Why Manchester is the new creative epicentre of neo-soul and hip-hop
Alex Smoke (real name Alex Menzies) made his name on Glaswegian label-legend Soma, releasing the albums 'Incommunicado' and 'Paradolia' for the label in 2005 and 2006 respectively, albums that seemed to guide the way for post-minimal techno.
From there, Menzies branched out in various directions, satisfying dancefloor urges with releases on Berlin imprint Vakant, using classical training to work with the Scottish Ensemble orchestra for a live score to the 1926 film version of Faust, and delving into a passion for hip hop with MC Non from the Shadow Huntaz in releases on his and Soma compatriot Jim Hutchison’s fledgling Hum+Haw imprint.
In 2010 they put out Menzies’s third LP, 'Lux', but in the years that followed he suffered a collapsed lung (he’s suffered with such problems on-and-off since childhood) while playing in Melbourne. Along with a move to Berlin and troubles keeping Hum+Haw afloat, it’s only this year that he’s been able to properly return to producing. A dark and glitchy fourth album under the Wraetlic moniker was released in the spring on Convex Industries, and the 'Dust' EP is due out in September on R&S Records, so we thought it was about time for a catch-up.
Last time we spoke you were working with Jim on Hum+Haw. Can I ask what happened with that venture?
Menzies: "Ah, well that adventure has ended. We started with an idealistic outlook, but the whole thing was really ill-conceived and poorly planned. That, combined with some major upheavals in life meant that it was no longer tenable and I am just glad to have it closed and done. The financial strain was stressing me out and my gigs could no longer subsidise it. I take my hat off to anyone that can make a label work in this day and age, and I applaud those who still press vinyl and know their fans; it is a tough thing to do."
Aside from that, you’ve released on Soma, Vakant, Convex Industries and now R&S. Is this down to your popularity within the industry or not wanting to be tied to any particular label/sound?
Menzies: "I guess each of those labels has their own identity, and has had their own place in my musical timeline as my output has changed. Soma was the obvious place for my first albums with their more open remit, and that relationship was important to getting my career off the ground. I was lucky to have Vakant at the same time as I could also indulge my love of pure dancefloor, and with it operating out of Berlin, it gave me access to the movement that was happening then in so called ‘minimal’ house. Both of those labels were also expertly run, which gave me the perfect launch pad, safe in the knowledge that every release would get a fair hearing and good exposure. That’s important for me, as I don’t want to have to deal with all the other shit that goes with labels (hence the reason having my own label was such a misjudgement). Lately, Convex and R&S have both come along at just the right time for what I’m producing and I am just very grateful that any of these people have been willing to put out my music. Without them I would have very little going on."
Label's aside, 2013 seems to have been very productive after the years following Lux, can you expand on what has fed into getting back producing and playing out?
Menzies: "I have had a truly great 18 months, and by that I mean simply as an artist creating what he wants to create. I have felt exactly as I did back in the early days, sitting in front of the computer for eight hour stretches and just making music as it comes out. For me, that is what it’s all about. It’s a creative stream that I have to harness, and if there are any blockages in the stream then I can’t operate properly, and I can’t make good music. Those blockages can be professional, personal, financial or whatever, but to make good music I need mental peace. The period after 'Lux' was just fraught and unsettled for lots of reasons, and was thus a difficult time to be creative. The exception was 'Faust', which I think worked out okay because it was such an exciting proposition for me and because it was providing something that purely electronic music couldn’t at the time. After I was fully recovered from the operation, a lot of things started to fall into place and become clear, and I found that the Wraetlic album came quite easily. After that the floodgates were opened and I could operate at full tilt again. I still wish I could earn more of my living away from the touring lifestyle, as it is not always conducive to creativity, but I am also happy just to be able to earn a living doing it; a fact made easier by no longer living in London."
"I take my hat off to anyone that can make a label work in this day and age; it is a tough thing to do."
What else has influenced your change in sound; new kit/surroundings/etc?
