Over the past three years Andy Turner and Ed Handley AKA Plaid have been working on their new album ‘Scintili’. During this time they’ve also produced the soundtrack for Michael Arias’ feature film Heaven’s Door and have been performing closely with Felix’s Machines, hence why it’s taken almost five years for their album to be released.
We caught up with Plaid at Warp’s headquarters in Kentish Town, London to find out the finer details of their new album and how they’ve personally developed.
What have you been up to since your last musical output?
Andy: We’ve completed two feature film soundtracks, which were quite a lot of work and we’ve been involved in a few collaborations. We worked with a Gamelan group at the Southbank and with the Javanese composer Rahayu Suppangah. We’ve also been working with Felix Thorn AKA Felix’s Machines and we wrote some music for his machines.
Suppangah was in residence at the Southbank a couple of years ago and we initially worked with him for a performance at the Ether festival 2009, which went well, so we stayed in touch with the Gamelan group and ended up writing more material and doing a short tour earlier this year. We hope to record that at some later date but just recently the album has been a lot more important to finish.
How did you meet Felix Thorn and get involved with working with his machines?
Ed: Up where I now live, near Aldeburgh, there is a festival called ‘Faster than Sound‘ which is broadly electronic and they bring in alternative artists to collaborate with each other. You end up spending a week or so in Suffolk making something specific for the event. Its been going for the past 6 years or so and we played at the first two, I think, at the second one we met Felix, who was in a side room with his machines.
Andy: We saw his machines and just thought it was really special and attractive. Of course there are other people who are doing this but there was something special about Felix’s Machines. The way that he’d built it, everything being made of wood and homemade, it was very organic mixing old instruments with new technologies, there was something very musical about them. His main aim for the machines was to make music with them, so that was very appealing.
When you and Felix played live together at your shared event at Village Underground, were you just playing your music through Felix’s Machines or did you write specific compositions for them?
Andy: We wrote new tracks for the machines.
Ed: We went down to stay with him for a few days near Brighton. Originally we had been working with samples from the machines but when we finally got there we could work with the actual machines.
What are the limitations of working with Felix’s Machines?
Ed: Micro-phoning them up is the big one, because there are so many machines in close proximity and they’re all percussive it’s tricky to get a decent volume from them. Plus there’s so much stuff going on it’s very hard to mix. The other issue is the latency, the delay from when you send a midi signal and the machines pick that up and actually hits something.
Andy: You almost have to go through beat by beat, and adjust each beat to it.
Ed: However part of the appeal of it is that it is this loose junkyard band kind of thing. It does have this really nice loose sound and slightly unpredictable sound to it.
Felix’s Machines is something that you have to witness in real life, it’s a spectacle. The problem with it is that you can’t translate it into an album, as you don’t experience how the music is actually created. Do you plan to work with Felix to create a studio album?
Andy: Yeah we’d like to.
Ed: He’s got an album together.
Andy: We’re likely to do more live performances with Felix, as he sees it as an audio-visual thing. For his last show he’s been building in all these bright LED lights to show them off further. So when writing music we need to think of the music and how it will look visually. So we may be looking at a live performance and a release as well.
Ed: He talks about it as acoustic synthesis, so recording it all in one go doesn’t really make that much sense because it’s a bit like an old band from the 1970s, where you have all the instruments playing together and you just record it in one take. However with Felix’s I think we’ll have to record the machines individually and then do some post processing and production on them. I reckon it would be a really good sonic experience but it’s a lot of work.
From working with Felix and then working on your new album ‘Scintili’ I can hear some direct influences from his machines. What’s your opinion about this?
Andy: Yeah for sure, I mean everything you do and learn, you can’t help but be influenced, but I don’t think that we’ve tried to steal his sound! Working with Felix and the Gamelan has made us think about compositions slightly differently and we’ve tried to record the new album in a more dynamic way and less loud than contemporary electronic production, which is sort of striving for this constant volume but got sick of that sound. It’s lack of feeling; it’s very brittle, abrasive and aggressive, which excludes a lot of other emotive movements.
Ed: It’s just us making something a bit more acoustic, even though little of it is actually acoustic; it’s just got an ‘acousticy’ sound.
