Por Kier Wiater-Carnihan
Plaid. A checked material usually taking the form of tartan or gingham. Commonly used to pattern pyjamas, decorate shortbread tins or contain the strapping chests of lumberjacks. All in all, a fairly dull substance. Indeed, the most exciting thing it ever does is protect us from the sight of Scottish testicles.
Plaid, the electronic music stalwarts otherwise known as Andy Turner and Ed Handley, are an altogether more enticing prospect. After their split in the mid-nineties from Ken Downie, with whom they'd blazed a trail through the burgeoning techno and IDM scenes as The Black Dog, Plaid developed what had been an occasional side-project into one of Warp Records' most celebrated acts. They've sculpted a sound all of their own, defined by lush, contrapuntal melodies and rhythms that bounce like a thousand brightly-coloured rubber balls dropped upon the world's largest jelly. They've collaborated with animators, cinematographers and Javanese gamelan orchestras. Oh yeah, and Björk. Essentially, Plaid's material is a fair bit more interesting than actual plaid material. But ironically, Ed Handley explains, the banality of that checked fabric was exactly what appealed to them when they chose their moniker.
“Basically we liked the idea of a plaid shirt just being this sort of mundane, really boring, dull thing. That was a slight response to the super-glamour of Black Dog which was all about the occult and magic, so it was just like, none of that, let's just go for the most mid-West, normal, don't believe in anything (maybe possibly a Christian god, but hopefully not) thing. [The occultist connotations] just seemed disingenuous after a while. Not because we weren't practising all that – we had a genuine interest in the idea of using glamour and things for your will. Not in some dark way – everyone always assumes that it's some sort of black magic but it's not, it's just about self-improvement.”
“But a lot of it is bollocks. And actually there's almost too much bollocks in it to continue with it, and there's so many negative associations. It's a really interesting world and some people take it very seriously. There are a lot of very genuine pagans who really believe that having multiple archetypes is a really useful way of living your life. And it probably is, but I think we rejected it cos we weren't true believers.”
Not many musicians admit to practising occult magic in interviews these days (unless they're Black Metallers of a church-burning inclination), and especially not such down-to-earth and personable chaps as Turner and Handley. They're so unassuming that you really don't expect them to, say, reminisce about taking drugs in the studio, or joke about checking their emails on stage, or dismiss their last release as “folly”. But that's exactly what they do...
You put out your last album “Spokes” in 2003, after which you concentrated mainly on audio/visual collaborations. Why was that?
Andy Turner: The audio/visual collaboration with Bob Jaroc ( “Greedy Baby”) was the next project we did off our own back. That came out of live performance really because we were working with Bob for about eight years. We were developing our relationship over that period and it seemed to make sense; we were always knocking ideas backwards and forwards, and we had the idea that a DVD release might be a good idea...
Er, no, not particularly! (laughs)
Ed Handley: Not in terms of sales.
Andy: Not in terms of making money, yeah, but it was great in terms of the work. But yeah, it didn't really have the impact of a regular album. Also, I think we missed having a bit of vinyl...
Ed: It was just so much work.
Andy: It took about three years...
Ed: ...and that was working pretty much all the time. And then at the end of it you're like, “Is that really it?”
Andy: Eight tracks?!
Ed: I mean, I still love it, but it was almost like a folly (laughs).
And then you did the soundtrack to “Tekkon Kinkreet” [an awesome animated film directed by Michael Arias. Seriously, watch it]. Was that a similar process?
Ed: Much easier really, because there was a massive team of directors and producers.
Andy: Yeah, the visual element was obviously completely out of our hands with that, plus we had access to animatics as the film was being made and you can pretty much write to those. With animation it's pretty much set, there's no last minute editing. We went on to do a live-action feature with the same director afterwards ( “Heaven's Door”) and that was a much quicker process. But yeah, it was easier than actually being involved in making the video as well.
Ed: There's already a narrative there which you're adding to, rather than having to create your own story from scratch. The director's also a musician so he had quite a clear idea. He gave us free reign ultimately but he gave us a lot of reference tracks, our old tracks basically, so that was quite a lot to go on.
So after all that, what made you decide to release another Plaid album?
Andy: Well we're writing all the time, mainly for live performance.
Ed: Slightly commerce, you know? Earning a bit of money?
Andy: Well in fact, probably to a large degree that, otherwise you could be developing musical ideas forever. There's a slight element of not wanting to leave it too long...
Ed: In a way it's the most thrilling thing that we do, because it's so personal and it has the most meaning. Collaborations are great because you're learning and exploring new things, but an album is this really self-indulgent thing, a big wank-fest in a way – which is obviously going to be pleasurable because you've got no outside influence on you.
