“We tend to look at the new things coming, play with them, try to learn them, and evolve with the technology.”
Plaid’s story is one of two dynamic phases. The first, which one could argue dated from 1991 to 2004, saw them a mainstay in the IDM scene, with specific aesthetics that built upon a wound-together fabric of layering. A Plaid record carried something that was easily recognizable. Then, around 2004, the English duo went on to create an “album” with Bob Jaroc called Greedy Baby, which was more an exploration of visual concepts with accompaniment than a proper full-length record, and later paired with American-Japanese film director Michael Arias to score a couple of his films.
Their return via the venerable Scintilli in 2011 marked the beginning of a second phase that, while still carrying some of the traditional Plaid trademarks, feels like a break from the standards of IDM for a more exploratory yet concentrated approach to music. TMT spoke with Plaid about the time gap and what triggered their shift in creating music. We also discussed the success of their highly popular app for the song “Tether” and their relationships with fans and labels.
Going into Reachy Prints, were you aiming for anything specific from what you established with Scintilli in terms of direction? Or were you seeking continuation?
Ed Handley: We had an idea of stripping things back a little more, which was also the idea we had with Scintilli. But as we got into the production of it, that didn’t really work out that way. I think we see each album as a sort of continuation to a degree, but we try and do something a little bit different. I don’t know if there’s sort of an overall theme to Reachy Prints in terms of what it sounds like. Possibly someone else will have to tell us!
Andy Turner: We hope each album is — strictly in the sense of an album being a collection of music — we hope all the pieces in the album work particularly together. But yeah, as Ed says, there is a sort of theme in our work, and we tend to go to similar melodic patterns and moods because that’s what we like.
Relatedly, what was the overall mood going in?
Turner: We’re in quite a good moment. There was quite a long gap between Scintilli, where we experimented a little bit in other areas, including soundtracking, and we’d been doing less gigging. So Scintilli was a restart in terms of our projects and pushing that. We had good feedback from it, and I guess we wanted to continue that as quickly as possible. So it was a fairly rapid turnaround for us, and the mood was good.
Do you think not having the massive time gap you had between Spokes and Scintilli in terms of creating a stand-alone album affected your approach with this one? Or even Greedy Baby and Scintilli, though I tend to think of the former as more a visual exploration than an album.
Handley: I don’t think so. We’re always busy, and we had a few other projects and collaborations between Scintilli and Reachy Prints. But you’re still writing. We’re always writing, we’re just not necessarily finishing. Really, what an album is for us is finishing tracks. It’s when Warp says, “We’d like an album,” or when we’d say to Warp, “We’d like to deliver an album,” all that means is that we look at the things we’ve been writing and decide what would make a good album. Obviously, a lot of tracks are naturally related because we’ve written them close to each other or they’re written around the same time, so they[‘ve] got a similar-sounding production.
So I think the time between albums, the effect it generally has is that you have more material. Perhaps, when we got around to doing Scintilli, we just had a lot more tracks to choose. I don’t necessarily think that makes a better album. It could just be a more eclectic-sounding album, which Scintilli is. I don’t think Reachy Prints is quite as diverse, sonically speaking. But that works in its favor in some ways. It sounds a bit more coherent as an album.
Because of the nature of how it all came together, there was some suggestion that we could release some of these [“Tether”] mixes. But we felt it was more in the spirit of things to give them away for free. So we made sure everything was downloadable by Soundcloud as high quality as we could get from the remixes.
That’s an interesting point about how you approach Warp with albums. Could you describe your relationship in more detail?
Handley: We have a good relationship with Warp because we’ve been with them for so long. Because we’re kind of old-timers, they don’t apply all that much pressure on us to deliver in a particular time period. It can work against us, because we could literally go off for 10 years and Warp would be OK with that. [laughs] At some point, there’s a general discussion. We have occasional meetings with them for no particular reason — we have catch-up meetings, as it were — and album delivery comes up at various points. But there’s no intense pressure from them because we’re not releasing albums strategically for some big marketing campaign. We’re releasing albums because they’re ready to go.
But yeah, the communication’s good. We’ll basically send the material to a few people at Warp, and we get feedback. Ultimately, they do have a sort of A&R control: Some tracks they will reject, and some tracks we’ll insist we want on there. So there’s quite a lot of dialogue at delivery time, and that can take a couple months of back and forth just trying to hone it into the best thing it can possibly be. But, as I said, we’ve been with them so long it feels quite natural now. We’ve done a lot of albums with them, so that process is fairly fluid. We and they both know how to do it without causing too much offense. When you’re discussing aesthetics and the quality of tracks, it’s a quite a sensitive thing to do, really.
