What Makes Plaid
Interview: Joe Muggs
3694 words, 00:12:18
It's now 30 years since Ed Handley and Andy Turner first released a record – as two thirds of The Black Dog along with Ken Downie. And an extraordinary record it was, too, standing out as unique even among the rapid innovations of the rave era. But Ed and Andy were already on the same musical wavelength well before that as teenagers in a village outside Ipswich, where they bonded over their love of hip hop – and particularly of breakdancing, or “b-boying”. From that point, they became culturally and intellectually voracious, throwing themselves into the subcultures and scenes of underground music around them, but always keen to know more about the wider world around them.
After WARP took an interest in their first Plaid album, Mbuki Mvuki, released on Black Dog Productions, they signed up in 1993, and became known as a vital part of the ‘90s electronica generation, alongside the likes of Aphex Twin and Autechre. But their path has been a singular one, whether in The Black Dog, or as Plaid: never chasing extreme complexity like Aphex, or purely electronic abstraction like Autechre, they continued to incorporate soul, funk and classic songwriting values into their compositions, even as they innovated with synthesis and audiovisual experiments.
Here, Ed and Andy take us through the key creative milestones in their lives, the moments that have transformed them, and the inspirations that have remained with them all this time.
HIP HOP AND FUNK
Ed: Imagine a world with no hip hop! It's kind of impossible to think of now... But in a little village in East Anglia, to be suddenly made aware of this culture was quite amazing.
Andy: One of my first memories of it is when the New York City Breakers came over to the UK - around 1984 I think - and they were on the cover of Time Out in their Puma Tracksuits. We really, really wanted those tracksuits, but they were just impossible to find in the UK. It was like being shown a glimpse of another world.
Ed: There was a weird sort of work ethic about it all. This idea of practice, perfecting your style, and this sense of being in a positive kind of gang where you get shown new skills: graffiti, b-boying, MCing, DJing. There was nothing like it in youth culture that actually encouraged such a broad-ranging creative set of skills.
Andy: But because we were out in the countryside, it was either Iron Maiden patched denim or quite bad eighties synth pop with rolled up jacket sleeves, they were basically your cultural options. So for us the style element was really important. Breaking now is seen as really gymnastic, but then it was all about style: having flow and naturalness and ease is as important as the technicality.
Ed: Then you start to learn about other dance forms. Seeing Paris is Burning and learning about the trans and gay culture around that and how close a lot of that is to hip hop and b-boying in its realness. And uprocking - where dancers are challenging each other face to face - comes from Puerto Rican culture, you can even see the roots of it in the choreography of West Side Story! You realise that nothing is ever totally new, there's always precursors.
Andy: Musically, because of the b-boying, it was more the dancey elements initially that appealed - Afrika Bambaataa, Cybotron, that kind of thing - but we got into the general scene, and that led us to late sixties, early seventies music because you'd be searching for breaks.
Ed: The Meters were the big one for us, then also Sly Stone - which is much more complex structurally.
Andy: That definitely set the tone for us: we love complexity, but we want it to sound easy. The things we love have been laboured over, have all this skill behind them, but have a flow and a groove that you can appreciate on an immediate level.
Ed: It's all about drums first. Even though we mixed drums terribly for the first... ten albums, because we didn't know what we were doing, it was always about the rhythm and start with that. That comes from The Meters! That's why we loved Detroit techno as soon as we heard it, because it blended these emotive electronic elements with what we instantly recognised as funk. We didn't really get into European electronic music back then, or if we did, we discovered it via American hip hop people telling us about it.
THE RAVE YEARS
Andy: The b-boy dedication - which included not drinking, not really doing any kind of intoxicants - started to wane a bit as acid house came along and we started going to all the big parties. World Dance, Sunrise... there were magic moments. I remember going on a bus with a friend, a little bit the worse for wear by the time we got to the festival site, and my friend found he'd lost his ticket. But I just felt like I was on some cosmic channel, walked straight across this ploughed field and straight to the ticket, with no idea how I'd found it. Then there was this moment of "Yes! We're all going again!" Strange moments like that kind of defined the experience.
