Unholy Matrimony: An Interview With Demdike Stare
, February 17th, 2011 09:49
Of all the recent discoveries The Quietus have made, Demdike Stare are one of our favourites. Here, Rory Gibb talks to Miles Whittaker to find out exactly what makes the dark practitioners tick
Demdike Stare's music is concerned with opposing forces: decay and resurrection, loss and discovery, past and future, beauty and ugliness. It's almost inevitable, given that it's informed by the duo's previous work in two ostensibly opposite musical fields. Miles Whittaker has spent years making grainy and often abrasive techno as MLZ and one half of Pendle Coven, and more recently has been responsible for a series of hybrid dancefloor tracks that unite dubstep's sprawling sense of the urbane with dub-techno's rickety intensity; Sean Canty works for the Finders Keepers label, unearthing ancient and lost recordings and giving them a new lease of life. So while one half of the duo appears defiantly futurist, tapping into a lineage that began with Detroit techno's obsession with dystopian future worlds, the other's work is concerned with tunneling backwards into the past. Their records teem with the sounds of that apparent contraction, but reconcile its two halves into a form that's strikingly coherent.
On a number of levels, then, Demdike Stare practice a particularly potent form of modern witchcraft. As obsessive record collectors, they use acquisition of musical knowledge like weaponry, writing music by assembling it, layer upon layer, from samples and the rickety creak of hardware. This process of unearthing old recordings and reanimating them in new shapes carries with it an intrinsically arcane power; by passing the phantoms trapped in these records through a modern lens, Whittaker and Canty resurrect and re-contextualise the ghosts of the past. The results veer wildly from clouds of dense, almost impenetrably dark ambience to long-form tracks that could almost work on a dancefloor, powered by the incessant heartbeat thud of a bass drum.
Combined with their jet black, occult-referencing artwork and fearsome reputation of their namesake (Demdike was the most famous of the Pendle witches), the complete aesthetic the duo project is tied to a uniquely British sort of horror: all Wicker Man rituals, Shakespearian witches and wicked, sarcastic humour. In that sense, they're tightly bound to a host of other musicians, working across a range of different fields, who tap into the modern world's strong sense of political and social unease to reimagine the nervous dread of early post-punk and avant-funk. As with people like Shackleton, Actress, Raime, T++, Philip Jeck and Mordant Music, their music screams of different times and cultures colliding – thanks in part to their catch-all use of samples, from old psych-rock records to techno, through free jazz, dub and world musics – but twists them into forms that skillfully paste over cracks and tensions that might otherwise appear. The spiritual outcry of last year's 'Hashashin Chant' is a perfect example; one of Demdike Stare's finest moments, its incessantly looped voices trapped in perpetual motion depict a sort of abstract existential terror, as bleak as it is oddly beautiful.
After the release of debut album Symbiosis in 2009, last year was particularly prolific for the duo: they recorded and released three vinyl-only records on Modern Love. Each – the pitch drone of Forest Of Evil, the stark techno of Liberation Through Hearing and Voices Of Dust's skeletal dub – was able to stand alone, while also feeling tightly linked into a greater body of work formed when the trio were placed alongside one another. The recent release of the Tryptych compilation, which gathers all three together along with a raft of bonus tracks, bears out the strong sense of continuation between each record. However, as Whittaker explained when we spoke to him about its origins, Tryptych's self-contained majesty was less a matter of design than of gradual realization.
Tryptych is a compilation of the three records you released last year, alongside extra material. Was it always your intention to release last year's three records as a CD, or did that develop as it went along?
Miles Whittaker: It basically just happened as we went along. We'd been thinking about what to do with the CD release, because we wanted to do something a little bit special, rather than just compiling the releases. So we sat down after we'd scheduled the first record and worked out what other material we still had from last year, and that was where Tryptych came from really - we chose the bonus tracks for each CD.
That's interesting, because it's very coherent as you listen through it. There's a sense that it holds together really well, even though each individual disc is quite unique in itself. Did you take a similar approach when recording each album?
MW: Kind of. It's basically a really good document of the evolution of Sean and myself working together. The first, Symbiosis, was probably a little bit more random, I suppose. We were still finding our way around what kind of sound we were looking to come up with, whereas last year we were on a fire a little bit more and we knew exactly what we wanted to do.
