Something for a dark room with a single strobe light: The Black Dog
Techno legends are hard to come by. Since Detroit’s first wave arose over two decades ago, shifting tastes and financial insecurity has foreshortened the career of many a pioneer. Many of those who have remained relevant have done so at the expense of their artistic credibility, morphing from innovators into brands or touring greatest hits set around ever-emptier superclubs.
Having spearheaded British techno in the early 90s, The Black Dog are rightly lauded as one of the most influential acts ever to have made music with machines. Their groundbreaking work with Warp and GPR explored the limits of electronic music, equally at home with industrial techno as ambient soundscapes, and albums like Spanners and Music for Adverts demonstrate an extraordinary sonic creativity.
Following a brief hiatus, and slight reshuffle, the act returned in the early ‘00s to show that they were still as intent on progression, not relying on the same sounds that had made their name 10 years earlier. In a string of releases for Soma and Sheffield’s own Dust Science they have showed an ability to innovate, taking techno into exciting new areas and in last years acclaimed Music for Real Airports crafting a truly stunning audio-visual experience.
Their latest LP, Liber Dogma, comes out next month on Soma, and ahead of that they’re playing a very special, one-off show at Sheffield’s Park Hill flats. The event, run in association with Article Magazine, marks the first birthday of Sheffield techno upstarts drumro[ll] and features a lineup specially selected to match the brooding menace of such an iconic venue.
With Sandwell District, George FitzGerald and Cabaret Voltaire’s Richard H Kirk lining up alongside The Black Dog themselves, this looks to be one of the most unique events ever to have hit Sheffield.
Liber Dogma comes out next month on Soma, and the first two Liber EPs are already out in the world. What’s the process been like recording these? Is it a different approach compared to something Music for Airports?
The Black Dog: The process and approach are two very different things, the creative intent between Music For Real Airports and Liber Dogma are very different. The same goes for Liber Kult, Temple, Nox and Chaos. We don’t tend to take the same approach or use the same processes in everything we do, although we always immerse ourselves in the subject to the point of being OCD. We can become impossible very quickly!
So are these latest releases tied to a specific idea or aim? You’ve never really been the kind of act to put an album of wall to wall, dance floor techno.
The Black Dog: Very much so, over the years we’ve seen Techno get more and more rock & roll in its production values and isms (see Spinal Tap). We wanted to return to the true values and create something for a dark room with red lights, a smoke machine and single strobe light. The 12″s are aimed straight at the floor while the album is more of a journey. If you look at our back catalogue we’ve always done tracks that make people dance, but we’ve never done anything so stripped back before.
You’ve said that these latest releases are built around the kind of sets you play live. Is that a filtering of clubs into your studio, or a desire to take the studio onto the road?
The Black Dog: We’re constantly writing tracks and many don’t make it out of our live sets, but we started playing the Liber tracks out in early 2010 to see how they went down. We’ve always been interested in making people dance and having a party. We go to many ourselves, just to get lost in the music with friends, that feeling never gets old for us. We really have no desire to take the studio on the road these days and besides, it’s pointless when you can do everything you need with a laptop.
How has that technological evolution informed your live sets over the years?
The Black Dog: We’ve always been interested in technology – how can you be into techno and not be! That said we are not slaves to technology, nor luddites clinging to the past. We feel that the more the machines can take away from the boring mechanical parts, the better it is for us. This leaves us free to focus on higher things.
A tool, then, rather than an end in itself? You don’t see yourselves moving into Hawtin-esque territory?
The Black Dog: More than a tool, our machines are very personal to us, we spend a lot of time with them so they can never be “just” a tool or something as disposable (like a cheap razor). We like Richie but we’re not interested in the rock & roll side of things at all. Sometime’s when he’s talking it feels like a Seth Godin lecture – we wish him well, it’s just not our path. In a way we are glad he’s doing it as it means that we don’t have to!
There are certain similarities between your work, of course. If you’ll allow me to make some incredibly generalised comparisons, you’re both fairly canonical acts, have never worked solely within any defined parameters of what ‘techno’ means, both brought out shows last year that melded the audio and visual elements of a performance. In the same way that he’s reverted to his Plastikman guise this year, do you think you’d ever revisit your past material in that way?
