“Making Lightning Strike”
A Conversation with Wuh Oh
words by maria sledmere
In the past year, Glasgow-producer Wuh Oh, aka Peter Ferguson, has gone from strength to strength, from releasing “Wolverines” (a single which struck fire online), to appearing on Vic Galloway’s BBC Radio Scotland show, supporting DJ Shadow and headlining a sell-out night at Glasgow’s Poetry Club. Riding high on the back of “Wolverines”, a slickly trippy swing through celestial climes of warm bass, hypnotic rhythms, resonant lisps of cymbals and keyboard clicks, he’s recently released a new single, “Hairstyle”, via Ryan Hemsworth’s prestigious Secret Songs outlet.
Wuh Oh’s songs accomplish a lot in their typical two to four minute span, effervescing with a range of musical influences from vintage video-game soundtracks to jazz, pop, trip-hop, funk and modernist avant-garde oddities. Eccentric time signatures, surprise samples and catchy hooks all combine in tracks which constantly veer towards the edge even as they cohere in strange, otherworldly ways.
Such musical acrobatics never come across as cheap tricks, but rather bear an oxymoronic hallucinatory clarity that modulates through complex energies and moods on a rollercoaster of tempo shifts, loops and scaling octaves. Synths, sweet and weird, feature heavily throughout, but Wuh Oh isn’t afraid to structure whole songs around the old-fashioned seduction of a good piano riff, as on “Stay Tuned”. This is music that matches the saturated colours of its artwork, poised on the brink of techno euphoria while sweeping listeners away to a whirling world of play.
“Hairstyle” is a fine example of Wuh Oh’s knack for an ear-worm soaked in neon, structured around toxically addictive, jarring arabesques of piano and intricate drum loops, woven through with snappy, idiosyncratic samples. Trance-like interludes provide pause for breath and then collapse back into the syncopated trajectories that loop round and round again, sailing through octaves and dragging us along for the ride with exhilarating wisps of disco and a glitteringly polished production.
Getting into the song’s momentum is a bit like doing the loop-the-loops on old-school Sonic the Hedgehog, then finding the whole zone’s pixels dissipate, resolving into new layers which flicker with hidden colouring beneath. If you don’t hold on tight, give yourself up to the song’s velocity, you might find yourself lost in its structure’s splintering pieces.
It’s a track that demands re-listening; an ear-worm in the proper sense of a sound that burrows into your brain, but also buries into itself, excavating complex sluices of melody beneath the surface, messing with its own source code and devouring riff after modulating riff like a demented ouroboros, or the Nokia snake eating its own tail. It’s this combination of wholeness and fragmentation, between glossy pop veneer and technical expertise, that makes “Hairstyle” a standout, genre-bending curve-ball. Despite his classical abilities as a multi-instrumentalist, it’s Wuh Oh’s commitment to the randomness of discovery, the celebrated innocence of playing around until things sound right, that earns the magic seal on such tracks.
Keen to find out more about the intricate alchemy of Wuh Oh’s process, I caught up with the Glasgow producer over a bottle of wine and quizzed him on his approach to composition, influence, release cycles, collaboration and plans for the future.
You’ve said your name, Wuh Oh, ‘represents the magic that comes from the happy accidents, the music that I could never intentionally create’. Is good music always an accident? How do you synthesise the unexpected, more fragmented moments into a complete, very much “assembled” piece?
I’ve been writing music since I was maybe eleven or twelve, so I’m so accustomed to every single chord progression that I’ve used over the years, or like different kinds of melodic tics that I have. So I guess the only way for me to create something that sounds new for me is to accidentally create something that hasn’t come entirely from my imagination. It needs to have an element of chance involved, like some kind of fuck-up with my software; or, if I attempt to record something that I’ve had in mind and mess it up, then I might find something that creates a spark, that I can then work from. I’m so bored of myself at this point, that the only music that I want to make, that I enjoy to make and feel proud of tends to come from an idea that feels like it had not existed within me before. It’s that kind of thing. So yeah, all the music that I’m proud of, that
I’m making now, comes from some kind of an accident, a freak incident where I’ve messed up and all of a sudden there’s something entirely new that feels alien to me that I can then work with and start to use my compositional powers or whatever to sculpt that. I like when I have an idea that’s fresh that I can then turn into something that’s more ‘me’. That’s where the ‘me’ comes into it, when I hone it down into the final thing.
What gets lost in the process?
