Identity Elsewhere: Gabe Gurnsey In Conversation

Here in his car, Gabe Gurnsey, one half of Factory Floor, takes a trip that takes in a hallucination of ants and the idealised clubbing experience. Words: Jamie Ryder

What do you think about when you’re dancing?

Plenty of people I’ve grilled on the topic don’t have a response. But those that do tend to give one of five answers. “Nothing,” is fairly common. So is, “The person I’m dancing with" and, "The person I wish I was dancing with.” Now and then I’ll get the preposition-conjunction salad that is, “I’ve never really thought about what I think about when I’m dancing.” And as you might have predicted, last but not least is, “I’m too fucked to be thinking at all.”

I’m telling Manchester-based musician and producer Gabe Gurnsey (who’s been listening to my half-formed, neurotic theses on club politics, recreative zones, the purposes of dance and so on with an admirable patience) about the kind of thing I think about when I’m dancing. I’m doing this because he strikes me as a person who does plenty of thinking when he’s dancing himself. He’s a founding member of the riotous London techno group Factory Floor, in which he handles percussion and electronics, and is releasing his first solo record, the often dark, sometimes ecstatic, always propulsive Physical, this month. It’s an album that surveys a staggering variety of the great many strains of dance music with a keen ear and remarkable confidence. And I’m telling him how whenever I find myself in some abhorrent dungeon, in pitch darkness, soaking wet and surrounded by half-naked, gyrating figures moving in time to a single, obliterating kick drum, whatever occurs to me is invariably nothing more profound than, “Wow, my mum would hate this.”

“I can see how you’d look at it like that. For me what’s interesting is to think back to the whole tribal thing, you know. Dancing to rhythms is something we’ve been doing for thousands of years. It’s probably a massive, instilled thing in our DNA.”

I mention a friend who reports a feeling of comfort brought by the repetitiveness and predictability of pounding techno. He knows the tempo will remain consistent over the course of a night, so he’s free to sink into a pattern, zone out and let his body take over. Dance as meditation. Gurnsey nods sagely.

“Right. And it’s predictable in the way we already know it, don’t we? We’re born with that instinct. Or am I chatting total shit?”

Three singles from Physical have arrived thus far: seething, Detroit-referencing ‘Eyes Over’, sci-fi techno-pop outburst ‘Harder Rhythm’ and the triumphant ‘Ultra Clear Sound’. Each track works with the same recognisable palette of drum machines, processed vocals, driving bass and prickly synth washes and stabs, but there’s a dramatic variance in structure, melody and emotion throughout. It’s at once one of the catchiest and most unrelenting dance releases I’ve heard in the last few years.

“It’s drawing on stuff that I like listening to as well as techno,” Gurnsey explains. “It’s about getting away from the elongated, instrumental side of what Factory Floor was doing on the second record and trying to push the accessibility a little bit further. There’s a lot of stuff I love that’s got that accessibility. It’s quite a pop record to me. And it was a very natural thing given what I enjoy listening to, and what I feed off of live, from seeing other bands or acts.”

I wonder if that accessibility is, to some extent, a reaction to a genre which has been regularly criticised as detached, inaccessible, oppressively male. Techno’s calculated severity, it’s self-conscious, affectedly enacted sombreness has earned it detractors and fans alike as the internet democratises music at its trademark hectic pace. For every frowning, bum-bag toting individual you’ve chatted with that loves hearing clanking sounds under strobes, you likely know someone that despises the same activities. And it’s becoming easier than ever to have an opinion on the sectarian genres: social media wields the sword of exposure with trend-wrecking precision, tearing open in-groups, widening cliques, demystifying vernaculars and accelerating the transaction rate of fads until sounds that were cool upon arrival become pathetically saturated in a matter of weeks. All of which might alarm the large class of music fan for which rarity is currency.

“I find a lot of it quite hostile,” Gurnsey continues. “A lot of the ways it’s enjoyed in clubs, or just the kind of vibe… it’s quite hostile. Obviously people are really just looking for a good time, and I wanted to get that celebratory feeling back. The feeling of late 80s house records, crossing over between the Chicago and Detroit scenes. That human element, the celebratory human element, is a massive thing for me. I wanted it to be celebratory both in the melodic and lyrical sense. There’s a lot of stuff where it’s… well, maybe hostile’s not the right word. Insular.”

Physical might be called a concept record, and one of the most important thematic threads linking the fourteen tracks is that of family connection. For Gurnsey, the archetypal night out and all its constituent parts — anticipation, travel, dance, camaraderie — are associated overwhelmingly with his older brother, who introduced him to partying at a young age. The album functions as an abstract, collaged depiction of these fraternal excursions, condensing years of half-remembered events, moods and sensations into a touching ode to shared experience, albeit one filled with merciless beats.

