The Swarm

September 16, 2011

Firsts: Plaid...

Matt Diehl

After Andy Turner and Ed Handley came together as Plaid, electronic music never was quite the same. Turner and Handley took elements of familiar electronic genres – electro, acid, techno, hip-hop, ambient – and refracted them in their own fragmented, hazy, handmade image. Coming together first with Ken Downie in Black Dog Productions, the pair eventually broke away as a duo: they would go on to put out a number of classic releases as Plaid, starting their association with legendary electronic-music label Warp with their sophomore effort, Not For Threes and going on to put out soundtracks and audiovisual collaborations in addition to traditional long-players.

Plaid’s sixth album (out September 27th from Warp), Scintilli, follows their irreverent tradition of non-convention; while some tracks ripple with gnarled synths and shattered beats, others reflect a pastoral, acoustic vibe that is entirely new to the band’s sound. We spoke with Turner about this “first,” and the many others that occurred throughout Plaid’s kaleidoscopic career – from early breakdance experiments through collaborating with Björk and his distaste for being labeled as “intelligent dance music.”

First hip-hop record:

Andy Turner: Grandmaster DST had these really long, half-hour cut-up mixes. I had a couple – and may still have them: I can’t remember the title, but I can still see the picture label in my mind. We grew up in rural England: before that, our access to that music was restricted to cassette tapes copied from someone you knew in London, whereas I could go into a shop and buy these Grandmaster DST records. For me, it was all about the syncopation. Electro was really emulating late ‘60s – early ‘70s syncopation, but on drum machines it sounded very odd, which was what was so exciting. It was funky syncopation played by a robot! That really worked for me. Hip-hop moved then in a creative direction: it was a very inspirational outlet for expression in different areas.

First breakdance move you learned:

Andy Turner: Probably something wack – the windmill is out of possibility at that early stage. The first archetypal move one tries is the handspin, where you stick your elbow into your waist and pivot on the palm of your hand in a horizontal position; I mastered it pretty damn quickly in a couple of evenings. I was proficient breaker – not exhibition quality, but I won a few battles in those early years.

First music that made you want to make music:

Andy Turner: There were a few classic electro tracks – “Clear” by Cybotron, “Hip Hop, Be Bop (Don’t Stop)” by Man Parrish – but the first had to be “Reckless” by Chris “The Glove” Taylor featuring Ice-T. It was early enough that Ice-T was second billed! I was a breaker, and it made me want to move: I loved the energy of it, which I hadn’t felt from other music before then. I was Djing at the time and interested in music, so writing music was a natural progression from there.

First sampler:

Andy Turner: Early on, Ed had an Eprommer, which had a tiny, 8-megabyte memory. Then we used the Akai S-950, the monophonic one, which really lead to the drum and bass scene in many ways. With the Akai, you could chop and cut up breaks, and then automatically truncate them: it was the natural way to use it.

First time you decided to move away from “normal” dance music:

Andy Turner: None of our stuff ever worked out as standard dance music – it’s always been slightly odd. We just didn’t have the skills to make that music: we never had the clarity and engineered sound, but we did try very hard, though, to shoot for some electro classics. At some point, we’d heard some more melodic Detroit music, and that stripped-down sound became part of it. In our late teens, we were just making music we enjoyed listening to. Really, it was about human error – layers of error really drive things. We’d try to copy some awesome track, but the fact of making mistakes made it kind of odd.

First rave:

Andy Turner: I’m not sure, but I’ve found some old rave flyers recently. That’s how I know I went to Sunrise/Back To The Future on the 12th of August in 1989! I recall a friend of mine dancing on top of a telephone box in quite a ridiculous hat: it had pom-poms, and more than one – I don’t want to shock you any further. With those raves, what I enjoyed the most was finding the place. That was the best part of it: you’d have these coordinated meetings, then you’d all drive to a field somewhere. It was something exciting, seeing hundreds of other cars, and receiving last-minute location announcements!

First release on legendary electronic-music label, Warp:

Andy Turner: Not For Threes was our first Warp album. Signing to Warp was the first step to becoming “professional,” and there were kudos to being among its roster: LFO, Nightmares On Wax, and Forgemasters were all there, and maybe they’d even had an Aphex release by then. Warp were good to us: their contracts are slightly fairer – we’ve never been hung out of a window. It’s very difficult to imagine how things would have gone with another label. There are few independent labels left that have Warp’s size and importance.

