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Copper Sounds (CS) are Bristol-based artists Isaac Stacey and Sonny Lee Lightfoot. They take the long tradition of art graduates turning to music to a new level, extracting sounds from their ceramic and prepared copper plate creations, usually via modified turntables. Icelandic rocks, chalk, bicycle wheels, springs and a massive “electronic gong” of their own invention have all been utilised for their conjuring of a deep, earthy, rumbling music. Interview by Nicholas Bannerman.
Before really knowing one another, Isaac and Sonny were independently exploring artistic processes that had lots in common. Isaac was doing an internship at the print centre at Bower Ashton (UWE), regularly teaching students about copper etching.
“I was always interested in the printing plate as opposed to the actual print – I was trying to think of ways you could use the copper instead of just getting a couple of prints from it and chucking it away, which seemed quite wasteful. I was DJing a bit, and wondered what it would sound like if I put them on a record player. I started etching spirals and marks across, and learnt if I made them really deep it sounded like a bass drum.”
Sonny was also working at Bower Ashton, as a technician in 3D printed ceramics. “I was mould-making and really into reproducing objects and how things change as you reproduce them – this included making moulds of records.”
Inevitably their paths crossed and they quickly picked up on the similarities of what they were doing. “We began by joking about starting a record label – releasing records on weird materials” Sonny tells me. “It’s two traditional crafts, my ceramics and Isaac’s print making with copper, but because we’d both studied Fine Art, we were trying to do it a bit differently. With the sound element, it all gelled together.” CS only began seriously experimenting with sound making after Isaac had an application accepted to perform as a duo at ‘Sanctum’, a temporary structure in Bristol by American artist Theaster Gates.
They began practising in Loft 6D, an artist’s studio space Sonny had helped to set up. Sonny cheerfully tells me “everyone in there hated it, because at the start it sounded pretty rough.” Isaac adds “it sounded like being locked in the boot of a car, but there were moments where you could hear the potential in it.” Since these initial torturous sonic flights, the boundless development of CS has been remarkable.
Early sets were long, with one lasting five hours at the Arnolfini. The sound would often go unchanged for minutes at a time; the visual spectacle of the various, unlikely materials spinning on four turntables was as much a part of a performance as the never-ending scraps, crackles and thuds. Isaac tells me “we soon thought, ‘what’s the point in just boring people with it?’ You want to leave people wanting more, rather than thinking “oh god, I want to leave now.”” As the sets became much shorter, the music quickly became a lot more focused and dense.
Not long after forming, CS began producing a regular show for Noods Radio. They’ve also used the show as an opportunity to collaborate with others. Sessions with Graham Dunning, Memotone, Bristol Experimental & Expanded Film (BEEF) collective members Howard B Triangle and Matt Davis, are all still available online at time of writing.
This year has seen CS take their collaborations with other artists to the stage – working with both EP/64 and Coims (to form ‘Copper Coims’) on a number of occasions. The difference between the two collaborations is startling: as Isaac puts it, “EP/64 is banging and the Coims stuff is dark and spacey” – a versatility that would have been difficult to imagine during their early sets. “It’s reassuring to have other people that I consider musicians to ask us if we want to collaborate with them – that’s a big compliment!” adds Sonny.
Playing pots like bells
In February 2019 CS completed their first and only tour to date, supporting a collaboration between musician Beatrice Dillon and artist Keith Harrison for eight dates on the ‘Ecstatic Material’ tour, produced by Outlands. Playing every night did wonders for CS. “Before the tour, we always said CS was this wild, feral beast – we’ve always been trying tame it and then through the tour, we thought ‘maybe we have now’ – we definitely feel more in control” says Sonny. Isaac adds “it’s an intense situation and we were really going for it, by the end it just felt so easy and natural.”
During the tour, Sonny and Isaac began discussing new paths they could explore. They had made two new large pots for the tour, and these helped to inspire the duo’s next project. “We’ve just received a bit of funding from Help Musicians UK. Normally we’ve always applied for art funding things, but this time we’ve applied as musicians to collaborate with other artists. So we’ll be working with another ceramist to make even bigger pots – the idea is to play the pots like bells with beaters, and these will be electronically sequenced and controlled live”, tells Sonny.
“We’re not done with turntables, we just want to do something else” says Isaac. “We’ve been doing it for four years, [including] a few variations and standalone sculptures. We just don’t want to be pigeonholed as the turntable guys!” says Sonny. One of these kinetic sculptures was ‘More Rock Music’, which generated sound from three rotating rocks, installed at 2018’s edition of Fort Process, a one-day event at Newhaven Fort.
Artist and BEEF collective member Kathy Hinde was another with work at Fort Process in 2018, and someone who has supported CS in recent years, gifting them an enormous stand, originally designed to suspend a piano, for their electronic gong. “We know her through the Brunswick Club, she is a mate who we have talked to a lot and is someone who has really helped us out – we obviously really admire what she does” says Sonny.
Hearing this adds to the sense of a staggering crossover and support between artists of all generations with backgrounds in film, art or music in Bristol – thanks to the former, collectively run arts space The Brunswick Club, BEEF, Noods Radio and the Cube Cinema. Bristol really seems to be experiencing a notable flourishing of all things experimental, and Copper Sounds are a fine group to emerge from this.
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