Andy Turner of Plaid on The Black Dog, Michael Arias, Scintilli and virtues of soft synths
Andy Turner and Ed Handley of Plaid (due Saturday, November 19, at the Bluebird) were part of the groundbreaking electronic music project The Black Dog in the late '80s through the earliest part of the '90s with Ken Downie. Mixing ambient soundscaping with textured, syncopated rhythms, The Black Dog became one of the early bands associated with what came to be called IDM.
That emergent aesthetic, or perhaps approach to making electronic music, could be found in the music of Autechre, Boards of Canada and Aphex Twin, to name but a few. Though Plaid's first album, Mbuki Mvuki came out in 1991, it wasn't until the later part of the 90s that the duo of Turner and Handley made their band together their obvious priority. In September, Plaid put out its seventh full-length album, Scintilli on the respected Warp imprint with a live tour booked to follow. We had a chance to speak with Andy Turner before he embarked on the North American leg of the tour about The Black Dog, Michael Arias, Scintilli and the increasing virtues of soft synths for the touring electronic musician.
Westword: How did you first become exposed to Chicago and Detroit techno and what was it about that music that struck a chord with you?
Andy Turner: It was through some of the big kind of warehouse parties that happened in the UK towards the end of the 80s. At that period I was going out a bit more than I probably do these days. It was in my late teens and early 20s. Previously, I had listened to some Detroit music, as far as electro goes, obviously Juan Atkins and there were a few other Detroit artists making electro music. That was the kind of genre music that both Ed [Handley] and myself were into at that point. But the warehouse parties opened it up a bit and it was probably the tracks like "Strings of Light" that we heard that sort of broadened our interest in electronic music.
When you were younger you got into hip-hop. What about that music lead to the type of music you're making now?
Oh, yeah. For us, anyway, hip-hop seemed to arrive in the UK around about '84 or '85 and Ed and I were at school together then. That's was when really first heard about that scene. In the area we grew up in, people were generally getting into a kind of rock and heavy metal but that didn't particularly appeal to us. So we were sort of a small faction. In a way, I suppose hip-hop got us into electronic music, because it was this sort of passion for that music and hip-hop in general, the sort of art and dancing, the whole thing, that eventually lead me to find a pirate radio station when I moved to London. That introduced me to other parties and things, I guess. So yeah, it was a stepping stone.
When you were doing Black Dog at the same time as Plaid, was there any kind of musical dividing line or point of delineation between the music you created for either?
The Plaid project, the Plaid album we did very early on, was a project Ed and I did independently. The delineation was that Ken [Downie] wasn't involved in that particularly thing. Though we did actually did an album called Bytes on Warp, which was our first album on Warp, in fact. Which came under the banner of Black Dog Productions but there were a couple of Plaid tunes that I wrote that were on the album. We all chose different pseudonyms for that record mainly for contractual reasons because we were signed to Black Dog so it came out as Black Dog Productions with various pseudonyms. So there was a crossover and obviously two of that three were Plaid so there was a deep connection. Possibly there was more of a leaning of our love of hip-hop because Ed and I had come from that background. Ken was a little older and hadn't been exposed to that as much.
How did you start working with Michael Arias and what is about him and his work made it attractive to work with him on a second film?
We were incredibly lucky that he tracked us down. He'd seen us play live, I believe in New York, many years before he got to the Tekkon [Kinkreet] job. And he decided that we were the people he wanted to work with when he got into a position to be making a movie. So he got into contact with us through Warp and that's how that relationship started. We consider ourselves pretty good friends with him now. We were very happy to work with him again for Heaven's Door and we will be again on future projects when they come up.
We don't have a huge amount of experience working with directors but it seems like it's a pretty tough job because you have to be quite a good negotiator, I guess, in a way, because you've got money interests on one hand and artists on the other side and the director sort of seems to communicate between the two factions. He had a very relaxed style, which may not be typical of directors, and he's a very good communicator and able to get his ideas across and make projects work. It's always been very easy working with him.
Do you think your writing for those soundtracks was different from the way you would write music for one of your albums?