Ed: Andy introduced me to raving, I had no idea. I'd listened to Centreforce FM, so I knew the music a bit - but when some guy came down the aisle of the bus going "does anyone want any Es?" I literally didn't know what he meant. It didn't seem odd at all transitioning from a hip hop background, though. You'd have a few ascetic hip hop purists scowling and folding their arms, asking why you liked electronic music of any sort, and often with a really strong anti drugs attitude. Quite funny to think of that attitude compared to hip hop now, where xanax and ecstasy are considered minor drugs! But the breaks, the bass and the dancing we connected to straight away.
Andy: We very quickly picked up on people like Shut Up And Dance, Ratpack, 808 State, Blapps Posse, who all came from a hip hop background too, and were starting to cut up breakbeats in really interesting ways. I think we were all experimenting, triggering breaks in interesting ways, using the limited time you had on samplers and making new rhythms. I remember reading LTJ Bukem say that one of our early tracks had inspired him to use breaks in a particular way. I don't think it's that we somehow influenced drum'n'bass exactly, but everyone was working in this similar zone at the same time because of the limits of the technology.
Ed: There was a real existential philosophical thing to raving too. This sense of love - which we were deluded enough to think really could transform the world - but also rebelling against Thatcherism, and rejecting macho culture, rejecting this beer-drinking, macho, gotta-be-a-geezer thing. Being colourful, enjoying dancing and music for the sake of it, being part of a friendship group who did that together, having a social scene that wasn't just based on mating rituals. It felt important.
THE BIRTH OF ELECTRONICA
Andy: We'd both moved down to London about '87, both still in our teens I think. Ken had placed an advert in the NME for some people to write acid house with; Ed responded to it, then he roped me in. At that stage we had an Akai sampler and some bits of Roland kit - we'd both tinkered with music a bit and DJed at that point, but this is when we made our first demos. We talked to Black Market about releasing it - there was even talk of Mr Fingers doing an edit - but it all took so long that we decided to press it up ourselves, and that became the Virtual EP. During this time, I had a DJ spot on Crush FM, a pirate station near Old Street when Shoreditch was still a wasteland. Around 1990 we used to go to a night called Thunderground that Bandulu ran in the Bass Clef in Hoxton Square, which became a meeting point for a lot of people from different sides of the scene.
Ed: There was Joi Soundsystem too - two brothers Farook and Haroon - who did a night there, and that also became a meeting point because it was really eclectic, with many different flavours of weird electronic music, Indian music, dub and so on. We were slightly in on the free party scene too - we didn't really like the music as it got more "Goa", but it was a friendly vibe. Then there was the ambient scene with Ambient Soho, Mixmaster Morris and Telepathic Fish - our first ever Black Dog gig was something Morris and his lot did at Bagleys. Steve Bicknell's Lost nights were the hub for techno. And then FatCat records was the real connecting point: that was the first place we discovered that there were other people doing weird stuff inspired by Detroit techno - hearing things like Insync, the first inklings of Autechre.
Andy: It never felt like there was factions at that point. You'd go to all these places, you'd know everyone, we'd play at Lost, we'd play at Megadog, we could go and do an electro night, we could play with Mixmaster Morris at an ambient party, it was all just the scene. It was only once the Artificial Intelligence albums came out and the media needed a handle to put on it that it became known as "electronica" - until then we were just happy doing our thing without giving it a name!
LEARNING THROUGH COLLABORATION
Ed: Ken was our senior by quite a few years, and we looked up to him as the learned gentleman who'd studied the occult. We were kind of his apprentices, and he schooled us in all kind of things, from the Golden Dawn to this strange world of bulletin boards and the internet - we didn't know what the fuck the internet was in 1988! Musically, we had our sequencers and samplers, but he was working with four-track tape which we had no experience of, so there was a good exchange. He was friends with Jimmy Cauty, and clearly had a manifesto based on what The KLF were doing, and that drove us. Yes we eventually fell out with him - there was always a tension that he was a visionary and about building worlds, and we were really all about the music and ultimately just wanted to make funky beats, and I think that contributed to it falling apart - but he was and is a strange and fascinating guy, and for a good long while his vision held that whole thing together and it put us on the path to everything else we've done.
