“My favourite feeling to make someone feel is confusion, particularly when they’re seeing or experiencing something… especially something they’ve paid for.”James McIlwrath
Self-described as a “maker and doer of things”, James McIlwrath is an Irish experimental composer-performer currently based in Birmingham. James’s work defies notions of convention and medium, with genre-bending performances at the BBC Proms and Nonclassical’s Battle of the Bands being among his list of achievements. James spoke to PRXLUDES about his recent improvisations and livestreams, his philosophies on creation and composition, and his work with York-based performance platform AMOK.
Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hi James! Thanks for joining me today. Let’s start by talking about your most recent improvisation set for Don’t Mind Control; what was your inspiration for that piece?
James McIlwrath: Over lockdown, I’ve been experimenting with this weird “anti-comedy”, not-comedy solo improv, where I do a lot of speaking and doing things and trying to explain stuff, sort of like an overwhelming amount of things happening all at once. I wanted to try it with a live audience while dealing with outside shit. I hadn’t planned anything for it except [that] I was going to try and convince the people that were there that this — what I was gonna do — was what music now is after lockdown. [It] was a complete and utter failure, which was the point, really.
It was a fun time; it felt really really aggressive, it felt like “fuck you, audience” and the audience being like “we don’t wanna take part [in] this”, and it was really a battle of eyes and things. I never expected to do the things I did because of how the others reacted, because I’d never dealt with a live audience doing this sort of improv, because it was all on livestreams over lockdown. So I’d do something, and then sit there and look for a response for 10-15 seconds, and nobody would do anything other than maybe a mild chuckle, and then I’d move on or whatever. It was very intense.
I love the dichotomy between yourself and the audience. Did having a live audience there make your performance feel more tense?
Yeah, tense, aggressive is the word I keep using, because it really felt like a battle, it really felt like… –James screams for an uncomfortable period of time– Usually, when you play [music], it’s like, this is something for an audience — maybe, I don’t think it’s a healthy way of thinking about music — but there was none of that for me, it was all against [them]; “I’m gonna just try and fuck with you guys” and they were like “we’re not wanting this too much”, and dealing with that, fighting with that. It’s a fun experience, but I don’t think I wanna do it all the time.
As you mentioned, it’s a culmination of something you’ve done online, but tested before a live audience. -laughs- Do you prefer the experience of the live audience due to the tension, or are you more comfortable in the online space?
I have no preference, but it’s nice to understand the differences between them, [since] they’re two different things. Because of the lack of interaction online, it will just be me doing these things without any input, whereas me being [in front of] an audience involves an input, which is really exciting… But also, just me having to deal with everything by myself is also really exciting. So no preference, I’d say. Although it’s nice to see people and do things in front of [them], feeling semi-validated by people just being there for you to do stuff with, online it’s really hard to see that. But that is something I really struggle with, and it’s something I don’t want to keep trying to struggle with, doing something and people recognising it… I really want to be in the frame of mind where I make something, and I feel like it’s good, and people see it. I think that’s just 21st-century, social media upbringing, and feeling like a young person…
What I love is that your live set might have been the first thing people have seen live, and you’re just there fucking with them. -laughs-
Like a massive troll… -laughs-
Do you think your desire for validation through those kinds of performances might be linked to the online improvisations you’ve done?
Yeah, perhaps. I’ve done over 100 — 100-something — streams [on Instagram], in almost as many days [over lockdown]. Quite early in lockdown I saw Sippy Cup do a [livestream] from their phone — Sippy Cup were just two people improvising — and I was like “sick, yeah! That’s a medium [I] can do something with”. I then realised that you could do this “call in” feature that I’ve seen lots of influencers and organisations do interviews with on Instagram, and I thought that was something [I] could make some improvisations with. I was feeling very disconnected in my one-bed flat by myself, and to have everything cancelled and to be not making music regularly with other people in some shape or form was something I was quite worried about, [and] knew I was going to miss.
Did you consciously choose to do these improvisations on Instagram?
I thought trying to do it on Instagram would be a fun experience, because [I wanted to see if] improv would work in a jangly, disjointed, lo-fi phone quality, at least for me as a performer. I wasn’t too concerned with how people would perceive as [an] audience at first. So I invited Si Paton to do one, and it was okay, and I invited Meg Diamond to do one, [which] was good. And then I realised there were lots of people that were interested in doing one, and it just became this thing that had to be daily, like a daily challenge of music-making, something to do every day that I don’t have to worry about. It became into this “try and get to a long streak”, of [involving] as many different people as possible, and it achieved [its] goal. I now have quite good relationships with people I’ve never met; two improvisers in particular — [both] performer-composers — that I will continue to work with came out of constantly doing things [with them] on Instagram.