All of the material that I throw away, because it’s too ‘me’ almost, too obvious to me. I lose everything that is 100% ‘me’ from the get-go, in searching for something’s that not. It’s discovery I guess, trying to find new things.
You’ve mentioned ‘sincerity of feeling’ as something that’s important to you, perhaps as much as getting right the technical aspects of a song. How do you know when you’ve struck genuine emotional gold? Is there a magic synthesis of chords that happens (kind of like Robert Smith thinking he’d inadvertently nicked the chord progression of ‘Friday I’m In Love’ because it sounded so good) or is just the happy accident of a certain feeling?
It starts with the happy accident, I guess it’s like falling in love with something that you’ve made is kind of like any kind of relationship you would have with anything else, like a person or whatever. You can’t fake it or force it, you just know. You just know when it’s happening and it’s an experience as opposed to a considered process. When I hit upon something that I really like, it’s kind of a gut feeling. I guess that’s why it can take such a long time to write stuff that I’m happy with. When it happens it happens; that’s kind of it. When it happens, it’s right, but 99% of the time it’s not and it’s just a case of waiting and making sure that I’m trying to put myself into a situation that gives me the greatest chance of this lightning striking. I can’t make the lightning strike; all I can do is prepare my environment as much as I can to enable that chance to happen.
So do you feel that this changes the way you see a song itself, because it feels like something supernatural has intervened to make it happen?
Yeah, it makes it really difficult moving forward, because I feel I haven’t necessarily ‘learned’ anything from the process other than I trust my instincts when it’s working. All I can do is keep going until it works. It means a lot of the time I have a sense of disconnection between myself and everything that I’ve written that I’m proud of, because it doesn’t feel like it was me who wrote it, it feels like a past version of myself. People will compliment me for a song and I don’t feel I can take credit for it, because I don’t feel like it was me who wrote it, it was myself in that moment. It makes it difficult, because I never get that confidence that I’m capable of doing this thing—writing music professionally—but I can still believe that I can get it right again.
As a graduate of music at the University of Glasgow, you must be pretty well-versed in theory and a lot of classical music. How has this academic, multi-instrumentalist background shaped your current approach to composition and producing?
A lot of the time I wish that I didn’t know so much about music, the academic side of stuff, because a lot of the ideas that I strike upon by accident, they might come from playing a chord or sequence that I’ve not heard, or some kind of rhythmic pattern that I didn’t think was possible. That comes less and less the more I learn about music. It’s tough, I used to be more prolific in writing music because I was discovering something new each time that I’d go to sit down and write. Now it’s becoming harder and harder to unearth the fresh new things that I’m unfamiliar with. So learning all the theory has given me the know-how to finish the ideas I hit upon, but this ability has taken away a bit from the sense of discovery. Sometimes I’m sad that I know maybe too much.
Do you find this awareness makes you more clinical about your songwriting? Do you find that you take a more technical approach or can songwriting still be emotionally cathartic?
It’s nice to try to challenge myself with different ideas for songs that maybe I wouldn’t be so open to had I not had this background. Stuff like experimenting with different time signatures. I’m really excited by songs that manage to take complex compositional ideas and utilise them in such a way that it’s accessible and exciting and emotional for people who have a more limited understanding of the music itself.
We’ve spoken before about how living in Glasgow, especially the West End, often feels like striving for that dream of a leafy musical utopia—something we can probably blame the likes of Belle & Sebastian for! What possibilities does the city still represent for you?
It’s difficult to say because Glasgow’s the place where I started my musical career as it is now, so I don’t have any experience of any other cities. It’s definitely provided a really great kind of framework for bands and artists if they have good music to prove themselves with. It’s still possible to become a big fish in a relatively small pond, so the exciting thing about Glasgow is that it’s such a culturally vibrant sort of city, but it’s not so big that you become lost in it. I’m never afraid of becoming a drop in the water. I’ve considered moving to London, but put off for that same reason—I’m afraid of disappearing there. In Glasgow, I feel like I can hold my own. Obviously Glasgow has a good international reputation for being a great place for music, so it’s inspiring in that sense, to feel like I’m a continuation of this amazing lineage. It makes me proud to to represent the city in that respect.
What other local artists excite you the most right now?