That's one thing: listening to the progression from Symbiosis through the last three, your music feels like a far more complete synthesis – it seems to hold together better. I suppose that's unsurprising given that you've been working together constantly since then.
MW: True, but then me and Sean have known each other for about 20 years, and in the last four years we've probably spoken every day about records. I suppose you'd almost say that if one of us was female we'd be married! That's the kind of relationship we've had, but Sean's held off producing any music for a number of years. He was the catalyst that got Demdike Stare together, because he turned around to me after years of me trying to get him to do something, and said 'We've got to write a record now, we're ready'.
Originally it was just a soundtrack to a nonexistent horror movie. That was the idea - we were just writing music for ourselves to listen to. We were finding little bits of music that really represented both of us – on a rock record there'd be one track, on a jazz record there'd be another track…
So do you think that the sound of Demdike Stare is something that's found its own way as it's gone on?
MW: Yeah, of course. It's also come through being more honest with one another. Me and Sean come from really different types of music, but there are certain records that cross over between both of us, and those are the records that have drawn us together to write music. And with the amount of music that we listen to – we listen to absolutely everything! – it was quite difficult to condense that into the sort of sound we were looking for. But because we stuck to soundtracks we could be a lot more open minded. It just allowed us to do whatever we wanted to do. And the funny thing is that we've evolved even further with some of the new material, we've decided to take another route.
Probably the best way to describe it is that the main rule we have when buying records is that we don't stand still. We're not allowed to dwell for too long on, or get too far into, one thing. We have to keep moving because it keeps it fresh, it keeps us enthusiastic - and I think it's exactly the same with producing music. We don't want to step backwards or stay in the same place. This year, now, we just want to go somewhere completely different.
That makes sense: I read an interview with you, where you spoke about one of the themes behind Demdike Stare being futurism. It's interesting, because I can hear in your music this sense of the futuristic, but at the same time that 'futurism' is being created from old music. There's a really nice tension to that, which I find very appealing.
MW: That's exactly what we're all about: me and Sean look for old records that are relevant now. It's the passing of time that makes things relevant. When things are released, they don't necessarily sit well with what's going on at the time, but you can look backwards and just be completely inspired to write new music. That's one of the things a lot of people tend to forget when they get into music production. They're usually emulating their heroes, for want of doing something, rather than looking forward. And I'm not saying that we're 'looking forward' in any way at all, but we look backwards in order to move forwards, if you will. That's definitely at the heart of what we do.
Your experience as obsessive record collectors must really help that mentality. I guess it's something you see all the time when you find old records, and think 'wow, this has so much more meaning now, compared to when it was first released however many years ago'.
MW: Exactly. A lot of it's about context. And there's personal context as well. For years Sean's tried to get me to listen to certain things but I just can't hear it, you know? I'd say 'Look, I'm not there – it's not part of me, there's something there I'm just not ready for'. But a few years down the line, I'll just go 'this is amazing!'
It's crazy, you can't predict it, but more and more our identity is coming out of buying records. That's Demdike Stare, really: it's the records which we buy, that's what influences us.
What's the working process you take when you're making records out of records, then? Because you do include sounds from hardware as well, don't you?
MW: Yeah. Some of the tracks are pure hardware; that's the flipside. I'm a record collector, but Sean's a record collector who's on another level. He's obsessive. He basically puts me onto everything, I don't have time to go out looking hard. The other side is that's what I'm like with hardware – I'm obsessed with it. It's where I know my true love lies, just plugging stuff in and making it play itself.
We don't actually tend to sit down and write anything in particular, but we'll basically collate a few samples together and play around with them. It's trial and error, but basically Sean will compile a load of tracks from certain records, just to get me to listen to, be influenced by and/or sample. We've got to be a bit careful with the sampling thing...
I can imagine.
MW: It's just a tricky area. But everything's obfuscated, there's nothing really obvious in any of the tracks at all, and we obviously don't sample from major labels. That'd just be pointless. Though last year I Shazam'd one of our tracks, just to see what it'd recognize, and it came up as the original record it was sampled from!
