Andy Stott talks about producing electronic music like a scientist tinkering with an experiment, using words like "synthesis" and "patterns coming together" to describe the feeling of building parts of a composition into a whole as if he were solving a series of formulas or trying to create a new compound.
His studio is in the basement of his home in Manchester, not unlike a private laboratory sequestered from the rest of the world. The artist recently rebuilt the space to accommodate a Korg Triton, a 1999 synth he became enthralled with after the boss of his longtime label Modern Love and frequent collaborator Shlom Sviri hipped him to an early grime track by Slimzee that featured it. Bowled over by its unique pitch-bending function—which results in artificial, plasticine sounds with a "human element" remaining—he got his own.
Stott says he gets lost down there in his studio-cum-laboratory, trying to assimilate the new hardware with the gear he used on 2014's Faith in Strangers, his previous LP, as if the instruments were a bunch of beakers bubbling away simultaneously.
He describes his approach to Too Many Voices—his fourth full-length, out now on Modern Love—as if he were Herbert West looking over a dissection table. Rather than subjectively attempting to distill conceptual ideas or his personal life into his work, Stott's drawing inspiration from raw materials: musical reference points like the Slimzee track, as well as his studio equipment. It makes sense: you'd never ask a scientist how his children or love life influence a given chemical reaction.
"I never write the music based on personal experiences," Stott told me over the phone. Instead, he explained, his music draws from where he's at creatively, functioning as a reflection of whatever curiosity is currently making the gears in his head churn.
Take the opening track "Waiting for You." As stormy chords swell and ebb, blips of synthetic chirping erupt spontaneously. Then they evaporate as the chords come back, as if a test run with the Triton didn't quite go as expected, and Stott had to pull the plug.
It's not hard to imagine the artist in his home studio, messing around with his tools until the puzzle pieces started to fit together. The most satisfying parts of the album arrive when you can almost hear Stott figure out a winning formula for his musical trials in real-time. When everything clicks—such as on "Selfish," when machine gun-like bursts of drum claps coalesce into breathy vocal samples and other gentler sounds, before the Triton interrupts the balancing act with a riff that resembles plucked guitar strings—it's like a satisfying eureka! moment, as if we, too, have solved a sonic chemistry problem.
Stott feels the same about these moments of resolution. "It's like, That works. That fucking works," he says of the alchemy. The way the musician describes making Too Many Voices doesn't even sound like he was thinking about making an album. Rather, it's as if he's constantly engaged in self-education and attempts to hone his craft, instead of trying to create a cohesive body of work. It's only when Sviri, who Stott likens to an editor or curator, begins picking the strongest material and suggesting tweaks that the music goes from a series of tests and hypotheses to a polished, nine-track release. THUMP got on the phone with Stott in the days just before the album's release to try to uncover some of the methodology behind the madness.
THUMP: How are you feeling about Too Many Voices now that you've got some distance from writing it?
Andy Stott: It's funny. I've been working on this record the past 12 months. It's like 12 months of careful work and going back and forth with Shlom [Sviri], who runs the label. By the end of it, we've both put so much time and effort into it, arranging, rearranging, building the track selection. When it gets to the end, handing it over is one of the most nerve-wracking things.
I would have guessed you'd be so accustomed to putting out new material by now.
For a long time, the music is just something shared and built between me and Shlom. And when we're handing it over to the big world, we just hope that people get this, get the same feel that I have in the studio when making a particular track. I want that to translate from start to finish in a sequence. We want people to have that same rise.
For this record in particular, what were some of the influences that crept into the material?
Shlom played me some old grime. I had missed that first wave of grime and I didn't have that kind of grime sound palette. He played me this early Dizzee [Rascal] and Slimzee stuff—as well as stuff like "Tweet Riddim" by Wiley—and I was like, My god, this is so raw. And so I did a bit of research into the sound palette they was using, and I figured out they had this synth called the [Korg] Triton. So I got one, and all of these sounds are on there, and there were so many of the preset sounds that I found interesting, and I really wanted to use them.
