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Tom Middleton: cosmic communication

 

A decade in the making, Tom Middleton’s new LP as GCOM, ’E2-XO’, on !K7 boasts themes of space exploration, alien communication and utopian “super-habitable” exoplanets. Ben Murphy meets the self-confessed sci-fi nerd to talk aliens, Aphex Twin, and more

“I’ve always been a star gazer, a total sci-fi nerd — always interested in what’s up there,” says Tom Middleton, reflecting on the galactic inspiration for his new album. “Growing up in Cornwall, we had very little light pollution, so you could actually see the Milky Way. That’s quite mesmerising if you’ve never seen it before. Watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series with the Vangelis theme tune, I was in.”

Middleton’s new album as GCOM, ‘E2-XO’, released via !K7 Records, finds him training his eyes and ears on the heavens. Ten years in the making, it’s an epic audio expedition into deepest space, spanning 20 tracks and a universe of different musical styles. For the man who first made his name as half of the duo Global Communication, working alongside Mark Pritchard to create celestial classics like 1994’s ’76:14’ — and whose Cosmos alias yielded house hits like ‘Summer In Space’ — ‘E2-XO’ is a nod to the science fiction (and fact) that has captivated him since his youth.

“Sci-fi informs a lot of my stuff,” he says. “As you’ve probably noticed over the years, with the word cosmos and global, it’s outward facing, and always has been.”

Today, DJ Mag is talking to Middleton over Zoom, and appropriately enough, he’s wearing a NASA baseball cap, which sits over a face wreathed in a genial grin and that unmistakable beard. As an interviewee, he’s cordial and funny, but also answers our questions with a great deal of thought and articulacy. ‘E2-XO’ is about humanity’s search for life and other inhabitable worlds, and though it’s been in the works for a decade, its release now feels especially pertinent. 

Once the preserve of Star Trek and more recently films like Interstellar, the quest to find liveable exoplanets — worlds outside our solar system with the right conditions, such as oxygen, light and water, to accommodate life — has increasingly become the stuff of reality. Not only have space telescopes become more advanced in this search, identifying specific planets that could have the right conditions, but businessmen like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos have launched space tourism projects and boasted of their interplanetary ambitions. 

“You’ve got Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, even Richard Branson, they’re trying to go off-world,” says Middleton. “It’s a competition to get out there, the billionaires want to escape what’s happening here.”

GCOM’s ‘E2-XO’ takes a more hopeful view on space exploration, with themes of alien communication, advanced technology and utopian “super-habitable” exoplanets. The futuristic artwork is created by Aphex Twin logo designer Paul Nicholson, while an accompanying short story, written by Dr Lucy Rhoades (who also penned Global Communication’s 1994 manifesto), charts the journey of M-RAI exoplanet probe cubes and the LONO Ark Starship, a city-sized craft ferrying sleeping humans to the ideal new home world, Teegarden B. According to Middleton, these miniature probe robots, built for scoping out habitable environments, already exist, while Teegarden B, 12 light years away, has recently been earmarked as having the right conditions for life to thrive.

“I love it! Even the name, the guy who discovered it was Mr Teegarden,” says Middleton. “It just sounds like a utopia anyway. There’s a list of which exoplanets are similar to Earth, and Teegarden is the closest. There’s speculation on whether it’s too hot or too cold, probably a bit too cold. They’re guessing it could be around 20 degrees, but that seems pretty good!”

The sound palette bears similarities to Tom Middleton’s previous Global Communication and Reload records in the lush ambient ornamentation and detailed synth-scapes, but on a grander, more cosmic canvas. The new artist name GCOM stands for Galactic Communication, which Middleton evokes with a soundtrack artist’s sense of scale. The opener ‘Noctis Ultimus (Epic Mix)’ feels like being on the flight deck of a gigantic craft, looking down on some wondrous terrain. With its live cello, strings and sweeping synth pads, it’s like something composer Jóhann Jóhannsson might have written: an awesome sci-fi score. On the flip side there are surprises, like the two-step garage skip, deep bass, flute trills and spacious aquamarine melodies of ‘Ocean Dreams’, or the post-dubstep rhythms, detuned tones and square wave sub of ‘XO 2 (Kapteyn b)’, which opens out into something truly awe-inspiring. 

“It’s Hans Zimmer meets Burial,” Middleton says, summing up the record’s blend of filmic storytelling and a grounding in UK rhythms.

