From his ‘indie’ roots, Daniel Avery has morphed into one of the UK’s finest proponents of forward-thinking late-night techno. Si Truss quizzes him about his ambient-inflected new LP, Song For Alpha
Having grown up in Bournemouth, Daniel Avery moved to London in the mid-’00s and was drawn into the club scene via eclectic ‘indie’ nights like Bugged Out! and Erol Alkan’s Trash parties. The electro-influence of these nights eventually brought Avery into the world of dance music proper, DJing and producing under the name Stopmakingme, and eventually landing a residency at London’s Fabric.
In 2012, Avery reverted to working under his own name, signifying a move toward a more hardhitting, machine-driven techno sound, solidified on his excellent debut album, Drone Logic, which was released on Alkan’s Phantasy label. This month he delivers a follow-up, Song For Alpha, a more drawn-out, slowly evolving record that brings Avery’s ambient and industrial influences to the fore.
In the five years between albums, Avery has cemented his position as one of the UK’s most exciting techno artists, winning over crowds with his skilfully eclectic DJ sets and collaborating with artists including Volte-Face (as Rote) and Nine Inch Nails-affiliate Alessandro Cortini. As the album hits shelves, FM track down Avery in his shipping container studio to talk machines, inspiration and looking beyond the dancefloor.
FM: Tell us a little more about the concept behind Song For Alpha… Is it designed to be less dancefloor-focused than Drone Logic?
Daniel Avery: “I feel like it’s a record inspired by the club and the moments away from it in equal measure. Late nights and hazy mornings; the seemingly endless road and finding inspiration beyond the fog. I’ve become increasingly interested in those moments in life where you can find space and take a breath, wherever that may be… Drone
Logic was full of urgent energy and while I’m still fond of it, this new record is far more concerned with music taking its time to unveil itself.
“I’m into playing all night sets and try to do them as often as possible. Playing from the moment doors open until the very end, sometimes nine or ten hours. I love being able to build the atmosphere from the ground up, starting with ambient and drone music – sometimes with people laying on the floor – and witnessing the night intensify one minute at a time, trying to draw a line between every record played. That’s the important part to me, that’s the very definition of DJing. This new record was inspired by all those moments, I believe.”
There’s a clear ambient influence to a lot of the tracks on Song For Alpha. Are there any particular artists or records that inspired you?
“William Basinski and Brian Eno were both floating around my head during the making of the record. It’s the kind of music I like to put on in the studio when I need to reset my thoughts. Kevin Shields has also been a big influence throughout my life; enveloping music that has a beauty buried deep inside.”
The album also seems to have moved towards more of a harder and darker techno sound...
“I’ve always been a fan of industrial sounds – I discovered bands like Nine Inch Nails and Atari Teenage Riot at a young age – but I believe it’s taken me some time to find my own version of it in the studio. I love the warmth and depth of the kick drum with this style of techno; I find it comforting to be trapped inside that in a club.”
How long has Song For Alpha been in the works? Was it always the intention to create another album?
“I haven’t stopped making music since Drone Logic so, in total, Song For Alpha has been in the works close to five years. In fact, there’s enough music to fill six albums but part of the reason the process took so long this time is that I was determined not to repeat myself; I had no interest in making Drone Logic 2. I always knew that it would be another full album as the format suits my music. Much like the extended DJ sets, I like how listening to a full album requires patience from the listener. You put a record on and you sit back, giving the music its own space. There is too much importance placed on immediacy in the modern world; everything truly worthwhile takes time to unfold.”
From a production point of view, how did the creation of Song For Alpha differ from Drone Logic?
“Drone Logic was made in pieces, often in borrowed studios. In the time since I have set up my own space in a converted shipping container on the banks of the Thames. You can see the city across the water but the place itself is very quiet and secluded; it’s one of those places where you can stop and take a breath. More so than any equipment, I strongly believe the setting helped shape the sound of the new record.”
Are there any tools that you found particularly inspirational to work with this time around?
“I bought an 808 and those long, drawn-out kicks feature heavily. For pads, finding a Roland JX-3P and running it through a series of different reverb units instantly made a huge difference in the studio. The 101 was used a lot again this time and the sound of it will never not be satisfying to me. There’s a lot of natural tape and machine hiss on this new album which was often compressed and pushed to the front of the mix. Added to that, I used a very cheap contact microphone to add textures to every track.” At what stage do you tend to add those ‘texture’ elements? “It happens at various stages. Some tracks are built entirely on a texture I find that day, whilst at other times a small amount of static can make a hi-hat that glues everything together.”
Was the 808 your main source of drum sounds for the album or was it mostly just used for kicks?
“It was used a lot but there are many other drum sounds on there. I like to find other tones beyond those offered by drum machines.”
On the subject of kicks, as with a lot of techno, kick drums are often a defining element of your tracks. What are you using to get that full, dominant sound?
“It’s all about the depth of the sub, which is usually given its own channel and worked on. That warm, enveloping feeling is what makes techno for me.”
What are you using to drive the synths and drum machines? Are they mostly being sequenced or played live?
“There are several things I use but my recent favourite has been the Cirklon Sequencer. Finding one of those helped shape the feel of the album greatly. Saying that, however, there’s an equal split between sequenced and live parts on the record.”
Effects processing seems to play a big role on this album – with lots of long reverbs and soundscape-like textures – what’s your process for creating these?
“I like to use a mixture of hardware and plugins. For reverb I always turn to the Eventide Space pedal and the Valhalla VintageVerb plugin – using the two together can often throw up interesting results. For distortion I like the Culture Vulture but I think the FXpansion Maul plugin might be the best around. A small amount on the master channel adds a grit that I search for every time. I try and record everything with live takes at first to understand the boundaries of a sound.”
