Ahead Of The Game: An Interview With Pangaea

Hessle Audio co-head Pangaea creates roiling techno/garage hybrids that draw energy from UK pirate radio and soundsystem music history. He speaks to Eleanor Careless about his most substantial record to date, Release, and why rules in music are stifling

Pangaea’s new double EP for Hessle Audio, Release, is, in his own words, "all about tension and release". This kind of tension and release sounds similar to what the body-building literary critic Kathy Acker wrote about both body-building and language – that you have to push right up to the limits, again and again, in order to push past them and attain an even higher level of dexterity and muscularity.

That’s exactly what the push-and-pull of Release does, setting off from familiar foundations only to spin away into undiscovered territory. This trajectory is not straightforward. Release‘s sinewy explorations are offset with more recognisable material. The opening track, ‘Game’, loops a Missy Elliott sample, "Do your thing/ just make sure you’re ahead of the game", and immediately sets up a field of opposition against which each track performs its own ferocious dance-off. In this way, volleying back and forth between the known and the unknown, Release creates its own resistance, right up until the final track, High, relinquishes hold of anything you may have heard before and thrums its throaty, shrieking release to the skies.

Pangaea, aka Kevin McAuley, is the co-founder of the Hessle Audio label, alongside David ‘Pearson Sound’ Kennedy and Ben UFO. In the years since its inception in 2007, he has become renowned for a series of 12"s and EPs that began by pushing dubstep into new spaces (the dancefloor garage skip of ‘You & I’, or the woozy ‘Memories’) and have gradually worked deeper into a densely percussive hybrid sound that suggests techno steeped in jungle and dubstep’s love of low-end impact (see more recent 12"s like ‘Inna Daze’ or the urgent ‘Fatalist’).

Even by those standards Release is a definite step onwards again – if we take it as crystal ball and McAuley as prophet, then the ever-more experimental Hessle Audio supercontinent is splitting apart at quite an alarming rate. Whether or not its radical finale is an indication of what is to come, I’m already looking forward to What Kevin Did Next. There’s a small hint as to what this may be at the end of the interview with the Quietus, where McAuley talks about the hyper-competitive music industry, the relation between form and content, and sharing Google hits with a giant landmass.

‘Game’ opens with a Missy Elliott lyric that takes no prisoners. How and why are you using this sample? One British DJ I’m aware of has been working with vocal samples recently and has said that for him it’s a good thing as "it gets the girls on the dancefloor". Agree?

Kevin McAuley: Haha, well, using female vocal samples for that purpose has never crossed my mind! Although of course I’m happy if my music does get girls on the dancefloor, particularly interesting ones. I’m not sure it’s just about whacking a generic female vocal on something though; my interest in dubstep began to waver when subtlety started to become lost and tracks seemed to dictate how you should be dancing or feeling instead of leaving it to the imagination. Is this more attractive to your average girl? I don’t know.

I guess I used that sample for a couple of reasons. One, because I do think people should ‘do their thing’; but the ‘make sure you’re ahead of the game’ bit is pretty tongue in cheek. People should try and better themselves of course, and dance music wouldn’t have developed like it has without healthy competition. But it’s good to avoid slipping into self-absorption and over-competitiveness as a result.

In an earlier interview with RA you have been quoted as saying "For me production is all about doing your own thing in whichever way you want to do it…" which sounds, spookily, almost identical to Release’s opening gambit. Intentional or a coincidence?

KM: The sentiment is intentional, yeah. Most of my favourite music is made by people who have their own sense of identity, and sometimes that’s reflected in working processes (what I was talking about in that interview). So that could be at the level of a unique analogue-only setup with a bunch of obscure machines that very few people know anything about, or at a micro-level of the specific ways in which people use popular software. Burial and Sound Forge is a famous example, it’s like ‘why didn’t you use Fruitloops or Reason or whatever?’, but he stuck with an audio editor because he liked it, and as a result he’s made some incredible, unique music.

But ultimately there are some rules to making music for soundsystems if you want the tracks to be effective… You need everything to sit together in the mix, a kick drum to hit correctly, etc, etc. And I want to become better at all that, it’s something I’ve always found difficult. It’s all about finding a good mix of form and function in dance music I think, if you can be creative and functional at the same time then it’s a winning combination.

You’ve cited Mala as one of your earliest influences: what do you make of his latest, Mala in Cuba, his own first full length record, and the attempt to mix two apparently alien styles? There’s a huge amount of cross-pollination in dance music right now; how far do you think techno can be stretched before it’s not techno anymore?

KM: It’s great, and fair play to him for completing a longer project with a specific idea in mind, as it’s plenty of work. To be honest, I don’t know how far techno can be stretched, because I don’t know what the rules of techno are. And I don’t know much about it in terms of a 20-year old genre which has spawned many offshoots and variations, but it doesn’t really matter. It was interesting hearing Surgeon talk at Dimensions Festival this year about someone who bought grime records back in the day thinking they were techno records!

