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Escape Velocity

Creating A Hyper-Reality: An Interview With These Hidden Hands
Maria Perevedentseva , October 5th, 2016 10:24

Producers Tommy Four Seven and Alain Paul are moving away from their techno roots on their new album, Vicarious Memories. They tell Maria Perevedentseva why now is the time for ambiguity and "bizarre operatic shit"

I met with These Hidden Hands – the duo of Tommy Four Seven and Alain Paul – in their studio in Neukölln about a week after their debut at Berlin Atonal festival. Both men are, in the own rights, well established within the electronic dance music community, with Tommy pursuing an active DJ and producer career as well as running a label and events series entitled 47, while Paul produces techno under the Shards moniker and works as a full-time mastering engineer.

These Hidden Hands, though, is a project that aims to go beyond the dancefloor – a space which, as we discuss, is as-yet unmarked but resides somewhere between the experimental and the alternative, between the festival and the DIY gig, and between labels and genres.

Given their fairly traditional (in dance music terms) backgrounds, this journey into unchartered waters has not always been easy, and they are wise not to have dived straight into the deep end. It's a journey of both aesthetic and technical maturation and of finding their own voice, and a space for it to be heard, in an already over-crowded arena. Every release, from the self-titled first album in 2013, through a series of EPs and 12"s to this year's Vicarious Memories, has cumulatively chipped away at the existing paradigm, replacing the debris with elements like vocals, melodies and asymmetric time signatures, which – at least in techno circles – still contain a touch of the taboo.

So you played at Atonal for the first time last week. How was that, and how does it compare to other venues you've played?

Tommy Four Seven: It was a real honour to play there but it's daunting because it's such a vast space, and the reverb tail is huge. I think they improved the PA this year, though. You could hear the details more, which favoured our type of sound.

Alain Paul: On the stage it sounded really clear and I could hear what was going on. Often when I've played before, that isn't the case.

And what about settings more generally? You've mentioned before that you're trying to make music for outside the club context.

TFS: Very much so. Vicarious Memories is meant to be a listening experience. The first five tracks are pretty in-your-face, so some would argue that that's too intense for home listening, but at the same time, we enjoy that style and that's what came out. It's a lot more melodic and the arrangements are a lot more intricate. For the first album, the club was always in the back of our minds, coming from the backgrounds that we do. When you're self-releasing, you're thinking, "Who's going to be into this?" and, at that time, a club environment seemed natural.

AP: Also, in the way we released the vinyl for the first album, it had two tracks on each side, like a double maxi or a techno EP format. And looking back on that, some of the greatest records – despite how long they've been – have been on one vinyl. If Dark Side Of The Moon can fit on one and not spill over to two, then we can probably achieve that as well.

It means fewer times getting out of bed to flip the record.

TFS: Yeah. Also regarding contexts, it still surprises me that people would even put the techno label near it.

AP: I think it's because we're both otherwise in the techno realm. If a hip-hop artist made an album that wasn't hip-hop, it would still be appreciated by hip-hop people. So where we've come from might be techno, but where we're going doesn't really have anything to do with it. It's got more to do with IDM or whatever.

Yes. I've been listening to it and I'm struggling to put it in a box.

TFS: Good! That's what journalists love to do isn't it.

Maybe you could throw me a bone, help me out?

TFS: What did Hard Wax say it was? It was just bizarre: "Distorted goth ambient techno indie-dance hybrid album."

AP: I would say it's got a lot more in common with an IDM sound than it does with techno. But the thing is with IDM, you've got the standard massive artists who are put in that category, like Autechre, Boards Of Canada, Squarepusher, Aphex Twin and those sorts of people. But if you actually listen to Boards Of Canada and then listen to an Autechre album, it's not the same type of music.

I guess IDM refers to an approach to sound rather than a specific sound-world.

AP: Also our album mostly originates from acoustic recordings, despite it sounding electronic.

How did you put it together? Did you use live musicians?

TFS: Alain plays a lot of the keys and guitar and we recorded a lot of the percussion elements, which were later processed and programmed.

AP: Almost every sound on the album was recorded either with a microphone or it was an analogue synth. I don't think there's a single VST or sample CD excerpt on the album because we don't do that sort of stuff.

