Interview with Andy Stott
Consider “digital fog” as an image you can hear. Now, consider actual, real fog rolling down the mountain. Fog as a sensual “impression” can suggest an icy formality, a dark form of meditation — intense, regal, focused, knowing.
Andy Stott began ripping apart this duality with new works in 2011 and has progressively stepped further and further into an idiosyncratic method for constructing sonic spaces that eliminate binaries in both the environment and the human being. His new record Faith in Strangers is a step into a heavier fog altogether; the album envisions an environmentally fluid space that avoids the existential impulse to enforce darkness. Rather, there is synthesis occurring — a navigation between digitally and organically sourced materials, between the ambient and the rhythmic, between the potential sickness or relief human sensation can conjure as a response to a beautiful, alienating landscape or stranger. More than anything, Faith In Strangers demonstrates how Stott knows how to work his environment. Stott allows his classic “menace,” his severity of style and profound logic, to “be like the world” and embrace everything.
Here, Stott provides a primarily process-oriented conversation touching on his methods of sound-sourcing, collaboration, achieving maximum rawness, and capturing the things you cannot recreate.
NJS: I’ve always viewed your EPs (passed me by, etc.) and Luxury Problems as in constant dialogue with club music. After spending some time with Faith In Strangers, I feel like you’ve moved simultaneously closer and farther away from that culture. True?
AS: It’s obviously been a massive influence on what I’ve done for many years, but you know, through club music I’ve gained interests in other styles. It’s taken me down the route of ambient as well, really doing all sorts of things as opposed to straight up “club music.” I suppose, the relationship of club music with previous releases is there. I think it’s primarily the “drive” of club-oriented stuff. I’ve tried to take other elements, the other influences, the other things I’ve experienced musically and put them into and around club music.
NJS: Maybe it’s just my listening experience, but I took in Faith in Strangers as an almost two-movement piece. The beginning has more space, but around “No Surrender” the fog settles and gives some more “classic” Andy Stott beat-work.
AS: Yeah, I get that. I think the thing with the record is that I wanted it to — you know it sounds cliche to say a “journey,” but it’s got to be a story in some sense. I think it does intensify from start to finish, I think that’s the reason why it get’s more, sort of, “club-oriented” towards the end. It’s definitely got a tougher edge towards then end, and that’s intentional.
I remember reading something about how with Luxury Problems, you specifically wanted to “make something beautiful.” It seems like especially on tracks like “Time Away” and “Missing” that might carry over here.
I wanted to make something inviting, kind of accessible, but once it lures you in, once you get in there, it gives you a different sort of experience. It seems inviting at the beginning, but once you get into it, it kind of throws you around a little bit. The first track features a girl I know who plays a Euphonium. I didn’t know what one was until I met her. We recorded it, and there was nothing else to add to it. It was just absolutely… standalone. We were both really happy with it. Same with the last track, really. The temptation to add percussion to it was there, but I just thought, “You know what, just leave it as it is.” I thought it came together really, really well.
NJS: It seems like your prone to collaboration. Either with Millie & Andrea project or Allison Skidmore throughout Luxury Problems. This is your second album working with Allison?
AS: That’s right. The thing with collaboration for me: it’s never forced. The collaborations are quite incidental. I never would have thought, “I want to find someone who plays Euphonium.” But I met this girl at my old place at work, I overheard her having a conversation with someone about music. I thought that by the way she was talking to this person that she’s not just into music — I found out she’s part of a brass sort of group. She told me she played the Euphonium, and I told her I’d love to hear some bits. She played me some stuff, and straight away since I heard the sound, I thought, “This is amazing, I’ve never heard this sound before.” It took me awhile, but I convinced her to do something. I played her stuff I had done in the past, and it seemed like she was into it. I said, look let’s try and do something, I promise I’ll try and make it interesting, and interesting for her as well, because her skill musically is far, far beyond me. But yeah, we finally got together and we did a couple of things. The opening track was one of them. With Allison, I really wanted to specifically work with vocals before I approached Allison.
Actually, someone suggested it to me, that I should do something with vocals — said it could be a sort of good avenue — said you might work in a way you’ve never worked before. That was all very, very true. I tried to think about people that I knew, and Allison was my old Piano teacher when I was a kid. Her prime outlet is Opera, she’s an Opera singer. I just thought, “So, shall we?” I emailed her, and said, what do you think about this? In her youth, she used to be in a band, so I think she’s up for doing things that are a bit out there. Yeah that’s how that came about — I suppose, Allison is the only person where I really looked. But, she’s a family friend; and, it was all quite accessible really.
