Ahead of their headline set at in the Ransom Note <3 SOCIETY tent at Farr Festival, the ever excellent Mr Dance Tunnel, Dan Beaumont, sat down for a lengthy interview with a couple of guys at the top of their game; Bicep.
Part one takes in Australian machine music, parties in pool halls, and fucking up synths to try and get the right sounds.
The perception of your new EP on Aus is that it's a departure from your usual sound, do you think that's inaccurate?
Matt: If you listen to the first couple of records that we made, like Darwin and 313 then after releasing those we put out a really, really camp disco EP Say You Wanna, and then we did that track You which was totally different to stuff next to it. If you actually listed a timeline of all our music together and the remixes we've done it actually all jumps about loads. It's just that Stripper and Vision of Love were the ones that rose out above everything else. The next EP on our label is slowed down jungle with trance over it.
Can you spot the 90's copyists?
Matt: We put it out and then within 6 months every Monday morning your inbox had 30 attempts at Stripper; like 30 computerised Ableton demo, clean crisp, chord versions of it. We got very comfortable with the whole 90s thing and could have made another 10 tracks that were popular with those sorts of people.
Did it surprise you how swiftly it was picked up?
Matt: Yeah, we hadn't thought anything of it
Andy: So quickly. You've got people like MK coming out of the woodwork.
Matt: We certainly didn't [expect it]. It was one of those tracks that was never meant to be artistic, it was never meant to be us. You know sometimes it's fun to make music that's a memory of when you were younger.
Andy: Or even like a disposable moment.
Matt: Yeah yeah exactly! Sometimes its just fun to make something that you know is only going to work on the dance floor for a certain period of time.
What older music are you digging at the moment?
Matt: I still love going through a lot of stuff from like the early 90s, but its more like Lets check out some old Dan bell. If were looking at playing techno, were digging through like loads of old Dan Bell, and Dancemania stuff.
Like old Nu Groove but not the 90s snare shuffling ones; the crazy incredible ones. Theres some really fucked up edits on that label. So stuff like that…
33 and a third queen and that kind of thing?
Matt: Yeah exactly! My favourite record ever. Searching and Turn That Mother Up. Stuff like that Ill play out every set. Theyre incredible. That stuffs amazing.
Im always really interested in how dance music has this relationship to avant-garde weirdness. Do you think that that relationship is still there or has dance music lost its relationship with the avant-garde?
Matt: No. The same amount of people that did it back then will still be doing it now, theres just a hell of a lot of other people involved in it drying them out. Youre always going to get this core of weirdos in their basements fiddling away, making music on machines and involved in weird art nights and dont do promo and press on Facebook they just release their records quietly and you have to go and dig them out. I mean I wouldnt say its particularly avant-garde but in Adelaide in Australia theres this group of guys that have a record label and everything thats on the label is called Untzz and everythings like pure machine music and dark as fuck.
I love that label, is that in Australia??
Matt: Yeah! A group of guys booked us in Adelaide for this party in a pool bar. They run a night in a pool bar. They booked Jeff Mills to play their pool hall. I swear to god its true! And we were like Oh shit, were playing in a pool hall. But we looked at the line-up for the rest of the month and it was like Boddika, Jeff Mills, us and I was like shit this is weird. But we played some house and they were all dancing away and stuff but then we brought it in a little bit harder and suddenly there was a reaction and we were just like fuck it lets just play really, really fucking hard. The whole room just erupted. They turned out to like hard techno and really good machine music. But thats a prime example. Theyre just a little group of guys that have their own label and are hidden away in in a corner of Australia partying in a pool hall and doing amazing weird stuff and no-one even knows about it!
So do you think geek power is where its at?
Matt: Yeah definitely.
Are you geeks?
Andy: Yeah pretty much
Matt: Yeah, were getting geekier now weve started to develop a taste for hardware. My rooms turning into a jumble of cables and synths.
Andy: Every first two hours of every day, instead of answering emails were on Ebay looking at whats new on today.
What are your favourite new toys?
Matt: The Juno 60 is incredible. Weve got the 909. Were really aware that a lot of our early music was chopped up samples using the sampler. We had an MPC but in hindsight, I think one of reasons we went towards 90s house was because of the percussion style, you can take a single shot chord and pitch it down and you can create aesthetically pleasing music without having the machines. Whereas if you dont have any of the hardware and sit in front of the computer and try and create that youre always going to fail and fall short and its gonna feel flat. So thats why we were drawn to samples early on.
And thats the difference between people trying to do new jersey chords with a plug-in and getting a sample.
Andy: Of course.
