In techno we “Truss”26/03/14
The second edition of Ghent-based Vlammenwerper headlined one of the prominent names in UK techno: Truss. On the stage he’s big and he’s fucking hard, but in real life Tom Russell is a very laidback guy who gladly sat down with Chilli Out for a long conversation about, well, techno mostly.
Tom, can you tell us a bit about how long you have been in the techno game and how it started out for you?
I first started listening to techno when I was about 13. The first time I heard techno it had a big impact on me. It was a mixtape from Tanith, the old Tresor resident. At the time I was listening to a lot of rave music, UK hardcore and stuff like that. It was all on friends’ tapes and I realised that it was the music that grabbed me the most. Over the years this has constantly been the thing I have felt most drawn to.
In the UK there’s a strong flavor – less strong in Europe – to the garage, two-step, drum ‘n bass, dubstep and so on. How did these styles rub off on UK techno?
In the UK, there are indeed quite a diverse array of dance music genres that I was exposed to in growing up there. I wasn’t hanging around with a lot of people that were also into techno. Lot’s of them were listening to jungle, house and other stuff, so inevitably I listened to that as well and it’s had a big impact on me. I think it has a big impact on most producers in the UK, because the whole musical landscape seems to be slightly more diverse than it is in Europe, where there are a lot of cities, Berlin in particular or Amsterdam, which are more house and techno focused.
How about the early 2000s then, when German minimal techno was becoming the dominant style in Europe?
This feels like something diagonally opposite to what was happening in the UK, was this a hard time for techno in the UK?
Yeah, it changed a lot of things. The techno scene in the UK was fairly vibrant in the 90s, probably its most popular time and then that came along and completely wiped it out. The harder styles of techno which are quite prominent now pretty much completely disappeared in the UK. It was replaced by minimal which was everywhere.
Does this mean you got to play less in those days?
I wasn’t really playing out that much anyway then. It’s only the past few years that I started playing internationally as a paid DJ. When I was growing up in the 90s I was DJ’ing a lot but it was much more provincial. People in my town knew me as a DJ, but I wasn’t known anywhere else. So it didn’t really affect me but as a partygoer I remember realising that the parties that I wanted to go to were not happening anymore. I did not feel much for the minimal genre, but I’ll be honest, when it first came around it was actually quite refreshing because a lot of techno had become really stale. You had stuff that was very loop-based, a creative dead end let’s say. DJ’s were playing with at least four vinyls and it went more about throwing as many records together as you can than about the individual records themselves. Minimal did something that sounded completely different, but it turned into something which I never really liked. It didn’t really do much for me, so there were a few years when I didn’t feel much of anything that was going on.
You were about to turn your back on techno back then?
Maybe I was close. I was feeling quite disillusioned with techno but then there was a record which was released on Ostgut Ton, a mix cd by Marcell Dettmann (Berghain 02, ed.), released around 2008. It had two tracks on it, one was Samuli Kemppi’s ‘Vangel’ and one was ‘Native Rhythm Electric’ by Norman Nodge (who played at Vlammenwerper’s first edition, ed.) and hearing those tracks certainly got my interest back in, like ‘ok, so there’s people actually doing some really good stuff again’. It’s been really nice to see it become more and more popular over the last 6 years or so because the minimal thing really was getting a bit of a joke. It was more about going out and taking copious amounts of ketamine and dancing to music, which I personally found very uninspiring. But, you know, my personal taste has always been for slightly harder sounds so for me it was very refreshing when the tide started to turn. The whole Berghain and Ostgut Ton thing seemed to reignite a flame.
So this Berlin vibe was really a good thing for you then. Did it also influence what is recently happening in the UK?
Yes, they are very much responsible for what is going on now. Since then the UK-thing has picked up again but instead of trying to copy what Berlin is doing, it has gone on its own path. People like Surgeon, Regis, Neil Landstrumm and Christian Vogel and others who were doing UK techno very well in the nineties, I’m looking to people like that for inspiration and I’m trying giving my own little spin on it.
Since you mention these artists, do you feel like there is a community feeling within this group of similar minds?
