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Escape Velocity

Dysfunctional Modulation: Rian Treanor Interviewed
Christian Eede , April 16th, 2019 15:15

Following the release of his debut album via Planet Mu last month, Rian Treanor discusses mixing hip-hop, connecting with The Death Of Rave for his first releases and linking up with the network of producers surrounding Nyege Nyege festival

Last year Rian Treanor made one of his finest statements to date as a producer with the release, via Conor Thomas’ The Death Of Rave imprint, of RAVEDIT. A four-track record of - as you might expect from its title - rave-indebted edits, it saw the producer combine his ear for stuttering and complex - yet highly danceable - rhythms with tracks from his youth.

One of the standouts sees him contort the infamous vocals of Whigfield’s 1995 bubblegum dance-pop track ‘Saturday Night’ almost beyond recognition, twisting snatches of melody from the original around excitable kicks. As Treanor explains to me over Skype, ‘Saturday Night’ is one of the first tracks he heard played on vinyl in a DJ setting - more specifically at a house party in his Rotherham home organised when he was growing up by his sound artist and producer father Mark Fell, whose work has also appeared on The Death Of Rave.

That edit carries a particular element of playfulness that runs through much of Treanor’s productions and DJ sets, as he folds in the music produced and played by his dad, the bassline and gabber heard at raves around Sheffield and in the Peak District, and contemporary sounds such as footwork.

The recently-released ATAXIA, his first record for Planet Mu, sees him stretch out his curiosity for finding the mid-point between, as he puts it, the “functional and dysfunctional” into an LP format for the first time. Syncopated, angular kicks form the backbone to many of its nine tracks, while expert vocal sampling on the M. Ashraf-referencing ‘B2’ and smooth, beatless closer ‘D3’ demonstrate that Treanor’s talents extend far beyond intricate rhythmic structures.

Speaking recently over Skype, he discussed what he looks for in club music, his initial hesitancy to share his own music and spending time in Uganda for last year’s Nyege Nyege festival,

I wanted to focus a little on the idea of functionality, what with the title of the new album - ATAXIA - referring to ‘the loss of full control of bodily movements’. Do you view the music on this record as being built for a functional dance floor section?

Rian Treanor: Well, I see it as being made for a club context with the beats, basslines and chords. There are all these functional elements at play, and similarly with the rhythmic structures, they’re all pretty much 16-bar loops. Within that though, the process involves seeing how far you can test things and work with those elements before they collapse. It’s definitely more functional than some other things I work on.

How do you go about applying that process of making the ideas and rhythms more complex?

RT: I’ll frequently approach different tracks from different angles, so there’s not one set process. But, I’m into pattern modulation I guess, so that involves starting with some basic block or pattern and looking at how you can modify or modulate that over time. How do you have this consistency and inconsistency and bring out idiosyncrasies within these established structures? It’s a weird, and sometimes difficult, balance. But I’m definitely into that middle point where things are teetering between functional and dysfunctional. I’m really drawn to things that throw you off in that sense as a listener in a club, that make you wonder how is that even working or why is it doing that? All of my past releases have tied into the idea of starting with a basic loop or pattern and looking at how far you can push it in different directions.

I wanted to discuss the edits record you did for The Death Of Rave last year. I remember in a past interview, you discussed Whigfield’s ‘Saturday Night’ as an early memory of dance music from your childhood. I guess that was a deciding factor in you editing that for that record?

RT: Yeah, all of the tracks I edited on that record are things I was into as a kid really. I think that ‘Saturday Night’ track is the first time I heard something played on vinyl in a DJing context. I remember messing around on some decks and just mixing some records. I got that one out for some reason and just started messing around with it and scratching the vocal, and it gave me the idea of how to play around with it. The loop sounded really good, so I just decided to sample it and made the edit really quickly. I started playing it out as a daft tool in some DJ sets and eventually decided to release it and the other edits on that record.

I guess a lot of the current underground electronic music scene can come across as a little inaccessible or too serious to some people, so did you view that record as a nice opportunity to present your work in a different context?

RT: It wasn’t completely thought out, but it was a way of me showcasing all of the different kinds of music I’m into. I’m intro what you might call daft pop music, ‘serious’ music, intense stuff and so on. It’s just a reflection of what I’m into. I’m not into musical experiences where things are built too seriously though - the world can already be quite brutal for some people so where you can, it’s good to embrace that funner side to what you do.

I know you waited some time to put your music out into the world, and had been producing for quite a while before your first release. Do you think your upbringing, with Mark Fell being your dad, played any kind of role in you really wanting to master a particular sound and avoid replicating things that had come before?