A lot of the chords, a lot of the keys on the record—especially the synthetic sort of vocals you hear—are from this machine. I bought it for the grime sounds, and ended up using all of these other presets. That machine really gave the record its backbone. I found these vocal-y, synthetic sounds and I like that feel of a synthetic thing trying to be human, but it's still clearly plasticine.
Can you expand on that?
You're hearing the synthesis [of a machine], but you're feeling the emotions behind it. It's such a weird bit of chemistry. Like, there was a track by Theo Burt called "Gloss" that Shlom played when we got together to go over the material I was working on. When it starts it sounds like a slap bass line, and then it starts to pitch bend. Initially, it was hilarious. I thought, This is so mental. But as the track went on, within less than a minute, the smirk was wiped right off my face. As the track builds and progresses, I was thinking, This is amazing.
I've heard pitch bends before, but not like this. I needed to know how to do it. And this is what happens to me a lot when I make music. I feel the need to go out and figure out how to make this sound like that using what I've got.
To you, what makes this record different from what's come before it?
That's a good question. It's definitely cleaner than my previous stuff. And there's more space in there. And it's more bent in a way—literally—there's a lot of that pitch-bending. There's a lot of bending upwards and downwards and fluctuating. I think it's an experimental-yet-accessible record.
One of the things that drew me to your music in the past was this tension between abrasiveness and delicacy. With this record in particular, do you feel that balance is still there?
I think the album reflects me at various points throughout the year, writing. For example, with "New Romantic," it's got a really full bottom end. It's really gritty, it's got a lot of crunch to it—there are only so many times you want to write with that aesthetic. There are only so many times you can hear that texture before you start thinking, I don't really want to do this again. And that's part of the process from album to album, as well.
It's trying not to do the same thing over and over again. Each track reflects a different influence and almost a different piece of equipment, apart from this Triton, which is on nearly everything. I'm just figuring things out all the time. I don't want to make it sound like I've got a new piece of equipment, and I'm just interested in that. I've been learning a lot over these past 12 months... I go to the studio and I don't mess around, but at the same time, I don't really know what's going to come out.
That's kind of reminds me of how a sculptor describes his craft. Like you've got this chunk of clay that you've been sitting on for a while and messing with, and if something doesn't feel quite right you put it back on the table and add different things to it.
That's right. The basic track that I write is sort of the lump of clay, or whatever, and then I put it back through processes that I've learned, and that's where the shaping comes in. But then again, I'll send these tracks over to Shlom, and he comes back with further details. And then it becomes that back and forth between me and him, until it's absolutely perfect. The thing with some of the tracks is that I still can't hear them [objectively], because I know how everything was done. Shlom doesn't know exactly how it was done, and he's hearing it instantly for the first time. He'll be able to say stuff like, "This section, get rid of it, it's unnecessary," or he'll find one tiny piece and he'll be like, "Keep this, forget the rest."
You trust his editing sensibilities that strongly?
It's complete trust. Shlom is such an important person with what I do, and it's always been like that since the beginning. He's just straight about stuff. I've worked with him for over 10 years now, and we just know when the end result is right.
Not too long ago, after the record was compiled as a sequence and we were done and happy with it, the two of us went through some of the earlier versions [of tracks] before he sent me the notes with what he wanted me to do with them. And listening to the end result compared to the first drafts, the amount we'd strip away was ridiculous. He has those ears.
Also, as the final versions of these tracks are getting finished, Shlom's sequencing them. He's sequenced every record that we've put out. I don't want to say "journey," but it kind of is. He created this journey from start to finish.
What do you hope people get out of this record?
I just think I hope they get what I put into these tracks. I feel a certain way when I'm writing these tracks in the studio and I hope that translates, I really do. Say I'm putting a pattern in on a drum machine and this pattern starts to come together. I know everybody won't hear what I heard as this pattern that came together. But the minute the pattern sets in with everything else, it's an amazing feeling. I often stay seated when I'm in the studio, but when it's working, I'm standing up. I'm definitely not dancing around, but I'm out of my chair, leaning over everything I'm doing. It's drawing me in, and I hope people get drawn in in the same way.
Follow Zach Sokol on Twitter.