Andy: As Plaid, expanding our tracks into songs just came about through friendships really. Nicolette we met in a club, Mara Carlyle, we met through Rob Mitchell of WARP, and Björk we met in a club too! We'd read in an NME interview that she liked The Black Dog so we just went over and said hi. We never really had any intention of getting into songwriting, it was just that we got to know musicians - instrumentalists as well as vocalists - and through friendships that we ended up doing bits and bobs and sometimes developing longer-term work. We still do that, like what we do with Benet Walsh - Mara's brother - who's written four tracks with us on Polymer.
Andy: We both had regular jobs all the way through working as The Black Dog and on to the first Plaid album. Signing to WARP made our sales go up tenfold, but it wasn't until Björk asked us to go on tour with her in ‘96 that we became professional, in the sense we were getting a weekly salary for being her backing musicians on the tour as well as occasionally doing the support slot too. That was the first time we became full time musicians, and our sales picked up from that tour too. At the end of that tour we did Not for Threes, which did quite well, and we've just about managed to hang in there ever since. Going on the Asian leg of the Post tour was pretty mind-blowing for young guys too - having a tour manager, call sheets, being looked after, but also going to China, Japan, all these places we didn't know.
Ed: It was definitely mind-expanding. Not in a profound, spiritual way, in fact quite the opposite - it was almost like an introduction to the material world. We'd been more metaphysical and philosophical before, by which I mean sitting around eating baked beans, but this definitely introduced us to a different world. The first time you see a five-star hotel room is a really remarkable experience if you don't come from a certain background where you expect that kind of thing. It was the sort of thing we'd only ever seen on Dallas or Dynasty! I don't think it made us go "right we're going to become rich and famous now", mind.. or if it did, we didn't manage it. But meeting a huge natural creative talent like Björk definitely did give us more drive. Seeing someone so dedicated and focused on making what is in her mind become something real in the world, and seeing the structure around her that's all about making a good show happen, about giving the audience something real, that was inspiring.
Andy: The next big thing that opened up possibilities was Tekonkinkreet. Michael Arias the director had seen us play live in New York many years before. At the time he'd been a producer for The Animatrix, a series of short animations based around the Matrix movie. I don't know what he'd been drinking that night, but apparently there and then he decided that if he ever got to the position of directing a movie, he'd ask us to score it. So probably against some resistance from Sony, he talked them into getting us onto that movie - and this again was an eye-opening thing. Unlike a live action movie, where the music is all done in about two weeks at the end, with Tekonkinkreet we were brought on in the last year of a five year process, so we could compose to the animatics - the framework of the animation - and we had a good long time to work on it. It was such a huge project, with about 500 animators, one of the last to be almost entirely hand drawn and painted, and it was incredible to be part of the movie world on a project so big.
MAKING YOUR OWN NICHE
Andy: We've always said we're not experimental musicians but we've been lumped into that category because we started when it was an experimental form: everyone was hearing these electronic sounds for the first time. Now people expect revolutionary sounds every couple of years, based on what happened back then, but that's just not possible.
Ed: Electronic music has become its own tradition now, like jazz. If you're in the radical experimental world, you do have that pressure of being expected to do something new every time but that's not what we aim to do.
Andy: We've done ten studio albums now, three soundtracks, maybe another six or seven albums of stuff if you include things like the co-writes with the Javanese composer Rahayu Supanggah we did for the gamelan project in the Southbank, or the collaboration with Felix's Machines, the robot band. I think in the end we're defined by our catalogue, rather than by fitting into any scene.
