Andrew Weatherall once memorably said that he was ‘far more interested in what happened after the club’. He wasn’t alone. The initial rush of dance music caught a lot of people off guard. Here was an experience so total in its excitement and so absolute in its immediacy, that what happened afterwards was - initially - an afterthought. However, as the underground culture grew, and as raving became part of the fabric of life for many, certain rituals became entrenched. The journey home, the peculiar colours and uncanny aspect of normal life put under different focus; the slightly, well… warped aspect to it all. It was fascinating because it was a different unknown. Away from the lights and systems and pulsating subs; back in the living rooms and bedrooms and cars and crumbling after-hours pubs, a new sonic world was unfolding. It wasn’t so much the idea of the ‘chill out’, but rather the sleep deprived hinterlands where pretty much anything went.
Two Lone Swordsmen ˇ
‘Hope We Never Surface’
Warp were quickly established as a label determined to explore this brave new world of ragged dawn, the glorious psychedelic outposts of sunlight peaking through loosely drawn curtains in smoky living rooms, missions to strange petrol stations over flyovers, sonic worlds imbued with the promise of the night just past - an audio chemical feedback loop, essentially. The first Artificial Intelligence: Electronic Listening Music (1992) compilation featured the likes of Alex Paterson, Autechre, Richard D James, Black Dog and Speedy J. This wasn’t ‘chill out’ music, with all the twee connotations. Rather it was a collection geared toward wonkiness, mild sensory delirium, peculiar melody, skewed beats. Here were producers - all of who, of course, were also well versed in making peak time gear - taking inspiration from the dancefloor but sending it west, taking it to hitherto unknown reaches. It was a groundbreaking compilation for a number of reasons. Visually, we were in the uncannily domestic, the cover art depicting a robotic figure sitting spangled at home - stereo, records, lamps and cushions alongside a clearly visible copy of Kraftwerks Autobahn, a nod to both the groups pivotal influence on the nascent rave culture and, perhaps, a metaphorical tip of the hat to the idea of rave as journey, living room as final destination. This was a small but important detail. Where dance music had long been of the clubs and - in the UK - fields and warehouses Artificial Intelligence was, from the outset, aligned with the interior. As the sleeve notes put it: ‘are you sitting comfortably? Artificial Intelligence is for long journeys, quiet nights and club drowsy dawns. Listen with an open mind’
With a tracklist reading like a who’s who of modern electronic auteurs Richard D James (under his Dice Man moniker) was on an acidic electro tip on ‘Polygon Window’; Autechre were in morose breakbeat mode with ‘The Egg’ while The Orb’s Alex Patterson closed proceedings with the lush, mildly trancey ‘Loving You Live’. Looking back, the compilation still feels like something of a line in the sand. It was, after all, the first time that the word ‘Intelligent’ had been used in conjunction with dance music (still frequently misunderstood and vilified by both the tabloids and the wider music press) and, although the much loathed term IDM (‘Intelligent Dance Music’) was a couple of years away from underground consciousness, the idea was foremost: here was music to be listened to as much as physically experienced. Indeed, the early Warp catalogue hinged on physicality. Think of the pummelling sub laden baselines of LFO, Sweet Exorcist and early Nightmares on Wax. Here was music that you felt in your chest: bass that physically pushed the air out of your lungs. By proxy, the music on Artificial Intelligence was subtler in bent, the sound of artists expressing an individuality away from the confines of the dancefloor.
If there’s a common thread that runs through the Warp catalogue then it’s an outsider factor: artists working at the margins of genre, pushing at the foundation stones, willing to take risks time and again. As F.U.S.E, for example. Richie Hawtin explored the SF influenced hinterlands on Dimension Intrusion (1993), breaking up his frenetic minimalist techno with more cerebral sounds while another techno mainstay - Speedy J - brought a midnight bedroom sensibility to the fore on Ginger (1993), an album that crackled with jittery energy tempered by gentle ambient washes. Surfing on Sine Waves, meanwhile, saw Richard D James (as Polygon Window) pitch the breaks down amidst a raw tumble of bowel shaking bass, creeped out drones and all manner of bizarre samples.
