What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
I've never cared about studios. I made my first Man Power tracks in the box on an old PC. I took that PC to Berlin and rented a Studio with friends and made my album and borrowed their gear. I bought a Mac for travelling and moved on to making music on that, and then lived between two continents and just begged and borrowed time in friends studios around the world for about 5 years.
I came back to the UK at the beginning of lockdown and set up a little temporary HQ with an Access Virus, Yamaha SY-99, Moog Little Phatty, Toraiz SP16 Sampler and a Mic, which is more than I had for years. I'm someone who uses a computer to make music and as such a computer is the most important tool for me. I love working on new pieces of hardware whenever I can but only as a kind of physical manifestation of an oblique strategy that sends me off on a new creative tangent. I'm output based, so I don't care about what I use to reach that output. Nor do I care what other people have used for their music.
I'm planning on buying a load of synths and planning on setting up a nice space, but that's more with a view of making it available for other people to use and to create a place that promotes creativity for the people of my region. It's undeniable that hardware makes it much easier to collaborate dynamically, and that's something that excites me.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
Technology does all the heavy lifting.
I'm currently writing a symphony as part of my work as the Artist in Residence at Sage Gateshead. That would be impossible for me without a DAW unless I had spent the time it takes to fluently learn the whole new language of notation and to gain a mastery of the instruments involved. However, the rapid-fire multi-track capability of just writing midi on my computer means I can write things to a degree where I can put it in front of the Orchestra and then develop the music further from there.
That's insane. It doesn't imbue me with the genius of the great composers any more than using photoshop would be comparable to painting like a renaisance master , but it offers me a shortcut to creating something that would have otherwise been out of my reach without years of very specific devotion to one form of music writing. At its core, there's something very symphonic about electronic music. A lot of the time the music made by electronic producers represents a kind of instinctive symphony that's born of the harnessed happy accidents that take place in circuit boards.
There's an inherent duality in technology that involves precision in a way that allows very specific control, but in the face of almost unlimited experimental expression which can be harnessed in a base and instinctive way that asks nothing further than "how does it sound?". Technology represents the limitless possibilities in a lump of marble and the tools that can be used to shape it, but both are meaningless to us without someone to combine them and create a form that touches us. If technology is the wind, then we would be the millers that turn its energy into something that benefits people directly.
Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
I'm very basic in my approach. I only used one collection of VSTs and minimal samples for the best part of 5 years, Whenever I get one new piece of software it's a big deal to me and I try to explore it fully. I find the tyranny of choice to be wildly counterproductive. As someone who cares more about output than the process, I try to simplify my approach as much as I can.
Regardless of how much I like to limit myself though, I do recognise that in many ways I'm more of a curator than an author. The noises I make and stitch together are born of a combination of electronic processes, and their inclusion in what I make is informed by my taste which in itself is born of the music I've been surrounded by all my life. I've never consciously gone out of my way to create some kind of new musical form, and in that sense, it's a bit of an exercise in painting inside the lines. The form informs the process and the process informs the output. Even the purest experiments will eventually find themselves being pulled in one direction or another based on what they suggest and how that fits into the musical matrix I've created in my head throughout my life.
I think I may be more conscious of this than some other music makers because I've spent so long working as a DJ and relying on making those associations in a way that other people respond to. Software and my technical limitations interface with my predilections and prejudices to leave very little room for any purposeful act of defined authorship.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
Collaboration has been something I've actively avoided for a long time. Even the music I've done with vocalists etc have been more an act of contribution than collaboration. I've created the music, they've sent their additional contribution, and then I've added it.
Last year I started working with Juan Maclean on the project Juan Power, which aside from being a gift of a name was also the first time I've ever felt entirely comfortable working with someone as a true collaboration. I can't say why, but working with Juan just came very naturally, both in the studio and together as DJs. It feels like something where we enhance each other and it's incredibly rewarding as a result. We started working side by side in his studio, which has enough hardware in it to prevent either of us feeling underemployed at any point. Since then we've worked via correspondence and file sharing as he's based in New York. We've recently nearly finished a new album that was done entirely during the lockdown.