Andy: (laughs) I sometimes have outside influences on my wank-fests, but that's a personal thing.
Ed: So for that reason and also because we hadn't done one for so long. You sort of miss the excitement of getting a little unit, a little product.
Talking of which, what can you tell me about the “executive CD mausoleum” (how the packaging of “Scintilli” is described in the press release – it comes apart and can be transformed into a 3D model in which the CD itself becomes the centrepiece), the idea is that CDs are becoming redundant as actual tools for listening, right?
Ed: Yeah. So often if I buy a CD now I end up ripping it and just having the digital version of it. Then you've got this thing that obviously you don't need.
It's just there for nosy people to browse when they come over to your house.
Ed: Yeah, but you've got the case for that. The actual CD you can do whatever you like with. (Andy retrieves a copy of “Scintilli” from the office and helps construct it. “Prepare to be thrilled!” he quips as the CD slides into place).
Ed: A pointless object!
It does seem like some people are trying to be more experimental with packaging. It's one of the few ways you can convince people to part with money for a physical CD album.
Andy: Yeah, I think it has created a little bit of interest. I mean, I'm a bit of a collector myself and I used to love those Parliament albums that had little cut out people. It doesn't really change the music obviously, but it kind of adds to the experience in some way. Yeah, pretty happy with it (laughs).
All you need is a bit of string from the top and you could make it into a mobile...
Andy: Yeah, a baby mobile, my mate has just had a son and we're gonna get some pictures of him playing with one.
With “Scintilli”, the first thing I thought when I put it on was that it's immediately very obviously a Plaid album. Do you take that as a compliment or a criticism?
Ed: I think to have a style that people recognise is probably a good thing. I think you can be overly eclectic when you change each album. That said when I hear other artists do that it's exciting, but I don't think it's really what interests us. It's a sort of subtle progression, just trying to make the perfect version of what maybe we've already done. I don't think it's a bad thing really to have some sort of recognisable style.
Andy: Much better than immediately thinking, “Oh, this is the dubstep album or this is the garage album”. We'd rather be less in one of those clear genres and more, in our own right, crossing a few different ones.
Ed: I'm not sure we could do anything else either. We've got no choice!
Funny you should mention dubstep because a friend of mine saw you play at Brainfeeder two years ago and said you did a live set there that was very dubstep orientated.
Andy: I dunno, I mean we play heavier material live in general, and we definitely mix the beats and the bass up more because it suits the environment. But no, that wasn't really an intention.
Ed: Yeah, I mean I think we've definitely been effected by dubstep because it's sort of irresistible when you first hear it. It's such an evolution of this sort of London sound - drum n' bass and jungle and garage have all turned into this thing. So we have got a few live tracks that we'd never release but actually they work quite well live.
Any plans to release a live album at any point?
Andy: We have vague plans to record the touring of this album, because we're de-constructing it and making a sort of louder, more suitable version for club environments. Depending on how those recordings turn out we might do a limited live version of “Scintilli”. But it'll be quite flexible, so that we have enough to do to keep ourselves interested over 35 shows or whatever.
Ed: We're trying to keep it a bit more live. Especially because we haven't played that many gigs in a while, it'll get boring if it's not changing every night. For us anyway.
Andy: Yeah, and the tracks are very structured so to go out and perform them as they are on the record would be pretty dull for us, not being players. I mean if we were going out and playing guitar that would be fine but we need to be able to be involved in the night, otherwise there's no real point in us being there.
Ed: It's trying to balance making something that's recognisable so that people who've come to hear you play recognise what you're doing, but also keeping it interesting enough so that it actually makes sense as a live thing, as opposed to a presentation – us presenting the album.
It seems to be a problem a lot of electronic musicians have – the music is created in a very careful, painstaking way which is hard to transpose into a spontaneous live environment. How do you approach that problem?
Ed: For us it's been a totally aesthetic judgement. If it sounds good just press play. Just do that, you know? Ultimately it's got to sound good and it's got to work in that particular environment. It doesn't really matter if someone's pressing loads of buttons – who gives a shit really? It's not that impressive. In terms of controllers and the type of things that people are doing now, it does look good - it's a bit like scratch DJs and things like that - but ultimately you're there to hear some music and possibly have a dance. It's something we fought against in the early nineties, this idea that you measure a performance by the amount of physical movement or by the amount of improvisation. Maybe in jazz you do but in electronic music...we're a bit like DJs really. It's quite important to have some level of improvisation but if it sounds shit, it sounds shit. It doesn't matter how complex it is or how technical your set up is, if it doesn't sound good it doesn't matter.