The following year saw James release Selected Ambient Works Vol 2. A diverse set of largely beatless soundscapes, Selected Ambient Works Vol.2 was informed by James's experiments with the outer reaches of sleep deprivation. Inspired by the uncanny headspace of severe exhaustion and lucid dreaming, many of the tracks were recorded instantly on waking, in the hope of catching the shadowland vibe of the ether that he’d just emerged from. Add his well documented synaesthesia - a condition that causes the brain to assign colours, letters, shapes or smells to sound - into the mix and James arrived at an audio zone far removed from the Eno definition of ambient music being ‘as ignorable as it is interesting’. Rather, James tracks were, often, balanced between the beautifully ethereal and the foreboding and sinister, his use of sustained tone underpinning the mix. As he told Simon Reynolds, the drone of electricity - power stations in particular - took on a peculiar significance in his inspiration: ‘…power stations are wicked. If you stand in the middle of a really massive one, you get a really weird presence…you’ve just got that hum. You just feel the electricity all around you. That’s totally dreamlike to me. It’s just a strange dimension’
The idea of a ‘strange dimension’ is, of course, central to Warp. Autechre frequently channeled a feeling of brittle, mechanical uncanniness - an audio sphere that essentially personifies juxtaposition. Defying any kind of simple categorisation, Rob Brown and Sean Booth traversed otherworldly plains from early days onwards. Meeting via the Manchester graffiti scene in 1987 and initially bonding over a shared love of hip hop and b-boy culture (alongside cranky Chicago and Detroit imports) they were soon collaborating on tape edits and rudimentary electronic jams, releasing the Lego Feet and Cavity Job EP’s in 1991. Embodying a post acid DIY vibe, these early tracks were twisted, rough cut gear that nonetheless pointed - in their use of dissonance, texture and attention to detail - toward what was to come. Signing to Warp in 1993, debut LP Incunabula was a beautifully cohesive listen. Cavernous sub bass, emotive pads, strange pings and beeps and spectral drones tie many of the tracks together, while a keen ear for melody - crucially, the way it interacts with more dissonant and menacing sounds - found it a surprisingly wide audience, given the oddness and intricacies of their sound. The Autechre discography is forebodingly - famously - huge. And, while often (wrongly) perceived as ‘difficult’ music it’s important to remember that Brown and Booth are, in spirit, closer aligned to underground rave culture than the avant garde. In 1994, when Michael Howard’s loathed and ludicrous Criminal Justice Bill, criminalised dancing to ‘repetitive beats’ in large groups outside, Autechre responded with the Anti EP, including the track ‘Flutter’ which purposefully shifted it’s BPM throughout, thus rending any charge of ‘repetitive’ null and void. Albums such as Amber (1994), meanwhile, was as keenly melodious as the duo have got, while the following years Tri Repetae was a line in the sand. By turns sculpted, warm, brittle and often taking you completely unawares, tracks like ‘Clipper’ - rolling along with punch drunk arpeggios - and ‘Eutow’, punchy and brutal while underpinned by warm pads were completely idiosyncratic.
Recent years have seen such ludicrous Autechre bounty that you’d need a spare month to truly get to grips with it all. From 2016’s Elseq 1-5 series - a five hour headspin into the seriously dense and foreboding - to 2018’s NTS Sessions 1-4 - a full 8 hours of music gleaned from the duos NTS residency, often cavernously deep in subliminal detail. The final track was a 58 minute drone piece entitled ‘all end’, a subtly shifting completely transcendent trip. Often building tracks from different locations, the duo have an idiosyncratic way of working, swapping files and patches. However, it goes deeper than that. They’re also committed to a production system (used only by them) which enables a near stereoscopic view of sound: an architectural 3D rendering of sound that is both deeply personal and affecting. As Brown told The Quietus in 2013:
‘Sean and I always knew that what we were doing wasn't supposed to be futuristic or brand new. We were just doing something that nobody had really heard before. It's hard to phrase this, but we knew that we were different and we knew that we were special, but 'pioneers' was a word for people like Brian Eno and Kraftwerk and so on. So looking back, when a lot of people attribute that word to us, and then a load of other people go 'Fuck off, it's just the same old stuff they've been doing for twenty years', I can see both sides. I guess we've never really set out to be 'the future’… All we're trying to do is communicate, really, it's not about being difficult and saying 'Aren't we clever-looking because we're this futuristic, clever-looking band that takes itself seriously, with strange names and cryptography and stuff like that. It's a lot more personal than that. When people see through the more adverse elements, they'll find their way into something they find quite personally rewarding. I think that's just reaching minds.’