I think the connection with Juan is one of those rare moments of luck though. We're very similar people in a lot of ways. I'm not super open with a lot of people, but I was with him from the moment I met him, and I think that lack of pretence not only occurred naturally but was also something essential for the success of this project.
Other than the project with Juan I've gone from not collaborating very much to now finding myself in the biggest collaborative project of my life. I'm working for Sage Gateshead in creating an ambitious piece of experimental music that combines Orchestral Music, Electronic Music, Film Making, and field recordings of local factories and schools and communities. I'm working with filmmakers, the Royal Northern Sinfonia, the orchestral arranger Fiona Brice, and a whole bunch of amazing people involved in all of the wildly different aspects of this project. I'm learning it all as I go along and I'm just having to apply the same naive enthusiasm that I did when I first started making electronic music.
What does occur to me is that the secret to successful collaboration might be that everybody cares as much about what you're trying to achieve as you do. The work I'm making is conceived to benefit and celebrate the working-class communities in the North East of England and because of that everybody is doing whatever they can to help me finish it. The support I've seen from everybody, and in particular, the Sage itself, has made the whole process incredibly rewarding and pleasurable.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
My wife and daughter are Mexican. I moved back to the UK at the beginning of lockdown to look after my grandparents. They're ninety-one years old and they raised me as their son. The disruption has meant that my wife and daughter have not been able to move to the UK yet and I've been living alone.
I mention this just by way of explaining my situation on a day to day basis. Previously I spent great amounts of time separated from my family, and a lot of that was spent alone, but I was touring and moving from time zone to time zone, as well as from one unique situation to the next. Now I spend ninety per cent of my time alone in one place with very little to differentiate each day. This new situation has meant that I have to consider my mental health. If I'm underemployed I'm prone to depression and paranoia, as well as destructive negative thinking about myself and my worth as a person. Even if I have a lot of things to do, if I enter a self-destructive cycle then my productivity drops.
My days have become a process of making myself busy so that I'm capable of handling being busy. Everything is based around structure, which helps me operate in a way that doesn't make me unhappy. I wake at 8.00 and sleep at 1 every weekday. On weekendss I allow myself a late night and a lie-in. I've learned that if I work none-stop without marking the weeks with a weekend then I will eventually hit a breakdown point.
I run every other day, 10k or more. This employs my body in a way that allows me time to do a mental audit and gives me the most clarity and inspiration. I write a new list every day for all of the things I need to do. I write everything down now. It feels like giving form to my thoughts. There's something magical about, in the strictest and most unromantic "ritual" sense of the world. If I feel like I'm overwhelmed by the things I need to do then I add a weekly plan to my daily lists, which goes into an hour by hour schedule for each day, but I'm usually a lot more flexible than that.
I'm usually working by 10 am, although by working I mean dealing with the necessary admin of running a label, plus working as an artist and as a performer. I'm also setting up a not for profit to help my region, which involves a lot of admin activity too. When I make music I need to usually go through what I call the pain barrier before I'm happy with what I'm making, so I'll usually plan out full days for music-making that give me enough time to commit to it. If I have a specific task such as a remix etc then I'll make that a priority. If I'm just making music for myself then I just try to go with the flow.
Despite all of the rigid pressure I place on myself to be organised with the other elements of my life, I frequently find myself doing the opposite of what I'm supposed to be doing when it comes to making new music by me. I enjoy this though. It means the even though I'm fitting it into prescribed moments there is still an element of what I'm doing that's indulgent and beholden to nothing, least of all my needs.
I'm incredibly fast when I need to make something with a purpose, and incredibly slow when it's just for the sake of it, choosing instead to stop and start again and follow whatever tangents present themselves to me. I used to just right whenever the mood caught me. I'd often stay up all night chasing an idea. While I could do this now, I'm aware that my family will be with me soon and I don't want to get into habits that aren't conducive to being a husband and a father. Those two jobs are the most important things in my life these days.