Matt: You have to do it the way it meant to be done. Youve got to cut it out of an old soul record.
Andy: People dont understand. Even if you have an old M1 and you play into the MPC and pitch it down, you get completely different noises.
Matt: But I think that was the aesthetic and noise that we loved. But now weve got to a stage where we have complete control. We used to spend a whole day trying to get stuff in key, just trying to work out all the different sample elements and it was so hard to get them all to work perfectly together. Now weve just been buying up hardware all year, like all our gig moneys gone on it.
Do you run it through on the computer?
Matt: We use Ableton as a base and weve got a big sound card and weve got a mixing desk but thats not set up yet. Weve got a Poly 800 which is what Gavin Russom uses and its like an old 80s synth and we got it modified. We just like to modify old synths and fuck them up and see if we can get a sound together!
Andy: The thing is, if you get one cool noise you can make a class techno track. If you get a nice little arp. When you just get a really nice noise, thats what we do with the analog stuff. Once we get a bit more time to jam were gonna do a bit more experimental stuff thats definitely more stripped back.
How much time are you able to dedicate to the studio?
Matt: So little at the minute. Because gigs are booked so far in advance youre always 6 months behind. We had that whole burst around September last year and thats filled our bookings until September next year. Its one of those things, you get back on a Monday and youre like oh shit were away tomorrow again and you dont get back till Wednesday night, youre tired. Up Thursday morning, you get a little bit of studio time, get on top of a load of emails and youre away again.
And how much time are you dedicating to the blog at the moment?
Matt: Again, when we can. It sounds really bad, but at the moment its just about surviving through the week and making all your flights, making sure we play every gig. But weve now booked off time. Were aiming to have a weekend off every month as of October from this year going forward. Weve booked off all of January to work on music.
Andy: I think its quite hard for us as were quite critical of what we play and what we put across. Like you see some DJs turn up with a laptop and they might play the same set 4 times but we never play the same set. Were always trying to find record stores and find new music otherwise wed bore ourselves.
Matt: Its becoming really hard now because we never really have time.
Do you always play one-on one-off?
Andy: Its quite hard when youre not feeling the room. One of us might take over for like half an hour and play 3 or 4 records and just go for it.
Matt: Last year we did it 100%. Its one of those things that wed like work towards a record collection for a few years that just fitted last year where as now were going back into a period of experimenting, playing a little bit more disco and techno and just broadening things up a bit.
Andy: Instead of playing the a-side of records well just play the b-side to freshen it up a little bit.
Someone described Tama Sumo to me as shes a Side B Track Two DJ, is that what youre going to become?
Andy: Im really interested in that. The more you play the more you become interested in that. Like a B-side isnt really made for a purpose, its more of a second thought, but if you put them all together you get something thats more fluid and dynamic.
Is a lot to do with confidence?
Andy: Definitely, I think it is. Its hard to turn up and play a really eclectic set and be able to kill it; youve got to be able to flip every track you have.
Matt: For us, having first played Panorama Bar, it was relentless for 4 hours like, a few years worth of music that wed built up towards that, and we just had big tunes. Like not even anthems, we just had certified dance floor bangers. Every single tune had something going for it. I think most people, certainly people that are new to dance music think holy shit that was amazing, and really loved the set. I was speaking to our agent after and he was like Yeah it was good but I mean just remember the beauty of somewhere like Panorama Bar is that you really can go on that journey down and around and they will stay for an hour if youre playing only what you want to play and bring it back up.
I think thats the difference. Anyone can play anthems and make people go mad. Its having the confidence to take people into a different place and hold their interest.
Matt: Yeah exactly. Thats where it becomes more of an art. And thats where the selections become more intelligent. So for us now its more about trying to pin everything down. I mean, weve always had eclectic tastes.
Andy: There was always 33-and-a-third tracks, we think theyre like anthems if you know what I mean. Those Nu Groove tracks and little weird ones the we have in our head, its just a case of building on everything.
Do you have any musical training or can you play any musical instruments?
Matt: I can play the keyboard pretty well now. I mean we were just taught by learning chord theory 3 years ago. I just started by using midi and its getting to the stage where were playing a little bit live and now, we can whack on a track and know the key and just start to really jam it live. Its just building up and up all the time. I mean weve both thought about being completely classically trained though. I have some friends that are incredibly well musically trained; in some ways though, by knowing all the rules and stuff it almost has them set on a path whereas for us every day its very much about just fiddling around and seeing if that sounds right, or maybe it doesnt.
Well youre a DJ you have to have ears right?
Andy: If it sounds wrong we just dont do it. Sometimes we do stuff back to front but it works.
