Thursday, July 9, 2009
Luke Slater confesses: I lived the ups and downs of a Planetary Assault System (and let me tell you, space is more important than the hit)
Luke Slater is a difficult man to pin down, as RA's Lee Smith discovered recently, with this interview. Lucky for techno fans, Slater pours himself into his music: this year's Temporary Suspension takes the Ostgut sound and heats it until it's white hot: like last year's 'Plastic Star' EP by Byetone and tobias.' 'I can't fight the feeling', Slater's new work manages to achieve the auditory sensation of melting transistors and incandescent wires. But this is also body music, that gives you a deep reaction simultaneously physical and mental: ECT for darktime dancefloors? But enough preambling and description: for God's sake, listen to the album if you haven't already, it's hot. But what makes Luke wanna make all that heat and noise? And, for that matter, what makes his system hum? Escape, space, mistakes, mess, highs, lows, obsession... sounds a bit like that new PAS record...
What drew you to music? What draws you to music?
I think when I was a small kid it was some kind of escapism, to this mystic world where some kind of energy was bottled up in a recording. A hidden world that spoke directly to me, and selfishly to me alone – I was willing to share but takers were few. I was acutely aware that I was quite alone in this in terms of obsession, but I couldn't help myself.
Tell me a little bit about your musical development: what did you listen to as a kid? What did your parents, siblings and friends listen to? (How) was this influential?
My Dad was a music devotee, he also needed music like water. I think he would have liked to be a musician, but was 100% happy with listening to it through the best system he could afford. He was a big band/jazz/dance 1920s and 30s fan, and I grew up surrounded by piano solos, drum solos, huge horn sections, lo-fi recordings, ragtime, and upbeat stuff, rather than crooners. I know a lot of those 1920s dance records, they are ingrained in my head. I was fascinated by the medium itself, too – the way the music was held in the slate or plastic, the apparatus needed to play it back. The bass and treble controls.
My brother and sister on the other hand, cast records and music aside like a pair of old trainers. Their 7" records would be cast on top of a pile of toys, cover lost, played once and forgotten – a quick fix. To me that was strange and alien but I got the feeling early on that most people around me, friends of sorts, their parents etc were not obsessives like me. Whenever I went to a friend's house when I was a kid I would look for the record collection to kind of get a foothold on things. I started to gauge people by music. My Dad was incredibly supportive of my developing obsession. I started converting 7" rock and pop records later on in childhood, the first record I bought was 'Alright Alright' by Mungo Jerry, which I got from a second hand store where I lived and played over and over. The drum break at the beginning just before the verse starts still gives me a buzz now. It's too short though! Noticing that breakdowns were too short quickly developed into a different obsession when I stopped listening to 'songs' per se. Then I started to find a secret desire in mistakes: the shout captured by mistake, the fade out where you could hear the band change direction before it was cut, the two second fill which took on a new life for a second, then vanished. The sound of the drums, the distant echo before the rack starts (where the tapes had been stored the wrong way round leading to imprint on the tape underneath). The production itself – rather than the words – this is what obsessed me, even though I had no idea I was listening to the production. And I imagined everyone heard the same as me in the music.
How did you get into electronic music?
Well, of course, many pop records were being made in the beginning of the 80s with electronic instruments. But somehow all this floated by me, it didn't connect until one day at school my mate bought in a copy of Street Sounds Electro Hip Hop Vol 1. He suggested we go to his house at lunchtime and listen to it. We did – and my life changed forever. I went to his house with no direction or concept of rebellion and came out an adolescent in a new world where New York had my soul, where rhythms were raw and sparse, where the new sound called scratching was everywhere, and man, man, man, doesn't breakdance, electric boogies, cuts and scratches just sound soooooo good still! So dirty and muffled where the grooves have worn out, but meant like a statement of 'this is how we do it' rather than let's keep it clean. It was the street – minus bitches and guns of today's hip hop. They could have been rapping about anything though, I was hearing the music. I felt I could understand the music like no one else could have. Again, I became obsessed and it took over my life. I wanted to learn how to do the music they were doing. I had an identity.
What role (if any) did partying play in this? Was this a revelation…. or… tell me about this time in the late 80s when you were getting into everything, how it was like, how you felt, what happened, etc.
Around the Electro Hip Hop early 80s era I had learnt to mix records, not on 1210s though, and learnt to scratch records, to bring in and out parts, to do pause button mixing and to play mixes on the street for crews to dance to. Sometimes we met up with a couple of guys – Ben and Dom in London – and went to Covent Garden to do it all: me the music, them dancing. In the area where I lived a couple of guys were also doing the same, Matt Cogger and Lee Perkis.
When electro hip-hop became over-commercialised the music suffered, the vibe got lost. Eventually it became a joke and I was left with no music in my life – this was around the mid 80s. It was a sad time: I had to deal with the real world and couldn’t do that very well. I couldn’t understand why I didn’t like any music that was coming out. I couldn’t understand why people were wearing chinos and denim shirts, and I didn’t understand clubs I ended up at where the main mission was to chat up a girl. I was lost... until around 1987 me and a couple of friends decided to go into town to check out a couple of clubs. One of those clubs, in Charing Cross, was called Troll at Soundshaft Heaven. This was my second life-changing revelation, and once again it gave me a purpose.