Is that the reason you started collaborating with Bob Jaroc? To give the audience something to focus on so they're not just sitting there thinking “I wonder what they're actually doing up there?”
Andy: Yeah, absolutely. After the hundredth comment of “Ooh, checking your emails?” you kind of think OK, we've got to give people something...
Ed: Eventually you do just start checking your emails...
Andy: (laughs) So yeah, we're basically working with loops and Ableton rather than Logic for the live performance so structurally we've got a bit of scope. We've always broken the mixes up so that you can do quite a huge amount on the mixing desk with effects, in a kind of dub way. But yeah, ultimately it's got to sound solid, and not too noodly for our crowd. And sound a bit like us.
You were saying how your aim is to perfect your own sound rather than constantly reinvent it. In your press release it says you spent a day making each individual beat for “Scintilli”. That can't be right can it?!
Andy: No, that was slightly tongue in cheek. Basically, we started writing the first ideas for this album three years ago and made a calculation after mastering it. The equation worked out each beat had effectively taken a day, but we weren't sculpting each individual beat in sequence over a three year period!
I heard this apocryphal tale that back in the day you used to record lots of music on acid, one of you lying on the floor tripping and the other on the computer making sounds. Is there any truth to that?
Ed: Well, sort of. We've made music on drugs sometimes...but it really doesn't work that well.
Andy: It'd be the aftermath, the recovery days when you're kind of not under the influence...
Ed: Yeah, when you've still got a lingering something in your bloodstream, but you've got the motor capability (laughs). But yeah, LSD doesn't work for making music, unless maybe you're on the West Coast and you've just got your bongos...
Fifty years ago...
Ed: (laughs) Computers and LSD is a weird mix.
Andy: It's quite confusing. I think if it ever works you've got to have started and be working on something, and then the influence starts to come in during it. But then you get a few bars further down the line and, yeah, it's not right. Not a great thing.
Ed: I think it's one of those myths about drugs and music that all of this great music was made under the influence of drugs. Then when you actually ask the old artists they say, “No, no way man...”
Andy: “We were never allowed drugs in the studio!”
I suppose it's because when people listen to music that sounds really good on drugs, they assume it must've been made in the same state.
Ed: Yeah, yeah. Obviously a lot of smoking...
Andy: ...but even that's not a great advantage I wouldn't say.
Ed: No. Sobriety's best really.
In terms of composing on computers, how difficult is it to 'duet'? Do you tend to make music at the same time or is there a division of labour?
Andy: It's more of a relay thing I think. We sort of tried a couple of times but you can't obviously 'jam' because of the whole stop-start nature of sequencers. It makes it sort of impossible really.
Ed: You need a moment of isolation, cos obviously if someone's controlling the time-line and they're stopping and starting, that effects you. Someone is the leader. There's not really a system yet where you're both sharing the leadership. You could sort of set it up, you could certainly jam, but I think actually getting down into a detailed structure - there's no point even attempting it really.
Andy: You can have synths and be working on a patch or on a riff, but at some point someone has to say, “Stop, I want to put this riff in now!”. (Fittingly at this point Andy was indeed stopped and dragged away for other Warp duties –just so you don't think he suddenly clammed up and stopped talking for the rest of the interview–)
With technology the way it is now you wouldn't necessarily have to be in the same country to make music together, but presumably you still prefer to be in the same space when you're writing.
Ed: I think being in the same space makes it so much easier to communicate what's missing. I mean you've got Skype but I think to physically be there is still best. As with all communication. But I moved up to Suffolk in April so we're having to negotiate a new way of working a little bit. Which is fine, a lot of our stuff we'll write ourselves and then collaborate later on. It's being a bit more organised basically, that's all.
My personal favourite Plaid track is 'Eyen', and seeing as it was voted one of the ten best Warp tracks ever (for last year's Warp20 compilation) many people obviously feel the same. Do you remember much about it's creation?
Yeah, we wrote a lot of it with Benet Walsh, who's also on this album. That was just us sitting in the studio with him and his guitar, and because he's a player and he's got an instrument you can have collaboration actually happen at the same time. It's probably like every other song, someone will come up with a riff and develop the riff and then we'll play with that and record it in and see how it develops. He played that riff and we did what we do over the top.
Do you like that as a way of breaking up the compositional process, getting a third party in?
I wouldn't like doing it on all the tracks but yeah. It's partly because we've got a history with him and he just keeps sending us ideas.
You can't shake him off!
[laughs] No, we get on with him and it's a really enjoyable process. And you're right, it just breaks up the isolation of Andy and myself.