“He was always the kind of person who goes, ‘Right, we’re going out.’ And it would be 12 o’clock at night, no matter where we were. He was living in Wales at some point and we ended up going to a club whose name I’ve forgotten. He had a moped, and he always used to end up getting totally smashed and having me driving him back on this little shit scooter thing. And this club was fucking miles away. We were there in the freezing cold.” He pauses to laugh at the image. “That happened quite a lot. Call it a period of time, I guess. Oh, God— a lot of times. He’d fall asleep on the back of the bike. I wasn’t supposed to be driving it. I was thirteen or something.”

So he inducted you, brought you into the scene?

“Nah,” Gurnsey deadpans. “I think he just wanted me to drive him home.”

However, it emerges that Gurnsey eventually spent far more time as passenger than as driver, which brings us to another central theme of the record.

“Really, he’s always been the driver in two senses. Firstly when he’s driving us around listening to tunes, and then in the sense of being that person who’s always saying, ‘Let’s go and do this, let’s see what happens.’ And I love that. I think I got a lot of that from him.”

There’s a continuity, I think, between enjoying being a passenger in a car and the sensation of being carried by music. Gurnsey talks about the passenger seat of a car as a unique physical and emotional space, one that demands a certain degree of inaction. It’s coupled with a feeling of security. You’re free to relax and be conveyed, relinquish control, sit back and let things happen. What Gurnsey describes strikes me as neatly related to the sort of near-meditative, zone-out headspace encouraged by techno that my friend cites. Both situations involve some quantity of unfamiliarity, require a willingness to be led and can facilitate a weird, welcome numbness and stasis. Living in a busy city and working a demanding job doesn’t allow for much time to slide into a state of complacent receptiveness and allow events to unfold around you.

“It’s the focus thing as well. You’re putting yourself in a situation which is basically devoid of distractions. I do it in writing as well. I would be working on a lot of stuff and then feel like I needed to listen to it in a different environment, and it always ended up being in the bath. It’s like the car. You effectively can’t get out… Well, you can.”

You can see where Gurnsey’s going. Voluntarily cloistering yourself and shutting the world out is a well-established method for boosting your concentration. And after you’ve gone to the effort of running the bath you probably aren’t going to jump out after five minutes.

“Isolation, concentration, lack of distractions. And you get to have a bath at the same time. Two birds with one stone.”

Is there an amazing speaker system in the Gurnsey bathroom?

“No. I’ll stick the laptop on. I’ve got a bit of a thing for really tinny sound, shit sound, when it comes to playing stuff back. I love cheap stereos and stuff. And if it’s coming through nice on your laptop then it should sound good on a PA. I also like listening to my tracks from another room. It’ll throw up different ideas to when you’re listening to it with the speakers right in front of you. Sometimes in a club you can hear stuff that doesn’t actually exist in the track, weird harmonics coming through. The bathroom’s pretty good for that, with the sound bouncing around.”

Speaking of sound, I’d be remiss in my duty if I didn’t ask a reputable producer of dance music about his best night out.

“Berghain is a really obvious one. It was after a Factory Floor show, actually. I think everyone else had gone home but I ended up staying in the club with our sound guy. We ended up walking back to the hotel at 8am or something, and then straight in the van going to Hamburg to do a show. That was a great time.”

I ask if the notorious ur-club really has a climbing wall as some rumours suggest.

“Climbing wall? I don’t think I’ve explored all of it to be honest. It’s massive. But everyone goes, ‘You played Panorama Bar, right?’ And I go, ‘No, I played Berghain.’ And they’re like, ‘No, you played Panorama.” That’s a stage. I think I haven’t seen half of the club. I know it’s upstairs, but I can’t work it out.”

A few years back Factory Floor, which besides Gurnsey involves Nik Void (and formerly Dominic Butler), lived, rehearsed and worked in a Seven Sisters warehouse. But Gurnsey has since moved back to Manchester, after an extended detour in Los Angeles.

“We got our [North London] studio for less distractions while writing to get in that bubble, but I feel like I’ve got that up here as well. It’s a slower pace. You can see empty streets in the centre of Manchester on a Wednesday night. It’s nice to have that space without the mad distractions. Manchester’s more contained than London. You’ve got the city on your doorstep. The city is surrounded by this massive motorway and I love being able to hear that. Going to sleep or waking up, I love that constant sound, that noise. You can also drive for twenty minutes out of the city and you’re in the middle of the Pennines, or in the middle of beautiful countryside. It feels more obtainable, both environments."

Did the presence of nature work its way into the record?