“I wanted to articulate some things that were recognisable in a context that actually took you somewhere, using this language that we’re semi-familiar with. Having been one of the heads down at FWD>> at Plastic People, I’ve loved that experimental, syncopated, bass-led scene for a long time.”

Other tracks on the record found Middleton stretching the found sound techniques he’d first employed on ’76:14’ to their limits, in the hope of communicating that mixture of the familiar and strange that stepping onto an alien rock might evoke. ‘The Last Rains (V Mix)’, ‘Anthropocene’ and ‘Ocean Dreams’ were collaborations with a flautist, who Middleton sampled extensively, transforming the tones into pads, bass, melodies and even drums.

“The only sound source is a flute, nothing else,” he says. “Those three tracks were a collaboration with Japanese flautist Eliko. We sampled the flute, the case from the flute, blowing down it, creating tones. Every thing in those tracks is created from that. Rewind to my formative days with Aphex Twin, banging things in garages and making beats out of that, and then discovering Matthew Herbert, and you can see where the found sound mentality and philosophy is an interesting one. As a starting point, making alien music with a flute, where do you go with it?”

The album’s strangest, most extreme moment is second track ‘XO Transmission #1’. Full of warping and reflecting glitches, speedy metallic effects and scuttling rhythms, it sounds like the unintelligible speech of some advanced deep space being — what it might actually be like trying to talk with an alien.

“How would an alien try to communicate back to us?” Middleton says. “Picked up through the radiowaves that are right now being broadcast out there, what if they heard that and thought, ‘Oh that’s interesting, is that how people speak? Let’s see if I can communicate back’. But they miss points, maybe they don’t groove in the same way we do. It’s this whole idea of —  how would other species that are non-human articulate using something familiar yet still otherworldly?”

‘XO Transmission #1’ is a collaboration with the late avant-garde electronic artist Qebrus (Thomas Denis), a musician that Middleton much admired for his unmatched take on off-world electronics, and the imaginative backstory of his music. The two worked together several times, before Qebrus sadly died in 2018. 

“His work, if you’re not familiar with it, he’s the only artist I’ve come across who has been able to articulate this kind of sonic alien language,” Middleton says. “I had to reach out and collaborate. Weirdly, at the same time, I reconnected with the Aphex Twin. Richard [D James] and I agreed that we hadn’t heard anything like this. All Qebrus’s work was around exoplanets and aliens. He came up with this name for a planet that he came from, called Egnamis. We got to a point where we started collaborating online, trying to get him over to England to come and meet Richard, but it never happened.

“There’s a few more bits and pieces we worked on,” he continues, “but I’m just trying to make sure that his family are ok with me getting it out there. I want to help tell the world about the incredible content he was making. Hopefully this is the starting point for that.”

With its Dr Lucy Rhoades narrative and sci-fi theme, ‘E2-XO’ is in some ways reminiscent of 1993’s ‘A Collection Of Short Stories’ album, recorded by Tom Middleton and Mark Pritchard as Reload. Predating Global Communication’s ambient game changer, it featured six works of fiction by Dominic Fripp, and samples from various classic sci-fi movies were woven into its soundscapes. Though the new album has a fantastical concept behind it, it’s also about how we treat our own world in light of the climate emergency — how we might see Earth anew after experiencing other exoplanets, and how we might do things differently if we got another chance.

“Considering the global awareness to what’s going on and everything that’s happened over the summer, it’s never been more relevant, and it’s time to talk about this in a broader context,” Middleton says. “This album isn’t designed to be a climate awareness activist statement, but I think it’s important that part of the message includes this care more, waste less story, because we have to pass that down to the next generation so that they are mindful of this stuff.”

Tom Middleton spent his childhood in Cornwall surrounded by music. Many of his family members played instruments, and he learned the cello. Concurrently, he became fascinated with the electronic records in his dad’s collection, especially 1970s trailblazer Isao Tomita’s ‘Snowflakes Are Dancing’. Diving into the contemporary styles of the late ’80s, from hip-hop to indie rock, in 1990 his world changed when he met Richard D James, aka Aphex Twin, in a local pub. 

“He was playing tapes of his music at the Bowgie Inn in Crantock, Cornwall,” Middleton remembers. “Obviously that was the moment my mind was blown by hearing sounds that I’d never heard before. I’d started to hear techno and Chicago house, the New York sound, Belgian hardcore, but I’d never heard anyone bring in a bit of hip-hop or proto jungle, breakbeat samples. Julie Andrews samples! Flange effects in a club, messing with people’s heads. 