Similarly, I was also going through boxes of crap at my parents’ house the other week and found a mix I’d done back in 2002 as a 16 year-old labelled ‘progressive trance/hard house mix’. Obviously there was some cheese on there but also stuff that could be called techno. But back then I wasn’t aware of techno as a genre at all. Even though, for example, I bought the Chris Leibing remix of ‘One Night In NYC’, I thought of it as ‘hard house’! If only someone back then had pointed me in the direction of people like Jeff Mills… But it goes to show how subjective music can be.

Why do you say ‘it doesn’t matter’ when talking about the rules of techno/its offshoots and variations? Is it because there are no hard and fast rules, because it’s a living art form?

KM: I’d like to think so, yeah. Rules in music are pretty boring. A kid getting into music production now doesn’t need to know the Underground Resistance catalogue off by heart in order to make a techno record. They could’ve just heard one track which excited and inspired them enough to give it a go themselves.

What does it mean, for you, a techno producer, to make a (very nearly) full length LP? 12" singles and 2-4 track EPs are central to the way dance music is consumed; are longer records not such a good fit? Should form fit content?

KM: Yeah, I think form should fit content for sure. 6-track double vinyl packs were pretty popular for a while in dubstep, and I thought that was a great format for the music. They felt more significant than singles – broad yet cohesive, two stand out tracks on side A and C, yet any ‘filler’ on the other sides felt more exposed than it would on an album. So with Release I could’ve put another couple of tracks on the CD and called it a debut album if I wanted to, but it didn’t feel right, although at one point I contemplated it. I don’t know, maybe people will think of it as an album, and that’s cool as well.

What was the process of making Release like? Where was it recorded? How long did it take? Was it laborious or organic?

KM: It was just under a year of ideas and projects that I felt were strong enough after the ‘Hex’/’Fatalist’ single. It was mostly made at home, with parts taken to a studio in Haggerston to mix down on a desk or run through outboard equipment. Ideas come to me pretty quickly, but it’s the completing that I usually find laborious.

When I first listened to Release my main impression was of its intense muscularity. It feels very sinewy (a word that has been used in the press release), very lean, very defined. How did Release get its toned physique?

KM: Protein shakes and gym three times a week. Um. Well, I like my tracks to have a solid foundation in the drums, so I usually start there and build on top of that.

There’s been several mentions of the pirate radio roots of this double EP – can you tell me more about this influence? How would you say it integrates with your own tracks? Is it this kind of outside influence that keeps Release so experimental?

KM: That’s something Rory [Gibb] wrote once and I like the description. I’d like to think of what I’m doing now as not being influenced by any one thing, but I’ve come from place where music was built for bass-heavy soundsystems. I like sub, I like basslines. And I don’t think I’ve ever had a very ‘polished’ sound, so maybe that also adds to the pirate-radio effect.

What do you listen to when you’re not listening to electronic music?

KM: I listen to a lot of radio, mostly spoken-word programmes on Radio 4 and 5. On the non-electronic music side of things, 6 Music and on occasion some Radio 3. Radio is another love of mine from an early age and I actually have another part-time job working in radio right now. I’m very lucky to be doing both that and music.

For me the big surprise was the final track. It really shook me out of what had become a very pleasant stupor. Why end so abrasively?

KM: I wanted to end on something a bit different to the rest of it, and I like tension in music. That track is all about tension and release, which is pretty much what the whole EP is about. It encapsulates the vibe of the whole thing I think; the release of tension in a positive way and breaking free from negativity. It’s a good document of my musical ideas over that twelve month period.

I’ve always wondered: why did you choose the name Pangaea? It’s going to be hard to knock Google throwing up a Wiki on the supercontinent in first place, although your Soundcloud page makes second place which is pretty good going considering the competition.

KM: Second place isn’t good enough! (this is my competitive streak coming out right now). Maybe I should be paying Google in order to shift that landmass from the top spot. Yeah I needed a DJ name back in ’06 when we put on our first Ruffage night in Leeds as any DJing I’d done before that was unbilled – it makes me laugh thinking back, going into Tribe Records to put up the poster and Simon Scott (Subdub promoter) looking at it and saying ‘which one are you?’ And I can’t remember exactly how I came across the name, but I liked how it sounded, so stuck with it. I didn’t have a clue I’d be where I am now back then, competing with a superclub in Singapore, various telecommunications companies and the like. Yet I don’t know what other name I’d give myself either. Answers on a postcard…

What are you listening to at the moment?

KM: Right now I feel like I’m only skimming the surface by checking out demos, podcasts that friends have recommended to me and new releases in the record shops. It’s hard to keep up with everything sometimes, not just with new music but also the vast swathes of pre-existing music which is waiting to be dug up piece by piece. As all my work is music-related I often feel like turning to other things when I have some down-time in order to give my ears a break.

What’s next?  For yourself and for Hessle?

KM: Apart from continuing to DJ, I’m just working on more music. There are a lot of ideas bouncing around my head and various projects that need finishing over the coming weeks and months. I’d like to self-release my next record and see where things naturally go from there next year, so it’s just a case of making the time and approaching it all constructively. As for Hessle, we’ll just carry on releasing music as and when it feels right – we never have too much planned ahead.

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