There's a lot of inherent risk in sample-based music, especially now.
MW: Intellectual property laws are getting kind of insane on this planet now. I don't want to be compromising in any way for what we do. It's not like we're writing re-edits of famous tracks to make money. That's the complete opposite of what we do. We're just trying to create music out of building blocks like everyone else, but you've got to be careful what building blocks you use.
If you're blatantly doing re-edits for money it's fairly obvious. But if you've sampled a string to build another string line, you really shouldn't be chased down. I think a lot of it has to do with the whole music industry. The major labels are failing crazily, they're all a bit bitter now, and they just want to jump on everybody else's back in order to salvage a little more money. That's not what we do. The music industry as we know it is akin to the motor industry to us: we don't have anything to do with it.
On that subject: you've got a long running relationship with [record label] Modern Love, don't you?
MW: Completely. They're like my best friends. We get the absolute freedom to do what we want, which is why we consistently work with them. A lot of people really can't say that about their labels!
And I think there are more labels doing that now. They don't actually care, they might release in what could be construed as an actual genre, but then they'll just flip out. For me anyway, last year was an uber exciting year for new music. It was an amazing year, there's so much that seems to be happening and coming to the fore. And it seems like we're part of it, which just makes me feel really humble and happy. Two years before that, I was getting a bit jaded with new music. Certain things weren't moving on, and it just seemed to be same thing over and over again. But last year it really picked up.
It's good to hear that coming from the perspective of someone like yourself, who's been collecting records for far longer than I have, because for me last year felt really interesting. This feeling that barriers were being broken down a bit, people weren't caring too much about whether they were conforming to certain established patterns.
MW: That's exactly the reason why. You're getting a lot of young producers now who have grown up with a lot of different types of music. In the 90s- especially the early 90s - it was a bit more difficult, because house music was house music, techno was techno… You ended up with clubs just playing that one type of music, whereas now it's getting more and more diverse, even within the sort of shows we're playing at. It's like you say, boundaries coming down and things crossing over – last year was killer for that.
I find myself wondering whether it's the fact that the internet has democratised the distribution of music to the point where young people getting involved in making music don't have any real expectations to make money out of it – so why bother conforming?
MW: I'd hope so. To be honest mate, that's a crucial mindset. It's one of the hardest things to do once you start working within music, but I try to keep that mindset all the damn time. Once you start thinking about making money you've changed exactly what you set out to do in the first place. I do it because I love it. I don't do it for anyone else – not in a selfish way, but I just do it for the sake of it, because I love and enjoy doing it.
The internet's got a hell of a lot to say too. I think it's probably the best true reflection of human nature, because it brings out the very worst and the very best in people. That's why I'm really against all these net laws about monitoring traffic – it's the last chalkboard where we can all shout at one another with no one actually stabbing anybody! All they're doing right now is trying to quell human nature, which is impossible.
They just start to push things underground in the same way as they do in the real world, I suppose. Things just sink deeper and deeper.
MW: That's exactly right. But the funny thing is that I still consider Demdike Stare to be really underground music – simply because we're all over the place, we're not really tied to genres or anything. But the underground seems to be coming overground, simply because of the internet. A few weeks ago I was talking about how, when the miner's strikes happened, to get them organized took a month. It took time and effort for people to phone each other up and send letters, whereas you can Twitter that now and everyone will be there within 24 hours. Word's passed on really fast. And that helps - anything that's good gets exposed really quickly on the internet. There can be downsides but there are upsides, especially for communication, on that level it's astonishing.
It's really great to think that your music is being heard by people across the world, far faster than it would ever have been before. Which I imagine is obviously brilliant for you guys.
MW: Yeah, it's crazy! Some of the gigs we've been offered this year have been off the wall – China and stuff like that.
It also indicates that there's an audience for the sort of music you make that stretches way beyond what you might imagine, an audience was previously limited by technology and access.
MW: I think the same can be said for anything. A lot of governments see the danger in that kind of thing, I think. But it's a worry to major labels as well. They act in the same way as all the corporations and they see a danger in it. We're eating away at their music business, because everyone who's not on their label is putting out better music. They're doing music for the sake of it, it's not a product, it's a love thing, and that shows through in a lot of music. That's one thing I think the major labels especially never had.