Would you say these livestreams helped alleviate the personal issues you faced with the cessation of live performances?
It filled that void, for sure. [It] wasn’t exactly the same, but it was nuts. Then it turned into an experiment of how to deal with the crappiness of the phone [quality], using the phone as a tool in the improvisations, to make visuals, to make other sounds and put them into objects and things, because I got sick of watching streams where it was just a camera set up on the other side of the room. Because we had the agency to do something [else] with the video, we should… Music needs to change with the circumstance, not just be the same dead thing it’s been for years and years and years.
It was good, I had a really good time… And then I got sick of doing them, because my whole day revolved around being at my desk at 7pm with all my instruments ready to play, and [I] kind of lost my love for doing that. But we had a nice little blowout with everyone [at the end]; that was quite magical, and very emotional, actually, to see all these people who I’d connected with personally through a phone over the last 100 days coming all together.
I know you did a large-scale solo stream using the Instagram medium as well; tell me a bit about that.
One of the highlights — although it’s hard to say it’s a highlight, as it was incredibly different to all the rest of them, [as] it was a prepared piece, in a way — is [a piece] I did entirely by myself, called ‘How to Cope With How to Cope’, which was something I was gonna do for CODA Festival in Birmingham. I don’t really know what it was, to be honest; I didn’t really want to make much “coronavirus art” — or art that was made in [and about] lockdown — but I felt compelled to do one big thing and then that would do me… and then I realise that [with] how long coronavirus is and how much it’s affected everything.
I totally understand. I’ve seen a crazy amount of “lockdown art” as well, and I’ve felt turned off about being productive in that way…
I just saw everyone being like “you gotta do stuff, you’ve got unlimited time, you gotta be productive, you gotta have a hustle, you gotta make bread”… and I personally was having a great time doing fucking nothing. -laughs- I was having a great time playing Civ, getting up at 3 o’clock in the evening, eating noodles, watching YouTube compilations [and] speedruns, just wasting my time, really, because when else would I be able to waste my time in such copious amounts?
So I wanted to make something that was an overload of someone trying to tell you what to do, and for you to see that that’s not what you should be doing. The original idea was for me to try and do 16 YouTube tutorials at once, which is pretty impossible to do… So it turned into me trying to tell you how to cope, but me clearly not being able to cope, so dealing with that trouble, or drama, of someone who doesn’t know what they’re talking about teaching you. -laughs- That was very fun and very very stressful, because it was 30 minutes of highly intense shit. It was mostly all improvised; I had a plan of things to do, but not a “this is when you need to do them”.
The best bit about it was the amount of people who turned up; I planned for a little bit of audience interaction, and everyone who turned up was actually engaged with it, and really informed of what happened, which was special for me. It means that if I ever do it again — which I probably will — it will not be the same, in any way, because of the audience interaction.
It’s almost like the audience becomes a part of the piece.
They dictated so much of what happened in it, just by saying “hello”, or “haha”, or “are you doing okay?”, or just really dumb stuff. They made me draw a cat, and then they made me put the cat in prison, which was a stressful thing to do. It was like, “let’s do something calm”, and amplified it to make it not a calm experience… They understood that rule, so [I was] very happy and thankful for all those people.
What I find really interesting about your work is how the audience is able to “tune in” to your wavelength in the online space, but then the moment you perform in a live setting, the type of interaction changes. Why do you think that is?
Oh, shit… -laughs- How the audience is expecting the concert environment to be, I always try and do something that subverts that, or goes against their expectations. My favourite feeling to make someone feel is confusion, particularly when they’re seeing or experiencing something… especially something they’ve paid for. It’s very satisfying to be there and have lots of people on different levels of understanding and not understanding, just trying to grasp what’s happening. And [there’s] me, having an idea of what’s happening… maybe I’m just some sort of weird authoritarian where I like having power of people. -laughs-
Confusion and the subverting of expectations is still an experience in and of itself.
Well, experience is something we all [have] every day; me sitting here talking to you is an experience, me eating [a] banana is an experience, but as an artist, we have this obligation to make an experience that’s radically different from everyday life. [But] I’m really against this “superhero model” of art, where you make art to change someone’s life for their own good… there’s something very white man [about it], coming and explaining “this is how things [are], I made this art for you to change your life”. It can do that, but that shouldn’t be everyone’s aim, because you’ll be striving for the moon and landing pretty far from it. Just make nice things that you enjoy doing, and maybe other people will enjoy it, and that’s it.
