Techno Heroes Slam are Back (and Fresher Than Ever)
After more than two decades together, the techno duo that discovered Daft Punk dips into the ambient pool on their new album.
Stuart McMillan and Orde Meikle, of Glaswegian techno duo Slam, seem to calmly work on overdrive at all times. They've been making textured, slow-burning ambient electronic music together for decades, cropping up on Glasgow's club scene in the early 90s and refusing to budge ever since. Oh, and they're also almost singlehandedly responsible for breaking Daft Punk: their label, Soma Records, released the Parisian duo's first EP when Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo were just teenagers. But we'll get to that later.
Right now, McMillan and Meikle are knee-deep in promoting their new album, Reverse Proceed—their first release in the seven years since Human Response. Although fans of their brand of measured techno will recognise Slam's signature touches, they might not pick up on the challenging recording technique the DJs tackled to make the album.
"We've always bought hardware from Japan, or tracked down hardware from somewhat exotic places, but the sequencer we used on this album was from a local guy—from Paisley of all places," says McMillan, laughing. "The loose concept of Reverse Proceed was to shape it around sequences built on one particular sequencer, and try to set those tunes into one continuous piece of music."
McMillan is quick to point out that Slam haven't dipped into the world of exclusively using analog sequencers, and not digital programming software, for any "sort of 'look at us, we're looking hardware' reasons" but rather as part of an exercise in developing an album based on one cohesive sonic thread. The results are a one-hour collection of songs that fizz, pulse and meld into one another. At times, for example when track "Synchronicity" thuds and ripples into "Ghosts of Detroit," the album feels more reminiscent of a seamless DJ set than a set of songs placed next to each other on a list. The record maintains a sort of chronology, which is no accident.
"It's a very natural process for us, to make this kind of ambient music," McMillan says, during some downtime between a Soma label meeting and Glaswegian TV appearance with Meikle. "I find it's always really nice to walk into a club environment and ease into the night, rather than it being completely thumping music right at the beginning. So the album's reflective of what we might do in a five-hour set at Fabric, but condensed down to one hour."
Slam have been playing techno DJing sets at club nights for about 23 years, so they certainly have the experience behind them to attempt an album of this type. They cut their teeth in Glasgow, founding Soma Records together in 1991 to give other local producers a place to showcase their skill and release their music. Out and about in the city, they flung themselves into appearances at several clubs before working their way up to residencies at Sub Club and the Arches—both historic venues at the pinnacle of Glasgow's dance music scene.
"We were doing nights in this place called Tin Pan Alley, which was basically the basement in a gangster's club, and then Sub Club took notice and asked us to come in," McMillan remembers, laughing to himself again. "At one point we had a residency in there for four nights a week: it was a completely nocturnal existence for about half the week, and a totally fantastic time." Not long after that, in April 1992, McMillan and Meikle started playing at the Arches. It was a relatively new warehouse space at the time, and still plays host to their monthly Pressure night in 2014.
The duo's seminal single, 1993's Positive Education, then elevated their profile beyond Glasgow's late-night dancefloors, and in 1995 led to Soma releasing Daft Punk's New Wave EP. Since then, Slam have built and maintained relationships with artists on their roster, ranging from Black Dog and Funk D'Void to Vector Lovers and Desert Storm. They see Soma as a family, filled as it is with a variety of subgenres.
In their own music, and the bands they handpick for Soma, Slam prefer a leftfield approach over the chart-topping, maximalist sound that commercial EDM producers have perfected. "I don't really care that much for EDM," McMillan begins, pausing for a moment. "It's music that gets sold back to America, then marketed by Americans and sent back to the rest of us. It happened with the blues and the Rolling Stones, it happened in the 80s—it's just something that happens."
Though not a fan of dance music's current mainstream sound, McMillan happily talks about how EDM has helped to revitalise clubbing scenes in many of the cities he's visited on the Slam's travels. It functions as a port-of-entry to electronica for younger teens, he says, who can then go on to more experimental sub-genres once they've developed a taste for "going somewhere in a field to listen to DJs" at EDM festivals. And, with plans for a busy winter season of DJ sets and residency parties, he can hardly complain.
"We just try to keep the music fresh, and keep people guessing about what we're going to do next," he continues. "The crowd and the energy of the people keep us going—it's something we'll never get bored of."