The late Mira Calix was also all about reaching minds and connecting previously obtuse dots. Co-compiling 1995’s Blech and 1996’s Blechsdöttir compilations, she quickly gained serious production chops. Considering sound a ‘sculptural object’ - to be manipulated as an artist would the physical - her first Warp release was the Llanga EP. A serious statement of intent, the discombobulating industrial grind of ‘Humba’ was juxtaposed with the slow burning drones and shuffling beats of ‘Khala’. Frequently working at the intersection of electronic music, audio visual pieces and site specific sound art, Calix often used the natural resonance of the world around her in tracks. Twigs, bark and leaves from the park, for example, could end up chopped and spliced and repurposed as beats, while her many conceptual pieces hinged on the intricacies of the natural world in sonic form. As an experimental composer she worked on a succession of daring, intricate works. 2002’s Nunu, at the Royal Festival Hall in London, featured cicadas and crickets in a giant fish tank fully miced up, offset against haunting strings and peculiar drones. She was firmly committed to removing the barriers to perceptions of public art, telling the writer Jude Rogers in 2012 ‘what I want to do more than anything is remove the barrier that says ‘I don’t get this’. Other notable public pieces included Nothing is Set in Stone for the Cultural Olympiad which saw a giant ‘singing egg’ buried amidst stones in a park in an obscure corner of North East London that responded to the people approaching it. Her final studio LP - 2021’s
absent origin - was an eclectic exploration into her singular sound world, encompassing field recordings, heavy subs, eerie drones, rapid fire edits and cinematic grandeur.
Mira Calix ˇ
Indeed, the cinematic has frequently been key to the wider Warp catalogue, Boards of Canada - Scottish duo Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin - being a key case in point. Traversing a beguiling hinterland of crackling VHS melody, half-forgotten childhood memories, rain soaked beats and droning, hypnogogic ambience, their 1998 Warp debut LP Music Has The Right to Children pre dated the hauntalogical axis that would engulf the electronic underground throughout the 00’s. Playing with ideas of hidden cultural memories - specifically how musical and cinematic memories seep into the subconscious and take on hidden meaning- the album hit a sweet spot that Boards of Canada came to make their own: the combination of rich analogue synths, shuffling smokey beats and disorientating, disquieting ambience. The background chatter of children, low down in the mix, was a constant thread, adding to the disorientating dreamscape.
Audio world building; clandestine short wave radio static; the whisper and crackle of a dying bonfire; disembodied voices; the murmur of sub bass and legacy hardware. This was music imbued with a firm sense of place, namely the majestic hills, sinister lochs and wending country roads of Moray on the North East Scottish coast; outdoors music that - like a forest walk at the onset of dusk - shimmers with a peculiar otherworldly portent, something lurking just out of frame. For 2013’s Tommorow’s Harvest that spectre was impending environmental collapse, the albums title taken from a US ‘preppers’ website selling tinned goods, longlife crackers and the like. Built around foreboding drones, wet cave percussion and mournful melody, Tommorow’s Harvest is perhaps the darkest record the brothers have made, tracks like ‘Cold Earth’ ‘Sick Times’ and ‘Collapse’ all taking on even graver meaning in a post pandemic world. As they told Louis Pattinson in 2013:
‘There's a deliberate VHS video-nasty element throughout the record and to get there it wasn't just a case of processing sounds through old media, which is a given with us anyway, but we even went to the extent of timing changes in the music and the composition of the pieces, in really specific ways to give an impression of something familiar from soundtrack work that was around 30 years ago… Those things hopefully imply a visual element. Some tracks deliberately finish earlier than you want them to, like actual cues in older soundtracks where they've been ripped out of much longer original masters that nobody ever gets to hear. Another example would maybe be at the end of the whole album, you've reached some sort of sanctuary and then the whole thing is stolen away from you again with the final track. That last track has a deliberate feeling of complete futility that I find kind of funny. That's where the obsessive, scientific work comes in, and yeah, it takes us ages…We’re very much into grim 70s and 80s movie soundtracks’
Boards of Canada ˇ
Broadcast also dug deep into an imagined - often deeply cinematic - past. Built around slow burning beats, mauve atmospherics, creeped out samples and haunting sixties inflected vocal melodies, they were formed in Birmingham in the mid 90’s by the late vocalist Trish Keenan and bassist James Cargill. Their Warp debut came in the shape of the superlative - and incredibly influential - The Noise Made by People in 2000. The result of a gruelling two years of recording and remixing, the band were initially dissatisfied with the results garnered by various engineers deciding, eventually, to record the album themselves. Imbued with a widescreen cinematic grandeur that took in musique concrète, library music, kosmiche and obscure soundtracks as primary influence, The Noise Made by People was a languid, often palpably sinister affair - not so much full on psychedelic as gently suggestive of reality bent slightly skew whiff. Again, this is the sound of subcultural memory reinterpreted: a personal journey. Hypnotic repetition was a key element of Broadcasts sonic arsenal. Take a track like ‘Tower of our Tuning’ - the way a couple of chords vamp around peculiar drones and clanking percussion or ‘You can Fall’, woozy melatron lines offset against shuffling beats. There’s a strong kitchen sink, strangely domestic element at the very core of Broadcast: the gloom of the early afternoon, the pale yellow streetlights, overheard conversations and half remembered children’s TV themes.