How long have you been working on the new album?
Ed: Probably in concentrated amounts, about two or three years but during this time we’ve made a lot of new tracks, some have made it on, some haven’t. A lot of them we’ve played out live but by the time it came to get an album together we rejected those tracks because they’d already been heard and there were versions on YouTube and everywhere so they’d had quite a lot of exposure. I think we’ll probably go back to these tracks and rework them.
When you started off on this new project, did you have a pre-conceived idea about what you wanted to achieve?
Andy: Sort of, we had a few ideas and concepts. One was a more minimal approach, a lot of our stuff tends to layer synthesis in order to get a result and we had this idea that we’d just try and make the individual sound palettes strong enough to work with in their own right, throughout the track. I’m not sure if we’ve entirely done that but we’ve taken a step back and gone for a more minimal sound in a way, where each part was necessary and we couldn’t cut anything out.
Ed: I think that in most cases we used that as a sort of trigger to start working on it. After that you tend to get carried away on creating music anyway and you forget why you started it in the first place.
It’s not like a science project where you stick to the formula, when making music we often end up doing whatever works.
Would you say the body of music within ‘Scintili’ is a personal reflection of you each?
Ed: It’s more of a search to make yourself feel better, so you’re actually trying to alter as opposed to reflect how you feel.
Andy: Yeah you get a feeling if something is working, it could be described as getting goose-bumps, there’s a feeling of excitement or something within, and so that’s generally a good sign.
I read that you’ve just recently finished building a new studio, how new is it?
Andy: Yeah we have, although it’s not a conventional studio, it’s more of a shed. It’s a space where we can work. We did have a space very close to Warp HQ, but we couldn’t afford to maintain it to be frank. So our new ‘shed’ is a place where we can spend 24 hours a day working on music, where we don’t pay rent or anything like that, and there’s nothing more glamorous than that and the fact that I don’t have far to go to get there.
Ed: Yeah! Andy can literally roll down or crawl to it!
Andy: Ed’s just moved out of town, so it takes him much longer to get to. So I guess he’ll be something similar at his place.
Have you always created music in an urban environment or have you traveled out into the countryside to write music?
Ed: We’ve done it a couple of times. For one of the albums we booked a cottage down in Devon, it was a really good idea, quite an intensive week, but we wrote some good stuff.
I guess you can also go outside and record some natural sounds as opposed to the dreary noise of London, police sirens and the infamous rumbles of London busses.
Andy: That’s been done to deaf.
Ed: We did this a lot in ‘Greedy Baby’, there’s a lot of found sound in that but in this album it’s pretty much sample free.
The new albums packaging in my eyes is the sign of modern times of mass downloading and lack of people actually purchasing music physically. To persuade someone to buy the CD, copy it onto his or her computer and then to have this multidimensional CD sculpture is a great idea as it persuades them to buy it. – Who’s idea was it to do this?
Andy: It was our idea and I’m not quite sure how we discovered this idea but it developed.
(At this point we all realize that neither of us have actually seen a physical version of it so Andy leaves the room to grab one to fully demonstrate how it looks)
Ed: Yeah it was Andy’s idea; he’s the one who can explain it.
Was the packaging done by The Designers Republic, or did you do it?
Ed: No, we did all the design for it; I mean it’s a pretty simple design.
(Andy walks back into the room with a copy of the new album, Ed opens it and Andy then constructs it)
Andy: The packaging is in actual fact the same size as a normal CD, so it racks normally, It’s the square size of a normal CD digi-pack.
It’s quite playful I suppose, there was this idea attached to it that once you have the data and ripped the CD what do you do with it? I personally have thousands of CDs taking up space in the shed, some broken some not, you know it’s just a very messy thing.
Also the CD format is a pretty bad format, quality wise, 16bit 44.1 is a terrible way to be distributing music these days especially when you can download a higher quality version.
The track names are all listed on the parts, if you get all the flat edges aligned and the CD wedged in-between it fits them all together.
It looks like an orb.
Ed: Yeah! You can make it into a mobile and hang it.
You can hang it for your babies?
Andy: Yeah my mates just had a baby boy and we’ve been trying to persuade him to let us hang it above his cot.
