Ahead of their gig in the Twisted Pepper this Saturday, Demdike Stare‘s Miles Whittaker talks record collecting, techno DIY and live performance with Ian Maleney.
A dark and twisted unease lies at the heart of Demdike Stare. Their music makes you want to describe it with imagery like “gray, haunted moors”, “whispering witches” and “I’m all alone in the dark, I’m so fucking scared I can’t move”. Theirs is a particular style of dark. Bubbling beneath the surface are synths designed to make your skin itch. Beats are barely there one minute, in your face the next. The bass is constant, moving around and hitting you right in the chest when you least expect it. It’s a delicate balance between engagingly dark and plain old dour but maintaining it is no apparent problem for the duo of Sean Canty and Miles Whittaker.
Canty is a record collector for the truly weird, re-issue label Finders Keepers and Whittaker is an experienced and respected techno producer in his own right. They bring together an insatiable and undefined hunger for new sounds with an intense knowledge of what has come before. Their music is not easy to pin down to a genre but it is not formless. Over the course of three EPs and a collection called ‘Tryptych‘ – which bundled the aforementioned EPs with a slew of bonus material – the pair have led themselves down an exploratory path, growing more confident and more skilled from one track to the next. Re-defining the nature of electronic music by fearlessly mixing the old, the ancient and the ultra-modern, Canty and Whittaker have crafted something which is terribly exciting and entirely their own. Whittaker explains it best in his own words.
You guys are both big record collectors, did you know the venue you’re playing in in Dublin is actually a record shop during the day? Yeah! We checked on the website a few days ago….
What do you think the position or role of the record/gear collector is these days? From what I’ve read, you seem to feel quite liberated by the internet, Youtube and buying on-line, which isn’t always the case with people who put a lot of effort into their buying/collecting. It’s more a case of if we want the record, we have to have it, by whatever means possible. Its unbelievable how much the internet has made information about obscurities available, there’s literally thousands of items we only found out about due to researching online. How else are you going to do it, other than physically going to every shop, country, gear store etc. Just as a research tool it’s invaluable, and if your paying a lot of money for items, it’s always nice to preview them first. Whether it’s gear videos on Youtube, or track uploads on blogs. It’s basically blown the world wide open for collectors of anything.
Building on that, there’s been a lot of labels and acts over the past while who are releasing only on vinyl, with no digital or CD. You’re doing this with your Pre-Cert label right? Why intentionally make music scarce like that? There’s numerous reasons, but mainly because we love the format of vinyl, it’s the most characteristic format there is, the artwork looks a million times better, and it’s a multi dimensional tangible object. CD’s to be truthful are a cheap feeling format unless you put the work in to make it special, and even then they’re not that endearing when it comes to artwork.
There will be CD releases on Pre-Cert, maybe, hopefully. We’re not playing into the rarity game at all, we understand there’s a limited market for more out-there music, and economically, especially now, it’s always better to sell out than have stock left over.
To me, one of the primary elements of collecting anything is a kind of self-building or definition, which often seems to be questioned by artists who (in my head) I would kind of associate with yourselves, like Hype Williams or OPN or people like that. Yet, there’s never really been any effort to conceal or play with with your own identities and I get the feeling that this is because Demdike Stare is something of a separate entity for you, something kind of unlimited. Is this the case? Definitely, there are no boundaries to what we want to do, nor do we want there to be any. It’s more about our identities as record collectors influencing how the project and music evolve. Our obsessions change monthly with records, and that’s kind of reflected in the music that’s produced, as we’re highly influenced and inspired by discovering something we both go nuts over.
Collecting should be more about building your own identity, and not just falling over yourself to grab what everyone else say’s you have to have. Both of us have markedly different collections, it’s just the points of crossover that allowed us to start working together.
Sampling, as a process, also throws up issues regarding identity. Do you guys think about where the records and the sounds are coming from and the political history of these places, or is just a case of going by ear alone? We don’t sample anymore, it’s too risk intensive these days, instead we re-create something we really want to use, or we just get inspired by the records themselves to create something in the same mood, or vein. There are no limit’s, political or cultural, that go into what inspires us, or sounds we use. It could just as well be the sound of a fridge, or a cello, or a couple arguing on the street.
I’ve seen a few people pointing to a growing resurgence (in techno specifically) of hardware and noise and dirt, dance music made by people who don’t really care about its reception in a dark club room. There’s a similar thing happening with house through labels like 100% Silk. You seem a little outside that scene, through sheer knowledge of the music and techniques you’re working with, but do you take an inspiration from this school of thought at all? It’s not about what you use, but what you do with it in the end. Some of the best music ever is kids not knowing what the hell they’re doing but they just want to write music. Early UK Hardcore and Jungle is a good example of this naivety at work. Even down to the fact of DJ Pierre using a TB-303 as a live jamming tool for his Acid Track, instead of it’s original purpose for guitar players to program basslines in. That’s more of an attitude thing than someone spending two weeks to get the hi-hat to sound perfect in a techno track.
That’s one thing that learning the craft of hardware gives you, a more unique sound, it’s harder to make a track sound dirty or real in Ableton, than it is just to jam something out on hardware and record it badly. We’re big fans of ‘record once’ and forget when it comes to writing music, it’s more about capturing a sense of time and space ,than making sure your production is perfect, which in dance music is a meaningless statement anyway. Some of the ‘worst produced’ stuff is simply the best music ever!
One of the things that excites me most about seeing you play is hearing your slower, less-danceable music in a typical club environment but from what I know of it, you live show is a bit more beat-based than your recordings. Is this usually the case or do you adapt it from one environment to the next? How do you go from Berghain to a record store for instance? We have a rough idea of what we’re going to do before shows, especially for places like Berghain where we know the space, and the system, but it’s still up in the air exactly what we’ll do when the show starts. We like to see what the space feels like during soundcheck, and also we like to test new tracks out on big systems (who doesn’t!). At Berghain a lot of people seemed to think we would drone it out, but we’ve been working on some heavier material recently, so we decided to hit it hard and heavy instead! The problem with playing beat-less, or more cerebral kind of music, is often the crowd is not so amenable to it. We played one show which was ambient for the first twenty minutes, and all I could hear onstage was the guy closest to me rabbiting on to his girlfriend about how much he likes Demdike Stare, which is kind of idiotic. I just stared at him until he got the message to be quiet.
What are your plans for the immediate future? Are you writing new material and, if so, how do you feel it’s a progression on what you’ve done before? Do you plan on exploring different formats for releasing your work? There’s some new releases very close to being ready, it’s taken a while for these to come out, as the release is a little…indulgent in some ways. We’re exploring different areas in all facet’s of the project, like artwork, packaging, music, and even the technical side of formats. It’s always good to keep things exciting and evolving. Hopefully the first new release will be ready the week of the Dublin show.
It’s always a progression for us, as we move onto different areas of records that we’re buying, that obviously influences where the sound is going to go. We also don’t want to be predictable to ourselves, as in the end the music is written for us to enjoy, it’s almost a bonus that other people appreciate it too, as we never really expected it to work that way. The good thing about Demdike Stare is the pages are blank, our first releases were a bunch of disparate tracks, no genre definition, which means we can go anywhere musically, that’s kind of liberating.
We’re also releasing on a different format at some point, a very strange, and obscure one, which when offered to us we couldn’t resist it, but we’ll say no more about it for now!
Demdike Stare play The Twisted Pepper on Saturday December 3rd with Angkorwat & School Tour.