“How the audience is expecting the concert environment to be, I always try and do something that subverts that, or goes against their expectations.” James McIlwrath, in conversation with PRXLUDESTweet
Let’s take things back to where you started. How did you get involved in doing what you do?
It’s a bit of a long story… -laughs- I, as a kid, really enjoyed playing video games, and didn’t enjoy doing anything else. At some point in my life, during my teenage years, I was like “what am I?”, what am I going to do with my life. I realised that the one thing that I maybe had on my [side] was that I could play and like music; I found the music world [was] really homeful and I liked it a lot, and I also found theatre and drama, and [saw] that as a home sort of place. I really liked them both, and felt like I was really good at them both.
When it came to picking a uni, I wanted to do both music and theatre somehow. I applied to do Music and Theatre at Manchester and got flat out rejected, because the interview was a terrible process… I was slightly scarred by that. So I decided that I would prefer to do music and have theatre on the side, as I thought music might be more rounded of a degree. I went to York, [which] had a good theatre society, and a really good music department, and I came thinking “I wanna be in a string quartet, and do amateur theatre on the side”. Slowly — but also very fast — I realised I was not actually very good at music… -laughs- Mostly because my discipline for practicing was terrible. I hated doing it and didn’t have any urge to do it, and then felt really bad about myself when I wasn’t very good. So then I decided to go and do theatre instead. I liked it a lot, but then I suffered quite badly eventually from really bad anxiety; with music, if you go wrong, somebody will [cue you] in, [with] theatre, someone forgets a line, it’s like…
The whole thing collapses. -laughs-
Yeah, that [was] very scary, I really didn’t like that much at all.
So I had a couple of bad experiences with that, and then I found composition, and I really liked composition. But the big catalyst point was with [a] new music ensemble in York which I was involved in. I was asked to play this piece by composer Neil Luck called ‘Thing’, which is [a piece] for hands, and that opened up this combination of music and theatre in a way that I’d never experienced before, which was deeply experimental, not “about” the music [and] not “about” the theatre… it was about the melding of the two, but it wasn’t [standard] music or theatre. I’ve been trying to write like that, I’ve realised I really like performing like that, so I’ve been experimenting with the combination of the two ever since.
What was it about ‘Thing’ that really affected you in such a way?
[It was] how visceral it was, and how much agency I had over something that I never thought would be a performance-based thing, a musical thing. It’s so strange, so weird, especially [to] someone who’s never experienced anything like it to be told “this is what you’ll be performing” and me being like “yeah, haha, okay…” and then having a sit-down conversation with the composer and realising this is genuinely quite serious. It’s not “I’m doing something wacky for the sake of wackiness”, there’s real intentions here, and the only way [I can] do that is with hands, a desk, and a bell. It [was] just really freeing.
Most of it was improvised, as well, which really opened [my eyes to] improvised music and performance; there’s no big mistakes if I move my hands this way, or if I perform is a little bit slower… it’s an organic performance. Just to have that imposed on you at the stage of “what am I doing with my interest in these two massive worlds” was just like… bang. -laughs-
What would you say goes through your head when you’re in the planning stages of preparing a piece?
Usually there’s a couple of questions; big question number one is “what do I want to do?”, and then the second question is “what can I do?” -laughs- Usually it starts with one little idea, something that I’ve been doing, or something that I wanna do… It could be something as broad as “I wanna try and expose a toxic culture in a place, how do I go about doing that?” And then I start trying to put things down and see what [happens], creating material, putting stuff together. When it comes to this weird music / theatre / performance stuff, you just [have] to physically make that material and then put it together, and hope it relates to the original idea.
And then sometimes I make stuff and don’t think about it at all. -laughs- I’ve been making a lot of videos over the last couple of weeks… I’ve been really interested in objects at the moment, moving objects around, applying some MIDI stuff to it, editing the video in such a way that certain weird things happen. I don’t know what those are, but I’m enjoying [them] a lot, [even] if it’s just “I like stock images, here I am talking to you about stock images for 5-10 minutes”. But things like “why am I doing this?” are really important questions, and I think they should me back more, because I keep ending up with this stuff that I don’t know how to use, where to put it.
I think there’s still merit in creating, even if you don’t have an original idea. You could always apply the question retroactively.
Yeah. I’ve definitely had that a couple of times, where it’s like, [there’s] a decision I need to make, and what is it a toss-up between… and then I go back to the original, how I came to get there, and it’s like “I think I’m doing this because of this reason, so this is the option I have to take”, rather than choosing arbitrarily.
