Sex & Politics: Alex Smoke Talks
Having first sprung onto the dance scene as an accomplished techno producer, Alex Smoke has spent his career embracing the genre's dual pillars – electronic innovation and futurology. Conversely, in doing so he has found himself moving further and further from the any belligerently conservative notions of what techno is and can be. There are going to be numerous attempts to pin a wide variety of genres on his new record Love Over Will – it could be called a collection of industrial soundscapes, future blues music driven by Smoke's distorted vocals, or even a modern take on the protest record – but we feel happiest describing it as a techno record; or a techno record as one should be, where a shock of musical ideas are transcribed with digital recording techniques in an attempt to talk about the time we live in, and the futures we face.
With Love Over Will's name explicitly referencing occulist Aleister Crowley (notoriously once described as "the wickedest man in the world"), it's cover featuring what can only be described as a naked hermaphrodite having a wank, and the sense of paranoid claustrophobia running through it's core, there seemed to be plenty for Smoke to explain. We called him demanding answers. He gave it a shot.
I’ve been listening to the album a lot today and it feels like quite a big departure for you? Does that sound fair?
Yeah. The way that I’m seeing it is that it’s a bit of a transition. It’s still got one foot in the past, but it’s got another moving in the right direction. It’s a departure for sure, but it’s a halfway departure.
I wasn’t expecting it to be as vocal as it was.
It wasn’t really meant to be quite so vocal to be honest. Some of the tracks were ear marked for Wraetlic, but then they ended up getting subsumed into the new album. So its got a bit of the old Wreatlic project in it from before which was heavy on the vocals.
There's a big nod to Aleister Crowley in the album title-
Yes, it’s almost meant to be an inversion of Crowley. The whole idea of Crowley, was that his concept was about discovering your true Will, with a capital W, and that being your guiding force. It’s something that I fundamentally agree with, but then if you look at his life it was actually will, with a small w. It was all about ego and instant gratification and that’s something that I can’t really get with. It’s kind of about the idea of surrender rather than control.
So you feel that you should surrender yourself to your will?
No no, I think that a good way to live is to surrender to… Oh god, this sounds so wanky. At the end of the day, the album is influenced by thinking that was going on at the time as whatever you’re thinking about will always end up being incorporated into an album. No one who listens to it cares about the different ways of thinking or whatever that were behind it.
What do you think that people listening to it do care about then?
Who knows man. The beauty of music is that it operates in this subconscious level and it bypasses intellect, which is a great thing. The modern world could really do with less reliance on intellect and more bypassing of it, and rather rely on feeling and sensation. So yeah, that’s what it is. You listen to an album and you either enjoy it and you get with it, or you don’t.
It feels to me like there’s quite a sinister mood pervading it. I don’t know whether that’s just me reading that into it or if there is actually a darkness to it. I’m wondering if that’s a purposeful reflection of where you think the world is at, or if that’s just what came out? Or even if it’s not dark at all and it’s just me being crazy…
No, it’s just one of those things isn’t it. My instinct when I’m making music is always to be on the melancholy side of things and on the minor side, but the album is based on the times that we’re living in at the moment and the tracks are implicitly about things which are happening that aren’t good. We’re living in a very weird time and that doesn’t escape most of us. Most of us realise that and there’s not really much you can do about it and it has got dark elements. It’s pretty dark, but I think it’ll play itself out and what ever happens, it will pass and things will get better again. In the mean time there’s this impending sense of doom at the moment and there’s a feeling that the world is going to have to go through a very radical change before it can get better again.
What gives you that impending sense of doom then?
Well, we live within the confines of modern capitalism and it has encroached largely upon countries that weren’t previously capitalist, such as China or India. So there’s just this sense of everything is only being done for the short term gain and it doesn’t really matter what happens in the meantime. Ultimately, nature is bigger than humanity and if we fuck up the planet then we will just get shaken off. The climate might change to the point of being offensive, or whatever.
I always feel that when dance music started it was implicitly political by its nature. If you look at the 80s it was such a grim and miserable time that the actual action of going out and dancing was in itself a kind of fuck you to the Thatcher era.
Then somewhere along the way that has been lost and people are almost terrified of having an opinion in their dance music. Do you ever feel a little bit nervous about talking about it?
There’s always that sense, you know. Inherently I can’t help but feel politically motivated but I’m also becoming increasingly of the mind that politics is a layer down and sometimes when change is occurring the spiritual element is more important to comes to terms with. You have to detach yourself from politic and from the world and let it runs its own course.
Perhaps it’s the feeling that politics is engaging with a set of rules that are themselves flawed and it’s already fucked and that if you engage with that then it’s already…
Yeah, it’s so corrupted and it’s operating on such a low level of thought.
So we’ve got to talk about the cover really. It is what it is. I’m not really sure what it is…
To be honest, nobody really knows what it is apart from the artist that did it! But I also think that it fits. The guy who did it was an old friend of mine and I know that he’s got a similar outlook to me, so I knew he’d come back with something interesting. He sent an email to us early on and I just gave him free reign, and gave him the title and some information. Then he got back to me and got me to check with R&S that they’d be up for a weird nude, and of course that piqued their interest and then he sent back that. So it’s his take on the title and the thinking behind it.
It’s been censored already hasn’t it?
Yeah… We had a couple of issues. One of the CD manufacturing factories wouldn’t print it, which I found quite surprising.
They wouldn’t print it?!
No, they wouldn’t print it.. I can only imagine that it was because they were Christians or they were religiously motivated and had strong feeling about Scottish men being naked on rocks… So one printers has turned it down and for display we actually have to have a censoring system in place, which is okay by me. I can understand it and I don’t want to upset any parents or anything like that you know.
