Pitchfork: It's been three years since your last record, what is the process like for those three years for you? Are you guys working on music all the time or is it stop and start? How does an album come together over that period of time?
Rob Brown: Normally, we release an album, maybe tour, maybe not, then go back in the studio and work on new tracks without an idea on what an album is supposed to be. We then choose the best tracks from what we've done over the years. But this time, it's taken a little bit longer because a few factors. We toured after Untilted came out in 2005-- we pretty much toured straight away and it took us around Europe for three weeks and around America for virtually three weeks and in Japan for a week, and [altogether] that's like two months. We'd never normally be away from the studio for that long.
And Sean then moved to Manchester from Suffolk, so part of our studio was in limbo for a while. I was still working in London a lot, but we found ourselves working in a more portable world, like laptops and hardware from the live set. We could just open up the flight cases and get the hardware going straight away and actually have new material on the spot within minutes. Whereas in the studio, you've got your computer, and if it's not hooked up to your MIDI interface and therefore the rest of your gear, you're not necessarily going to get the results you want to achieve. When you work on a computer in the studio, it's almost like fossilizing on the spot, you know, the idea of getting solidified on the spot, like a snowflake might create branches by accumulation.
And this record is almost the opposite. Originally we were supposed to try and put down the Untilted live set before we moved on, but we moved forward a bit too quick, didn't actually recorded the live set, just got on with jamming and ended up producing days and weeks and weeks of multi-channel audio material. They were new ideas, and we didn't really use a computer to compose anything for ages. It gave us a real feel for this "versions" mentality. Like, you know, when back in the day when Depeche Mode put out a single you knew that a week later you could go and buy the 12" and it would have six versions and they were all better. And we knew that our material had this potential and we wanted to somehow fulfill that potential and ended up boiling down some of the bigger ideas into realistic track lengths. We didn't want to release just another album of ten tracks.
Pitchfork: Yeah, that's obviously something that you notice right away: There's 20 tracks here, there's a range in terms of how they sound-- they're quite different from each other-- and it seems more like a collection of miniatures, where each track has its own idea that it develops.
RB: Yeah. I guess some of the tracks have had to become very, very discrete edits of what might normally be a longer piece of material. I've got longer versions lying around-- this is one of the things we've done with the versions approach. But it's weird, because usually when we do an album the goal isn't to create a homogonous piece-- maybe there's a narrative, but that comes down right when you're compiling an album of tracks that you've written over two years. But in this case, a lot of the ideas were put down in a very close, related period of time. And oddly enough, it comes out, like you said, more of a diverse palette.
Pitchfork: It seems like for this album in particular the sequencing was especially important. It has a sense of an arc over the twenty tracks, where it starts in this sort of more conventionally beautiful place with the dubby drone opening ["Altbzz"] and then toward the end it seems like it's folding back into that a bit ["Outh9X"].
RB: Yeah, I guess the orientation of the album does do that, it does kind of apex and then sort of diffuse again. I think, had the tracks been longer, we could've put maybe a massive track in the middle or three quarters of the way through, but the flow would've been really disturbed.
Pitchfork: When you guys are either playing live or jamming in the studio, how much control do you have over what happens moment to moment? Are decisions are being made every few seconds, or are you planning ahead a few minutes? I'm trying to imagine how the live process works for you when you're playing like that.
RB: Well, live on stage is one thing, because you haven't got the benefit of hindsight. You can't go back and edit during the live set in the club. In the studio it's different. We had the best of both worlds on this album because we were behaving like we were onstage in a live scenario, just jamming, but actually a bit more reckless, in that one of us could free up the moment. So we had this nice little best of both worlds thing where these ideas were blooming on the spot, they were developing as we wanted them to, but without this analytical, retrospective editing procedure.
Pitchfork: Do you ever feel limited by technology? Where you have ideas or songs that you're imagining or certain arrangements that, because of the tools you have, can't be realized?