For sure, a lot of people know each other and we are all in touch to share tracks with each other. I mean I’ve released on Perc’s label (Perc Trax), I’ve released on Sigha’s label (Our Circula Sound). I’ve released on Shifted’s label (Avian). It’s a nice thing that we’re all aware of each other, all doing our own thing.
So there’s no sense of rivalry then?
Not that I know of (laughs). I think there’s always going to be healthy competition and this is good for a scene you know: if someone is doing really well, everybody is pleased for him, but it makes you step your game up as well. It just has a positive effect. I personally find it inspiring to see how other people are progressing, I find it interesting to see what Blawan is going to do next, for instance, I find him a massively exciting producer, very, very creative. It’s great to see where people take their sound next. Same goes for someone like Shifted because he’s got such a particular aesthetic. So, yeah, the last couple of years have been great.
A bit about your own output now; it seems quite varied. You got the earlier Truss releases like ‘Beacon’ and then you did some stuff as MPIA3. Is that something you need in order to stay creative?
I find it good to be able to go off on a tangent without having to worry about what is the proper record to release next. As an artist you want to release tracks in order for people to perceive you in a certain way and if you release a wide verity of styles under the same name, that can become messy. Releasing hard acid one minute, deeper techno the next and back again is quite confusing for people to follow, so this helps me to compartmentalise things. I find it the best way of working.
Can you comment a bit on hardware in your producing?
MPIA3 was very much a hardware-based project. The computer was used to sequence MIDI and then as a two-track recorder, send everything through a mixing desk and then record it to a stereo wave form in the computer. Everything else, from sound sources, was generally hardware and analogue, although there are a couple of digital effects. In that aspect it was quite pure. Very, very basic. It was about working within a certain set of parameters and seeing what I could do with it. I got to the point that I felt I had pretty much done what I could, one of the reasons why I decided to finish the MPIA3-project. But my main project, Truss, will always be open to a combination of hardware and software and whatever really. I’m not a person that thinks things are better because they’re made on hardware or software. I rather think it’s about using what you have to achieve what you want.
But from a creative point of view, do these limitations help you?
Yeah, it has a big impact on me. I find it good to put limitations on my processes, because if I have too many options, it can be quite daunting and I tend to lose focus. If I’m forced to make decisions very quickly, I find it easier to keep a creative flow. My MPIA3 stuff was done within a very fixed set of parameters, but my Truss stuff isn’t. One thing the MPIA3 project taught me was that I’m at my most creative by imposing limitations on my production techniques.
Since you say the MPIA-project is finished, does this also mean you have finished with the acid sound?
No I don’t think so. I love the acid sound; I think it’s such a versatile sound. It’s off course very subjective. What is acid and what isn’t? It’s not necessarily about the TB303, although at it’s purest of course it is. There’s most definitely more fun to be had there, but in terms of pure acid sound, yeah I’m probably done with that, for the time being at least.
Was the project a bit of a callback to the 90’s for you? In other words, did you only miss the sound or did you try the evoke more?
It wasn’t a premeditated thing to reference the 90s sound, maybe it happened subconsciously. I was playing with a very basic set-up, which those guys also were in the 90s and it’s just what came out. Afterwards, when I was listening to the tracks, the similarity was clear, but I didn’t set out to copy anything.
Ok, but the environment in which you played your acid is quite different than that in the 90s.
In the early 90s I was too young to experience it at parties. But I used to go to a lot of free parties in the late 90s which were quite hard acid. And yeah, the parties that I play now are very different than the ones I went to then. I generally play in clubs, in a controlled environment. The parties I was going to back then were in a field somewhere, completely unregulated, illegal, dogs with three legs on string leashes kind of thing.
Aren’t we missing out on this underground thing these days?
I’m not sure about missing out, those parties are still going on. You just have to look at it as two different things. I really love partying in a field and seeing the sun come up, it’s brilliant, but it’s obviously not very realistic to do that on a regular basis, especially if you are living in a big city, like London. And as a DJ,… it’s much easier when you’re travelling to clubs and the set-up is there. So of course, the parties in the fields were very special, uncontrolled and rebellious in a way, but I can’t really compare it to the parties I’m going to these days.