Matt: We were talking to James Ford from Simian Mobile Disco and they were saying anytime they buy a new piece of kit – and Ive seen the Optimo guys saying this before as well – buy a new piece of kit and chuck the instructions as far away as possible and you just fuck around until you get something.
I think that Punk aesthetic has always been important in dance music, there would be no acid house if someone didnt chuck away the instructions to the 303.
Andy: If you listen to a lot of those early records, nothing is particularly in key. Lots of little bits go out. The tracks arent perfectly in sync. You know if youre in a perfect studio you cant do that stuff. Like everything goes out of time. Some people put on an MPC and dont use breaks right, like instead of doing 12 [BPM] they do 123 so theres a gap at the end. Like lots of old Todd Terry tracks have that gap but it gives them that swing and I love that.
Matt: I cant remember if its Public Enemy or who it was but there was this old hop hip record. Like this really, really big one that has that siren and bounce and stops. And I think actually what happened was they had a sampler but it only had 4 seconds worth of sample time but the track theyd made needed 4-and-a-half to do the whole loop so they made the beats, and they wanted to run a horn sample the whole way through but actually going like EEARH EEARH and then thats what gave it that jack.
Famously with Voodoo Ray the sample actually says Voodoo Rage and he didnt have enough memory in the sampler so its just ended up being called Voodoo Ray because the sampler ran out of time.
Andy: Thats amazing!
Matt: Thats one of those things where you need to just not have rules.
Do you think its easier to have those happy accidents with an analogue studio rather than a digital one?
Matt: Absolutely 100%. For us, we needed to have that experience of doing a track with the SMD guys who have a fully complete and fully functioning, perfect, studio. We went over there for two days and we got to see how a full room of machines, just jamming live continually for an entire day, could then create an entire track the next day and we just got to see the whole process start to finish. Again, there wasnt any sitting down to make a track and going Right lets make a drum loop. We needed a bassline and it was just a case of everyone pressing buttons around the room making a wall of noise. And then 8 hours later that wall of noise started to become coherent. And then it was like Oh shit we just need this. EEARH. Okay thats good.
If youre a DJ thats much more of an intuitive process rather than drawing bars isnt it?
Andy: Thats what I mean, we were literally dancing around and feeling it and thinking Oh it needs a nice high-hat and we just looked at the drum machines and were like Uhh, yeah I dont know how (laughs)
Matt: That process is like almost impossible if youre sitting on a laptop
Andy: Even when you think that needs a crunch on it and just running it through a big distresser, you send it across the room to this machine!
So youve got hardware effects units as well? Whats your favourite box at the moment?
Andy: The DP4
Matt: Yeah the Ensonic DP4. Its the one Daft Punk used to use and we stick everything through it now. Its great.
Andy: Its class as well knocking it out as you can run it straight through the MPC and knock it out of sync and stuff. Using the flanger you get these weird claps. You can make a dub techno track just by putting a drum machine through that and it just sounds amazing. I love it. I was listening to a new Daft Punk record today and I was like Its lost that DP4 magic and the sparkle.
As artists who are pretty well versed in the realities of social media what do you think of Daft Punk?
Matt: Its really well done!
Andy: I actually read a thing about the whole leak today and theyre saying its a deliberate leak by Sony and you notice that it does seems too perfect.
Matt: Its very good from a bank account kinda thing but its just modern PR, like contrived.
Andy: I came from that world of records labels doing single launches and album launches and you see how 3 months of planning goes into 2 days of contrived focus. The aesthetic of labels I like though are like very do it yourself, if the music is good enough itll speak for itself but you need to be able to come across rather than direct people in a certain way. For example all these teaser videos, sometimes it works but often theyre not doing it for the right reasons.
Matt: Its one of those things; Daft Punk started out with the whole idea of wearing helmets and being like mysterious and if they wanted to maintain that mystery there wouldnt have been teaser videos. No nothing. It would have been a case of like a photograph of them and an album date and then it would have come out. And then they would have got judged as it is.
So do you think that the problem is that people are talking as much about the marketing as they are about the music and do you think thats deliberate?
Matt: The thing is though that its completely understandable that they got to a stage where they were huge hits a long time ago but its kinda like old heads looking back now. People are always going to be looking back at them and they probably felt that, theyve never had a number one before, and it was probably one of those things where they wanted to try and do it once, properly. But I think its one of those things where its so heavily associated with being the cream of the crop of underground music. I havent heard the album yet but it looks like it got pretty torn to bits!
Bicep Play Ransom Note loves SOCIETY @ FARR Festival this July 20th.
Full details can be found here.