A vital precursor to the UK hauntlogical axis - think Mordant Music, Ghost Box Records and the like- Broadcast cast an eldritch shadow over much of the 00’s. Second LP Haha Sound explored this to a greater degree than their debut, a palate of samples by turn beautiful, bizarre and implacable tuned to a woozy dreamscape, like falling asleep in the middle of the afternoon and being transported to a perplexing carnival esq. landscape. Displaying a heavier hand with both the beats and samples, Haha Sound was a bewitching, haunted collage where third studio album - Tender Buttons - was a more stripped back affair, less heavy on the samples and electronics.
2010’s soundtrack to Berbarian Sound Studio was, meanwhile, a note-perfect project for Broadcast. The story of a British sound engineer who travels to Italy where he is quickly immersed in the bizarre world of Giallo horror soundtracks, boundary between reality and fantasy becoming increasingly blurred as he toils away making unspeakable sounds in a cramped studio while his world takes some dark turns, it was full of shots of beautiful analogue desks, synths and the like. Indeed, Berbarian Sound Studio (the movie was partially produced by Warp) was an idiosyncratic look at the darker side of audio obsession and the Broadcast soundtrack was note perfect for the film: a selection of short, jagged pieces - most not much longer than the average library LP track themselves - that drew on a lifetime immersed in the hinterlands of library music and soundtracks.
As Trish Keenan told The Wire, memory was always the key to Broadcast: ‘I think the evocation of memory in our music could be seen as the residue of imaginary time travel. You can either go forward or back. You go back in order to change something in the now, to redesign the course of events for personal reasons. When you go back to a previous musical time you're trying to recall a memory that never happened to you, that is not stored, so it would make sense that you hear a fuzzy dissolving sense of time and place… When you make music in backwards time travel it's shadowy’.
After the death of Trish Keenan in 2011, Broadcast’s James Cargill and Ron Stevens - alongside Julian House of The Focus Group - began recording hazy and intoxicating instrumental soundscapes; tapestries of samples that were completely tied to the bewitching hinterland of the childhood dreamscape. As part of the Folklore Tapes collective, Children of Alice were alchemically connected to the crackling cinematic ouvre of Ghost Box records (The Focus Group being key Ghost Box artists) although the focus was arguably more Eurocentric: these sonic vignettes, like those of Broadcast’s Barbarian Sound Studio soundtrack, say - are as inspired by musique concrete as the fusty cefax vestibule. Indeed, the collaborative record Broadcast and The Focus Group made in 2009 Broadcast and the Focus Group investigate Witchcults of the Radio Age also pointed the way toward Children of Alice with it’s rich, bewildering tapestry of found sound, creeped out melodic interplay and mesmeric carpet weave approach to sampling.
