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(interviewed September 2, 1998)
by Andrew Duke
You can't accuse Neil Landstrumm of taking the path most travelled. In a time when so much techno threatens to be fodder for the black hole of sameness, Landstrumm is dedicated to innovation. With producers fighting to build themselves a ladder to the next level, Landstrumm dares to uproot himself from the security of his Edinburgh, Scotland home and ship his studio to--wait for it-Brooklyn, New York. Plus, he's just done all of his new album for Tresor on a laptop. And he's not afraid to voice his concerns about the state of techno in 1998, even if it mightn't please those in the Jeff Mills fanclub when membership is at an all time high. What's going on, Neil?
With the background blare of Brooklyn sharing the conversation with us, over the phone line Landstrumm begins by explaining why he would physically remove himself from the successful scene he started with the likes of Tobias Schmidt and Dave Tarrida.
"I'd never really lived in this kind of inner city environment and it was really an experiment to see how that would affect my music," Landstrumm says. "And secondly, I've always had a passion for New York. I've been coming back and forth for a few years and I love the culture here-there's so many good things that have come out of it that affect me. Not that I'm a graffiti painter or anything, but I find that quite interesting, plus the whole electro and hip hop thing here. A lot of good techno that I particularly loved has come out of New York that never really got recognized--the early Beltram stuff, Adam X, Damon Wild, the whole hoover sound when that was good."
But why not stay in Edinburgh and continue feeding the need for change through visits to New York? Why actually move? "Edinburgh," Landstrumm relates, "is a brilliant place, superb creative environment. The people there are excellent, I really miss that humor that we have. But I just get the feeling there's only so far you can get in Edinburgh, especially if you want to differentiate and widen your base. I'm very interested in computers now and the whole multimedia thing, and there's just not the opportunities--that there are here--in Edinburgh." The move to Brooklyn in August of 1997, however, is not likely permanent. "I'm probably going to go back there at some point," Landstrumm admits, "but only when I have what I want to do fully established."
The change of address and his new recording methods reflect Landstrumm's belief that electronic music will stagnate if producers become complacent. This fresh environment, he observes, was just what he needed to revitalize himself. "We sort of plowed a certain trough," Landstrumm says in reference to his Edinburgh relationships, "and it was interesting to break that just to be left to meander a little bit." You can't avoid hip hop in the area, and its rolling structures and heavy sub base, along with toying with his laptop, have been an inspiration. "I've been literally playing with the computer," he says, "and just seeing what I come up with." Landstrumm has his third Tresor album, "Pro Audio", to show for his recreation. "The majority of it [the album] is built inside the Macintosh using a lot of plug ins. It's really not how most people write techno."
This is where things get technical, but Landstrumm puts the details simply. "I use an Apple Macintosh Powerbook 1400 G3 running BIAS PEAK 1.62-digital audio editing software." He's also got another Apple on the side. "Basically, the Apples are processing and design tools for carving and sculpting sound." The other gear he uses is also not the standard in a techno producer's cache. "I have a small but well equipped studio so I have very well chosen machines which not many people in techno use-I have the usual arsenal of 101s and 909s and stuff, but I also like to use an SP-1200 and an MPC-60, which are hip hop machines."
Where you might expect computer use to lead to frigid, clinical results, Landstrumm makes an effort to be unique. "The later stuff I've been working on is very cut and paste so it isn't necessarily in time, for example. It can go off kilter, it's very patched together, very 'yeah, fuck it, let's just put it together.'" My stuff has always had a tight sequenced feel, but very shuffley--very loose--because I don't depend on one sequencer. I've always used like maybe five or eight different sequencers which together build that kind of humanized feel," Landstrumm says. " It gives it the funk, you know."
New technology, Landstrumm feels, will hopefully lead other producers to realize that techno isn't about a particular sound, it's about experimenting. "I think the problem we've all had for a while," Landstrumm observes, "is that people are just kind of 'hmmm…It's all very good and that, but it doesn't sound like Jeff Mills'. And I think perhaps finally now people are working out that there is techno other than that Millsian thing. I mean, when I first started listening to techno, I was up for anything. I loved the variety of it, and just over the last few years, it's just really been kind of killed by this ultrapurist driving monotonous stuff. These days, you can mention techno to someone and they're just like 'oh, it's just that really hard bangin' stuff, isn't it?' These days, techno's almost a dirty word a lot of the time."