What I witnessed in there first and foremost was a DJ (Steve Bell RIP, sadly missed) mixing electro – but with a 4/4 beat, in a continuous mix, without speaking in between the records. There was no rapping, just a groove from the gods, an electronic groove made with drum machines, stripped down to its essential elements. I had come home. I had found my family. I ended up as resident DJ there for a year. Wild times.
What is most precious to you in music?
Integrity, meaning and purpose. Its got to say something and mean it.
And in life?
Life is a very different animal. People I love and who are close to me are the most important.
Describe the relation between your work, your identity, and politics.
I'm not political at all, but if I was I wouldn't moan about it. I'd get of my ass and try and change it. My identity constantly clashes with my work identity, and depending on the day one of them will win. My work is definitely the great escape for me, I fall apart more frequently under real life fluctuations. My mood can swing from being tip top creative, walking on air, at peace with all, to downright assholic self deprecating loathing monster. I’ve yet to find a proper balance – and when I tried in the past I missed my other selves too much.
What is something (musically and generally) that life is bullshit without?
Life is definitely bullshit without Indian food, technology, eccentricities and some damn looooooovvvvveee.
What are some key records of the past few years for you (artists, EPs, labels, sounds etc)? Which of these has had the greatest influence on the music you make now?
As far as PAS goes clubs and the sound for the club tend to influence me a lot. A club has a sound, not just in the records everyone’s playing but just the vibe. Maybe the reverb in there makes the records sound different, maybe the system promotes certain sounds more than others. A few times I’ve done gigs and used some shit going on with the system has caused a accidental effects, a strange artefacts. The best example I remember was a couple of years ago when playing a festival in France, a big stage, big system, and every time I pulled the fader down on the mixer white noise came out of the system. In the end, like a ship on a rough sea, I used that noise to punctuate the tracks I was playing instead of fighting the fault. Luckily, that white noise sounded good, the idea stuck. That’s not to say that shit systems rock... cos they don’t. Funktion 1 is the one for me.... Label-wise of course Ostgut Ton; very, very up my alley. Also Token, Theory, Equalized, Coda, Figure and my own label Mote Evolver, to name but a few.
What makes a track exceptional to you? Tell me a classic that you feel is really outstanding and describe what it is about it that moves you so much.
'Mad monks on Zinc', by The Holy Ghost Inc. Very much close to my heart. Just a one time piece of music that you can crawl into get lost and explore and also feel the groove. It’s beautiful, dark, melancholy, funked up – and way out there. It's a true classic.
What is the relationship between the different elements in your compositions? What role do they play and how do they interact? What do drums express that the drum machine cannot/does not, and vice versa?
I don’t know. Its gotta be valid, its gotta have a reason to be there not just to fill up the track, there’s no point sticking a hit hat in if the track doesn’t need a hi hat to make it work. Formulas are needed but also destructive – you gotta deconstruct to build. The drum machine doesn’t groove, what’s around it makes it appear too. Space is more important than the hit. Creation is messy. That’s a lot of quotes :)
What other things (not restricted to music) have the greatest influence on you?
Everything. Real life batters you into shape, it's an uncontrollable force. Highs and lows to defy that and writing music must be a gift – especially when you come up with what you want.
What makes a good DJ? And what has made you a better DJ than you were?
I’m an established DJ, people know who I am, but the message and thinking have never changed. Each gig is still a new gig, I go to a gig to play to a crowd, in the same way I always have. It's my style: the music changes, the reason doesn't. I want the night to be good, but I’m not a lecturer.
Do you have a ‘theory’ of DJing? Are there things that you always bear in mind when you play?
I like to try and take people on a journey using records, using parts of records too. On a perfect night the whole set will be one evolving movement.
How have Ableton and other key digital technologies changed the way you play, make, and think about electronic music?
There’s been a lot of new software and hardware development over the years. Some worth it, some not. Making a dance track has become accessible to everyone: but it's ideas that write music, not computers.
It would appear from a lot of people that I speak to that mix CDs and production don’t really pay the bills like they used to, and that people are increasingly dependent on appearances to draw an income from electronic music – how does this accord with your experience?
As Hunter S Thompson would say: 'When the going gets tough, the tough get weird!'
Is vinyl dead, dying? And, if so, is this something to be mourned?
Vinyl is still there, CDs audio files, all still there. I think I can say that piano rolls, slate 78s and tape cassettes are dead... Actually, I have a friend who just mastered off cassette...
What’s something that people often ask you about you and your music (that you find unexpected or strange)?
Were you on drugs when you wrote it? Do I practice DJing at home?
What’s something that people never ask or notice about you and your work (that you wish they would)?
I don’t expect, if I can help it.
Tell me something about yourself, your music, the world, or whatever you like, something that we would never guess about you….
I never planned anything, honest.
What kind of music would you make in a world without electricity?
Ha, don’t worry, I’ve got some bongos and a drum kit.
What makes you angry in this world at the moment?
And what gives you hope?
Head to the always on it Roof.fm for a recent set of Luke's. If the link is still broken, maybe you could pester them (nicely) to re-up it?
Edit: And here's a mirror! Thanks Codix.
Also, check out Toby Frith's article for FACT, which in turn spawned this Bleep 43's mmmmassive mix of 90s UK techno, including some PAS material and Luke's favourite, 'Mad Monks on Zinc'. Thank you Toby!