You've spoken previously about how you felt mixtapes were central to the spread of music culture. Is that an attitude that comes out in your music, do you think? When I listen to Demdike Stare, I feel like it's cut from the same cloth as a mixtape – it's based around pieces of other music, but all brought together into something coherent.
MW: One of the things we're actually trying to do is blur the line between a mixtape and a release. I love setting myself problems and then overcoming them. I actually write a lot of music doing it that way, because it almost turns out as a by-product. Especially in this day and age, I can sit down – where beforehand I probably would have spent two hours with my records, practicing mixes and then spending an hour recording – in three hours I can do a mix that's twice as long, loop five out of the thirty tracks, create little edits for the mix, and stick a load of effects on. The scope is limitless. I'm really a fan, these days, of trying to blur that line.
We've released two mix CDs already, and we did a couple of podcasts last year which were starting to go down that route, so hopefully the next one might be a little step further. I really want people to be like 'that really reminds me of something, but I don't exactly know what it is!' Just by taking a really unobvious loop out of something and using it for something else. I really like that, because it makes people look and dig for music. I don't care if they're doing it on YouTube or in a record bin - it's not about format wars or anything like that, it's just about getting people interested in looking for new music themselves.
Because that's what we do now, we're trying to find records that no-one else has found and used that way. It might be a rock record which all these rock collectors collect, but they're all buying it because it's this really big psych record, and there'll be a little electronic track on it which is just bonkers and doesn't really fit on there. That's what we're really looking for, you know - something people might have missed because a record was labeled wrongly. So yes, mixtapes are uber important.
What I find quite amazing about your music is that it's quite genreless. People try to tag it with different names but it doesn't really fit into any of them, and I wonder – no, actually, I'm sure – that it's because it takes this mixtape approach of bringing together music not by genre but more by mood, or by shared traits that stretch beyond genre.
MW: Identity. It's all about identity for us. That's one of those crucial things, in the mixtapes again - it allows more freedom. And hopefully it'll permeate into more areas as well, so if you go into a techno club you won't just hear techno music. I got tired of that. I used to get booked quite a lot under my MLZ moniker and I'd just turn up and play everything, you know – and people would be like 'what is he doing?' But it's still there: I'm referencing techno by playing a garage track, because it's still got 303s, or something. You just think, 'look, everything's the same, it's all music!'
You can't be too extreme with people, but you can subtly nudge them into another area. And if I could have one goal, it would be that every time somebody listens to our music they get interested in something they weren't interested in before. That's what me and Sean are like, really. It's just about being interested, going out there and exploring for yourself.
The funny thing is that you can get too far into it, and actually alienate yourself from people. You've just got to remember to be able to reference it to peoples' context, because you can't patronize people either. I'm a big believer that as soon as you start doing that, you'll lose more people than you gain. You've got to do it in a way that's friendly. But again, it's just interesting – if I play you an ambient drone record from the eighties, I'm trying to point you in the direction of certain things. But it's also about not being obvious: we don't put any names on the tracklists for our mixes, or anything like that. It's all anonymous.
As you say, it's about getting people to think a little bit more about where the music came from and where they might find it, or even where they might have found it before the internet made it so easy to.
MW: That's the thing these days. 10 years ago we couldn't really have shopped like we shop now. Me and Sean get booked all over Europe, and the first rule, before we even ask about payment, we ask, 'are there any record shops in the town you want us to play in?' And if the answer's yes, it's like, 'right, we'll negotiate' [laughs].
As long as there's somewhere to go crate digging before the show…
MW: It's likewise with the internet. I've just bought a record from South Korea today, and I couldn't have done that ten or fifteen years ago. I'd have had to known a record dealer who went over there, or have gone to a record fair in Europe or something. But now you can buy anything. If people point you in the right direction, you should be able to find it. Honestly, YouTube is probably one of the best reference places ever. It's nuts. So much of what Sean and I do is send each other links. We like trying to find things that are outside of genres, finding lost tracks on different records – that's where all the fun is these days. Because everything seems to be being dug at the moment, everyone's discovering everything.
