"If you think of the mid- to late-50swhen all of this started to happen for me, the experience of listening to sound was so different from now. Stereo didn't exist. If you listened to music outside of church, apart from live music, which was very rare, it was through tiny speakers. It was a nice experience but a very small experience. So to go into a church, which is a specially designed and echoey space, and it has an organ, and my grandfather built the organ in the church where we went, suddenly to hear music and singing was amazing. It was like hearing someone's album on a tiny transistor radio and then you go and see them in a 60,000-seater. It's huge by comparison. That had a lot to do with my feeling about sound and space, which became a big theme for me. How does space make a difference to sound, what's the difference between hearing something in this room and then another room. Can you imagine other rooms where you can hear music? It also made a difference to how I feel about the communality of music in that the music I liked the most, singing in church, was done by a group of people who were not skilled – they were just a group of people, I knew them in the rest of the week as the coal man and the baker."
"I came out of this funny place where I was interested in the experimental ideas of Cornelius Cardew, John Cage and Gavin Bryars, but also in pop music. Pop was all about the results and the feedback. The experimental side was interested in process more than the actual result – the results just happened and there was often very little control over them, and very little feedback. Take Steve Reich. He was an important composer for me with his early tape pieces and his way of having musicians play a piece each at different speeds so that they slipped out of synch.
"But then when he comes to record a piece of his like, say, Drumming, he uses orchestral drums stiffly played and badly recorded. He's learnt nothing from the history of recorded music. Why not look at what the pop world is doing with recording, which is making incredible sounds with great musicians who really feel what they play. It's because in Reich's world there was no real feedback. What was interesting to them in that world was merely the diagram of the piece, the music merely existed as an indicator of a type of process. I can see the point of it in one way, that you just want to show the skeleton, you don't want a lot of fluff around it, you just want to show how you did what you did. As a listener who grew up listening to pop music I am interested in results. Pop is totally results-oriented and there is a very strong feedback loop. Did it work? No. We'll do it differently then. Did it sell? No. We'll do it differently then. So I wanted to bring the two sides together. I liked the processes and systems in the experimental world and the attitude to effect that there was in the pop, I wanted the ideas to be seductive but also the results."
On the naming of things
"A way to make new music is to imagine looking back at the past from a future and imagine music that could have existed but didn't. Like East African free jazz, which as far as I know does not exist. To some extent, this was how ambient music emerged. My interest in making music has been to create something that does not exist that I would like to listen to, not because I wanted a job as a musician. I wanted to hear music that had not yet happened, by putting together things that suggested a new thing which did not yet exist. It's like having a ready-made formula if you are able to read it. One of the innovations of ambient music was leaving out the idea that there should be melody or words or a beat… so in a way that was music designed by leaving things out – that can be a form of innovation, knowing what to leave out. All the signs were in the air all around with ambient music in the mid 1970s, and other people were doing a similar thing. I just gave it a name. Which is exactly what it needed. A name. A name. Giving something a name can be just the same as inventing it. By naming something you create a difference. You say that this is now real. Names are very important."
"Instead of shooting arrows at someone else's target, which I've never been very good at, I make my own target around wherever my arrow happens to have landed. You shoot your arrow and then you paint your bulls eye around it, and therefore you have hit the target dead centre."
On the end of an era
"I think records were just a little bubble through time and those who made a living from them for a while were lucky. There is no reason why anyone should have made so much money from selling records except that everything was right for this period of time. I always knew it would run out sooner or later. It couldn't last, and now it's running out. I don't particularly care that it is and like the way things are going. The record age was just a blip. It was a bit like if you had a source of whale blubber in the 1840s and it could be used as fuel. Before gas came along, if you traded in whale blubber, you were the richest man on Earth. Then gas came along and you'd be stuck with your whale blubber. Sorry mate – history's moving along. Recorded music equals whale blubber. Eventually, something else will replace it."
Part of a series of conversations that were filmed for a BBC Arena documentary.