With “Tether” and its app, you went further with the single in terms of creating the website for it. What has been the end goal with “Tether” as a whole, not just as a song?
Turner: The initial idea was to hook us up with a very talented programmer, Jono Brandel — I’m sure you’re aware of his work —and he put together an interactive web application for us, which we were very excited about. We’re not proficient enough coders to do something as good as that. So massive credit to him for that work. We gave out the stems for “Tether,” and it was an open-source project. We got feedback from the social networks and various people came up to us and said, “Look we got access to the stems of this track. We’d really like to put some mixes together.” We were very happy about that. We’ve never commissioned remixes for ourselves personally. There was a remix album of the Tekkonkinkreet soundtrack a few years ago, but that was the idea of the label that were putting that together.
So we were kind of interested to see how people would take it, and that evolved fairly quickly. We then had a suggestion from our hardware manufacturer that we make it a competition, and they kindly offered some hardware. So we bundled in some merchandise, and made another announcement that we were going to do this. We were really quite surprised: We have about 115 remixes back to us right now. By the end of the competition, there were 101. It was just one of those things that really rolled out quite naturally, and some of the mixes are amazing. We would have been totally happy if we commissioned them and brought them in.
Because of the nature of how it all came together, there was some suggestion that we could release some of these mixes. But we felt it was more in the spirit of things to give them away for free. So we made sure everything was downloadable by Soundcloud as high quality as we could get from the remixes. There was no great plan behind that particular aspect of “Tether.” But the web app was definitely something we wanted to explore, and we hope to work with Jono again in the future.
Do you feel your connection with the fan community has grown stronger as a general rule?
Turner: I think we have this time, at least a little bit. We’ve been much more active on Facebook and Twitter. It’s a really good thing. There’s two sides to this, really: One is that it’s a marketing tool. But our fan base are really friendly. I guess the best aspect of it is getting direct feedback from people about the music, because we’ve always had a journalist’s point of view — which is great — but it’s more difficult to hear something from the listener, unless you speak to people after shows. But that kind of dialogue I find really healthy, and you hear these wonderful stories of how our music has helped people in various moments of their lives. It’s not why we’re doing it, but it’s really nice to hear.
Pivoting off that, how much have the shifts in technology in the past several years affected your approach to music?
Handley: I wouldn’t say it’s affected our musical technique specifically. Obviously, in the selling of music, it’s radically different now, with streaming and downloads. In terms of production, that’s constantly developing, and has been for the last 40 years or so. We try to keep abreast of the latest musical technology and try to utilize because we find that fun and stimulating. But in terms of an approach toward marketing yourself and selling yourself, we’re like everyone else in that we’re adjusting and trying to learn what’s the best way of doing it.
Things like the “Tether” app are a glimpse of a really nice way of doing it, where you release a multimedia package that is the track: It’s got interactive elements, just something a little extra than just a track or a music video. I think some time in the future, that will seem quite old fashioned. I don’t think everyone always wants to interact with the piece of music. I mean, I just enjoy sitting back and listening to music: I don’t necessarily want any visual or interactive element. But in terms of creating a buzz or sense of excitement, creating mini applications may be a good way forward.
Going more into tech, do you have any favorite pieces of gear that you’ve stuck with through most of your career? Any noteworthy new acquisitions?
Handley: Computers, we love. [laughs] In terms of software, there’s things we consistently use like everyone else: The big sequencer programs like Logic and Ableton. There’s a few little bits of software that we keep going back to. There’s DrumSpillage, which is like a drum synthesizer that we use quite a lot. In terms of hardware, we’ve recently sold quite a lot of our old analog. We had a very good collection of 808s and 101s, that kind of thing. But we were just not using them ever, so that’s all gone now.
That said, there’s a sort of resurgence in hardware, and there’s some amazing looking synths and drum machines coming out, and that’s definitely attractive. Yet I’m equally excited by software and plugin development, things like that. We’re not hardware junkies. But any one thing we’ve stuck with over the years? Not particularly. We tend to look at the new things coming, play with them, try to learn them, and evolve with the technology.
So you’d say that this sort of thing inspires you to take a software-based approach? Especially live?
Handley: Yeah. With the amount of controllers and various developments in controller technology, playing live with software is a lot more fun now. Ultimately, a lot of these hardware machines are based on DSP chips that aren’t really that much different to a computer chip. You’re talking about a controller, apart from the old analog chips. I don’t really see the difference, and the difference itself is becoming blurred. If you’ve got a really nice controller with plenty of ways of interacting with it, that’s effectively like a nice piece of hardware. So, yeah, we’re still trying to hone the live set, make it as fun for us to play as possible, allow as much improvisation, and to keep us involved, make the thing a bit more dynamic.