RT: Definitely. Alongside producing music, I was focusing on art too, so that wasn’t my complete focus early on anyway. Saying that though, I’d been doing a lot of DJing and playing parties, and having fun with that, but I was really insecure and private about the music I’d made myself. Maybe insecure is the wrong word. It’s quite strange, making music and releasing it into the world, it’s there forever. You can’t do anything about it once it’s out there, so you’ve gotta be confident about it. I just wanted to learn more about music and find my own thing that I wanted to explore. I also just wanted everything to be perfect, and work towards the idea of this perfect structure for a track. Often you’ll just never get there, you can spend three years working on a track and the longer you keep at it, the shitter it’ll get. There needs to be mistakes in tracks though, and you need to be comfortable with some imperfections. Obviously that perfection related to stuff that I’d grown up listening to, as well as my dad’s work. I just wanted to get it all to a point that I was happy with, and find the right opportunity to start putting my work out into the world. Working with The Death Of Rave felt like the right opportunity.

How did that link with The Death Of Rave come about for your first record?

RT: I really respect what Conor [Thomas, label owner of The Death Of Rave] does. He really does a lot for the underground music scene, especially in the North but it also obviously has an impact around the world. I really respect his way of working. I’d been making tracks for a while and sent some things to Chloe [Pensaville] from [booking agency] Annex, and Conor got in touch saying he’d be up for releasing it through The Death Of Rave. I really respected the label so it just felt like a great opportunity to work with him and [distributor] Boomkat.

Looking back even further to when you were first getting to grips with production, can you remember what kind of music you were making around then? Was it easily classifiable?

RT: When I first got into DJing, I was playing hip-hop. All my mates were into bands and metal, and at that point I thought ‘I don’t know if I’m actually into music’. But from there, I started listening to more club-based and rave-y stuff, old rave tapes. I got really into it, started going to parties in Sheffield and the Peak District and buying loads of techno, drum & bass and bassline records. I got into mixing, and basically just started trying to make tracks like that - making the most brutal techno that I could possibly figure out. As well as that, I was getting into weirder stuff. I remember later into school life, getting into producers like Venetian Snares and records on Planet Mu. Also, people like Ceephax Acid Crew, Autechre and Milanese, listening to some of the people that my dad was working with and the records in his collection. I was making some quite weird stuff actually [laughs]. Just the most obliterated, noisy gabber, all a bit of a mess.

Coming back onto ATAXIA then, it’s coming out via Planet Mu. Obviously that’s a label with a lot of history, and you mentioned it just now as amongst the labels you were listening to growing up. How did that link-up arise for a more extended project than your past releases?

RT: Yeah, like I said, I grew up listening to a lot of music on that label. It’s been very influential, and kind of steered parts of my taste and what I’ve been doing as a DJ and producer. I didn’t necessarily think ‘oh, I’ll make an album’. I’d just been making some tracks and sending them around to friends, and the suggestion was put to me eventually of doing something bigger rather than a bunch of smaller EPs. I just sent some things to Planet Mu and they were into it, so that was a massive opportunity for me. I was really excited to do it, and they’ve been so easy to work with and talk to. They’ve got a small team so I’ve been able to send things over and get honest feedback. They helped me bring it all together as a full record.

You’ve said that this new record is less improvised than your past work, and that you were stricter in terms of your focus and the tools you were using.

RT: The first releases I did on The Death Of Rave all just involved me jamming with sequencers I’d built in Max/MSP. I’d spend one day on a track, recording it live and then editing it and getting everything done in one session. I’d use similar pattern-making processes for this album but I’d record the MIDI information rather than the stereo, and restructure all those after. I spent more time on each of the tracks for this record basically and had access to some good monitors, so I could think about mixing it all and focus on the synthesis. The first EPs I did, I made some of the track on Apple earphones [laughs], so on this record I had a greater opportunity to think about all of the sounds more.

I guess you’re still using Max/MSP for production? I remember you describing yourself in the past as more of a visual thinker, so I guess that’s why using Max/MSP works for you?

RT: Yeah, i’ve grown up drawing and doing graffiti, and similarly when I do tests, I’ve always been better at the more visual side of things rather than the literacy. Coding involves being really good at wording and using syntax, so it’s just really not how my brain works. Max/MSP, because it’s graphical, allows me just to plug things in, play around and experiment more freely. The learning curve was quite long - it’s not the kind of thing you can just dive into immediately. It’s loads of fun building sequencers and drum machines to make beats for me, you can spend hours on it.

I know you spent some time in Uganda late last year for Nyege Nyege festival. Did that time involve some collaboration with producers involved in the event?

RT: It was a crazy experience. I was there for a month, and they’d invited me and other people over. I spent some time in their studios and there were about 20 people just making music 24 hours a day, collaborating and crossing over. I worked with an Acholi fiddle player called Ocen James. I was putting together improvised rhythmic stuff and we would work out some structures that were particularly Acholi and put them into Max/MSP, so I could present my own take on that while Ocen would improvise with it. We came up with some mad stuff from that, it was really fun. We recorded loads together, so it’ll be good to revisit when the album is out there. Ocen is an amazing musician. He knows so many traditional Acholi traditional songs, so it was great to work with him. There was so much energy at the festival, loads of people working together and playing each other’s tracks and making things that were barely below 180 BPM.

ATAXIA is out now via Planet Mu. You can purchase it here