Ed: I don't know if we're driven enough by material wealth to have the drive to throw everything into soundtracks. It would be lovely to do huge Hollywood films, but I don't think we're really built for it. We'll definitely aim to do more film though, if it's offered. We're certainly still involved with the electronic club world - we have lots of friends going way back to the nineties who are still promoters, we both still DJ, we still buy music for that purpose, and we still feel an affinity for small scenes and people who dance for the love of dancing. So we're plugged into that, but we're also slightly out to one side of that world. And we're not exactly "art music" either. We love doing audiovisual work and installation art, and I definitely want to explore that more - the thing where you express one very concentrated idea in an installation - but we're definitely musicians first. So we might get booked for these very experimental or arty festivals, but there's definitely a feeling that we're not really part of that world, we're not Austrian data music or ultra edited alienating electronic music. Maybe we're not weird enough for them, or they think we're the kitsch or pop version of experimental music...
Andy: We're about the craft of what we do more than about artistic manifestos, I think. We're definitely not about reinventing ourselves for every project - it's more about understanding our tools and the processes of composition, and refining the processes every time. We definitely have an affinity to the Japanese approach, where artists are proud to repeat and refine their processes. We're very happy to make "another Plaid record", and if we're about anything it's about that refinement of the craft. If we've done something that satisfies us, it may or may not work in the world, but we can feel happy that it's honest.
STAYING FIRED UP
Ed: We're still definitely inspired by small subcultures, and by the passion people have for music and dancing. When I see someone in a club doing footworking or whatever style of dance they've dedicated themselves too, I know exactly what they're feeling, I recognise the sense of pride and the connection to the music. I might be a bit old to get involved now, but it's still something I feel connected to.
Andy: I'm essentially a hippy in a lot of ways, and I do still feel slightly on the edge of wanting to run out of my house, chuck off my clothes and run naked in the woods. Apparently 50 is the age to do that, and I'm shockingly close to that now. I realise the whole hippy thing has been a bit tarnished by the way that original generation turned to money making and I do get the "never trust a hippy" thing - but the basic idea of togetherness with other people and genuine love of spending time with other people, celebrating, enjoying music... I'm still there!
Ed: A lot of people now feel a real disconnect from the society they're in, and if there's one thing that does connect the different kinds of music and musicians that we're connected to, it's that it speaks to outsiders. If you go to one of our parties, a lot of the people we see over and over again do seem to live on the outside slightly.
Andy: This is why we're lucky that we've straddled these different musical worlds. We really don't like to talk about "experimental" music - what matters, whether it's atonal electronic sound, or a gamelan, or the London Sinfonietta, is not where you place it after the fact, but whether it makes you feel something with other people.
Ed: Connecting to other people matters. You see people who are intelligent, who aren't just ignorant, who aren't even bad people on the personal level - you know they'd go and help someone in the street if they were hurt, you know they'd save a drowning dog - but on a political level, they're adrift and they've let go, so they'll support populists like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson and whoever in the full knowledge that they're liars or bullies or crooks. It's not done out of hatred, but just out of not caring, out of that disconnect. It's like they've forgotten all of the wars and terrible things that have happened in situations like this before. Or they'll support it because they just want to fuck things up, even though they understand they're harming themselves, they just feel like they can impose their own will on the world. Ultra-individualism.
Andy: I think that definitely happens with Brexit. People feel like it's their only way to rebel or lash out at the system. Even if they know that they're harming other people and themselves. That's what's so bizarre about this populist magic trick that's being worked today: they've managed to convince the people who are most concerned with themselves predominantly to accept a worse life for... nothing. It's genius in many ways.
Ed: Brexit has definitely made us more actively political, in the sense of speaking out, and also questioning our own assumptions. It's horrible, but it's also a strong motivator.
Andy: The EU is the only shout-out we've given on this album!
Over those 30 years of recorded and live music, Plaid have written and produced for orchestras, gamelans, galleries, films, singular vocal talents and even robots – and now, including the new record Polymer, made ten albums, on top of their output with The Black Dog. Through all of that a lot has changed and a lot of lessons have been learned – but crucially, a lot has remained constant in their creative process. Every one of the elements they’ve described here remains crucial to their processes, and they’ve constantly evolved and finessed the Plaid sound to continually express these influences. And in Polymer, and the stunning visuals that go with it, they’ve achieved some of the clearest expressions of these principles yet.