In Respect Of Tactics: An Interview With Shifted
, November 8th, 2016 10:52
Guy Alexander Brewer's new album Appropriation Stories marks a return to dancefloor-aimed techno. He tells Maria Perevedentseva how he's excited about the genre again and why he's set up a new label, Drifting Over
Photograph courtesy of Anna Drozd
Guy Alexander Brewer is perhaps best known as Shifted – a techno project started in 2011 that focuses on the conflation of textural minutiae which build up to form complex, multi-dimensional wholes – but his career can also comfortably be defined as a kind of shape-shifting between starkly different guises. He has previously released as Covered In Sand, Alexander Lewis and A Model Authority, as well as his given name – monikers that allow him to circumvent techno and arrive at decidedly noisier pastures – and, in a previous life, he represented half of the influential drum & bass duo, Commix.
We chatted the day after the release of Brewer's third album – Appropriation Stories – on Hospital Productions. As I found out, the album marks a point of return to several of Brewer's histories, but a return made possible and coloured by the distance it spans, and the weight of experience that is amassed by the passage of time. Time, for him, has healing properties, as it replenishes creative stock when it has depleted – something which he admits happens regularly – although those periods of lull are never fruitless either, instead pushing him to experiment and expand his sonic horizons, effectively fleshing out his artistic identity.
The present moment finds him in an especially prolific state, having just launched the Drifting Over label, which will be for his own productions and collaborations, with an eponymously titled EP, the album and a flurry of activity on his older and much-respected Avian imprint. This particular crest of creativity is one that he intends to harness for as long as possible into the future.
Your new album came out yesterday. Would you like to tell me a bit about it?
Guy Brewer: I really wanted to make a techno album this time around, because the last one [Under A Single Banner from 2013] trailed off into slightly weirder territory, and I spent about nine months avoiding techno – still going into the studio every day, but focussing on slower tracks or beatless stuff. I think I had got into a rut with it all, or maybe slightly depressed, but after a while I began hearing stuff on the scene that was inspiring, and I started enjoying my DJing more and more. So with Appropriation Stories I've tried to come back to where I was with my first album – which definitely was techno – but through very different eyes, or a different filter at least. After all, there are five years separating my first album and this one, so you would expect difference, or a refinement of techniques or whatever. And people keep saying that it's an experimental record, but I don't think it is particularly? Maybe the textures and the components are not your bog-standard, garden-variety techno, but it's still a fairly straight 4/4 record that's aimed at the dancefloor.
Does that sort of thing come in cycles? Are there periods when there is new stuff happening and it's exciting, and then you have to recoil and go into a bit of a hole for a while to await the next wave of creativity?
GB: Absolutely. At least for me. I'm not going to stand here in judgment and say, "Oh, everything's become boring", because I think that this purposeful self-deprecation and self-effacement are definitely part of the problem with a scene like techno. People really seem to talk it to death don't they, and it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy in the end. So I don't want to say that, because there has always been exciting stuff going on, but I think that personally, when you've been so close to something for so long, you start needing a break from it. And I had that. I was still on the scene, and touring a lot, but perhaps I separated myself a little from it. And after a hiatus, coming back to it has been really positive and I'm excited about writing techno again, which is a nice place to be in. Generally after I finish an album I'm in need of a break, but I haven't felt that this time around. I've carried on writing because I want to try and push it, and get as much out of this period as I can.
With the new album, it sounds like you're working with one idea, but exploring it through different angles. With your first album, Crossed Paths, there was a real variety of kinds of tracks, but here it sounds like you've tied up all those loose ends. Did you have a concrete idea in mind before you started writing?
GB: Yes, and it's the first time I've approached an album with a concept already formed. Basically, sampling is a really important part of the way I work, and I had all these sounds that I used to make when writing drum & bass – little bits that have been languishing on hard drives for about ten years now – and so with this record I wanted to take these sounds, my old breakbeats or pads or stabs or whatever, process the hell out of them and bend them into a techno context. That's why I called it Appropriation Stories – because it has this idea of appropriating my old sounds. When the album was announced, I think people were expecting me to release some kind of homage to drum & bass, but it isn't like that at all. It just has these traces embedded in it.
I also noticed on pretty much every track there are these little flutters and scrapes on the top end that are really interesting. There's bass pressure and it's seriously hard – there's no denying that – but then this type of tenderness in the top end breathes so much life into it.
GB: That's nice! I've never really been into mid-range. Most of what I do is about bottom end and top end, about low rumble and hissing. You say flutter, which is interesting because it's the word or the idea that I kept coming back to on this album. I tend to like things that move and change in really subtle ways, and I think the fluttering is there because I spent a lot of time playing around with panning. So there are elements that are constantly moving left to right in different patterns. I've used this technique previously, but with this album I really went in on it. It's never been about grand gestures for me – it's about nuances.
Why did you decide to release the album on Hospital as opposed to Avian or one of your other labels?
GB: Well, Dominick [Fernow, Hospital boss and Prurient/Vatican Shadow] is just a good friend of mine, and it worked well with the last album, which I put out on his Bed of Nails imprint. We tend to share a lot of ideas about how things should be presented.
