Text and Interview by Paul Parreira
There’s a darkness that prevails in Andy Stott’s music. He taps into on an uneasy, almost apocalyptic mood that is reflected not only in the sound of his records, but also on the album covers. The images that embody his music reference the tribal, spiritual, and the metaphysical. These are attributes that are upfront and center on most of his records, but especially on his latest release Faith In Strangers, an album that solidifies his place as one of the most unique voices in electronic music, and in many ways sets him apart from his contemporaries. Merciless, his first full-length release came out in 2006 on Modern Love, it was an exercise in German-influenced techno, with hints of ambient and dub, but so far from where he is now. Starting with 2011’s excellent double EP releases of Passed Me By and We Stay Together, Andy Stott has fearlessly explored a darker set of moods, all with an undercurrent of distorted tones. Melodies come through in voices and the occasional synth chord. But the triumph on his records continues to be the drum-machine. In the late 1980s and early 90s, the electronic music artists coming out of the UK were sourcing the pioneers of hip-hop from the Bronx, or the metallic techno that emerged out of Detroit, now it seems Andy Stott’s music is breaking ground paved by some of those artists that surfaced from that scene. Aphex Twin, Meat Beat Manifesto, Coil, and Massive Attack are just a few of the artists that developed a sound where darkness and drum beats reflected a sign of the times and environment.
So you’re in Manchester, England? How are things up North?
AS: Wet through. Absolutely pelting it down with rain–pretty typical.
Have you lived there all of your life?
Yeah, pretty much. I was brought up in the north and now I’m in the south, which is much quieter. What about you? Where are you?
New York City. You come here a quite bit. You played Output in Brooklyn recently, right?
Yeah I did.
What did you think of the club?
It’s really, really good. The sound was amazing. I just couldn’t figure out how many people were there to see us or how many were there just for the club and the sound? Because it’s Output–you know what I mean?
I’ve been listening to the new album quiet a bit and it sounds great.
Wicked. Thank you!
How do you feel about it?
I’m really excited. This period now after the release date and announcement, this period of letting a couple of tracks out into the world and hearing the feedback is really exciting. And people seem to be enjoying it. Which is really good.
You ok with this part of the process, the promotional aspect of doing interviews?
Yeah, I’m fine with it. Yeah.
It seems like a really natural progression from your last album, Luxury Problems. Particularly the flow and sequence, it has such a nice balance of ambient space and beats. Plus the vocals seem more prominent and clear. I was wondering if that was a conscious effort on your end?
Yeah. I would use the word clear—yeah definitely. There’s a lot less reverb on the vocals. There’s a lot more definition. It was something I wanted to do this time around—to get Alison (Skidmore) out there a bit more on the record. And I think it suits her singing a lot more. It wouldn’t suit it to make it absolutely drenched in reverb. She’s saying a lot more as apposed to just singing notes. I don’t want to dummy down what she did on the last album at all but it was just vocal tones she was sending me.
I was curious about how much of it is a collaboration between you and Alison. Or whether you were just using snippets and samples of her voice.
There was more direction between us. I got inspired by some things she was doing and I wanted to treat the vocals because of what I was inspired by. So I was giving her direction and sending her tracks for bits of reference and I would say, “is this possible?” She’d send me things back and I would put them through effects to get it just how I wanted it.
At times she sounds operatic, especially on parts of Luxury Problems. Which is why I thought maybe you were sampling a source.
That’s her thing. I met Alison when I was a kid she was my piano teacher. It was Alison who taught me how to play. I don’t know what else she can play besides the piano. But her main music outlet is opera. She’s actually an opera singer.
So how do you compose music? Is it on keyboards, samplers, or a drum machine? How do you begin the process?