Ed: Not with the CD in though, bit risky that, a falling plastic CD onto a baby, bit hazardous.
Andy: If you position it at the right rotation, the track names can be read, and this obviously has been done knowing that pretty much everyone is connected to the web now and as soon as you insert the CD into your computer you get the track names appear automatically. It’s playful but it’s pretty much the same price as a standard CD, just a few pence more, the same price as a deluxe CD with a booklet. It’s just a bit of fun; we call it an ‘Executive CD Mausoleum’.
You can put things on it…not much but maybe a Rizla?
Andy: Something for the hamster to play with, yeah.
Who did you work with in order to design it?
Andy: Ourselves basically and a friend of mine, Richie, who’s done a lot of our design work in the past. We got help with the typesetting, however the actual logo on the front and back of the CD cover was our idea. The three dimensions, angles, there was this idea/expression of ‘Squaring the Circle’, which is an idea from Freemasonry to describe how they perceive the perfecting of the individual and how you develop as an individual. You kind of wear away the rough edges of the square. So this is a play on that.
I’m no expert on Freemasonry and I’m not sure if my interpretation is correct but I read that as the individuals as circles can’t construct things. Circles can’t be built into a block or tower structure, in order to make this you need blocks and squares, to square people off so they fit together. I think that we don’t like this idea of being rigid and square.
I also think it’s not a sustainable view of our society, you can make these grand structures but chaos will always pull them apart and people will always want to be the squares at the top of the structure rather than the foundation stone that are taking all the weight. It’s almost like a capitalist ideal that we don’t particularly like.
Science is also showing us now that these more chaotic structures are more sustainable and that circles and spheres moving together is actually a great idea, it may take up a bit more space but there’s this natural order that formed, that’s almost beyond our ability to calculate and predict but all molecules and atoms are circular and we’re obviously still trying to understand these things now.
So it was a play on this idea and reversing it, starting off with a square and ending up with something circular. We circle the square!
Very deep explanation! Shame the sticker on the plastic wrapper’s skewered.
Ed: Yeah monkeys put that on!
Andy: Most likely put on by the foundation blocks, but I’m really happy with it. Especially the Plaid logo on the back cover, it looks really great, like Cubert but in a good way!
Will ‘Scintili’ be released on vinyl?
Andy: It will be, I think that’s why it’s been described as our first album for 8 years, because it is the first vinyl piece that we’ve had made. Greedy Baby’s intention was that it would only ever be a DVD but in fact we were pushed to do the CD / DVD pack.
With the LP are you going to make a bigger orb?
Andy: Haha, yeah we’d love to but I daren’t ask James about it…in fact I think I did jokingly mention it and he just looked down and ran away.
Ed: We could layer it with a 12” then a 10” and finally a 7” on top. It would look like some 60s piece of furniture.
What about the name of the album ‘Scintili’?
Andy: It originates from Latin, it means a spark and again it’s kind of rather a lefty, socialist idea that we all need many sparks to kind of work. I think it’s anti the individual. There are these individuals, geniuses, who are removed from the rest of us. However in this idea we are all moving together, influencing each other in perceptible ways and it takes all of us to spark in order to keep society moving. We should be less idolizing individuals but working together. This is what I believe.
Do you both share this idea or is this just Andy’s point of view?
Ed: Yeah, the idea of many sparks we share, it’s also a very nice image, as it’s sort of what happens when I listen to music, I get sparks when I hear something good. When your eyes close and you’ve got that almost sparking thing going on. That’s what it means.
Andy: There isn’t a concept behind the album, and the album name or it’s track names, but it’s better than a serial number.
Was the name a secondary element that you added once you finished the album?
Andy: No, that probably came before we even started, the idea for the name must have come 3 or 4 years ago initially, because we mentioned it on our website that we’d started work on a new album, from then on we’ve had emails from people asking us when it’s going to arrive.
We did have the idea that when the album was finished, that we’d publish it under a different name and say that ‘Scintili’ hadn’t been finished yet, but that would annoy people.