Yeah, very much so, because we were directed by Mike. There would be prior discussions about what he was trying to get from the various scenes or occasionally he would have a temp track that he thought fit quite well. On the whole they were tracks of our own so we weren't having trying to emulate other artists. So he was basically calling the shots. He gives us a very free reign even though he'll be quite specific about mood and sometimes the style but he's very open to us offering something else. So that happened some of the time and some of the time we've gone along to match exactly what he's given us.
Do you give much creative input on your music videos? The visual element of your shows seems so important but maybe you don't.
It's a mixture, really. At the moment we're sort of playing half a video we've been involved in the making of or other types of video with our music in mind. And half is this kind of reactive graphic material that is rendered from a Quartz Composer patch that we've made and we're just able to just throw the data at that and get a tightly composed accompaniment to the music so it's almost like a lighting show. We play a few of the videos we've made at the past including the two for Scintilli and we've been changing every night depending on the audience and what we feel like playing?
Who designed the cover on Scintilli and why did you think the image of an ambigram suited this album?
It was kind of a collaborative effort. We had the initial idea and we worked with a graphic designer to help us to realize the layout. It was quite playful, really, and I think the initial idea was that we realized that in the word "Scintilli" the i's were equidistant and we initially had the i's in a circle separated by twenty degree angles. That was obviously easy to pull out into an X,Y,Z axis. Once we made those i's three dimensional we could sort of see that it was possible to build the other letters out of blocks and sort of make this pleasing graphic shape. The Plaid logo works quite well in that form. It was really just quite playful and there's no strong message. I guess it's just a nice piece of graphics, I think.
Why did you cover Plone for that Warp20 compilation rather than another Warp Records artist?
We're just big fans of Plone. We toured with them quite a few years back now. They're not strictly signed to the label anymore and they've gone on to do other things. We really just enjoyed working with them and we thought they were particularly good live. That track was quite appropriate because we are working from a shed these days. We had pretty much free reign to choose anything and that's one that appealed to us.
You said you're working from a shed these days?
I'm playing it down a little bit. It's strictly a log cabin at the bottom of the garden that we've built and had sound proofed. It's kind of a four meter by four meter space and we can make noise twenty-four hours a day. I think everybody needs a shed from time to time. I highly recommend it. It's definitely worth the investment.
There's a terrible pun of a title on Scintilli that I thought was funny with "Eye Robot." Is there a story behind that and is your process for naming songs and albums more serendipitous or do you usually have a concept behind the songs that suggest titles?
Obviously there's the movie and the book that it was based on. In fact, the name came more from the video we made with a friend where we slowly deconstructed a robot. I collect robots and we took one apart and filmed it as we were taking it apart and finally there was just one eye left so it's more from that than the movie. Though I do like the original story.
What kinds of technical challenges do you face when you play far away from home and what have you done to overcome those challenges over the years?
We've been really scaling down for the last ten years primarily because of the hassle and the amount of equipment we've damaged travelling over the years. Our old analog stuff now has one problem or another, generally, due to insane baggage handlers. Now we have pretty fast Macs and we use iPad controllers with TouchOSC environments built and that's pretty much it. Another Mac for graphics. We just fit the iPads into these new Alesis iPad docs so we can send Midi from them to the music Macs and to the video so everything is kind of linked together through the old school Midi. But we can get away pretty much with just backpacks now. So it makes things a lot easier and the TouchOSC gives you a lot of potential with the controller environment set-up so we're pretty happy with it at the gigs we've done here in Europe. That's where we are at the moment.
It's pretty much a software made album this time. In the end we did use some analog bits and pieces here and there but very little. Hardly any found sounds. There's a little bit of real guitar on one of the tracks. But there are some really great virtual synths out there now. The virtual synths give you a huge amount more possibility with modulation than the old analog synths did unless you can, obviously, afford a huge modular rack of something. So yeah, it's slightly out of convenience but they also offer more potential, in a way, than the old analog machines did and that's why we've moved that way and I can't really see things going backwards now. The quality is just going to get better and better as the processors get faster. So we had to take a leap at some point and I suppose this is the first album that we've gone all out with the virtual synthesizers.
Follow Backbeat on Twitter: @westword_music