I get bored of a setup so pull it apart and start again. But here's nothing worse than dutifully listening to, or making, music, right? And actually, that's something that I think that I sort of fear getting older because me and [Simian Mobile Disco partner] James used to see this all the time, always at festivals. Old DJs. They're just looking like they couldn’t give less of a fuck. Because it's like everything that you valued so much, you just made it so mundane.
Because of the chemotherapy you had for AL amyloidosis, you’ve had an even more intense lockdown and isolation experience this last year, right?
I have, but it was a strange mix of terrifying and delightful. I’ve had a lot of lockdown leading up to an operation I needed to have, a stem cell transplant. I knew I’d need to isolate after that, even before we knew about the national lockdown. So I’d planned it all to keep my brain ticking. I’d made myself – increasingly complex – little rigs of, like, a sequencer into a synth. Then a sequencer and maybe a synth with another sequencer that could do something else. The plan was to take those incrementally into hospital to keep me busy. I thought I might be in for like six weeks. They obviously can’t let you out until your white blood cell count is up to a set level. So anyway, that’s a very chatty way of saying, I knew it was coming for ages, so I’d sort of set it up.
On top of your own health worries, did you have the career and income worries that everybody else had when the pandemic hit?
Yes and no. I think maybe slightly less pointedly, because my illness means the touring that I can do is incredibly limited anyway. So I’d already had that reckoning a few years ago, where I’d gone from two or three gigs a week to, like, “You are likely not to do any more gigs.”
Obviously you’d prefer to have made the decision on your own rather than having it forced upon you, but have you found any positives in not being on the road as much?
Yeah, of course. I really value the time that I’ve spent with my wife and kids. And I see the same in my, very limited, contact with the outside world. It was almost a taboo topic within techno to say ‘I had a lovely day mowing the lawn.’ Or like, ‘oh, guys, I’ve planted a tomato plant. Actually, you know, I don’t watch Blade Runner every morning.’ There is no Berlin mystique in that. It doesn’t speak to the general techno aesthetic. So it’s been lovely to see a lot of people be pretty frank about how meaningless all that has seemed in the last year, right? I feel like there’s a danger that I kind of undermine some of the stuff that I love about techno in saying this, but it feels like the pandemic has allowed people to just be that little bit more honest.
Has domestic life been a catalyst for the more ambient style projects you’ve done recently, including the album, Sollbruchstelle?
Yeah. I mean, I think even since the start, James and I had been more interested in that side, in the texture of it.
Speaking of the start, I was going to ask if ‘We Are Your Friends’, which is now 15 years ago, even feels like the same lifetime?
I do think that there’s a lot of real charm to the story of it. It was sort of unloved, really. It was out on Kitsune, then International Deejay Gigolo Records did it – illegally, actually – and it was kind of self supporting. Now it’s turned into that laughable American movie which has ended my relationship with it really. So I don’t feel any pride in it, but there’s some warmth there.
But to go back to the ambient question. Externally, it might seem like a bit of a handbrake turn towards more ambient. But a lot of the stuff that me and James were listening to, and making, had a kind of an ambient side to it, or Kraut rock, all that kind of tackle. We constantly like go back to like Raymond Scott, so I think there was always at least one foot out of making functional club records. And I don’t mean that disparagingly to functional club records because I’ve tried to make a load of them. And it’s not easy to make a simpler record.
The cliche is that music is therapy for people. After the year you’ve had, what are your thoughts on that?
I mean, it’s dreadful, isn’t it, the idea of music as therapy?
I think anything that just gets you in the moment can be therapy.
Yeah. So 100%, I can say that it has been in that capacity. I was basically bricking it in the run up to my operation, you know, as you would, but music helped take my mind off it.
Was the operation something that had been coming? Or is it because the illnesses got worse?
No. So when I was first diagnosed, I had slightly over half a year of chemotherapy, which is good. I had a period of remission after that. But typically, you never really know when you’re going to relapse. But the doctor sort of said, ‘it’s not going to be long’, so the best opportunity is for you to have this stem cell transplant, which statistically might give you a longer period before your next relapse. So I was like, OK mate. It gets to all the organs with the exception of the brain. I’ve got it in all of them.