NJS: Are you using her vocals and the Euphonium mostly as sampled source material, to be composed later? Or do you get in the room and compose collaboratively?
AS: Well with Kim, the Euphonium player, we sat in my old studio together and she basically played the instrument down a Zoom recorder into a computer. If you listen closely, you can actually hear me trying to keep still. All the creaks, all the little clicks in the background is actually me on the chair trying to keep still! I asked her for a specific tone, or do a note for however long. I was sort of directing her; but, then, she’d have an idea and we’d try it and it went back and forth until we ended up with that arrangement.
The treatment of space, atmospherically and compositionally, is compelling throughout the records. What are your thoughts about spatially organizing sound when going into a composition — is it visual, narrative, or something more intuitive?
I think it’s totally intuitive. I’ve been more conscience of space on this album though. Passed Me By, We Stayed Together, and parts of Luxury Problems are quite dense and quite smattered together in a very compressed sort of sense. With this, I was aware of space specifically, wanted to put space in there. The “intuitiveness” comes in while actually writing the track and what seems right at the time. What really brought [space] to my attention was listening to the “Eski” material by Zomby. I had not heard that up until the back end of last year. I heard that, and thought it was some of bravest stuff I’ve heard. It was just three, four sounds — no percussion — and the sound just fills the room, top to bottom. I was god-smacked by that, it really made me be conscience of space in tracks.
NJS: That’s especially clear in “Time Away” and “On Oath,” but then we have something like “Damaged,” which seems to be taking a different inspiration?
AS: The inspiration for most of the album really wasn’t tracks per se; it was more coming from get-togethers we’d have at the office, at the label [Modern Love], which mainly consist of me, [Modern Love label-head] Schlom, and Miles & Sean from Demdike Stare. We’d play tracks at the office, and it was conversations we’d have about those tracks that made me do things in a certain way. What people would bullet off individually — I was like, well, “Yeah I never thought of that, or this, or that.” I would come away from these sort of get-togethers with so many ideas. “Damaged” is just a result of that really. What’d we listen to? I can’t remember exactly. Definitely the Eski stuff. And just, we were into that production so much. That’s what I came away with, I sat down with it. The process for the album was loop based. I wouldn’t write a full track, I’d write a loop and submit it to the label. Me and Schlom would go over it, and say “this is strong, or “we need to work on this.” “Damaged” was one of those loops from those sort of meetings, really.
NJS: Did you just have a collection of these recorded? Was the album created through having materials floating around?
AS: Not particularly. The one track that kicked it all off, was the last track “Missing.” We said, this sounds like the start of an album. It ended up being the end of an album. Then, we came up with this “loops” idea. What that does is, you send a bunch of loops off, and you can do as many as you want in a day — depends on how fast you work — but you’ve not invested too much in it, you just have the raw feel of the track down. You’ve just got that moment where you go in enough to hit record and get it down. Send that off, start working on the next one. So when Schlom get’s back to me then, he says, “This loop here, this is really strong.” When you get back to it, you haven’t invested weeks and weeks and weeks into it — it’s still really fresh, it’s so much easier to work on.
NJS: I saw you perform in Asheville, North Carolina a few years ago at Moogfest. The sound was massive live.
AS: Yeah it was. I remember, in the theatre.
NJS: Do you ever feel a frustration getting that hugeness to translate to a record; or, is there a fear that folks are hearing only half of your sonic spectrum on computer speakers?
AS: It’s a shame if that’s somebody’s primary outlet to listen to music. But, I can’t say anything about that, really. If somebody sends me something, a friend, first port of call is you download it to your computer. I listen to it through those speakers. It’s a shame; but, it’s the way it is unfortunately. I don’t get frustrated by it, I’m not frustrated by it. If they can pick up something even from listening to it on laptop speakers, if any of it translates that’s great. But yeah, it would be nice for people to do it justice and give it a good run on proper system [laughs].
NJS: The bass is still audible on computer speakers.
AS: I’ve got a sweet spot in the studio. I know where exactly to stand, and I can just mess around with that. I’ll tinker with some compression on kicks and subs and just go and stand in this bit of a trap. You know it’s right when it feels like it’s pulling the back of your head off. I invest a lot of time in that.
NJS: It creates an inherently cathartic feeling. Do you design it with that bass-driven “catharsis’ in mind?
AS: I think that’s just what comes out when I sit down and write music. I don’t think a track would get finished for me if it’s not got that, or a bit of that quality. That’s what I like to get out of music — emotions and feelings like that. Also, even though you can write quite a subtle piece of music, you can still add an aggressive, sort of violent undertone to it. I like those contrasting moments — trying to make a track “beautiful” but aggressive at the same time. Those factors are sort of “staple” things that I go for when I sit down and turn everything on.
