Leftfield producer and guitar manipulator Nik Colk Void is a twitchy musician whose output consistently challenges the status quo.
Both in a solo capacity and as one third of electronic noise trio Factory Floor, Nik takes delight in questioning established musical practices and conventions, always finding new frequencies in which to express herself.
Over the years, she has worked with leading luminaries Cosey Fanni Tutti and Chris Carter (in Carter Tutti Void), composed a Pace of Time score with Ashley Paul and Simon Fisher Turner, and has hosted a year-long residency at the ICA with her Factory Floor cohorts.
We were lucky enough to spend some time with Nik for our Women & Machines feature to learn about her unconventional working patterns and watershed moments that have shaped her musical output over the years.
What first got you into making music?
It started while doing a degree in Visual Studies; I got into creating spaces that highlighted self awareness and I started making discrete recordings in public spaces – girls changing rooms, hair salons etc. The recordings were not manipulated in any way but playing them within the installation made them feel like they had been because they were out of context to their natural surroundings. I guess this is where it all started.
How did you get involved in Factory Floor?
Before I met Gabriel and Dominic (from Factory Floor) I was working on my own music. I saw them play in a venue in east London, and the following day I went and purchased their seven-inch single. At that time I was working as a solo artist and I was interested in studio practice rather than playing live.
Tell us about your solo work…
I keep my solo practice running in tandem with Factory Floor. The initial idea of my solo work was to focus on the guitar as a traditional instrument, but approach it with a more contemporary way of thinking. I was working on the idea of inventing my own guitar language, playing with feedback, sampling and layering – going towards noise but working out ways to control it.
I was influenced by Rhys Chatham and Glenn Branca, which took me to experimentalists like Keith Rowe and Andrew Pekler. The one thing that occurred to me – which I did not have in common with these musicians – was that they were all male! Being female, I felt I couldn’t connect as I play instinctively not taught.
Guitar has always been an instrument of rock posturing, branded as an instrument of masculinity in a way, and I’ve been playing it since I was 19! It took a while, but in my late twenties I literally woke up one morning and said, ‘I have nothing in common with you anymore, I need to start again’.
I felt it was important to keep true to my references, to continue to execute playing the guitar in the traditional way – strapped around my body instead of turning it on its head and using a table top like Keith Rowe. This is where extended technique came in, so I use the guitar more of an extension of my bodily self with sticks and bows, tapping the neck of the guitar and jamming a drum stick between the strings to act like a bridge for the violin bow.
Joining Factory Floor I naturally progressed more toward combining these sounds with electronics, splicing them into samples and fitting in with the rigidness of drum machines and arpeggiators. But, because the guitar’s sound is fundamentally organic due to strings and wood in combination with my own bodily constraints, I do enjoy its visceral sound rather than replacing it with something more electronic.
You say the guitar is traditionally a masculine instrument and you look to technology to try to challenge that. Other people have suggested that technology can move music into a more androgynous space. What do you think about that?
It’s true with electronics you can strip away any humanity or gender. With vocals I do exactly the same thing. I first heard Nico singing when I was really young and I was surprised when my mum told me it was a woman because I was sure it was a man. It changed my whole perspective on so many things and I became really fascinated by it.
It’s not about turning female into male gender but actually turning female into non-gender. That’s where the parallels lie when me and Cosey work together. We don’t want to be subjected as females particularly but we don’t want to become overly masculine in order to be taken seriously. We want to be non-gender – gender has little to do with it. In fact, the person behind the music has nothing to do with it – it’s more about the sound. But it’s difficult to displace yourself from that, because of the way music – especially rock music – has been perceived for years.
That’s why with Factory Floor we like mixing up where we play our music. We look for places that are not geared towards ‘gigs’ as such. I played in pubs and clubs a lot in my early twenties, and I purposely dressed plainly to try to become invisible and let the music speak for itself. I did feel more comfortable but being a young girl in rock/pop band, it was impossible to eradicatebeing female to an audience with lots of men. It made me feel annoyed at myself for being female – a bit sad really as I just wanted to play music and do my thing. I see music as a great communicator like any good art, and with its instinctive values it should work in any setting.
I’m interested in your relationship with technology…
I think of hardware and software just as another tool to materialise what I’m creating. I’m not interested in technology because I think it will make my sound more contemporary – I’m just a bit of a geek when it comes to finding a nice new piece of gear.
