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Escape Velocity

I Don't Want To Be A Maverick: Matthew Dear Interviewed
Angus Finlayson , September 14th, 2010 07:00

The techno auteur talks to Angus Finlayson about getting lost in the urban megastructure and balancing the personal and faceless sides of his music

Matthew Dear may be one of contemporary techno's maverick icons, but you wouldn't think it from talking to him, modest fellow that he is. His pin-up looks could lend themselves to cultivating a surplus of personality (and a corresponding deficit of substance) - 'Matthew Dear as celebrity' - but the producer remains disciplined and pragmatic about the functions of his music. And there are several.

As a co-founder of the Ghostly International label - and head of their dancefloor-oriented companion label, Spectral - the Detroit-raised Dear first surfaced as a producer of sleek, dancefloor-oriented techno. Before long, though, vocals began to emerge, and his output splintered off into multiple strands. A growing number of pseudonyms - Audion, False, Jabberjaw - explored the outer and inner limits of machine music, while Dear has kept his own name for vocal-led endeavours.

His latest album under his birth name, Black City, is a fine return after 2007's hugely well-received Asa Breed; darker perhaps, exploring slower tempos and straying ever further from house and techno templates, but nonetheless cut from the same cloth. It's this consistency which is fascinating about the producer's output; two records, separated by three years and interspersed with numerous other projects, yet retaining the sense of a continuous narrative. Dear manages this in all of his various musical noms de plume - each occupying a defined and distinct space without straying into mimicry (as the work of so many 'eclecticists' tends to).

And the producer's activities show no sign of ceasing their exploratory momentum, either. Asa Breed saw Dear taking to the stage with a live band, perplexing and delighting fans in equal measure with his unique marriage of techno stylings and pop presentation. With Black City, the producer turns inwards to explore the limitations and liberations of the album format: through a highly limited run of 'totems' - small, beautifully crafted aluminium sculptures containing a unique download code with which to access the album online - and through the promise of a stream of online material to augment the album's ten tracks.

Convalescing in Ibiza partway through a European tour - a DJ tour, mind (though some fans expected otherwise) - Dear spoke to me about the dubious effect of a recent move to New York from the Motor City, and balancing the faceless and the personal in his music.

So, the new album - is it going down well?

Matthew Dear: I believe so.

Were you worried about how people would take it?

MD: You can't deny that as an artist you're very curious about how an album's going to be received, but of course it's something you can't control. I just hope that people get to hear the energy and the amount of time that I've put into it; it's quite personal. I guess that's the important bit.

Did you feel pressured to make something that would live up to past albums?

MD: No. I think it's just a process that evolves, I don't worry about the last thing. I just need to make an album that lives up to my standards. I think I've learnt a lot more in the studio and acquired more know-how, so I think I needed to make more music that was better for myself. I'm just growing as a producer.

Could you talk about the process you went through to make it - was it just you tinkering in the studio?

MD: Yeah. I don't write my albums from point A to point Z, or whatever - it's not a linear process. The way I make my music is always jumbled up - a bit of techno here and the pop stuff there, constant remix offers for different things - I didn't sit down and work on the album as a block. So it's really just something that happened over 3 years, since the last album. And it's a matter of fine tuning it, and as I get closer to release time, realising what fits and what works better.

I gather you moved to New York recently - has that had an effect on the album?

MD: Yeah - I'm careful to say yes - but the album's not about New York. The album's called Black City, but it's nowhere near a concept album. I'm not trying to generalise an alternate New York or anything. But generally the mood that a city evokes, the energy level and the pace of the city, can definitely have an effect on its residents. There's no great scene or collective New York experience that's happening at the moment that would influence this album. But just the way of the city - I think any city becomes Black City in a sense; London obviously is very dense and can have a lot of pressures on anybody who lives there - not only an artist, but you know a writer, a banker, anything. Black City is really just that sense of density, of being lost in the megastructure.

Is that something you feel more acutely in New York than you did in Detroit?

MD: Yeah, but strangely similar - it's almost like they're inverse ideas. Where Detroit's far more desolate and kind of abandoned - almost like a skeleton or a shell left of what once was - of that density. In that sense you get a really strange feeling of being alone in a burnt out machine. But it's great - Detroit's an amazing city for that.

Does that give you a kind of solitude that you like, then?

MD: Yeah, Detroit was great because I could just come home after touring and kind of disappear into my own little world. Detroit's an easy place not to run into anybody that you know - if you don't want to see anybody you don't have to. You can just stay holed up in your place, go to the market if you need food, you know, go to the movies. But New York is quite the opposite; it almost feels like you're forced to tap into the stream and connect with people constantly.