The tracks on Song For Alpha often feel more minimal than those on Drone Logic… Did you intentionally try to limit the amount of different tools you were using?
“Well, in general I like to limit the amount of tools whenever I’m making music. I’ve always found that a certain level of restriction creates the most creative atmosphere in the studio. It’s also true that I’m a strong believer in removing parts from music until you’re left with something that sounds beautiful and honest. Drone Logic was a very direct-sounding record whereas I feel Song For Alpha is more confident with allowing things their own space. A good example is the use of vocals. Drone Logic featured several hooks and people have asked me why I’ve chosen to discard that idea this time around. The truth, however, is that there are vocals but this time they are buried deep within the mix, often clouded with reverb and effects. I still wanted the human aspect but wasn’t concerned with those elements taking centre stage.”
You’ve released a few collaborative tracks between Drone Logic and this album – as Rote, and with Alessandro Cortini. Do you find that working with other producers influences your own workflow?
“Yeah, I often learn things from collaborations. Rote was and remains a great source of escape from my own world, where it’s easy to become lost. It’s generally a very freeing exercise. The most interesting thing about working with Cortini is seeing his belief in the power of music to have a life of its own. Often a take might have something which on paper would look erroneous but he will fight to keep it as that’s what makes it real. It’s something I’ve always believed myself but Alessandro’s dedication to the idea has pushed me to take it further in my own work.”
Would you say that you find working in collaboration more or less challenging than producing solo?
“Whilst you bring your own style to a collaboration, you have to leave your role as a solo artist at the door in order for it to work. Compromise and mediation rarely bring out anything interesting and it can waste a lot of time, in my experience. You have to go in with the mindset that you’ll be creating something new together, something that would
“The unproductive days are every bit as important as the productive ones”
never occur from working on your own. It can feel challenging but that’s a positive thing.” Tell us a bit more about your studio set-up… “The shipping container studio I mentioned earlier has been an integral part to the making of the new album. I moved in there properly shortly after Drone Logic was finished and the surroundings have as much of an effect as anything inside. The view across the water is the best part about the whole place. I like to use a mixture of hardware and software as I’ve found the combination of the two can have interesting and unplanned results. One thing I want to do this year is build a full pedalboard as I love running machines through that process.” Can you tell us a little about your general approach to writing tracks – where do you start with a project, and how do you decide when something is ‘finished’? “I have no set procedures when it comes to writing but this album has taught me a lot about creative processes in general. I believe that, ultimately, music finds you. I’ve had to learn that patience is the most imperative part to making music. The unproductive days are every bit as important as the productive ones. You can spend a week on a track and throw every bit of it on the fire yet still learn something about yourself. You can build your spider’s web in the studio but sometimes you simply have to wait for the golden moments to come. As long as you remain creative and open to new ideas outside your immediate field of vision then you can be confident that something good is around the corner.” The press release for Song For Alpha talks about how being on the road influenced the sound of this album – do you ever write or produce tracks away from the studio? “No, never. I’ve tried it and failed every time. Saying that, it’s a time when most of the ideas come but I simply write them down in a notebook rather than trying to create something on my laptop. I’ve found I need my own space to make anything happen.” When we spoke to Erol Alkan a few years back he spoke about working with you on the final mix of Drone Logic. Was he involved this time around too? “Yes, Erol and I mixed Song For Alpha together in his studio. For me this is generally the most enjoyable part of the entire process. I find it’s when ideas really begin to crystallise. Erol is a fantastic, creative mixer whose only concern is pushing ideas as hard as they can possibly go, even if they seem ‘wrong’ on a technical level. I can safely say he brought out the best of this record.” So would it be fair to say Erol’s role is more about offering an extra pair of ears than bringing technical mixing skills? “I think it’s all about that creative input. Erol is a very instinctive musician which is exactly how I like to work too. If something feels right then
that’s all that matters. I realise how it could be easy to fall into the structures of electronic music but I always try and pull myself away before that light becomes too bright.” Earlier in your career you were known for incorporating guitar and other live instrumentation into your music. Did that still play a role on this album, or was this more ‘machine’ driven? “My main creative motivation on this new record was to create machine music with a human heart. There are a few live drums buried within the album but in general I believe that this human aspect comes from the process of combining different elements: live vocals being fed through walls of reverb and delay, drum machines through a long chain of guitar pedals, field recordings pushed through layers of distortion… these are the sort of processes that interest me the most.” What sort of set-up are you using to DJ these days? “I favour a reasonably basic set-up. I like the sound of the Allen & Heath Xone 92 mixer and I use three Pioneer CDJs, two for playing records and one for adding samples or loops over the top, although I’m generally sparing with these. I also play with a Strymon Blue Sky reverb pedal which is a touch more subtle than what I have in the studio as its role is quite different in a club. It is particularly useful during the beatless sections of my sets, helping to create droning sequences that sound stitched together.” You’ve a tendency to hop around genres in your DJ sets; is that something you make a concerted effort to try and do, or is it a natural response of having eclectic listening tastes? “Everything is down to the preparation as every gig is different. There’s a trend at the moment to praise certain DJs as ‘diggers’ but I don’t buy it. By definition, every great DJ ever is a digger: someone who spends their entire life adding to their musical world but at the same time making it all work together in a club. Eclecticism for the sake of it is worthless in my book, you have to be able to justify every move you make. You have to be able to draw a line between every single record, even when they come from seemingly incongruous genres.” Have you ever been interested in the idea of playing live? “Up until recently it was simply something I never felt in my heart but I feel different at the moment. I have something in my head. I can’t talk too much about it but there is an idea forming.”
want to know more?
Song For Alpha arrives 6 April via Phantasy. Keep up with the latest from Daniel at www.danielavery.co.uk