I noticed some of the sounds that come in where a snare would be, for example, sound like a piece of paper being scrunched up, and little details like that

AP: That's probably because it is a piece of paper. The furthest we would go to using an actual snare would be to record a snare and not, for instance, to get a 909 snare sound. We've reached for 909 kicks in the past but that's the exception to the rule.

So what kind of backgrounds do you have? How did you come to having this approach instead of using VSTs or whatever?

TFS: We both studied music technology and it was sound design for film and foley which always interested me. That's something I liked at university, and I did a bit of work experience with Radium [Audio] in Hackney before moving to Berlin. I enjoyed capturing field recordings and using real sounds in combination with out-of-context imagery, creating a hyper-reality. Generally I find mucking around with a microphone is way more fun and inspiring. It's the same with jamming on synths – you're just playing around and trying to create a sound palette and building your own sample source. Because your brain hasn't heard that combination or texture or sound before, you seem more locked on.

AP: I think we'd be a bit lost without using microphones and our sound would be dramatically different. If you took the mic away, or if you just muted all the parts on the album that were recorded with a mic, there would be just a few melodies from the synth and that'd be it.

And what about using vocals, because they're prominent throughout the album.

TFS: It features both of our vocals, as well as real singers. We were doing drones and stuff and Alain does some bizarre operatic shit. It's an avenue we haven't explored so much before and this album gave us a great opportunity to push ourselves as producers and engineers. It made sense, because we were making an album that was for listening and not necessarily for dancing to in a club.

What about the remix EPs? The people that have remixed your stuff are techno heavyweights, if you will, so it seems that what you're doing is taking music out of a club context and then, by having it remixed you're inserting it back into the club. Is that the intention or is it just because those people are part of your professional circle?

TFS: With the first album, because that was semi-dancefloor, it made sense. But at the same time, we just wanted to do a remix EP and we picked artists that we admired and that would make a solid contribution. It wasn't all dancefloor though – you had Old Apparatus, for example. And with Kangding Ray it turned into a proper dance track and I wasn't expecting that at all. We never tell people what to do with the remixes.

AP: Roly Porter is a good example. It doesn't sound like it's not him – as in it definitely has his trademark on it – but we were particularly blown away by his remix of our single.

TFS: Because it is something that is totally non-clubby. Not that it's not playable but it's not exactly techno is it. I mean what the fuck is it?

AP: It's not likely someone would drop that in a club.

TFS: And that's the whole point. Maybe someone could close a set with it but it's this kind of ambiguity that turns us on more. I think now is a really exciting time because people are probably the most open-minded they've been for a long time – there's a lot of cross-pollination going on and I think people are ready for non-standard 4/4 for dance music.

It seems that way.

TFS: The fact people are calling our music techno maybe even shows how wide the net has been thrown.

AP: But still, when it comes to playing live, this open-mindedness has not yet caught on entirely. Because we feel like we're not really in a scene and it's more difficult to find appropriate places to play.

TFS: We've had quite a lot of gig requests to do club shows and that's great, but we want to get across that we don't just want to be a one-hour live set in the middle of a dance night. We want it to be in an interesting location, maybe a church or something more concert-like. Festivals, too.

AP: There is an awful lot of dance music out there and outside of, "I'm going to put on a concert" there aren't a lot of existing nights with varying strands of experimental music. There's plenty of DIY stuff going on, but not on a bigger level.

Sounds like you're in a bit of a Goldilocks moment right now?

AP: Yeah, maybe. And we're not exactly so mega massive that we can just sell out big concerts. The thing is, we're not even that experimental any more, and maybe we never were. It's not like we're DJing with sandpaper or anything. We're just trying to push stuff forward in musical electronic music.

TFS: And within ourselves. That's the aim. The hardest thing is doing this completely ourselves – we self-release, everything is self-funded. It's hard to get recognition sometimes from the music community, especially from journalists, because you're not getting that stamp of approval from a label like Warp, for example. If we were the new guys on Warp or Planet Mu, journalists would instantly want to check it out and write about it, purely because that label is already established. So yeah, sometimes it feels like we're swimming upstream, but at the same time we find it super rewarding to be totally grassroots.

Vicarious Memories is out now on Hidden Hundred