Caro Meets Spoken Word Interview

Ross Sutherland: Standby For Tape Back-Up

By | Published on Thursday 2 July 2015

We’ve been following Ross Sutherland’s career with interest since we first came across him, a good few years ago now, as one of the members of spoken word collective Aisle16. Next week he heads for the Soho Theatre with ‘Standby For Tape Back-Up’, a show that earned a five star review in Edinburgh last summer from our hugely impressed reviewer.

It’s an unusual show, with an intriguing premise, so naturally, I wanted to chat to Ross about that, as well as other elements of his career, and what we can expect from him in the future.

CM: Tell us about ‘Standby For Tape Back-Up’ – what happens in the show?
RS: It’s a story about a videotape that I found in my loft. The tape is an old recording of all the TV shows and films that I used to watch with my granddad. We made the tape together when I was a kid. The tape is basically a record of my relationship with my granddad, which was almost entirely mediated through film. I rediscovered the tape after his death. In the show I play the videotape to the audience and give them a curated journey through it. I try to turn the tape into poetry, reinterpreting scenes and rewriting them so they start to resemble my memories.

CM: What made you decide that the tape would be a good starting point for a performance piece?
RS: I don’t really have any other record of my life. I don’t have any heirlooms, stuff like that. A hard-drive crash destroyed all my old photos and writing. This tape is kinda it. Because of that, it’s become one of my important possessions. I had a nervous breakdown in 2010 and the tape helped me through it. It provided me with a conduit back to my past, and particularly to my granddad, who was a big influence on me. The tape feels like a home movie to me, but because of the contents (Jaws, Thriller, Crystal Maze) it’s like a home movie that belongs to all of us.

CM: How did you go about making this? What was the creative process?
RS: First, I scanned the entire videotape, looking for moments that I thought people would recognise; bits that seemed to have a lot of symbolic potency. Like the opening credits of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. It’s only a minute long but it’s very kinetic, and a large amount of people know it shot-for-shot, which helps. I had to find stuff that people would recognise.

Next, I took the footage and looped it, so I could try to write to the rhythm of the shot. For every second of footage, I would try to write a line that matched the image. Each day, I wouldn’t know what direction my narration would go in- I was beholden to the video. In the end, a lot of stuff came from my subconscious.

CM: Was it cathartic?
RS: I think so. This is one of the reasons that I like using strict rules in my work. It removes so many choices that you end up producing stuff that surprises you. I ended up talking about things in the show that I wouldn’t normally have the courage to talk about on-stage.

CM: What attracted you to the medium of spoken word? How did you end up performing poetry, as opposed to simply writing it down?
RS: I saw John Cooper Clarke at the fringe when I was 15. It felt like something in-between a punk gig and a stand-up set. I fell in love with poetry and began writing immediately. Two years later I got to support John at a reading at my college. Afterwards we went to the pub and talked about writing and Dante and punk rock. He spoke to me like I was an equal, even though I was a kid who had basically just written three rip-off version of his poems. That sense of community is true throughout the entire scene. It’s half about the text, and half about what happens in the pub afterwards.

CM: Has anyone influenced your work, poet or otherwise?
RS: Poetry-wise, I’ve pretty much always got a copy of David Berman’s Actual Air in my bag. I think ‘Standby’ is drawn more from my love of the OULIPO writing movement, combined with my love of film essayists like Adam Curtis and Mark Cousins.

There’s a movement in the US right now called “Neo-Benshi”, which comes from reviving the traditions of Japanese Silent cinema. Back then, a poet would stand on stage and translate all the title cards, plus improvising poems through the action scenes. So now there’s a bunch of experimental poets in California who have been doing the same thing. It’s really interesting stuff. I wasn’t aware of them when I started this, but I’m definitely going to start retroactively referring to my work as “neo-benshi”. Sounds cool doesn’t it?

CM: Can you tell us a bit about your published work?
RS: I’ve got two full poetry collections with Penned in the Margins: ‘Things To Do Before You Leave Town’ and ‘Emergency Window’. There’s also an e-book of sonnets inspired by Street Fighter 2 called ‘Hyakuretsu Kyaku’.

CM: What’s next for you? Do you have other projects in the pipeline?
RS: Right now I’m working on my podcast ‘Imaginary Advice’, which I’m using as a kind-of idea sketchbook. I’m trying to experiment with new ways of writing stories, and radio opens up so many possibilities. It’s about six months old now. I love it more and more every month. Last month I remixed Jay Z’s The Black Album into a short story set in the Tate Modern. We’ll just have to see how long that manages to stay up.

‘Standby For Tape Back-Up’ is on at Soho Theatre from 6-11 Jul. See this page here for more info and to book tickets.

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