Ed: It’s sort of good to do that, as people don’t expect it and you get people saying “Wow, I didn’t expect that, we thought Paid had disappeared into obscurity and here’s a new album from them”. So you can create more excitement from that.
It’s like Boards of Canada, everyone says “yeah this year we’ll have a new album.” But there’s no rush or deadline for them.
I guess when you’re at that stature there’s no rush.
Ed: A lot of the time money is the incentive to actually get something out and released. You’ll still be writing music, but to actually package it all up and make it into an album takes a lot of effort. Unless you actually think that yeah this album needs to be heard, but that’s not often the case. It’s just commerce.
Andy: I think we’ve always said with writing that there isn’t really an end, I think when we have to go to the cut that’s the end, because after that there’s always elements that you would change and edit, some aspect of the mix, or the composition you could go on forever, it would change as you learn more things and your taste develops.
Who would you say was responsible in your early teenage years for influencing your musical taste?
Andy: Mainly the very early hip-hop scene, but then to a degree Ska, when we were young there was the two tone scene, which we caught a bit of but the scene which we fell into was the early hip-hop scene. There were all elements to it, the music, the art, this idea of community. It was a very leveling scene rather than the horrible side that rap music brought out. A lot of electronic music that has come out of the UK has been influenced by hip-hop and early American electro tracks.
What about Chicago House and the Detroit scene?
Andy: This came a bit later; Juan Atkins was big in the Detroit scene but was also writing some of the best electro as well. So there were cross over artists anyway.
Ed: I think that was more direct and just before we did our first stuff as Black Dog, and the most direct influence was Detroit and it’s melodic techno sound.
What about equipment, are you still using old modular analogue synthesizers et al?
Ed: Not so much, software has got pretty good now. We do have a lot of equipment but its now either broken or unused, collecting dust. A lot of the equipment tends to break down quite easily. We do plan to take them for repairs, sell some or integrate them back into what we do.
Playing live it’s great to have but it’s really difficult to travel with so much kit and it’s really expensive. Soft synths now are so great and have improved so much, sounding richer, you can do so much different stuff with them. We’re not die-hard analogue aficionados, but we appreciate it.
It’s like with vinyl, the gentle distortion that happens on the vinyl, as it travels up the needle there’s a little bit of feedback, a little bit of distortion and we just love that sound. Maybe this is something more with our generation than the younger generation.
Andy: The industry made such a bad decision when they decided to move away to CDs, because that’s what completely scuppered them in the first place, they can’t turn around now and say “well actually CDs aren’t that good quality” because they’ve been saying for the last 10 years that last forever and they’re indestructible. That was probably the worst move for music ever.
Ed: Environmentally, direct downloads are the way to go. They use up very little resources, electricity and servers but yeah it’s the way to go. If you have 24Bit files, they sound a lot better.
Andy: The engineer who was working on the album applied 25K frequency, which is sort of like beyond hearing a new-born baby but it does have an affect you do perceive the difference. It’s this feeling of air.
Ed: I suppose that it influences all the lower frequencies.
Who was the engineer working on the album?
Andy: Noel Summerville, who’s based in London, in a shed in South London, so we went shed to shed, except his is a nicer shed, a lot more equipment and less clutter.
Being part of the Warp family, you must have worked and collaborated with a number of Warp artists.
Andy: We haven’t collaborated as such but we know some of them from gigs and some of the bigger Warp showcases and we’ve toured with them as well.
Who have you bonded the best relationships with?
Ed: Tom Jenkinson as well, we’ve worked with Squarepusher a bit.
What about Boards of Canada, have you been up to see their Hexagon Sun studio in Scotland?
Ed: No we haven’t been up there, their last live show was in 1991 at Warp’s 10-year anniversary down at Trinity Buoy Wharf, London.
Andy: I think that was the last time we saw them.
What are you doing for the rest of the year and in 2012?
We have some solid touring with this album; we’re going to try and keep it quite concise this time around, as long tours are not great for writing. We’re doing a very condensed tour for 2 months in October and November into early December. We’ll have a short break and then 2012 will be the next thing, maybe Gamelan and Felix, new material ourselves and possibly some film soundtracks. We’ll be announcing the name of our new album in 2012 and we’ll be extending our shed.