RB: Well, you've got to be realistic. You can sit in front of a computer and have a blank slate and be completely overwhelmed by the possibilities and not get anywhere. At the same time, you can get the oldest drum machine out and whack out four sounds like a kick, snare, and two types of high-hat, and try and come up with the freshest thing on the spot. The gear can guide you-- you can choose one bit of gear and it's obviously got its restrictions and its limitations, but at the same time, you've got to exploit what it's capable of and what it's best used for. Sometimes you try not to be too overly analytical, trying to let it flow for a bit first and see where it's leading you and then see what sticks to it, see what it implies. A lot of it is implications. Some of our earlier albums, like Confield, are almost all implied music. But it's cohesive because we spent long enough fashioning the idea down-- to a shape, if you like-- that actually resembles music.
But it's funny, I've actually seen some of your writing before, and I touched upon something that you said once about traveling and listening to music and spaces. Movement through spaces, with music not as an intentional narrative, but as a result of something that becomes narrative. And it's weird, because I've been doing a lot of things lately, like, I've got a family now, so if driving down the motorway, really loud music is not always going to happen. But let's say I'm traveling somewhere with the kids in the back and I've got my headphones on, and I'm listening to some of our older material. When you're in motion on the motorway in the rain at night and you've got streetlights, headlights, vapor trails, liquid patterns and so on.
And when you're in the studio, you've got a narrative for what goes on, you might switch on a bit of gear and it might not work as you intended or come out a bit wrong, and you try and exploit it. A lot of our experience with gear is, if you know it well enough, no matter how simple it is, you can find something that it perhaps wasn't intended for. Or certainly something that nobody else has managed to touch upon yet. I mean let's face it, we're all clones nowadays. We've all got the same archives, we've all got the same Hyundai, we've all got the same Mac or PC components, and we're all being told the same news stories globally. It's like you can get a little bit philosophical about it-- there's not much room for deviation, yet if you manage to crack it, there then you can express things that actually do sound unique and genuinely original.
Pitchfork: Right. Sometimes your music seems to move in areas where it sounds like music's never sounded before, and then there's other times you can tell that perhaps it references something that you listened to in the past, whether it's 80s electro or what have you. I'm thinking of like "The Plc" or "rale" on the new record. I know you've talked about Mantronix, that at some point you guys were very into that kind of sound. Do you feel nostalgia for music of the past, and does that ever inform what you do now? What's the difference between putting a twist on something that has meant something to you as a listener and try and go in an area where it feels completely new?
RB: Yeah, I think there are times when we're making a track and then something will stop and there'll be a certain frequency from a certain sound or something unexpected and suddenly you'd think you were listening to Man Parrish or something. There'll be this weird sound that evokes those memories, and yeah, I'll be one to exploit that. And at the same time, I get nostalgic for things that didn't really exist. I might have a cassette from the first time a Melle Mel track, say, got played on radio in Manchester. And it might be a copy of a copy of a copy of a tape and there's all these weird nuances and distortions that have affected what I know as the truth, if you like, of that track. And I'll go and download or buy that original 12 and get it home and go, "Whoa, it sounds flatter than my version, the one that I've had for 15 years in my head is actually more exotic than had originally been intended in the studio at the time of making it."
So I know that there's a lot of room to maneuver in those kind of ghostly musical spheres, you know what I mean? And we try and lean on those elements and try and blur the lines between certain sounds. I think that's the way some of the magic of music can be, even if it is a little bit from nowhere. Even if it doesn't really have any bearing on reality or grounding as a real piece of music. It might be an homage to a track that just sounds like my memory of a track, an homage to that memory as opposed to trying to recreate exactly how the song is.
Pitchfork: Was there anything that you heard along the way, say in the 80s, when you guys were younger, that made you want to make music. Something that set you on the idea that you should start making tracks? Things that inspired you?
RB: Well neither of us had any background musically before we met. So if we'd have been in bands already, then yeah, we might've met and had these particular pursuits in mind. But when we met, I had turntables and he had a tape deck and we'd do turntable mixes and edit them on his tape deck. And those mixes were augmented by a little drum machine we might've bought or borrowed off someone in town or at college or wherever. But in terms of direction, and an imprinted ideology of what we should do as musicians, it's hard to say. But I know there were certain tracks that blew us away: certain Mantronix, certain Art of Noise, certain Man Parrish. Just the fact that someone could use a DMX drum machine, just this off-the-shelf machine that everyone in New York had and everyone was producing different kinds of tracks, whether it was soul, rock, or rap. All they did was tweak in a different way, on a mixing board. And to me, an untrained ear, a young person at the time, I would hear off the different feels, all these different sounds, and then years later realize that everyone had used the same equipment, just to their own ends. That kind of inspired me to find facets in any particular hardware and sort of make it your own.