NJS: What draws you to these darker, aggressive tones?
AS: I don’t’ know. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I like lighthearted stuff as well. But, I’m definitely a minor-key person as opposed to a major!
NJS: But it’s the cover art as well. How is the sleeve for “Faith in Strangers” operating with the music?
AS: I think the sleeve represents the music — when you look at the image, I thought, first glance, that there’s something seriously, strikingly wrong about it. You look at it, and it’s just weird. Weird. You look at it, and there’s something sharply odd in a familiar setting. I think that reflects in the material. I think it is a familiar sort of feeling; but, there are things that aren’t quite right in there — intentionally. That’s what it’s saying to me, anyway.
NJS: That’s consistent throughout your records — the black-and-white aesthetic with one striking image.
AS: Those are just the pictures we picked. When I say “we,” I mean me and Schlom. We find an image that has a narrative to the music. Every time it’s just been a black-and-white photo with a single, strong image. I think each sleeve represents each release perfectly.
But spatially, sonically, visually — there’s this entire thematic, suggested space with “Faith in Strangers.” Especially with some of the track titles: “Violence,” “Damage,” and the especially visual “Science and Industry” — they all help create a world. There are definite images.
If I look at these track titles in 10 years time and read them, I’ll know exactly what was going on in my life. That’s the theory behind the track titles. “Science and Industry” was pretty straight up though. The huge clanging sounds in that track were — as I mentioned before — the Zoom recorder. I take that with me pretty much everywhere I go. Schlom and I were just macking about in Manchester. We went into this museum of science and industry, and there were these huge, huge pistons, which pumped steam engine wheels around on trains. There was a big demonstration — they were going around making this incredible noise; so, I got the Zoom out. Now I’ll know, when I read that track title it’ll take me back to that place, that day.
NJS: So it’s autobiographical? The field recording strategy must help.
AS: Kind of, yeah. The track titles for Luxury Problems — that’s been two years — I can see myself in the places. Yeah, I guess it is autobiographical. [Field recordings] have been in my records throughout, really. Since Passed Me By, there’s been quite a lot. You’re going to capture stuff you cannot recreate. You just can’t. It’s just amazing the textures and little fine details that you’d never write — you would just never write them. I think apart from everything in the studio, that’s the single most important piece of equipment that I own.
NJS: Do you ever feel a tension between the digital and field recording processes?
AS: It’s really exciting. It’s really natural. It takes work though to get them to all marry up — to get them to sound like it’s all part of one world. But, it comes quite naturally. I don’t labor over it, I don’t come out of the studio frustrated that I can’t get it to work. The things I’m recording from the Zoom seem to sit into what I’m working on really nicely. Yeah, it’s never a chore, it’s actually really exciting. You record something, out in the street or wherever — and when you get it back and play it through the monitors you have no idea how much sub-bass or how much kick a field recording can have. On this day out with Schlom, we were just walking around Manchester, and I saw an air-conditioning unit outside a restaurant. I just recorded it and I got home, put the sample into the computer. The space on it was just unbelievable. I need to get that one in somewhere, it’s too good to just sit there. I’ve got a whole bank of field recordings. Say I go out this afternoon and record — I come back and the first thing I do is play them back on the monitors. But then, I’ll know that I’ve got them, even if I don’t do anything with them there and then, I know that they’re there. Maybe, in a couple months time, I’ll be working on a track and it’ll be missing something. I’ll think “Shit, I’ve got that.” It’s a fresh library. I’ll just drop things in, see how they sit, and stretch them, open them up and find really interesting rhythms by time-stretching. Giving some tricks away, there [laughs].
NJS: How will you perform this record live?
AS: It depends on the venue, really. I could open with the first track, and take it from there. But playing it somewhere like a straight-up club, it’s a different set. You have to be careful, what you’re doing, you don’t want to piss people off. It’ll be a new process though, I’ll be building a new set-up from scratch around the record. But, I like to play new material all the time live. I try to play bits of what people might know, but skew it, re-arrange it. You know, don’t forget how many times I’ve heard this record, already. It’s got to be fresh. In the live situation, if your bored, their bored. You can’t be bored. So keep it exciting, but come at it from a different angle. But, like the album, the overall set seems to intensify. Even if a piece might start slow, there will always be the nasty undertone. But, that’s my skeleton for a set — keep it raw, intensify it as it goes along, manipulate the materials, and take it to that next level of rawness.