“Living in the country, going into the city and clubbing, you always had to take those kind of routes. Driving back in the morning, with the sun coming up in that cliched way — that imagery was perhaps creeping in on some of the tracks, specifically the last on the record. You can picture those different scenarios, a bit of a journey.”

I want to know more about what it was like for Gurnsey in LA.

“I really do love it over there, man. I’m looking forward to going back over in December, when I’ll be doing another show with Nine Inch Nails. What weirded me out the most was how much space there is. But at the same time there’s not a lot of freedom because you’ve got to drive everywhere, and obviously I’m not a driver.” I take it that Gurnsey didn’t attempt to reacquaint himself with the moped in LA traffic.

“I love sitting in the passenger seat, but it’s quite difficult to get around. There’s no public transport from the outskirts or anything. And they do massive measures over there. A single is like a double. As far as clubbing goes it’s a very different vibe over there and not as big as it is in the UK. It’s a very slow pace. People can just go and sunbathe, innit?”

Maybe some of that LA insouciance made it on to the album. While often hard-hitting and breathless, Physical is a slyly aware work which mixes light and dark and doesn’t indulge feelings of gloom or self-seriousness. One track, for instance, opens with Gurnsey chanting “kick, snare” in a rhythmic monotone.

“Like we were talking about, there’s that hostility. And those little bits I put in there were a bit piss-takey. Because sometimes in the club it really is sometimes just a fucking kick and people will happily dance to it. I find it great that it can be broken down into such a simple set of sounds. It’s a playful record.” Despite this willingness to poke fun at his genre, the percussion Gurnsey employs on Physical isn’t so straightforward.

“I like combining stuff. Sometimes I’ll do everything on a kit and replace the individual sounds with samples, or chop up the takes and rework them. There’s things you can’t pull out of programming. Although you can get ‘humanisers’ and all that.” He sounds doubtful. “I started playing at ten or eleven. Not that early. I was playing along to my dad’s Led Zeppelin II record on repeat for about thee years. I was really into drums that were relentless, and the Led Zep stuff was basic but relentless.” There are also numerous original vocal performances on the album, an unusual amount for a dance record. “All the different voices come from that idea of modern identity. You know, how so much interaction between people is done online, through these identities that we create at the press of a button. What people are seeing is what you’re filtering through this identity you’ve created. The voices are me, but I’ve been stuck through so much technology that the identity is elsewhere. It’s detached from reality.”

The extensive vocal processing is an interesting way to address this contemporary anxiety. Piling effects on the human voice is a long-established tradition in dance music, but Gurnsey sees the practice as a useful way to discuss fragmentation and distance in a world where our relationships and behaviours are increasingly mediated by technology. One of the early concepts for the record was closely linked to these conceptions of an increasingly inhuman future.

“I’d been thinking a lot about escapism through virtual reality, and about VR being a ‘future addiction’ as much as going out and taking drugs is in the present. I explained it to a couple of people and they were like, ‘I don’t understand what you’re talking about.’ I thought it was straightforward.”

Will VR replace drugs and clubbing entirely? I ask Gurnsey if, in a few years, people will be sitting at home with their goggles on pretending to be at a Boiler Room instead of actually going. Doubtless they’ll still work out some way to charge you a fiver for a virtual beverage.

“I’m not pro-that. I feel lazy sitting in the flat. I think it can’t replace a traditional chemical high, but it could be pretty good for comedowns.”

I’m fairly sure people will just combine the drugs and the headsets.

“Maybe that’s the future. The worst drug experience I’ve had was when someone brought me back some slow-release Tramadol pills from Thailand. Obviously I didn’t realise they were slow-release because I couldn’t read the fucking writing. This was during a period of, you know, wanting to chill out. The opposite of wanting to go clubbing and get high. I just wanted to do nothing for a while. I did one, then two, and ended up at about six and I thought they were just dodgy or really shit. And when it did hit me I was absolutely fucked. I basically went to bed and ended up waking up at seven the next night, so I’d missed the entire fucking day. Another time was when I used to work at this fashion company and everyone ended up at this house party. Someone had spiked the big punch bowls. I woke up on Stratford Bridge thinking there were ants coming out of my head. It was nuts, man. That was 2011, before Factory Floor started. I managed to get home but I ended up sleeping again. I missed almost two days. I don’t know what was in that punch.”

It’s safe to assume that numerous ravers will have their own ant experiences with Gurnsey’s work as soundtrack. But the man himself seems to have had enough of that particular mode of passengerhood, at least for the moment.

“If that’s what’s going to happen to me in fashion I’m sticking to the drums mate.”

Physical is out now on Phantasy

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today