I’d like to think that for the rest of my career I’m always going to be championing Arm Watches Fingers, who’s a really close friend of mine. We wrote music together for a long time then we parted ways, and since then we’ve both been writing far more interesting music than we’d ever written together, though both supporting each other fully all the way. Arm Watches Fingers is the producer that I work most closely with, whether it be on my music or his, or in a collaborative sense. For that reason he’s the artist that I feel most challenged by creatively, and I just think it’s great to have somebody like that—somebody you’ve kind of grown up writing music with. There are a lot of similarities between what we do even though the music itself is pretty different. Whenever he shows me a song that he’s been working on, and it’s a song I’m jealous of, that’s like the greatest encouragement I could ask for to go back home and try make something better. I steal ideas from him all the time and hopefully he takes something from what I’m doing as well. His music’s crazy, but he started simplifying it a little bit. I hope I’ve had some kind of an influence on his decision to streamline his stuff.
The other person is Sega Bodega, he’s another person who’s been friends with me and Alex [Arm Watches Fingers] for a long time. I was a massive fan when I first met him at Alex’s flat and was so anxious to meet him because I loved his music. The first thing he did was hug me; I never had a hug from somebody I’d never met before like this and it made me feel so welcome and worthy. And this was from somebody I was in awe of at the time, so ever since then I’ve just vowed to always champion him. He’s also responsible for getting me in touch with Ryan Hemsworth and has done a lot of great things for my career. He’s a great guy and his music’s phenomenal, combining all this sound design stuff and like nineties trance sounds.
I gather you were into making chiptune as a younger musician. Is that a whole different life for you now, or does that particular genre still inspire your current process? What drew you to it?
My music writing process is still really similar, I just use a different palette of sounds now. The thing I liked about chiptune at the time was the limitations it brought about, which would push me to try to go deeper compositionally. When you only have a square wave, or a sawtooth wave and a noise wave to work with, you only have three or four different sounds, these 8-bit sounds to work with, so it forces you to think okay, what can I do musically with these compositionally and harmonically, as opposed to writing a piece of music and searching endlessly for the appropriate sounds to use for that music—should I use a cello, a distorted guitar, and so on.
It was really great for that and I like that approach and I miss that approach, because I find it really useful to have limitations like that. Aside from that I guess sometimes the chiptune sound might come up in my music still, but that’s only because of the amount of old console soundtracks I used to listen to! It has a very nice nostalgic quality, it’s really easy to make music once you have identified the sound that you’re trying to tap into. Like if you’re into an eighties ballad, you can start to align more to that style to give you some bearings, and then start to deconstruct it a bit at the same time.
Like what vapourwave is doing, for example?
Yeah, something a bit like that.
One of the real selling points of your music is its strong basis in melodies—at times quirky, energetic, eccentric or just plain feel good. Where do your melodies come from? Is it a case of tinkering around with chords or do you just start humming a tune?
Mostly my melodies come from ideas that I’ve had stowed away in my brain for years. I can write so many melodies a day but there’s only so many I trust after a long enough period of time. If I’m still humming a melody that I wrote six months or five years ago, I’ll be able to then talk myself around to using it in a piece. By this point I have such faith in it that I’m willing to go all the way with it. It’s got to have longevity. So I guess melody + time = a useable melody.
Your live shows seem to strike that perfect balance by drawing a crowd of more intellectually interested people (recalling that slightly awkward term, ‘Intelligent Dance Music’) but also those who just want a good dance. What do you want most out of a live show?
For the most part, I feel like if I come to the end of a show and I feel an energy in myself that I hadn’t before the show began, then I can trust for the most part that I’ve done the same for the audience. That’s all I can go on: the feeling that I have, because it’s quite difficult to see the audience when I’m looking at the keyboard or whatever. At the end it just comes down to an energy thing, like Kurt Cobain said that you just send out some vibes and the audience send vibes back and you just play catch with some vibes for a while. It feels like that to me: I just send out whatever energy I have, and if I feel it being sent back to me, then that’s a success in itself.
You’ve played in bands before and currently play guitar for Apache Sun (a groove/psychedelic band based in Glasgow). Although most of your work as Wuh Oh is a solitary process, how does collaboration more generally shape the outcome of a song? Do you find it difficult to share rough drafts?
The great thing about writing music with other people is that when you’re collaborating, it’s embarrassing to give up and go to bed instead, which is what I often do when I write music by myself! When you’re writing music with other people there’s a determination to create something new and enjoyable for not just your own sake but the sake of the band that you’re working with. So it’s useful in that practical sense – you’re determined to create something new because you have somebody else to check on you. Also, my favourite collaborators are like variation machines, in that you’ll send them an idea, they’ll take the idea and change it, returning this variation to you. This back-and-forward process of creating an idea can be really constructive, but the same doesn’t tend to happen when you make music by yourself.