First soundtrack Plaid ever created:

Andy Turner: Soundtracks and working with film have been one of the major experiences Plaid has had in the past few years. It’s been a new learning experience – we’ve scored two films, and done an audiovisual DVD. The first soundtrack we did was for the anime Tekkonkinkreet, which came out about five years ago. That was a great experience – a luxurious introduction to working with film. To work to somebody else’s ideas was novel, and we had quite of bit of time to work due to nature of animation. That experience gave us new inputs, a new way of looking at things.

First motto to live and work by:

Andy Turner: “Fun, not money.” Making music was a hobby, and about enjoyment; we had no intention to make it a career. Writing music shouldn’t be about making money; there had to be fun in it. I would happily have more money – I’m not anti-money at all – but we are what we are. I don’t own a house, or have a pension, but I’m pretty happy.

First exposure to electronic music:

Andy Turner: Probably Visage was the first electronic music from my youth. I remember buying the seven-inch single “Fade To Grey” when it came out, when I was thirteen or fourteen years old. I might have heard other bits of electronic music in the ‘80s, but that’s the one I remember.

First time collaborating with Björk:

Andy Turner: It was around about 1995. We tried to write material, then we went on tour with her for almost a year, and had a whole lot of new experiences together. We got on pretty well; it was a fairly natural process. She tends to work on melody first, so she laid in some melodic voice parts, then in later sessions put the lyrics in place. It was quite enjoyable: she talked about loving surprise in music, and I do appreciate that too – it’s a great feeling.

I really liked the track “Sweet Intuition.” The melody was very pretty, with polyrhythmic loops; we put this nice 101 line in, cycling a sequence of notes, and it had a nice feel.

First time you made music with a computer:

Andy Turner: It was the early Black Dog material. We were using Amiga computers to run this software called Doctor T’s, which we used like a drum sequencer. It couldn’t handle much data, but it provided an additional layer…

First time Plaid incorporated visuals into its live show:

Andy Turner: We saw Bob Jaroc working with Leila Arab, and this particular piece stood out where he had magic trees with crystals growing; it was really beautiful and gentle. We started working with him soon after, and it was very comfortable: Bob created an integrated experience, rather than the frenetic, bright club video that predominates. Some people love our visuals, while others say they close our eyes when they come to our shows; there’s a finite amount of data we can process, and sometimes we prefer to use all our senses in one direction.

First song on the new album:

Andy Turner: It’s called “Missing.” It’s kind of a love song, in a way – a glimpse of some beauty that’s been lost, anticipating something is about to happen. We don’t write with narrative in mind; hallucinogenic drugs actually inspired the song. When you reach that goosebump moment, that energy or feeling that moves you, it’s usually a good sign. The root of the word ‘scintilli’ actually is spark. The first pieces of music that ended up on this record we created for a show in L.A. at the Disney Concert Hall three year ago, We often write for performance, and one of those pieces ended up as the first thing that set light to the album, which is our first full album in eight years other than DVD and movie soundtracks. You don’t want to repeat yourself too much, so we try to embrace new technology as much as possible and become better writers. There is an almost folkie element to the new songs, which is an area we haven’t explored in past.

First pointless object you’ve created:

Andy Turner: The new album can be turned into a pointless object [the packaging can be shaped so that it traps the CD object in a sculptural form]. There were a couple of ideas behind that: it’s a comment on the CD format itself, which is at the end of its day. There’s also this expression “swearing the circle” used in Freemasonry where the idea is to circle the square, which became the design idea. It’s playful: I was digging and found this Parliament album with cut-out characters and thought that was cool, too.

First time decided on the name “Plaid”:

Andy Turner: Initially, we chose Plaid because the word had an image we liked: in the movies, guys come home from work and put on their plaid shirt to relax. We saw music as outside of our work environment. We come up with a lot of bullshit of why we chose the name – it keeps it interesting.

First secret embedded in Plaid’s music:

Andy Turner: The song “3 Recurring” used picture-to-synthesis software: with it, you can take a picture and it makes a sonic impression of it, kind of like a watermark. The image in “3 Recurring” was, naturally, of 333 repeating and looping A lot of sounds tend to come with messing around with synthesizers.

First time you heard the term “IDM” (intelligent dance music):

Andy Turner: Probably around ‘91 or ‘92, around when the Artificial Intelligence album came out. There was a struggle for a new genre, and IDM came up relatively soon after that. I hated that term, actually: dancing is not about intelligence, so it’s a ridiculous phrase. They’re like devices: the people involved in actually writing the music aren’t down with those terms.

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