Name: Rollo Armstrong
Occupation: Producer, remixer
Current release: Rollo Armstrong has just released his first track on Armada Records, a cover of Joy Division's "Love will tear us apart“. Published under his R Plus moniker and collaborating with vocalist Amelia Fox, the piece translates Ian Curtis's anthem into a piece of dreamy, introvert piano-house.
If this interview with Rollo Armstrong piqued your interest, visit him on his personal website or the official page of Faithless.
What was your first studio like?
The first proper studio -it wasn't mine but I remember it well: it had a big mixing desk and big speakers and a partition between the mixing room, the control room, and the vocal booth. There was another room for a band set up. I remember that very, very clearly.
I had met a guy called Rob Dougan, who later became known as Rob D and who'd eventually release a seminal track called "Clubbed to death“. We met in Australia at a party and started making music in his bedroom - and we got a deal. That's a story in itself, how we got the deal. But, anyway, we got a deal and were invited by a producer into a real studio to turn our demos ‘into gold’.
Well, we're in the studio and the mixing desk is just huge. This would be sort of 1990 I would say, and there's all the glass and the paneling, the soundproofing and, best of all, there was someone to make us cups of tea and go and get us takeaways and the like. It was amazing. And on this huge, incredibly modern looking desk, there were some cut-up straws. I was laughing with the producer. I said, “what are those cut-up straws for? Why would you need straws in this place that looks like a spaceship?" And the producer got out a large wrap of cocaine and told us all to take a line. That’s what the straws were for. And we stayed up all night, making music and I just thought we were geniuses: the world would not be able to get enough of the stuff we were doing , you know, chariots were coming out of the speakers,God on our shoulders as the music was playing. So it was a fantastic night.
But the next day when I woke up and I listened to what we'd done, it was just terrible. Two things happened from that. One, we got rid of the producer. And secondly, I've never taken cocaine again.
The first studio I, myself, owned was when I ran away from Australia with the advance I got for an album deal there. I came back to England and I, with my friend from school, who was by then known as Judge Jules, set up a little studio in Islington in London, where I'm from, which was in a shed - literally a shed at the back of someone's garden. We rented it off this guy called Doug who we didn't know and who was always having fights with his girlfriend and things were getting thrown out of windows by him or her. We put up a very old desk in there, old speakers and we had an Atari.In the daytime I was working in the Job Centre in Islington and so then I came down there in the evenings. Jules didn't have to work, he was making enough money from DJing, so he'd work more in the days. And that's how it started.
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?
When I first started, my studio was necessarily very basic because I didn't have any money. So I had an Atari computer, a Roland keyboard and a microphone. As I got more successful, I started renting studios, which would have bigger desks, a Neve or SSL and lots of outboard gear and, of course, a fella to make you tea when you wanted.
I eventually owned one of those studios for a while, in Islington, where I lived all my musical adventures up until I moved out of London into the country. I moved to Norfolk, which is in the East of England, some 15 years ago, and I sold my SSL and bought a smaller desk because I wanted to be in a smaller studio. I had quite a few people working with and for me in London, and I wanted to have less responsibility on that front. So in the countryside, where I am now, I've got a smaller studio, which was built deliberately (laughs) not to fit comfortably more than three people.
As time went on, and computers became more capable. I began to use less and less outboard gear and my desk became smaller and smaller, till now I'm almost back where I started- with a computer - admittedly, not an Atari but an Apple, a desk with four channels and a couple of keyboards. So that's what I work with now. I do have some wonderful speakers. Speakers are obviously always important. I’ve used NS-10s since I went into studios, right from the beginning, I've always used them and they're still with me now. And then obviously big speakers - I have just got some new Focals.
How would you describe the relationship between technology and creativity for your work? How do you work with your production tools to achieve specific artistic results?
That's a huge question. (laughs) But to try and be brief, I would say that without technology, I am nothing. I mean, without technology, I certainly wouldn't have a career in this business because I don't play an instrument of any sort. So I rely a) on other people to play instruments and b) on technology to allow me to fiddle, mess, produce, find sounds, just generally landscape music - which is fundamentally my job. So without the technology becoming cheap enough and available enough, in the early 90s when I started making music, there's no way I would have even considered having a career in in this business.
I've been a lover of music from time immemorial: TV had been banned from my house when I was growing up, so it was the radio and music that I spent my time listening to and enjoying. And then in my school days, I became a DJ. I had a big record collection, all my money went on music, so I used to DJ for my friends, and then started charging for it. So I had this love and interest and knowledge of music from an early age. But without the technology, I would never have been able to go from listening to actually creating.
I've been using this technology for over three decades now and, of course, it's changed enormously along the way. There's still the same fundamentals, there's still the same way that you shape a song inside a computer, you still need to get the kind of bass sound the way you want it and the top end. And there's still certain waveforms that make me feel a certain way. I have a condition where I see music as color. So certain frequencies, certain tones and certain sounds have certain colors, and when you're creating a record, you're combining these colors together. It's not something that's overt or scientific in any way. But definitely that sits underneath what I do and helps me to shape how my records sound.
