Mud, Glorious Mud: An Interview With Andy Stott
Ryan Alexander Diduck
, October 24th, 2012 03:58
Across a pair of EPs last year and now a new album, Luxury Problems, Manchester's Andy Stott has gradually been sinking techno and house deep into a quagmire of mud and dust. He speaks to Ryan Diduck about the desire to create "something really beautiful"
Dirt. It's everywhere. It's underneath our dancing marching feet, just below those few slabs of concrete and strata of asphalt. Recently, the once ugly and unpleasant aspects of dirt have been detoured anew as rare and exotic - even luxurious. Slowly but surely, dirt has gotten fancier. Arrays of posh masks and clay treatments intend to purify skin like nothing before, with dirt. Rooftop, container, and community gardening have become things to do. And there's a rise in "organic" (and consequently more expensive) dirt that can be muddied up in those gardens. The editors of a tidy 2012 volume, called Dirt, note in their introduction, "Dirt is less that by which we are repulsed than that which is endlessly giving and fertile. Organisms grow, thrive, and evolve amidst dirt."
Andy Stott, the Manchester-based producer of some of the most sumptuously sullied house music of the moment, knows this well. "I don't want it to sound too digital," he says. "I like it to sound a bit more organic. Organic noises, everyday noises."
William S. Burroughs once wrote, "America is not a young land; it is old and dirty and evil." And Stott is currently ploughing it up. From the Los Angeles stop on his North American tour, he speaks to me via a periodically spotty FaceTime connection about the journey, his past works, the ideas behind the music he makes, and some murky details of recording a new album, Luxury Problems. At the time of our interview, Stott is traveling with Miles Whittaker and Sean Canty of Demdike Stare, playing a series of events throughout the Northeastern States. "It's been really good, because we've got every show together but one," he says. "I've been really lucky to just be touring with my friends, really."
Two weeks prior, and after six years of labour, Stott was able to quit his day job (a notion he considers a first-world problem in itself) painting Mercs. "It's a mental feeling because the day I left work, I played in Belgium," he remembers. "Three days later, I was in America, so I haven't had a chance to sit down and take it in." It's an auspicious sign, too, through its contradiction of the old vaudevillian adage espoused to floundering entertainers.
At a time when musicians are tossing out records and remixes at breakneck speed, Luxury Problems arrives a full year after his well-received pair of EPs, Passed Me By and We Stay Together, both of which earned Stott a significant amount of ink near the top of myriad year-end lists, and attracted attention far beyond the techno community within which he has been operating since 2005.
One of the reasons behind that comparatively long stretch is the epistolary method of Stott's first crack at collaboration with a vocalist - Alison Skidmore, his childhood piano teacher. He tells me they exchanged recordings electronically. "I looked forward to getting an email off her with an attachment, thinking 'what are these going to be like?' And she was equally excited when I sent one back with the finished article. We were both impressed with each other, we were just bouncing off each other. It was brilliant."
Skidmore is a fortuitous choice. "She was an opera singer, so she taught opera as well," Stott recalls. "But I remember, through having lessons with her, she used to be in a band herself. I knew there was more of an alternative side to her. And I just had a feeling that she'd be up for it, this project. We got in touch, and I just said to her, basically, 'How do you feel about making something wrong?' And she said 'yeah, I'm in. Definitely, I'm in.'"
Nevertheless, nearly everything is right about Skidmore's contributions. Throughout the album, she occupies a pied-a-terre indeterminacy between Julee Cruise and Tracey Thorn, whilst carving out a strong and singular vocal identity for herself. Her presence allows the album's more exploratory and experimental tendencies to crystallise around the form of the female voice. In praise of Ms. Skidmore, Stott stresses, "I could create an atmosphere with Alison's vocal alone. Then I started moulding tracks around her, and it all started taking shape after a few tweaks here and there. And I started handing it into the label, and they were like, 'This is it. This is what we're after.'"
Modern Love has been Andy Stott's only base camp since he began visiting the label's headquarters in the mid-noughties. "I've never once even thought about wanting to look elsewhere to put music out," he says. "It's just like dealing with your mates, working with your friends. It's more than just a working relationship." Indicated by his early piano lessons, Stott's musical background is of a more classical tradition: to locate a mentor, and achieve proficiency with a given instrument. "I was doing music at school," he remembers, "and my teacher said to me, 'I think you'd really benefit from some extra tuition, so if you can get something sorted, then I think you'll stand to do really well.'"