It changes every time, it depends on what I sit down to do. Like on “Missing,” the last track on Faith In Strangers, the first thing I worked with was Alison’s voice. I listened to it and took bits out. What she sends me is a track with the acappella of what she’s done, I don’t use it all. I’ll just cut the sections and make it linear. And then I added the bass guitar and ran it through effects, which makes it all bleepy–dare I say modular sounding. And then the temptation to add percussion was pretty strong but I thought, “does it need it?” So I worked on the atmosphere, the reverb and delays. Where other tracks like “Damage,” are just pure drum machine.
That succession of tracks from “No Surrender,” “How It Was,” and “Damage” has a nice flow because you start the record with an ambient track, “Time Away,” and then you go into some accessible tracks like “violence,” and “On Oath,” which are more melodic. Then you take us to this dark place (as you usually do on your records), and then come back out again with two of the prettiest songs on the record, “Faith In Strangers,” and “Missing.” I also felt that way about the Passed Me By EP. Which also has as great flow. The way you start, build and then finish the record is just so beautiful, and seems so deliberate.
Well, this is one of the main time consuming parts of it. I sit down with my mate Shlom, he runs the Modern Love label. And for as many versions of track sequences that I have, he has the same amount of running orders. For Faith In Strangers I don’t even know how many running orders we had but there was like a week where he would email me a new sequence saying, “I think this is it, I think this is it!” But then I would say, “I don’t think that should be there,” and it got to a point where we needed a track, so I wrote one that bridged it all together. I don’t want to say it’s filler, but the track that we needed was “How It Was,” and that was the last piece to the puzzle.
I tend to jot down keywords down while listening to an album if I know I’m going to talk to an artist about it, and funny enough, two of the words I wrote down while listening to Faith In Strangers was “deliberate,” and “design.” I always felt that you were one of those artists that either spends tons of time working on a sequence or you didn’t spend any time on this type of detail at all and it just happens to end up great.
The answer to that is both angles. Initially the tracks are built very quickly—me and Shlom set up a system where we open a loops folder between us and he says “get all of the sounds in it and when you’re happy with all of your sounds, hit record, do a take, email it over, and start the next one, then the next one, and so on.” So you could write like 4 of these mini-tracks a day. And the advantage of that is that he’ll listen to them and then he’ll get back to me and say, “ok this loop, give me the title of what it is,” and then he’ll say, “this is strong in these sections,” or he might say, “it’s all strong it just needs finishing.” So when you go back to the track and knowing that you haven’t spent a great deal of time putting it together it’s still really fresh. It’s not like you’ve been sitting on the same track for three days. “Oh no, I’m never gonna finish it!” It keeps it really fresh. It never became laborious. It did come down to the details, like the hi-hat. In fact, “Violence” had hi-hats running all the way through it. But we changed them and the best thing we did in the end was to strip them completely. So yes, it starts off pretty fast but when it gets down to the end of the track, when it’s so close to being finished we’ll look at his notes and review the finest details.
Sounds like a healthy producer-artist relationship. I don’t see him credited on the albums?
So he’s primarily an editor, giving you feedback on your writing?
It’s different, I don’t know if you’ll know what I mean by this, but even now when I listen to the finished versions I can’t hear it. Because it’s still so fresh in my mind–how the tracks were done. I can deconstruct them in my mind because I know every trick in what I’ve done. But Shlom doesn’t see that. So he hears the tracks like I’ll hear them in 6 months time. I’m just getting his angle on things. We both find the same things interesting about music. He’s in the right position to get the tracks right. I just can’t hear it.
What’s your involvement with the record label, Modern Love?
I’m just an artist.
I wasn’t sure how deep you got into it.
That’s been people’s assumption for a while now. People come up to me at shows and say, “congratulations on the label, it’s doing really well.” I’m like, “it’s not mine.”
What’s your background in music? How’d you get into it?