Part of the blame, Landstrumm explains, can be laid on the hysteria around Jeff Mills. But it's not Mills who's to blame, it's the cult of personality. " I think he's a good producer," says Landstrumm of Mills, " but I've been really turned off by what it's become. I don't think people [outside of the UK]can ever understand what it's like in Britain. Jeff Mills could shit on a plate and they'd just say 'it's wicked'." Landstrumm says young producers too often emulate their hero and end up cranking out Mills carbon copies. "He can release something and he can guarantee that everybody's gonna like it and everybody's gonna go "Wow! Jeff Mills!" in the press. And it's just like, when did your personal opinions come into it?" Landstrumm continues to do his share of audio exploration, but worries that only the quiet few dare voice their concern. "A friend of mine said that the Millsian clone stuff is very much in the same position now as that rave stuff was--there's just hundreds and hundreds of copies of the same thing. Three years from now, only the originals are going to stand up." Outside, the home of the hoover seems to quiet down and listen closely as Landstrumm makes his final point. "The rest of it's just going to sound awful."
Neil Landstrumm on
computer use in music
"It's the future surely. There's so much potential and possibility to twist it up. Everything pretty much ends up in the computer these days. Basically, the Apple is the new toy in the studio and you can do more with that than anything else, but still it's only part of the process. It's kind of a cut-and-paste style of working--very different from how techno has been written in the past. Basically, it's a whole new style of audio production and post production."
BIAS PEAK 1.62
"It's a program made on the western coast of America which, to my mind, is like the Photoshop of audio; it's absolutely amazing. You can literally put anything in there, completely morph it, change it around to produce sounds I've never heard before, and I consider myself quite well educated in sound. You know, working with techno for so long, that to me was what was always the cutting edge of techno-something you hadn't heard before. And BIAS PEAK is just like, 'don't need any more synths, man', it's like it's all coming out of this box. It's not a sequencer, it's just pure audio. It's like the first kind of thing which you can really mold stuff with. You use plug ins like SFX machines and other things. It's sick, man, it's really sick."
"It's breaking everything down-instead of going for that kind of 24 bit ultra clean-'ding'-kind of sound, it's just like 'rrrrrrr', very raw. It still has the essence of the original sound, but it's roughened up around the edges. It's still clean, but it's very broken up. Some of the art from the 60s and 70s was very much sort of degrading images, photocopying, etc; this is the same kind of thing, except doing it with sound. There's the beginnings of a movement in this kind of sound with things like the Trash stuff that came out on Mille Plateaux from Cristian [Vogel] and that lot-very fucked up, cut and paste beats, you know, brutal sounds. I think it's just so different from that whole Millsian techno thing. Structured, but with really busted up sounds and interesting frequencies, not that repetitive kind of boring thing. I'm going digital, but dirty."
"There's a program called Super Collider which is another thing that's amazed me. It's just a programming language for the Mac which produces these odds sounds…you can process things through it or just churn out these bizarre sounds."
why he called the album "Pro Audio"
"I don't know if you're up on the hacker kind of thing, but I use Hotline quite a lot. It's quite interesting. And when you get into that hacker kind of world, there's a whole sort of terminology and sort of digital underground. 'Pro Audio' is the thing they call all the software which they use, so I just kind of nicked that (laughs)."
the album format
"I think you have to use the word 'album' very carefully these days. A lot of what is considered an album is in fact a doublepack. I don't consider eight tracks of banging techno really an album. It's not something that I personally could listen to. An album may have hard tracks on it, but it has the capability to be played in a car or at home or whatever. For this album, I tried to make it a bit more home listening, though of course it's still quite hard… It's really trying to be as different as I can be and also try and put a bit of variety into it. You know, techno albums can be very boring and I just try to sort of give of variety of tracks and music. A friend of mine called it 'a mature diversification'. It's less kind of 'raw, angry young man', (laughs) more sort of mature, placed sounds. You know, very carved, very designed, yet still pretty hard and quite dark. It's not nice, but it's definitely more CD-ish. You could listen to the whole thing. It's a bit looser. The way that the Scandinavia label is going, it's definitely breaking off from what I've done in the past. It really is trying to do something different, trying to innovate and trying to create some new styles--you know, sub bass, industrial kind of drums. I've always believed in the album thing. I love working on the artwork with Matt Consume from No Future and making the whole package, I find it quite an artistic challenge."
songs versus tracks
"I like songs, you know. I hate the Swedish Drumcode stuff, I hate it. It's just so boring, it's so distributor driven. It's just like, the distributors just bang it out. You know, 'here's four tracks that are slightly different". I find that whole drummy thing just dull."
his induction into the Edinburgh music scene
"I like a lot of the early British rave stuff that isn't easy cheesey. That was what brought me into the whole thing--early acid house, early rave."