The nature of those teaching relationships transformed over time. He moved from lessons with Skidmore to working with a Roland D-10 and Reason-equipped PC, and receiving a different sort of tutelage at Modern Love: "I was going down to the label, and they'd be saying, 'Do you know this record, do you know that record; do you know this artist, do you know that?' And I've never been one for knowing a lot about releases and artists or tracks. So I would say 'No, I don't know this or that.' So I'm going home and I'm listening to all this stuff. To me, there's a blatant point where you can tell I've started listening to Basic Channel."
Indeed, Stott's initial works on the label were meticulous recreations of assorted pre-existing styles, from the minimal acid meanderings of Demon in the Attic, to the masterfully rendered charcoal dubstep sketches of 2006's acclaimed Merciless album and the freakish distortions of jungle and juke he has released under the name Andrea. But those aesthetics accrued a sedimentary grit that has come to the fore in his past few recordings. "I think the last two albums, that was the start of me writing without listening to anything else," Stott reveals. "It's the most uninfluenced that I've ever been, in that period. The result of Passed Me By is just tunes that sounded right to me. Just completely uninfluenced."
Another function of dirt is that it implies the passing of time. It is evidence of lived duration -- what architects refer to as 'weathering,' art historians call 'patina,' and is otherwise understood as 'character.' Since the 19th century, this specific kind of dirt has been considered a mark of quality and distinction. Patina must accumulate, and accumulation is necessarily slow. So I'm interested in Stott as a driving force in the wider turn toward extending not only the timbral, but also lagging the temporal palette of dance music, slowing its pace down to an uneasy throb. "It's nostalgic as well," he says. "You can hear a tune and think, 'Christ, I remember that part of my life.' But when I was making [Passed Me By], if I wasn't getting this sort of feeling that makes you pull this sort of face where you just go 'fucking Jesus'… until I get that reaction, that's what I'm trying to achieve. And I started slowing things down to get that."
"I don't think a track has to be fast to be aggressive or nasty," Stott clarifies. Pieces like 'Dark Details' and 'Bad Wires' operate in near proximity to time-lapsed footage of passing clouds: they appear slow, but are in fact moving faster than they should. There's an auditory equivalent to flicker fusion and apparent motion at play here - the optical illusion of perceiving fast forward rotation spinning backwards. "I just like the fact that it's … sort of like it's gone the other way," Stott offers. "It's slowed down, but it's visceral. It's uncomfortable, which makes some people think it's all wrong, almost. On paper, it's wrong."
Now, the sluggish sludge of those records has been housed within a newfound cleansed and gleaming superstructure. Luxury Problems' sustained plods and delayed pulses are all the more reined in and restrained, its underwater asphyxiation colder, and calculated to a higher decimal place. Though it's still a used Benz, sonically speaking - ornament nicked, in need of a lick of paint, incapable of being properly scrubbed down - it's nonetheless resplendent, and growling meaner than hell.
Historically, dealing with dirt has also been tied to a necessity for removal of incriminating traces. Lady Macbeth, notably, was a killer who just couldn't get her damned hands clean. Our generalised ethical complicity inflicted by problematic luxury - in soiled tandem with that of a deranged and regicidal Queen - will not wash out, mind you. So it's likely advantageous to just accept that that particular spot will never disappear entirely. In Katherine Ashenburg's 2007 history of personal hygiene, The Dirt On Clean, she invokes the ancient Athenian philosopher, Theophrastus, who extolled the virtues of a "middle way between the extremes of slovenliness and vanity." And the middle way changes every day.
Fucking Jesus. Between its caked-on layers, there's a balanced measure of purity to the batch of tracks contained within Luxury Problems. Adroit eyes see elegance in angels' blemishes; discerning ears hear truths in the devil's imperfect tongue. "From an artist's perspective," Stott confesses, "when you're making music, you're putting your personality out there, you're putting your ideas out there, you're putting dark shit from the back of your mind out there. But that's where I'm at, at the minute: something really beautiful. I prefer something that really melts you."