Menzies: "I’m now back in Glasgow, Berlin having been just a temporary but thoroughly enjoyable break. For me music is a reflection of life, a continuous flow of ideas all wrapped up in my current outlook and experience. My life has changed a lot over the last 10 years, so it is no surprise that my music has too. I am not trying to ride the zeitgeist and stay current, sell x amount of copies of my latest record, or please people with a constant stream of records that follow a certain pattern. That has sometimes happened in the past, where I’ve felt pressure to do things a certain way, especially with remixes, but it has always been anti-creative and resulted in poorer music. I have to find a way to make the music I want, and also support myself financially, but I think there is enough of an overlap for me that this should always be possible; fingers crossed. Over the last 10 years my musical past has become increasingly important, especially my time in the classical world. And at the same time I have also learnt more and more about the technical aspects of manipulating sound with DSP, using software to create entirely new timbres. My end goal has pretty much always been the same though: to reach a point where these worlds all meet and create something new and beautiful."
Your political views come through now and again in the music, and are plain to see for anyone following you on Twitter – do you think it's important for artists to try and make statements or try to change things with their work?
Menzies: "It’s a personal choice really, and I couldn’t possibly proscribe what anyone else in the industry should do or say, but I do think that everyone should at least be thinking about what is going on. We live in a global community and what you do here may have a very direct and very immediate affect on someone on the other side of the planet or at a future time. Part of me likes to be Zen and just say “what will be will be” but I can’t help feeling an intense sense of responsibility about what is done in my name. The power structures put in place to protect people and move the planet forward over the past 200 years have steadily been eroded and bypassed, so we are now at a crossroads in how our civilisation will go on. We all now have access to the information that tells us what our shitty politicians and corporations are up to, so it is up to us to keep these idiots honest. There is no giant conspiracy, it is simply a lot of not-so-clever men making a lot of short term decisions based purely on financial returns, like big stupid greedy children."
You recently did a Wraetlic show at Fabric, how did it go and what went into preparing that album to be played live?
Menzies: "I was a little concerned about playing the Wraetlic show at Fabric to be honest, especially at peak time, but it went surprisingly well. I also lost my bags in Berlin two days previously so was missing most of my equipment, and I really hate that added stress before a show, but Fabric is blessed with an excellent technical team so we got it all sorted. The main thing with the Wraetlic show was to get the visuals working reliably so that I could handle it all myself without Vokoi (the creator of my visuals) being there, and also to get the singing aspect right so it sounded good and I didn’t make a fool of myself. The visuals were easily sorted as Vokoi is brilliant, dilligent, and very gifted. I just had to buy a new computer to run them! The vocals I realised would have to be done with me wearing in-ear monitors, rather than the usual stage monitors, as with stage monitors it’s just not possible to hear yourself singing accurately and I totally hate it when I sing out of tune; it’s like nails down a blackboard. The rest of the show is done the way I do all my live shows: putting loops of each separate part into Ableton and triggering them as I go."
"No fucking fireworks, no inflatable dinghies and no dancing girls, thanks. Just mental visuals on a massive scale and possibly 10 people in wheelchairs and five professional gurners wearing MC Hammer pants."
Ever tempted to go full-on EDM and devise some on-stage audio-visual extravaganza?
Menzies: "I have nothing against on-stage audio-visual extravaganzas, and I like the idea of big shows with big visuals, but I am more into Aphex Twin’s way of doing things than Deadmau5’s. No fucking fireworks, no inflatable dinghies and no dancing girls, thanks. Just mental visuals on a massive scale and possibly 10 people in wheelchairs and five professional gurners wearing MC Hammer pants. As for EDM, it really doesn’t affect me and they are welcome to their fun. Of course it’s commercial and cynical and a bit cheesy, but it makes many people very happy and will no doubt lead a fair few curious souls into the world of more underground electronic music. I never really thought of myself as part of this whole party scene anyway, as for me electronic music is so much more than just music to get wasted to. Of course it’s about dancing, and that is of central importance, but it is also about culture and pushing boundaries and politics and art and different people coming together. EDM is like a one-dimensional bastardisation of that."
Where do you go from here, any more orchestral/classical stuff, are you still pining to make some more hip hop, or will you ever make another pure techno record?
Menzies: "I have a lot of music ready to go so am just waiting to see what happens with regards to albums, etc. There is techno and there are songs and there is experimental music and there are plans for big installation pieces involving visuals and instruments and there is certainly going to be more classical/orchestral music. I am just working away and eventually these things will break ground and appear…"
R&S Records released Dust on September 2nd.