Basically, I was listening to hip-hop as a kid, and the only reason, really, was the fact that there was swearing on records. And my parents would be like, “really, do you have to listen to that?” But there was something about it, the beats and the sampling that I really liked. I moved from hip-hop to early hardcore, the slowest version of jungle before it got really fast. The way I got into that was my friends had some tapes and they’d come ‘round and say, “record this tonight, I need it back it’s my brothers he’ll kill me if he comes home and it’s not there.” That’s how I got into jungle. I was listening to it on local radio, taping it and listening to it on the way to school. Then I asked my mum and dad for a keyboard, a synth, like when I was 12, 13 and I was just copying all of the riffs and hardcore melodies trying to figure out how they made the sounds.
I was going to ask you about the jungle, drum n’ bass influence in your sound and you just answered that question. I used to DJ quiet a bit and I had a serious drum n’ bass fascination in the mid-90s here in NYC. And I love going back to that sound it’s otherworldly and quite beautiful.
It’s there. Yeah. But as a kid I had no idea what they were. Even now, Miles from Demdike Stare, that’s his thing—jungle. That’s his knowledge and that’s what he knows most about and he’ll play me a record and I’ll say, “I know this,” and he’ll say, “yeah, It’s Dillinger from the Metalheads.” I’m now finding out what those tunes were from when I was a kid.
Do you DJ much?
I can’t DJ to save my life.
What do you do live then? What do you use?
Computer, though it’s a world I’m trying to step away from. I’m using Ableton Live and some outboard effects. I just want to move away from the computer a bit. When I’m attending a show and I see someone at a laptop I’m like “ah, that’s me, it could be a bit better.”
That’s always going to be a tough sell for electronic musicians—what to do live with computers. Even when you see someone on the decks it’s a bit more active.
It’s funny, I played in Austin a few months back and I did a breakdown to almost silence–the track breaks down to bare bones—kick drum and a snare. And it’s just like a lot space between the kick and snare, and I drop the kick, waiting for the snare and in that gap someone yelled out “stop checking your emails!”
Yeah. Getting comments thrown out at you like that, I’m like “yeah, I get, I get it.”
What about remixes? What do you get from that?
Yeah. I do enjoy doing them. The last one I did was the Batillus.
Oh yeah, “Concrete.”
That was one of the most challenging remixes I’ve done.
I was gonna ask you about that—remixing a hardcore metal band like Batillus.
Really, really difficult, because the band sent me the stems and everything was maxed out. All the instruments and vocals were filling the room. I was like “how am I going to add any space in here, there’s no room for anything?” But I just worked, and worked at it and it was one of the most difficult remixes I’ve ever done, but it just came down to being one of the most simplest ways of doing it.
Did they approach you?
Yeah, it was great. I played at 285 Kent a couple of years ago and it was part of a metal night with Car Bomber, Batillus and then me. And I think some of the more techno crowd was going to come in after the metal crowd would leave. Anyway, my show got cut short by a hip-hop crew of about 19 lads that got kicked out of their own show and bulldozed into our show with a cd full of beats and went up to the sound guy and said “we’re on in 20 minutes.” So I said, “wicked, I’ll start packing up then.”
I went outside and the Batillus guys were packing up their van and they were really into my music and the label and what I was doing. So we stayed in touch and asked me to do the remix.
What about your side projects, the aliases—like the Millie & Andrea project?
Before the Millie & Andrea album there were some 12” singles and then that went quiet for ages because Miles from Demdike Stare, who I do the Millie & Andrea project with, he got really busy with Demdike Stare and things got really busy for me. Then Miles moved to Berlin, and then I moved, so it was harder to get together. When we’d turn up for shows people were asking, “what’s going on with the Millie & Andrea stuff?” So we started passing files via dropbox and then it came about. And we wanted to give people what they wanted in a more serious manner.
And Lastly, I just love your album covers. They’re just beautiful.
Yeah, that’s another process I do with Shlom. It’s probably the last part of the puzzle. We try and pick an image that reflects the material on the record. Does it say what the music is saying? And I think so far—and ultimately, it’s Shlom that has ended up digging out the image where we’re both like, “wow, that’s amazing, that’s perfect!” We’ve not missed yet.
Faith In Strangers is out November 18th on Modern Love.