When the CD plant turned it down, what did they say?
I don’t actually know what they said, Andy (from R&S) just told me that the first manufacturers they’d approached had turned it down and wouldn’t accept it as a job at all. It’s surprising really, what’s the deal?
Especially in this day and age… It’s only a man/woman creature wanking.
Big deal, get over it. We’ve all seen it!
If you check anyone’s search history you’re bound to find something worse.
I saw in the notes of the album that you said that why is this image considered shocking, but then we live in a world where murder and death is considered normal.
Yeah, that’s my take on it. You can watch a video of someone getting stoned to death before the watershed and violence is so much worse than sex. There are people much smarter than me who have made the link between the suppression of sexuality and the flourishing of war; that men can easily be turned from their natural urges towards killing each other instead. What’s better at the end of the day? The guys of ISIS should all be having sex instead of beheading people. They just need to have a bit of good old love and just chill out with the beheading.
Great advice there. We should try and get that sent over to them. I’ll talk to my people. So talking about the music, where do you see it fitting in in the greater pantheon of music? Is it a dance album? Is it a punk album? Do you even care?
I’m sorry, I actually have no idea. The hardest thing I find to deal with is any idea of a kind of scene. I don’t feel particularly connect to any kind of scene as such. I’ve kind of ventured away form whatever scene I used to be in with the whole minimal thing. But the thing is, once you’re past that and you follow your own avenues, then it doesn’t really mean anything. I’m not going to get bookings in Ibiza and equally I’m not going to get booked for dancefloor good times parties. It’s purely a self-expression. It has some roots in my background or whatever, but it is what it is.
Was there anything that you were listening to when you were making it that you feel had some effect on it?
To be honest, I don’t listen to a lot when I’m going through periods of intense work because I don’t want to listen to anything when I’m outside of the studio. So when I am listening to things it’s when I’ve just finished producing something and I’m starting to explore music again and see what’s going on. What’s interesting is that sometimes you’ll find that things you’ve got quite hung up on whilst working are things that other people have also started to get hung up on. You can’t put your finger on what it is, but people are starting to think in exactly the same way but obviously you’re all picking up on messages in society.
So things that you’ve written, you’re realising that other people have also written in similar styles or aesthetics.
Exactly, and at exactly the same time and I find that really interesting. So I find anything like that really interesting as you’re obviously picking up on similar cultural cues and artists are picking up on it because they’re sensitive too it or they’re looking for it and you end up with a parallel evolution, if you like.
Was there anything like that from this album where you felt someone was on a similar wavelength?
It’s funny because this album for me is like a year or so old, so I’m really thinking about what I’ve been working on since, but yeah there are probably things that I’ve heard since that are on a similar wavelength. For example everyone seems to be talking about ritual music and music that is aiming towards a goal of consciousness or whatever. It’s less relevant for this album though.
The track Love Is Will is really soundtracky and has quite a John Carpenter-esque feel to it. Is soundtrack scoring an area that you want to go into, or have been into?
Film has always been very dear to me and I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’ve always wanted to do a film soundtrack. Film sound has got a special place and I’ve done some, but I haven’t done anything in the way of feature films. It’s a long road, but it’s definitely something that I’m working towards. I’d love to get to work on more films.
If there was a film that you could score or re-score, what would it be?
That’s a tricky one, because the films that you love often have amazing scores and you’d never want to approach something with an amazing score. David Lynch films are a total gift for anyone who’s scoring. You’ve got so many layers to play with there. Music is always so fitting and key to the vision of a film that sometimes you can’t imagine your place in it.
Interestingly I’ve just been sent the reissue of the David Lynch album that he did with Marek Zebrowski.
Oh I saw that, Polish Night Music!
What I realised was the great thing about Lynch’s stuff is that it’s weird because it’s so close to normality and then just a little bit off. Then sometimes it’s funny and it suddenly turns really horrible. Without the visuals though, it’s just 4 sides of Drone and a piano tickling away in the background. Without anything to place it too, it is literally just Drone. It made me really realise what Lynch’s power was and the juxtaposition of it, not just it being unpleasant.
It’s not just the one thing is it, if you were to play the music from Twin Peaks it would actually be very thin and cheesy. But it’s all about how it fits in with the context of Twin Peaks and that gives it real meaning because it’s got a contrast. That’s why writing to film is so fascinating. If you have a moment of silence at just the right time, it can be really powerful and if you have a moment of cheesy-ness at just the right time, that can also be really powerful. Its just got a whole ‘nother dimension.
So to wrap up, are you going to do this live? Is that possible?
Yeah, we’ve got a live show. But for me, live shows always turn out differently to the album. We will be performing the album live, and we’ve got an A/V show sorted and it’s going down the left round with it being a bit more experimental. It’s nice because it gets me away from the dancefloor and it means I don’t have to make people dance. I can just create a mood and there will be some vocals I guess. Incidentally, I should mention that I’ve done dub versions of all the tracks as well, so anyone that buys the album will also get versions without vocals. I didn’t really envision it as a vocal album, so I thought it would be quite nice to have it as an option.
Do you think you’ll ever go back to making any purist dance records, or is that in the past now?
You know what, every time that I try to predict what I’m going to do next I always get it wrong. My mood changes what I make. You sit down to write a fucking opus about climate change based on the sound of penguins breathing or something and you just end up making fucking Techno. You can’t really second guess yourself. I’ll definitely be doing more composition-based stuff though and probably some more Techno. It just naturally comes out of my head, whether I want it to or not. It’s a guessing game, trying to guess what’s going to tip out of my skull next.
Love is Will is out on Jan 22nd via R&S Records. Check for it over on Alex's website.