“We were born on the same day, same year, and we started hanging out,” Tom continues. “You’ve seen his career, what a character he is, so we instantly gelled. It was a time of Vic Reeves on TV, and we had the same sense of humour. He’d start a sentence and I’d finish it, and vice versa. It was a total mind meld on life, philosophy, music.”

When Middleton wanted to make his first record, he enlisted James. The tune ‘En Trance To Exit’, which featured on the first Aphex Twin ‘Analogue Bubblebath’ EP, was a melange of samples brought in by Middleton, which James then helped to arrange and produce.

“On the first record, I went under the name Schizophrenia,” Middleton says. “It was a live arrangement in the studio, recorded to tape, and we did a few passes of it. Being an orchestral cellist, I brought in the biggest orchestral stab possible. You remember T99, ‘Anastasia’? I brought that massive kind of chord. I made this track that had this absolutely relentless breakbeat mashup. It was a mess, relatively speaking, but as your first experiment, you throw everything at it. We took that demo tape to Mighty Force Records in Exeter, and they loved it, and said we should put this out. I’m so grateful for that meeting, and being able to learn the ropes from him in his studio. Creative sampling, the power and science of sound and frequency. It opened my eyes and ears to that, and at that point, I didn’t even realise.”

Since, Middleton has generated a huge catalogue of electronic music, working extensively with Mark Pritchard to make the mellow techno of Global Communication and Reload, the electro-funk of Jedi Knights, and ambient drum & bass as Chameleon. Solo, he’s made progressive house as The Mod Wheel and Cosmos, and created the ambient audio-visual project Amba. 

Of all his projects, Global Communication’s ’76:14’ remains the most famous, recently reissued in lavish form by Warp and seemingly more popular than it’s ever been, chiming with today’s looser approach to genre, and emphasis on melody, in electronic music.

“What’s lovely is this revaluation of ’90s music, and people seeking more than just a beat,” he says. “They want more layers to it. How you can deconstruct a piece of music into rhythm, melody and harmony, and emotion and intention. People are seeking something they can feel, and there’s a certain point where, don’t get me wrong, I love a beat and a bassline, there’s nothing better, but I think we crave a bit more now.”

Beyond his new GCOM album, Middleton is keeping very busy with multiple functional music projects. He’s a registered sleep coach, and works extensively with wellness app Calm on ambient pieces to help people fall asleep or soothe their anxiety. It’s an increasingly popular platform used by millions, and he’s currently studying neuroscience and the psychology of music at Goldsmiths university, learning new ways to help others with the power of sound.

He’s worked on a VR programme for XR Health, to enable breast cancer patients to cool down from hot flashes via cold-sounding tones and virtual environments, and designed beats for Silentmode, a blackout mask that works in conjunction with breath work to help with mood regulation. For Middleton, these functional applications represent the future of music, something many are only just waking up to. 

“Music has changed, it’s no longer just for entertainment,” he says. “If you consider that the music industry is worth 22 billion, but the wellness sector is worth 3.4 trillion, with apps like Calm and Headspace, there’s a need for content, music, voiceovers and audiobooks that deliver a bit more.

“Mindfulness and mental health are no longer woo-woo. We’re all talking about it. If our community can realise music’s power to heal, to help, to be useful, functional music is a new revenue stream. For human problems on every level, you can think of any sector you like, functional music has value, and that’s why I’m quite outspoken at the moment as an ambassador for it.”

He has some other big new functional music projects along these lines that he’s not able to talk about yet, but notes that he’s busier than ever, and hopes that he can inspire others to make sounds for a similar purpose.

“It’s happened in the last year-and-a-half,” Middleton says. “During lockdown, the phone has not stopped ringing. People have suddenly realised that wellness and taking care of yourself are important. With our health being decimated, what can we do to support one another? Now there are apps that help you with this, it’s amazing. It’s a golden opportunity to inspire the next generation.”

Meanwhile, with GCOM, he’s still looking to the cosmos, while thinking of new horizons and possible futures here and now. “Hopefully this album hits people with a bit of impact and makes them think a bit about our planet, the decisions they make in how they consume,” he says. “I think the broader conversation is about responsibility, it’s about this term that I really love — planetary stewardship. We need to care more and waste less.”

Ben Murphy is a freelance journalist. Follow him on Twitter @benlukemurphy