The Black Dog: We just make the music and the art we want to, it’s as simple as that. Techno for us has always been a wide spectrum and never a small box. When asked the question “do you like change?” many people will answer yes, but the truth is that most just want the same thing over and over, like the same comfort meal. We may play an occasional live edit or remix, but there certainly won’t be a greatest hits tour or “classics” set. The closest we’ve got is to collect some of the old tracks together and re-issue them, mainly to offer our supporters a better deal and to stop certain people bootlegging them.
Does that cross into DJ sets too? You still hunt out the new, rather than rehashing the old?
The Black Dog: We always take out what we are loving at the moment, which often includes both new and re-edited older tracks. We play what we love and there’s always a lot of new material coming though, so we’ve never really had any problems.
What’s exciting you at the moment?
The Black Dog: Lots, Blawan, Sigha, Shifted, Xerox Girls, Sunn 0)))), Scorn, Edgar 9000K, Zomby, Rustie, PAS the list is pretty endless.
There’s a lot of what I guess would be deemed ‘bass music’ (has there ever been a more unhelpful genre tag) in there. Especially with the likes of Zomby and Rustie, do you think that 2-step, Bristol sound an influence? Does it find its way into your productions?
The Black Dog: We think we hear the Sheffield sound more in their work to be honest. Bass has always been a Sheffield so you’re more likely to hear the influence of Niche than anything from Bristol.
I think the idea of a specific location informing a sound is really interesting. The way certain sounds get linked with certain cities (Berlin, Detroit and Bristol spring to mind). Do you think that still holds true when music from anywhere is accessible to anyone? Where people can collaborate across oceans without ever meeting?
The Black Dog: I think people can understand but sometimes you have to live in the actual place to be true to the idea. There’s nothing worse than some watered down Detroit Techno for Holland for example, what’s the point in that? It’s possible to collaborate anywhere but the idea has to be strong enough and it has to be original and true to the artist, otherwise you’re just a karaoke style covers band.
From an outsider’s perspective, Sheffield could be said to have seen a musical decline over the last decade or so. The move of Warp, the gradual loss of more and more nightclubs, a real dearth of viable venues. At times it can seem as though Sheffield is the poorer cousin of Leeds and Manchester. Is that something you’ve experienced, or do you still find Sheffield to be a hub for electronic music?
The Black Dog: Who cares about outsiders? And with respect whoever said there’s been a decline simply doesn’t know anything about the scene here. Sheffield is a double edged sword but it’s why we love it, you just have to work hard. There’s been no decline in talent, it’s just not in the charts these days.
Can you define what the Sheffield sound is? Does it imperceptibly bleed into your work, or do you find yourselves actively touching on certain South Yorkshire markers?
The Black Dog: It changes from time to time but there’s always been the influence of black music in Sheffield’s sound, so you’ve got the funk and the groove. The Bass has always been here and so has the industrial sound. As Richard H Kirk said “You can’t help but notice we live on the edge of heavy industry” – it all leaks in. You can find it in our work, SND’s, Richard H. Kirk’s, Oris Jay’s and even in Toddla T’s.
Which brings us nicely round to the drumro[ll] birthday, which you’re playing on September 30th. Park Hill is such an iconic part of Sheffield; what does it mean to you to be doing an event like this?
The Black Dog: It’s the last chance before Park Hill is reborn into a community again. We’re doing to blessing ceremony. We rarely play in Sheffield so this gig was ideal for us.
You’ve had a large part in curating the lineup for the night. How do you feel the artists on the bill are suited to the space?
The Black Dog: We don’t think you’ll see a line up like it for a while in Sheffield and there’s a good selection of different artists that will all bring their own thing to the space. We believe it’s going to be very special.
This DIY ethic has always been strong in Sheffield, and there’s been a resurgence recently in parties outside the traditional clubs. How big a part do you think environment has to play in nights like this? Are these kind of parties just an attempt to reconnect with the original warehouse aesthetic or do they bring something unique to the all night dancing experience?
The Black Dog: I think people are always looking to do something different and in Sheffield you don’t have much choice other than to think on your feet. Most, if not all the clubs are useless holes with shit sound systems and crap beer. Why would anyone bother with them if they can’t be? It’s hard to keep people all night in, it takes a lot of time and commitment to build that kind of crowd. Kabal for instance have done a good job but they do put the hours in.
Liber Dogma is released on Soma on 24 October 2011.