It's definitely a whole package with Hospital isn't it? Not just: "Here are some tunes."
GB: Exactly, and that's what I like about it. Also I feel that it reaches different ears when I do things through Dom because it's a label with a long history, and it's a very different history to what I'm accustomed to. Through that, I have people hitting me up who are into noise or post-industrial or whatever, and I find it interesting that these people can see something in my pretty straight-laced techno that they find appealing.
I think it also helps to bring the American scene over to it more? Because sometimes these transatlantic scenes are not quite as connected as you'd expect them to be.
GB: It's interesting you say that because I think the States has got something really special in that respect. The place in the States that I've played most is Los Angeles, and there has always been a real mix of scenes there. Because it's a small scene, they all end up hanging out together. I've played shows where it's been me and Vatican Shadow or Alessandro Cortini, and then Function after that, and no one is so blinkered, which you do get in Europe. Here, events typically focus on one or two genres and don't stray too far beyond that, so people's tastes are more set in stone whereas when I speak to people in the States they'll be into all kinds of stuff – noise, ambient, industrial, metal. And so it leads to a more fertile creative ground I think.
You certainly seem to have had a fertile and productive autumn, with the EP on Avian, the album and the first Drifting Over release. Blawan's new project as Kilner is coming out on Avian soon too, and it's bloody brilliant. Do you want to tell me what sort of things you've got in the pipeline, and how you go about finding people and directing them?
GB: I've never tried to force it too much, but recently the frequency of releases has picked up because there seems to be a lot more coming in my direction that I'm finding interesting. In general I don't trawl through loads of demos looking for stuff that might sound like an Avian record. Jamie [Roberts, aka Blawan] would be the perfect example. I've known him for years now and I've always been into his music, but, particularly recently, his sound has become more refined, I'd say? And one day he sent me a folder of six or eight files and they just sounded tailor-made for Avian. They had that scratchy, textural sound to them, which I really dig – it seemed he really touched a nerve there. Varg and Christian Stadsgaard will have a record coming out as Empire Line soon, which will be more techno-centric than their usual stuff, although there are two tracks on there which are noise more than anything. Next year there's also most probably going to be a new 400ppm album, and maybe one by Pris and, other than that, I haven't planned it out too much.
In terms of the guidance I give people, I'd say I act more as a filter. I don't like telling people what to put on a record, so if someone sends me 20 tracks I'll tell them which I like, but will leave the final decision regarding what they put on there up to them. And I myself don't like being told what to put on a record, because I feel I have a certain vision of how it should be, so if you're running a label then you should have a degree of trust in the artists and let them do their own thing in a way. So I try to be more of a conduit rather than pushing them in a particular direction. And then of course I am left in charge of the aesthetic qualities of the label – I work on the artwork, looking for images, sometimes by myself, sometimes with others – but it's always my vision of what I want it to be.
And do you like that aspect of things? Creating a "product"?
GB: It's one of the most satisfying aspects of the job really. You start off, get sent tracks and then you get to bring that into fruition. Actually, when I started it, it was meant to be just a little hand-stamped techno project for my own productions. But it's grown naturally into something that I'm now really pleased with. There have been times when I've thought about stopping and starting something new, but I'm so glad I didn't because it's finally in a place where I feel that it's got its own personality and it's not just another techno label.
Definitely. Labels traditionally were something that said, "This is my identity. I'm aligning myself with this thing", but now a lot of people start one just to self-release one track and then move on to the next thing. And it seems that these labels aren't really labels – they're records – so it's nice to see a bit of continuity and growth. Avian has seen enough releases now that we can see its personality emerge, which is something that can't happen through one or two releases.
GB: I really believe a label should have an identity. I question what it is if it doesn't. Surely there should be some sort of broader artistic sentiment to the entire thing, rather than being – as you said – a platform for someone's ego. There should be an attitude and an aesthetic to something, and if you don't have that, then I question your motives. Admittedly this is something that takes a while to come together, and I certainly think that was the case with Avian. It's very similar to finding your ground as a producer as well, or anything artistic. It takes time to find your own voice and formulate your own original contribution. And you should never get too comfortable either, otherwise you become arrogant and the music becomes stale. You need to have an element of self-doubt and self-criticism at all times, because that's the thing that will propel you forwards.
Lastly, do you think of a particular setting for your music when you produce it, or is that a consideration for afterwards?
GB: I'd say that if we are talking about the Shifted stuff then definitely a small smoky nightclub. I'm not much of a big-room producer and as such my stuff isn't really hitting the Beatport top lists or anything. But I like that element to it. For me it's about any environment where people are able to get sucked in and properly connect with it. I like it to be intimate almost, because the amount of space in my music is quite open to interpretation. And there are places I play where I couldn't programme an Avian night, for example, because it wouldn't fit a more conventional techno setting. But I like that element to my career – I've always wanted it this way. In one weekend I can be playing to 4,000 people at a rave in Holland, and the next at some weird artsy noise show. It's a rare situation to be in, and I feel it gives me a unique perspective. It's like I can have my cake and eat it, and what could be better than that?
Appropriation Stories is out now on Hospital Productions