Would you say you're more of a solitary artist in general?

MD: I think I'm a bit of both; I think I like to keep my feet on both sides of the line.

Along with the usual formats, Black City is available as a limited run 'Totem'. Could you explain the thinking behind that?

MD: We've always played around with the idea of what an album could be. We, as a label - Ghostly - we released the back-catalogue on a USB stick a few years ago. That was one of our first endeavours in non-traditional ways to release music. And obviously it's not news that digital has kind of replaced tangible albums that you can actually feel and hold, put on your shelf and look at. Being in New York, we have a vast array of artists and artisans that we can work with that fall outside of the mould for art and design. So we approached [design consultancy] Boym out of New York, seeing if they were interested in what we were doing, and they were. It ended up being a really cool collaboration because we're fans of their work as it is, and we played them some tracks from the album and kind of gave them an open palette - we told them the concept and the basic gist of the music and what we were going for.

To go back to the point of why we did it - it's really just something you can hold in your hands. Each one has a serial number, so they're unique. They're playing with the idea of where the album can exist; where you can store music. The CD, obviously, has the music on it - and vinyl has it burned onto it - but when you have a totem, a dense piece of aluminium, with a digital download code on, it's a kind of conduit for the music.

Do you feel a responsibility to address issues of dissemination of music, as a 21st century musician?

MD: Yeah, I don't think I want to try to be a maverick or anything, I'm not doing it to make a point. I think I'm doing it just to give a new way of looking at the life of an album, the physicality of it.

To change the subject slightly: you said in a recent interview that you consider the way techno works on the dancefloor as 'faceless'; lacking in an identity. How do you reconcile that with the presence of your voice on these records?

MD: I said that because when I do other stuff that isn't under my own name, that's meant to be more faceless. Obviously there are other artists in the techno world who play on their image and the way they look - which is fine for them. But I think that dance music, club music, is more about the experience of the music, the event and the night; what you take from that. Whereas when I add my vocals for the stuff under my own name, that's not supposed to be faceless. that's much more personal, that's me as myself.

Do you feel these tracks still have a function on the dancefloor?

MD: I guess so [thinks]. I don't know, I feel that things like this aren't supposed to be played on the dancefloor - but then I'm not the one playing them! But you know, songs like 'You Put A Smell On Me', that's still very [taps rhythmically] danc-ey. but I guess I'm making this music more for a listening experience.

Do you feel you need the twin outputs - on and off dancefloor, personal and faceless - for some kind of creative balance?

MD: Absolutely, yeah. I think it's only become more prominent, that balance, and that split really lets me cater to each side of my personality.

Do you find that, when you're performing, there can be confusion as to what kind of music you'll be playing?

MD: [laughs] Totally! I was playing in Berlin on this tour and a young woman came up to me. It was after my show, and she had a very long conversation with me in the hallway of the club. She didn't appear twisted or drunk or anything, she was just very straight, saying "you know, that's not what I expected," and I said "Oh OK, well you know I DJ house and techno as well." And she was like "yeah, yeah I get that. I really liked your remix for the XX, I liked 'Don and Sherri.'" And I was thinking, "ah I see where this is going, you're expecting me, when I DJ, to play the kind of music that might be on my album." And she went on to say, "I just want you to know I'm very disappointed" [laughs]. It was just really funny because it was so honest - I normally just get people saying "oh, great set!"

But I think that sums it up; it happens a lot unfortunately! I really try to stress to promoters that the way they bill me is very important - if you say I'm doing a DJ set, people know I'm going to playing certain stuff; if it's a live band, they know I'll be singing. I get that a lot too; when I'm DJing people say "OK, but are you going to sing a song now, don't you need a microphone?"

Why did you decide to start performing the Matthew Dear music with a live band?

MD: I never really wanted to play this music with just a laptop and microphone on stage - I always felt that it was a bit more physical. There was no live band experience in the studio, but performing it live, when you see the live drumkit and live instruments on stage, it takes the audience to a different experience of the music. I never felt like I could really do it justice if it was just me and some machines on stage; it would just be too much knob twiddling and button pushing.

With your more dancefloor-oriented music I guess you must be acutely aware of your forebears and their influence on the music. By the same token, do you feel part of a lineage of pop producers?

MD: I definitely take a lot of influence from pop stuff and the people who've come before me. I don't necessarily think I'm a part of any creative scheme; I just continue to make it the way I make it, and go from there.

Does that differ, for you, from a dance music community in which the music is a very social experience?

MD: I don't know, I don't think of it like that. I think I just do what I do; I guess I don't feel like I really belong, strictly, anywhere. I'm just catering to my wants and desires as a producer and as a musician.