Can you feel it in any way. Does it hurt?
It’s a really weird one, actually, because you don’t seem ill. Obviously, when you’re having chemo you seem ill because you’re shagged. But living with it, there’s no external symptoms, with the exception of the fact that you increasingly don’t function very well. So l’ll just get a bit tired on a walk. But I’m 40 years old, I’m supposed to get tired on a walk. A lot of people just don’t notice they have it. When I went in with it, they said I probably had a month or two before it would have got me.
I read that the prognosis for some people is a matter of months, and for others it’s years.
I’ve not met anyone at the place that’s done 10 years. They said the average expectancy was 40 months, which I think I’m coming up for.
How do you deal with that? Or don’t you?
Yeah, honestly, not really. The way that the people at the doctors deal with it is just really plainly. When they diagnosed me, they said, ‘this week, you need to move all your accounts over into your wife’s name,’ all of that stuff, just like all the really practical stuff. You have a think about it and then it just goes in a drawer.
Has it changed the way you spend your time?
It’s an interesting question, because I think I asked myself that question to a certain extent, and I still don’t know. Because you sort of expect that you’re going to have this revelation based on the reckoning of your own mortality. But you don’t. I’ve sort of continued kind of the same, actually.
You’ve been pretty prolific.
Most of that is from not touring, honestly. I remember the first thing I did after my diagnosis was some remixes of Murmurations. I think I did 15 of them. I was just knocking out one a day, or one every other day, or something like that. And it felt so good. Just that moment where you’d sort of forgotten the situation, and would just sit a desk. It felt really like a mixture of having a bit of my old life back. But then also like, a sense of, yeah, like this new situation is OK. I think this is good.
So now you’re actually living in some in some sort of studio in the garden?
Exactly, yeah. Basically, the cottage we moved to six or so years ago, there’s a barn next to it and I’ve turned it into a studio. So I live in here. My isolation, to a certain extent, has allowed my wife and kids to continue with their life.
How are you with your own company?
Yeah, fine. I’m not a chatty man. I feel like it like anyone who makes electronic music, we’re already good at being lockdown. Even before I was ill, or before lockdown, I’d come back off tour see the kids, they go off to school, and I’d go in the studio and be perfectly happy not seeing anyone.
What about the great artistic desire to share your own creations with a with a live audience? Have you had any yearning for that? What would a live show or DJ set from you even sound like now?
I mean, I’m not planning for anything. But similarly, I really want to go out and play again. I feel like there’s a real balance to be struck between touring and studio work. If you tour a lot, it really negatively impacts your studio work because basically the studio gets the scraps of your week, you’re basically recovering when you’re back at home.
So something that’s become increasingly important to me is to get some tracks together and then test them in a room, because there’s a cold objectivity that just can’t be replicated in that process. You get the music on your USB, and you think that it’s gonna be great and then you stand in front of people, and you see that file and you think no, not now, or yeh, this one is right. That reaction, you can’t mock it up at home. You feel it differently in the club, your perception of time is really different. Like when you listen to a really tool-y record at home, it’s boring. But actually, in the club, it’s right, because time dilates. There’s so many times that I’ve heard a record and thought it was gold and then found out later I’d already got it or you’d heard it but dismissed it because I heard it in the wrong setting.
Do you bear that end context in mind when writing your own records?
So that one’s kind of interesting. I do think about where something is supposed to exist. The new record is supposed to exist, probably on headphones, in a room a bit like this, you know, a normal domestic room, because we’ve all spent a lot of time in room about this big recently.
I still particularly like quite unmusical stuff. It doesn’t use any of the proper musical mechanisms. There’s no kind of ‘Sitting on the Dock of the Bay’ with a middle eight, chorus, this kind of thing.
You have some formal skills though, from days with Simian playing guitar and keys, so do you try and forget those formal understandings?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s not a rule, but like, generally speaking, I don’t touch keyboards because I find when I do, what I make is much more like a song in a way that I don’t want it to be.