What inspires the visual art you put into your live shows?
Handley: We’ve shifted a bit more towards abstraction, visually. We were working with Bob Jaroc for quite a few years, and he had a knack for narrative. He was working a lot with Super 8 and film. He would try to create these stories because we’re writing tracks and playing them live, it’d be quite a fast turnaround. Whereas now, it’s more of an abstract thing, trying to get some good synchronization. In terms of people who inspire us visually, it’s hard to say specifically who. But there are some of the CG people that have been kind of doing great stuff. They have been developing a way of visualizing music, which is a great field. How do you express sound visually? So that’s all a great work in progress for us.
Andy: With the narrative video, it’s often the case that there’s a set form. With the tour this time around, we’ve been very keen to have some flexibility so that we can build the songs for the night. The only way we can do that is by triggering graphic elements, so abstraction suits that.
We’ll basically send the material to a few people at Warp, and we get feedback. Ultimately, they do have a sort of A&R control: Some tracks they will reject, and some tracks we’ll insist we want on there… We and they both know how to do it without causing too much offense. When you’re discussing aesthetics and the quality of tracks, it’s a quite a sensitive thing to do, really.
Did your collaborations with Michael Arias have an overall impact on your work, both sonically and workflow-wise?
Turner: The two features we’ve done with Michael, the second one especially, was an intense writing period for us. We had a little bit of slack with Tekkon because we were able to work with early animatics. We hadn’t been used to having to hit these kind of strict deadlines that were required with the second movie, Heaven’s Door. It was pretty much in place when we turned up, and we had a couple months here in England and in Japan to write quite a large amount of music. So the big difference was having to write to deadline.
But also, to be directed is a completely different thing. We usually have complete freedom to do what we want. But Mike has great, strong ideas for his movies, so there’s very specific things he’s after. That was kind of a challenge for us, and I hope we met it. And since we’re now looking for more work in this area, I guess it’s good experience to have.
Handley: It was also a minimalist approach as well. We were stripping back excess layers that didn’t need to be there. We learned quite a lot about concentrating the music as opposed to too much going on. We certainly have a tendency to create layer upon layer of sound, which is relatively easy with a computer. You can just keep going. So it was a question of learning some restraint when you’re working with video, because there’s a lot going on on-screen. The story is being told with dialogue and a lot of other things are going, and you need to leave space for that.
That was a good lesson for us and for our albums as well. That’s definitely been, for the last two albums, what we’ve attempted to do. It’s not alway been that minimal, actually, but that’s on our minds when we’re writing: To keep it to just the essential elements. Sometimes we get carried away and layer it up again. But that’s something we learned a bit from working with film.
Do you think there’s any potential for doing the sort of video album work you did with Greedy Baby in the near future, perhaps even as a web app?
Handley: Absolutely, yeah.
Turner: We were very happy with the result [from Greedy Baby]. Obviously, though, as you mentioned back at the state of the interview, you don’t consider it an album, more like a visual exploration. The thing with releasing material at all these days is that there’s a commerical element that we have to consider. Because many people didn’t consider Greedy Baby to be an album as such, it was not as effective in reaching out to people. Plus, the 5.1 [surround sound] thing that was interesting for us to explore in terms of writing and mixing isn’t still and wasn’t then readily available to a huge amount of people. So, it’s really fun and interesting to explore, but ultimately we have to generate some revenue from our releases, and there’s already very little coming in. Reducing that amount makes it impossible to do. This is all we do: Make music. We have to consider that, unfortunately.
But yeah, it was great fun, and Bob is a very talented director. Since working with him, we’ve been able to work with a few others. But it’s generally just been for music and individual tracks as opposed to a larger body of work. It would be good to be able to do that again, but I don’t see how it’s commericially viable.
Handley: I think that, in terms of making applications, such as releasing an album as an app with either a procedurally-generated video thing or some kind of themed video element could be really interesting. Again, it requires a big development time and it’s quite expensive to produce, potentially. But if you could find the talent, get them together, and you have enough time, then yeah, that would be a great way of doing things.
Would you consider doing a mobile app, perhaps?
Handley: Yeah, we’ve been talking about that a lot recently. It’s just a matter of coming up with a really solid idea that would make sense on a phone. I suspect we will do something like that. Next year, we might move on something like that. We’re both amateur coders, so we’ve got a basic understanding of what to do. It’s, again, finding really good coders and programmers that are up for it and developing a strong idea that will make it relevant and fun.