Pitchfork: When you guys finish a record like you have now, and soon it's going to be out in the world, are you guessing on how people are going to respond to it?
RB: When we're making it?
Pitchfork: Well, either when you're making it or when it's done. Do you have an idea that some people might find this difficult or some might find this more accessible?
RB: Yeah, we have ideas about it. But I always think as we go along, despite a lot of people thinking that everything gets more and more difficult, I always assumed that people are going to be "Oh, at last you buckled, you're trying to be commercial." So I've already spoke to a few people today who still think this one is challenging. But I sometimes wonder when we're editing whether people are just going to think we've sold out. I have just settled down and listened to Incunabula and Amber and realized, in retrospect, how cheesy they were, and how contrasted our newer ideas are. Even though I might still think we're still banging out big riffs and big beats and whatever sort of cinematic, cheesy moments, you just realize that you're too close. It's hard to pin down and it's a hard one to predict.
Pitchfork: Do you feel like you have any responsibilities to your audience?
RB: I don't, always. It's weird because, again, that's been fashioned over time. It's that "misunderstood artist" complaint, that no matter what you do, if you're just following your nose and doing things by instinct, some people out there will just presume that it's all contrived. They'll read it as they see it from their own projected input. So it's very hard to predict what people are thinking. I've learned to relax because, nearly always, our newest effort will be rejected in favor of the last one. When Confield came out, it was like, "This is difficult, this is really hard" or with Draft 7.30 or the latest one or whatever, until it flutters out. It seems like people need to get into the last album until they can tolerate the next one. And then, slowly but surely, by the time the new one's available, they've gotten into the last one and they really love it. So I wouldn't judge people on their instant responses.
Pitchfork: You guys have been with Warp for a long time and, like any label, Warp has changed over time. Especially in the last few years, they've signed rock bands and hip-hop acts-- does it feel different being in the Warp community now than it did 10 years ago?
RB: Well, kind of. But then again, we all used to live in the same town in Sheffield, we all used to live really close by and we used to call on each other and stuff. Now London's a bit bigger and there's more staff and there're new faces a lot of the time. But [change] keeps the label alive, for starters, it keeps things moving. I think they would've folded years ago if they had concentrated only on electronic music. And there's been periods when some of the electronic music they've signed hasn't been really as good as it should've been. We're just lucky to still be on the books, and I think we've managed to respect their position as much as they respect ours. They leave us alone-- they're interested and they really responded well to the latest album, but at the same time, they don't hassle us for deadlines and they don't try and make us order tracks around. As long as they like it, I think they should keep putting it out; if they stop liking it, then I would question whether we're on the right label. But as far as the other stuff they like, I would never be so critical or so pompous to assume that they're doing the wrong thing and we're doing the right thing.
Pitchfork: It seems like music is something a lot of people have on in the background these days, and your music is more enjoyable the more attention you pay to it. Hopefully people are still doing that as much as they once did.
RB: Certainly, when I get an album, I'm still of that mentality or that age where I might not inspect it in the shop, I might just go on reputation and buy it and then play it end to end a few times. But then later it will end up just coming on, like on my iTunes library, and I'll repeat it without stop, and it actually becomes part of my day to day existence. I think if people treat us like that, then we're still doing the right thing.
So I'm not going to kick myself, that we're not in the days of 1986 when we were all 14 and everyone was breakdancing and body-popping and BMXing and pretending they lived in New York. But there is a kind of yearning for a big musical movement to blow everything else away, and I guess r&b is kind of holding everything back in that regard. The only developments you get are like Timbaland might tweak something here or there more than he did last year, or people will go get the acoustic guitar samples out and Neptunes will jump on it. There's these things, but I think we're just in our own little world trying to have our new ideas in slightly newer contexts. I think that's the same plan that we've always had since day one, slipping into the cracks in a society of music that doesn't quite deliver the things that we need personally from it.