I got this book, The Acid Archive, about pressings in America which came out between 1965 and 1982 or something, and it's amazing, it's got all these pictures of all these crazy, obscure records by hippies and all sorts. And it was basically stating that in the last fifteen years more of these records have turned up and become famous than ever before, because of the spread of the internet and the spread of information. So loads of the records in this book have only been discovered in the last fifteen years. I find that astonishing, especially in America, which is a really heavily dug musical country – there's still so much out there to be discovered.
I find that fascinating in itself: the fact that a record can be released by a person or a group of people, be bought by a few people, and then almost disappear as though it never existed. And then suddenly just reappear at some indeterminate time in the future.
MW: It happens all the time. Me and Sean are wondering where we can go to find music that hasn't been dug so well. So we're booking a show in the Philippines, and there'll be some really amazing stuff out there, anti-government music and the like. You look to the underground for that sort of thing.
Obviously there's a big connection to horror movies and the occult in both the music and the aesthetic you present as Demdike Stare. I guess that comes in part from the fact that there's something quite arcane or mystical about unearthing all these old records, these old sounds, these ghosts of people trapped in recording form, and reworking them into something new, giving them a new lease of life.
MW: Of course. As long as you don't mention hauntology - that's a misnomer right there. But it can be explained really basically: if you look at what witches did, which was conjure spells out of certain ingredients, that's exactly what we're doing. Hopefully we can inject some form of hidden factor that makes the end result more than the sum of its parts. It's almost like a spell in that sense, where you get a load of ingredients, throw them all into a cauldron, set fire to it and see what happens.
There's one record that came out last year which, more than any other, I tend to align with yours, which was the Wireless EP by T++ [the techno pseudonym of Berlin's Torsten Pröfrock]. Taken entirely aside from hauntology, it's again like a spell, taking these ancient African recordings and giving them this new, weird lease of life, where they're both old and new at the same time.
MW: Torsten's a wizard. He's simply one of the best producers on the planet for me, he's amazing. He's 15 years in front of most people. It's funny really, I'm just glad he gets the props he does these days, because it's pretty hard music to wrap your head around. He's out there on his own. He's always been plugging away, and has always been very private about his music, and very careful about releasing it. That's fantastic because so many people out there put out a record a week - which is nuts, because they're stopping other music from being heard, as far as I'm concerned. Torsten's a model, and he's in a really great place for what he's doing, being at [Berlin record shop] Hardwax. They're a mainstay of my musical history. I've been buying from that record shop for at least 15 years.
They're a hub.
MW: Very much so. For the Berlin scene, especially, and right down to vinyl pressing at Dubplates & Mastering, which is where we cut all of our stuff. That place is magical. You should hear our tracks before we send them there! They're very particular about their sound, which I'm very thankful for. They really add the fifth dimension to whatever you do. They polish it up so well – especially with our music, where there's a lot of background noise, which we love, it's part and parcel – but there's an awful lot of stuff we don't even notice is in our tracks. They'll come back from being mastered, and we'll listen and realise we didn't even know these sounds were in there!
That just seems wonderful to me: that the creators of music like yours, which has that sort of effect on listeners anyway, still discover new sounds in their own records.
MW: I'm a bit funny like that. I have a rule that once a track's finished I don't listen to it, I try to cut myself off from it. Simply because if you don't move on, you don't move on - and I'm not one of those people who can engineer a hi-hat for two hours. I think that's insane – a hi-hat's a hi-hat, you're either happy or you're not, just let it go. But I changed my mind when we started doing Demdike Stare, because we wrote the music for ourselves. That was the main idea, we weren't giving it to a label, and I was just happy that after ten years of badgering him Sean had finally come round to the idea of making music. So Sean actually forced me to sit down and listen to Tryptych when we got the CDs back about a month ago, and it just fucking blew my head off. Because I hadn't heard a lot of it for so long, I just couldn't believe we'd put out something with so much music in it.
It's a great body of work, and an easy album to sit and listen to the whole way through. There aren't that many records that you can be happy to sit through three CDs in a row of.