How does your listening process affect your writing process? Do you go through musical ‘phases’: do you often get hooked on particular songs or albums, or are you the kind of person that skims the web and devours everything?
I have a really unhealthy way of listening to music. For the last few years I’ve just been listening to only a couple seconds of each song, or I’ll listen to the first 30 seconds and then the middle and the end, then switch to something else. Basically, desperately listening for something that inspires me sound-wise, or melody-wise. I think it would be beneficial for me to start trying to consume music in the album or more-extended format because it gives me a greater chance of absorbing more of the artist’s intentions behind a piece of music instead of listening to it very instrumentally (like, looking just for standout elements). I’m very bad for listening to music in brief snippets.
Occasionally I’ll get into a piece of music and start to worry that I’m getting into it too much, and become afraid that I’m almost too influenced by it. I love the inspiration that I take from music, but I’m wary of too much direct influence. I’ll stop myself from listening to something if I worry it’s overtaking my approach, and instead let the song’s influences sort of marinade in my head awhile.
Do you have any favourite artists that people would find unexpected?
That’s a tricky one. I don’t think that guilty pleasures are really such a big thing anymore, with how eclectic my music probably sounds to a lot of people. There probably aren’t many things I could name that would surprise people. I’ve been listening to a lot of ABBA, I’m really into them at the minute, mostly because they made me realise that instead of trying to write music using the most complicated, most technically impressive chords all the time, you can just use the most basic chords but in the right order. It can be just as effective, or in fact more effective that way.
I guess some of the weirder bands, like James and Mull Historical Society, I inherited from my mum and dad. Lots of Scottish stuff: Belle & Sebastian, the Delgados. One of my friends told me that he heard quite a Celtic influence in a lot of my tunes lately, which makes me wonder if maybe even those more obscure Scottish influences are creeping in.
How do you feel about the internet’s role in your process, from composition to releasing tracks? Does it affect how you see yourself as an artist? For example, what is of more value these days: the elusive viral effect of a Spotify single (something you recently experienced with your track ‘Wolverines’), or the age old goal of creating a ‘timeless’ album? Your tracks all seem self-complete and individually distinct—they work well as singles—and I wonder if this formal direction is a natural result of the industry itself or simply your personal way of working.
I love the idea of creating an album, especially a ‘timeless’ one, but in the times that we’re living in I think that my music is more catered to a single-driven release cycle. My greatest fear is to release an album and for people to listen to the first two or three songs, like when you see on Spotify the hits fall away dramatically towards the end of a record. I’m so careful and precious about all the music that I make that I don’t like the idea of these things being forgotten. I don’t trust that for the most part that they would be kind of savoured and digested in the way I would hope them to be, if I was to release them in a longer project.
Do you think these days there’s almost a pressure for an album to stand as a ‘concept album’ in order to get people to pay attention to each track?
I think that it needs to be an incredibly hyped album, first and foremost, to inspire people to listen to the full thing from start to finish. Music that sounds like a single is the music that excites me most, the kind of direct music that people can remember. With things moving so fast and so much music being slicked on then forgotten about completely, I’m wary of putting out music that doesn’t have an immediate impact. I do have a lot of music which I think might take several listens and some considerations to enjoy to the fullest, but I want to keep that to myself until I know that I have a platform great enough for enough people waiting in anticipation to release. Otherwise, I worry it would just disappear.
Really, my releases at the minute are just me putting out things that I think are catchy and instantly gratifying enough to win over enough people to give me a decent platform to release some of the more strange and obscure things I’m writing. Really I’m just always looking for the perfect platform. I’d love to release an album but I want to be as sure as I can be that the audience is there and ready.
Having said that, what do we have to look forward to now, release-wise? Is there an EP or album on the horizon?
Release-wise I have lots of songs that I’m sitting on all the time and have been for ages. The plan is to release singles for the foreseeable future, because I like the idea of having for every song I put out another five or six songs up my sleeves to serve as a great followup. I want to feel secure in what I’m doing and putting out. I like this single release strategy because I can put as many standalone tunes out as I like and there might come a point where I want to put together an album, and I can cherry-pick any relevant songs from the past for this body of work, trying to complement them as best I can with a collection of unreleased tracks. That way the collection itself feels ultimately more earned, and I can situate the stranger, more ‘album tracks’ in a new context. A lot of EDM artists have albums which end up sounding like a bunch of singles with filler in-between, but I’m glad to be sitting on a pile of material that I think would make worthy album tracks and not mere afterthoughts. I just need to find a place for them.