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Proc Fiskal: Highland fantasy

The new album from Edinburgh’s Proc Fiskal merges grime and the folk music that stretches back through his family history for generations. He talks to DJ Mag about the strange cultural position of folk music today, his drive to tap into a “medieval sound” and his love for Enya and the Cocteau Twins

Growing up in the Pilton area of north Edinburgh, Proc Fiskal discovered Boards Of Canada through his father and grime through the internet. The former was his first fixation, the group that piqued his interest in electronic music, and the latter got him into making electronic music of his own. Through rough-shod uploads of Sidewinder sets, he remembers being able to feel the sound of 2000s London, albeit from afar.

“The internet was just personally very mind expanding for me... I was addicted to that bass and chased it into grime, Slimzee mixes with Jon E. Cash and Wiley’s bass,” he remembers. “That huge bass sound was the best to me when I was younger. It was powerful and aggressive and carried on the anger of all that grunge and punk I grew up with.”

During his teens, Proc Fiskal started making beats and reached out to fellow Scots Polonis and Rapture 4D, grime producers who were creating their own interpretation of the Ruff Sound pioneered by Novelist, on Glasgow’s LVLZ radio; the station was a hub for the small but devoted scene at the time. 

His first album, ‘Insula’, was released by Hyperdub in 2018. It’s a refreshing take on instrumental grime imbued with a distinctive Scottish aesthetic, as vocal samples and snippets of phone calls and media broadcasts rumble out in low, accented lilts. Last April, he released ‘Lothian Buses’, which bolsters the early 8-bit sonic palette with post-dubstep synth lines (on ‘Baguettes’) and sparkling, almost junglist percussive elements (on ‘Mullit Madollock’) while maintaining that roughshod grime energy.

This September, Proc Fiskal released ‘Siren Spine Sysex’, his second album for Hyperdub. It’s a unique juxtaposition, unmoored from convention yet engaged with genre tropes. Over 14 exquisitely strange tracks, the producer links two seemingly incongruous styles of British music — grime and folk. 

In many respects, Hyperdub is the ideal home for this. The sound of ‘Siren Spine Sysex’ taps into the label’s long-running interest in experimental grime music, and particularly with sinogrime: the sub-genre based around Jammer and Wiley’s sampling of East Asian musical motifs and instrumentation, and pulled through in Kode9’s own sinogrime mixes throughout the 2000s.

For Proc Fiskal, the source material is not East Asian woodwind and strings, but Gaelic, Irish and British folk music, with vocals borrowing heavily from ’80s experimental crossover folk-pop music like The Cocteau Twins, Enya and Kate Bush. “I wanted the name to sound like a pagan incantation,” he says of his choice of album title. “I thought it looked spiky, like a Celtic tattoo, and everyone enjoys alliteration.”

"Folk is a pretty flimsy term. In my head, it just means the music of the people, but it’s been hijacked to mean music of the past, which is definitely a Tory psyop.”

A historical connection to folk music adds a personal touch: his paternal grandfather, Archie Fisher, was a seminal figure and steel-string player in the genre’s ’60s revival, and has written, performed and programmed folk music for British festivals and radio for decades. “I was becoming more aware of my families’ participation in that thing through my dad’s side, and just thought initially it would be funny and the dumb-logical thing for me to do a folk album and link it to my family history,” he says. 

It runs deep in the family, too. Joe’s maternal grandfather, Al Fraser, was a bagpipe player, and his great-aunt was a singer in the children’s folk group The Singing Kettle. “Folk music and that tradition is everywhere in Britain, but it comes up at funerals and weddings mainly, which is odd,” he says, of its contemporary reputation. “Like bagpipes and fiddles at wakes, and Dubliners songs at cremations.” 

In working with these elements, Proc Fiskal taps into a strange feeling about what it means to be Scottish: Caledonian Antisyzygy. An aesthetic concept first fleshed out by the writer G. Gregory Smith, Caledonian Antisyzygy describes a fascination at the heart of the Scottish psyche, a sort of union of opposites that comes from living with different political (Republican and Unionist), cultural (an underdog status, or masochistic pride in failure), geographical (natural wealth and material poverty, across Highlands, Islands and Lowlands) and even religious (Catholic and Protestant) realities. 

Though a knotty idea, going across literature, art, cinema and other cultural formats, Caledonian Antisyzygy suggests that Scots innately contain duelling identities, and draw from this ever-shifting blend of national malaise, curiosity, pride and adventurousness to examine the inner self. There’s arguably something of this in ‘Siren Spine Sysex’: a folklore kind of Scottishness teased out and re-presented in conflicting ways, creating a musical identity by engaging with apparent sonic extremities. At times, the music is self-deprecating and darkly humorous, even up to the point of droll piss-takery, but at other times it’s utterly sincere, working to reclaim (perhaps long-dismissed) folk music elements as beautiful and worthy. 

Much of this is seen in the sampling. In describing his thought processes, Proc Fiskal mentions an obsession with “weird Scottish medievalism” and Highland fantasies that feed into a romanticised ideal of his home country. From this, he had an idea to create “a Medieval sound” that could work with his interest in Gaelic folk and “the dreamy feminine presence” of the aforementioned Enya, Kate Bush and The Cocteau Twins. Anachronistic vocals and folk instrumentations are chopped up and spliced together with futuristic glitch, FM synthesisers and warping drill basslines. 

“I really wanted that feminine presence in my music and didn’t want to do the R&B Aaliyah classic one-shot sample pack thing, and I realised that there is a huge body of Gaelic acapella music sitting there online, untouched,” Proc Fiskal tells us. It’s most prominent on ‘Leith Torn Carnal’ and ‘8 Mgapixel See Thru Phone’, where cathartic harmonies echo dream-pop and the vocals of Elizabeth Fraser. Elsewhere, on ‘Anti Chessst’, flutes and otherworldly vocals combine with a synthetic texture, recalling the Celtic sensibilities of 16-bit video game soundtracks.

Proc Fiskal has conflicted feelings about the term ‘folk music’. “It feels beautiful, mysterious and simultaneously hilariously stupid,” he admits, “because folk music as a tradition is basically a constructed justification for nationalism in some ways. Folk is a pretty flimsy term. In my head, it just means the music of the people, but it’s been hijacked to mean music of the past, which is definitely a Tory psyop.” 

Hauntological references, scattered throughout the album, toy with the potential of falling into these traps. ‘Recall [Throate Achres]’ ends with a rendition of ‘Lonely Scapa Flow’, a cornerstone of the folk canon, being interrupted by a voice telling the listener that “this is party central”, hinting at polarising stereotypes of Scottishness. On ‘The Most Beautiful Irish Song’, a satirical commentary on the commodification of Scotland is given through the muffled strains of tourism advertisement scripts.

The link between folk and electronic music has been explored before, of course. Early UK hardcore tracks often sampled folkloric vocals — there’s DJ Seduction’s classic ‘Sub Dub’, among myriad others — and Cornish mythology often rears its head in Aphex Twin’s work.  

How can that link be brought through to the present? Is grime folk music, too? “I guess electronic dance music is the people’s music of the late 20th century. In fact, every kind of music is folk music, because the internet has flattened everything and everyone can do anything... that said, corporate-owned institutions and the industrial-club-complex are not folk music,” he ends, dryly.