What happens is, when you’re limited money-wise, you use what you have around you. I approach it in the same way that I play guitar. I won’t read a manual, I’ll use my instincts. You find your own language with different tools and technologies. However, in the last couple of years, needs must and I have gone online and looked at YouTube demos and tried to find that piece of kit that would do what I have in mind – so I guess the way I develop is changing.
Creative accidents often dictated how my sound was rendered when I was first learning to record myself; now it’s got to the point where I’m moving into an ideal way of wanting my music to sound. It’s a shift in my way of thinking. I think that will keep happening.
You’ve always had complete control over your solo music and Factory Floor output. Could you ever imagine yourself getting in big name producers and farming that side of things out?
At the moment, the fun side of what I’m doing is recording myself and recording with Gabriel. At first I did go to a recording studio. Some people would spend their spare cash going on holiday but I’d book myself into a recording studio for a few days and come up with something that probably wouldn’t make any sense to anyone else. But I really enjoyed that process.
When, as Factory Floor, we started to record ourselves, I learned a lot more. And now I feel that, because of my unconventional way of playing, I could only record myself at this point. I find it hard to explain what I want and part of the recording process is about finding out what it is I want.
However, we (Factory Floor) do love a remix! We like the idea of sending stems to people and seeing what they come back with. The idea of having a producer come into the studio still seems a bit uncomfortable at this point.
In July Gabriel and I are going to Stromboli. Haroon Merza invited me to do a talk and performance, but I suggested it would be great to do a collaboration as it’s a one-off. So Gabriel and I are going to head out to a house that once belonged to Marina Abramovicto work alongside Perc.
Perc is known as a techno producer but we are intending to write together and record together. I think the term ‘producer’ works with a traditional set-up but with Factory Floor and my solo stuff, it’s taking away half the process of learning. Although, when we worked with Steven Morris (New Order), it was interesting to see his way of working. It’s always good to see how other people work in the studio.
The Factory Floor album was a long time coming. How come you didn’t rush in straight away?
At that point we’d put out a couple of EPs with different labels. When we first started to play live I’d only been in a practice room with Gabriel and Dominic for a couple of months, so we went out pretty early on. At that point we still hadn’t grasped what we were doing and how we wanted to be.
We got into playing live at the same time as learning what we were doing, so it worked better to improvise on stage. That was a way of developing our tracks and we were recording bits and pieces along the way.
We didn’t want to do a record straight away, we wanted to test the water with a couple of releases and mature what we were doing as our sound was changing so quickly. The record did take a while. We took over a factory in north London and built our studio. We were also doing the ICA residency for a year – both things took up a lot of time.
What are you working on at the moment?
We just got back from America and, with the UK tour, we’re only meeting up very briefly to work in the studio and come up with new ideas. We’re recording in September and I have a couple of Carter Tutti Void shows with Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti in November.
Which female songwriters, artists and producers have influenced you along the way?
Cosey Fanni Tutti, Laurie Anderson, Susan Stenger, Lizzy Mercier Descloux, Kim Gordon; women who come at music from a completely different perspective. I’m coming from a very naïve place. It was nice to do that collaboration with Ashley Paul for example. I had to take on a different discipline, following another musician’s score, it was hard! I really respect the way she puts her music together. Helena Hauff too – Factory Floor were lucky to get her to remix a track for us recently. I love the techno aspect of what she’s got. It’s also so raw and loose. You’ve got techno that’s really rigid but she tends to make it loose. Holly Herndon – I love what she’s doing at the moment. We’re working together soon I hope.
What about when you were growing up?
When I was growing up, I was listening to people like Madonna! I grew up on chart music. I was really young when acid house hit the UK’s mainstream in the late eighties. I never made it to Ibiza – I was still at middle school! Ha! But I liked the hooks and the sampling, I loved S’Express!
Nik Colk Void will perform at the Space-Time festival at Wysing Arts Centre on 30 August. Find out more: http://www.m-magazine.co.uk/news/space-time-festival-celebrate-female-pioneers/
Carter Tutti Void have just announced their second burst of activity after 2011?s successful inaugural London performance and the resultant 2012 Transverse album released on Mute Records. They will be performing on 15 and 16 September at Oslo Club, Hackney, London.
Read our related Women & Machines feature here