Since you are able to play the clubs now, do you still have a day job?
Yeah I do. For the past ten years or so, I’ve been writing music for media, TV-advertisement and so on. I also do lots of production library music which is basically the music equivalent of stock photography. My music gets used for all sorts of things, from panty liner advertisements to MTV promos. It’s nice, it’s a good balance, I need the variety in my life to keep everything fresh. If I’d focus on one thing I think I’d get fed up with it quite easily.
About your collaborations, you’ve been releasing some stuff with Perc recently. How should we picture this, you guys jam together on hardware?
It’s done when we’re in the studio together. It’s quite novel to me, because I’ve done a few collaborations, but I think this is the only one where we’re always in the same studio writing these tracks together. It’s very much a case of him coming around and we don’t have anything planned at all: we put the machines on and just start jamming. If we come up with something, we map it out, practice it a couple of times and record it. Sometimes it works, often it doesn’t, but it’s good fun and it’s a good chance to hang out with a mate.
The interesting thing is that there must be mistakes sometimes, at least if you record it as you said?
The way we work means you can’t go back afterwards to change stuff. Once you’ve recorded it, that’s it and you’re forced to live with it. Usually things that you initially consider a mistake, like you left the hi-hat on too long or the decay’s wrong on this sound… after a while you come around to it and it becomes an interesting quirk, more than a mistake. It adds character to the track, a human element and that, to me, is special in an age where you can use computers to go back to it and tweak it endlessly. It’s too easy to suck the life out of a track to make it sound perfect. The things in art and music that are generally interesting to me are the things that are imperfect. After all, it’s quite likely that no one will hear it as a mistake anyway.
This human aspect, being able to make a mistake, makes the music more alive?
Yeah, in electronic dance music there’s a general tendency to overproduce and to make everything as big and clean and precise as possible and some people like that and that’s cool but I really like hearing something that’s interesting and strange. When you’re forced to do something and you can’t go back and change it, than you either live with it or you think “well, this track can never be released.”
You have also been doing some live shows with your brother Tessela recently. Is this live music something promoters ask more for nowadays?
Yeah I think the live thing is becoming more and more in demand, especially hardware live shows, because there seems to be a big resurgence in dance music and a lot of people joining the scene may be coming from a more indie or band scene and for them seeing people on the stage actually doing things with pieces of kit is often more exciting than people staring at a laptop screen. It provides more of a spectacle. It’s something the crowd finds easier to interact with. I think it is something that will become more and more popular over the next year or two.
Yet the crowd can’t really see what’s going on?
Everyone’s seen DJs with their headphones going like that for hours and hours (holds his right hand to his ear, fist pumping with the left). That’s great, but when you got people on stage really looking at what they’re doing and moving around, crowds definitely seem to respond to that. There’s also the unpredictability, there’s only so much you can practice and this adds a tension, a positive one though.
So there is a big improvisational aspect in live shows?
Yeah a fairly big part, we practice beforehand and we know the different elements that make up our live set. We generally have a beginning and an end point, but in between? It’s very much a case of just shouting at each other, “You do this, I’ll do that, we’re gonna do this now.” We have lots of different kits in the drum machines and various patterns that we can mix and match together. You can generally read from the crowd if you need to bring it up or down, there’s seems to be more of a connection there than if I’m just DJ’ing.
Last thing we wanted to know is more about tonight. You’re playing a four hour set, how did you prepare for this?
It’s actually quite novel for me, normally I don’t play more than two hours, so I’m really looking forward to it. It seems to be only in Berlin you get to play for three or four hours. I guess you have to approach it from a different perspective than a two hour set. Often I get booked for my MPIA3-stuff or because I do a lot of quite hard music and the people want to hear that, understandably. So if I’m booked for an hour and a half I haven’t got much room to manoeuvre, it’s like go in with all guns blazing, trying to tear the roof of in that hour and a half. So it’s nice to have some more time tonight and move around a bit in a more relaxed kind of way. It’ll be easier to balance what I’d like to play and what the crowd wants to hear.
Aäron Maes and Jan-Willem Hoste
Pics by Stijn Vanderdeelen // www.lumenphotography.beIn techno we "Truss",