is when Tom becomes really animated. In talking about possibility. In doing something truly new. He was the same when talking about the impact of Frank Ocean’s Blonde or the possibility of AI to deliver a new Kraftwerk moment.

As we head out to catch the setting sun over this seaside town. I feel assured that when in the hands of the artist AI is a tool that can deliver something new for the artist rather than instead of them.

Tom Furse / Synthesist

Credits:

Artist: Tom Furse / @tom_furse
Editor: Maria Abramenko / @mariabramenko
Words: Jamie Macleod Bryden / @jamiemacleodbryden
Assistant: Alisia Marcacci / @miabrowe

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