MW: That's exactly what I said! It really scared me because I just started thinking 'what are we going to do next year?' We're planning to do some interesting things, because me and Sean love different formats, especially vinyl. That's our love really. We're not too worried about the music, because we do have some stuff we're both really happy with at the moment. So now it's a discussion about formats and how we're going to get the design ready.
The one thing about Demdike Stare I don't think I've mentioned in any interviews I've done, one thing which has grown organically, is the band itself: it's actually grown bigger. Andy Votel is basically a member of Demdike Stare simply because his artwork is absolutely perfect for what we're doing. Also, our live show is audiovisual, where we basically sample VHS like we sample records. The guy who chooses all the footage is another friend of ours called Jonny Redman, who's a massive VHS collector – he's another honorary member. Likewise Shlom at Modern Love as well, simply because he's the man, none of this would really have happened without him. So there are now five people in Demdike Stare.
Which I suppose moves Demdike Stare out of the realms of a group limited in music, and more into an entity that represents a broader artistic intent.
MW: Completely. It's just because everybody's friends, and when Modern Love was started that was the entire idea behind the label: we'll only work with friends. And that's not saying that we wouldn't work with new artists, the point is that you become friends with them, then you work with them. Then you're on such a different level, there's none of this legality getting involved, there's no hassle with money, because it's not about that. We get other labels asking if we want to do a record for them, and we're like 'not really, we don't need to!'
Are you performing a lot more live this year? It seems like there are quite a few more shows turning up on your schedule.
MW: We seem to be. We did a lot of shows last year, but quite far afield. We've got quite a few more booked for the UK. We're not really big fans of playing in the UK but some of the shows we've got booked are going to be genius. We're playing with Raime in London, and they've got the same kind of mood as us - they're trying to find the same things we are, the essence. We probably sound more organic and older than they do. I think the best description is that they're purer. Purer down that route of generalness!
Which is always a good way for things to go...
MW: Of course! Everything's good mate, I shout at people all the time about this. It's music, it's the same damn thing, don't get caught up in everything or in one thing, because there's so much more out there that will fire you on and keep your enthusiasm burning.
[Looks out the window, laughs] It's really grim up here! That's probably another reason why Demdike Stare sounds like it does.
The whole 'it's grim up north' thing?
MW: Yeah, especially because I live out in the countryside, so it's really bleak up here. There's no forests or anything, it's just moors.
There definitely is something peculiarly British about the kind of occult imagery you use. That sort of Wicker Man, rolling hills, Shakespearian, ritual thing… Which then ties into folk music lineages as well.
MW: Of course, yes. To us that's probably a really apt description, because two hundred years ago people like me would have been writing folk music and singing about local myths. Where I live is so steeped in witch culture – literally I can walk for a mile in one direction and reach a stone circle, and a mile in the other direction there's a Roman fort. It's everywhere up here, historic culture, so why not draw your influence from it?
I really don't like where I live, but the music wouldn't sound exactly like it does if I lived in Spain, it really wouldn't. It's weird because I didn't realise that for a few years. I was just writing music, and you don't necessarily realise how much your environment affects or influences you. When people started asking us about it, it was like, 'Oh yeah, now you mention it…' [laughs]. Obviously when you're a bit younger as well, you don't realise what's driving you to make stuff and why you make music that sounds like you do. There are really obvious influences like Basic Channel or Sun Ra or something like that, but there are more subtle influences that creep in.
Non-musical influences also, they don't necessarily get enough credit.
MW: Of course. I don't really know that much about the cultural history around here, but I do know that there's a wealth of it, and I like to go out and have a bit of a discovery. I do field recordings in caves and that sort of thing, for atmospherics, and that all gets thrown into the mix when we make tracks.
It shows, audibly - if that makes any sense. There are so many layers going on that it's often impossible to unpick.
MW: That's the idea, really. We're not standing still. Probably one of the worst things you can do is stagnate, and that's a metaphor for life as well as music I suppose!
On that note, do you have much planned for this year?
MW: Yes. We are looking at certain areas, and our music's moving onward. It's hard to say exactly, because anything I say might raise wrong expectations, so maybe I'll just leave it at 'further out there'.