You've done a few famous vocal collaborations in the past as well, was there any ambition to get someone in for this album?
No. Because we were using vocal synthesis we thought we'd stick to that and see what we could do with it, more from a technical curiosity at first just to see what vocal synthesis was and how good it could be. The answer is: not that good! It sort of sounds almost like a voice if you don't listen too hard, and that's sort of attractive in itself cos you've got this weird, alienating voice that's emotional but coming from a machine. There's something a bit spooky about it which we really like. But we'd love to do some more stuff with voice generally because it's the most versatile instrument. It'd be great to work with some really technically accurate singer, and just use them as if they were a synthesizer. But we haven't found anyone who's submissive enough yet...
What about the track “Unbank”? The first time I heard it I thought it sounded like the Doctor Who theme...
Someone else said that! Yeah, now obviously I realise it, but then once everything else kicks in you sort of lose the Doctor Who bit. It's just that little break that's familiar, the swing rhythm and that kind of bass sound. But actually I probably wouldn't have noticed it. Anyway, nothing wrong with Doctor Who!
That's going to become a really annoying question isn't it?
It has already! I'm going to have to think of a really good, twisted response to it, but I can't right now.
Are you a fan?
I used to be a fan of Doctor Who, a friend of mine who I went to school with is a complete spod for it. He's saying the usual, “Oh, the new stuff's not as good”, and I tend to agree with him. When you first watched Doctor Who when you were a kid it was quite mind-blowing, but we've had so much exposure to sci-fi, time travel and all these things that it's kind of lost its charm. They just don't have the budget, but I think it's still watchable.
Maybe “Unbank” could prove a good way to get to get featured on the soundtrack.
You were a big part of Warp during what many consider to be its late-nineties hey-day - anyone who was into the label then owned at least one Plaid record. However, the label has evolved and diversified somewhat since then. Do you still feel relevant to what they're doing?
I don't really know. For us it's our lives so we don't really notice what the perception is. Judging by some of the responses we've had to the album, people thought we'd drifted into some obscure hole somewhere. Obviously we didn't feel that ourselves...
You were still working every day...
Yeah, and we'd done two feature films and collaborations with Gamelan and, you know, keeping busy really. Just not doing an album. So yeah, you do feel there is this disconnect with Warp maybe, cos we haven't given them an album for so long. They've been asking for an album for so long and we just haven't done anything. We did think when we delivered it, did they even want it? And it turns out they did, and they were really happy with it. Which slightly surprised us cos we thought they'd just go “OK, another Plaid album, we remember you lot, you did something in the nineties”. So no, we've been pleasantly surprised really, but also surprised that it's been eight years - that shocked us, cos for us there's been so much going on since the last couple of albums.
But like you say, the perception from outside is different. Do you think the way technology is changing the consumption of music might stop the album from being this temporal marker that careers tend to be measured with?
I can't quite tell at the moment because you think “yeah, the album's dead” and then someone does a great album and someone else does a great album and you think, no, it's really not dead. That idea of collating music into one unit, one coherent thing that has a kind of journey, I don't think you'll ever really escape from that because not everyone wants the hit of a single song. I love to listen to a whole album cos you get immersed, and you actually learn something about the artist I think. But yeah, the whole digital thing has kind of changed the emphasis, not so much of how you make music but how you sell music. It's completely different to when we released “Spokes”. It's like “Yes, you will be pirated, most people will download it, don't worry about it, there's nothing we can do about it, you've just got to move on and do as much as you can to promote it and make people aware that you're out there”. There's nothing you can do, you've just got to fit in with the current state of things. The advantage is it's a lot easier for everyone else to release music now. You don't have to be signed to a label, you can release music yourself, and do quite well. And get heard. That's the best thing that's happened really. A lot of the other aspects are obviously annoying cos it's people taking stuff for free.
I guess the positive aspects aren't that useful for you as you're already known and have a fanbase, whereas the negative aspects do affect you.
Yeah, although I'm not that selfish really. I know the value of music cos it's really helped me, so anything that's good for music is good with me really. Fortunately for us, anything that's good with Plaid tends to be good for music in turn. If you're one of those who've despaired at Warp releasing records by Mäximo Park and Grizzly Bear, consider “Scintilli” a return to the good old days. For everyone else, just consider it a step closer to the perfect Plaid album. Oh, and a damn fine baby mobile. You wouldn’t expect Plaid taking about practising magic on their spare time, or to be reminiscent about taking drugs in the studio, or joking about checking their emails on stage, or even dismissing their last release, “Scintilli” as “folly”. But that what they do in the crazy interview.