Something I think we should be thinking a lot more about is how [things] are going to be documented and recorded. I’ve made so many bad videos of my work, that it’s hard to show people what [some of my] things are; that’s something I’ve been interested in, in general, “how does this exist at the end?” It shouldn’t be an afterthought, it should be part of the piece, especially if it’s something that you need other people to see or witness or experience, in some shape or form.
Tell me a bit about AMOK — I’d heard you started an experimental performance platform in York…
AMOK is a performance platform that I set up [in] the year between my undergraduate and my postgraduate. Originally, it was there to fill a void; I was in charge of [a] music ensemble called Chimera at York University, it took up such a big chunk of my interest that I wanted to fill the void with something else that was on more of a public scale, and something where I could program whatever the hell I wanted, [which] I could ask my friends to make stuff for, and maybe some money would be involved.
We did 6 events in our first year, and we haven’t done any since November  because of COVID. But it’s something we’ve been interested in doing; we like using different spaces, and working with spaces [we can] engage with. Our third [event] was above a pub in an old witches’ coven room in York — York, of course, is full of fantastic buildings and history — so we made that kind of folk-based; the format of it was [that] people came on, for this audience that were seated there, with beer in their hands and things. The first act was a piece called ‘The Incredible Vanishing Band’, which my friend Tom Sissons wrote, which was, again, subverting expectations; it was in this bespoke venue, we wrote a piece as if there was a folk band playing, but the band was invisible.
That sounds like a great time.
Yeah, we like doing things like that. -laughs- I have one more contractually obliged gig to do [with them] before the end of January, and it was supposed to be in this kitchen, in the basement of this really old mansion house in York, where the mayor lives, but COVID cancelled that. I commissioned Neil Luck to do something for that, and he’s put some things out to do with it; I’m excited to get that done, somehow, but it’s gonna be very different from how we imagined it. We could fit 30 people in the kitchen, originally… it’s not COVID-safe at all, really.
With everything that’s going on right now, what other plans do you have with AMOK?
We’re currently collaborating with Thinking/Not Thinking on the Don’t Mind Control series of events. Essentially, how the collaboration is working is that we’re both using our pool of resources to get people in [for] gigs; but currently, it’s hard to get people from York to come due to travel restrictions.
Something we had gotten called out for, after our first event, is that we had only programmed white males. We [did] blind auditions, and it’s not something that we took into consideration; we didn’t take gender and ethnicity [into account] at all, we just got a bunch of submissions from around the world. We got over 106 submissions from people around the world, however, only 13 of those were women; so at the time, I was like “this isn’t my fault, I’ve done it blind”, but I’ve realised — and matured a little — if you’re in control of what happens at these concerts, you have a responsibility to represent people, to program people who don’t normally get the chance. Every event since the second one has been a 50/50 gender split, at least, and that’s something we all should be doing a lot more, because we have a responsibility to do that — especially me, as a white man. I’d like to see more organisations step up and do better than that; I think 50/50 is a minimum.
Tell me about a performance you’re particularly proud of…
I won the Nonclassical Battle of the Bands last year. It was very scary, actually; it was just a concert, but to perform in a concert that was also a competition was particularly weird. There was still some camaraderie between performers, but there was this [undercurrent] of “who’s gonna win?” But it was great, I loved everyone who was there, and the performances were all stellar.
I performed a medley of stuff, I suppose, that was inspired by a tutor of [mine], Andy Ingamells, who had performed at it before. I basically performed pieces that I’d done before elsewhere, and put them into this new context that was a bit more weird. I performed ‘Thing’ by Neil Luck, as we talked about before; on a residency in France with Apartment House, I performed ‘Shuffle Piece’ by Alison Knowles, [in] which you come in and you shuffle, and you leave and you shuffle. There was [also] a piece called ‘Sisyphus at Work’ by a composer called Oogoo Maia — who I also met at that residency. So [I] was thrown into a very dark pub, and put them all on; it was very exciting and weird. So ‘Thing’ involves me wearing a bag on my head, so I put a bag on my head for the other pieces. All the lights were turned off, and the only things that lit the place up were the little tiny desk light, and torches that I had in my hand and in my mouth.
It was exhausting. The table was made out of metal — if you’ve never seen a performance of ‘Thing’, it’s very physically demanding on the table — which was sonically very interesting, but health and safety-wise, very tetanus shot-inducing. -laughs-
Damn; that sounds absolutely insane. Sounds like you deserved the win just suffering through all that…
Yeah. I had to leave before the winner was announced, so I was told that I had won on the phone, on the train… and I still have to pick up a bottle of champagne. That’s how it goes.
More of James’ work can be found at:
More information about AMOK can be found at:
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