Critical Thinking: Minor Science Interviewed

With his third record for Nic Tasker's Whities imprint just released, Angus Finlayson, otherwise known as Minor Science, speaks to John Thorp about reconciling his role as a music journalist at Resident Advisor with his work as a producer and DJ

Photo by Kasia Zacharko

“Why is it the all @residentadvisor reviews have very little to do about music and are written by totally cunts!”, Seth Troxler only recently took the time to query on Twitter. Whilst the internationally successful DJ didn’t receive a firm answer to his question, he nonetheless highlighted the timeless and uneasy friction between critic and creator in the tightly wound, passionate dance music scene.

Even before the arrival of his production alias, Minor Science, Angus Finlayson had already made a name for himself as one of contemporary electronic music’s best respected journalists and critics. Writing regularly for Resident Advisor, where he is still employed, he was also once a regular contributor to The Quietus, penning in-depth pieces that included a memorable 2011 edition of ‘Black Sky Thinking’ that directly confronted what he perceived as a dispiriting strain of misogyny throughout dance music. In it, he called out artists such as Scuba, as well as addressing his scepticism with the perceived inclusiveness of rave culture.

Whether dance music has since evolved for the better is open to debate, but certainly, these stances no longer exist purely on the fringes of the scene. Finlayson, meanwhile, cuts a less provocative, but much more creatively satisfied figure. Alongside his written work under his own name, as Minor Science, he is slowly but surely making the music he had intended whenever he remained shackled to his keyboard throughout his early twenties. Across the community in which Finlayson still casts his critical wand, he has seemingly overcome any cynicism or wounded egos, simply by impressing with his meticulous and imaginative productions.

Having spent his teenage years in what he has previously described as an “earnest” indie band, Minor Science debuted in 2014 with an impressively fully-formed EP, Noble Gas, released via The Trilogy Tapes. It is through Whities, the London label run by NTS’ Nic Tasker, though where he has truly established his sound. He has drip fed just three EPs in three years, and the latest, once more just two tracks and out, is perhaps his best yet. Volumes/Another Moon is tack-sharp and instantly absorbing, with the former track arguably the finest rendering of Finlayson’s dancefloor visions yet. Cascading synths mingle with chopped up vocal samples, before a menacing, whomping bassline swallows everything up, recalling the natural energy of his days sloping around parties like DMZ. Nonetheless, like almost every Minor Science track, the initially prickly sense of tension resolves beautifully in the track’s final moments.

We meet on a warm, late summer’s afternoon near the studio complex in which Finlayson spends much of his time, a space occasionally shared with Milo Smee, the founder of cult techno label Power Vacuum, and adjacent to producers Luca Lozano and Telephones. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Finlayson works slowly, but thoroughly, committing three or four days a week to the studio process. In conversation, Finlayson is thoughtful, fluid and, as interviewer-turned-interviewee, understandably cautious. But rest assured, he’s no “totally cunt” (sic).

Minor Science has been around a while now. Do you have any trouble reconciling your responsibilities with your role as a music writer and critic with that of a producer and DJ?

Angus Finlayson: First of all, I think it’s interesting to note that in different musical worlds and at different times, it’s been pretty normal. For instance, the pages of The Wire are full of writers like David Toop, from the experimental scene. I would pore over it when I was a bit younger, and there would be a page of him reviewing a bunch of records, and then on the next page, a review of his own record. And also, if you look at Germany, both Nick Höppner and Gerd Janson worked for Groove in prominent positions, and now have careers where nobody really discusses that. So I think that there’s maybe a perception now, in dance music, that the two are conflicting. But it’s not necessarily the case.

Do you ever feel you run the risk of your dual responsibilities outside of the studio affecting your work as a musician? By virtue of having to consume so much of the music of others, it means your own work hardly exists in it’s own vacuum, as many artists would seem to prefer.

AF: It is definitely an issue, because to make music there needs to be a period in the process in which you just turn off your critical faculties. People talk about "getting in the zone" in the studio – when you’re parched and you really need the toilet but you’re so engrossed in what you’re doing that you can’t stop. You’re not sitting back thinking, ‘Oh, but where does this fit in the musical world? In what ways is it lacking? What technical problems do I need to fix?’ I’m in the exact opposite mindset when I’m sat trying to write about an album. That very analytical part of the brain is being used there.

So they are in that respect, separate processes, and the difficulty is in being able to switch from one to the other. Not going into the studio in the wrong mindset, and beginning to make something and feeling really demoralised. It’s now been over two years that I’ve been doing three days at Resident Advisor and three days of my own music stuff each week. And I’ve got fairly good at the switch, but I’m still extremely slow at making music. The new release on Whities, I made that in January, with a few months tweaking after that. But despite my best efforts, I haven’t managed to make anything else to follow it up. So I’m always trying to wrestle those two parts of my brain into some sort of harmony with each other.

There’s always an enormous amount of detail in your records so far, and ‘Volumes’ probably surpasses that. It’s pretty cerebral, but also outright satisfying on a dancefloor. At this point in the studio, what comes first? The idea or the structure?