Children of Alice (the name itself was a tribute to Keenan - who was a long-time Alice in Wonderland obsessive) reached even further back for inspiration than either Broadcast or The Focus Group, however. Pieces like ‘The Rite of The Maypole (an unruly procession)’ and ‘Invocation of a midsummer reverie’ explicitly inspired by the rites, rituals and bacchanalian celebrations of pagan Britain, the dreamworld always at the forefront. As Julian House told The Quietus in 2017 ‘We don't think of it as imaginary soundtracks, or musique concrète which is much more rigorous and academic. If it fits with anything it's probably the long tradition of 'Head' music but in our case less drifty, more cut up and spliced…which is how dreams are…’
In more recent years, Lonelady has also traversed the shadowlands. Completely immersed in a Manchester topography - the looming tower blocks, disused pubs, stagnant canals and gleaming, empty Ballard esq. developments - her second LP Hinterland was a serious statement of intent. Combining a discordant post-punk sensibility of jarring layered noise and drones with propellant and hard funk basslines, Hinterland was a record steeped in the city. Recording, writing and producing from Brunswick Mill - a vast imposing former cotton mill that looms seven stories high, cast against the slate grey sky, echoing with the aural ghost of industry, now repurposed as myriad workspaces, recording studios, car workshops and flats, Hinterland was the sound of Julie Campbell’s idiosyncratic Manchester. Based around obsessive walks, tracking the towpaths and canals and patches of rubble and red light districts of Ancoats and the outer reaches of Salford, Hinterland was a psychogeographical patchwork of prodigious focus. A hard, brittle funk underpins the record, albeit shot through with the completely obtuse. Check the atonal scrape of violin on the title track or the slow-building percussion of ‘Groove it out’ - this was music for the dancefloor but built around the ghostly space of dereliction and past industry: true industrial music, in other words.
As she told Quietus editor John Doran, Hinterland was a deeply personal record. While often psychogeographical adventurers - Iain Sinclair, say - are working with completely unfamiliar areas, Hinterland was a paean to the homelands.
‘I’ve never lived anywhere else so it’s part of my DNA. It’s good to write about what you know and this is what I know. Manchester is always right in front of me. This obsession has become a lot more intense on this record, this wandering around the outskirts and trying to make something out of what are really just bits of waste ground and patches of rubble. It’s about trying to make something out of what I’ve got because I don’t have any other landscape really. This is my landscape. It’s about trying to redesignate the idea of what’s beautiful. And over the years I’ve transformed a functional landscape and forced it to become something beautiful and magical and something that I can write about. I’ve lived in the same tower block next to the Mancunian way for ten years and at first the things that initially just made it functional eventually became beautiful.’
‘Into The Cave’
The albums final track ‘Mortar remembers you’ contained the refrain ‘I had to build a room to contain all the panic..’ while guitars, alternately jangling and obtuse, bounce around tremolo riffs and reverb-laden vocals talking of ‘darkening avenues’ and ‘what creeps in at the edges’. It’s a perfect tie-knot on a singular journey - a kind of industrial spell.
Follow up record Former Things was harder, sonically. A staccato, brittle electro basement vibe prevailed. Campbell had initially talked of making a techno album and had assembled a load of legacy synths and outboard gear but what resulted was far more personal. A paen to futures past - a broken synth pop brutalism prevailed - she was mining her own memories, describing the album as a kind of ‘giant living diary; an archeology of myself, layered with memories’ while her living space at Somerset House Rifle Range Studios was transformed into a giant archway that was part art instillation, part night club, where she could turn the volume up loud’.
Indeed, despite the fact that Warp has presented such a vast diversity of sound over three decades (as label co-founder Steve Beckett said in 2009, ‘there is no Warp sound, there is no Warp. It’s just a concept like the equator…I just want to sign, nurture and develop incredible new artists’) it would be fair to say that there is, perhaps, a unity of intent. Artists working outside the parameters of genre expectation and reaching ever inwards toward a more personal space, the dreamworld - the hinterland - ever present but never out of reach for others. As Mira Calix touchingly recalled to The Quietus an elderly woman’s reaction to an abstract piece she had installed in Durham Cathedral.
‘What was incredible to me was that the whole piece was completely abstract, but it made them feel something. They didn't say, ‘this is too weird’. This very old woman didn't think about the technology, the abstraction of these voices flying around. That wasn't a barrier to her at all. And they didn't go, ooh, pragmatically, this is 'experimental', so it cemented this in me: that people like fantasy. We know this. But people also like fairytales. And they like abstractions. Art isn't just for arseholes. People can handle it.’