Of course, well over three decades of doing this, you learn your tricks. And though I'm not in any way a master ninja producer, there are certain things that I feel confident about. And I've got to the stage where I'm quite often able to bring it out what I'm hearing in my head or seeing in my head and put it into the world.Again it's technology that allows me to do this: from the the outboard gear- samplers, the reverbs and delays etc- to how I use the frequencies of my speakers, to all the synths and stuff that sits inside my computer. Technology, technology, technology.
Historically speaking, there has always been a close relationship between technological and artistic progress. Accordingly, there have been musical paradigm shifts accompanied by technological innovation. Which of these shifts do you rate particularly important for your own music?
I would say without a doubt, for my music and the whole musical form that I have worked in for three decades- which is fundamentally electronics/dance - the accessibility and affordability of sequencers and samplers not only gave me a career, but I think is the basis of house music and also, I would say, the basis of hip hop too. It's absolutely primary to how most of modern music is made now.
Have there been technologies which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
Well, one of the most recent would be the streaming platforms. Take for instance, Spotify. It has profoundly changed the way I and many other people make music. When I started, and I was making dance records, they were one off individual dance records. You made them, they got pressed onto vinyl, you made up a name for the artist after you'd made the record, you didn't have photos of yourself or anything. You just sent out the music to DJs - or someone would - and if the DJs played it in the clubs, and it became a hit, that was that. They were one off records.
But once I got going, and I started working with ‘artists’ - ie my sister or my mates - we got into into making albums. That was in the heyday of CDs, so you were making albums, which had 10-12 songs, which might have a united message or a cycle of songs or a certain unified sound, etc. Obviously, you wanted there to be a few hit singles off those albums but, still, you were making this single body of work. And you were making, if you're were a successful artist, probably one album every couple of years - you'd make the album and then it'd get promoted, and you might tour etc. And only after all this would you go in and think of making another one.
With streaming and where it is now, albums are fundamentally redundant. I mean, I still make them because I'm old school and I love the idea of immersing yourself in a particular theme, or musical sound. I just like making albums, I like the idea of a narrative. But really, what you're supposed to do with streaming is put out single records, as short as possible and, you know, as often as possible - once every six weeks or so. People are just not so interested in listening to a whole album and that has changed the way musicians approach music making.
Hopefully, underneath you still have the same principles: You want to move people you want to express something that has a bit of truth or value.
To some, the advent of AI and 'intelligent' composing tools offers potential for machines to contribute to the creative provess. Do you feel as though technology can develop a form of creativity itself? Is there possibly a sense of co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
Okay, the second bit of that question, is there a sense of co-authorship between yourself and your tools? No way, I'm the boss, my tools are my slaves. (laughs) At the moment, I still feel very much that I am using my tools to create my vision. I'm limited maybe by the sounds or the effects that those tools - my computer or my keyboards - have. But within the confines of that framework, my tools are not really co-authoring something. They're helping me create my vision, a bit like if I was cooking a great meal, someone might be chopping up the lettuce and cucumber for my fantastic salad. I wouldn't say they're actually co-authoring. They're enabling me, but its still my salad...!
I'd say that with the bigger question of AI and can technology develop a form of creativity itself: that is just a huge topic and concerns far more than music.
I hopefully will be retired before I really have to take a professional interest in that question, - yes, I will just be enjoying all the books podcasts and books and people talking about how AI is gonna take over the world and actually enslave us ,rather than actually dealing with those issues.
Do you personally see a potential for deeper forms of Artifical Intelligence in your music?
There are certain things that are just not fun in making music. Like when you're doing your final mixdown - making sure the frequencies are spot on for where you want your mix to be. It'd be lovely to have a little machine and you could tell it: “Look, I've got all my sounds together, I know how I want this to sound - I want this to sound like a sunset in Malibu on a Friday night at five”. And you press a button and it just delivers that. That would be where I would love artificial intelligence to come in to do the stuff.
For me, the best part of making a song, or even making a whole album, is the beginning - when the idea is at an early stage, when you can see all its potential but none of its failure. And I'd love someone to step in when it reaches its peak - Mr. Artificial Intelligence - and I can just go: “Look, I've got it exactly where I know that I can take it. It's probably downhill from now on, or at least it's a lot of hard work from now. Can you keep it to the level I want it to be, to keep it feeling as exciting and as truly as expressive as I feel it is at this moment. So I'm just gonna press this button and you can do that and I'm gonna go and have a walk my dogs along the beach?”
What tools/instruments do you feel could have a deeper impact on creativity but need to still be invented or developed?
Well as per the previous question, I'm looking for what's called the One Button.
Because a lot of music making isn't about creativity, it’s about fiddling and hard work and listening to very practical things, like should that hihat be softer, should that snare be louder? Is that bass compressed enough? Is her vocal in tune, should that pad be a bit more distorted? And I've reached the age where, if push came to shove, if I had the choice, I'd prefer never to have to do that kind of stuff. I'd like just to press this One Button and go and do all the other things I like doing in life. And then it'll send me a little message on the One Button App saying it sorted everything out. And I come back to my studio and play the track and it's a total realisation of what I want it to be. So that's what I'm looking for from AI if that's possible, please.