AF: Usually the first thing that gets done is the skeleton that makes it work in a dancefloor context. And I guess the idea already needs to have the potential to go in interesting, abstract directions. Which is maybe part of why I throw stuff out, as I know it needs to sit right in a DJ set, and not be lacking in that respect, but also be quite interesting and potentially surprising, gesturing at things outside of that space. But the details often happen quite fast. So, on ‘Volumes’ for instance, apart from one section, I did the whole track in three of four days. It happens very rarely, but once I have the momentum, I move quite fast. I spend a lot of time waiting for one of those ideas to come along. I’ve had to develop in not being too disheartened when I’m still bashing my head against the wall after three weeks working on something. That it’s not a big deal, and that it just happens.

If we assume that most of the radical moves in dance music are happening in the societal and political margins around the music itself, from a purely production perspective, what are you looking for in your own work or others to keep things interesting?

AF: I don’t think it’s so easy to separate the societal or political aspects from the sonic aspect of the music. The two are always intertwined – that’s what pop music’s all about, really. When you listen to as much music as I do for as long as I have, I think what you ultimately learn is the thing that catches your ear is the thing you couldn’t have anticipated. Music and art is interesting in general because it is hard to define, and it tends to wriggle out of any definition you put on it. So I don’t think there’s any one thing that I’m looking for. It’s the things you didn’t know you wanted that are exciting.

As a producer, I wouldn’t say that what I do is particularly radical. That’s more because of who I am, and what I’ve learned about myself is that I’m more of a refiner or a tweaker than someone who wants to rip it up and start again. But of course radical things can catch my ears as a listener, or as a journalist. My different occupations sometimes take me into different places musically, and I’m comfortable with that.

Then again, your remix for Paul Woolford’s Special Request project is pretty out there. It takes the hardcore element of the original and pushes it in an even harder direction.

AF: Yeah, and it got a pretty big response. The deadline was pretty tight, and I’d never attempted to make something that was that tempo before. I love jungle and I had a jungle phase when I was younger. Bits of modern drum and bass catch my ear now and then too. I think there’s a lot of potential at that tempo. And it felt easy, because it was ungrazed pasture for me, if you can say that.

It gets harder after that, when it’s like, ‘What more do I have to add at that tempo?’ I’d like to do more, but when I’ve tried a couple of times since, it’s been way too much in the same world. But in general, I’d love to be a bit more flexible in terms of tempo, to do stuff that’s both very slow and very fast. I just haven’t managed to bring that to fruition.

Very standard question from one journalist to another, but could that maybe happen in an album? Or are you happy with the pace of your releases as it is?

AF: Yeah, I’d love to do an album. A year ago, that wasn’t something I’d thought about, but now I can imagine, in the vaguest sense, how it might work. Sadly, from a cynical, commercial perspective, it’s a helpful thing to do. Especially as more and more, I consider my music as not just being for a club. And when you step out of that context an album is a more hospitable situation. On an EP, it’s harder for that music to find its audience. It would make sense, but I’m so slow making music, that I think something would need to change.

Like a deadline?

AF: Well, even deadlines have had mixed-effectiveness with me in the past. Sometimes they’ve worked really well, and sometimes I’ve disappointed people massively. It’d be more like my life and work balance would need to change, to have more time in the studio, or I’d need a eureka moment as to how I produce music.

You seem to have cracked the ‘producing in Berlin’ method. By which I mean, it’s Monday afternoon, and you’ve been to bed. Does that take much discipline for you?

AF: I’ve never been a real party-person. I don’t think that’s an unambiguously positive thing. I sometimes wish I would be someone who put more energy into and priority on experiencing this music in the context that it’s meant to be heard. Of course, I’ve been out loads over the last ten years, but there are people who go out way more, and they experience lots more DJs in their natural environment, and they generally have a much more direct connection with what’s going on. And I think it’s a shame that I lack that, but I’ve kind of always fretted a lot about the aftermath, and I’ve always felt like I’m maybe in a perpetual state of having too much to do. I have seen people move to Berlin and get slightly lost in the hedonism, but that wasn’t ever going to happen to me.

One detail you seem keen to stress, is that you work slowly, and more notably, you don’t want to contribute anything needless to culture, be that throgh productions or DJing. Do you think there’s a downside to that approach?

AF: It goes back to what we were discussing about critical and noncritical modes of thinking. That feeling that there’s so, so much stuff out there. That if I stopped making music, would there be a hole? The answer to which is of course, no. But that feeling is heightened due to my day job. Having my face pressed up against the volume of new promos and releases. And the volume of excellent releases, too. I think that, shall we say ‘happy producers’, tend to have, in my view, this uncritical view of their own art. They just enjoy the creative process and let anyone else worry about the quality, whether it’s a record label boss or the public. My own approach is not necessarily super-positive for my music, but if it leads to what’s released being something I feel really strongly about, maybe that’s better.

Minor Science’s latest record, Whities 012, is out now digitally and on vinyl

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