I think, at a fundamental level, it doesn’t feel very special if its done properly. That’s not to disparage those songs, but the core complexity isn’t where the value is.
And you’re allowed to say that because the setup you used for this new record, Sollbruchstelle, was really quite a massive collection of interconnected gear, as people saw in the video you did for Fact Magazine (embedded below). In fact, I was going to ask you whether each new project starts with a sort of big physical build before you even start making sounds. Is that as much of the excitement for you and the joy of it as what comes out?
Definitely, yeah. But there is a danger to it, because I’m completely aware that that’s not music. You know, like, that isn’t the music. But I love the fact that music and meaning comes out of really quite an arbitrary little system.
Are you as anal and geeky about other aspects and processes in your life?
Probably, yeah, but I have a very narrow range of interests. This record was like a way to get back into programming. One of the tools I use is a tiny little box that does all the work, basically a Raspberry Pi. And you can just write code for it. At first, you’re faced with what looks like a page of HTML. So once you realise what it’s doing, it means you can have an idea and add a bit of code and see what happens.
It’s quite sort of procedural. And you can just bang them out really quickly. It’s like a modular synth set up but without needing loads of cables. I just bash stuff out and see whether it’s musical, because, honestly, 90% of them aren’t very musical. So it’s definitely a trial and error process rather than the music hearing in your head. I like it because it takes me out of the process. And I find the best stuff I make has the least amount of me in it. I’m the least interesting sequencer in the room.
Has enough time passed for you to listen back to the album and have a more objective view of it?
I think those tunes, they feel quite pensive. Not playing them directly but programming them gives you a little bit of distance. Like if you play something on a piano and come back to it you can still feel attached to it and close to it.
I do think there’s a kind of clear mood to the album. It really does feel like last year felt to me. Before I went into hospital, I really had a wrong idea of what it would be like. I thought I’d be stuck in there for six weeks, kind of fine and kind of bored. Or just attached to a drip, and maybe this would result in some music. So I made these little systems I could take in there. And as it happened, that panned out totally differently. I made no music in hospitals.
But, afterwards, when I was back home, and the stuff that I made leading into the operation, you can kind of tell it had a huge effect on it. It seems oddly satisfying for that to come out of code.
The title of the album translates as ‘ought to break point’. Are you giving yourself a subtle little pat on the back there?
What do you mean?
Well, having, you know, lived through a serious illness and a pandemic but still managing to get out a record without breaking down?
Well done me!
Well, I mean, that’s fair enough.
I haven’t thought about it like that. Probably. Yeah. But I think it’s the sort of tension in it. So the breaking bit is sad, but when you look at something that ought to break or needs to break, it somehow spins around to being positive, you know. The phrase seemed to touch a lot of different things. And all of them felt like they were either good or bad. And none of them were kind of ambivalent. But I think that I quite enjoy a good bit of contradiction. I think I’ve always liked things that slightly undermine themselves, if that makes any sense.
What am I leaving you to go and do for the rest of your day?
I’m going to have a go on the rig I built for the Patch Notes thing for Fact Mag. Just basically just see if it does anything better.
Do you ever get sick of it and think I don’t want to see a machine for a few days?
I get bored of a setup so pull it apart and start again. But here’s nothing worse than dutifully listening to, or making, music, right? And actually, that’s something that I think that I sort of fear getting older because me and [Simian Mobile Disco partner] James used to see this all the time, always at festivals. Old DJs. They’re just looking like they couldn’t give less of a fuck. Because it’s like everything that you valued so much, you just made it so mundane.
Those people seem to the people who have been brilliant at one thing and then run out of steam. Whereas you’ve always had a much more diverse sound and been involved in different projects.
We’ve just been really selfish. Maybe not the most sensible idea from a kind of career point of view. Maybe doing those slightly stupid things prevented us from, you know…
Like the album you did with the Deep Throat Choir. People who take the piss out of music collectors always say like ‘oh, have you got any Cambodian throat singing records?’
Yeah, yeah. Guilty.
Well if that’s the key to longevity, and to a continued interest in what you do, it’s working for you.